Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The perfect counterpoint to Marjorie Perloff’s Vienna Paradox has to be Rosmarie Waldrop’s Ceci n’est pas Rosmarie, half of a pair of delightful autobiographical memoirs by the famed poet, translator, editor & publisher and her equally renowned poet, teacher, editor & publisher spouse – Keith Waldrop’s memoir is called Ceci n’est pas Keith, brought out as a single volume under their own Burning Deck imprint in 2002. Rosmarie Waldrop’s memoir is the perfect counterpoint to Perloff’s because Rosmarie Sebald, four years Perloff’s junior, has had something akin to a parallel life, with some profound differences. Where Perloff’s family were affluent urban sophisticates in Austria, deeply involved in the arts & culture, & indeed in the uppermost reaches of the Austrian government until the anti-Semitism of the Nazis drove them into exile & caused young Gabriele Mintz to refashion herself as Marjorie Perloff, one of the first major American literary critics to focus on the avant-garde tradition, Rosmarie Sebald was the daughter of a German physical education teacher who escaped “being drafted” into Hitler Jugend only by the fall of Germany a few short months before her tenth birthday.

The four-year age gap between the two is as profound as the distinction between German & Jew in determining how they perceived the dislocations of the war years – the Mintz family settling in New York while Rosmarie was sent to live with rural relatives to avoid the aerial attacks on her city, which thereafter was occupied for many years by GIs who converted a nearby airbase to Allied use. One such GI was Keith Waldrop, who used his jazz records & interest in the global avant-garde to woo the local girl – and who later used the funds from winning the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Award to bring Rosmarie to America, where she emerged as Rosmarie Waldrop, one of the finer poets of our time & one of the great translators of all time.

If Perloff uses her memoir to investigate an entire range of issues, the Waldrops are more content to let memoir be memoir. And yet the differences between their own interwoven stories are equally fascinating. Keith’s is more easy going, even playful, than Rosmarie’s – tho her formal structure is superficially the more disjunct, less conventional. One senses also – tho Keith may be the least academic “academic” of all time – just how important teaching & the context of different schools have been for him, really the only setting he has ever had for his work as such, a foundation that Rosmarie gets instead from her labor as a translator & publisher – her discussion of the impact typesetting has had in shaping her own priorities as a poet is one of her memoir’s high points.

Tho it is visible really only indirectly in either book, it is fascinating to see how different the avant-garde appears in Rosmarie’s memoir from the one that shows up in Marorie’s. Perloff’s avant-garde is ultimately North American, tho it looks to Europe for a philosophical foundation, the intellectual questions that will haunt it – this is never more clear than in Perloff’s discussion of John Cage, which is really a discussion of Cage the student of Schoenberg, not, say, Cage the Buddhist. Rosmarie Waldrop’s avant-garde is only occasionally American, but is rather a more broadly defined international weaving of like-minded artists. Both Perloff & Waldrop discuss Wittgenstein at some length, but again it would seem to be very nearly a different person.

Individually & together, the Waldrop memoirs are nowhere near as ambitious as Perloff’s. Rosmarie’s Americanization is as much the process of becoming an artist as becoming an American – again that age difference between Perloff & Waldrop yields different results, tho here it is because Perloff was so much younger when she made the transition. Together & individually, all three memoirs give us important insights into the creation of our own post-WW2 literary scene & on the rubble of the old world on which some portion of this new one has been built.