Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Thursday, April 11th

5:30 – 6:30 PM

Living Arts

307 E. MB Brady Street

Tulsa, Oklahoma

(a part of Tulsa LitFest)

Saturday, April 13th

2 PM

MainSite Contemporary Arts

122 E. Main Street

Norman, Oklahoma

Monday, March 18, 2019

I was a no vote, even though I enthusiastically support Bernie in his campaign for the presidency in 2020. But I also support Elizabeth Warren (and would have supported Sherrod Brown, had he run). And & and I would have supported Barbara Lee over any of them had my former Congressperson decided to run. But I felt that the either/or choice posed by the DSA election – Bernie  yes or no – was way too simplistic, an effort really on the part of the Bernie campaign to contain Warren’s support early in the contest. And I think socialists have a responsibility to do things better.

There several important realities at play here. One is that Bernie and Warren both represent the left and represent the left well. A second one is that representation matters. One reason that the Democrats lost in 2016 was the ticket-so-white team of Clinton & Kaine told many voters of color that their interests were not being taken seriously. Clinton got support roughly comparable to that of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in terms of percentages, but the urban turnout declined and was more than offset by a resurgent rural rightwing vote. Cisgender white males may play well with the pundit class – which itself leans in that direction[i] – but frankly should have higher barriers to endorsement from the left. This is true for Sanders, Biden and O’Rourke, as well as for several of the vanity candidates for the 2020 nomination. A power play aimed primarily at precluding DSA support for Elizabeth Warren is itself a pretty traditional male privilege strategy, and it is depressing to think that DSA has responded without more critical depth.

Another reality is that no centrist campaign has captured the presidency since 1996. Obama beat Clinton in 2008 by running to her left and his tragedy will always be his failure to govern accordingly. Now, to be honest, both Gore and Clinton did win the popular vote, but as the Vlad the vote-counter could tell you, the electoral college was the first gerrymander. Sadly, I think the run-left, govern center strategy is exactly what we can anticipate from the Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gilliland and Corey Booker campaigns, and outright centrist candidates (Biden, O’Rourke, and most of the vanity challengers) may well adopt the same strategy once they realize that the center-right has not held in the old Wall Street-Democratic Leadership Conference coalition. No question, the voters who wanted a left alternative to Clinton in 2008 are impatient – they  are insisting on a progressive candidate this time who actually is progressive. There were tells, as poker players would say, with Obama early on, Bob Casey signing up as one of his first and most ardent supporters, but that kind of red flag will get noticed this time around. Harris, for example, is already having to run away from her record as DA and Attorney General.

To be honest, I would vote for any Democrat  as an alternative to Trump, and if I thought that a centrist candidate would expand the Democratic Party vote, I would be more open to the Beltway/Wall Street whinging about how the base will push the party too far to the left. But that is a patently false argument – Trump and Pence offered the most unhinged reactionary extremism a major party has ever put up for election, got 48 percent of the vote, and still has 88 percent GOP support even after having been exposed to be an incompetent small-potatoes crime family with Russian Mafia support, if not outright direction.

This doesn’t mean that it’s a done deal that the Democrats are going to win in 2020. I still  think this race is Trump’s to lose but I see no sign that it will be well run, even though well-funded. If Trump does something smart, like dumps Pence for someone like Nikki Haley, who could mute the Dem’s POC support, then it will be almost impossible to defeat him. Fortunately, betting on Trump to do anything smart is a longshot at best. But articles that his campaign is as well organized as his clown car administration is not frankly scare me.

The pro-Bernie DSA argument is pretty straightforward. Sanders has been willing to use the S word going back to at least his days as the mayor of Burlington. Warren still talks around the question. AOC she is not. And Warren  has not always been as far to the progressive side as she has evolved into over the past 15 years. But Bernie has never played well with others and is still technically an independent, and up until the past few weeks he has been tone deaf on issues impacting people of color. Cultural politics has never been his thing, to the degree that it has become part of the brand, the charm of the Grumpy Grandpa persona.

But but but – we are over 18 months from election day and you & I both  know that whoever is the front runner in this campaign is going to be hammered long and hard, with the full electoral arsenal of corporate capital and the Kremlin. In ought 8, Clinton, Obama & everyone else knew that coming out of Iowa the race was going to telescope down into Hillary and the Anyone-but-Hillary candidate. Clinton was ready to shine against any white male she might find herself up against. There was only one problem with that strategy – against Obama she no longer looked like change, like the promise of new politics. Indeed, she looked like round 3 of a very problematic center-right Democratic administration.

This time around, I think we’re in for a long bruising series of elimination bouts. I think that Kamala Harris has some serious advantages in the faux-progressive lane, an intelligent, well-spoken woman who is both Asian and black and a former prosecutor. California will give her a big victory on Super Tuesday in March. And if the race should telescope down to just two candidates, she’s a more reliable bet to be one of them than is Sanders.

Which is why I want Elizabeth Warren still in the race all the way. And having the largest socialist organization in the past half-century double down on Bernie doesn’t advance his own campaign very much except insofar as it hurts hers. And that hurts us all.

We do need to keep the S word up front and center in 2020. There is no better or quicker method for spelling out the dramatic changes this country must have if it is going to turn this Titanic state away from several potential disasters before it becomes too late. It’s not that socialism is going to happen overnight, or even in under half a century, but its unrelenting critique of capital is the one widely available diagnosis not only as to what is wrong with the world, but as to which principles need to be put forward to change the rapidly worsening status quo. EVERY – repeat EVERY – major social problem of our time can in one way or another be tracked back to its roots in an economic model that privileges power and competition, demands ever expanding markets in the face of fixed natural resources and fundamentally divides one group of humans from others in order to accomplish its goals. That all has to change, and to change now.

The entire purpose of walls is to prevent any distribution of resources from becoming equal. The invention of race – a sociohistorical reality rather than a biological one – has everything to do keeping the conditions between groups different. As with white privilege, so too with male privilege, straight t privilege, Christian privilege, etc, etc. A pseudo-liberal Democratic party that “plays nice” with Wall Street and the tech billionaires – Clinton’s neoliberal sellout – does so at the expense of the lives of the vast majority of citizens. Even when a billionaire gives away the bulk of his wealth – Bill Gates is a case in point – doing so through philanthropy removes that altruism from the clear light of review and prioritization. Obama may well have reduced the number of troops engaged in Bush’s wars abroad, but he failed to initiate the national discussion we need to have about how to walk away from global imperialism before the rest of the world pulls us under out of its own self-defense. Every empire fails – it is what they do, and usually they impoverish the very nations that to enrich themselves by casting their nets of power to the far corners of the globe. It’s a lesson China will be learning down the road, but we have to act far sooner.

Thus we have to talk about capitalism, what it has done to this world, what it is still doing. And the best, surest, quickest way to connect ALL the dots from Putin’s kleptocracy to that of Wells Fargo and Mark Zuckerberg, from the suppression of Islamic tribes in western China to the sale of slots at Ivy League academies, from the cost of healthcare to the immiseration of the Palestinian people, is to throw the S word in everyone’s face. Further, as I think Representative Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated repeatedly, I think we are ready for it. A centrist will lose to Trump. A socialist will ultimately have a far better chance. Therefore I want Bernie AND Elizabeth Warren to lead the debate toward 2020, not to have the race collapse in a simple Biden vs. Bernie vs. Kamala Harris three-way King of the Mountain. Because that I think sets Bernie up to be roped off and contained. And I don’t think we can wait until 2024 or 2028 to have the serious discussion we need. Otherwise we won’t be discussing who lost Afghanistan or Iraq in those later races, but rather who lost Manhattan and Miami Beach.

[i] Consider that MSNBC floods the final seven hours of its news day with six white men and Rachel Maddow. And while Chris Hays and Lawrence O’Donnell are among the finest commentators on television, Ari Melber’s faux hipness, Chuck Todd’s fawning incorporation of rightwing commentators posed as “balance,” Chris Matthews’ interruption of every single answer to any question he ever poses, and Brian Williams’ servile superlatives toward any guest willing to stay up long enough to still be wearing clothes during his time spot, is not precisely a ringing endorsement of available talent. And that’s just MSNBC.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Oscars as always are a mixed bag, often better for the couture than for the films that grab the gold. The Green Book was not a dreadful film and it may well pass the ten-year test, making the cable movie channel rounds a decade from now. But the Driving Mr Shirley plotline, cringe-worthy ending around the Christmas tree, and Viggo Mortenson’s noble (failed) attempt to make Italians look like Vikings (or vice versa) do not a great picture make. It certainly wasn’t as original or well done as Black Panther, The Favourite or Roma, or for that matter Cold War, If Beale Street Could Talk, or Leave No Trace, none of the last three even getting a best pic nomination. Which films will still matter in, say, 20 years? That test probably brings the list of worthy 2018 films down to just three: Roma, Cold War and The Favourite. A 50-year test might include Cold War alongside Roma, but only the latter is likely still to be considered a great film a century from now.

It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, pairs Roma up with Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 debut about a young woman who moves from Dakar to Antibes to work as a domestic servant. Today, Black Girl often occupies the slot of “founding film” for African cinema, a role in US cultural history that used to belong to the racist Klan epic, Birth of a Nation[i]. Black Girl and Roma would make a great double-bill, but I suspect the latter will look more like an homage to Italian neo-realism (turning the title into a subtle, possibly delicious pun). But Black Girl isn’t even Sembène’s second or third best film.

Prizes are always crazy and yet they have real-world consequences. What makes the Oscars is the opportunity to look at the stars vamping in great outfits, and isn’t that what made Busby Berkeley a hit 80 years ago? The Pulitzer gets coverage from every news organization because it’s about them[ii], but the creative awards have been random at best, great one year, head-scratching the next. I haven’t met a young writer who could tell me the last half-dozen winners of the Yale Younger Poets award in decades but when I was in college pretty much every MFA candidate could recite them without blinking. The MacArthur may bring fortune, but seldom fame – and generally has done a better job representing art forms other than literature.  The Levinson Prize, the one literary award in the US that pre-dates the Pulitzer, is all but anonymous.[iii] Having given awards to Pearl Buck and William Golding, the currently-suspended Nobel Prize in literature is hardly in any position to serve as a model of the process. When Czeslaw Milosz won the prize in 1980, it’s unlikely that many poets in the Bay Area – with a few very notable exceptions – considered him among the five best poets in Berkeley. For his accomplishment, the University of California did give him its most coveted award, a parking spot in his own name.

What is the purpose of such competition in the arts? The oft-cited purpose of awarding excellence would come across as more real if in fact excellence even appeared to remotely be a criterion. Calling attention to the medium itself seems a more likely, and more justifiable, goal. The Oscars are an ad for the movies just as the Pulitzer is an ad for poetry. Quite a few other awards exist to argue that different configurations of judges might be at least as well-qualified to identify excellence in a given field. And prizes like the American Book Awards and Lambda prizes do a lot of good simply pointing out that there is more to literature than cisgender white males.[iv]  

But what is the value in an ad for the medium? There appears to be some evidence that sales for award-winning films get a tic upward after receiving a major prize. But a secondary award, like best director or best foreign language film? Too bad for Roma, which will have to make do with glowing reviews and great word-of-mouth, where a win might have triggered a broad release in US theaters, still a good way to see a movie. Cold War continues to be a wonderful flic, the greatest Jerzy Koziński tale Truffaut ever filmed.[v] But mostly, it’s apt to remain a secret.

[i] One could argue that this alone tells you all you need to know about the history of colonialism in each place.

[ii] Which means that the end of print journalism, already quite visible on the horizon, will render the Pulitzers moot, at least as presently constituted.

[iii] Having won one, I know.

[iv] The Nobel gave awards to Selma Lagerlöf and Rabindranath Tagore within its first 15 years, and yet its long-term record hasn’t been especially good, 100 prizes to men, just 14 to women, the majority since 1990 Even within the last three decades, nearly twice as many men as women have received the award. Prizes to writers in English outnumber any other language by more than two to one. Of non-European languages, only Chinese and Japanese have received more than one prize. Tagore was the first and last Bengali writer to receive the award, and much of his writing was in English.

[v] Even though neither had anything to do with it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019


Walt Whitman often is characterized as an apotheosis of the American cult of individualism with Song of Myself presented as exhibit A – Stephen Mitchell, for example, writes
Certainly the poem embodies an outrageous egotism, an “I” so shamelessly naked that even a bodhisattva can admire it[i],
but I hear something different. It may be because I have been teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons at the same time that I have been rereading Song, in Mitchell’s faux version of the 1855 first publication in Leaves of Grass that presented the text as a single unbroken long poem, in a truer version of the first edition[ii],  and in the 1891 “deathbed” edition that replicates the 1881 final variant, broken now into a suggestive 52 sections and using a title that did not settle on the text until 1876. Song was published in six different compositional stages during Whitman’s life, with Mitchell’s 1993 edition representing what he himself characterizes as a “conflated version”.
Preparing my notes on Stein’s prose poems, I’m reminded that while Whitman was dying in Camden, an event reported on by the US press on a daily basis, the 17-year-old Stein[iii] was in Baltimore preparing to attend Radcliffe and certainly was aware of America’s most famous and thoroughly out gay poet. Matt Miller has written of Whitman’s influence, for example, on The Making of Americans[iv], a title that fairly screams it out and whose scope recalls the ambition of Song if not the whole of Leaves of Grass. 43 years ago, G. Thomas Couser observed that:
two of our most eccentric writers and autobiographers – Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein – seem to share many intriguing similarities.[v]
True that. But where Couser locates these similarities in time and identity, what I hear instead is a tic in number, very nearly a drumbeat of the plural.

In the original 1855 edition, it jumps right out in the sixth line:
Houses and roof perfumes . . . . the shelves are crowded with perfumes
By the deathbed version,  two additional stanzas had been inserted into  the poem, pushing this line into the second section while converting Whitman’s four-period ellipsis into a comma, and trading in roof for the rhyme of rooms, a revision that spells out the primacy of sound in this text:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes
Rooms also has the advantage of being plural. The number of multiples in just the first few pages of the poem are stunning:
·         Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers
·         green leaves and dry leaves
·         darkcolored sea-rocks
·         belched words . . . . words
·         A few light kisses . . . . a few embraces . . . . a reaching around of arms
That is a page-and-a-half from the Mitchell. In addition to having composed a 50-page poem that favors exposition over narrative,  Whitman has written one in love with the plural:
Do I  contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain  multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh,
The conversion of roof to rooms is fortuitous, as Rooms is the title of the third and final section of Tender Buttons, the chapter of Stein’s book that is not a series of short, witty prose poems but very nearly an  essay (in Stein’s unique manner) on method. Buttons likewise concentrates “toward them that are nigh” as the world it conveys is very much that of bourgeois women of pre-First World War Paris, poem titles filled with hats, coats, umbrellas, and “a long dress,” with relatively few references to men beyond soldiers and that “white hunter.”  
Plurals categorize right where creative writing workshops argue that one should focus on the specific. In theory the singular is concrete, the plural general. It’s not an accident that we target in on the wheelbarrow, sensing a softer, almost fuzzy focus on the chickens. Yet as that shipwreck of the singular, George Oppen, reminds us at the start of Of Being Numerous,
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
That is very much what Stein is getting at with her invocation of familiars throughout Tender Buttons. And it is also what I hear throughout Song of Myself.
Whitman’s language in this sense is the antithesis of Pound’s, whose preference is for specifics drenched in historical & sometimes mythological connotation. Which also was what Williams heard in The Waste Land:
Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself – rooted in the locality which should give it fruit[vi]
O stars of heaven,
O suns . . . . O grass of graves . . . . O perpetual transfers and promotions
Lists like this from the 49th canto of the deathbed Song lack Stein’s percussive alliteration, but, once stripped of the romantic “O,” the major difference is between Stein’s invocation of an interior world, household objects and food, over Whitman’s wider ranging, often more abstract or “transcendental” categories. Whitman’s plurals can be concrete, as with the twenty-eight young men observed splashing in the water in the 11th section or the
Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests […]
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms
Overhand the hammers swing, overhand so slow, overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place
He’s closer here to Williams than Stein, employing the plural to set up a close-up. Looking at the following famous stanza, you will see that even the singular nouns other than “I,” categorize. They may be singulars but they’re plurals at heart.
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them,
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day’s sport,
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these and all I weave the song of myself.

First presented at the Five Up on Walt pre-birthday celebration at Kelly Writers House, Feb. 5, 2019

[i] “Editor’s Preface,” Song of Myself, edited by Stephen Mitchell, Shambhala, Boulder, 2018, p. xi.

[ii] Online in a Roslings Ditgital Publications PDF available from the Western Illinois University website: http://faculty.wiu.edu/M-Cole/WaltWhitmanLeavesofGrass1855.pdf

[iii] The same age I was when William Carlos Williams died in 1963. It was Williams who opened the door of poetry to me through his poem “The Desert Music.”

[iv] Miller, “Making of Americans: Whitman and Stein’s Poetics of Inclusion,” Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, Autumn 2009

[v] Couser, “Of Time and Identity: Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein as Autobiographers,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 17, no. 4, Winter 1976

[vi] Unsigned biographical essay on Williams on the Poetry Foundation website.

Friday, January 11, 2019

This coming Monday

The Fab Four

come to the
Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant
247 S. 17th Street

7:30 - 9:30 PM

Monday, January 07, 2019

Ben Friedlander jokingly introduced me at the 2017 National Poetry Foundation conference on the poetries of the 1990s by saying that that decade had been “the period between language poetry and Silliman’s Blog.” Later, in one of those hallway conversations that proves so fruitful at events like this, Ben and I talked more seriously about how one would periodize language writing, if one wished to do so. It’s a little like asking if Beat poetry still exists today, given that Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are still active. I said at the time that I had been serious in my characterization of it in the introduction to In the American Tree as more of a moment than a movement.

But I had betrayed that assertion in how I had edited that collection, including only those who had appeared enough times in works by publishers and magazines so thoroughly associated with langpo to thoroughly bear its stamp. And, as I’ve stated a few times since then, I did so thoroughly enough that there were just three poets who fit my criteria whom I failed to include: Curtis Faville, David Gitin and Abigail Child. The first two had withdrawn from publishing by 1981-2, the period when I put that book together, and I had misread Child as a committed filmmaker who wrote much as she also danced and did performance art, a misreading on my part that I have regretted ever since. If I had really edited that volume to articulate the moment, I should have included first-rate writers who were quite critical of language writing, such as Beverly Dahlen and Leslie Scalapino, or who were off doing their own thing without much if any reference to what was taking place at the Grand Piano, the Tassajara Bakery or the fledgling Ear Inn readings. This would have included people openly hostile to some of langpo’s investigations into language itself, such as Darrell Gray or Andrei Codrescu, but it also would have included the likes of Norman Fischer, CD Wright, Joan Retallack, Doug Lang, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Joseph Ceravolo, Judy Grahn, Michael Lally, Lorenzo Thomas, Jim Brody, Simon Ortiz, and Nathaniel Mackey. Edited by a white guy on the West Coast, In the American Tree is very much a(n imperfect) record of a movement and not a moment at all.

Plus a nearly five-year gap occurred between editing and publication, the result of the original publisher, Ross Erickson Books, struggling financially. Had the collection actually been edited close to its publication date, younger writers who had subsequently emerged, including Charles Alexander, Laura Moriarty, Ted Pearson and Harryette Mullen, surely would have been added to what was already an unwieldy number. In 1986, when the National Poetry Foundation finally got the 1982 manuscript into print, Tree already some of the same time-bound features I had noticed earlier in Donald M Allen’s The New American Poetry, which presents the early Jack Spicer and not the later writer whom we think of today, the Edward Dorn who is clearly a lyric student from Black Mountain, not the pop-art philosopher-poet with the problematic politics. Indeed, Amiri Baraka was not yet Amiri Baraka when he appeared in the Allen anthology. One could argue the same for Denise Levertov as well.

Standing in the hallway in Orono, I told Ben that if I had to do so, I would agree that language poetry was not a literature of the 1990s, and that the poetics of the New Coast Conference, held in March of 1990 and later gathered into a double anthology by the journal Oblēk, had in fact accomplished what it set out to do, which was to announce a generational shift to a younger cohort of poets, a group notably more diverse in race and gender than that figured just four years before by Tree. The Oblēk anthologies never got the distribution they deserved, and, perhaps because of the hostility by many of the participants of the poetry publication to assertions given prominence in the theoretical one[i], the collections have never been republished or brought out in book form.  

I also had already given langpo a starting date, the appearance of Robert Grenier’s essay “On Speech” in the inaugural issue of This in 1971. Even 48 years later, that still feels right to me. There certainly were earlier manifestations of what would come to be known as language writing in journals such as joglars edited by Clark Coolidge and Michael Palmer (dating back as far as 1963, when Charles Bernstein would have been just 12 years old, Erica Hunt only eight), 0 to 9, edited by Bernadette Mayer with Vito Acconci, and even my own Tottel’s, which beat This into print by a matter of weeks. But Grenier’s epic overstatement, “l HATE SPEECH,” had the concentrated effect of an announcement every bit as much as Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl in the Six Gallery, October 7, 1955, had announced the New American Poetry, no matter that it came five years after Olson’s essay on Projective Verse and even after Black Mountain College itself had closed down.

Real life is messy like that. A significant amount of the hostility to language poetry in the 1970s and ‘80s came from poets like Codrescu and Tom Clark, who had been too young for The New American Poetry and yet felt excluded by a younger map of the territory that no longer followed the familiar terrain set forth by the Allen anthology.[ii]  The Oblēk anthologies suggested that the debate was already irrelevant. I think it’s open to question whether I’ll Drown This Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, edited by Caroline Bergvalle, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody & Vanessa Place, or Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf, edited by Drew Gardner, Nada Gordon, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad & Gary Sullivan – the current pretenders to the short-lived Iron Throne of contemporary poetics – represents an extension of the New Coast poetics put forward by Oblēk, which is how I read them, or something altogether new. The documentary conceptualism put forward by Chain was clearly a part of the New Coast phenomenon and, nearing 20, flarf likewise is long in the tooth, and if the cover of that anthology is any evidence, also in need of a haircut.

What’s next? as President Bartlett used to say back when the nation was governed by the sane. The question of articulating any movement of poetry in a world in which there exist some 50,000 publishing ones is one hell of a lot harder than it was when the number was 2,000 or so just 30-plus years ago. Even the neo-Edwardian strain still exists, although if Terrance Hayes and AE Stallings are any evidence, they’ve had a serious rebirth of wonder since the days of Lowell and Wilbur.[iii]

My concern is that without some shape, younger poets have nothing to push against, no old guard conveniently tottering and about to be tipped into the dustbin of history. The turn to politics on the part of recent poets may be occasioned by how much more visible the depredations of capital have become, but the difference between langpo and the poets of Chain was never a question of political/non-political, but closer to which political and how. You can’t say that Terrance Hayes isn’t writing politically, even if his sense of caesura can be breathtaking. I was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America on the day when the New American Movement first merged with the Democratic Socialists’ Organizing Committee to form that organization and my membership is still current, thank you. As I’ve tried to make clear here and on Facebook and Twitter, I think we’re all in this together.

But poetry is governed by seasons – what gave birth to the New American Poetry was a hiatus occasioned by World War 2 when the number of books being published in the US was curtailed by the cost of paper and ink, and the absence of males from the continent. As it was, the number of books of poetry published in the US shrank from around 100 per year to just half that until well after the war. The old world had been an argument between the neo-Edwardians led by the Benet brothers and Robert Frost[iv] and the moderns led by Pound, Williams and the Objectivists. The publishing world was aligned with the neo-Edwardians and thus, as a result of the war’s impact on publishing, many Objectivists stayed out of print until the 1960s after the arrival of Ginsberg et al. Since the New Americans, we really have had just two other generations of poetry, albeit with much haziness at the margins.

It seems that we are now ripe for a third. From my perspective (in the dustbin of history where we are making room for the conceptualists and flarfists), I’m searching out for new shoots, wondering just where they might take us all. I for one am ready for the ride.

[i] Basically that a lack of spirituality was a defining feature of language poetry and that a return to religion would thus be a hallmark of poetry going forward, two decidedly inaccurate claims.

[ii] Which was a notoriously untrustworthy map. The absence of the Spicer circle was no doubt Duncan’s influence – Robert claimed that he had told Allen whom to include – just as the fiction of a San Francisco renaissance was his mechanism for getting older poets like James Broughton and Brother Antoninus into the book. Allen’s pointed comment in the introduction about Zukofsky’s exclusion suggests that a line was being drawn – Robert was allowed to dictate the San Francisco scene, but not the whole shebang. The 1967 A Controversy of Poets anthology, where Robert Kelly selected the New Americans and Paris Leary chose the neo-Edwardians, includes Zukofsky.

[iii] The brief interregnum of the Gnu Formalism can best be understood as an admission that the poetry wars, if not set off by the Allen anthology at least marked by it, was thoroughly won by the New Americans. The argument against this would basically be that the social upheavals of the 1960s disrupted everyone, and that the rejection of the New American paradigm by the likes of Dorn, Baraka and Levertov were no greater than the turn away from rhyming pentameter by  the likes of Bly, Merwin, Plath, Wright, Hall et al. The curious thing, reading anthologies of the New Formalists, is the near total absence of poets born in the 1930s. Hayes was born in 1971, Stallings in 1968.

[iv] Between them, Frost and the Benet brothers had 7 Pulitzer prizes by the time Stephen died of an early heart attack in 1944, including those for that year and the two preceding ones. Stephen also controlled the Yale Younger Poets award, the only other prize in US poetry to get significant critical and news coverage.

Friday, January 04, 2019

China has to know by now that it can seize Taiwan any time it wants and that Trump has so ravaged the US’ ability to mount a coalition in opposition to anything it would be a done deal. The Taiwanese have to know this also. Remember the second Kennedy-Nixon debate when Nixon accused JFK of being unwilling to use nuclear weapons to defend Quemoy & Matsu? Do you think Trump has even heard of these islands?

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Is power a function of speech? That, in essence, was the core of the Supreme Court decision we know under the deeply cynical – but curiously not inaccurate – name of Citizens United. Limiting the right of the wealthy to spend limitless sums of capital on political campaigns was curtailing their right to speak about issues that matter both to them and the polis.

But capital is not speech – it’s power. Consider the example of Amazon and its CEO, Jeff Bezos.  The company employs 613,300 people, roughly twice the number who worked at IBM when I was employed there in the late 1990s. Amazon actually earned $171 billion in revenue in 2017, with an overall net income of $3 billion, assets worth $131 billion and a stock valuation of just under $28 billion. Thus the equity per employee of Amazon was a smidgen over $45,000. One could argue that the company was and is a good buy at its current price of around $1500 per share. There is a lot of value in its activity that is not captured in a stock price that low.

That value is divided, of course, not among its employees, but rather its shareholders, the largest being Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Not that Bezos depends entirely upon undervalued Amazon stock for his wealth. His early investment in Google (a mere $250,000) for example, is now worth more than $3 billion and Bezos owns a lot of other stuff, including a space exploration company and, through a limited liability corporation called Nash Holdings, The Washington Post, an asset that makes him a target of angry tweets by President Trump. Overall, Bezos is said to be worth over $150 billion, slightly ahead of Bill Gates, but considerably ahead of you and me.

Whether Bezos is the richest man in the world, as Wikipedia and Forbes, assert, or not depends on part on how one values the wealth of some off-the-books types, such as Vladimir Putin ($200B, give or take[i]) or the 2,000-members of the Saud family said to be worth a total of roughly $1.4 trillion, a significant amount of which is controlled by a handful of elders. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the one country named for its ruling family.

A few years ago, when Bill Gates first became the “richest man in the world,” it was a title that  could be had for $30 billion. The subsequent growth in these numbers reflects a fundamental tendency of capitalism to accumulate and concentrate. If all the money in the world (currently somewhere around 255 trillion US$) were divided equally among the eight billion people on this planet, everyone would have a net worth a little under $32,000, which is about one year’s tuition at an Ivy League school. So the likes of Bezos, Gates, Putin and Mohammad bin Salman represents quite a bit more than their “share” of the world’s wealth if we look at the planet as something akin to an asset that belongs to us all.

Which means that these disproportionate concentrations of wealth represent serious distortions of power, including the power to concentrate food, shelter and physical wellbeing. That is what politics is all about. In terms of wealth, Jeff Bezos has 4 million seven hundred thousand times that of the average human being. Dividing Amazon’s HQ2 50,000 future employees among the residents of northern Virginia and the Bronx is just one way to ensure that Bezos’ absolute economic influence in the metro DC and New York City regions will be magnified by significant voting blocs of people for whom what is in Amazon’s interest translates into their own welfare. It’s the old “What’s good for General Motors” formula updated for the internet age.

So the protection of wealth as speech – again, the essence of Citizens United – is intended to ensure that the concentration of capital will be protected by the US Constitution. It’s a neat trick that Lewis Powell first foresaw when he suggested the weaponization of the US legal system in his memo to the US Chamber of Congress in August of 1971. Since then, the US right has organized systematically to take over the courts, a process that has required diligence, organization and a reasonably singled-minded focus for 48 effing years to accomplish its goal with beer-boy Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court and the Senate’s wave of confirmations of Kavanaugh knock-offs to fill a wide range of lower court vacancies that built up during the Obama years, complements of Mitch McConnell.

By way of contrast, future Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was so appalled at the defeat of George McGovern by Richard Nixon in 1972 that he founded the Democrat Leadership Conference to ensure that Democratic politics in the next generation would not be weighed down by any socialist-leaning ideas from the American Left. Clinton’s vision of a Democratic Party working in unison with liberal aspects of corporate America has governed the party pretty much until this last election. Even now, the Democrats find themselves with Chuck Schumer, a US Senator who represents exactly one city block of lower Manhattan, and Nancy Pelosi, a committed centrist, running the party in Congress, plus a passel of disparate candidates hoping to run for the presidency in 2020, exactly two of whom (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) might be characterized as “on the left.” Most, although not all, of the rest seems to be following the Obama formula of looking progressive while operating as centrists – no “out” centrist has won the Electoral College since 1996. Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic Congressman who often voted with the GOP and who can be characterized as a progressive only when contrasted with the likes of Ted Cruz, is more typical of the field.

In short, we have a relatively organized American right, currently being held captive by a politician who demonstrates that party’s contempt for professionalism in politics, against a  broad array of candidates most of whom actively do not want to challenge the Democratic party’s symbiotic relationship with Wall Street, Hollywood and tech billionaires. What an appealing choice! Further, the longer the Republicans can control the Senate and the executive branch, the more damage they can do and the longer it will take any bottom-up mass movement of Americans to overturn the right’s stranglehold on at least the judiciary.

And did I mention that climate change makes the problem more urgent every day?

It’s enough to make a Chomskyian out of a sane person, if only because Chomsky’s complaints about the rapacious nature of capitalism tend to be reasonable. The real problem is how to undo what has been done and overturn capital’s stranglehold on the polis. If you don’t break that stranglehold, any short-term fixes will prove as fragile as Barack Obama’s progressive heritage.

I think that the answer to the first question has to lie in a series of Constitutional Amendments, the first of which declares that money is not speech. But I wouldn’t want to call a Constitutional Convention in the present political climate, would you? Handmaid’s Tale, here we come.

Long term, it will take at least the single-minded focus that the GOP has demonstrated since 1971 and a degree of organization that is the equal of the Republican right. One aspect of that organization has to be a consistent never-ending critique of capital’s role in society, precisely its capacity to concentrate power.

It is that disequalibration that underpins all the ways that capital empowers every form of privilege that exists: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, age privilege, you name it.

If I look at how Jeff Bezos employs his wealth, he seems innocuous enough. Amazon’s corporate contributions have skewed slightly Republican, but not significantly so, and Bezos himself has mostly supported establishment Democrats. His ownership of the Post has been hands-off  in pointed contrast with the Murdoch clan, allowing professional journalists to do their jobs, even if a lot of Post contributors clearly suffer from inside-the-Beltway conventional thinking. Bezos’ more important political contribution has been a $10 million gift to With Honor, a non-profit cofounded by GOP strategist (and never-Trumper) David Gergen to elect more veterans to Congress. Not all veterans are conservatives – Ron Dellums was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as well as a former Marine. But the overall impact of such giving, like hiring some 50,000 employees in two key districts on the East Coast, seems poised to ensure the well-being of Amazon itself as it remakes the commercial sale and distribution of products in a web-driven world.

And progressive-sounding politicians who do nothing to ensure the election of progressives at the state and local level, as was the case with Obama, or who do nothing to disengage US foreign policy from the interests of international corporations – as was also the case with #44 – do little more than ensure that the worst immediate consequences of capital may be inhibited while the deeper stranglehold of wealth on history and privilege continue unabated. I think it’s arguable whether or not Obama made the ascendancy of a racist and fascist to the presidency inevitable, but he certainly helped to magnify the damage that man can do while in office. Voter suppression campaigns in Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere, are a direct result of Obama’s abandonment of state and local politics while in office. The disarray of US foreign policy reflects the reality that Obama’s international vision amounted to little more than continuing the use of US military might (this time with drones!) to bolster a global order tailor-made by and for US corporations[ii]. When Trump came to pull that house down, it was already in considerable shambles.

The same year that Lewis Powell penned his infamous memo to the Chamber of Commerce, he was nominated by Richard Nixon to the US Supreme Court where he would serve for 16 years. He died finally in 1998, some twenty years before the Kavanagh nomination ensured that a nation that leans to the left will have its laws interpreted for a generation by a court that leans markedly to the right. That’s a vision of a long arc, a vision the left has lacked for a generation. With the growing threat of global warming sure to push ever larger numbers of people to increasingly desperate acts, it’s really now or never.

[i] A problematic figure suggested first by Bill Browder, the Russian investment oligarch son of former US Communist Earl Browder, and man most likely to grip a poisoned doorknob for his opposition to Putin.

[ii] Henry Kissinger’s corporate sponsor throughout his career was Nelson Rockefeller. His Democratic counterpart, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was in turn sponsored by David Rockefeller. The company the Rockefellers inherited was Standard Oil, the global predecessor to Exxon. Kissinger and Brzezinski ran foreign policy during the Nixon and Carter years, and were replaced  during the Reagan era by Casper Weinberger and George Schultz, both of whom ran divisions at Bechtel. Reagan’s vice-president was the only CIA official to ever own his own oil firm, George  HW Bush. Oil’s tight control of foreign policy fit right into the rise of the automobile in post-WW2 America, as well as the automobile’s greatest achievement, the American suburb and the physical remaking of every metropolitan region in the nation. Why are the Saudis our friends? What’s good for General Motors?