Wednesday, October 09, 2002

 

What does it mean to rethink the poetry of the 1950s & ‘60s without the canonical boundaries set out in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (NAP)? Eliot Weinberger asked the question and it certainly is one worth considering further.

 

Implicit in Weinberger’s question is an argument that the categories established by that volume – Black Mountain, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats, the New York School – were artificial in nature & not borne out by practice. In his view, some poets, such as Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Kenneth Patchen, Muriel Rukeyser or Kenneth Rexroth, move closer to an avant-garde while fracture lines between different subspecies of New American, such as Black Mountain poets & the Beats, are viewed as more serious.

 

There is no question that Allen’s groupings are open to challenge. How Paul Carroll gets to be a Black Mountain poet or why Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Michael McClure are not part of the Beat Generation would require, at minimum, lengthy & convoluted arguments. And as I’ve noted before, conflict is hardly extraneous to poetry. Edgar Allan Poe was involved in the great disputes of the 1840s between the Young Americans and the Boston “school of quietude,” a chasm that remains largely uncrossed to this day.*

 

I’m part of that large generation of American poets whose interest in poetry was greatly encouraged & informed by the Allen anthology and it is no doubt difficult for me to step back and imagine it as having not existed. In fact, the sharpest insight I can get into the militancy of the period comes from comparing the Allen with A Controversy of Poets, co-edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly just five years after the NAP.**

 

Controversy is intriguing in part precisely because the book takes “the war of the anthologies” & the divide between the New Americans and the Lowell generation of the “school of quietude” quite for granted. The premise of the book was that a representative of each tendency (Kelly for the Americans, Leary for quietude) would select 30 writers who “represent…the most significant American poetry.” Because one of Kelly’s selections, Robert Duncan, declined, the finished volume includes 59 writers. Editorially, putting the poets into alphabetical order favored the New Americans, as the first three up were John Ashbery, Paul Blackburn and Robin Blaser.

 

While Kelly & Leary don’t identify which selections were made by which editor, the choices are patently obvious. Further, each editor wrote a separate & competing afterword, Kelly’s supplementing his with a list of 39 additional writers from whose work “an anthology of comparable merit could have been derived.” Of the 44 poets included in the Allen anthology and divided into five sections – Black Mountain, SF Renaissance, Beat, NY School and “Other” – Controversy includes 21. In addition, 10 other New Americans are listed in Kelly’s afterword. 13 New Americans are neither included nor listed in Controversy. Eight poets not found in the New American poetry are included in Kelly’s selections for Controversy. Kelly’s supplemental list identifies 29 additional poets not included in the Allen anthology. And, of course, Paris Leary’s half of the volume contains 30 other poets almost entirely outside of New American concerns – the closest probably being Thomas Merton & Adrienne Rich.

 

Numbers don’t tell the complete story. It is worth noting precisely who shows up where. Of the five sections in the Allen anthology, three contain more than ten poets – the Black Mountain section with 10, which also gets pride of position, going first. The San Francisco scene follows with 13 poets, while the grab bag Other comes at the very end with 11. Only four writers are included in the Beat section, although Other contains eight writers (Whalen, Perkoff, Snyder, McClure, Bremser, Jones, Wieners & Meltzer) who might also have been shifted into that section.*** The six poets contained in the New York School have no counterparts tucked away in other sections. Duncan is included in the Black Mountain section even though he was clearly the most forceful poet who was on the San Francisco scene in more than a transitory fashion.+ As a whole, The New American Poetry emphasizes Black Mountain, overemphasizes San Francisco, gives short shrift to the New York School and edits the Beats in such a way as to mute that tendency’s force within the larger scene.

 

It is important to note just how ill-defined the San Francisco section is. With Duncan misplaced amid the projectivists of Black Mountain, the San Francisco Renaissance poets there have no perceptible center. Adam, Antoninus, Broughton and Gleason really don’t make sense as a community sans Duncan or Rexroth. You could put Blaser and probably Borregaard into the Spicer Circle, although Joanne Kyger, Harold Dull and George Stanley would have been a better representation. But Ferlinghetti, Welch, Lamantia, Duerden, Boyd & Doyle simply don’t gel with either of these other two groups. Lumping at least three phenomena into one pot both overstates San Francisco’s role as a literary force and blurs the actual dynamics which were represented there.

 

Robert Kelly’s portion of A Controversy of Poets has very different dynamics. Of his 29 poets, the following were in the Allen anthology:

 

§         Paul Blackburn

§         Robert Creeley

§         Edward Dorn

§         Larry Eigner

§         Denise Levertov

§         Charles Olson

§         Joel Oppenheimer

§         Jonathan Williams

§         Robin Blaser

§         Lawrence Ferlinghetti

§         Jack Spicer

§         John Ashbery

§         Edward Field

§         Frank O'Hara

§         Gregory Corso

§         Allen Ginsberg

§         LeRoi Jones

§         Michael McClure

§         Gary Snyder

§         John Wieners

§         Edward Marshall

Of the ten Black Mountain poets in NAP, eight are included here & Duncan would have made it nine if he had relented. Roughly half of three of the other groups in NAP  the New York School, the Beats & Other – are also included in Controversy. But only three of the 10 San Francisco poets in NAP make it into Controversy. This isn’t too terribly surprising. The choices reflect Robert Kelly’s own commitments as a poet fairly clearly. But as a statement of “the most significant American poetry,” it’s open to question.

 

Ten of the 39 poets listed in Kelly’s afterword are likewise included in NAP:

 

§         Helen Adam

§         Richard Duerden

§         Robert Duncan

§         Philip Lamantia

§         Ron Loewinsohn

§         David Meltzer

§         Peter Orlovsky

§         Gilbert Sorrentino

§         Lew Welch

§         Philip Whalen

Again, we find disparities, although some no doubt have much to do with what remained from the original 44 poets of the NAP. Four poets each are listed from the San Francisco (Adam, Duerden, Lamantia and Welch) and the lugubrious Other (Loewinsohn, Meltzer, Sorrentino and Whalen). Duncan is included from the NAP’s Black Mountain section and Orlovsky from the Beat one. Not a single New York School poet is added.

 

By the time Kelly is through, only Paul Carroll from both the Black Mountain section of the NAP has been entirely excluded as well as only one representative of the Beat generation. Interestingly, only two citizens of Other are similarly not mentioned or included. But six of San Francisco’s 13 poets and half of the New York School’s much smaller cluster of six have been rendered nonpersons. The disappeared include the following:

 

§         Brother Antoninus

§         Ebbe Borregaard

§         Bruce Boyd

§         Ray Bremser

§         James Broughton

§         Paul Carroll

§         Kirby Doyle

§         Madeline Gleason

§         Barbara Guest

§         Jack Kerouac

§         Kenneth Koch

§         Stuart Z. Perkoff

§         James Schuyler

While one might make a case for excluding a couple of the poets, such as Boyd or Doyle, the others are notably harder to justify. One might argue that Kerouac was primarily a novelist – Bill Burroughs, for example, was never included in the Allen – but the excision of Koch, Schuyler and Guest is worthy of a raised eyebrow.

 

Kelly added eight new poets to the NAP core of 21 to his portion of Controversy:

 

§         Theodore Enslin

§         Robert Kelly

§         Gerrit Lansing

§         Jackson Mac Low

§         Rochelle Owens

§         Jerome Rothenberg

§         Diane Wakoski

§         Louis Zukofsky

With the exception of Zukofsky & to a lesser degree Mac Low, the other six are poets who will all soon be associated with the journal Caterpillar, edited by Clayton Eshleman with Kelly on board as an advisor. No poets associated with the New York School, the Beats, nor the San Francisco Scene are added.

 

The same tendencies are only slightly modified in the list of 29 non-NAP poets Kelly mentions in his afterword:

 

§         Cid Corman

§         Judson Crewes

§         Guy Davenport

§         Vincent Ferrini

§         Max Finstein

§         Jonathan Greene

§         Kenneth Irby

§         M.C. Richards

§         Frank Samperi

§         Charles Stein

§         Richard Brautigan

§         George Stanley

§         John Thorpe

§         Lorine Niedecker

§         George Oppen

§         Kathleen Fraser

§         Diane Di Prima

§         Ed Sanders

§         David Antin

§         George Economou

§         Clayton Eshleman

§         Armand Schwerner

§         Carole Berge

§         Seymour Faust

§         Steve Jonas

§         John Keys

§         Barbara Moraff

§         Margaret Randall

§         Susan Sherman

The first ten poets on this list, more than a third, can be interpreted as neo-Black Mountain writers, either by style (Irby, Greene, Stein) or personal association (Crewes, Corman, Richards, Davenport). Three of the poets might be reasonably characterized as San Francisco writers, two are known as Objectivists & one can make a case for Sanders & Di Prima as Beats. But only Kathleen Fraser could possibly be interpreted as a New York School poet. Antin, Economou and Schwerner continue the cluster of poets around Eshleman and Caterpillar. Jonas, Meg Randall and the others (including the mysterious John Keys, whom I know only as an associate editor of Fred Wah’s magazine Sum in the early 1960s) do constitute the sort of Other that again points to the limitations of such clustering in the first place.

 

My point here is not to denigrate the value of Controversy, which was (and still is, for that matter, at least the portion for which Kelly can take credit) a terrific book – if it marginalizes the New York School, it nonetheless takes a great chance in presenting all of Frank O’Hara’s poem “Biotherm,” squeezed into the volume’s mass market paperback format by being reduced literally to 5½ point type. When, in 1966, I first discovered the poetry of Louis Zukofsky on Dick Moore’s PBS series of that period, Controversy was the only volume in Cody’s Books in Berkeley that contained any of Zukofsky’s poetry whatsoever. This volume was where I – and many other younger poets – first read the work of Jackson Mac Low as well.

 

But the volume’s absences manifestly reflect the perceived & passionately felt militancy of the various New American tendencies. Missing and unmentioned in Controversy as well as in the New American Poetry are the entire second generation of the New York School (Berkson, Schjeldahl, Padgett, Elmslie, Brainard, Berrigan, Warsh, Waldman, Acconci, Mayer, Gallup, Perreault, MacAdams); the rest of the Objectivists (Rakosi & Reznikoff); several West Coast poets (Joanne Kyger, Harold Dull, Stan Persky, Edward van Aelstyn, Mary Fabilli, David Schaff, Beverly Dahlen, Al Young, Jim Alexander, other poets in the Spicer Circle); several neo-Projectivists, (Ronald Johnson, Besmilr Brigham, George Quasha, Dan Gerber, Duncan McNaughton, John Clarke, Larry Goodell, Richard & Linda Grossinger, John Sinclair, Michael Heller, David Gitin, Toby Olson, d Alexander, Harvey Bialy); and some poets who are simply impossible to categorize, such as William Bronk, Dick Higgins, Kirby Congdon, Mary Norbert Korte, John Cage, Sidney Goldfarb, Gene Frumkin or Andrew Hoyem. This rattling off of names represents only a fraction of what was possible.

 

While many – perhaps most – of these poets were too young to be considered when Donald Allen was cobbling together his initial volume with Robert Duncan’s ever so subtle advice, most were active and visible by 1965. As the Angel Hair Anthology makes quite evident, the second generation NY School had clearly clicked into place by 1967 at the latest. The subsequent appearance of anthologies by and/or about both the New York School and the Beats can no doubt be traced at least partly to the failure of both NAP and Controversy to adequately address the genuine dimensions & concerns of their communities. Similarly, the absence of such an anthology around the San Francisco poets can be read as accurate to that community’s sense of itself as not one but several overlapping scenes, not all of which were so terribly thrilled with one another.

 

All these competing characterizations of the New American poetry have consequences. In the current online issue of Rain Taxi, Joanna Fuhrman asks David Shapiro,  “So what about the state of poetry now?” Shapiro replies: 

The hardest thing for me was feeling that the Language school had, as a group, somehow "disappeared" certain New York poets. I put it this way once to Charles Bernstein, which my son thought was too turbulent a way to put it and he made me call Charles up to apologize, which I did. But I still sometimes feel that a lot of us get no credit for what we did between '62 and '80 .

For example, an academic who will remain nameless once told me she'd never seen 'C' magazine and had never read Joseph Ceravolo's poetry, and this was after she praised people who were using the same techniques but much later. In art history, we don't praise you if you do a drip painting today because we have a sense Jackson Pollock did it in the winter of '47.

I thought someone like Joe Ceravolo never really was given his due. Or someone like Dick Gallup, who had an amazing poem in 'C' magazine called "Life in Darkness." Now if it was published, people might say "Very interesting poem in the style of, let's say, Bruce Andrews," but that's not really fair.

Shapiro is absolutely on target about the importance of Ceravolo’s work, maybe Gallup’s too, but the problem created by these boundaries was in place long before Bob Grenier thought to hate speech. While some of the language poets, especially on the West Coast, felt close to varieties of Post-Black Mountain poetics, others felt just as passionate about the New York School. So it was instructive – & appalling – to see issue after issue of the Poetry Project Newsletter in the early ‘70s identify all the contributors to magazines in its “recently received” columns except for people like Bruce Andrews or Barrett Watten. In marked contrast, the very first issue of the magazine This, for example, had taken care not just to include Creeley, Irby and Kelly, but also Anselm Hollo, Anne Waldman and even Tom Clark. In this sense, I think that Shapiro is right, if hyperbolic, to employ the trope of “disappearing” other poets, but he has his telescope turned in the wrong direction.

 

The real question isn’t why didn’t language poetry create institutions that would preserve and promulgate the value of the New York School’s second generation, but rather why didn’t the New York School? Just by simple proximity to the New York trade publishing industry, several New York School poets, including Gallup, Mac Adams & Shapiro, were able to publish their first books with trade publishers, access to broad distribution that to this day no language poet has ever had. What was it about New York School poetry in the 1980s that it was no longer able to sustain the work of its own community? It wasn’t as though the poets had stopped writing, at least not most of them, or that their poetry suddenly wasn’t any good. And I don’t think the blame can be put entirely on the death of Ted Berrigan. It is telling that some 15 years later, the press that has done the most to return the poetry of this generation to print is Coffee House, which began in the 1970s as the press of the New York School’s western cousin, Actualism. How did the New York School come to depend on the kindness of strangers?

 

The problem that Eliot Weinberger is questioning isn’t one of the Allen anthology’s categories artificially projecting rigid borders where they didn’t already exist as it is one of crudely mixing borders – rather like the British Empire in its 19th century adventures into Africa or Central Asia – ignoring already on-the-ground tribal warfare. The problem of the San Francisco section of the New American Poetry is that it projects a phenomenon where none really existed – the Spicer Circle, Duncan’s scene and the neo-Beats there appear to have been more or less mutually exclusive. In addition, by creating a section as large as that accorded to Black Mountain, the NAP was able to hide its failure to deal with either the Beats or the New York School appropriately. The codifications the Allen helped to set in motion did not initiate the dynamics that so often made it hard for many members of these various literary clusters to deal with one another, but it definitely did not help. To a generation of younger poets, myself included, The New American Poetry offered a map as given whose projection of reality was as fanciful & full of mythic dragons staring out of uncharted waters as any that plagued Juan de la Cosa.

 

 

 

 

* Consider for example Richard Wakefield in last Sunday’s Seattle Times: 

Most of the poems selected by Robert Creeley for inclusion in "The Best American Poetry, 2002" are so awful that the reader is hard put to explain how five or 10 good ones sneaked in. Perhaps the selection was entirely random — but that wouldn't explain why there are so few poems here that are even readable. It's a puzzle.

Given that the Creeley edition of the Best American Poetry is perhaps the first readable volume in the history of that series, one is not shocked to discover that Wakefield is a rhyming poet of the tub-thumping metrics school. Wakefield’s example of just how bad the poetry in the new BAP is turns out to be Jena Osman’s “Starred Together,” “a belabored amalgam of clichéd ideas and limp prose.”

 

** Over two dozen copies of A Controversy of Poets are available through abebooks.com

 

*** The San Francisco section includes seven poets – Broughton, Ferlinghetti, Welch, Duerden, Lamantia, Boyd and Doyle – who could also be included in the Beat section. Add Sorrentino, Jones & Wieners to the Black Mountaineers and you could have had an anthology with 13 Black Mountain poets, 19 Beats, 6 New York School poets and 6 San Francisco poets. That is a totally different book, although it would have been more accurate both aesthetically and sociologically. Of course you could have added Wieners to the San Francisco section as well. But that’s precisely the problem with such clustering.

 

+ A standing joke when I was a youngster on the scene was that the Beat explosion in San Francisco in the mid-1950s could not have taken place if Robert Duncan had not been in Majorca at the time because he simply would not have allowed it.

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