Tuesday, February 08, 2005



I’ve disagreed with Eliot Weinberger with so many things over the years that it is probably easier to note the few things about which I think we both agree. If I am not mistaken, we concur on the importance of what I will here call the Pound-Williams tradition – I’m less certain that he would extend it as I do to include Stein & some of the other high modernists – as well as to the importance of the Objectivists & the Black Mountain School among the New Americans. I would extend that same sense, if not always to the same degree, to the other varieties of the New American project of the 1950s. But if, as I suggested on Monday, the poets I’ve most appreciated among my peers often took the work of Louis Zukofsky as a stepping-off point (one example I cited was Eliot’s highschool classmate, Bob Perelman), Weinberger seems very much to taken the other road, treating Zukofsky as an ultimate case, the furthest out one might venture. And that has always struck me, in Weinberger as well as in others, as a fundamental misreading, not just of Zukofsky, but of the nature of life & the world. Weinberger, I’m sure, would counter that I’ve been far too U.S.-centric in my own reading habits & not nearly enough of an internationalist. On some days of the week, tho, I would agree with him there too.


So it is with a little ambivalence that I must report that Eliot has written something important – you can find it in the current issue of the London Review of Books. What I heard about Iraq” is long – at over 10,000 words, it would run to over 23 pages as a typical Word document – 233 “I-statements” involving what has been said about the Iraq conflict, starting with


In 1992, a year after the first Gulf War, I heard Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, say that the US had been wise not to invade Baghdad and get ‘bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq’. I heard him say: ‘The question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is: not that damned many.’


I heard this, I heard that – this is rather what you might expect, a lengthy litany of lies & deceit & rationalizations on the part of public officials. As a reading experience, it’s an event not unlike one’s first exposure to vomit porn – exactly how much of the obscene can a human being look at without gagging? If Weinberger wants to demonstrate exactly how pathological Bush’s war has been, “What I heard” is right up there with photos of blown-apart babies.


Is it a poem? That may be an academic question – Weinberg has long been an editor, translator & critic of poetry, pretty much ever since he baled on Yale after his first year there, but he has never actively claimed to be a poet as such. Not one of the 21 books of his listed in his profile at the Academy of American Poets is a collection of his own verse.


Yet parallel construction is right up there with rhyme in terms of its antiquity as a verifiable formal device of the poetic, right smack out of the Bible. Reading What I heard, I am convinced that Weinberger wants us to hear those echoes loud & clear. This is not, after all, simply another journalistic demonstration of the duplicity of George Walker Bush. If What I heard is not a poem, it’s because – as with the paragraph or line quoted above – Eliot Weinberger has no ear. But readers of his translations already know that. His interest in Black Mountain, for example, was for its forays into logopoeia, not melopoeia – I might argue that the latter were at least as important as the former.


If it is a poem, What I heard might well be the first great poem written about the Iraq misadventure. Yet if we contrast it with the two great poems of the Vietnam War – Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra, Part II” & “The Fire Passages 13” by Robert Duncan – What I heard is rather what the Brits might call weak tea indeed. Or maybe that’s wrong. Possibly what is problematic here is that the tea is far too strong altogether, an unrelieved recitation of evil.


“Wichita Vortex Sutra” parallels What I heard in some ways – What I heard mimes the structure of an oral form, “Sutra” was in fact improvised verbally into a tape recorder as Allen & his pals tooled around in a VW minivan, transcribed after the fact (when, presumably, such things as linebreaks & spatial decisions were added). “The Fire” similarly invokes orality, opening as tho a spell were being intoned: “jump stone hand leaf shadow sun”


“Sutra” may recount many of the evils men do – or did during that period – but it does so not as a simple listing, but rather to consider the role of language:


Put it this way on the radio

Put it this way in television language

Use the words

language, language:

“A bad guess”


That last phrase in quotation marks comes from George Aiken, a GOP senator from Vermont – Ginsberg returns to the phrase again & again, as he does the invocation of language to describe not the horrors of war so much as the perversion of meaning that is inevitable whenever politicians encounter a gap between their desires & reality:


Three five zero zero is numerals

Headline language poetry¹, nine decades after Democratic Vistas

and the Prophecy of the Good Gray Poet

Our nation “of the fabled damned”

or else . . .

Language, language

Ezra Pound the Chinese Written Character for truth

defined as man standing by his word

Word picture:          forked creature



3,500 being the body count of “Viet Cong” killed per week, or at least so said General Maxwell Taylor – ”Sutra II” was written on Valentine’s Day, 1966², not quite halfway between the Gulf of Tonkin incident that LBJ used to get Congress approve of an overt war & the 1968 Tet Offensive that effectively determined that the U.S. would never win the conflict.³


While Ginsberg never moves very far from the events of the war itself, his poem is really about the mediating aspect of language in creating not only “televised reality” but America’s self-identity. This is the poem of ideological state apparatuses, as the Althusserians might put it.


Duncan’s strategy is not that far from Ginsberg’s. After a grid of individual words – six lines, six words per line, then two lines of two words apiece, he turns to the issue:


The day at the window


the rain at the window


the night and the star at the window


Do you know the old language?


I do not know the old language.


Do you know the language of the old belief?


Duncan’s strategy differs from Ginsberg’s however, in that he actually mentions the current cast of political characters & events only once in the entire poem:


Satan looks forth from

men’s faces:

Eisenhower’s idiot grin, Nixon’s

black jaw, the sly glare of Goldwater’s eye, or

the look of Stevenson lying in the U.N. that our

Nation save face


This is ostensibly a poem about Piero di Cosimo’s painting “The Forest Fire” – it is only the events of its time & occasion that would cause every one of its readers to associate it with the U.S. decision to drop napalm on the forest villages of Indochina. Duncan’s incorporation of lines such as the above serve to confirm what at the time would have been obvious to any reader.



Each of these poems then can be said to really bring an analysis to bear on the Vietnam War – both are concerned in great part with the use of lying by public speakers to justify the murder of innocents for no sane political purpose. Weinberger’s focus fixes on this very same point, but where they have something further to say about the problem, Eliot seems more determined to hammer us into mute horror at the degree to which such duplicity has escalated. 1984 has nothing on the newspeak of the Bush regime.


The other aspect – which may in fact account partly for the first – is that Duncan & Ginsberg can envision far more readily than Weinberger a real place for public discourse – for polis, in praxis – as a rhetoric for the poem. The flat parallelisms of Weinberger’s poem seems to me to show far less faith – in fact, the poets who strike me today as reflecting a sense of the possibility of the public would primarily be the likes of Barrett Watten or Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein or Bob Perelman, a very different set of possibilities than the paralyzing one offered by Weinberger.


But maybe it’s not a poem – that really I think must be a judgment call – perhaps it’s just a list, like a Pharaoh’s list of items with which to be entombed, or fields to be planted. Possibly it is the very absence of the poetic – which in this case would mean analysis – that Weinberger wants us to feel here.


In either case, this is a language object that needs to be confronted.



¹ So far as I know, this is the earliest occurrence of that particular phrase.


² Has anyone ever commented on the fact that “Sutra II” was written one day before “Sutra I”?


³ In retrospect, the Offensive left North Vietnamese & Viet Cong forces on the edge of collapse. But the assault on Saigon so paralyzed the Johnson administration – it made inevitable the presidential challenges of first Eugene McCarthy & then Bobby Kennedy that led to LBJ’s withdrawal as a candidate – that by the time Nixon arrived in office one year later, even attacks on Cambodia & Laos were unable to reverse the inevitability of a U.S. withdrawal.

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