Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Paul Metcalf / Conrad Aiken

Conrad Aiken, 1889-1973

Metcalf’s basic unfettered crankiness (sheer honesty ungarbed by politesse, or, worse, “literary” propriety, what makes a career ooze out like honey, or some primordial black grease) witnessed in letter excerpts (among other things). Out of the Robert Buckeye-edited From Quarry Road: Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Paul Metcalf (2002):
Gil [Sorrentino] is a fine critic (recently read an excellent piece of his own on Blackburn), but I just can’t read his own work. Zukofsky I don’t have the patience for . . . he’s a classic example, to me, of someone who has made a profound commitment to Art or Philosophy or some god-damn thing (something other than Life, i.e., they’ve placed the cart before the horse) . . . it’s really a religious commitment, somewhat more refined than Ginsberg and his Buddhism, but essentially the same thing—and I find it very dull.

Oppen is fine, remains strong over the years. I used to like Bronk, but he begins to wear thin. Like you say, too much Stevens. As I get older and crankier, I find myself with diminishing tolerance for people who play games with language.

Have been thinking lately about the bicameral mind, migraine (from the Greek “half-skull”) headache, kinesiology, the loss of vowels in the speech of the deaf, Celtic settlements (pre-Christian) in the Midwest, and the great Mississippi earthquake.

I love [Benjamin’s] comparison of the assembly line and gambling, the fact that each action, in both, is the duplicate of the one before it—and that both are therefore without tradition, without history, Tradition, oddly, depends on change.

Like you say, it’s strange, getting me reduced to a formula before I’m even a threat to anybody. Preventive Medicine. And loading me into a cart with Olson, Pound, Williams, and pushing us all off the cliff. I am flattered, truly, to be assassinated in such company.

I wouldn’t be bothered about a specific concern for history in one’s makeup—presence or lack thereof—and perhaps some of the things I’ve written on the subject are misleading. I think any man who develops a style that seems right for the time and place in which he is writing—and the time and place of which he is writing—demonstrates an implicit sense of history, whether he’s conscious of it or not. The “rightness” is an historical phenomenon, the man and his work entering the organic process of human events.

“The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones”—great god! Well, I’ve scrounged thru old cartons, mouse-nest manuscripts, battered baggage, etc., and cannot find it. That was the fruit, I recall, of a summer spent studying with Aiken, in the mid-thirties; he taught me how to drink like a gentleman, and little else.
Metcalf invariably repeats the Aiken line: “Around 1940 or so I spent a summer living and studying (and drinking) with the poet Conrad Aiken.” Or, in a piece printed in the Don Byrd and Jed Rasula-edited Wch Way (1982) wherein Metcalf tells of how, after dropping out of Harvard (result of spending most of three months at “McManus’ Bar & Grill, across the street from the Yard”), joining—and quitting—a “small repertory theatre group outside Philadelphia, the Hedgerow Theatre, run by a dynamic and loony Pennsylvania Dutchman, Jasper Deeter” and “kind of drifting in ignorance”:
My tolerant parents . . . felt that a little more at least semi-formal education might be a good thing, so I was treated to a summer living and studying with Conrad Aiken, on Cape Cod. Aiken, besides refining my tastes in alcohol, taught me to write a good honest sonnet—but, more importantly, he introduced me to some reading that began to turn my life around: Faulkner, who was just beginning to surface then, and Kafka, for example.
It’s unclear what Metcalf is looking for, scrounging in boxes, in the lines about Aiken’s 1931 book The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones. What’s of note, though, is how, while disparaging Aiken’s teaching, Metcalf seemingly cottoned to one of Aiken’s techniques in Osiris Jones, a book that attempts to portray a man’s life through lists of places, signage, speeches, &c. One notes how, in an interview in Sagetrieb (V:3, 1986), Metcalf claims, regarding “influences”: “one of the beauties of this game is that you can pick your ancestors, you can decide who is influential, who is important to you . . .” (Must Metcalf’s “pick” of Olson* preclude the possibility of Aiken?) Look at some of the documentary pieces (and techniques) in The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones:
Inscriptions in Sundry Places

On a billboard
      smoke Sweet Caporals

In a street-car
      do not speak to the motorman

On a vending machine
      insert one cent then press the rod
      push push push push

On a weighing machine
      give yourself a weigh

On the schoolhouse
      Morton Grammar School Founded 1886

In gilt letters on a swinging black sign
      Dr. William F. Jones, M.D.

On a tombstone
      memento mori

On a coin
      e pluribus unum

On the fence of a vacant lot
      commit no nuisance

In a library

At the entrance to a graveyard
      dog admitted only on leash

At a zoo
      do not feed the animals

On a cotton wharf
      no smoking

On a crocheted bookmarker in a Bible
      time is short

On a sailor cap
      U.S.S. Oregon

At a railway-crossing
      stop look and listen

At the end of a road
      private way dangerous passing

Beside a pond
      no fishing

In a park
      keep off the grass

In a train
      spitting prohibited $100 fine

On a celluloid button
      remember the Maine

On a brick wall
      trespassers will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law

Outside a theatre
      standing room only

At the foot of a companionway leading to the bridge of a ship
      officers only

In a subway
      the cough and sneeze
      both spread disease
      and so does spit
      take care of it

. . .

In a saloon
      no treating allowed

Laundry-mark on linen

In a window
      board and room

On a ship
      first class passengers not allowed aft of this sign

In a train
      ne pas se pencher au dehors

On an apartment-house door
      all deliveries must be made at side entrance

Over a door in a hospital
      staff only
And, out of a piece called “Report Made by a Medical Student to Whom Was Assigned for Inspection the Case of Mr. Jones”:
      sallow and somewhat haggard; thin and pallid;
      intelligent; with no marked cyanosis;
      the lips however pale and slightly blueish.
      No prominent veins, no jaundice, no oedema.
      The eyes are sunken, broad dark rings around them;
      conjunctivae, pale; gum, not affected;
      no blue line, and no sponginess. Tongue,—moist;
      with yellow coat . . . The right ear shows
      a small herpetic cluster on the lobule.

      no enlargement; normal pulsation.

      as a whole, symmetrical in outline.
      respiratory movements, uniform.
      Supra-clavicular (and infra-clavicular) regions
      no more depressed than anaemia warrants.
      No heart-impulse visible. Apex beat not seen.

      the skin, deeply pigmented. The abdomen
      somewhat distended; uniform in shape.
      Found only one small spot that might be thought
      a rose-spot: no abdominal pulsation.

      forearms and thighs, dotted with small spots—
      average about a pinhead size (some larger)—
      varying from the color of fresh blood
      to almost black. Are not removed by pressure,—
      not raised above the surface, sharply outlined:
      appear (on close inspection) as minute
      haemorrhages beneath the epidermis . . .
      The skin, harsh, scaly. Follicles, not prominent.
      Muscles, somewhat flaccid. No oedema . . .
I suspect, for Aiken, the cataloging impulse, encyclopedic and commonplace, is derived out of Joyce, somebody Metcalf rarely mentions. And it may be that Metcalf’s own medical extravagances and revels turn me to Aiken’s document. Metcalf: “Having once chosen to be ‘factual,’ the writer gets into interesting situations. First, there is the old saw: what are facts, what is reality?—reality is whatever any given group of people can agree it is.”
* Out of the Wch Way piece:
I was reading Olson, too, his attacks on the novel as just such an impure medium. Something in me agreed with him, his notion that the poets were much closer to this much-to-be-desired source. But I was unable to write poetry. Or I couldn’t approach what I wanted to do other than by indirection. So, quite simply, I wrote a novel. Wallowing in impurity, if you will. And that novel, bad as it was, was a very useful effort. It completed my education, I might say, and gave me a platform from which to operate. Because it was from that platform, weaving in much else that I had learned from Olson, Pound, Williams, Faulkner, Lawrence, Crane (later, Melville), that I was able to work through the novel and evolve the body of work that has followed—call them documentary novels, documentary poems, whatever.