To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Outsider Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (28): Harry Smith, Charles Reznikoff & the Art of Outsider Assemblage

from Stephen Fredman’s Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art (Stanford University Press, 2010), in which Fredman brings together Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Poetry and Reznikoff’s Testimony

assemblage as archaeology and history
. . . . .
        In the sixties, many of the singers in the Anthology of American Folk Music and all of the Objectivist poets, of whom Reznikoff was one, were rediscovered and lionized as touchstones of authenticity by the Baby Boom generation, to whom they seemed oracular voices speaking from beyond the grave. Although their voices had mostly fallen silent in the forties and fifties, the singers and poets were still very much alive. As the singers began touring nationally and internationally and recording again and the poets began giving readings and interviews and publishing once again, this perceived quality of authenticity lent them a prophetic mantle. Testimony and the Anthology remain quite canny, though, about the fact that the aura of authenticity is imparted, paradoxically, by the grace of mechanical reproduction. Without the court reporters and the West Publishing Company, the voices heard in Reznikoff’s Testimony would be lost. In addition, as Michael Davidson points out, the rules of the legal system determined for Reznikoff’s poem both what can be said and how it is said, and the organization of the West series provides the geographical categories that structure the entire poem. The recording of the singers whom Smith gathered in the Anthology transmuted a mundane and unremarkable social practice that was part of the background of life in the South into the high romance of the radio, the phonograph, and the movies. As Greil Marcus notes, “Many copies of these records were bought by people without phonographs. They bought the discs as talismans of their own existence; they could hold these objects in their hands and feel their own lives dramatized. In such an act, people discovered the modern world: the thrill of mechanical reproduction." The voices of a Dock Boggs or a Blind Lemon Jefferson sounded “old” to ears in the sixties because of abrasive, nasal, or guttural vocal styles and because of the primitive recording techniques that can be heard on the Anthology. For a generation raised on television there were two archaic qualities that made these songs sound as if they were intoned from beyond the grave: first, the singing styles, modal melodies, and verses whose imagery appeared to be drawn from the unconscious depths of American culture; and second, the technology, outmoded by several removes, that thus conveyed a sense of unbridgeable distance. In this way, both the voices and the soundscapes operate as objets trouvés for the assemblage that Smith composes.
Not only do these works of assemblage history call into question the category of authenticity by focusing attention on the opposing poles of rawness and mediation, they also play havoc with commonsense notions of authority and authorship. With regard to authority, each of these works implicitly challenges professional and disciplinary norms. Smith confounds folklorists by both ascribing to and undermining their conventions. With remarkable thoroughness, he adopts every feature of musicological methodology, noting for each song its title (including the Child number for the ballads), singers, instrumentation, date of recording, original issue number, and supplying a précis of all known historical facts about its content; he also provides for each song a discography of the performers and a bibliography and then compiles for the project as a whole an exhaustive index of artists, titles, subjects, and instruments. Working against this professional decorum, though, is a contextual practice, which operates at two different levels—that of the “handbook” that accompanies the discs and that of the arrangement of the songs. Visually, the mysterious handbook has a bumptious, pastiche quality that makes it hard to decide whether it is a magical synthesis or a joke. Robert Cantwell summarizes well the visual domains from which Smith draws in order to create his assemblage: 

Photostatically reproduced, strongly reminiscent of the organs of transient or marginal political coalitions . . ., the handbook is at once a catalogue, like the republished antique Sears-Roebuck catalogues, a discography, a manual, a scrapbook, a sort of stamp or coupon book, a sort of official document, like a passport, as well as a tabloid newspaper: a bricolage of printed ephemera that like junk sculpture incorporates many alien forms, each set off in its own character against all the others and against the whole. 

As assemblagist and editor, providing not only an introduction to the collection but also a comic headline summary for each song, Smith undermines the authority of musicological and folklorist conventions by taking on some of the functions of an author. This role is especially evident in the way he orders the songs by number rather than by any known method of classification. Eschewing generic, sub-regional, and, especially, racial classifications (which were ubiquitous not only when the recordings were made but also when Smith edited his anthology), his juxtaposition of the songs proceeds by an occult, serial logic based upon stylistic features or subject matter. For example, Smith’s headline summaries of songs 19-24 hint at thematic connections among “Stackalee” by Frank Hutchison, “White House Blues” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, “Frankie” by Mississippi John Hurt, “When That Great Ship Went Down” by William and Versey Smith, “Engine One-Forty-Three” by the Carter Family, and “Kassie Jones” by Furry Lewis:

19) THEFT OF STETSON HAT CAUSES DEADLY DISPUTE, VICTIM IDENTIFIES SELF AS FAMILY MAN; 20) McKINLEY SWEARS, MOURNS, DIES, ROOSEVELT GETS WHITE HOUSE AND SILVER CUP; 21) ALBERT DIES PREFERRING ALICE FRY, BUT JUDGE FINDS FRANKIE CHARMING AT LATTER’S TRIAL; 22) MANUFACTURERS [sic] PROUD DREAM DESTROYED AT SHIPWRECK, SEGREGATED POOR DIE FIRST; 23) GEORGIE RUNS INTO ROCK AFTER MOTHER’S WARNING, DIES WITH THE ENGINE HE LOVES; 24) CRACK ENGINEER JONES IN FATAL COLLISION, KNEW ALICE FRY, WIFE RECALLS SYMBOLIC DREAM, LATER CONSOLES CHILDREN. 

Out of the murders, assassinations, and wrecks portrayed in these songs, Smith highlights themes of class warfare, obsessive affection, family grief, and the mysterious temptress Alice Fry. By summarizing the contents of the songs as headlines or telegrams, Smith foregrounds thematic continuities, tying the disparate lyrics into a sustained assemblage that chronicles a broad swath of American history as seen from the bottom up. In Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus shows how Dylan has mined repeatedly the American history chronicled in Smith’s Anthology. Another practitioner of highly mediated historiography in the early sixties, Andy Warhol, uses his Disasters series of photo-silkscreens to chronicle executions, suicides, auto and plane wrecks, and the iconic figures, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy, whose public confrontations with death turned them instantly into legendary characters.
If Smith imparts an authorial stamp to the Anthology by framing and ordering the songs in his own way and undermining through his summaries of song contents the professional norms he invokes in his careful annotations, Reznikoff does something similar in his redaction of courtroom testimony. Like Smith, Reznikoff was at home in the world of scholarship. In fact, history was a lifelong preoccupation, which Reznikoff pursued in verse, fiction, and actual historiography, and its conventions provide the norms that Testimony implicitly challenges. In flaunting these norms, Reznikoff joins William Carlos Williams, whose highly partisan history, In the American Grain, had appeared in 1925. Like Williams, Reznikoff endeavors in Testimony to let the language of the subjects speak for itself. He differs, though, by choosing unknown subjects who tell of experiences both commonplace and extreme, rather than ventriloquizing, as Williams does, famous actors in history. And unlike Williams, Reznikoff does not appoint heroes and villains, for he remains leery of ideologies buried in historical narratives—whether the schoolbook narratives of American exceptionalism and triumphalism or the personal forms of coherence given to history by poets like Pound, Zukofsky, and Olson in their epic collages. Testimony undermines notions like progress or decline just as it undermines ideologies of all stripes. It displays social strife as often unmotivated (and unbearable) and then implicitly challenges the reader to make sense of it and do something about it. To bring home this challenge, Reznikoff has subtle ways of involving the reader, as in this short poem from the “MACHINE AGE” section of the 1891-1900 division of the book:

           The storm came up suddenly
           and lightning
           struck a telephone pole, splitting it
           and sending electricity along the wires.
           A quarter of a mile away
           a doctor was sitting in his house
           quietly reading a book under his telephone—
           and was found in his chair
           dead, his hair on fire
           and red lines along his neck, chest and side.
                                 (II.129)

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Fascinating reading! These recovery efforts themselves become to later generations such as mine revelations of lost history. This post is a good distillation of how the anthologist serves humanity: by exposing and releasing the underground rivers so that new streams can be discovered freely at every point along the way.