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Readers should also see the Tarn feature in Jacket 6, 1999, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Selected Poems 1950–2000», reviewed by Brenda Hillman in Jacket 28, and
Nathaniel Tarn: «Recollections of Being», reviewed by Martin Anderson in Jacket 36
Eliot Weinberger: Oranges & Peanuts for Sale
pp.254. New Directions. US $16.95 978-0-8112-1834-4 paper
Eliot Weinberger, perhaps the nearest thing we have among American writers today as a ‘public intellectual,’ stands on the left in politics and is a major critical voice of at least a part (I would say the significant part) of the American poetry avant-garde from Pound, Williams, the Objectivists, Black Mountain, San Francisco, New York etc. down in time to his favorites: Rexroth and Rukeyser and on to Michael Palmer and Susan Howe. His 1993 American Poetry since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, shamefully out of print though needing updating, is a major anthology. Regarding the word “public,” Weinberger often claims he is better known and regarded in Europe than in the U.S. but one only needs to check, among the Acknowledgments, the number of places in which so many of the pieces here have appeared at home and abroad to doubt this.
While Weinberger writes brilliantly on politics — see the pieces on the recent presidential election here and on the XXIst century man Obama himself, one who with major savvy discovered cornucopias in the internet (he was and probably remains a self-defined Obamaniac) — Weinberger differentiates himself clearly from most so-called public intellectuals whom he defines as cultureless “policy-wonks” (p.226).
And while he has books on politics: e.g. What happened here: Bush Chronicles (2005), his favorite venue and subject is the poetry which a certain establishment in the U.S. — über-traditional, academic, anglophiliac, Master-of-fine-arts manufacturing, ergo careerist — continues to ignore in its interminable asinine blindness. An inveterate New Yorker (how much does he know of the rest of the States?) Weinberger nevertheless manages to slam, in ‘Where was New York,’ the unremitting mediocrity of The New Yorker’s literary attitudes and no doubt also slams somewhere in his work the absolute ignorance regarding contemporary poetry of the likes of Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler.
Our book follows a series of essay collections: Works on Paper (1986); Outside Stories (1992); Written Reaction (1996); Karmic Traces (2000) and An Elemental Thing (2007) — not his only collections by any means but important for considering Weinberger’s contribution to the genre of the essay. Anyone attempting a thorough study of that contribution should read all those works. This study has no claims to being “thorough.”
In our book’s first section, Weinberger offers meditations on his main field of interest. There are essays on George Oppen’s political as well as poetic greatness; the Niedecker-Reznikoff relationship (alongside the N.-Zukofsky one), teaching her the way to incorporate history into the poem; the hilarious coming together of Beckett and Paz in the making of a manic but uniquely perceptive anthology of Mexican poetry; Susan Howe’s epochal book on one of the very greatest — among three or four — American poets: Emily Dickinson. (Dickinson reminds me of Artaud’s Van Gogh; suicide de la societe). Others cover “foreign” poets: Huidobro, whose Altazor Weinberger translated; the Chinese poet Gu Cheng’s hallucinating life and death. Many others are reviewed in this or that other essay.
We have a gracious portrait of James Laughlin, poet and founder of New Directions as per Ezra Pound, and cannot help noting that in many ways Weinberger, as author, translator, editor, contributes to the continuation of Laughlin’s work at that publishing house. The description of New Directions in a nutshell is worth quoting: “It is an old-fashioned way of doing business — the long-term investment — applied to the most unlikely product, avant-garde literature” (p.81).
In the wake of his (in)famous older essay on an establishment “political” woman poet, we have devastating attacks on bad or indifferent work — e.g. the essay on Robert Alter’s allegedly “de-Christianized” translation of the Psalms which Weinberger sees as totally failing to match the King James’ version or any of the multitudinous other versions in English from other poets (Wyatt, Golding, Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, Campion, Crashaw, Watts, Milton, Smart — not to mention a handful of contemporaries like Thomas Merton). We also have ever-recurring thoughts on the subject of translation itself.
Weinberger is a major expert on the art or craft of translation outside the academy. In a sense, these essays carry translations of other cultures than ours over to those in our consumer society, unable or unwilling to face the scholarship of say, on China, a Joseph Needham, a Jacques Gernet, or Edward Schaffer, or David Seyfort Ruegg, or Michel Strickmann — their names are many (though far from legion alas!) and they are the repositories of a poetry of scholarship Weinberger clearly loves. The culture of China, and especially, but not uniquely, classical China, is Weinberger’s anchor — partly as a matter of personal predilection, partly because of how Chinese poetry via Pound and his successors contributed to radical changes in the history of American poetry. This is a major theme in a book which examines the contributions of many translators including the great Burton Watson and his younger colleague David Hinton.
The key essay here is ‘The T’ang’ devoted to a major exhibition at the Florentine Palazzo Strozzi as well as A.C.Graham’s translations from the late T’ang: giving us a cataract of miraculous beauty from that extraordinary period which should dazzle, amaze and astound anyone looking for aesthetics in general (period) — or the aesthetics of Buddhism’s arrival from India into China (in particular). Weinberger deplores the marked lack of translations, after the golden 1960s, from American poets of the 1970s and 1980s, associating this with a massive lack of interest in other cultures and indeed in the matter of politics altogether, those poets having fallen from such interests into “identity politics” on the one hand and desiccated, French-inspired, “theory” on the other (see p. 169). Weinberger is acid on the corprolization (my word) of the arts and humanities since the 1960s, with the National Endowment of the Arts as guilty of shutting the arts up by buying them off (p.225). Students have become “consumers;” the arts “niche industries.”
An important piece on translation is the essay on the “gloires et servitudes” of the translator’s profession, one which, until relatively recently, was infamously anonymous — so many books and commentaries long refusing to name a translator at all (‘Anonymous Sources’). Fascinated by transcultural effects in his beloved XXth century Modernism for instance — Hu Shihs’ rediscoveries (p.24) or Gu Cheng’s (p.54 ) — Weinberger mainly senses a new openness to the rest of the world at the start of the present century, noting both increased interest in others, in others’ cultures and in world politics fed by a very great good: the internet. For him, this allows of the translation — in the sense of the transport — of any information, including the cultural, from anyone to anyone and any place to any other.
I value the internet but, from decade-long personal misery “at the hands of” obstreperous computers (my come-putas), a basic Luddite and abominator of all machines — especially the alledged communicators — I consider as criminal those who foisted such systems on populations bound to remain ignorant and incapacitated if they have not the time, money, desire or talent to become “geeks.” More radically, I also have very many doubts about the future of culture in general in those “hands.”
Furthermore, nationalism, the source of a great many of our disasters, remains a force in matters of language and we are not likely to enjoy an “Esperanto” in the foreseeable future. However, translation, of course, works against this wall so that the “post-national writer” that Weinberger sees as contributing to salvation is a possibility. I am not as optimistic as our author but his typology of present models of the “post-national writer” will be of major value to critics. A question: would Weinberger be interested in uni-lingualism — English after all is conquering the world? I doubt it.
Not wishing ab initio to be judge and party, I have extremely rarely “done reviews” so that I see this writing as more of an interested questioning than a “review.” This anthological volume is the sixth book of essays in which Weinberger has discussed the “ten thousand things” but concentrated on poetry and translation. Now the jacket of a penultimate book, An Elemental Thing, states that “E.W. has taken the essay into unexplored territories on the borders of poetry and narration where the only rule, according to the author, is that all the information must be verifiable.”
Weinberger has always behaved as a poet although he does not, to the best of my knowledge, regularly write poems. Possibly he did not want to be a poet fearing the “interference of the otherwise all-consuming ego” (p.181) mentioned when discussing his view of the enviable anonymity of translators. He would, in this fear of the ego, be the relative of many poets. His essays are often referred to as a poet’s essays. In our time (not a poet’s time as Holderlin continues to say from beyond the grave), Weinberger’s essays reach a larger and more diverse public than poets’ poems. Thus the problems raised by the essayistic medium or genre arise anew.
The jacket-quote just mentioned continues: “With An Elemental Thing, E.W. has created a unique, open-ended serial essay whose individual pieces — on an astonishing array of topics — converge in one ever-expanding ideogram, a chamber of echoes, or a hall of mirrors.” So that, in more than one sense we seem to have here Weinberger’s Cantos. So also come the implication of reams of scholarship — and the memory of a scholar at the apex of his/ her powers is needed to work them out.
Aged 81, I am not sure I can manage this. Also, the essays have no bibliographies – incidentally causing endless wonderment in reviewers as to where on earth the author finds his often superiorly recondite matter. The problem is: because “all the information must be verifiable.” Much in the Cantos is not open to verification in a scholarly sense — only in a reactive poetic sense. Clues to Weinberger’s position may doubtless be looked for in the very beautiful piece #26 ‘The Vortex’ in An Elemental Thing.
One aspect of all this resides in Weinberger’s treatment of critics — the main piece here being that on Susan Sontag. Weinberger sees Sontag, though anti-consumerist an omnivorous absorber of the “now,” as trapped in her later life in day to day affairs, “the current,” the meat and drink of journalism, so that, after an admittedly brilliant career as a forerunner “public intellectual,” she often harmed herself by claiming to be right at one time “even when that rightness contradicts the right things she had said before.” Eventually Weinberger sees her rather tragically as “a Roland Barthes who dreamed of being a Walter Benjamin, and moreover, a Walter Benjamin who dreamed of being a Russian novelist. But she was born too late, and in the wrong place.” (p. 102). Weinberger almost always ends with a dramatic flourish.
To what extent does Weinberger himself avoid being trapped in journalism and in “the current”? Here much depends for me on what he does with the facts he so brilliantly but also relentlessly brings onto his stages. I call this, when speaking to myself, the “factoid rush.”
The dazzling enumerations of little-known facts provide continual delight. As a child, I loved the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, perhaps not all that generally known today. I discover that Gu Cheng’s favorite book in his 13th year (during the Cultural Revolution) was Fabre’s (p.50). There is the great T’ang imperial courtesan Yang Kuei-fei always walking around with a jade fish in her mouth (p.115). As an ex-pilot and aviation writer, I find on p. 124 a line by T’ang poet Meng Chao which runs: “A poet only suffers writing poems / Better to spend your life learning how to fly” — his meaning different from mine but who am I to argue? Quoting James Laughlin’s description of T. S. Eliot’s extremely slow delivery when conversing, Weinberger reminded me of Arthur Waley’s similar excruciations (p.81). Laughlin’s famous quote on the abundance of “irritating people,” much beloved by Weinberger, makes one look forward to what a reader of our man’s eventual biography will discover!
On page 134, I find the “factoid” Weinberger himself cites as his own favorite (though perhaps apocryphal): “if China becomes an entirely middle-class country, and every Chinese person decides to spend only one week of his or her life visiting Paris, there will be an extra 400.000 people a day trying to get into the Deux Magots.” He is, of course, talking of contemporary China, a subject he deals with most entertainingly though painfully in ‘Postcard from China,’ a wry account of going all the way to Chengdu for a festival only to find the festival cancelled. I note, amused myself, that all these examples are indeed from China.
Weinberger, an omnivorous reader, has a detective’s extraordinary memory for the apposite and unusual fact — before writing a review or introduction for instance, I am sure he re-reads all the author’s works. Of Oppen, he says (p. 6) that his universe was “an immense heap of little things” (Coleridge) and this seems to be also true of him. Necessary to this kind of writing, Weinberger makes many rapid-fire judgments, is not much given to changing his mind but can very rarely be refuted or corrected (I think him wrong on Bergman’s lessened importance for one thing) (p.95).
A problem for me, however, is that, quite often, the facts run away with themselves and turn into a cataract of factoids. However entrancing — as in the essay on the T’ang — this can become off-putting as any surfeit might. There are, admittedly, circumstances under which a catalog of facts is generated in a particularly fascinating way as when Weinberger lists the strange superstitions that the classical Chinese peasantry wove around the luxuries enjoyed by contemporary elites (p. 116).
But apart from a very few pieces which are not very informative without the book they introduce (e.g Hans Faverey’s) and could have been omitted, as well as some which are too short — the Susan Howe introduction is one — there are many examples of pure “rush.” Take the life of French poet and archaeologist Victor Segalen in the piece ‘Epstein : Exote’ (p.141). By rapid, almost simultaneous, recital of Segalen’s strange biography, Weinberger exoticizes but relentlessly simplifies the life — thus joining it up with Segalen’s own view of exoticism as ‘the keen and immediate perception of an eternal incomprehensibility.” (p.142). But was Segalen incomprehensible? Something similar happens with Huidobro (p. 36). Sometimes a whole essay, e.g. the title one, will seem to turn into “rush.”
Where a whole piece becomes a “rush,” one factoid may seem to drop uneasily out of same. In ‘In Blue’ for instance, what is the relevance of the Armenian Yazedis’ taboo on eating lettuce to the theme of blue? Well — it is almost impossible to fault this author — it is true that, as is pointed out, blue and green are seen as one in a great many Asian, African and Middle American indigenous languages. But the game begins to have a Ripley effect sometimes — the “Believe it or not” effect — and may raise questions on the ultimate point of so much “rush”?
Readers can enjoyably detect mystery in how Weinberger comes upon /goes in search of/ eventually finds information. Very occasionally, as in the important essay on “Photography and Anthropology” (we are, pretty finally all “us” even if Amazon Indians, for instance, may well doubt this) a source is revealed, e.g. the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain & Ireland (p.151). On the other hand, the piece ‘Questions of Death (1892)’ has no attributions. British anthropologists will sense that the source is probably the book Notes and Queries, a guide to fieldwork (which Weinberger does cite at p.152 in the previous piece) but how many of them are Weinberger readers?
There is one essay or piece (lord how I hate the word “piece”) — longest in the book — which seems to me to fall headlong into the “rush” syndrome and thereby to become tedious. While it undoubtedly details dramatically the inconsequential, nightmarish and mendacious horror of the Bush-Cheney era and its Middle Eastern adventures, my own sense, contrary to truly universal opinion and disregarding its huge international diffusion, is that, as text, the interminable repetition of the title phrase ‘What I heard about Iraq in 2005’ in the form of “I heard that” or a close variant (followed by a news item) leads to Weinberger’s weakest though admittedly most “popular” effort.
Am I sure that all this amounts to serious criticism of Weinberger’s method? No. But I do question. The ‘What I heard’ piece dips him into “the current” he has doubts about elsewhere. He may a little too easily drift into journalism and/ or criticism and I wonder if this does not weaken what I have suggested may be his chosen path as “serial essayist.” The choosing of one’s subjects in such a way that the essays do not bounce out into the boundless arbitrariness of outer space (an obsession of my own I have to admit and, of course, if a book is anthological like this one, much of this cannot be helped) is the essayist’s great methodological problem.
It is also, of course and despite a number of theories, the poet’s. The concept of “serial essay” (is it in fact essay or essays?) is, doubtless, an antidote to this — but only one piece here, the final one, is defined as part of that effort. Then, in what way do a serial essay or serial essays differ from a one-topic book, most books being de facto/ de jure one-topic books?
This is where I have to admit defeat for, without a great deal of further reading that I cannot do now — going back over all the previous books and trying to find sources — I cannot tell how that piece, ‘A Journey on the Yangtze River’ fully and consistently fits into the overall pattern. At one point, the speaker in the piece — a T’ang official it would seem — says “All my life I’ve been obsessed with searching for that which is hidden” (p.249). That which is hidden and that which is verifiable… We are left with a mystery: how much is quote, how much is invention? Or, a technical point, let us say: how much might the “rush” be related, consciously or not, to the quick press of the poetry Weinberger admires? Questions here do not end.
It is impossible to give an adequate idea in a “review,” or even a “questioning,” of this book’s richness. One ends up expecting him to talk of everything and is surprised, for instance, that there is nothing on the environment. I could easily quote passage after passage, page after page. So that, in a sense, we are back at the ‘Cantos.’ There is a book of Weinberger’s called The Stars, an exquisite letterpress production of the great printer Leslie Miller (the Grenfell Press) for the Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Based on prints by the artist Vija Celmins, Weinberger elaborates a text by assembling “a catalogue of descriptions of the stars drawn from around the world, and from an array of historical, literary, and anthropological sources.” (book-jacket description). The text is not only given in English but also translated and then printed in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese and Maori!
The stars are out there in the “boundless arbitrariness of outer space.” Or is it arbitrary? Humankind in the little time that it has left will continue to debate this until its end. The Stars as a tour de force continue the author’s “game.” Is it a “game”? Weinberger, following Benjamin (p.93), is clearly interested in founding a genre. We are back in the mysterious. I recall a French cheese farmer visiting a farm in Wisconsin in the 1950s, seeing the sanitary arrangements for the cattle and exclaiming “What’s a cheese without a bit of shit in it?” Weinberger suggests somewhere that there is no genius without a bit of stupidity (p.103) — maybe there is no poetry without a particle of shit. Certainly, there is no poetry without hope: Weinberger is a fiercely hopeful writer. There is no poetry without a modicum of mystery: Weinberger, a mysterious person, is a mysterious writer and his course continues.
Heraclitus: “The real constitution of things is accustomed to hide itself.” The mystery of the real (the ever-eventually “verifiable”) is Weinberger’s Ultima Thule. The more mystery, the more poetry — for only in the perpetually mysterious nature of the ten thousand options (which does not forbid holy precision) can true poetry survive. Eliot Weinberger deserves the recognition as a poet he has looked for all his creative life. He is finding it.