Individuals Admired

Over thirty years ago I wrote an M.A. thesis involving both [W.E.B.] DuBois and [James Weldon] Johnson as novelists, a thesis reprinted as a book two decades later, and came to see them historically as contrasting figures, much as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, also in my thesis, were antipodes in a later generation. Whereas DuBois and Wright were susceptible to blinding fantasies and ideologies, Johnson and Ellison closely observed realities; whereas the former pair were isolated from African-American communities—Du Bois indicatively dying in Ghana while Wright passed in Paris—the latter pair lived among their people. Whereas Johnson and Ellison could write in Black English, DuBois couldn't even speak it, Thomas Sowell for one remembering that he would sit grimly close-mouthed in a Harlem barbershop. Johnson preached that African-American culture was uniquely American and thus scarcely African, thereby influencing Ralph Ellison along with his college buddy the writer Albert L. Murray, who in turn influenced Wynton Marsalis, whose sense of jazz dominates the recent Ken Burns' marathon documentary.

“James Weldon Johnson” (2001)

The major poets are those who realize significance in language, through language, whose vision of the possibilities of poetry is distinctive, whose use of language has sufficient character or signature to make every poem they write recognizable as theirs. By these criteria, it seems to me, Ogden Nash ranks among the top dozen American poets of the twentieth century; it is no small measure of his success that he wrote lines that will be remembered for as long as English is heard.

“Nash and Gnash: Ogden Reconsidered” (2004)

What was also remarkable about Charlie [Watts, the Dean of the College during my years at Brown] was the quality of his attention to us students. He could continue a conversation you had with him days, if not weeks, before, expecting you to remember what he said because he was after all your dean but invariably impressing you that he remembered whatever it was that we had been talking about. I've tried to do this as well in my own relations with people, though since I don't run any operation with employees or students I don't need to remember so many others. I doubt if I was alone in experiencing Charlie's exceptionally attentive intelligence. So rich was Brown education that even deans gave useful lessons.

“Brown University, Fifty Years Later” (2010)

To repeat what I said in Political Essays, the popular image of Clinton as a rapacious seducer might include a good deal of myth. Consider, quite simply, given the number of reporters and partisan investigators looking for past girl friends, coupled with Clinton's notorious penchant for promises that cannot be kept, why haven't more warm loquacious bodies turned up? Perhaps there aren't (m)any others. Kathleen Willey was scarcely violated. (My own sense is that she was a double agent--a Clinton supporter who volunteered to tell a story that could be swiftly discredited, thereby undermining the reputation and investigative confidence of TV's 60 Minutes.) One theme of Seymour Hersh's The Dark Side of Camelot (1997) that should not be missed is that even an unhealthy president-on-the-make (JFK) can score many more women than the handful allegedly violated by Bill Clinton. (Kennedy also evidently had the forethought to favor women who could not kiss and tell, mostly because they were already married or had other good reason for keeping his seductions secret.)

“When Will Tailgate End?” (1999)

As [the Parisian artist/writer Jean-François] Bory included my own work in an anthology he compiled, Once Again (1968), we began to correspond. I have since then always treasured his letters, which are written in an idiosyncratic pastiche of French and English. Though Bory's syntax is as scrambled as his vocabulary, the meaning behind his words is always clear. (Another Parisian visual poet, by contrast, writes me in grammatically proper English sentences, whose meaning I cannot for the life of me comprehend.)

“Jean-François Bory” (1974)

For over three decades I regarded Dick Higgins (1938-1998) as the most variously accomplished of my contemporaries, as he produced indubitably distinguished work as a publisher and book designer, especially with Something Else Press; a scholar, particularly of visual poetry; a writer of poems, stories, and plays; and a visual artist working in books, prints, and paintings. In addition to doing live performance, music composition, and films (but not video), he worked prodigiously in interart areas that have no accepted name.

He was such a great communicator that the greatest professional tragedy of his life, apart from limited professional acceptance, was that he never became a teacher, not even at the purportedly advanced college only a few miles from his Barrytown house. Given a pedagogical opportunity, Dick could be remarkably generous with his time and often with his money. Toward the end of his life, he told an aspiring priest that, had he not become an artist/writer, he would have loved to be a clergyman, which is to say a spiritual leader.

“Remembering Dick Higgins” (1999)

What [Northrop] Frye at his best has achieved is a complex structure of literary understanding that is useful not only to his fellow scholars but also for general readers and even grade-school students. Frye's schemes are almost Blakean in their dazzling, multifarious complexity, for the Anatomy of Criticism is, in its own way, a work of high verbal art that is, like the best poetry and fiction, a pleasurable reading experience of awesome implications and profound value. In his masterwork, Frye speaks of the mystery of art as coming "not from concealment but from revelation, nor from something unknown or unknowable in the work, but from something unlimited in it." This description implicitly suits, to be sure, his own Anatomy of Criticism.

“Northrop Frye: The Literature Professors' Literature Professor” (1974)

My conclusion was that [the Soviet publicist Vladimir Posner's] communicative skills depended upon his genuine love for American culture, reflected in his enthusiasm for our literature and folk music, and then upon an imaginative projection that was essentially disingenuous--that he was a free western-style commentator in a country that, at least until recently, did not know such creatures. This last illusion depended in turn upon a story-telling propensity that was known to his childhood friends in New York and has nothing to do with politics, even though it could be adapted to political ends.

The excellence of his prose persuaded me that the real tragedy of Pozner's life--it's the implicit theme of his book--is that he should have been an English-language author, writing both nonfiction and fiction about a variety of experiences; but coming of age in Moscow, where such a career was impossible, unable to emigrate to an English-speaking country, he was steered into what he could do best for the state--talk to Americans, initially for Soviet Life, then on Radio Moscow, eventually on American networks. His career epitomizes the tragedy of talent in a closed economic system. Now that he is trying to enter ours, the publishing business requires that first he write a good-seller about his exceptional experience. In this respect, he resembles the African-American writer of, say, fifty years ago who couldn't expect a contract for second book unless he first wrote one about being black. Since Vladimir Pozner has paid those dues, so to speak, I for one look forward to his future work.

“Vladimir Pozner Again” (1990)

Having declared it before, I don't mind repeating that Hugh B. Fox (b. 1932) is the most distinguished man of alternative letters of our time. I say alternative letters because he publishes mostly not with commercial publishers, though they have tried him (only to fail him), but with smaller presses whose editorial decisions are based not on money but on love. His only real competitors for the title are the Canadian writer George Woodcock (1912-1995) and Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), both of whom were, incidentally, prominent anarchists. The latter has published nearly one hundred titles with sixty-plus publishers—a fact revealed in a C-Span In Depth interview with him, though the inquisitor, accustomed to interviewing commercial writers, didn't understand the significance of that fact. Like Fox, Chomsky is generous toward smaller publishers. What I'd like to see from each man, if only for its instructive value, is an account of his publishing career, a book comparable to John Robert Colombo's monumental Self-Schrift (1999).

What he genuinely deserves is not just a Guggenheim, which disgraces itself by forgetting him, but the first National Medal for Alternative Literature. If everyone reading this review chips in a buck or two, probably we can get him a truly handsome medallion. On second thought, since he has retired on a university pension, perhaps, if his smallpress colleagues award him this medal through popular acclaim, Fox can pay for it.

“Hugh B. Fox” (2005)

More predisposed to poets who publish widely, as distinct to those sticking to the safe coterie, I'm impressed initially by the great variety of places accepting [Simon Perchik's] work—not just countless obscure magazines but The New Yorker, The Nation, Partisan Review, Boulevard, and others self-consciously “selective.” Likewise impressive are the various allegiances of the colleagues whose blurbs grace this new book: James Tate, X.J. Kennedy, Paul Blackburn, and Charles Olson. Who else among us could get encomia from so many otherwise contrary potentates?

One immediate mark of Perchik's poetry is that he rarely uses titles for individual poems. Gathered together in bulk, the selections in Hands Collected can be read as a single continuous poem about a wealth of preoccupations, standing as a definitive summary of a poetic career well spent now bound into a book that all of us should have.

“Simon Perchik” (2003)

My very favorite text here [All the Poems of John Robert Colombo] is the one that I “found” to appreciate, though Colombo probably thought it only Information, which is simply all the titles in the “Contents” that run for five full pages as continuous prose plus numbers in each volume, these fifteen large pages achieving in sum a density unprecedented for anyone else's Collected Poems. In my considered opinion, no doubt reflecting Colombo's influence, these rich contents can stand by themselves as a symbol, to use an epithet popular in poetry criticism when we were growing up, of Colombo's monumental achievement.

“John Robert Colombo” (2005)