Appreciation #8

“Frank Kuenstler” by Richard Kostelanetz

(From the forthcoming third edition of the Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes.)

Kuenstler

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

In 1964, from the imprint of Film Culture, a New York publisher noted for its film magazine of the same title, appeared Lens, a book so extraordinary that it was completely unnoticed at the time. It opens with a single-page “Emblem,” a sort of preface that establishes in six sections that anything might happen in the following pages, including the destruction of both sense and syntax. The last section of “Emblem” reads: “aura.Dictionary, aura.Crossword Puzzle, aura.Skeleton. aura.Poem./Once upon a time.” What follows are eighty long paragraphs so devoid of connection, from line to line, from word to word, that you realize only a human being could have made them; even the most aleatory computer program would have put together, even inadvertently, two words that made sense. The book concludes with the tag “New York, N. Y., 1952–64,” suggesting that Lens took a full dozen years to write; I can believe it, because anyone who thinks such writing easy to do should try it sometime (and send me the results). Kuenstler’s later publications include 13 1/2 Poems (1984), which is a progression of increasingly experimental poems (though none as radical as Lens). Toward the end of his life he sold antiquarian books on the street in New York, usually on Broadway north of 86th Street. To no surprise perhaps, his name rarely, if ever, appears in histories of American literature.

copyright 2018 Richard Kostelanetz
http://richardkostelanetz.com/

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(Photo from a collage by Ira Cohen.)

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Writers Tournament: #7 Seeds

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Stephen Crane.)
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Our latest entrants into the big event:

A.)  Stephen Crane.

For pure writing talent, few American writers match the author of The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat,” and other classics. Decades before Hemingway, Crane saw writing visually, like a painting. His works are expressionist explosions of color and emotion.

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(Art: “Evening Sun” by Otto Dix.)

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B.)  Carl Sandburg.

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Sandburg’s poetry reflected his home base of Chicago: rough-hewn, proletarian, and real. A voice of the Great Depression of the Thirties. An American cultural giant in the Fifties. Thoroughly populist, his clear-but-strong poems were accessible to everyone.

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C.)  J.D. Salinger.

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He’s most widely known for his assigned-in-high school study of adolescence, Catcher in the Rye. But his best work is Nine Stories— nine well-crafted modernist gems of fiction synthesizing those twin pillars of American literature, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the jewels contains the best short story title ever: “For Esme with Love and Squalor.”

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D.)  Kenneth Rexroth.

A forerunner of, and large influence on, the Beats, this San Francisco poet’s uncompromising work was more accomplished. Would Ginsberg’s “Howl” have been possible without the example of Rexroth’s powerful masterpiece, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”?

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Possible Play-In Games

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THE LONG hiatus the tournament has been on because of the holidays is due to end. The trick will be getting all the nominated writers back. Where has Hemingway gone, for instance? Hunting lions in Africa again? Is Jack London back in the Yukon? Has reclusive Emily Dickinson returned to self-imposed exile?
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Our #8 seeds will soon be announced– which will bring us to the halfway point in selecting writers for the tournament. (We need to pick up that pace!) We can already tell that many outstanding writers won’t make the cut– so we’re considering play-in matches as a way to expand the 64 spots.

Some proposed matches between similar writers as a way to winnow the pack:

Katherine Anne Porter versus Flannery O’Connor.

Thomas Wolfe versus Erskine Caldwell.

Mickey Spillane versus James Ellroy.

James Harrison versus Chuck Palahniuk?

Should any of these writers make the cut? Which more stand out?

Battle of the Divas

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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Camille Paglia

WE PLAN to include at least one “public intellectual” (emphasis on the public) in the Tournament. In one of the next two (7th or 8th) brackets. That is, a writer known primarily for opinions about literature and culture. A critic– but more.

The two leading candidates for the spot are both women– Susan Sontag and Camille Paglia. Which one belongs?

Or should someone else take that slot?

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#6 Seeds!

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Kurt Vonnegut.)

THESE SELECTIONS are a mixed bag of qualities and achievements. Perhaps all they have in common is that each attained, at some point– while alive or afterward– an enormous critical or popular reputation. Are the reputations larger than the actual work?
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A.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe

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(Etching by Francis Holl.)

Author of the most influential novel in American history. (Abe Lincoln himself half-in-jest credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin with starting the Civil War.) No American novel so keyed into its moment of time– the zeitgeist of the day. Or so provoked the emotions of its readers.
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B.)  James Baldwin

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Like other writers of his era– Gore Vidal; Mary McCarthy– Baldwin was a better essayist than novelist. An excellent essayist, during a golden age of American essays. But he was also a superb short story writer, penning several which retain their power and relevance; “Sonny’s Blues” and “Going to Meet the Man” among them.

(Photo by Allan Warren.)

 

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C.)  Kurt Vonnegut

One cannot ignore the Cult of Vonnegut! He took the serious American novel out of strictly realistic bounds into new worlds. The novels Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions were imaginative and wildly popular– especially among college students. (Would that a novelist could be so now!) In his later works Vonnegut was trying too hard to be original while simultaneously repeating himself. His best novel might be his first, Player Piano.
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D.)  Henry James

A critical darling, reputation courtesy of Harvard and Oxford. Producer of a collection of plodding, word-clotted novels, James makes the Tournament based on three of his shorter works. The pop story “Daisy Miller.” The creepy gothic pop tale Turn of the Screw. And the weirdly effective novella, Altar of the Dead.

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(Portrait of Henry James by Jacques Emile Blanche.)

 

The Mary Gaitskill Problem

THE ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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(Photo by David Shankbone.)

IT’S A PROBLEM many esteemed contemporary writers seem to have– the lack of a philosophical foundation, a metaphysical perspective on life and the universe, which for all their talent prevents their work from having greater depth and meaning.

FOR a literary writer Mary Gaitskill is supremely talented. At her best, with a story such as “Girl on a Plane,” she reaches a level of strong emotion. Like a punch to the gut. After reading more of her fiction one realizes they’re all of a piece– the characters intelligent but superficial animals whose primary motivation is sex.

An accurate depiction of today’s society. There are no happy endings. Men and women exist in dysfunctional hate-love relationships with scarcely the possibility of getting along. Captives of their drives. The sexually liberated society; which comes across as an unending sadomasochistic nightmare. No escape. No hope of redemption or salvation. At the end of the tale one of the characters is humiliated. Or both of them. Destroyed. Shattered. Lost animals without souls to tarnish. No heroes or even anti-heroes. It’s a problem not of the writer so much as society– particularly, their urban New York City or San Francisco milieu. A typical tale is “Kiss and Tell,” in which a struggling male screenwriter is in love with a struggling actress. The sex is briefly very good, but friendship is the only way they can ultimately connect– then even that collapses. The friendship ends in betrayal and bitterness.

The writing, like the sex, is very good. But is it enough?

Has Mary Gaitskill done enough to enter the Tournament?

#4 Seeds Aftermath

ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT

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WHILE antifa protesters raged outside the hall– upset at the inclusion of Ezra Pound in the Tournament– three of the latest selections held an impromptu Q & A with members of the local press. (Pound remained secure in his hotel room, sharing drinks and stories with old friend Ernest Hemingway.)

A few highlights:

John Steinbeck:  “I thank the Tournament judges for finding me worthy of this honor. In my heart there may be some doubt that I deserve to be included over other men of letters whom I hold in respect– but there is no question of my pleasure in being included.”

Steinbeck gave a shout-out to Pound, noting that the poet might be used to being confined in tight places and would survive the experience.

William Faulkner related the oft-told anecdote about hunting with Clark Gable and Howard Hawks, when they were discussing books and Gable discovered Faulkner was a writer. Asked by Gable to recommend a few authors, Faulkner said, “Thomas Mann, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and myself.”

Faulkner was never much of a conversationalist, so having him repeat the story was a minor coup. He also answered a few questions, such as this one:

“Was the writer character played by Dick Powell in the classic film ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ based on you?”

One-minute pause.

“No.”
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The highlight of the afternoon was Sylvia Plath reading one of her poems. It sounded something like this:

All-in-all, the press conference was a success.