Monday, December 24, 2007

I want to use this post to mark the passing of an extraordinary woman, Carol Bly, whose writing and teaching has had an impact on a great many people. As I remarked to a friend, she is one of those who, faced with the inhumane excesses of our age, put her foot down firmly, and declared "No more." But she also knew that resistance and refusal is not enough. In everything she wrote she strove for illumination and understanding so that she could perfect her resistance to what she called "The Bully Who Rules the World" and change him.

I met Carol when, at the instigation of Linda McCarriston we were on a panel together at the Associated Writing Programs conference in Albany years ago, and I had the pleasure, the challenging pleasure, of continuing to correspond with her in the years since. She was the first to say "No more" to those funny emails quipping about Bush's lack of intelligence, all those smug jokes about his being a buffoon. She pointed out that intellectuals always respond to the rise of tyrants by sneering in ways that make us feel superior and further disempower us by widening the gulf betwen ourselves and those to whom the demagoguery is designed to appeal. I stopped forwarding that stuff right away. She was dead on.

As she was about a great many things, large and small. Read her stories and you will never again be suckered into any kind of nonsense about how art cannot be filled with moral fervor, passion, and commitment.

Here is the obituary from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. If you do not know this writer, you should start with her book of stories, My Lord Bag of Rice.

Carol Bly, Minnesota's lioness of letters, dies
The author and teacher was known for her strong moral voice in short stories and essays.
By SARAH T. WILLIAMS, Star Tribune
Last update: December 22, 2007 - 4:41 PM

True to form, Carol Bly stood stalwart against the dying of the light, dictating letters and thank-yous to friends, readers, well-wishers and fellow writers even in her final days. The lioness of Minnesota letters died Friday of ovarian cancer, surrounded by family and caregivers at the Pillars Hospice Home in Oakdale. She was 77.

"One of the great heavy lifters is gone," said fellow writer and friend Bill Holm, of Minneota, Minn. "She never backed down from tackling large issues and large ideas in the culture."

Bly, of St. Paul, had a milelong curriculum vitae that reflected a lifetime of writing, teaching, mentoring, editing and pamphleteering -- even designing personalized crossword puzzles.

She was formidable -- a tall, three-masted ship of a woman who could, in person or on the page, slice cleanly through pettiness, cruelty, shoddiness, dissembling or wrongdoing. Anyone engaging her in a casual "hello" could expect to be conscripted into action.

She was equally funny, Holm said, recalling a dinner party at which Bly assured a picky eater that the "ram's milk" he was drinking from her farm was 100 percent organic. It took a while for the joke to sink in, Holm said.

Prairie light

Bly was born in 1930 in Duluth, Minn., to Russell and Mildred McLean. It was a childhood shadowed by war (all three of Bly's brothers were in uniform during World War II) and her mother's suffering (Mildred McLean died of tuberculosis when Carol was 12). She married Robert Bly in 1955, and the two joined forces against the Vietnam War, Watergate, nuclear testing and other issues in their own writings and a series of magazines they published together: The Fifties, The Sixties and The Seventies.

Their farmhouse in Madison, Minn., was an international hub for writers, poets and translators of every kind. Holm was a frequent visitor, as were James Wright, Donald Hall, Lewis Hyde, Louis Simpson, Tomas Tranströmer, Fred and Freya Manfred and many others.

It was not a place where one murmured politely about the weather, Holm said. "There was real talk at that table. People asked questions. There were playful arguments, witty ripostes -- and needling. Carol loved to needle the guests about their political opinions, to chase them a little bit."

She was a first-class hostess, Holm said, with an "infinitely expandable" dinner table. "There was always another chair and another -- slightly chipped -- plate."

And she was a first-rate mother to her four children: Mary, Bridget, Noah and Micah. "What a great gift it would have been for any of us to have had her as a mother," Holm said. "She was a genius at it -- devising games for them, reading to them and keeping their minds, spirits and senses of humor alive." Parental directives, he said, were delivered with a kind of British cheer: "'Now, duckies,' she'd say, 'don't you go using each others' tooth brushes.' Or 'Now, duckies, we're going to have a play after dinner.'"

Though they divorced in 1980 after 25 years of marriage, Robert and Carol remained civil toward one another and would brook no bad-mouthing of the other from outsiders.

"She was a light, a fire, for all those people wandering around on the prairie," said Robert Bly, of Minneapolis. "She was an excellent mother. And a terrific friend of writers and of writing."

Stories with backbone

After her divorce, Carol Bly moved to St. Paul, and ramped up her teaching and writing career.
Of her father, she once wrote: He was "more moral than social climber." The same could be said of the daughter. In her writing, Bly stood her ground against "professional killing," genocide, the bombing of whole cities, "rabbity" obedience to authority and individual and corporate bullying.

She believed that writers and readers had a duty beyond entertaining and being entertained, and explored this idea fully in "Changing the Bully Who Rules the World." In the ambitious, 550-page book, selected essays, stories and poems -- by Will Weaver, Charles Baxter, Denise Levertov and Jim Harrison, among others -- serve as take-off points for discussions about moral and ethical stage development.

In her fiction, the often brave and sometimes despicable characters are drawn from the hardscrabble towns and farmhouses of rural Minnesota and the meaner streets of St. Paul. Among them are a nursing-home resident who defiantly heads into a blinding snow, a mortician whose father has trained him never to emote, an abused wife who refuses her dying husband his morphine, and a skinflinty rooming-house landlady who perceives the smallest gift to be a bribe.

Author and writing instructor Tobias Wolff, of Palo Alto, Calif., called her short stories "indelible, exemplary" and said he often uses them in the classroom at Stanford University. "They have a tremendous moral rigor ... even a moral ferocity," he said. "They push back against the world, against the unwitting complicities, the casual injustices that we're all involved in -- things that are done in our name far away. She is very demanding that we be alert to that kind of subversive quality of modern life."

There's a reason why her first collection of stories is called "Backbone," said Emilie Buchwald, Bly's longtime publisher at Milkweed. "That is exactly what all of her writing has: backbone."

'A masterwork'

In 2004, Carol started Bly & Loveland Press with social worker Cynthia Loveland. The two produced pamphlets that took on violent TV programs, "do-nothing" clergy members, the "workshopping" of manuscripts (peer reviews in which students' work is exposed to "drawing-room irony") and conservative Republicans who "find themselves afraid." The press also sold Bly's personalized crossword puzzles -- "ungeometric" with "genial clues."

Loveland tended to Bly in her final days as she strove to finish a novel and keep up her correspondence. "Shelter Half" will be published in June by Holy Cow! press of Duluth. "I think it's a masterwork," publisher Jim Perlman said. "Her ability to draw characters and the rural landscape is just at the genius level as far as I'm concerned."

Bly is survived by daughters Mary Bly (Alessandro Vettori) and Bridget Bly (Benjamin Bly), both of Summit, N.J.; sons Noah Bly (Karen) and Micah Bly (Chiemi), both of St. Paul; brothers John W. McLean of Tucson, Ariz., and Malcolm McLean of St. Paul; eight grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews. A memorial service is planned for early 2008.

Sarah T. Williams is the Star Tribune Books editor.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

I am once again, after many years, reading Kenneth Rexroth. I should say I am going back to school to Kenneth Rexroth. Although I am aware that Copper Canyon just brought out a beautiful edition of The Complete Poems edited by Sam Hamill and Bradford Morrow, I am content with my two New Directions books, The Collected Shorter Poems and Collected Longer Poems; these two volumes have my notes in them from thirty or so years back, and I find them as important for my dialogue with that young man as my encounter with Rexroth. I first went to Rexroth looking for something. I was grieving and alone and had only a few years before lost the Roman Catholicism that had nurtured me, and the solidity and gravity of his practice as a poet, a thinking poet, one who was not content to chart his heartaches and discomforts, was what held me then and kept me from flying off the planet in despair. I still aspire to his range and to the example of his integrity.

I don't know who else has such a capacious mind and heart to grieve for the world and love it, while cursing so convincingly the greedy and dehumanizing forces of our age. He can do so because not only is the political personal to him, but also the historical, the philosophical, the metaphysical; not only were these matters personal to him, that is, he responded to all such questions as a person not a politician, historian, metaphysician or philosopher, but in the poems those things that are personal and intimate are also at once political, historical, philosophical, and metaphysical.

Along with those two volumes I am reading the special issue of The Chicago Review devoted to Rexroth, which I want to recommend enthusiastically to anyone who would like to familiarize yourself with this giant. I am going to post the opening essay here because Beer and Blechman have done a terrific job of pointing to what is unique about Rexroth as a late modern/ early postmodern poet, and I recognize in their assessment the virtues that drew me to Rexroth as a young man.

I'm also going to direct readers of this blog to other sites that feature and/or discuss Rexroth's work, and I'll include a poem from my latest book, Gold Star Road, that seems to me in the spirit of Rexroth, at least as I read him. Here's the essay:

Introduction (Kenneth Rexroth's poetry)(Critical essay).John Beer and Max Blechman. Chicago Review 52.2-4 (Autumn 2006): p11(6). (1753 words)
COPYRIGHT 2006 University of Chicago

"Both in my life and work I have constantly striven to embody a perfectly definite program," the twenty-five-year-old Kenneth Rexroth wrote to Louis Zukofsky in early 1931. The self-possession and sheer intellectual bravado that bristles from the pages of this correspondence inspires a kind of fascinated awe, as Rexroth reels off intellectual influences like a hipster Mortimer Adler. What's most remarkable is how accurate Rexroth was in his self-assessment; already, he had assembled an amalgam of Eastern and Western philosophies, radical politics, and above all, visionary somatic and erotic experience, the contours of which he would spend a lifetime exploring and transmuting into some of the American language's most profound poetry.

Seventy-five years out, the trajectory of these two ferociously ambitious young writers seems to emerge almost naturally from their styles: character really turns out destiny. Zukofsky's poetry, exquisite and gnomic, was honored in grand style at a 2004 centenary celebration at Columbia, his alma mater, which drew the pantheon of contemporary American experimental poets. Meanwhile, Rexroth's centennial was acknowledged by an altogether more fugitive and less institutional set of celebrations in Japan, California, and New York. Despite this international recognition, however, there remains a persistent air of marginalization about his work, as if Rexroth were primarily of interest as a translator, a California poet, or a Beat writer avant la lettre.

Perhaps the most substantial impediment to a full confrontation with Rexroth's poetry is the limpidity of his writing. Following his early experiments with cubist writing, work that Zukofsky included in the famous Objectivist number of Poetry, Rexroth adopted a style mostly at odds with the knotty modernism that defined advanced artistic practice during his youth. He turned instead to a conversational, loosely syllabic line that juxtaposed meticulous observation with reflection:

See. The sun has fallen away.
Now there are amber
Long lights on the shattered
Boles of the ancient apple trees.
Our bodies move to each other
As bodies move in sleep;
At once filled and exhausted,
As the summer moves to autumn,
As we, with Sappho, move towards death.
("As We With Sappho")

Rexroth's confidence that the lyric poem affords the possibility of a substantial unity between words and the world, and not just the bare signification of an experience always already lost or available only in the far distance, separates him from the main line of twentieth-century poetry. Unlike the assembled fragments of Pound, the flashes of consciousness in Williams, or the boundless discursivity of Ashbery, Rexroth offers successive and coherent dispatches from a world, a world for which the poet's imagination functions not as ground but as communicative medium. The difficulty of Rexroth's writing is not so much a matter of deciphering his intention, as of coming to see what could sustain his faith in the intelligibility of experience and the adequacy of the poet's art to communicate that experience--a faith that by most accounts modernity renders untenable.

Strikingly and surprisingly, Rexroth strongly resembles the poet who in some respects represents his opposite number: Eliot. They share a deep respect for Dante as an archetypal poet who both synthesized and criticized his culture, the sense that poetry in English had gradually lost its bearings after the seventeenth century, and the fascination with the sacred texts and classical traditions of non-Western civilizations. Consider how Eliotic at moments Rexroth's great philosophical meditation "The Phoenix and the Turtle" sounds:

Danger and desire, or jealousy
And fear of pain, the constant pressure,
For the lesser, immediate good ...
The three tragedians saw lives
As strung on doom, like the lion's teeth
On his still tensile sinews;
Persons as trophies, the savage
Jewelry of continuity
From "pure function to pure potential,"
And Karma, the terrifying
Accumulation of bare fact.

What unites the two fundamentally is a predisposition toward mysticism, a tendency that Rexroth explored (albeit with reservations) and Eliot, in the end, rejected. The older poet journeyed east to London and the younger west to California, trajectories allegorical of political and spiritual travels that ultimately encased Eliot's poetic powers within a husk of orthodoxy even as Rexroth discerned new antinomian possibilities in very old traditions. (A third figure with whom Rexroth might be fruitfully juxtaposed is a poet whom he encouraged James Laughlin to publish, Thomas Merton, who essentially reversed Eliot's track from experiment to orthodoxy. Both Rexroth and Merton sympathized with the Beats and the youth movement of the 60s generally while having serious misgivings about the narcissistic acting-out and nihilism that they perceived therein.)

For Rexroth, language discloses the essential facts of human community and the inestimable value of individual perception, which together repudiate the anti-human operations of capitalism and Soviet-style collectivism. This visionary approach to language is exhibited, for instance, at the close of "The Signature of All Things," a poem which takes its direction explicitly from the mystical thought of Jakob Boehme:

After reading for hours,
While moths rattled at the lamp--
The saints and the philosophers
On the destiny of man--
I went out on my cabin porch,
And looked up through the black forest
At the swaying islands of stars.
Suddenly I saw at my feet,
Spread on the floor of night, ingots
Of quivering phosphorescence,
And all about were scattered chips
Of pale cold light that was alive.

The macrocosm is the microcosm; the universe of stars is reflected in the bits of phosphorescence scattered throughout the forest, and both in their turn resemble the words Rexroth has been studying, simultaneously cold and alive. And the words in turn stand in for the network of poems that Rexroth has been weaving, the network of readers whose minds find their light renewed in their own solitary readings.

Like his hero Blake, Rexroth undertook a great refusal in the service of an even greater affirmation: an affirmation of the power of language to reorient human hearts in the face of seemingly insurmountable but ultimately empty structures of power and control. This affirmation depends in part upon Rexroth's renunciation of hermeticism; by rendering his perceptions as clearly and directly as possible, he makes a poetry emblematic of the democratic impulse from which it springs.

This is to say that the power of this poetic language derives from the power of it source--Rexroth's inseparably ethical, political, and artistic activity. Readers of the correspondence published in this issue will find him defending precisely this trinity again and again--most strikingly, perhaps, in his December 11, 1939 letter to Weldon Kees:

I am not going to get into arguments about the responsibilities of the
artist, to his species, to himself, to his art. I never recognized the
reality of such a division. There are no such things as separable
moral responsibilities, there is only one moral responsibility. [...]
I have never been able to find three people, K.R. the "artist," K.R.
the revolutionist, K.R. the human. There has always been just me.

Rexroth wrote and intended poetry as an actual force for social transformation. It is as though he adopted the classical, and specifically Aristotelian, definition of the human being as a political animal. To be human is to be engaged in the life of the city, to take on personally (in the form of individual integrity) and publicly (in form of political virtue) the ethical requirement of a just and truthful common life. Rexroth emphasized that the responsibility of the poet is essentially determined by his responsibility to be a dignified human being. Far from advocating social realism or the submission of art to ideology, Rexroth explores at the level of lived, individual experience the utopian contours of genuine ethical and natural belonging. Full ethical responsibility means living out and holding in view the utopian "not yet" of human possibility--a free community of life. Rexroth held to a vision of that life in order to better oppose the extant forms of sociality that limit and pervert the fundamental human possibility for fulfilled living.

Thus it is not so much the passing of a pre-modern ethical unity that Rexroth's poetry and essays lament. At stake is not a lefty conservatism, or a peculiar radical classicism a la T.E. Hulme. Rather, Rexroth, who achieved his moral, political, and philosophical self-education in bohemian Chicago, laments the loss of the revolutionary urge to reinstate, and thereby reinvent, the primacy of ethics in human living. Rexroth deplores the gathering trend to reduce potentiality to actuality, the unwillingness to resist an increasingly ubiquitous dominion of abstract instrumentality, particularly in his great philosophical poems, as in this passage of "Organon":

As fact wastes out of experience
Leaving no promise of conservation
Or perpetuity of those ultimates
Deposited in the experient,
And deaths and negatives waste being;
The erosion of being to what is,
Elimination in logic, and passage
Of history, effective equally--
And only values prime and promised
Surviving, and only dubiously--
Being as vital becomes a postulant
Of hope, a struggle of sein and sosein,
Whose only assurance is moral.

Hope for "being as vital" does not depend on any purportedly objective conditions of history. On the contrary, it is hope that makes its own history through the labor of renewed morality. Without the mobilization of this hope, there is no heroism of the creative act. And Rexroth--much like Blake or William Morris or Henri Bergson--considered this act our "only defense against the ruin of the world."

Rexroth himself liked to cite Horace to buttress this view. But he would not for all that fail to take measure of the difference between a relatively organic culture such as Augustan Rome and our own. The values for which Horace stood, Rexroth insists, were generally representative of his culture; we moderns, by contrast, create, or rather must create, against the dominant values into which we are born.

Rexroth's lifelong dialogue with classical literature made it impossible for him to take sides in the perennial quarrel, which became the rage again in the 1940s, between classicism and romanticism. Like his friend D.S. Savage, he was quick to see that the greatness of modern art, like the greatness of the hope that would resist the ruinous trend of history, requires both a romantic principle (of creation and liberation) and a classical one (of order and control). Rexroth's poetry aimed at preserving and transcending these terms in a thoroughgoing reconciliation of life and art. We offer this centenary portfolio in the hope of renewing interest in a great American poet who was equally an exemplar of this utopia, a prophet whose art means to challenge us, and a man whose life invariably does.

Source Citation:Beer, John, and Max Blechman. "Introduction." Chicago Review 52.2-4 (Autumn 2006): 11(6).

There is a treasury of Rexroth material at the site Bureau of Public Secrets:

And Jacket Magazine #23 is devoted to all things Rexroth as well:

And finally, from my Gold Star Road:


In an airport, I met a man I knew
when we were young. In those days
he was loud, gregarious, intrepid;
I was shy and certain I was stupid,
and I wanted to be more like him.
We made brittle conversation,
and did not exchange addresses.
I did not tell him what he’d been to me.
Later, belted in beside a young child
with her mother seated on the aisle,
I wondered at how we change,
inhibit, and inhabit one another:
friends, enemies, teachers, lovers,
neighbors, students. Even the man
who worked beside me years ago,
both of us soldering circuitboards,
(I think his name was John)
shows up in my dreams sometimes
though he still doesn't say anything.
Feeling as if my life were only mine
the way my seat, 11E, was mine, I
was trying to find, through layers
of scratched plexi-glass and drifting
clouds, a sign of where we were
and how much farther we had to go
when the restless child knocked on my
leg. “Tell me the story. This one,”
and she offered me the trifold card,
wordless but clear to any grown-up,
the one in reassuring pastel colors
where the people lift the cushions,
maybe to look for pennies there.
And here they are on the inflatable
slide, see? Or bobbing in the gentle
waves — without their bathing suits!
I didn’t know what else to tell her
so I took my pen from my pocket,
drew some birds in the air, a beach
with some people and a dog on it,
and further back, a tree. “Now me!”
she said. I gave her the pen; she bit
her tongue and drew and drew.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Ol' Granpappy Montaigne

I have just come from the second NonfictioNow Conference at the University of Iowa where I have met some wonderful writers, heard about some others, and renewed myself by recalling, from deep in a demanding semester of teaching, what it is that draws me to nonfiction, specifically to the essay. It was wonderful to spend time among those writers who have been working for the past 15 or 20 years to resuscitate this genre and restore its suppleness, its wit, its bite, and its ability to carry the news, even, or perhaps especially, unwelcome news.

I sat there remembering how much certain writers meant to me when I was trying to do the work that became Half the House; during those years Stop-Time by Frank Connor, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, String Too Short to Be Saved by Donald Hall, and A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl were my models, my coordinates North South East and West. At the conference, especially after our panel: Square, Plumb, Level, True: The Ethics of Memoir (myself, Philip Gerard, Dinty W. Moore, and Mimi Schwartz) several writers approached me to say that Half the House was important to them, that it had given them permission, had suggested a way to locate themselves in relation to their experience of trauma. There’s not much that’s more gratifying than that sense of having passed along something of value.

But a high point for me was an easygoing and warm conversation with Patricia Hampl who delivered the opening keynote and later in the conference read from her latest, The Florist’s Daughter. I’ve known for some time that we have several friends in common, all of whom have expressed surprise that we’d never met. Now we have. I’m mostly just happy to have had the chance to say thank you for the lesson that poetry exists in prose as well as in verse, and that its primary impulse, to wonder, to enquire, is available to the memoirist and essayist.

At the same time, I am worried about the kind of “lyric essay” that is crowding out the essay of ideas, the kind of essay that not only asks questions but asks the important ones, the essay that is willing to challenge the bourgeois truce with injustice, the peace at any price that seems the literary status quo these days.

And Richard Rodriguez, our luncheon speaker on Friday, nearly brought me to my feet with his insistence that the issue of CLASS is the paramount issue in American society and that burrowing deeply into our micro-identities, thus precluding any solidarity with others who are being exploited, objectified, and demeaned, is profoundly disempowering.

On the way to the conference I shared a cab with Michael Danko who told me about a site for “the classic essay” called Quotidiana. Here’s the URL:

And here is the URL for the conference, which will soon contain live links to mp3 recordings of all the readings and sessions:

And, the first conference, back in 2005, is already “live” online at:

Friday, October 05, 2007

This essay by Naomi Wolf has been moving from blog to blog, as well it should. I'm posting it here so that at least a few more people will see it.

Blackwater: Are You Scared Yet?
By: Naomi Wolf

(Naomi Wolf is the author of “The End of America — Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot,” an amazing book that discusses, among other things, the implications of the growth of paramilitary forces like Blackwater.)

The New York Times reported today that Blackwater, the infamous organization that has been accused of killing civilians in Iraq, “has been involved in a far higher rate of shootings while guarding American diplomats in Iraq than other security firms.” A mercenary firm in Iraq with an itchy trigger finger is bad enough. But it now appears that Blackwater’s activities may be massively expanded — and not in Iraq.

In little noticed news, Blackwater, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Arinc were recently awarded a collective $15 billion — yes, billion — from the Pentagon to conduct global counter-narcotics operations. This means that Blackwater can be deployed to engage with citizens on a whole new level of intimacy anywhere around the world — including here at home. What is scarier than scary is that Blackwater’s overall plans are to do more and more of its armed and dangerous ‘security’ operations on U.S. soil.

In my recently released book, The End of America — Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot, I describe the 10 steps that would-be tyrants use to close down a democracy and produce a “fascist shift.” The third of the ten steps is to ‘Develop a Paramilitary Force.’ Without a paramilitary force that is not answerable to the people’s representatives, democracy cannot be closed down; however, with such a force available to would-be despots, democracy can be drastically and quickly weakened.

Every effective despot — from Mussolini to Hitler, Stalin, the members of the Chinese Politburo, General Augusto Pinochet and the many Latin American dictators who learned from these models of controlling citizens — has used this essential means to pressure civilians and intimidate dissent. Mussolini was the innovator in the use of thugs to intimidate what was a democracy, if a fragile one, before he actually marched on Rome; he developed the strategic deployment of blackshirts to beat up communists and opposition leaders, trash newspapers and turn on civilians, forcing ordinary Italians, for instance, to ingest emetics. Hitler studied Mussolini; he deployed thugs — in the form of brownshirts — in similar ways before he came formally to power.

In light of these historical warning, we must ask, “What is Blackwater?” According to reporter Jeremy Scahill, the firm has 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries, and maintains a database of an additional 21,000 to call upon at any time. Blackwater has over “$500 million in government contracts — and that does not include its secret ‘black’ budget…” [It also did not include, at the time Scahill’s wrote this description, the massive anti-narcotics contract described above.] One congressman pointed out that in terms of its manpower, Blackwater can overthrow “many of the world’s governments.” Recruiters for the company seek out former military from countries that have horrific human rights abuses and use secret police and paramilitary forces to terrify their own populations: Chileans, Peruvians, Nigerians, and Salvadorans.

Blackwater is coming home to Main Street, and one of our key constitutional protections is at stake. The future for growth is directed at increased deployment in the US in cases of natural disaster — or in the event of a ‘public emergency.’ This is a very dangerous situation, of course, now that laws have been passed that let the President decide on his say-so alone what a ‘public emergency’ might be.

The Department of Homeland Security hired these same Blackwater contractors to patrol the streets of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — for a contract valued at about $73 million. Does Blackwater’s reputation for careless violence against civilians in Iraq, protected by legal indemnification, matter to us? Scahill reports at least one private contractor’s accounts of other contractors’ abrupt shooting in the direction of American civilians in the wake of Katrina: “After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped.”

How protected is Blackwater from prosecution for its crimes? The company’s lawyers have argued that Blackwater can’t be held accountable by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, because they aren’t part of the US military; but they can’t be sued in civil court, either — because they are part of the US military.

Does this affect the strength of our democracy? Look at how history shows thug groups have been directed at intimidating voters. Americans need to be reminded that both Italy before Mussolini and Germany before Hitler were working, if fragile, parliamentary democracies. Thugs were used in both countries to intimidate voters exercising their rights. Mussolini’s fascists stood menacingly near voting booths to make sure citizens ‘voted responsibly’; William Shirer wrote that the Austrians voted 99% in favor of their country’s annexation by Germany — not surprising, he observed, since intimidating groups of brownshirts looked through a wide slit in the voting booth where the election committee did its work. The oddly specific scene of groups of identically dressed young men — later identified as Republican staffers — crowding and shouting at the vote counters in Florida in 2000 has strong historical precedents.

The Founders knew from their own experience of standing armies, responsive only to a tyrant, how dangerous such a situation was; King George’s men — armed with blanket warrants — invaded the colonists’ homes, trashed their possessions, and even raped Colonial women. It was that bitter experience that led them to insist on the second amendment — ‘a well regulated militia’ that was responsive to the people and could not be deployed against the people of the United States by would-be despots. The founders knew that American tyranny was not only possible, it was likely, in the event of weakened checks and balances; and they knew a mercenary army was the advance guard of despots.

Blackwater is available to anyone who can write the checks. If there is a need to ‘restore public order’ in the next Presidential election — a power that the President now can define as he sees fit — Blackwater can be deployed. If the President declares an emergency, Blackwater can be deployed. And history shows us how very quickly citizen dissent and democratic processes close down when physically intimidating men — who are armed and not answerable to the people — are abroad in the land.

Those who read history should understand what we are more and more likely to see — now that a paramilitary force answerable to Bush and corporations like Halliburton but not to the people’s representatives is in place. Mussolini and Hitler began to deploy their paramilitary to patrol key public spaces early — when Italy and Germany were still parliamentary democracies and neither leader had yet seized power. These leaders deployed their paramilitary groups in the halls of Parliament and the Reichstag when these were still functioning representative democracies, thus intimidating the people’s political leaders. Then the paramilitary groups were deployed to violently contain opposition protests — again, in what were still open, if fragile, democratic societies at the time.

(According to `the blueprint’ described in my book, unless people wake up in time, we in America are likely to see a call for a `security requirement’ for Blackwater to be deployed to `protect’ Congress and to be deployed around voting areas `to maintain public order’, and, unless we intervene, we will see them start to do crowd control when there are antiwar marches or other demonstrations. Then, again according to historical models, protesters will increasingly start to get hurt for `resisting arrest’ or for `provocations.’)

Because, to my sorrow, I know `the blueprint’, I was sad but not at all surprised when a horrified friend who works in downtown New York City told me that armed private contractors — who look like members of the NYPD but who are not answerable to any government entity — have been placed around the U.S. stock exchange. I went down to check it out. Indeed, Wall Street and the entire periphery of the Stock Exchange was like a militarized zone in the hands of what was not evident to onlookers as being in fact a private army: there were barricades; three immense trucks parked to deter and investigate pedestrians; armed dog handlers with their big dogs on tightly held leashes — all of this looks like government security but it isn’t. The company, hired, the guards said, by the stock exchange itself, is neutrally called `T & M.’ (More investigation of such companies is called for.)

I went up to a guard and, chatting sweetly, established from him that, indeed, none of these men were NYPD or even US government agents.

“That’s really big gun,” I remarked admiringly of his massive firearm, encased in leather. “What kind is it?”

“It’s a Glock,” said the contractor, with shy pride.

“Heavens!,” I said. “What kind of guidelines does the company give you for shooting?”

“Use our discretion,” he said. I thanked him, my heart racing.

In Iraq, men with guns not answerable to the people’s law or government can shoot at will at Iraqi civilians. That is not freedom. As Blackwater or other renamed versions of paramilitary contractors, sometimes with intimate ties to this administration and to Halliburton, start to patrol the streets of our nation, without our debate or consent, we can easily wake up to find that we have a National Guard that is supposed to be answerable to governors, and a Congress that is supposed to oversee the military — but it’s too late anyway; the guns in our streets are already in the hands of people who are answerable to those writing the checks — and no longer answerable to the now-vulnerable American people.

Blackwater’s actions in Iraq should be a wake-up call to us here at home — to restore the constitution and the rule of law before we are too intimidated to do so.

(Portions of this post appeared originally on Powell’s Book Blog.)

Monday, September 24, 2007


shapeshifter poems

by Lucille Clifton


the legend is whispered
in the women's tent
how the moon when she rises
follows some men into themselves
and changes them there
the season is short
but dreadful shapeshifters
they wear strange hands
they walk through the houses
at night their daughters
do not know them


who is there to protect her
from the hands of the father
not the windows which see and
say nothing not the moon
that awful eye not the woman
she will become with her
scarred tongue who who who the owl
laments into the evening who
will protect her this prettylittlegirl


if the little girl lies
still enough
shut enough
hard enough
shapeshifter may not
walk tonight
the full moon may not
find him here
the hair on him


the poem at the end of the world
is the poem the little girl breathes
into her pillow the one
she cannot tell the one
there is no one to hear this poem
is a political poem is a war poem is a
universal poem but is not about
these things this poem
is about one human heart this poem
is the poem at the end of the world

Friday, September 21, 2007

Nothing to say except that this chestnut, among Vonnegut's hit singles, is more relevant by the minute:

by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

“Huh?” said George.

“That dance – it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good – no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself she had to ask George what the latest sound had been.

“Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer,” said George.

“I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds,” said Hazel, a little envious. “All the things they think up.”

“Um,” said George.

“Only, if I was Handicapper General, you know what I would do?” said Hazel. Hazel, as a matter of fact, bore a strong resemblance to the Handicapper General, a woman named Diana Moon Glampers. “If I was Diana Moon Glampers,” said Hazel, “I’d have chimes on Sunday – just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion.”

“I could think, if it was just chimes,” said George.

“Well – maybe make ‘em real loud,” said Hazel. “I think I’d make a good Handicapper General.”

“Good as anybody else,” said George.

“Who knows better’n I do what normal is?” said Hazel.

“Right,” said George. He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that.

“Boy!” said Hazel, “that was a doozy, wasn’t it?”

It was such a doozy that George was white and trembling and tears stood on the rims of his red eyes. Two of the eight ballerinas had collapsed to the studio floor, were holding their temples.

“All of a sudden you look so tired,” said Hazel. “Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so’s you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, honeybunch.” She was referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot in canvas bag, which was padlocked around George’s neck. “Go on and rest the bag for a little while,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re not equal to me for a while.”

George weighed the bag with his hands. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I don’t notice it any more. It’s just a part of me.

“You been so tired lately – kind of wore out,” said Hazel. “If there was just some way we could make a little hole in the bottom of the bag, and just take out a few of them lead balls. Just a few.”

“Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out,” said George. “I don’t call that a bargain.”

“If you could just take a few out when you came home from work,” said Hazel. “I mean – you don’t compete with anybody around here. You just set around.”

“If I tried to get away with it,” said George, “then other people’d get away with it and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”

“I’d hate it,” said Hazel.

“There you are,” said George. “The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?”

If Hazel hadn’t been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn’t have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head.

“Reckon it’d fall all apart,” said Hazel.

“What would?” said George blankly.

“Society,” said Hazel uncertainly. “Wasn’t that what you just said?”

“Who knows?” said George.

The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn’t clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, “Ladies and gentlemen – ”

He finally gave up, handed the bulletin to a ballerina to read.

“That’s all right –” Hazel said of the announcer, “he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.”

“Ladies and gentlemen” said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred-pound men.

And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. “Excuse me – ” she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive.

“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen,” she said in a grackle squawk, “has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under–handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”

A police photograph of Harrison Bergeron was flashed on the screen – upside down, then sideways, upside down again, then right side up. The picture showed the full length of Harrison against a background calibrated in feet and inches. He was exactly seven feet tall.

The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever worn heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H–G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.

Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.

And to offset his good looks, the H–G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle–tooth random.

“If you see this boy,” said the ballerina, “do not – I repeat, do not – try to reason with him.”

There was the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges.

Screams and barking cries of consternation came from the television set. The photograph of Harrison Bergeron on the screen jumped again and again, as though dancing to the tune of an earthquake.

George Bergeron correctly identified the earthquake, and well he might have – for many was the time his own home had danced to the same crashing tune. “My God –” said George, “that must be Harrison!”

The realization was blasted from his mind instantly by the sound of an automobile collision in his head.

When George could open his eyes again, the photograph of Harrison was gone. A living, breathing Harrison filled the screen.

Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die.

“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.

“Even as I stand here –” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”

Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.

Harrison’s scrap–iron handicaps crashed to the floor.

Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall.

He flung away his rubber–ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder.

“I shall now select my Empress!” he said, looking down on the cowering people. “Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!”

A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow.

Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all, he removed her mask.

She was blindingly beautiful.

“Now” said Harrison, taking her hand, “shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance? Music!” he commanded.

The musicians scrambled back into their chairs, and Harrison stripped them of their handicaps, too. “Play your best,” he told them, “and I’ll make you barons and dukes and earls.”

The music began. It was normal at first – cheap, silly, false. But Harrison snatched two musicians from their chairs, waved them like batons as he sang the music as he wanted it played. He slammed them back into their chairs.

The music began again and was much improved.

Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while – listened gravely, as though synchronizing their heartbeats with it.

They shifted their weights to their toes.

Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.

And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!

Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.

They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.

They leaped like deer on the moon.

The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling.

They kissed it.

And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.

It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.

It was then that the Bergerons’ television tube burned out.

Hazel turned to comment about the blackout to George.

But George had gone out into the kitchen for a can of beer.

George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. “You been crying?” he said to Hazel.

“Yup,” she said,

“What about?” he said.

“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”

“What was it?” he said.

“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.

“Forget sad things,” said George.

“I always do,” said Hazel.

“That’s my girl,” said George. He winced. There was the sound of a riveting gun in his head.

“Gee – I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.

“You can say that again,” said George.

“Gee –” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My new book, Gold Star Road, is now available from Barrow Street Press (, from Amazon, or from Small Press Distribution (

Here are two poems from Gold Star Road, followed by links to others from the book that appear elsewhere on the web, and jacket blurbs from poets Molly Peacock, Linda McCarriston, Afaa Michael Weaver, and D. Nurkse.

for Sara Terry

A trout on a river-bank
knows where the river is;

a fox in a trap
knows the time,

but a man or woman
only knows the story

hope tells, or fear,
and often chooses wrong.

No ant will enter
another’s hill,

no bee another’s hive,
and a rook, atop

a dead oak,
knows which side it’s on,

but a man or woman,
led by liars,

will discuss, calmly,
who should dig the pit

and if it is a better
lesson to slaughter

the neighbors’ babies
first or afterward.

A squirrel burrows deep
in a hollow trunk;

the bear returns
to her darkened cave,

but a man or woman,
gorged on blood,

deep in history, asleep,
dreams peace

and waking, says
peace is a dream.

A rabbit may cower,
but only so long;

the common sparrow
knows the seasons,

but a man or woman
only wants a song, a poem,

a religion to profess
that no one who has known

goodness even once
is ever wholly lost.


Because I was born into ongoing falsehood,
I have had to learn to think in metaphors,
to lash together what could be found on
each small island of that barren archipelago,

to learn what would float, to find what would
carry me. It is only when I am tired I pity the
various people I have been or, worse, deny them.
I have not met anyone who is entirely who

he thinks he is, nor people anywhere so strange
they did not, somehow, move me. When death comes
I have left instructions for my friends to put me
back in the thesaurus with my ancestors.

Hoffman's poems tap into moments when civilization dissolves, not superficially, but at its emotional roots. Simply reading this book becomes an engaged, passionate experience. Time and again through the poet's weary irony comes the bite of life. He makes the world seem, in the words of Wislawa Szymborska, whom he quotes: "just a room away." - Molly Peacock

Hoffman is the poet traveling our nightmare of now, our descent into a lack of love for one another, but along the way he finds etchings of hope on the walls amid all the signs of a falling away from a center that has forgotten how to hold. - Afaa Michael Weaver

Poetry should be beautiful and dangerous, unforgettable, transformational, meaningful across academic and social borders. This is. - Linda McCarriston

Hoffman is a rarity among American poets; his premise is dialogic, his canvas vast, his stance self-questioning. This new book is breakthrough work; poetry of hard-earned grounding, profound integrity, and scalding, visionary intensity. - D. Nurkse

Friday, August 24, 2007

I have wanted for some time to bring the attention of my students and colleagues to the well-documented fact that powerful political forces use the wealth at their disposal to shape our aesthetics. The trouble is that when one begins to speak at a forum or in a classroom about this, especially when you say CIA in the same breath with painting and poetry, you meet with eye-rolling and often ridicule. "What are you, a conspiracy theorist?" Well, there's no theory about it. It's all been well-documented in Frances Stonor Saunders exhaustively researched The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the World of Arts & Letters, first published in England by Granta Books under the far better title: Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War.

In gathering up some reviews to post here, I came across Lyle Daggett's response to the book over at his blog A Burning Patience, so why not start there ( and then have a look below at my gathering of reviews.

But my question is this: Does anyone really think that this clandestine funding and shaping of the artistic culture to political ends has ceased? In the era of The Military Commissions Act and the Patriot Act?

We need to ask ourselves where our aesthetic standards come from. How do we as writers and artists decide what is worthwhile doing? Are we thinking for ourselves, or are we just delivering product because we have intuited, via our ambitions, what "the market," skewed by political agendas, will reward?

Here is a good synopsis and discussion of the book by James Petras, followed by reviews from a variety of political points of view:

The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Revisited
James Petras

Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War
(London: Granta Books), £20.

This book provides a detailed account of the ways in which the CIA penetrated and influenced a vast array of cultural organizations, through its front groups and via friendly philanthropic organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The author, Frances Stonor Saunders, details how and why the CIA ran cultural congresses, mounted exhibits, and organized concerts. The CIA also published and translated well-known authors who toed the Washington line, sponsored abstract art to counteract art with any social content and, throughout the world, subsidized journals that criticized Marxism, communism, and revolutionary politics and apologized for, or ignored, violent and destructive imperialist U.S. policies. The CIA was able to harness some of the most vocal exponents of intellectual freedom in the West in service of these policies, to the extent that some intellectuals were directly on the CIA payroll. Many were knowingly involved with CIA "projects," and others drifted in and out of its orbit, claiming ignorance of the CIA connection after their CIA sponsors were publicly exposed during the late 1960s and the Vietnam war, after the turn of the political tide to the left.

U.S. and European anticommunist publications receiving direct or indirect funding included Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, New Leader, Encounter and many others. Among the intellectuals who were funded and promoted by the CIA were Irving Kristol, Melvin Lasky, Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender, Sidney Hook, Daniel Bell, Dwight MacDonald, Robert Lowell, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, and numerous others in the United States and Europe. In Europe, the CIA was particularly interested in and promoted the "Democratic Left" and ex-leftists, including Ignacio Silone, Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, Raymond Aron, Anthony Crosland, Michael Josselson, and George Orwell.

The CIA, under the prodding of Sidney Hook and Melvin Lasky, was instrumental in funding the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a kind of cultural NATO that grouped together all sorts of "anti-Stalinist" leftists and rightists. They were completely free to defend Western cultural and political values, attack "Stalinist totalitarianism" and to tiptoe gently around U.S. racism and imperialism. Occasionally, a piece marginally critical of U.S. mass society was printed in the CIA-subsidized journals.

What was particularly bizarre about this collection of CIA-funded intellectuals was not only their political partisanship, but their pretense that they were disinterested seekers of truth, iconoclastic humanists, free-spirited intellectuals, or artists for art's sake, who counterposed themselves to the corrupted "committed" house "hacks" of the Stalinist apparatus.

It is impossible to believe their claims of ignorance of CIA ties. How could they ignore the absence in the journals of any basic criticism of the numerous lynchings throughout the southern United States during the whole period? How could they ignore the absence, during their cultural congresses, of criticism of U.S. imperialist intervention in Guatemala, Iran, Greece, and Korea that led to millions of deaths? How could they ignore the gross apologies of every imperialist crime of their day in the journals in which they wrote? They were all soldiers: some glib, vitriolic, crude, and polemical, like Hook and Lasky; others elegant essayists like Stephen Spender or self-righteous informers like George Orwell. Saunders portrays the WASP Ivy League elite at the CIA holding the strings, and the vitriolic Jewish ex-leftists snarling at leftist dissidents. When the truth came out in the late 1960s and New York, Paris, and London "intellectuals" feigned indignation at having been used, the CIA retaliated. Tom Braden, who directed the International Organizations Branch of the CIA, blew their cover by detailing how they all had to have known who paid their salaries and stipends (397-404).

According to Braden, the CIA financed their "literary froth," as CIA hardliner Cord Meyer called the anti-Stalinist intellectual exercises of Hook, Kristol, and Lasky. Regarding the most prestigious and best-known publications of the self-styled "Democratic Left" (Encounter, New Leader, Partisan Review), Braden wrote that the money for them came from the CIA and that "an agent became the editor of Encounter" (398). By 1953, Braden wrote, "we were operating or influencing international organizations in every field" (398).

Saunders' book provides useful information about several important questions regarding the ways in which CIA intellectual operatives defended U.S. imperialist interests on cultural fronts. It also initiates an important discussion of the long-term consequences of the ideological and artistic positions defended by CIA intellectuals.

Saunders refutes the claims (made by Hook, Kristol, and Lasky) that the CIA and its friendly foundations provided aid with no strings attached. She demonstrates that "the individuals and institutions subsidized by the CIA were expected to perform as part ... of a propaganda war." The most effective propaganda was defined by the CIA as the kind where "the subject moves in the direction you desire for reasons which he believes to be his own." While the CIA allowed their assets on the "Democratic Left" to prattle occasionally about social reform, it was the "anti-Stalinist" polemics and literary diatribes against Western Marxists and Soviet writers and artists that they were most interested in, funded most generously, and promoted with the greatest visibility. Braden referred to this as the "convergence" between the CIA and the European "Democratic Left" in the fight against communism. The collaboration between the "Democratic Left" and the CIA included strike-breaking in France, informing on Stalinists (Orwell and Hook), and covert smear campaigns to prevent leftist artists from receiving recognition (including Pablo Neruda's bid for a Nobel Prize in 1964 [351]).

The CIA, as the arm of the U.S. government most concerned with fighting the cultural Cold War, focused on Europe in the period immediately following the Second World War. Having experienced almost two decades of capitalist war, depression, and postwar occupation, the overwhelming majority of European intellectuals and trade unionists were anti-capitalist and particularly critical of the hegemonic pretensions of the United States. To counter the appeal of communism and the growth of the European Communist Parties (particularly in France and Italy), the CIA devised a two-tier program. On the one hand, as Saunders argues, certain European authors were promoted as part of an explicitly "anticommunist program." The CIA cultural commissar's criteria for "suitable texts" included "whatever critiques of Soviet foreign policy and Communism as a form of government we find to be objective (sic) and convincingly written and timely." The CIA was especially keen on publishing disillusioned ex-communists like Silone, Koestler, and Gide. The CIA promoted anticommunist writers by funding lavish conferences in Paris, Berlin, and Bellagio (overlooking Lake Como), where objective social scientists and philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, Daniel Bell, and Czeslow Milosz preached their values (and the virtues of Western freedom and intellectual independence, within the anticommunist and pro-Washington parameters defined by their CIA paymasters). None of these prestigious intellectuals dared to raise any doubts or questions regarding U.S. support of the mass killing in colonial Indochina and Algeria, the witch hunt of U.S. intellectuals or the paramilitary (Ku Klux Klan) lynchings in the southern United States. Such banal concerns would only "play into the hands of the Communists," according to Sidney Hook, Melvin Lasky, and the Partisan Review crowd, who eagerly sought funds for their quasi-bankrupt literary operation. Many of the so-called prestigious anticommunist literary and political journals would long have gone out of business were it not for CIA subsidies, which bought thousands of copies that it later distributed free.

The second cultural track on which the CIA operated was much more subtle. Here, it promoted symphonies, art exhibits, ballet, theater groups, and well-known jazz and opera performers with the explicit aim of neutralizing anti-imperialist sentiment in Europe and creating an appreciation of U.S. culture and government. The idea behind this policy was to showcase U.S. culture, in order to gain cultural hegemony to support its military-economic empire. The CIA was especially keen on sending black artists to Europe — particularly singers (like Marion Anderson), writers, and musicians (such as Louis Armstrong) — to neutralize European hostility toward Washington's racist domestic policies. If black intellectuals didn't stick to the U.S. artistic script and wandered into explicit criticism, they were banished from the list, as was the case with writer Richard Wright.

The degree of CIA political control over the intellectual agenda of these seemingly nonpolitical artistic activities was clearly demonstrated by the reaction of the editors of Encounter (Lasky and Kristol, among others) with regard to an article submitted by Dwight MacDonald. MacDonald, a maverick anarchist intellectual, was a long-time collaborator with the CIA-run Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter. In 1958, he wrote an article for Encounter entitled "America America," in which he expressed his revulsion for U.S. mass culture, its crude materialism, and lack of civility. It was a rebuttal of the American values that were prime propaganda material in the CIA's and Encounter's cultural war against communism. MacDonald's attack of the "decadent American imperium" was too much for the CIA and its intellectual operatives in Encounter. As Braden, in his guidelines to the intellectuals, stated "organizations receiving CIA funds should not be required to support every aspect of U.S. policy," but invariably there was a cut-off point — particularly where U.S. foreign policy was concerned (314). Despite the fact that MacDonald was a former editor of Encounter, the article was rejected. The pious claims of Cold War writers like Nicola Chiaromonte, writing in the second issue of Encounter, that "[t]he duty that no intellectual can shirk without degrading himself is the duty to expose fictions and to refuse to call 'useful lies,' truths," certainly did not apply to Encounter and its distinguished list of contributors when it came to dealing with the 'useful lies' of the West.

One of the most important and fascinating discussions in Saunders' book is about the fact that CIA and its allies in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) poured vast sums of money into promoting Abstract Expressionist (AE) painting and painters as an antidote to art with a social content. In promoting AE, the CIA fought off the right-wing in Congress. What the CIA saw in AE was an "anti-Communist ideology, the ideology of freedom, of free enterprise. Non-figurative and politically silent it was the very antithesis of socialist realism" (254). They viewed AE as the true expression of the national will. To bypass right-wing criticism, the CIA turned to the private sector (namely MOMA and its co-founder, Nelson Rockefeller, who referred to AE as "free enterprise painting.") Many directors at MOMA had longstanding links to the CIA and were more than willing to lend a hand in promoting AE as a weapon in the cultural Cold War. Heavily funded exhibits of AE were organized all over Europe; art critics were mobilized, and art magazines churned out articles full of lavish praise. The combined economic resources of MOMA and the CIA-run Fairfield Foundation ensured the collaboration of Europe's most prestigious galleries which, in turn, were able to influence aesthetics across Europe.

AE as "free art" ideology (George Kennan, 272) was used to attack politically committed artists in Europe. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (the CIA front) threw its weight behind abstract painting, over representational or realist aesthetics, in an explicit political act. Commenting on the political role of AE, Saunders points out: "One of the extraordinary features of the role that American painting played in the cultural Cold War is not the fact that it became part of the enterprise, but that a movement which so deliberately declared itself to be apolitical could become so intensely politicized" (275). The CIA associated apolitical artists and art with freedom. This was directed toward neutralizing the artists on the European left. The irony, of course, was that the apolitical posturing was only for left-wing consumption.

Nevertheless, the CIA and its cultural organizations were able to profoundly shape the postwar view of art. Many prestigious writers, poets, artists, and musicians proclaimed their independence from politics and declared their belief in art for art's sake. The dogma of the free artist or intellectual, as someone disconnected from political engagement, gained ascendancy and is pervasive to this day.

While Saunders has presented a superbly detailed account of the links between the CIA and Western artists and intellectuals, she leaves unexplored the structural reasons for the necessity of CIA deception and control over dissent. Her discussion is framed largely in the context of political competition and conflict with Soviet communism. There is no serious attempt to locate the CIA's cultural Cold War in the context of class warfare, indigenous third world revolutions, and independent Marxist challenges to U.S. imperialist economic domination. This leads Saunders to selectively praise some CIA ventures at the expense of others, some operatives over others. Rather than see the CIA's cultural war as part of an imperialist system, Saunders tends to be critical of its deceptive and distinct reactive nature. The U.S.-NATO cultural conquest of Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR should quickly dispel any notion that the cultural war was a defensive action.

The very origins of the cultural Cold War were rooted in class warfare. Early on, the CIA and its U.S. AFL-CIO operatives Irving Brown and Jay Lovestone (ex-communists) poured millions of dollars into subverting militant trade unions and breaking strikes through the funding of social democratic unions (94). The Congress for Cultural Freedom and its enlightened intellectuals were funded by the same CIA operatives who hired Marseilles gangsters to break the dockworkers' strikes in 1948.

After the Second World War, with the discrediting in Western Europe of the old right (compromised by its links to the fascists and a weak capitalist system), the CIA realized that, in order to undermine the anti-NATO trade unionists and intellectuals, it needed to find (or invent) a Democratic Left to engage in ideological warfare. A special sector of the CIA was set up to circumvent right-wing Congressional objections. The Democratic Left was essentially used to combat the radical left and to provide an ideological gloss on U.S. hegemony in Europe. At no point were the ideological pugilists of the democratic left in any position to shape the strategic policies and interests of the United States. Their job was not to question or demand, but to serve the empire in the name of "Western democratic values." Only when massive opposition to the Vietnam War surfaced in the United States and Europe, and their CIA covers were blown, did many of the CIA-promoted and -financed intellectuals jump ship and begin to criticize U.S. foreign policy. For example, after spending most of his career on the CIA payroll, Stephen Spender became a critic of U.S. Vietnam policy, as did some of the editors of Partisan Review. They all claimed innocence, but few critics believed that a love affair with so many journals and convention junkets, so long and deeply involved, could transpire without some degree of knowledge.

The CIA's involvement in the cultural life of the United States, Europe, and elsewhere had important long-term consequences. Many intellectuals were rewarded with prestige, public recognition, and research funds precisely for operating within the ideological blinders set by the Agency. Some of the biggest names in philosophy, political ethics, sociology, and art, who gained visibility from CIA-funded conferences and journals, went on to establish the norms and standards for promotion of the new generation, based on the political parameters established by the CIA. Not merit nor skill, but politics — the Washington line — defined "truth" and "excellence" and future chairs in prestigious academic settings, foundations, and museums.

The U.S. and European Democratic Left's anti-Stalinist rhetorical ejaculations, and their proclamations of faith in democratic values and freedom, were a useful ideological cover for the heinous crimes of the West. Once again, in NATO's recent war against Yugoslavia, many Democratic Left intellectuals have lined up with the West and the KLA in its bloody purge of tens of thousands of Serbs and the murder of scores of innocent civilians. If anti-Stalinism was the opium of the Democratic Left during the Cold War, human rights interventionism has the same narcotizing effect today, and deludes contemporary Democratic Leftists.

The CIA's cultural campaigns created the prototype for today's seemingly apolitical intellectuals, academics, and artists who are divorced from popular struggles and whose worth rises with their distance from the working classes and their proximity to prestigious foundations. The CIA role model of the successful professional is the ideological gatekeeper, excluding critical intellectuals who write about class struggle, class exploitation and U.S. imperialism, "ideological" not "objective" categories, or so they are told.

The singular lasting, damaging influence of the CIA's Congress of Cultural Freedom crowd was not their specific defenses of U.S. imperialist policies, but their success in imposing on subsequent generations of intellectuals the idea of excluding any sustained discussion of U.S. imperialism from the influential cultural and political media. The issue is not that today's intellectuals or artists may or may not take a progressive position on this or that issue. The problem is the pervasive belief among writers and artists that anti-imperialist social and political expressions should not appear in their music, paintings, and serious writing if they want their work to be considered of substantial artistic merit. The enduring political victory of the CIA was to convince intellectuals that serious and sustained political engagement on the left is incompatible with serious art and scholarship. Today at the opera, theater, and art galleries, as well as in the professional meetings of academics, the Cold War values of the CIA are visible and pervasive: who dares to undress the emperor?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

After the recent suicides of poets Sarah Hannah and Liam Rector, I post this poem, by Brazil's Carlos Drummond de Andrade, with some urgency. And deep sadness.


Carlos Drummond de Andrade

Carlos, keep calm, love
is what you're seeing now:
today a kiss, tomorrow no kiss,
day after tomorrow's Sunday
and nobody knows what will happen

It's useless to resist
or to commit suicide.
Don't kill yourself. Don't kill yourself!
Keep all of yourself for the nuptials
coming nobody knows when,
that is, if they ever come.

Love, Carlos, tellurian, spent the night with you,
and now your insides are raising an ineffable racket,
saints crossing themselves,
ads for a better soap,
a racket of which nobody
knows the why or wherefore.

In the meantime you go on your way
vertical, melancholy.
You're the palm tree, you're the cry
nobody heard in the theatre
and all the lights went out.
Love in the dark, no, love
in the daylight, is always sad,
sad, Carlos, my boy,
but tell it to nobody,
nobody knows nor shall know.

(Translated by Elizabeth Bishop)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A while back I bookmarked this essay by Kathy Lou Schultz, but when I returned to it the URL had expired. I have found it elsehwere, however, and feature it here. It seems to me to be an authentic and honest grappling with the intractable issue of class as it pertains to writing, writers, MFA programs, and identity.

Here is Kathy Lou Schultz's web site:

And here is the essay:

"Talking Trash, Talking Class: What's a Working Class Poetic, and Where Would I Find One?"

by Kathy Lou Schultz

for my grandmothers: Donna Gene (Ewing) Manthey and
Christina Katherina (Sanders) Schultz

I've spent years trying to reconcile being a poet with being working class. Yet, walking home from work one day it occurred to me, such a reconciliation is not only improbable, it is also undesirable. My language comes out of, indeed is exalted toward, the space created where these two identities refuse to meld inside of me. In that messy, dangerous space the possibilities of language are expanded.

What does a "working class poem" look like?
How does it sound?
How does it behave?
What if I'm "too intellectual," "too confident," "too experimental," "too fragmented"?

Growing up working class has given me skills, perspectives, and knowledge which are a part of every decision I make. Growing up working class taught me how to survive. Growing up working class is part of my very breathing. How are "poetries of identity" created? How are they made normative? When I say "working class poem," "working class writer," what do you hear? Tillie Olson, Kevin Magee, Mike Amnasan, Karen Brodine, Rebecca Harding Davis, Meridel Le Sueur, Agnes Smedley, Dorothy Allison, Mike Davis, Carolyn Kay Steedman, Barbara Smith.

And who? Who does not survive in our language?

Anxiety is a sticky substance infused with fear. Dollar for dollar. Or, for instance, poverty. My own collusion in bourgeois appearances bleeding me dry. The need to be seen or recognized outweighing other emotional vaunts.

This is the most difficult essay I have ever not written, for as much time as I spend writing it, I spend more not writing it, carrying it around knotted and unruly.


A discourse around class and poetics is lacking, if not invisible. While it is now possible to identify a trajectory of experimental women's writing, to inhabit a vocabulary of gender and sexuality, references to class often remain just that: mere codes. Several problematic issues arise both in the writing of, and writing about, what we might call "working class poetry."

First, the drive to create "poetries of identity" (a phrase I've been using for some time) tends to solidify normalizing tendencies in terms of form, style, and content, i.e. does a poem have to be narrative, "I"-based and "about" work in order to be considered "working class"? Furthermore, drawing a straight line between one's identity and one's poetics is problematic at best and confuses the biographical information about the poet with poetic works that genuinely seek to explore, unseat, complicate subjectivity.

The obvious point to be made is that identities are infinitely mediated and complex; coming from a particular class, race, gender is not--and should not be--the map through which one can trace a trajectory toward a particular type of poetic expression. That said, I still consider Lorine Niedecker (along with being a great Modernist, experimental, American, woman writer) to be a great working class writer. It is part of providing myself with a history.

Dear Hilda, Dear Wallace, Dear Michael, Dear Frederick

Dear Marianne, Dear ball and stick, Dear K, Dear K, Dear K, Dear K

A language of provisional objects

A language of hunger

The head of the hammer

flying off and cracking

Or a spade unable to overturn

the solid earth

Does the word "proletarian" refer?

See now, a figure described as my grandmother crossing a room

Replace "I" with "salt in a bag"

In the face of my parents' illiteracy

all the ravages

My anxieties race through me at a difference pace, clutching at my lungs, my throat, making it difficult to swallow or breathe. My childhood anxiety wasn't made up of monsters in the closet, or fear of the dark. My anxiety was tied to something which my parents could only haltingly save me from, something which they toiled vigorously to save the entire family from: poverty. The threat of falling into poverty, losing one's health, losing a job, that looms over the working class creates particular anxieties, mental health issues, and survival strategies. I learned to take care of myself early because it was required. During much of my childhood, my parents each worked two jobs, and I was often alone. Now in her fifties, my mother faces health problems which I can only attribute to years of overwork.

I took care of myself. I struggled. I got angry. Though the idea that I would go to college was with me from a young age, there was no such thing as a "college fund" to pay for it; my parents had no money to sent me to college. If I were to go, I had to figure out the way myself. And I did. I became an incredible over-achiever. I racked up academic awards, anxiety, and rage. I knew I must always do more, be better, to prove myself worthy. I took nothing for granted.

Education is like a religion for the working class. It's the "way out." Of course, at the present moment, that both is and isn't true. This news has reached even popular journals, such as Spin, which reports in its October 1997 article on "Sucker Ph.D.'s":

More than one third of all new history Ph.D.s will never find full-time teaching work, according to the American Historical Associations' own newsletter, paltry numbers given the mammoth amount of time you have to invest to discover your fate. Across all fields, 40,000-plus students will receive their doctorates this year. Few have illusions about what awaits them: a handful of good jobs, each sought by hundreds of applicants; university presses less and less willing to publish the academic books needed to gain tenure; protracted separations from loved ones. Grad school, an option nearly every halfway idealistic college student contemplates, has become an invitation to purgatory.

This brings me to the inevitable discussion of MFA programs. Camille Roy, in a recent discussion on the SUNY Buffalo Poetics ListServ interestingly points out that when she first came to the Bay Area, there were resources available in the community for writers to learn more about their craft, such as the free workshops offered by Bob Gluck through Small Press Traffic. Roy attributes the current institutionalization of such resources into university MFA programs, where people must pay for access, to dwindling funding for the arts.

This is a very difficult situation, and while it is true that few poor and working class people will apply themselves to a graduate program, such as an MFA, which virtually guarantees that they will not find a job, some institutions such as San Francisco State University are historically very working class. Like other working class folks, I worked full-time while completing my MFA in poetry at State. It took me five years to complete the three-year program, and during that time I endured a level of exhaustion and stress which had adverse effects on my health. (I was almost hospitalized in the middle of it in 1993.)

In addition, it must be pointed out that not everyone enters such a program with equal amounts of privilege, and completing a degree, while providing for the acquisition of particular cultural capital, is not a great leveler. Working class people are often worse off when graduating because of the massive student loan debts they carry with them.

So why did I do it? Because my working class heritage has imbued me with a stubbornness which allows one small part of myself to refuse to accept that I am not allowed to have what other people have just because they come from wealthy families and I don't. I wanted to learn. I wanted an intellectual community. I wanted a writing community. Are MFA programs the best answer to all of that? Certainly not, but I did gain some of what I wanted in all three of those areas. And I existed at State, much more than I did as an undergraduate at Columbia University and Oberlin College, because I could look around and see my experience reflected, and not feel so much the horrible grating of isolation.

the passage of place
in desire
a geometric development
heretofore opposed to wake
pronouncements and sedentary acts
the startling possibility of collectivity
when money has everything and nothing to do with it
"I'm just trying to get us both on the same page"

People assume they know who I am because I am white, because I am "educated," because I am reasonably articulate. But my efforts to be "good enough" have been too successful: they have helped to erase who I am. I pass so well, but you look through me, and what you do not see says so much.

My own writing comes out of those points of pressure and contradiction. The education which introduced me to Anne-Marie Albiach, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Blanchot, post-structuralism, and experimental narrative, also ensures that I am a stranger to my own family. I now speak at least two languages. I cannot forget, or erase, one in favor of the other in the difficult act of writing. Amphibious, we live in both worlds, but belong to neither.

Writing which brings to bear the full force of one's psychic, material (body and word) power is not sweet or delicate. It is not "safe." To fully inhabit the world of working class subjectivity in a poem requires that I withstand an incredible emotional pressure. I scratch away at the codes or placeholders which seem to want to denote class, and try to find what lies underneath. In the face of silence, only my stutter.

While literacy is certainly an issue when discussing the "accessibility" of innovative works, I have sat with readers with high school educations and Ph.D.'s alike while they encountered similar challenges and delights in unlayering a poem. I refuse to assume or presume my audience–any audience–during my writing process. To assume that the "true" working class poem is only a narrative exposition of working class "experience," is to buy into normative reading patterns established by post-WWII academic poetries in the U.S. This assumption precludes the full possibilities of language, isolating working class poets to a particular kind of expressionism. It would be difficult to find a parallel prescription placed on the depiction of class in other art forms.

The difficulty in discussing class and poetics reflects the larger obfuscation of class within American culture. While Labor is becoming more visible as we near the end of the 20th century, and the intelligentsia faces a job market of dwindling opportunity and wealth is concentrated in the hands of an increasing few, the myth of a "classless" society persists. (Have you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps lately?)

Too often, class is conflated with race in a fuzzy-headed analysis that fails to account for the conflicting privileges/oppressions of race and class. I continue to believe that it is extremely valuable for white working class people to speak out about their experiences and interrogate what it means to live simultaneously not only with racial privilege, but also under economic oppression. Exploring these kinds of contradictions is the only way that theory will catch up with praxis.

As someone both white and working class, I have often been painfully invisible, particularly in academic environments where it was much more comfortable for white academics to assume that I was "like them" despite evidence to the contrary. One woman at Oberlin repeatedly insisted to my face, "You're like me? your parents have money." The fact that I was not supported financially by my parents was a foreign concept to her, and far too many others. I had to insist on my own existence, insist on the right to my own experience, and avoid being put in the position of taking care of their feelings of guilt.

Writing is thievery, as in stealing time. I will forever be envious of those who are afforded the material conditions and privilege in which to write. Those whose parents paid for them to go to college. Those who grew up blissfully unaware of financial struggle. Those whose families are able to provide them with a crucial safety net in times of crisis. These people have the things that I always wanted, but will never have. I can't go back and change that. I can only fight to harness my fear and rage in a way which returns me to the page in a productive way as a poet who believes that issues of power and privilege are of vital importance.

This essay first appeared in tripwire: a journal of poetics, no. 1, Spring, 1998.

Kathy Lou Schultz was born in Burke, South Dakota and grew up in central Nebraska. She left Nebraska at age 18 to attend Columbia University in New York. She finished her B.A. at Oberlin College and earned an MFA at San Francisco State University. Her publications include Genealogy (a+bend press, 1999) and Re dress (San Francisco State University, 1994). She is a founding editor of Lipstick Eleven and Duck Press.