Monday, November 30, 2009

Nada to Islamic Minarets in Switzerland

The Swiss populace has spoken: No new Islamic minarets in Switzerland.
Let me be as clear as I can be about my reaction to this development: I am for religious freedom in principle, as long as it doesn't conflict with basic political freedoms embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. I am not a religious person; I don't practice any formal ritual; and I don't subscribe to any religious cosmology or dogma of behavior or ethical guidance. I was "sort of" raised Protestant, but there was no conviction in our family to speak of. I regard myself as a liberal humanist, and my politics is a hodge-podge of Left and Right positions, arrived at pragmatically on a case by case basis.

I resist the notion of a "Christian" basis for Western political ideals, despite the well-known fact that such religious ideas permeated the culture during the formation of our founding documents and institutions. I dislike the aggressive proselytization which many faiths engage in. 

I know little about Islamic faith, and I'm not particularly ambitious to know more. I accept the claims that radical, fatalistic Islamic extremist factions do not represent the core majority and emphasis of belief by most Muslims. 

Nevertheless, there are some basic tenets of Islam, which are not compatible with political and personal freedom as we understand it. These principles have historically been restricted to the Middle and Far East, though Islam has been expanding its influence and reach over the last half century--into Africa, Indonesia, parts of Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. This is no surprise, as Christianity did the same thing for centuries; was indeed the accompaniment and "justification" of much of the colonial exploitation and suppression of native peoples and cultures in the so-called Third World (i.e., the "White Man's burden"). 

History is not static. The face of the planet is now a collection of separate nations, many of which have historical ties and associations which bind them into natural alliances and blocs. Religion, despite what you think of it, has been one common theme in maintaining such alliances. Indeed, religion often transcends national borders, creating super-national spheres in the world. European nations share many such transcendent bonds. So do the nations of the Middle East which are dominated by the Islamic faith.

As Islam has begun to penetrate the European subcontinent, the question of its affect on the resident political and cultural traditions now must be addressed. Christianity has been so much a part of the fabric of European civilization (both Roman Catholicism and the Protestant faiths)--intertwined with the custom and belief and practice of daily life--for so long (centuries)--that it seems a precipitous upheaval would be needed to unseat its position there.  

In principle, any parliamentary democracy must enforce religious freedom. But what if a religion involves more than just a private obligation, more than peaceful congregation? What if a religion involves obeisance to a rigid code of practice that divides believers along sexual and racial lines, which rejects democracy and the freedoms which we understand to be consistent with equality and the privileges and entitlements of citizenship? 

Can such a religion "co-exist" inside a true democracy without eventually coming into direct conflict with opposing religions, or with non-believers? Can a religion--that makes de-facto slaves out of half of its members, rejects the freedom of others on principle, and creates in effect a separate society (or nation) unto itself--be accommodated inside a Western Democracy, without eventually causing deep conflicts between itself and the larger society of which it's nominally a part?

The question in Switzerland isn't simply a matter of pluralistic religious tolerance. It's a question of the degree to which the Swiss shall entertain the taking over of its society by an alien religious paradigm that is diametrically opposed to the principles it (Switzerland) adheres to. Does the construction of minarets and large mosques constitute a threat to Swiss society? The easy answer, at this stage, might be a naive "no." 

But the fabric of Swiss society is inextricably Christian. Should a society regard the aggressive spread of a foreign religion inside its borders as a threat to its identity, to its folk-ways and customs and institutions? The answer to that depends upon what value you put upon the continuity of the institutional fabric of your own national identity. 

It is not in the least irrational for the Swiss to believe that the unrestrained spread of Islam will have dire consequences for its cultural identity, as well as its political outlook. It is one thing to trade with Islamic countries, or to serve as their bankers, or to entertain them as vicarious tourists; it's quite another thing to allow Islamic cells to expand willy-nilly into your cities and towns. 

For Islam is more than a mere religion. It proposes a theocratic unity of state and church, in which all aspects of daily life are united. It is quite naive to think that a static Islamic presence will allow itself to be marginalized indefinitely by exclusions and restrictions of one kind or another. Its ultimate aim is the control of society. The means by which it achieves this is through religious doctrine. It despises secularism, and regards Western "freedoms" as variations of "sin." 

If the Swiss do nothing to restrain Islam, in another 50-100 years it could face internal convulsions, resulting in its transformation into an Islamic theocracy. Wherever Islam has gained a strong foot-hold among the populace, the secular political life has come under intense pressure. This is something the Swiss have decided they want to avoid. Whether restricting the construction of churches (or architectural features) as symbols of unwanted religious influence, will have any deterrent effect upon the spread of Islam in Switzerland, remains to be seen. Can you imagine hearing the Muslim call to prayer in Bern or Zurich or Geneva? Can you imagine a woman fearing to walk in "certain neighborhoods" because of the threat of attack for not being properly attired?   

Are the Swiss wrong to imagine that their way of life is in jeopardy?  You be the judge.      

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Swiss Vote on Banning Islamic Minarets

The Swiss go to the polls today to vote on a referendum designed to halt the construction of Islamic minarets--the architectural towers, familiar in Muslim countries--which symbolize Islamic religious presence and are used to broadcast the "call to prayer"--the lyrical wail which is heard through the Islamic world each day.  

Switzerland has a history of non-involvement in European conflicts, and has maintained its reputation as a sort of island of neutrality in a sea of dispute and difference. This was accompanied by a cultural homogeneity--a sort of German/French/Italian hybridized model--designed to preserve a sense of its unique character, dignified and transparent. 

With the increasing portability of populations around the world, European nations have seen their respective national character and historical traditions challenged by huge influxes of African, Asian and Middle-Eastern people migrating North and West. Concerns have been raised in these countries about the threatened continuity of political, cultural and religious institutions posed by the radically different foreign paradigms. 

The official Swiss government position has held that bans against religious symbols (like churches) could have a damaging effect on Switzerland's reputation as an "open, tolerant and secure" place for the tourism and banking industries. Advocates of religious freedom and tolerance have decried the referendum as an example of irrational reactionary nationalism, racism, hatred and fear of the unknown. 

The history of the conflict between Islamic expansion and the West has been anything but peaceful. Spain was the cultural battleground between Islamic and Christian religions for hundreds of years. Both Christianity and Islam--in their purest expression--call for an integration between religious and political life which comes into direct conflict with principles of parliamentary democracy, individual freedoms, and the separation of church and state since the Enlightenment. 

For good or ill, the legacy of organized religion in the modern world has been largely one of intolerance: Intolerance of differing ways of life, intolerance of competing views of ethics and behavior, and of opposing religious practice and concepts. Western democracies would like to believe that religious tolerance, like political pluralism, is simply a matter of learning to be more tolerant.  

But if by tolerance we mean allowing harmful or dogmatic factions to dictate and overwhelm existing institutions and practice, then perhaps we need new definitions of tolerance. Islamic dogma contains several tenets which are anathema to so-called democratic, "free societies." I put "free" in quotes because, from an Islamic point of view, freedom to violate Islamic doctrine constitutes a deeply offensive liberality, which it considers intolerable. 

Islam, as it is practiced, is not compatible with Western democratic principles. The subjugation of women, and the insistence upon theocratic integration into all aspects of daily life, is in direct conflict with the separation of church and state, and the principle of equality which guides so much Western thought. 

This is not to say that Christianity, which continues to have a strong influence in the West, is an unalloyed good. On the contrary. Free societies still must resist religious dogma, in whatever form it presents itself.

But Islam doesn't have historical roots in Europe. For the Western democracies to entertain the notion that a growing Islamic presence is a harmless phenomena is indeed naive. Can Switzerland afford to allow Islam to establish a strong foothold, with the construction of huge mosques, with overarching towers? Is traditional Islamic practice compatible with a free society? Can Islam "co-exist" peacefully with other (Western) religions?  

If I were a Swiss citizen, I would be inclined to regard Islamic infiltration with skeptical caution. How far along the road to idealistic "tolerance" can a Western society go, before it relinquishes its freedom? To put the question another way, is an historically Christian nation justified in resisting the incursion of aggressive, expanding Islamic communities in its midst?   

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Stravinsky's Three Great Ballets - Modernism's Shot Across the Bow

                                                                                       Stravinsky by Picasso
It may be idle to discuss music on a blog, since the whole point is the sound of the music. But certain composers make such a splash in the general cultural milieu, that they transcend the boundaries of sound, because of the power of their statement.

One such composer was Igor Stravinsky [1882-1971]. Stravinsky, a native of Russia, abandoned the study of law to pursue private musical studies with Rimsky-Korsakov (the composer of Scheherazade, among other works, and often cited as the master of orchestration of his era). The great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, attended the premier of one of Stravinsky's early pieces in St. Petersburg, and hired him to compose a full-length ballet for his company, The Firebird [1910].  Firebird is, in most respects, a very efficient and clear expression of late romantic evocation, moody and impressionistic. It remains a concert hall favorite, in its various "suites" incarnations (revised, by the composer, with different instrumentation, over the ensuing decades), 100 years later, because of its delicate and exotic flavor. Influences upon it might include Mahler, Chabrier, Rimsky, and, most obviously, Tchaikovsky. It's very pretty, but didn't really break any of the musical rules or modes of its time.

                                                                                              The Young Stravinsky
I'll never forget the first time I heard Petrouchka (the overture suite adaptation). I had bought the record at the local music store (Angel 35153, 33rpm LP), with Igor Markevitch conducting (which also included the suite from Prokofiev's Le Pas D'Acier--wow! what disc!). What a thrill it sent through my bones! I could hardly restrain myself, and played it three times more. I knew, at that moment, I'd heard the announcement of the modern age, like a trumpet blast! Here was the motive force of the Industrial Revolution, the ecstatic socio-political transformation of the 19th Century into the 20th. Nothing, again--musically speaking--would ever be the same for me. Petrouchka will always, for me, be a young man's piece, energetic, uncompromising, irrevocable, dramatic, and filled with optimistic rhythm. It's fearless music, and once you've heard it, nothing else which preceded it in the history of music can ever be the same again. Brahms, Berlioz, Bruckner, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Liszt, Wagner--how dated and timid they all seem beside this new, crisp sound. They are what they are, and wonderfully moving and profound, but superseded. 
For those who were present to see the performances of these ballets, the music was only one component. The dancing, the costumes and set design, the whole effect of the spectacle must have been overwhelming. Based programmatically upon Russian folk tales and ideas, they were intended to exploit these elements, against the traditional backdrop of the polite, mincing styles of the late Victorian stage. The Diaghilev ballets were muscular, acrobatic--the venue where the great Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky achieved his greatest fame. The coming together of these great talents--Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and set-designer Leon Bakst--was indeed a miraculous conjunction. As we move away from performances in time, we lose the sense of what the actual, integrated event meant, especially to those who saw it. Even if such an event can be recorded--in movies--we don't see it through those eyes, and hence the feeling--what it was like to have been there at that moment in history--is lost too.                            

                                                                              Leon Bakst: Firebird Ballerina, 1910

It's a clear progression--Firebird to Petrouchka to Rite. Impressionistic folk dream to puppet theatre ventriloquism to--primitivistic sex-and-death ritualistic tom-toms! Theodor Adorno has some helpful things, as usual, to say about Stravinsky's Rite of Spring:  

"Stravinsky made the sacrifice of a human being--and the leading dancer, no less--the subject of his central work The Rite of Spring...a sacrifice that is not so much dramatically interpreted as ritually accompanied by the music" [Adorno "On Jazz"]. "Stravinsky made dissonance, in contrast to its psychological function in Romanticism, a representation of extreme physical pain (The Rite of Spring), used it to break up the musical 'culture' through a dissociation of harmony in 'wrong notes,' [Adorno, "On New Music"]. 
It's difficult to imagine why the audience would be so violently engaged by a piece of music. Which may give a hint at how revolutionary this music must have seemed to their ears. With the radical and eccentric developments in post-War music behind us, it may seem quaint and amusing in retrospect. With the annunciation of 19th and early 20th Century scientific investigations into origins--natural selection, psychological dimensions (Freud), primitive myth (Fraser), social theory (Marx), and so on, it may have seemed to early audiences that a kind of crude, hysterical anti-utopian mystery-play was being foisted off as serious dramatic entertainment. Musically, the programmatic components were being exploited to evoke a dark, harrowing, pre-civilized past of tribal ritual and naturalistic, elemental forces.                     

                                                                                      Nijinsky, dancing Petrouchka

In Beethoven, the motive force of emotional power and psychological obsession emerges as an emphatic earnestness through classical formulae: Mozart's rounded delicacy and titillating perfection are raised to a new level of impatient insistence. Romanticism's fullness and richness of texture (Brahms, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Mussorgsky) achieves its apotheosis in Wagner and early Richard Strauss. Violence, hysteria, primitivism are unleashed in The Rite, with what to its first audiences seemed terrifying implication:

"The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start with the opening bassoon solo, the audience began to boo loudly due to the slight discord in the background notes behind the bassoon's opening melody. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance, and Stravinsky himself was so upset on account of its reception that he fled the theater in mid-scene, reportedly crying. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saens famously stormed out of the première (though Stravinsky later said "I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the premiere.") allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet's opening bars. Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience. Nijinsky stood on a chair, leaned out (far enough that Stravinsky had to grab his coat-tail), and shouted counts to the dancers, who were unable to hear the orchestra."

                                                                          Set Design from The Rite of  Spring

The disintegration of 19th Century musical ideas and assumptions finds one of its key expressions in Stravinsky's Rite. Stravinsky would go on to become the champion of a Neo-Classical Style, meanwhile incorporating aspects of jazz, degrees of dissonant and atonality, poly-tonality, folk and pop flavors, into his musical language. Rite of Spring may be seen as the central work not only of his career, but of the dawn of Modern 20th Century classical music. 

In my mind Le Sacre is associated with the work of Bartok, in particular, and of Janacek, and Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The daring and panache of decisive statement--or of irony, or ecstatic possession, or peasant simplicity, or complex mental ratiocination--unrestrained by niceties of the salon, the parlor or the boudoir. Stravinsky's three great ballets--created in just three years--record the rapid transformation of the classical approach to composition from the 19th to the 20th Centuries. Stravinsky's feat has never been repeated.      

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Straight Deadpan - Billy Bob Thornton's Masterpiece Sling Blade [1996]

Perhaps, not surprisingly, to my way of thinking, Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade [1996] reminded me of Jarmusch's Down By Law [1986] made just ten years before. Both films combined direction and screen writer, both were made in gritty black and white, and both had that verite edge to them, with low-life settings, and a persistent, lurking undertone of violence. Also, the central character in each--Thornton in Sling Blade, and Tom Waits in Down By Law--had deep, grumbling voices--in the case of Thornton's performance as Karl Childers, it was affected, a part of the portrait of the mentally disturbed ex-convict and murderer at the center of the film's action. Thornton isn't the first to have essayed the role of a kind of physical-mental freak--there have been many earlier attempts at this in the history of theatre and film, but few if them can have been as demanding, as uncomfortable, or, ultimately, as rewarding as this one. The performance required Thornton to protrude his lower jaw continuously during his scenes, in imitation of the retarded facial set of Childers. His voice modulation was easier to accomplish, but the whole task had very much the quality of a method acting exercise, in which the actor completely inhabits the mind of a lower order of behavior (not unlike John Malkovich's performance as Lenny in Of Mice and Men [1992]). I tend to think of performances like these as feats, or tours de force, in that they almost transcend the vehicle for which they're designed, like Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of Hannibal Lector. Ultimately, this becomes not an exercise in rote ventriloquism, but a study in gesture and verisimilitude. Thornton should undoubtedly have earned a Best Actor award for it, instead of the guy in Shine.                

The film, in addition, featured the work of young Lucas Black, a child star just bursting with talent; this was his first important movie role, and it set the tone for a whole career. Fans may remember that he also was in All the Pretty Horses [2000] and Crazy in Alabama [1999]. As the young rural Huck Finn rendition, here, he's perfectly in character, his native Georgia drawl fits right in. 

As a child, I had the occasion to know someone not completely unlike Karl Childers, someone whom I thought I understood, and felt a friendship with; in those days, I tended to take sides with underdogs, and underdogs is just what people like this inevitably become in the world, through rejection, contempt, and abuse. 


Thornton's film is a kind of morality play, in which a retarded killer is released back into the community, with all the suspicion and risk associated with that decision, who eventually prosecutes his own kind of "justice" by killing a deeply evil man, precipitating his permanent return to incarceration. Childers's affection and regard for the family which "adopts" him, is balanced by his inability to understand higher principles of forbearance. But Thornton's message seems clear: This is the Biblical style, where violence is done in the service of a greater good, by someone whose moral sense is right at that unsophisticated level of comprehension. 
And unlike Steinbeck's Lenny (in Of Mice and Men), Karl doesn't kill Doyle Hargraves for the wrong reasons: The final act is almost a ceremonial execution, as Karl, grunting with concentration, quietly announces "I'm goin kill'ya."  We feel that Doyle deserves this, even if we cannot condone Karl's behavior. It's a classic good-comes-from-evil morality play. 
I found the movie vastly entertaining, and Thornton's performance astonishing. Is the movie a cautionary reminder of the dangers of letting disordered souls into the world? Not really. Was it inevitable that Karl would "hurt" someone, without a logical motivation? Perhaps. But Thornton's message seems to be that understanding and care and persistent teaching can save such people from their own twisted, maimed inheritance. The movie works at that level too, quite amazing for a movie of such seemingly limited aims.           

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Buoyant Jingles & Liquid Fats -- Waller All the Way

Fats Waller (born Thomas Wright Waller in 1904) was precocious, musically, and began to play both the piano and the organ at an early age. Despite living only to the age of 39, he produced a wealth of jazz recordings and compositions, many of which are considered classics. Fats came of age right at threshold of the 1920's, and was thus positioned historically to participate in the flowering of the first great two decades of the Jazz Era.


Waller was primarily known as a pracitioner of "stride" piano style jazz, among a generation of innovators which included James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Art Tatum, as well as several later figures who also specialized in Boogie-Woogie. Stride is characterized by an "oom-pah" base figure in which the left hand bounces between a base note or "oomp" followed by a chord further up the scale, the "pah!" Playing stride is tough to master, because you can't concentrate on the movement and still play the melody and variations with the right hand. The left hand leaps back and forth, hitting the chords with authority, making a lovely jazz 4/4 rhythm for the right hand to dance around. There are variations on this basic format, but classic stride is about the "walking" or bouncing base. Rag-time--familiar in Scott Joplin tunes (made famous by the movie The Sting) also had a slower, more stately four beat walking base, but with less emphasis and less variation in the melodic arrangements.
Stride, as a style, was very exhibitionistic--its pracitioners vying for the fastest, most driven, assault on the keyboard. But Waller, unlike his contemporaries, had a deeply lyrical aptitude, and his pieces are much more tuneful than merely cadenza-like. Also, Waller was among the first to use small band groups to achieve a sound at once intimate, and large. Since he could do so much with the piano--make it growl, or slam, or twinkle, or flutter, he needed much less in the way of side-men to fill in the spaces. He was never essentially a band-leader in the way Ellington or Armstrong were--the use of brass and percussion to enhance an overwhelming keyboard, was a fairly new idea in the mid-1930's, but Waller did much to pioneer the small combo as a unified effect, innovations that later star jazz pianists would turn into a regular tradition (Cole, Brubeck, Peterson, Garner, Shearing, etc.).  

Waller was also something of a "novelty" performer, too, often making wise-cracks and asides during performances. This aura of silliness sometimes seems almost a self-deprecation, as if he felt he could only be accepted as something of a ham, instead of a serious composer and arranger. Waller basically has three modes: Ecstatic delight, mugging madcap, and deep blues (which can be seen in his early performances on the organ). Waller's career bridges the era between small-time "joint" gigs, and the larger audience available through recordings. His style is suited to small, intimate settings, but it's big enough to hold its own in a concert hall.  

Dick Hyman has made recorded "perfected" performances of most of Waller's biggest hits, and these clarified versions--though a trifle academic--are the best contemporary interpretations, for my money. But the vintage sets, most of which are still available in later media (such as CD) give a strong sense of what a live Fats session must have been like. Waller was a boisterous man, a big eater and drinker, full of lively humor and irreverent charm, and that comes through as well. 

Waller's innocent sweetness, and his sense of fun, are perfect antidotes to some of the grim, bleak, alienated sounds of Fifties and Sixties jazz. Waller died in 1943, just when Big Band Swing was at its height, at the very young age of 39. It's probably idle to imagine what he might have become, had he lived another 20 years, into the 1950's. His style seems to belong to another era. America is lucky to have had such talent in its midst. Where is this exuberance and sweetness today?     

Poetry & Friendship--Connectedness & Originality


There's a charming anecdote about Larkin and Amis from the old days. After they'd both achieved some recognition, both as writers of verse and fiction, these two long-time friends enjoyed getting together, drinking, and making up scatological limericks. What good limericks aren't dirty, you ask? The question I'm inquiring about is the effect friendship has on creativity, and the consequences of confusing friendship with other qualities (or values), such as inspiration, or importance, or opportunity.

It takes both skill and a sense of naughty fun to make up dirty limericks on the run, and when you're good and drunk it can lead to unbridled hilarity. Collaboration may rear its ugly head, as well, as alternative lines are proposed and vanquished by even more outrageous (and ingenious) inventions. Amis and Larkin, two of Britain's best-known and most popular writers (Larkin eventually became his country's favorite poet, whilst Amis more or less abandoned poetry to pursue the writing of popular comic novels, for which he demonstrated a considerable facility; both had long careers; Amis was never more, really, than a witty light verse "practitioner"), would not have believed that their respective talents would benefit from a mutual association, either "professionally" (in academia or publishing), or creatively (in assisting in or managing each others' writing careers). They were too smart to think that. 

The history of literature is filled with examples of the effect of influence of one writer upon another, or of writers being associated with a certain style or conceit (usually invented or perfected by a single, dominant individual voice). The first generation of New York School poets were famously friends for the first decades of their careers, wrote "to" each other, and often thought of their works as a sort of extended aesthetic colloquy upon common themes--especially, in the case of those four (Ashbery, O'Hara, Koch and Schuyler)--in relation to painting and the plastic arts. Living in New York may seem, at times, like inhabiting a small country in which everything of importance is happening right in your extended neighborhood, particularly among those who may be of the same generation, or interact socially. But the phenomenon is not confined to the metropolis: Black Mountain participants have shown an equivalent brand of stubborn solidarity, over the years, protecting and preserving their franchise through thick and thin.   

The Second Generation of The New York School carried this idea of coterie to new levels, through co-habitation, active compositional collaboration--multiple writers of a single text, or writers and artists collaborating on joint projects--and shared favors (publishing each others' work, promoting their friends' careers, and generally pretending that only people they knew and enjoyed, were doing, or could do, work of importance). This chumminess was a redefinition of the value of literary friendship: The idea that simply by insisting, through a single-minded concentration on the work and reputation of your friends, you could build a constituency (or "fame") and get along in the world. Parenthetically, the mood of the times (Andy Warhol's perception of the meaning and power of media to shape "image" and "personality") seemed linked to this idea of gratuitous literary-social climbing. Fascist propaganda techniques perfected during the 1930's insisted that "truth" (as with Orwell's cautionary vision of a future of manipulated news) was indeed relative to power, the ability to prevail, to bury opposition simply by yelling louder, and longer.  

The obvious risk in seeking to place friendship--and the welfare or advancement of friends--before the value of art, is that one may either become literally deluded about the quality of one's own (or one's friends') work, or that one's own reputation (or judgment in taste) may be compromised. The creation of a circle of "us" versus the world (all other aspirants to the title of artist or writer) of "them" can lead to confusions of all kinds, as the tapestry of literary history unfolds. 

Serious criticism is about the application of principles from an objective exterior to a work conceived from inside out. If criticism is allowed to be the expression of the profile of affection, concern and familiarity, instead of objective standards, it becomes nothing more than a kind of informed gossip. It may be possible to "know too much" about the intimate life and progress of a writer, preventing one from seeing clearly what is either perfectly obvious, or inconveniently troubling about a work. Any one who sets up as critic needs to restrain the impulse to promote friends, even if attempting to do so in an objective way. This is a continual problem I see over at Silliman's blog (though he by no means is alone in this), that of believing, as he appears to, that those with whom he has been actively "associated" over the years, or whose work he knew from its inception, deserve a special position, that those people, indeed, are the very best of all. There is a certain bogus security and warmth in being faithful and deferential to old friends: Like the two old cantankerous Irish poets, drinking at the same pub for 50 years, who'd never dream of dissing each others' efforts in print. 
Silliman appears to accept the a priori idea of a corrupted marketplace of ideas, in which the insistence upon a contrarian claim--no matter how genuine or valid--constitutes a responsible function in the historical dialectic of competing interests, which may in part account for the absurdity and extremity of some of his assertions. Readers of his blog might feel more inclined to believe his high praise of Armantrout, for instance, if he hadn't overpraised the work of an imagined compatriot in the interests of a political correctness in the lit'ry wars. Each of us, no matter what our reputation, only has so much literary "capital" to spend. Better to save your praise for those who really merit it, than throw it away on secondary work simply because you think it has its heart on the correct side of the chest cavity.          

Which may be one crucial argument against poets writing criticism. Randall Jarrell was notoriously "hard" on his fellow writers. Poets, even those who venerated his judgment, loathed going under the scalpel of his scrutiny, fearing the worst. But that is exactly the quality of honesty, of disinterested regard that we cherish in the greatest critics. When the critic gets too "close" to his subject (like Mencken telling us how monumental Dreiser is), there is always the danger of fake praise, of declining to offend, of withholding honest reaction in favor of mild non-commitment. But it's always a mistake. Unearned praise, like inflated currency, has little value.  

Any critic who actually believes that his friends are always better than all the others does not deserve the credential. His judgment is unreliable, slanted, biased. We read criticism to determine how to understand, to place, and to value art. We read history to find out what happened, and why, and biography to find out what happened to whom. The trouble comes when we conflate these genres, confusing the life with the work, or ambition with judgment, or friendship with value.                            


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Silence and Hannibal - The Hypnotic Fascination with Bestiality

The success of the Hannibal Lector series of films is reminiscent of the hoary old days of The Phantom of the Opera [1925], The Hunchback of Notre Dame [1939, 1996], and Elephant Man [1980]. The public fascination with a demonic perpetrator, bizarre obsession (including sadomasochism and torture), and lurid physical deformity, are all combined in this nifty franchise of films, each so far based on the novels of Thomas Harris [Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Hannibal (1999), and Hannibal Rising (2006)].     

Anthony Hopkins, who has so far starred in three of these films, as the mad psychiatrist and cannibal royal, is a powerful actor, trained in the British theater system, so his career has not been dominated by the role, though it's likely he'll be identified more and more, as time goes on, with the character he brought to life in these films.  

As demonic "monsters" go, Hannibal Lector is perhaps uniquely secular in his persuasion. Previous demonic monsters like Dracula, or Mr. Hyde, or Jack the Ripper, usually were conceived within a religious cosmology, in which evil is the result of a "fallen" angel prototype, an effect which tends to redeem the intensity and purity of the violence or malignancy, by holding out the prospect of divine prevalence. 

Harris's Lector, on the contrary, seems to derive his demonic obsession from pure animal drives, as if he were returning to some ur-cannibalism of our distant tribal ancestors. Indeed, he seems to glory in the brute manifestation of his raw emotion, as if in primitive celebration of the rites of blood and sacrifice. He thinks of himself as cultivating in himself these uninhibited instinctual drives, in the same way he indulges his love of music, painting, scents, and good food and drink. He equates living well, with expressing his aggressions to the hilt. 

In a cultured society, primitive emotion and violence are controlled, or kept at bay, through law and custom and training. Hannibal subscribes superficially to these limitations, only so far as they permit him to exercise his faculties at large: He doesn't bear others any generic malice, but feels justified--in his personal code of behavior--in doing violence to those whom he despises, or whom he feels stand in the way of a higher perfection. Obviously, this is a selfish vision, but selfishness is precisely what Lector believes in. Life is conflict. It may be glossed over, or concealed, or mocked, but human kind is no less competitive, when you come down to it, than other living creatures. 

Do humans possess deeper natures of self-preservation and ambition and malevolence, that can be tapped, or cultivated, or which may rise unpredictably in moments of stress or excitement. Hannibal clearly experiences his own violent tendencies as a kind of drug; he's a truer manifestation of the hunter-archetype, though without affiliations. He's the modern cowboy cannibal, alone, unique, and driven.     

In all three movies (I've not yet seen Hannibal Rising [2007] (which documents Hannibal's earlier life), there are varying degrees of gratuitous violence and disfigurement, which appears to fulfill the audience's vicarious attraction to lurid subject-matter, apart from the central plot device of the chase and the hunt. In The Silence of the Lambs, this glorification of disfigurement is performed by the psychopath Jamie Gum (the "Buffalo Bill") whose discovery and capture is the pretext for the ostensible action in the film. Buffalo Bill's bizarre desire is to transform himself into a woman, by symbolically skinning his oversized women victims and making himself a real human skin "suit" from their bodies. In Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde disfigures his victims (and their families) after performing sexual acts on their dead bodies, putting shards of glass mirrors in their eye-sockets. These proto-ceremonial acts function as "creative" expressions of primitive nature, but are wholly eccentric, unconnected to any larger meaning within the group. They are isolate, and pathetic, though they may seem necessary, even heroic, to the perpetrators.

Much has been made of the "attraction" of Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal portrayal, of the almost superhuman intensity of his force. Hopkins's ability to convey this aura of the supernatural raises the quality of the narrative far above the level of the drive-in slasher/chainsaw/Friday 13th sludge that caters to the mod-teen crowd. Lector sees himself as belonging to a society of value and behavior which includes Italian Renaissance royalty, of intrigue, plots, geniuses of art and music and literature--as if the sublime in aesthetics were on an equal footing (an equal plane) with the fevers of the blood, well-crafted murders, and the unchecked passions of desire. Hopkins is able to bring this off through the subtlety of his gesture, employing the full range of his gifts. It's the perfect appropriation of his dramatic skills to the demands of cinematic timing and compression. What other actor of similar skills could bring it off--John Malkovich? or...who else, among those presently in the business, possesses a similar complex energy? One name--ironically--comes to mind. Ironically, because Gary Oldman also stars in Hannibal, as Mason Verger, the rich Gay playboy whom Lector seduced into slicing off his face while high on laughing gas. Oldman did wonderful turns as Count Dracula (in Bram Stoker's Dracula [1992], and as the demonic Russian hijacker in Air Force One [1997], and in countless other unusual and challenging character parts.                        


I for one would feel cheated, if Harris can't write at least one more juicy episode for Anthony Hopkins to play. It may have seemed disappointing to see Jody Foster depart after only one try at Clarice Starling (lord how I hated Julianne Moore in the other one!), but it was clearly Hopkins who was the whole point of the movie. Having created this great, complex character, and having found a great actor to play the part, what a shame it would be to lower the curtain now.

George Tice - Eclectic post-Modern Photographer

George Tice [1938-] occupies a position, historically, that follows closely the Second Generation of photographers in a sequence that begins roughly with the F64 Group (which included Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Alma Levenson, Brett Weston, and a half dozen others), Dorothea Lange and Paul Strand, in the early Thirties, followed by a second wave that included Morley Baer, Brett Weston (again), Don Worth, Wright Morris, Paul Caponigro, Wynn Bullock, and Harry Callahan, among others). There is naturally some overlap--you could make a case that the first generation came to maturity before World War II, the second group after. A third generation, born in the late 1930's, or early '40's, would undoubtedly include George Tice.    

                                                          Car For Sale, Paterson, New Jersey, 1969

Tice, a New Jersey native, picked up the full range of influences and suggestions from these preceding generations, including sharp focus large format refined black and white imaging, regional documentation, social realism and hard-edged gritty urban photo-journalism, etc. Tice mastered all these genres, creating an impressive total oeuvre that spans fifty years of activity, celebrated in some two dozen books and countless exhibitions.          
                                                       Passaic Falls, Patereson, New Jersey, 1967
Tice grew up and lives in Paterson, New Jersey, which was where William Carlos Williams lived and worked, and celebrated in many individual poems, as well as in his epic poem Paterson [1946-1963], which deals explicitly with this classic tough, industrial, immigrant community, rich in diversity. As such, much of Tice's work has the effect of a kind of photographic documentation of Williams's work. It wouldn't be out of the question to imagine that their separate efforts, separated by some 20-25 years, may come to be associated with each other.  

                                                   Two Amish Boys, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1962

Perhaps Tice's most famous images are his Amish photographs, primarily done in the 1960's, when he began to visit these traditional Pennsylvania settlements, mixing images of the countryside and buildings, with candid shots of the people, their children, and the way of life they pursued--a retrogressive enclave persevering inside the modern world of stream-lined technology and glib disinterest. The justly iconic image above, of two Amish boys, ambling along a country road in the late afternoon, has a kind of nostalgic grandeur which is as evocative as any shot of its kind in the history of photography. 
                                                      Rock Wall, Mount Desert Island, Maine, 1970
Tice follows in the 'supreme instants' tradition of Weston pere et fils in his exquisitely realized abstractions of nature, often taken somewhat improbably near his New Jersey home (though he has naturally traveled widely, primarily in the U.S., in his quest for subject-matter). The rock face above, and the delicate long-scale image of the oak, are singular examples of his nature images.   
                                                             Oak Tree, Holmdel, New Jersey, 1970

Tice's work falls well within the straight imaging tradition. His work is understated, calm, contemplative. Man co-exists within a compromised environment of urban industrial development, and a lyrical nature which lies just outside the boundaries of our daily grind. Beauty is where you find it, and you have to be open to the possibility, anywhere, at any moment. It may not cry out to you for recognition; you must be alert for it, and be prepared to appreciate it, transform it, present it in its raw external manifestation. 

This was largely Williams's milieu as well. The broken pieces of green bottle glass strewn across an ignored alley-way; the white polluted foam roaring over the gaunt rock of Passaic Falls; the Puerto Rican mother giving birth to a tenth child in a dingy tenement. Things as they are, not as we imagine they should be. Change and re-birth. Decay and fleeting instants. Albums of sentiment and screens of reality. Water and oil. Tar and whitewash. Silver and coal. Energy and exhaustion. Life and death. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

49rs' True Character - Don't Have a Clue

                                                                                                      49ers Patrick Willis

The 49ers latest win against the hapless Chicago Bears raises more questions than it answers. I expected the 49ers to win, given that the Bears have a very weak defense, and the 49ers have what appears to be (despite the Atlanta debacle) one of the best defenses in the league, strong against the run, and very good against the pass.

Last night, the problem appeared to me to be the offensive game plan. Singletary had insisted over and over again that he wanted a traditional ground-game based offense, emphasizing a straight-up, up-the-middle approach, with Gore hitting off left or right tackle on 70% of the plays. Using the run to set up passes. The season began with Hill at quarterback; his season stats bore out the overall strategy, and the offense was effective, if quite conservative, in its first 4 games. Following a poor showing against Atlanta in week 5, coach changed horses in the second half of game 6, and has stayed with Smith ever since, completely abandoning his original strategy to suit Smith's different skill-set. But the team's offensive coordinator seems not to have gotten the message. Jimmy Ray's game plan last night stunk. The 49ers gained a total of 216 net yards, against 350 for the Bears. Had Bears quarterback Jay Cutler not thrown 5 (!) interceptions, the Bears would almost certainly have won handily. 

The frightening thing, when you look at the character of the teams the 49ers have played the last two weeks, is how mediocre the competition has been. These are teams, at least on paper, the 49ers should beat by thirty points! With Crabtree and Davis, Gore, a wide-open passer like Smith at the helm, this team should roll over quotidian defenses. But they don't. What's the answer?

1) Smith still remains undeveloped. A head case. He seems to lack the important skills to succeed as an NFL QB. He has poor eyes downfield, he has poor "sense" of the rush, he often seems unfocused, as if his mind wasn't really in the game. When he's in, the team lacks punch, desire. He's uninspiring. The look on his face, in the huddle, on the sidelines, is blank. Where's his attention? Maybe he needs therapy.      

2) The offensive game plan needs an overhaul. Running Gore up the middle on first and second down, then trying sideline or quick slants on 3rd, over and over, game after game, is a bust. No team that can't put up 250 yards passing in a game, will have much of a chance to win. This isn't an era when 175 yards rushing with 175 yards passing, in a game, will get it done. Almost any team can score in a minute and a half--so playing to win by 2 or 3 points in close, low-scoring, games is a recipe for disaster. Had Cutler not folded on the last play of the game last night, the 49ers would probably be staring defeat in the face again. 

The true score--the score that the respective teams "earned" based on their actual performance, minus turnovers--was Bears 28, 49ers 13. But you can't depend upon turnovers by the opposition to win. The 49ers played miserably on offense. The 49ers have a superior defense, but you can't expect them to hold other teams to a couple of field goals--that's just unreasonable. 

You'll take wins any way you can get them, but this wasn't really a win. It was luck. God help this team when it goes against Green Bay, Arizona and Philadelphia. Ironically, the team seems to play at a level that matches its competition (except in the Rams game). Any time you get five interceptions in a game, you have to win going away, not squeak through.  

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Don Julio Anejo 1942 - A World Class Tequila

Anejo tequila is the aged version of tequila, put down in oak barrels in much the same way that other spirits and wines are the world over. Don Julio Gonzales, a major Mexican tequila producer, has been making cactus spirits since 1942. He named this Anejo (meaning "aged tequila" [at least 1 but no more than 3 years in the barrel]) "1942" to designate its uniqueness. 

Traditionally, tequila was a peasants' libation, hot, dry, with a rather leathery-grassy flavor. Taken with lime, or salt, to "cut" its dryness. Lately, makers have been experimenting with the spirit, treating it in much the same way that distillers of scotch or bourbon or brandy do, aging it for varying lengths of time in oak to create more complex adaptations of its signature base flavor. 

Don Julio Anejo 1942 has a light honey golden hue, a rich burnt sugar and almond nose, and a flavor which is a combination of caramel, chocolate syrup, flamed cherry, and rose-water. The underlying agave taste is masked, which puts some tasters off, complaining that it isn't a "true tequila" since the flavor of the plant is not emphasized. But the same could be true of any aged spirit. Do people complain that Lagavulin doesn't taste enough like its core barley component? That would be silly. 

Don Julio Anejo 1942 can be drunk as an aperitif, with food (as I do, with tapas), or as a finish to a meal. Or even as a night-cap. It rivals some of the greatest scotches for strength and character. This may be a harbinger of the future for tequila, as it undergoes transformations down through time. In the history of spirits, its elaboration and appreciation has really just begun.         

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lewis Turco & The Workshop System - A Test

In my sojourns around the country hunting for collectible books to trade, I recently happened upon a copy of the poet Lewis Turco's first book, First Poems [Francestown, New Hampshire, The Golden Quill Press, Publishers, 1960]. I knew Turco's name well, having encountered his poems in countless periodicals over the years. He seemed to be the darling of poetry journals, such that it may have seemed that Turco had mastered the metier of the ideal magazine poem. Not the perfect New Yorker poem, or the perfect Paris Review poem, perhaps, but the poem of the academic quarterlies, which once constituted the platform of acceptance in a system of trial and initiation. 


Turco's work--and this book--its format, its neat politeness, its formal presentation--with its brief "Forward" by Donald Justice, no less (who, I must presume, was one of Turco's teachers at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop)--indeed, Justice had hardly published his own first trade collection, The Summer Anniversaries [Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1960], at the moment he was writing the ''Forward"--as Justice, certainly one of the greatest stars in the Iowa Workshop firmament of graduate-teaching-assistant-poets--would certainly represent the true spirit of that institution--its purpose, its meaning, its expression, its perpetuation as a social/political/literary/academic vehicle--so seeing this book of Turco's brought me immediately face to face with an artifact of literary history: A moment in which the hegemony and influence of the Iowa Workshop as a literary and academic force in the world of letters may have been--oh, surely, was!--at its height.    

First Poems, as an artifact of a certain set of presumptions and cliches, not just of poetry, but of book-making and presentation of text, has a characteristic purity and specificity which captures a whole period and style of literary activity, one which from this perspective, circa 2009, might strike one as extraordinarily dated. As opposed to "timeless" against which the temporality of a "living literature" might be posited. 

As an exercise--or a demonstration--of the modes of formality, let me quote the jacket blurb of this book, in its entirety:

   These poems, modestly labeled "first," certainly will not be the last from Lewis Turco. He notes that they reflect an experimental period in his development, emphasizing his concern for "technique, sound, thought, language, and the host of detail which any craftsman must master." In spite of his youth--he is only twenty-six--he has already mastered that technique and acquired a virtuosity which glides easily over the intricacies of ancient verse forms, and the subtleties of modern ones, besides inventing a few of his own.
   Yet there is much more to his verse than mere technical proficiency. He insists that facility with language should be subservient to clarity of meaning; and what is meaningful to Turco concerns people, their lives and emotions. Hence the moving quality of his character sketches, in which a caustic wit, and sometimes youthful impudence, are softened by genuine compassion.

   This winnowing of his best early poems marks the synthesis of his technical experimentation, the development of a style of his own, and the direction of his future work. "Crow," which he calls a pivotal poem of his collection, hints the trend of his next book, Raceway and Other Poems, already written and recorded for the American Poets Collection of the Library of Congress.

   The Editors of the Book Club for Poetry are excited over this young poet and his predictable future.  Indeed, anyone who is not excited after reading this book does not deserve a real poet!

   Readers curious about the person behind the poems will find his vital statistics comparatively unexciting:--Born in Buffalo, the son of an Italian Baptist minister, he grew uup in Connecticut, enlisted in the Navy, and after his term of duty (which he seems to have spent mainly in learning the technique of verse writing) married Jean Houdlette, a hometown girl, and entered the University of Connecticut. Graduating in three years, he taught a term there, and then went to the University of Iowa as a graduate fellow, where he is now a member of the Writer's Workshop and studying for his M.A. in English.

The Book Club for Poetry, it turns out, was an organization of the publisher, Golden Quill Press, comprised of a committee of three, which chose the books for publication from among submissions--presumably in the manner of a contest. 

As an exercise, it's useful to note the underlying presumptions behind the implied judgments in this blurb--"mastered that technique" "acquired a virtuosity" "glides easily over the intricacies of ancient verse forms" "technical proficiency" "the synthesis of technical experimentation" "the development of a style"--all descriptive phrases which originate in a concept of poetry which takes the imitation of traditional forms and patterns as a given, at least for the beginning apprentice. Turco's "mastery" of traditional form was acquired through "experimentation"--not an experimentation with new or different form, but with rhyme and meter as numerical or linguistic variation, a preoccupation that would characterize his poetry and his thinking about poetry for the rest of his life (Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms, University Press of New England, 1986--a compendium of the categories and variation of poetic techniques).

Let's quote the full text of Donald Justice's "Forward" to the book, to see what it might tell about the meaning of Turco's talent, as seen through the eyes of his mentor/teacher at Iowa:

   These are the poems Lew Turco wrote in his early twenties, while he was trying out his talent, seeing which way it wanted to go, and one of the interests they are likely to have for the future is that of a literary record, the record of a poet's initiation into the rites of the craft.

   There is a good deal here of what some people call versifying, meaning something unpleasant, perhaps. It is as if the poet had come across a handbook on versification and set himself to working out the problems there, as the student of mathematics might do, a process sure to appall the tender-minded. The models to be found in such handbooks are, to be sure, appalling enough, clever at best and very soft. But Mr. Turco is not soft and he is very clever. One is reminded less of the H.C. Bunners of this world than of someone like Hardy, that great versifier who was also, at times, a great poet. There is something of Hardy's approach to poetry here, not that of the gloomy philosopher, but of the poet who set himself repeatedly the most trying technical problems and in solving them took and gave pleasure both.

   For part of Lewis Turco's exuberance, which is everywhere in evidence, is a matter of technique. No reader can avoid noticing the variety of forms here. There are sapphics, several of the French forms, sonnets, syllabics, and a number of what this young poet, who originated the form, calls "triversens," or triple-verse-sentences; curiously, no villanelles, no sestinas--fashionable forms at the moment. The result of all this is, on occasion, a highly agreeable kind of showing off, not far from the young Rimbaud's when he chose to make a refrain out of that impossible line, Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques.

   A bright and productive future is the easiest thing in the world to predict for Lew Turco, who is just turning twenty-six. Meanwhile, reading this book is a little like listening to a gifted musician practicing scales, arpeggios, and the sonatas of Clementi. Very pleasant to hear, of course, and I think most of us will want to take tickets for the concert.

   Donald Justice
   Iowa City, Iowa
   April 3, 1960

By the age of 26, then, Turco had managed to place his poems in dozens of the then reigning periodicals of the day, including Antioch Review, Carleton Miscellany, Kenyon REview, New Orleans Poetry Journal, San Francisco Review, Shenandoah, etc. Dozens and dozens more would follow throughout his life. Justice's short note, as always, is ironically diffident, damning with faint praise, while placing Turco, alongside himself, in the company of poets for whom a knowledge of complex and varied traditional forms is at least a prerequisite to serious composition. In short, Turco was one of the Workshop's prize students of that day (1960), the inheritor of a critical and editorial brand of writing which had dominated American (and British) verse since World War II. Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, W.D. Snodgrass, John Berryman, Anthony Hecht, Mona Van Duyn, Philip Levine had all taught or been students there in the 1940's-50's. It seems fair to say that the dominant trend of poetic theory and writing in the 15 years leading up to the publication of Turco's First Poems was primarily formalistic. The Formalists had won the day, though their time would soon come to a close, as the 1960's ushered in a disintegration of this hegemony of publication, editorial opinion, and academic preoccupation. It was in 1960 that Donald Allen's New American Poetry hit the stalls, a harbinger of convulsive change. 
Here's a poem from Turco's book, typical in many respects of the collection as a whole, both in its formal play, trite tone, and in its showy, knowing manner. 
Sophia chatters.
  Time goes down in mirrors,
For nothing matters.
Horace listens while
  Sophia chatters.
    Time goes down in mirrors,
  For nothing matters;
Hence, his worldly smile.
The phonograph spins out its tune.
  Horace listens while
    Sophia chatters.
      Time goes down in mirrors,
    For nothing matters.
  Hence, his worldly smile:
The pair will love each other soon.
Outdoors, the shadows listen as
  The phonograph spins out its tune.
    Horace listens while
      Sophia chatters.
        Time goes down in mirrors,
      For nothing matters;
    Hence: his worldly smile.
  The pair will love each other soon,
Their movements metronomed by jazz.
        Sophia chatters.
      Horace listens while
    The phonograph spins out its tune.
  Outdoors the shadows listen as
Time goes down in mirrors.
  Their movements metronomed by jazz,
    The pair will love each other soon.
      Hence! his worldly smile...,
        For nothing matters. 
I think it would not be too much to claim that the workshop system of the 1950's actually encouraged this kind of writing, inasmuch as the emphasis upon the mastery of "traditional forms" was deemed to represent both a useful qualification and a healthy exercise for the poet bent on achieving public recognition, and the possibility of academic placement. Once you'd mastered (demonstrated) an ability to "fill" empty forms with grammatically correct speech, and managed to make some kind of resonant sense (however trivial), you were then "ready" to talk of important things, and to "say" what you'd now be entitled (and trained) to say, in verse. As Justice says in his Forward, "one of the interests they [the poems] are likely to have for the future is that of a literary record, the record of a poet's initiation into the rites of the craft." In other words, the correct path of approach to the role of poet in mid-Century America, is by way of an "initiation" into the "rites of the craft" (i.e., the proper imitation, the practice and performance of formal patterns from the history of poetry).
Is it an exaggeration to suggest that the workshop system, as well as the periodical and publication editorial establishment (along with the grants/awards/contests systems), have always functioned together, mutually reinforcing each other, in a tacit combination of judgment and encouragement designed to preserve a narrow definition of the kind of poetry which a master-apprentice relationship sets up? 
The narrow definition of English verse which comes down through the university and college system in the 20th Century--for the first time, really, in an academic, as opposed to an aesthetically "secular" medium--dominates our literary scene, certainly until well towards the end of the millennium. Isn't it possible, too, that the very institutional habits which produced apprentice-work, like Turco's (in 1960), exists today? We tend to think that our age, our era, is enlightened by comparison with earlier times and styles. Fashions do change, but do they change according to influences and discoveries from within, or without the dominant institutional channels which govern public taste and awareness? 
With Jorie Graham and Lyn Hejinian recently instructing at the Iowa Workshop, we tend to think that there has taken place a turnover, of an attitude and an approach to composition, which these poets' presence and position suggests, demonstrating (signifies) a dramatic change in the way that literature, as an activity and practice, is perceived. But does it? Institutional systems like the Iowa Workshop are designed to function as continuing programs, self-contained, self-referential, in perpetuity. The superficial styles of writing considered as models may change somewhat, but the meaning of the process does not. 
True original writing does not require a workshop setting. As the example of Turco shows, his discrete, playful interest in formal shapes--"practicing scales" like Clementi--preceded his participation in the workshop, but he was cycled through it precisely because his approach was formalist, not formally experimental. What workshop writers "look for" in probable applicants--as in probable faculty--is a "demonstrated" skill. That skill may be in writing palindromes or haiku or villanelles--or even in making "accidental" poems from chance methods (which often look and sound quite predictable), but the criteria under which such a system functions doesn't change. The means by which formal innovation is carried out, does not, cannot, by definition and practice, occur within an institutional setting. All these facilities do is capture available stereotypes of established use, perhaps offering convenient opportunities for comparison and evaluation of the past. Whatever is "taught" at a place like the Iowa Workshop isn't new writing--it's old writing, writing of 10, 20, 50, 100 years ago. As much as we might like to think that this year's workshop instructors and students are struggling against the confines of the given, to achieve an originality of expression and utterance, to "make it new" (in the famous injunction by Pound), it's inevitable that the system under which they labor legislates against any kind of innovation. That's why the avant garde and the classroom forever repel each other.