From Louis Proyect’s appreciation of the new Barney Rosset documentary:
Available on home video on February 10th, “Obscene” helps prove a point that I have made repeatedly, namely that the old left of the 1930s was midwife to both the beat generation and the political radicalization and counter-culture of the 1960s.
Focused on the career of Barney Rosset, who founded Grove Press and published Evergreen Review, this superb documentary reveals how it was completely natural for a member of the Young Communists in 1937 to eventually end up publishing not only “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” and “Tropic of Cancer” in defiance of the Calvinist censorship laws of the 1950s, but to also print the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” in defiance of the racist attitudes that prevailed in American publishing.
Read it at Louis’s blog, The Unrepentant Marxist.
On the other hand, over at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Kenneth Goldsmith has recently argued that the Depression era – glory days of the Popular Front – resulted in “the exile of adventurous art.” While acknowledging Brecht’s maxim that “it’s always a bad time for poetry,” Goldsmith sees some times as worse than others for the avant-garde, with the 30s in particular representing a period when
intelligibility wiped innovation off the map: when Aaron Copland's populism trumped the ultramodernism of Edgard Varèse and Henry Cowell; when the avant-European aesthetic of Alfred Steiglitz was pushed aside in favor of American regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton; or when the radical typographical investigations of E.E. Cummings were decimated by Archibald MacLeish who, according to Al Filreis (author of the indispensable Counter-Revolution of the Word), was the poet people turned to when they wanted verse to explain democracy to them. It pretty much derailed the avant-garde in the United States for two-and-a-half decades, until the mid-1950s, when the likes of Cage, Greenberg, The Beats and The Objectivists began to pick up where the avant-gardists of the 1920s left off. A lot of good was tossed out. One example that comes to mind was the multicultural -- yet ultramodern -- efforts of the Pan-American Association of Composers (which included Latino composers such as Carlos Chavez and Amadeo Roldán as well as their American counterparts) was dismantled and effectually blacklisted. It killed the career of someone like Nicolas Slonimsky, whose advocacy of challenging music created such controversy in early 30s, that he was banished entirely from conducting.
A new economic downtown, Goldsmith suggests, may bode equally ill for adventurous art. In his usual (and quite welcome) spirit of provocation, he concludes with a reference to Charles Bernstein’s recent parodic confession of surrender to the poetry establishment, Recantorium, which in the short term of its existence has, Goldsmith projects, gone from possibly hyperbolic jeu d’esprit to “eerily prescient” foreshadowing of hard times to come.
Speaking of Evergreen Review, I found an old copy (March-April 1961) in a used bookstore the other day and bought it, mostly for a Samuel Beckett translation of Robert Pinget's The Old Tune. But it also contained this:
So far as we know, poetry cannot be made out of just anything: it does not always lend itself. It has its scruples and a certain . . . standing. To steal its substance involves certain risks: nothing could be flimsier transplanted into narrative. We are familiar with the bastard character of the novel drawing its inspiration from the romantic, symbolist, or surrealist schools. As a matter of fact, the novel, a usurper by vocation, has not hesitated to appropriate methods belonging to essentially poetic movements. Impure by its very adaptability, it has lived, it lives by fraud and pillage, has sold itself to every cause: it is the streetwalker of literature. What shame could embarrass it, what intimacy would it hesitate to betray? It forages in ashcans and consciences with equal ease. The novelist, whose art consists of auscultation and apocrypha, transforms our reticence into gossip columns. Even as a misanthrope he has a passion for what is human: he wallows in it. What a pathetic figure he cuts beside the mystics with their madness, their “inhumanity”! And then, after all, God is of a different class. We can conceive of bothering about Him. But I cannot comprehend our attachment to beings. I dream of the depths of the Ungrund, the matter anterior to the corruptions of time, and whose solitude, superior to God, will forever separate me from myself and from my kind, from the language of love, from the prolixity that results from our curiosity about other people. If I attack the novelist, it is because, working on whatever material comes to hand, on us all, he is and must be more talkative than we. On one point, let us do him justice: he has the courage of dilution. His productivity, his power are won at that price. There is no epic talent without a science of banality, without the instinct for the inessential, for the accessory and the minute. Page after page, for pages and pages: the accumulation of inconsequence. If the catalog poem is an aberration, the catalog novel, the roman-fleuve, was inscribed in the very laws of the genre. Words, words, words . . . Hamlet must have been reading a novel.
While Goldsmith has surely proved that poetry can be made out of "just anything," as a summation of the novel these words still ring true. “The accumulation of inconsequence” – that about says it all, doesn’t it? And it rhymes with incontinence.
Are we there yet?