Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"In God's name don't think of it as Art": On first (belatedly) reading _Let Us Now Praise Famous Men_, by James Agee

To give them as they were and as in my memory and regard they are
. If there is anything of value and interest in this work it will have to hang entirely on that fact. James Agee


When I put James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on the reading list for Spring, 2012's Documentary Poetry course, I had not yet read the book. I am only two-thirds of the way through as I write this. More precise than almost any book I've read--the lists of animals, of clothing, of furniture, are astonishing--Agee's style cycles between Whitman and Faulkner and a rural Ginsberg, between Objectivism and raw subjectivity. He ushers in C.D. Wright's South decades before she began to write her prescient books. Reading it feels at times like being a hamster in a wheel; all the pressure is to move forward quickly, traveling back again and again to a starting point that disappears as quickly as it reasserts itself.

I expected the documentation; what I did not expect were the extended, sometimes self-corroding, sometimes transparently self-justifying, episodes of poetics. It's a self-defending artifact, doing and then reasoning about the doing. I want to think more about this reasoning because it opens a space from which to teach documentary poetry and prose. More than that, Agee brings together the actual, the ordinary, the factual and the spiritual, the intangible, the sacred, in ways few other documentary poets do. Using a word introduced to me by Leonard Schwartz, I will say that Agee is a "sobjectivist," finding subjectivity in the objects of the southern tenant world, and a need for precise, objectivist description in the persons of that world. If he loses the political force of using the few to represent the many, and so to press for change, he gains the moral force of thickly describing particular places and the people who fight to live there. While acknowledging that the ambition of his project takes him outside the provenance of language, he writes: "yet in withholdings of specification I could but betray you still worse" (89).

Nowhere does the perceived gap between material fact and spiritual presence seem as great as in situations like the those Agee describes, inventories, catalogues, details, worries over. He is writing about people who are dirt poor, whose houses offer only partial shelter against the elements, who do not own the land they work or most of the proceeds from it. To find beauty here can seem condescending, demeaning, naive. How to make it otherwise is one of Agee's central projects. Here he describes himself as a "cold-laboring spy," who

shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishing on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made: (117)

Beauty to a tenant farmer is either impossible or it's a decoration taken from advertising and applied to the walls near the fireplace. Agee devotes a page and a half to the "pretty things" the Ricketts put on their walls. Ad copy tries to sell you expensive things, but it's cheap art. Agee is not, as he tells us over and again, interested in art; he wants some notion of the real to come through in his writing. And that real is beautiful, more beautiful than art. And so the houses are beautiful:

It is my belief that such houses as these, approximate, or at times by chance achieve, an extraordinary 'beauty.' In part because this is ordinarily neglected or even misrepresented in favor of their shortcomings as shelters; and in part because their esthetic success seems to me even more important than their functional failure; and finally out of the uncontrollable effort to be faithful to my personal predilections, I have neglected function in favor of esthetics. (177)

The moral problem becomes clear later, when Agee asserts that the house's beauty is set against its "economic and human abomination," but "that one is qualified to insist on this only in proportion as one faces the brunt of his own 'sin' in so doing and the brunt of the meanings, against human beings, of the abomination itself" (178). There's no purity here, no Wallace Stevens's-like elevation of poverty into abstraction. It's as if, in Agee's terms, poverty descends rather than ascends into beauty. And that's a problem. Agee's hatred for "reformers" is perhaps due to a sense that they, like Stevens, abstract their focus rather than materialize it. He refers to this as the movement to "Improv[e] the Sharecropper" (189). On the other hand, it's hard to sympathize with Agee's attacks on rural electrification (he loves lamps!) and on the toilet, for the American obsession with "sterility" to which it testifies.

The extent to which we need to elevate "abominations" into livable conditions, while acknowledging the beauty of these abominations is an unsolvable problem. The tent city on the sidewalk beside Old Stadium Park in Honolulu poses the same question. The tent city across from K-Mart off Nimitz is another. The line of tents up the Waianae coast is another. And another and another.

Yet Agee insists not simply on beauty in poverty, but the "lucky situation of joy" that occurs when the perceiver is put in a position to notice the actual world. Somewhere between the actual (even the non-toilet, the non-art, the car's exhaust) and the writer's perception of it there's a spark. "[I]n any rare situation which breaks down or lowers our habitual impatience, superficial vitality, overeagerness to clinch conclusion, and laziness," offers the writer that joy. Beauty in poverty is greater than beauty in art because actual conditions are real, and art is not. Agee throws imagination out with the (infrequent) bath water and offers as clear a poetics of documentary writing as I've seen anywhere:

I will be trying here to write [this is on page 213!] of nothing whatever which did not in physical actuality or in the mind happen or appear; and my most serious effort will be, not to use these 'materials' for art, far less for journalism, but to give them as they were and as in my memory and regard they are. If there is anything of value and interest in this work it will have to hang entirely on that fact. . . I am in this piece of work illimitably more interested in life than in art (213-214).

"I hate art" becomes "I love actuality."

Actuality can bite back. There are big problems with Agee's project, problems Jonathan Morse gets at on his blog, The Art Part:

In 1980, Howell Raines of the New York Times revisited the three poor Alabama families of whose lives James Agee and Walker Evans made immortal art forty years earlier in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Those forty years, it turned out, had reduced Agee's gusty prose to sentimental fiction. The pathetic little girl whose imminent death Agee movingly predicted, for example, was still alive in 1980 -- and a high school graduate, and six feet tall, and full of hatred for the artists who had once, long ago, picked up her tiny body, made it into a specimen, and then dropped it back into the dirt of Hale County, Alabama, and driven away.

Agee's multi-genre work did include "sentimental fiction," at least in retrospect. That is not its strength. What is strong, it seems to me as I read it now, is the density of detail--as if Agee were as much a shopkeeper as a writer, or maybe just a belated Melville--and in his self-examinations in the face of the task. He finds "the dignity of actuality" in tenant farmers and their few possessions, and posits beauty and sacredness in that actuality. The ad copy provides tenant farmers with small spots of beauty over their fireplace; in Agee's book it is not those pictures but the list of them that is beautiful. The fact of their being there is what makes them beautiful, and the desire for beauty behind them. As Elizabeth Bishop noted of the filling station, itself a beautiful, troubling poem, there is a (feminine) presence behind the doily in the oily shop. She's as interested in that presence as in the doily.

It's where invisibility meets the visible, the hidden hand meets the open eye, that Bishop (and Agee) find the spirit. It's precarious and troubling, but the unsettled (con)fusions are what finally join inventory to art. Book and photographs have shifted from the category of documentation to that of art (the Frank photographs sold at steep prices, according to Jonathan Morse, and netted nothing for their subjects). Or maybe it's in their wavering between art and actuality that the real force of our projects needs to reside. As Agee argues, description is not enough and yet what else is there? The what else is something we bring to the language, some notion of the sacredness of the actual, even if--especially--it is poor in substance or mercantile value.


The other day, the New York Times put up a video clip from a forthcoming Errol Morris film. We see and hear a man (aptly monikered Tink) who has been obsessed with the JFK assassination for many decades, but who is not a conspiracy theorist. He tells us the story of "the umbrella man" who stood next to Kennedy's motorcade at the moment he was shot. He tells us about the conspiracy theories that emerged from his being there, the only man in Dallas who carried an umbrella on that sunny day. And then he tells us that the man was found, years later, and testified before Congress. His umbrella had not had to do with weather, or even with the sun, but with his anger at JFK's father for supporting Neville Chamberlain, who carried an umbrella and who made nice with Adolph Hitler. Nothing is so wacky as ordinary fact, this man tells us on the film clip. Any event, if you look at it closely enough, becomes strange, opens up to our quests for meaning, our tortured intelligences. The man named Tink told this story with something like joy inscribed on his face. Ordinary explanations are way more strange than extraordinary ones, he told us.

Here's a book list for this Spring. Insufficient, I know! And here's a blog post I wrote on teaching documentary poetry.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee & Walker, Mariner Books
Dictee, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, University of California Press
Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine, Graywolf Press
Coal Mountain Elementary, Mark Nowak, Coffee House Press
I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning, Kristin Prevallet, Essay Press
from unincorporated territory [saina], Craig Santos Perez, Omnidawn
Things Come On: an amneoir, Joseph Harrington, Wesleyan
Green-Wood, Allison Cobb, Factory School
We will also read Murial Ruykeyser's Book of the Dead (1938) in pdf or xerox form. I will also recommend a slew of other texts for anyone who is interested.
After asking for suggestions toward a list of readings in documentary prose on facebook, I got the following recommendations:

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs or The Soccer War & Studs Terkel

W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn & Gary Young, No Other Life
Grand Avenue (a novel in stories), by Greg Sarris, Life Lived Like a Story (Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders), by Julie Cruickshank, and Immigrants in Our Own Land, Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, two books of poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
Books by Juan Goytisolo
I welcome more suggestions. In the meantime, thanks to Ragnar, Molly, Sergio, and Pam for these possibilities.
Sergio Pereira sent the following list of documentary poetry and prose. What a treasure trove!

Dear Susan,
Here is a 'river-list' of books that I read over the years and perhaps some/most of them
can fit into the category of documentary poetry & documentary prose that you are working
with great talent and dedication.
Best regards,
Documentary poetry:
Clark Coolidge, The Act of Providence, Combo Books
Roy K. Kiyooka, Pacific Windows - Collected Poems of Roy K. Kiyooka, Talonbooks
Mitsuye Yamada, Camp Notes and Other Writings, Rutgers University Press
Jessica Hagedorn, Danger and Beauty, City Lights Books
Daphne Marlatt, The Given, McClelland & Stewart // Ghost Works (prose & poetry), NeWest
Carter Revard, Winning the Dust Bowl (prose & poetry), The University of Arizona Press
Gu Cheng, Sea of Dreams - The Selected Writings of Gu Cheng, New Directions Books
Breyten Breytenbach, Judas Eye, Faber and Faber
Harry Robinson, Living by Stories - A Journey of Landscape and Memory, Talonbooks
Harry Robinson, Native Power - In the Spirit of an Okanagan Storyteller, Douglas & McIntyre
Ko Un, Ten Thousand Lives, Green Integer
Miyazawa Kenji, Selections, University of California Press
Miguel Algarín, Love is Hard Work - Memorias de Loisaida, Simon & Schuster
Juan Felipe Herrera, Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler (prose & poems), The University of Arizona Press
Louise Bernice Halfe, Bear Bones & Feathers, Coteau Books // Blue Marrow, Coteau Books // The Crooked Good, Coteau Books
Joseph Bruchac, Ndakinna (Our Land) - New and Selected Poems, West End Press
Baisao, The Old Tea Seller - Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Kyoto
Kimberly Blaeser, Apprenticed to Justice, Salt Publishing
Duane Niatum, The Crooked Beak of Love, West End Press
Ricardo Sánchez, Canto y Grito Mi Liberación - The Liberation of a Chicano Mind Soul, Washington State University Press
Eric Gansworth, A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function - poems and paintings, Syracuse University Press
Wendy Rose, Itch Like Crazy, The University of Arizona Press
Gregory Scofield, Native Canadiana - songs from the urban rez, Polestar Book Publishers // Singing Home the Bones,
Polestar Publishers
Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Life Woven with Song, The University of Arizona Press
James Thomas Stevens, Combing Snakes from His Hair, Michigan State University Press
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera - The New Mestiza (prose & poems), Aunt Lute Book Company
Luci Tapahonso, Sáanii Dahataal - The Women Are Singing (poems & stories), The University of Arizona Press
Luci Tapahonso, Blue Horses Rush In - Poems and Stories, The University of Arizona Press
T'ao Ch'ien, The Selected Poems of T'ao Ch'ien, Copper Canyon Press
Su Tung-p'o, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o, Copper Canyon Press
Wei Ying-wu, In Such Hard Times - The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu, Copper Canyon Press
Cherríe L. Moraga, Loving In The War Years (prose & poetry), South End Press // The Last Generation - Prose & Poetry,
South End Press
Kamau Brathwaite, DS (2) - dreamstories // Elegguas, Wesleyan University Press
Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Dark and Perfect Angels, Cinco Puntos Press
Maurice Kenny, On Second Thought - A Compilation (prose & poetry), University of Oklahoma Press
Matsuo Basho, Basho's Haiku - The Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, State University of New York Press
Kobayashi Issa, The Spring of My Life and Selected Poems (prose & haiku), Shambhala Publications
Santoka Taneda, Mountain Tasting - Haiku and Journals of Taneda Santoka, White Pine Press
Ana Castillo, My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems, W. W. Norton
Simon J. Ortiz, After and Before the Lightning, The University of Arizona Press // Out There Somewhere, The Univ. of Arizona Press
Documentary prose (memoirs, essays, autobiography)
Leslie Scalapino, R-hu, Atelos // Zyther & Autobiography, Wesleyan University Press
Ted Greenwald, Clearview/LIE, United Artists Books
David Antin, i never knew what time it was, University of California Press
Ron Silliman, Under Albany, Salt Publishing,
Cherríe L. Moraga, A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness - Writings, 2000-2010, Duke University Press
Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun - Notes on a Vocation, Graywolf Press
Lyn Hejinian, My Life, Green Integer
Bernadette Mayer, Studying Hunger Journals, Station Hill Press
Michael Gottlieb, Memoir and Essay, Faux Press
Leslie Marmon Silko, The Turquoise Ledge - A Memoir, Viking Penguin
Etel Adnan, In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, City Lights Books
Aaron Shurin, King Of Shadows, City Lights Books
Kamau Brathwaite, The Zea Mexican Diary, The University of Wisconsin Press
Jalal Toufic, Over-Sensitivity, Sun & Moon Press
Keith Waldrop, Light While There is Light - An American History, Sun & Moon Books
Fred Wah, Diamond Grill, NeWest
J. M. Synge, The Aran Islands, Oxford University Press
Carolyn Lei-lanilau, Ono Ono Girl's Hula, The University of Wisconsin Press
bell hooks and Amalia Mesa-Bains, Homegrown - engaged cultural criticism, South End Press
bell hooks, Remembered Rapture - The Writer at Work, The Women's Press
Breyten Breytenbach, Mouroir, Archipelago Books // Intimate Stranger - A Writing Book, Archipelago Books // Dog Heart - A Memoir, Faber and Faber
Breyten Breytenbach, The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution, Return to Paradise, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Faber and Faber
Gerald Vizenor, Interior Landscapes - Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors, University of Minnesota Press
Louis Owens, I hear the Train - Reflections, Inventions, Refractions, University of Oklahoma Press
Bill Reid, Solitary Raven - Selected Writings of Bill Reid
N. Scott Momaday, The Names - A Memoir, The University of Arizona Press // The Way To Rainy Mountain, University of New Mexico Press
N. Scott Momaday, The Man Made of Words - Essays, Stories, Passages, St. Martin's Griffin
Diane Glancy, Claiming Breath, University of Nebraska Press // The Cold-and-Hunger Dance, University of Nebraska Press
Diane Glancy, The West Pole, University of Minnesota Press // In-Between Places, The University of Arizona Press
Alurista, as our barrio turns...who the yoke b on?, Calaca Press
Juan Felipe Herrera, Mayan Drifter - Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America, Temple University Press
Alfred Arteaga, House with the Blue Bed, Mercury House
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street, Vintage Books
Kenneth Lincoln, The Good Red Road - Passages Into Native America, University of Nebraska Press
W. S. Penn, All My Sins Are Relatives, University of Nebraska Press // This is the World, Michigan State University Press
Ray A. Young Bear, Black Eagle Child - The Facepaint Narratives, University of Iowa Press
Ray A. Young Bear, Remnants Of The First Earth, Grove Press
Carter Revard, Family Matters,Tribal Affairs, The University of Arizona Press
Linda Hogan, The Woman Who Watches Over The World - A Native Memoir, W. W. Norton
Joseph Bruchac, Bowman's Store - A Journey To Myself, Lee & Low Books
Anita Endrezze, Throwing Fire at the Sun,Water at the Moon (prose & poetry), The University of Arizona Press
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer - A Story of Survival, University of Nebraska Press
Melissa Jayne Fawcett, Medicine Trail - The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon, The University of Arizona Press
Darryl Babe Wilson, The Morning The Sun Went Down, Heyday Books
Mavis McCovey and John F. Salter, Medicine Trails - A Life in Many Worlds, Heyday Books
Eva Tulene Watt and Keith H. Basso, Don't let the Sun Step Over You - A White Mountain Apache Family Life, 1860-1975, The University of Arizona Press
Wilma Mankiller and Michael Wallis, Mankiller - A Chief and Her People, St. Martin's Griffin
Jeannette Armstrong, Slash, Theytus Books
Refugio Savala, Autobiography of a Yaqui Poet, The University of Arizona Press
Matsuo Basho, Basho's Journey- The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho (prose & haibun), State University of New York Press
Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand, Grove Press
Greg Sarris, Mabel McKay: Weaving The Dream, University of California Press

From Washington, DC, Dave Taylor sends another list of possibles:

Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman
Telling True Stories, eds. Kramer & Call
The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje with Walter Murch
which leads into film:
Buddha’s Lost Children, Mark Verkerk
In the Realms of the Unreal, Jessica Yu
Mysterious Object at Noon, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
The Source, Chuck Workman

Back to prose and graphic novel memoirs with:
Away from the Light of Day, Amadou and Mariam
Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation, Harvey Pekar
Citizen 13660, Miné Okubo
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

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