Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Joshua Clover gave two talks at a poetry conference Saturday, and Sunday he posted links to PDFs of them. One pissed me off; the other was OK but got something interesting wrong.

He’s a skilled rhetorician. I enjoy reading him in precisely the same way I enjoy reading George F. Will: They’re both very smart, they’re both very skilled, they’re both very mean, and they’re both very wrong; and apparently I love that adrenalized pissed-off feeling that comes from reading their slick bile. To Joshua’s credit, he can be funnier than Will, and his second talk, on the Paris-Hilton-ization of poetry as proposed by a poet named John Barr, is witty and clever.

It’s his talk on politics that is full of historical horse-hockey, where he vehemently gets things so half-right that he’s substantively wrong. I must give him credit for stick-to-it-iveness, as he’s still trying to make the case for not voting. Here’s his main point and his major error:

Civil rights and the 40-hour work-week, to choose two obvious examples -- these things did not come out of formal voting. Historical change has happened over and over, in all kinds of places and times including the modern United States, through refusing the ballot box.

This is precisely half right. Taking it to the streets (as the Doobie Brothers would say) has been an indispensible component of social change. But without a nominally sympathetic governing party, neither the 40-hour-work week nor the Civil Rights Act would have come to be; and as a historical fact, the Republican Party (in the first instance) and the historical ancestor of the modern Republican Party, a coalition of conservative Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats (in the 2nd instance), vigorously opposed both laws.

I’m bitterly disappointed in the Democrats’ continued culpability in the continuing war in Iraq, and their refusal to begin impeachment hearings for lying to Congress, but the fact remains that a Democratic President would not have invaded Iraq in the first place. On any of a host of issues, from birth control to voting rights to wages -- what Joshua calls “content” -- the Democrats are substantively, materially, institutionally better. Putting all one’s eggs in the activism basket will get you nothing if you don’t have an “inside” game going on as well. This is not to criticize the activist life, not at all -- it is necessary.

Joshua’s blunder in his talk on poetics is comparatively minor. He’s a professor of English specializing in poetry and poetics, and he got a brief mention of a 20th-century poetic milestone wrong.

From 1928 to 1968 Louis Zukofsky wrote his magnum opus -- “A” -- in 24 sections. He based the intricately patterned stanzas of “A”-9 on the famous Canzone “Donna mi pregga” by Dante’s friend Guido Cavalcanti. Zukofsky wrote the first half of his poem between 1938 to 1940, basing it mostly on Capital by Marx. He wrote the second half between 1948 and 1950, basing it mostly on the writings of Spinoza, on the topic of love.

Of “A”-9 Joshua says that it “is formed entirely from the political-economic language of Das Kapital.” It is only an aside, so we can’t expect that Joshua, the professor of poetics, would have mentioned that Zukofsky borrowed the poem’s prosodic form from a 13th century Italian poem. But leaving prosody aside, only half of the vocabulary of “A”-9 is formed from Marx; Joshuas formulation “entirely” violates the facts. (With unintentional self-reflexive irony, the sentence following the one I just quoted from contains the putatively sarcastic phrase “poseur, a mere academic, the most debased of the professions.” And copy-editors note: When styling Zukofsky’s poem, the quotation marks go around “A” only, not around the numbered section.)

I don’t expect you -- even if you’re a poet with allegiances to the modernist tradition of Zukofsky -- to have known this about “A”-9. Nor is it surprising that a poetry professor would only half-remember a detail from a lifetime of reading. But it is disappointing that after delivering the paper to a presumed room full of poets and literature professors, nobody caught it, and he posted the error the next day. (I haven’t read all of “A” but I’ve read “A”-9.)

A few Zukofsky tidbits:

* Zukofsky the Communist had a Fascist friend named Ezra Pound, who translated “Donna mi pregga” twice. Zukofsky made a more prosodically rigorous translation than Pound ever attempted, apparently at about the time he was writing the Marx section of “A”-9, and he did it in Brooklynese slang. “Donna” -- a beautiful woman, or Lady, as in “Prima Donna” -- “mi pregga” -- asks me a question. Zukofsky’s version opens like this: “A foin lass bodders me.”

* “A”-15 is, among other things, an elegy for John F. Kennedy, written in the year after his assassination.

* This is a stanza from the “Love” section of “A”-9.

Love acts beyond the phase day wills it into --
Hate is obscure, errs, is pain, furor, torn -- a
Lust to adorn aversion, hope -- love eying
Its object joined to its cause, sees path into
Things the future or now, that poorer bourne, a
Past, a step, a worn, a voiced look, gone -- eying
These, each in itself is saying, “Behoove us,
Disprove us least as things of love appearing
In a wish gearing to light’s infinite locus,
Balm or jewelweed is according to focus.
No one really knows us who does not love us,
Time does not move us, we are and love, searing
Remembrance -- veering from guises which cloak us,
So defined as eternal, men invoke us.”

* * *

I thank Joshua for sending me back to Zukofsky. It is more than George Will ever did for me.

* * *

FURTHER THOUGHTS, later: In his posted paper on politics, which blasts people for voting for Democrats, Joshua pulls the rhetorician's trick of assigning his opponents a false and absurd position that they do not actually hold; in this case, the position that one votes for Democrats for purely "formal" reasons -- because they are not Republicans -- and that these formal reasons are devoid of political content as politics drifts rightward and the line distinguishing the parties keeps sliding. Joshua's characterization is absurd, and, if anything, the positions of the parties have rarely been more distinguishable than they are now. To start at the top, one party believes in a multi-lateral world in which the goal is to maintain cooperative international relationships; the other bases its foreign policy on the idea that if everybody in the world is angry at you, you're on the right track.

Joshua also calls for Instant-Run-Off voting and a multi-party system. If he's working on these issues I'm curious to hear more. I support IRV.

IRV = Condorcet method?
I'd never heard of Condorcet voting. The link you left states that IRV is different.

In IRV, a voter lists the candidates by rank. If someone gets a majority of the number ones, that person wins. If nobody has a majority of number ones, the recipient of the lowest number of number ones is eliminated. Whoever got a number two beneath the eliminated candidate gets elevated to number one, and a new count is done. The process continues until somebody emerges with a majority.

Condorcet voting seems a lot more complicated -- but thanks for mentioning it!
Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?