Documentary Portraits of Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton & Other American Poets (1965)

The annals of American history offer little in the way of documentarian-poets. But luckily for us today — and especially for those of us who enjoy American poetry of the mid-2oth century — one of the country's few such hyphenates lived an uncommonly productive life. Though known primarily as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance, Richard O. Moore also had a career in independent and public media, beginning in 1949 with the very first broadcast of Berkeley's KPFA. In the early 1950s he moved to San Francisco's newly founded KQED, one of the country's first public television stations. After a stint at Columbia studying Wittgenstein, Moore returned to KQED in 1961, whereupon he began producing a wide variety of documentaries.

As subject matter, poetry may not naturally lend itself to television. But given Moore's connections to major American poets on both coasts and elsewhere besides, if anyone could make it work, he could. It certainly helped that so many of those poets had compelling personalities, not least Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the stars of one episode of Moore's 1965 documentary series USA: Poetry. "The footage he captured is nothing short of miraculous, a national treasure type time capsule of another, more literary age," says the web side of Santa Cruz's Bad Animal Books, which has gathered a selection of episodes together on one page. "Moore provided a rare glimpse of some of the finest American poets of the twentieth century at the summit of their powers," a lineup also including Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Anne Sexton, Frank O'Hara, Ed Sanders, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder.

Moore's documentary portraits unfailingly include readings of the subjects' work, but they don't stop there. They also offer glimpses into these poets' lives, professional, domestic, and otherwise, showing us the cities, towns, homes, bookstores, and libraries they inhabit. A few of these subjects, like Sanders, Snyder, and the especially venerable Ferlinghetti continue to inhabit them, though most have by now shuffled off this mortal coil. William Carlos Williams had already done so by the time of USA: Poetry's episode about him, and so in addition to footage illustrating the bard of Paterson's verse and letters (sights that may remind modern-day viewers of Paterson, Jim Jarmusch's tribute to the workaday American poet), Moore features Williams' son William E. Williams. Though Williams fils didn't follow Williams père into poetry, he did follow him into medicine, which constituted not just the poet's day job but —as we hear read aloud — "my food and drink, the very thing that made it possible for me to write."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Scenes of Ezra Pound Wandering Through Venice and Reading from His Famous Pisan Cantos (1967)

Ezra Pound is a problem for Modernist literary studies in the same way Martin Heidegger is for Continental philosophy: it’s impossible to deny the overwhelming influence of either figure—and impossible to deny that both were devoted anti-Semitic fascists from at least the 1930s to the end of their days. Heidegger kept his views mostly hidden in his “Black Notebooks.” Pound, on the other hand, became an enthusiastic mouthpiece. He publicly idolized Benito Mussolini, signed letters with “Heil Hitler,” and broadcast paranoid anti-Semitic hate speech on Italian radio in over a hundred propaganda pieces for the Axis powers during the war.

Pound was to be sentenced for treason in 1945 but was saved by an insanity defense promoted by Ernest Hemingway (who convinced himself Pound must have been insane to say such things.) After a stay in St. Elizabeth’s, Pound recanted, but privately he never changed. If he were a lesser poet, critics and readers might assure themselves they’d never read the likes of him today. But not only is he inseparable from literary history as an influential editor and booster (without Pound, no Eliot’s The Waste Land), but he is rightly recognized as one of the most gifted poets of the 20th century.

“Is it wrong to love a fascist?” asked Ash Sarkar in a take on the Pound problem that lists him among many “problematic faves, along with The Simpsons and Vybz Kartel.” The “vituperative” anti-Semitism of Pound’s later years finds its way into his later Cantos—the massive, unfinished, eclectic, erudite, and deeply obscure series of epic poems he worked on from 1915 to 1962. “Canto XLV,” notes Sarkar, “one of his many attacks on financiers, is suffused with antisemitic language and imagery.”

Canto XVI contains what Mark Ford calls “a characteristic specimen of Pound’s mimicry,” which Mussolini found “entertaining” during their first and only meeting. (“It’s my idea of how a Continental Jew would speak English,” Pound supposedly told Il Duce.) Such moments of racist mockery alternate in the Pisan Cantos—published in 1948 and written during the war—with elegies, economic and political theories, and archaic lines in which many readers hear echoes of blood and soil mythology. We may hear such an echo in Canto LXXXI, from which Pound reads above, over footage of him wandering around Venice.

Allen Ginsberg described Canto LXXXI as “a collage of Pound’s prison mental gossip (thinking to himself in prison, notating down… little nostalgic recollections of pre-World War I.)” There are, however, gestures toward more recent events. He refers to the "friends of Franco" in one line, for example, and Hélène Aji identifies Pound’s reference to Thomas Jefferson as an allusion to Mussolini. How did Pound himself square his nationalism with his cosmopolitan modernism? Literary scholar David Barnes speculates:

The writer would have seen no conflict here. Pound could easily switch from his Hitlerian fantasies to a recommendation of the kind of artists (Joyce, Marinetti) that Führer would have classed as “degenerate.” In his mind, the sharp lines of modernism seem to have been equated or even interchangeable with the totalitarian politics of Nazi Fascism.

Except it wasn’t Nazi Fascism that Pound mostly hawked—though he enthusiastically recommended Mein Kampf. It was the Italian original. Mussolini did not share Hitler's extreme antipathy for modern artists. He too saw modernism and fascism as interchangeable, as did the many Italian artists he coopted as propagandists. Pound was not especially unique in such circumstances.

It’s not clear when this film footage was shot, but the reading was recorded in Spoleto, Italy during the summer of 1967. You can listen to the full recording above, and hear another version, and dozens more recordings of Pound, at Penn Sound.

via Ubuweb

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet the World’s First Known Author: Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna

Watchers of Westworld will have heard a character in the most recent episode utter the line, “for the first time, history has an author.” It’s as loaded a bit of dialogue as the series has dropped on fans, not least for its suggestion that in the absence of a god we should be better off with an all-knowing machine.

The line might bend the ear of literary scholars for another reason. The idea of authorship is a complicated one. In one sense, maybe, everyone is an author of history, and in another, perhaps no one is. But it's difficult to comprehend these abstractions—we crave stories with strong characters, hence our veneration of Great Men and Women of the past.

Still, in many times and places, individual authorship was irrelevant. Renaissance thinkers revalued the author as an auctoritas, a worthy figure of influence and renown. “Death of the author” theorists pointed out that the appearance of a literary text could never be reduced to a single, unchanging personality. In religious studies, questions of authorship open onto minefield after minefield. There may be no commonly agreed-upon way to think about what an author is.

Does it make sense, then, to talk about the “world’s first author”? Perhaps. In the TED-Ed lesson above by Soraya Field Fiorio, we learn that the first known person to use written language for literary purposes was named was Enheduanna, a powerful Mesopotamian high priestess who wrote forty-two hymns and three epic poems in cuneiform 4,3000 hundred years ago.

Daughter of Sargon of Akkad, who placed her in a position to rule, Enheduanna lived about “1,500 years before Homer and about 500 years before the Biblical patriarch Abraham.” (There’s considerable doubt, of course, about whether either of those people existed, whether they wrote the works attributed to them, or whether such works were penned by committee, so to speak.)

Sargon was also an author, having composed an autobiography, The Legend of Sargon, that “exerted a powerful influence over the Sumerians he sought to conquer,” notes Joshua J. Mark at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. But first, Enheduanna used her position as high priestess to unify her father’s empire with religious hymns that praised the gods of each major Sumerian city. “In her writing, she humanized the once aloof gods," just as Homer would hundreds of years later. "Now they suffered, fought, loved, and responded to human pleading.”

Her hymns to Inanna are her most defining literary achievement, but Enheduanna has somehow been completely left out of history. “We know who the first novelist is,” writes Charles Halton at Lit Hub, “eleventh century Japanese Noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the Tale of Genji.” Likewise, we know the first novelist of the western world, Miguel de Cervantes, and the first essayist, Michel de Montaigne. But “ask any person in your life who wrote the first poem and they’re apt to draw a blank.”

Maybe this is because, unlike novels, we don't think of poetry as being invented by a single individual. It seems as though it must have sprung from the collective psyche not long after humans began using language. Yet from the point of view of literary history—which, like most histories, consists of a succession of great names—Enheduanna certainly deserves the honor as the world’s first known poet and first known author.  Learn more about her in the lesson above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Library of Congress Wants You to Help Transcribe Walt Whitman’s Poems & Letters: Almost 4000 Unpublished Documents Are Waiting

Every once in a while, a prominent artist will offer the advice that you should quit your day job and never look back. In some fields, this may be possible, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult these days, which may explain the reception Brian Eno gets when he tells art school students “not to have a job.” Eno admits, “I rarely get asked back.” In a letter to his anxious mother, Gustave Flaubert, railed against “those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night.” Such a life, he wrote, was “made for mediocre minds.”

Sure, if you can swing it, by all means, quit your job. Most poets throughout history—save the few with independent means or wealthy patrons—haven’t had the luxury. Poetry may never pay the bills, but that shouldn’t stop a poet from writing. It didn’t stop T.S. Eliot, who worked as an editor (he rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm) and a bank clerk (he turned down a fellowship from the Bloomsbury group). It did not stop William Carlos Williams, the doctor, nor Wallace Stevens, who spent his days in the insurance game, nor Charles Bukowski,  though he’d never recommend it….

Then there’s ultimate journeyman poet Walt Whitman, who left school at 11 to get a job and variously throughout his life “worked as a school teacher, printer, newspaper editor, journalist, carpenter, freelance writer, civil servant, and Union Army nurse in Washington D.C. during the Civil War,” as the Library of Congress (LOC) noted for the 200th anniversary of the poet’s 1819 birth. The LOC holds “the world’s largest Walt Whitman manuscript collection” and last year they announced a volunteer campaign to transcribe thousands of unpublished documents.

Whitman offered his own possibly dubious advice to aspiring writers—“don’t write poetry”—but he himself never stopped writing, no matter the demands of the day. He also advised, “it is a good plan for every young man or woman having literary aspirations to carry a pencil and a piece of paper and constantly jot down striking events in daily life. They thus acquire a vast fund of information.” Whitman’s “jottings” include typed and handwritten letters, original copies of poems, drafts of essays and reviews, and more.

His prose is always lively and robust, full of exhortations, exaltations, and admixtures of the high literary language and casual talk of city streets that were his hallmark. Witness the wild swings in tone in his brief letter to Abraham P. Leech (above) circa 1881:

Friend Leech,

How d'ye do? -- I have quite a hankering to hear from and see Jamaica, and the Jamaicaites. -- A pressure of business only, has prevented my coming out among the "friends of yore" and the familiar places which your village contains. --I was an hour in your village the other day, but did not have time to come up and see you,--I think of coming up in the course of the winter holidays.--Farewell--and don't forget write to me, through the P.O.  May your kind angel hover in the invisible air, and lose sight of your blessed presence never.


There are many, many more such documents remaining to be transcribed among the close to 4000 in the LoC’s digitized Whitman collection. “More than half of those have been completed so far,” writes Mental Floss, and roughly 1860 transcriptions still need to be reviewed. Anyone can read the documents that need approval and officially add them to the Whitman archive.” This is a very worthy project, and it may or may not feel like work to volunteer your time deciphering, reading, and transcribing Whitman’s ebullient hand.

The question may still remain: How did Whitman acquire the physical and mental stamina to get so much excellent writing done and still hold down steady gigs to make the rent? Perhaps a series of guides called “Manly Health and Training" that he wrote between 1858 and 1860 hold a clue. The poet recommends routine trips to the “gymnasium” and a diet of meat, “to the exclusion of all else.” For those “students, clerks” and others “in sedentary and mental employments”—including the “literary man”—he has one word: “Up!”

As with all such pieces of advice, results may vary. Enter the two huge manuscript archives—“Miscellaneous” and “Poetry”—at the Library of Congress digital collections and peruse, or transcribe, as much of Whitman's endless stream of writing as you like.

via Mental Floss

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a Hand-Drawn Animation of Neil Gaiman’s Poem “The Mushroom Hunters,” Narrated by Amanda Palmer

The arrival of a newborn son has inspired no few poets to compose works preserving the occasion. When Neil Gaiman wrote such a poem, he used its words to pay tribute to not just the creation of new life but to the scientific method as well. "Science, as you know, my little one, is the study / of the nature and behavior of the universe," begins Gaiman's "The Mushroom Hunters." An important thing for a child to know, certainly, but Gaiman doesn't hesitate to get into even more detail: "It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement / and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed." Go slightly over the head of a newborn as all this may, any parent of an older but still young child knows what question naturally comes next: "Why?"

As if in anticipation of that inevitable expression of curiosity, Gaiman harks back to "the old times," when "men came already fitted with brains / designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run," and with any luck to come back with a slain antelope for dinner. The women, "who did not need to run down prey / had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them," taking special note of the spots where they could find mushrooms. It was these mushroom hunters who used "the first tool of all," a sling to hold the baby but also to "put the berries and the mushrooms in / the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers. / Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break." But how to know which of the mushrooms — to say nothing of the berries, roots, and leaves — will kill you, which will "show you gods," and which will "feed the hunger in our bellies?"

"Observe everything." That's what Gaiman's poem recommends, and what it memorializes these mushroom hunters for having done: observing the conditions under which mushrooms aren't deadly to eat, observing childbirth to "discover how to bring babies safely into the world," observing everything around them in order to create "the tools we make to build our lives / our clothes, our food, our path home..." In Gaiman's poetic view, the observations and formulations made by these early mushroom-hunting women to serve only the imperative of survival lead straight (if over a long distance), to the modern scientific enterprise, with its continued gathering of facts, as well as its constant proposal and revision of laws to describe the patterns in those facts.

You can see "The Mushroom Hunters" brought to life in the video above, a hand-drawn animation by Creative Connection scored by the composer Jherek Bischoff (previously heard in the David Bowie tribute Strung Out in Heaven). You can read the poem at Brain Pickings, whose creator Maria Popova hosts "The Universe in Verse," an annual "charitable celebration of science through poetry" where "The Mushroom Hunters" made its debut in 2017. There it was read aloud by the musician Amanda Palmer, Gaiman's wife and the mother of the aforementioned son, and so it is in this more recent animated video. Young Ash will surely grow up faced with few obstacles to the appreciation of science, and even less so to the kind of imagination that science requires. As for all the other children in the world — well, it certainly wouldn't hurt to show them the mushroom hunters at work.

This reading will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

via Brain Pickings

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Joni Mitchell Publishes a Book of Her Rarely Seen Paintings & Poetry

Self Portrait.”Art work by Joni Mitchell, from "Morning Glory on the Vine" / Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Joni Mitchell is a woman of many talents—too many for the label “singer-songwriter” to encompass. It does not capture the literary depth of her lyricism, the unique strength of her distinctive voice, or the deftness and versatility of her guitar playing. Nor the fact that she’s one of the most interesting personalities in rock (or folk-rock/folk/folk-jazz, whatever). Mitchell’s biography is riveting; her chatty and cantankerous interviews a treat.

And, if you somehow didn’t know from her many album covers, Mitchell is also an accomplished visual artist. “I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstance,” she said in 2000. “I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy.” It’s a great quote, though she also sings her joy and paints sorrow—as in the portrait of her hero, Miles Davis, made just after his death. (Davis was a painter too, and they bonded over art.)

Mitchell began selling her work “when I was in high school to dentists, doctors—small time,” she told Rolling Stone in 1990. She has written poetry since her teenage years. Her imagistic songwriting came from a love of literary language. “I wrote poetry,” she says, “and I always wanted to make music. But I never put the two things together,” until she heard Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” and realized “you could make your songs literature.”

Painter, poet, singer, songwriter, guitarist—all of the artistic sides of Mitchell have mingled throughout her career in the visual splendor of her covers, compositions, and lyrics. They also came together in a rare 1971 book. After the release of Blue, Mitchell “gathered more than thirty drawings and watercolors in a ring binder and paired them with handwritten lyrics and bits of poetry,” writes Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker.

She had the book handbound in an edition of 100 copies and gave it to friends for the holidays, calling it “The Christmas Book.” Now it has a different title, Morning Glory on the Vine, for a new edition to be released October 22nd. Part of the extensive celebrations for Mitchell’s 75th birthday, this edition fulfills a decade-long desire for the artist. “I always wanted to redo it and simplify the presentation,” she tells Petrusich. “Work is meant to be seen.”

The collection “feels consonant with Mitchell’s songwriting” in that it captures “tantalizing details about home,” in this case the home in Laurel Canyon that she shared with Graham Nash, the inspiration for the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Our House.” Still life compositions and self-portraits, both “vivid" and "intimate,” complement her vulnerable, playful, “funny and weird,” lyrics and verses. You can see more of the paintings from Morning Glory on the Vine at The New Yorker and order a copy of the book here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How E.E. Cummings Writes a Poem

Most of us encounter E.E. Cummings at an early age; his poems for adults regularly appear in poetry anthologies for children. We derive great pleasure from his brazen misspellings, portmanteaus, neologisms, and “typographical high jinks,” as Paul Muldoon writes at The New Yorker. Look at this famous writer breaking all the rules, and thereby giving us occasion to talk about the rules, about how poetry is different, about how, among poets, E.E. Cummings stands alone.

Only someone with a keen facility for language can bend it to their individual will, something we may recognize when reading Cummings in high school, when we also recognize the irony and grim satire in his poems. The inventive whimsy had veiled something darker. In 1960, then-high-school student Peter Carlton got the chance to interview Cummings about his poem “Humanity, I love you,” then posted the exchange online 37 years later. “I, for one, do not love humanity,” the poet told him, “I feel that humanity itself is cruel and unjust.”

A common sentiment among modernists, especially those, like Cummings, who had served in World War I. But few of his contemporaries, who included James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, had his ability to speak to so many different audiences. It’s almost shocking to see the shift in voice between Cummings’ interview with young Carlton and a letter he wrote to Pound 20 years earlier, full of the usual Cummings coinages (“innulluxuls”) and vicious literary barbs (Archibald MacLeish becomes “the macarchibald maclapdog macleash”).

Was Cummings a radical? A romantic? A literary naïf? An outsider? A savvy, cynical player of the game? He contained multitudes. From Eliot he “learned to distrust the hierarchical in every aspect of life,” writes Muldoon, “beginning with his own being. In his poetry, ‘I’ becomes ‘i.’” Whatever attitudes he expresses, Cummings always forces us to wrestle with language—its durability and malleability, its familiar strangenesses—first.

In his most accessible poem, “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in," Cummings draws our attention to the simplicity of his archetypal images, as if to smirkingly announce, “this is a universal love poem.” Standard fare. But such obvious mirroring of form and content does not diminish the poem's accomplishment, argues Evan Puschak, the Nerdwriter, in the video above. On the contrary, simple repetitions lead us into far more complicated recursions inside the poem.

Puschak quotes lines from Yeats to illustrate the deftness of Cummings' deceptive simplicity: “A line will take us hours maybe; / yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” While many a poet has made the art seem easy, few have made it seem so playful or irreverent as Cummings, or have delighted so many people of so many ages and walks of life—so few of whom may suspect the conceptual heft and rigor that went into his work.

To read Cummings' poetry yourself, pick up a copy of his complete poems.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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