Carlo Parcelli

Finnegans Wake and the
Quiet Genius of Rudd Fleming

When I was a sophomore at the University of Maryland in 1969, I signed up for a course called Modern Poetry taught by Rudd Fleming. The course began at 8:30 in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I dropped my daughter off at the baby sitter's and made my way to the record store I managed on Route 1 south of the campus in order to do the deposit from the day before and take the drop bag to the bank. Walking down to the store I would occasionally run into Rudd deep in thought, sometimes reverie, stalking the walkways along the mall in front of McKeldin Library, pushing his hair out of his eyes, staring at the ground, often mumbling to himself.

Though we had already become friends, I did little more than greet him on these occasions because I realized that his early morning conference with the birds and the dew laden grass was the way he formed his lesson plan, a greater plan accompanying everything Rudd did.

I had already taken Rudd’s Modern Poetry class and he immediately pegged me as someone who should take up Ezra Pound. That keen eye and ear did not go unnoticed by the students who swamped his classes. His writing class, held in a slightly below ground room in Taliaferro Hall, was always mobbed.

People just there to hear the self-effacing genius of Rudd Fleming exponentially outnumbered the people actually signed up for the class. Students and local poets filled every desk, sat on the floor, stood five or six deep in the doorway or flung open the windows which were about shoulder high and sat on the ledges with more onlookers crouched behind them.

As a consequence when Rudd taught his Modern Poetry class in 1969 he was assigned a large lecture hall in the adjacent business administration building. Still it was SRO---especially when he devoted classes to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Rudd made no distinction between the Wake as work of fiction or poetry. It was of a kind as was his epic conception of Modernism.

Sure, enormous numbers crowded in when he did Homer, the original modern. Rudd would simply launch into the Odyssey in the original Greek using the acting skills he had acquired performing in productions around town with his wife Polly.

His blackboard rendering of Yeat’s Vision Cycle from memory and his free form lectures in general were astonishing, often breathtaking. His take on Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Charles Olson always left you energized, saying 'I want to do that. I want to capture some of that.' It was like Rudd would take you on a dead run through a poet for two hours. You’d go ‘that was there. Now I see.’ You left his class feeling poetry was the highest calling. The greatest vocation.

The class customarily ran over but people stayed. I was often late opening the record store. Students exited exclaiming “Holy shit! That was amazing!” or swamped him with questions after class. Then it was off to get tear-gassed, fight the draft board, earn a living, and take the baby to the doctor.

But it was Rudd’s love and command of Finnegans Wake that stood out. He and his wife Polly had read the Wake to each other for years often just before entering their own dream state. Rudd owned several copies and could recite long passages by heart with inflections that demonstrated a deep understanding of the text.

The copy he brought to class, a Viking paperback edition, was completely disbound, with the pages shuffled so that he could come at Joyce’s monument fresh every day.

Years later and perhaps 3 or 4 years after Rudd had died, Polly asked me to go through some books in their basement, the same basement where Liam Rector had temporarily lived as a student.

There I found a battered later printing of the Viking Press copy of the Wake, again so heavily annotated that it had become disbound. I turned to Polly and said 'Look at this,' handing it to her. It was the copy of the Wake that she and Rudd had read to each other all those years.

Although Rudd’s class was inspirational, after a few false starts, it was years before I read the Wake all the way through. Then I read it again, the second time mostly out loud.

Rudd and I remained friends until his death some years ago. Once a month or so for 26 or 27 years I would make the trek across Rock Creek Park to his house in Chevy Chase. There were stories about putting up Dylan Thomas on one of his American tours; of Rudd’s one attempt at a mystery novel being denounced on the floor of the British Parliament as smut on the very day that he and Polly, on vacation, visited said august body. There was the riotous story about Charles Olson sitting in one of Polly’s dainty chairs and smashing it to pieces.

But mostly Rudd and I discussed how to make a Canto---an Ezra Pound Canto. How all subjects can be taken up in language to assay how they relate to each other---to strive for the big picture. To be ambitious in and for the poetry itself. What he called ‘energized culture.’

Rudd and Polly had spent many a Sunday visiting Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. Polly and Pound worked on her Laforgue translations. Rudd and Pound translated Greek drama.

One day while I was having lunch with Rudd and Polly on their back deck, Polly got up to attend to something in the kitchen. Rudd was near the end of his life and often in excruciating pain, but at this moment he seemed serene—really like his old self.

Birds were chirping all about us. We sat in silence for a few moments listening. Then he smiled and said, “Birds. Birds don’t so much sing as let song take them up.”

Rudd and Polly were taken up by the greatest song of all---James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. And they gave that gift to an urchin like me.


Editor's Notes:

Sophokles Elektra : A version by Ezra Pound and Rudd Fleming, was published by New Directions in 1990. The play was put into production by Carey Perloff who recounts some of the history behind Rudd's writing partnership with Pound plus her own experience of first encountering the play through James Laughlin. A Princeton University Press critical edition was published in 1989 but is currently out-of-print. Along with the Pound-Fleming version of Women of Trachis, Elektra also appears in the Library of America volume, Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations.

— Readers might also appreciate poet Liam Rector's reminiscences of Fleming from an article that appeared in 2001 in the American Poetry Review:

Inheriting Eliot, by Rector, Liam
American Poetry Review, Sep/Oct 2001

Not many seemed to catch Eliot as a vaudevillian, Eliot as a sly dog, Eliot as what Ezra Pound called "the Possum," and I can see now how impossible it must have been for the children to see this. The sexual timidity and hysteria in the poetry was enough to scare me away as a young man, and I veered countervailently towards the Ginsberg of the time and that other great poem of apocalypse, "Howl."

Quite luckily I happened upon a teacher at the University of Maryland who was a classicist, a Buddhist who chanted The Diamond Sutra quietly to himself on long walks, and he gave me Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound -- the entire core of the Modernist mottle -- intravenously. Rudd Fleming (called Red Flaming in Charles Olson's Maximus poems) was a bemused, self-evaporative actor of a teacher who gave us literature by reading it to us, then sitting down, listening to us read what we'd written, and then getting back up and giving us the traditions from which our own writing, largely unbeknownst to us at the time, had come. Fleming had tea with Pound for ten years on Tuesdays at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital when Pound was incarcerated there for mental unfitness on a treason charge -- and together Fleming and Pound translated works such as Elektra, which Princeton eventually published and which even saw production in New York recently under the direction of Carey Perloff, daughter of poetry critic Marjorie Perloff, who also taught at Maryland at the time.

Since Fleming was not a poet and had no need to be oppressed by the Eliot orthodoxy as a poet, he was wonderfully free to give us Eliot as a magician of what Rudd called "classical consummations" and "the great endgame of the European mind," and he gave us, the grandchildren, a glorious, even impish Eliot to inherit, an Eliot not at all counter--vailent to Ginsberg or to the counterculture to which many of us swore allegiance at the time. Rudd gave us "The Waste Land" not as any orthodoxy but as a mode -- a montage, a mobile, a collage, and a cubism of many nudes descending many staircases -- and as an elliptical mode which had (and still has) horizon as a form for the poets of our time.

and from Winter 2004, Web Issue 6

Moiderin Times
by Pulley May Johnson
(fhromange to Jams Jizzas Dingletongue.)
By Carl O'Parcelli

a sample

--Yo! Waytor. Im dying of durst. Suds and mesls in scheiss
shates of a caccs swailn,