Saturday, October 12, 2002

 

Tom Bell writes:

 

Ron,

     Is there room on your blog for a consideration of “asyntactical tactics of Language poetry?” (p. 13 in O’Leary’s Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness?). This struck me as a misapprehension that is probably common but I’m not sure why as I can’t tell if the ‘a’ in asyntactical is to be read like the ‘a’ in agnostic or the ‘a’ in atheistic. Actually, I don’t think either applies?

 

I can’t say that I know Leary’s text, but I’ve heard that charge before. It’s one of my Top 10 Myths about Language Poetry:

 

§         Language poetry is non-narrative

§         Language poetry is a- (or anti-) syntactical
(alternate version: language poetry = word salad)

§         Language poetry is academic

§         Language poetry is poetry written to prove a theory

§         Language poetry is New Criticism with a human face

§         Language poetry has no humor

§         Language poetry has no interest in people

§         Language poetry began in 1978

§         Language poetry is anything written since 1978
(alternate versions: since 1970; since 1990)

§         Language poetry is anything “I don’t understand”

Some of these of course are simply silly. Of the 40 writers included in In the American Tree, exactly eight have (or have had) tenure track positions in college-level literature programs. Of those eight, three (Watten, Perelman, Davidson) were hired as modernists rather than as poets, while David Bromige was hired onto the Sonoma State faculty before anybody there had ever heard the dread phrase “language-centered writing.” This leaves exactly four human beings who could plausibly have been hired in part for their accomplishments as poets related to the social phenomenon that is langpo: Bernstein at Buffalo, Hejinian only very recently at Berkeley, and Susan & Fanny Howe, both now retired. More language poets work in the computer industry, frankly.*

 

But to tackle the non-narrative & word salad canards, lets take a look at some recent work from Bruce Andrews’ Lip Service, a “recasting” of Dante’s Paradiso. This passage comes from “Moon I,” the first piece in the second section of this book:

 

     Charm Master, let’s say I repeat mere outline of
somehow pumps
                                   look I lose in looks
’to become’ & ‘to appear’ are the same
                                   a contrario goof, a spell behaved
souvenir pinch painted wardens
scared to fake redress by projective graphic lids
laid eyes on – what opals, what clovers, eye-level stress
imagery sale cipher fitted to inwards as if
                                                                     into the distance:
                                      simulcrayon scopafidelity.

 

Andrews describes his process on the back cover of the Coach House volume in very straightforward terms:

 

Its ‘christmases of the heart in syllables’ take Dante’s thematic cues & path through ten concentric planetary bodies to rechoreograph several years’ worth of poetic raw material of mine – on love, erotic intimacy, gender socialization & the body. Dante’s topics & tercents & punctuation give its 100 parts their internal shape, with a drastic constructivism of syntax, with denotations & fluidities magnetizing its word-to-word attractions or pushes & pulls as ‘valedictory honeymoon burns in the pagination’.

 

What Lip Service is not, then, is either free writing or a homophonic translation of Paradiso. Its actual relation to Dante’s work is at the level of structure – akin perhaps to Joyce’s use of Homer’s poem in Ulysses but with one eye toward the exoskeletal features of the text. Without going into the thematic correspondences between Dante’s work and Lip Service, the passage above – picked primarily because I want to think a little about that remarkable last line – seems to me perfectly readable. It is neither asyntactic nor non-narrative. Built out of Andrews’ reservoir of “poetic raw material,” one could conceivably argue that it is a hodge-podge of found language, jumbled together into an aesthetically pleasing shape. But a closer reading reveals – constantly, throughout the entire text – that more is going on.

 

The opening line of this passage is an address to a named Other & addresses, in fact, the form of the poem itself (with the articles removed a la Ginsberg). The next line appears to shift context entirely & in fact does. Doing so, the language moves away from comment toward prosody, thus it also pumps. But that is as much a comment on the form as was the prior line. The third line shifts again. As it does, it invokes two other aspects of language – its role as embodiment of voice, thus insinuating character, and as depicter of the visual. The line is a good example, actually, of Andrews’ sense of humor, which generally has a lighter or more mellow touch in Lip Service than the biting sarcasm of his earlier writing. The humor is couched precisely in the alliteration of the line itself: “look I like lose in looks.” Looking here may lead to a sense of presence – we hear a voice, perfectly identifiable with that first line to the Charm Master – but we don’t see so much as we hear. The fourth line in the passage can be read as a direct comment on the problem: you appear, therefore you are. The italicized phrase in the sixth line is a metacomment on the entire passage, joining (by no coincidence) Italian to a noun associated with Allen Ginsberg. Andrews is invoking multiple lines of simultaneous heritage here. The phrase that is not italicized (i.e. in roman type) is itself further metacomment – with a soft pun echoing out from spell to an absent spelling.

 

Metacommentary, the use of one line as a kind of an equivalence with its predecessor, but composed in such a fashion as to also (déjà toujours) further the argument, is a fundamental poetic process, proceeding forward by operating precisely along what Roman Jakobson used to characterize as the vertical axis of language. While it is not identical to metaphor, the process is not far removed.

 

The four terms of the next line “souvenir pinch painted wardens” can be read as a single complex noun phrase and as four characterizations of a writer’s relation to the use of appropriated language. A halfway attentive reader will even hear the joke in the term wardens, that old double meaning of parole. The line which follows is also a complex phrase, one that invokes multiple approaches to contemporary writing:

 

§         as trauma testimony (scared)

§         as sincerity (to fake), a concept that insinuates both Zukofsky’s test of poetry as well as the mock humility of American Poetry Review free verse

§         as identarian advocacy (redress)

§         as both – and the contradiction here is not accidental – persona (by projective) and voice-as-breath-as-persona (Black mountain projectivism)

§         as sight, depiction (graphic)

§         as object, closed containers of content (lids), with of course that back-pun towards sight hidden in the suggested “eyelids”

The following directly addresses language’s relationship to sight – one of the most interesting and still under-theorized linguistic dimensions we have – but ends it with a term (stress) that also invokes metrics & does so after bringing in the visual domain not a specifics but as categories (what X, what Y). The line after this – “imagery sale cipher fitted to inwards as if” – is the most polemic in this passage, suggesting as it does that visual details are in fact mechanisms by which the language of the written pulls the reader into a mode of subjective acceptance. The next-to-last-line here, “into the distance,” follows, suggesting that this interiority is thus projected outward as if real or objective.

Which brings us to our pair of neologisms: simulcrayon scopafidelity. The first jokingly characterizes the omnipresence of immanence’s lush visualityit’s just there, everywhere. The second suggests that the allegiance of the visual world is to a state that could be characterized as psychotropic or drugged. It projects us, and is as much an element of ideology in the Althusserian sense of that term as any aural or vulgarly political paradigm. It constitutes the field of our interior lives.

None of this is rocket science. I haven’t even broached the question of Dante and the layers of meaning waiting at that level. But I’ve performed this sort of reading exercise before with texts by writers as diverse as Charles Bernstein & Rae Armantrout. Andrews is using poetry to make an argument here, quite like Dante, and the exposition is hardly impenetrable. Nor is his thesis so revolutionary that it should cause a reader to stumble. None of it requires the kind of mind-numbing detail that I’ve laid out here – a casual reader should be able to sense almost all of this just perusing the text. Any college senior, regardless of major, who can’t pick up 80 percent of it just by reading the passage above ought to demand a refund of his or her tuition – because this isn’t scholarship, it’s literacy. And the inability to do this suggests a pretty sad state of affairs.

I am amazed, therefore, and invariably depressed, whenever I see – as I do too often in even our most famous literary critics & in more than a few poets – that this basic level of reading competence appears to be missing. It’s almost a form of aphasia, as though the reader were a citizen of the cinematic city of Pleasantville before the advent of color. Thus I take Andrews’ suggestion that the vocabulary of color itself, and all the other linguistic minutiae of the “reality effect,” including voice, projection, even character, are a part of this conspiracy to make idiots of us all quite seriously. How else explain how someone like Richard Wakefield cannot see what is wonderful, say, in the work of Jena Osman? How else explain the idea that language poetry is either asyntactical or non-narrative?

 

  

* Count them: Kit Robinson, Alan Bernheimer, James Sherry, Tom Mandel and myself.



Friday, October 11, 2002

 

A Philadelphia Progressive Poetry Calendar

 

A lot of what follows comes from Nat Anderson’s wonderful omnibus literary calendar for Philadelphia, augmented primarily by the calendar at the Writers House web site (which Nat’s calendar seems to miss more often than not). The readings listed below are simply those I’m interested in. If I get to one quarter of them, I’ll be doing very well. I know there are things I’m missing (e.g. Eileen Myles and Erica Hunt are supposed to be at Temple in the Spring). So I may update it from time to time. Feel free to send me info of readings you think I should be including.

 

October

 

10, Thursday, 8: Novelist Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children, The Satanic Verses, Step Across This Line), with the Pine Tree Foundation Endowed Lecture, Philadelphia Lectures, Montgomery Auditorium, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street. Tickets $12,or $8 for students, available through UpStages, 215-569-9700, with a $2 handling fee per ticket. Inquiries to Andy Kahan or Sara Goddard at 215-567-4341.

 

13, Sunday, 3-5: Four New Jersey Poets -- Alicia Askenase, Therese Halsheid, Toni Libro, and BJ Ward -- at the Manayunk Art Center, 419 Green Lane (rear) in Manayunk. $4 donation requested. For further information, call Poetry Director Peter Krok at 215-482-3363 or 610-789-4692, or MacPoet1@aol.com.

 

17, Thursday, 4:30: Bob Holman, dubbed "Ringmaster of the Spoken Word" by Henry Louis Gates, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. Part of the 215 Festival. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

17, Thursday, 8: Poet Robin Blaser (The Holy Forest, Even on Sunday, Astonishments, librettist for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Last Supper), Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street.

 

21, Monday, 8: Novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, Baudolino), Philadelphia Lectures, Montgomery Auditorium, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street. Tickets $12,or $8 for students, available through UpStages, 215-569 9700, with a $2 handling fee per ticket. Inquiries to Andy Kahan or Sara Goddard at 215-567-4341.

 

22, Tuesday, 7: Jessica Hagedorn (National Book Award nominee for Dogeaters, Gangster of Love, the poetry collection Danger and Beauty, the anthology Charlie Chan Is Dead), Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

22, Tuesday, 7:30: Novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, Baudolino), in a reading sponsored by the Gelllert Fund, Goodhart Theatre, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. For further information, contact Helene Studdy at the Bryn Mawr College Office for the Arts, 610-526-5210.

 

24, Thursday, 8: CA Conrad and Frank Sherlock read from their collaborative poetry project in which they lead each other through different areas of the city and write about the experience, Molly's Cafe and Bookstore, 1010 South 9th Street, in the heart of the Italian Market, 215-923-3367.

 

27, Sunday, 3: Singing Horse Press presents Poet-Publishers Take the Stage -- readings by Rosmarie Waldrop (Split Infinites), Lewis Warsh (Touch of the Whip), and Chris McCreary (The Effacements) at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street. $10, $5 for members. Visit www.paintedbride.org or call 215-925-9914 for more information.

 

30, Wednesday, 7 PM (eastern time) A reading and conversation with CARL RAKOSI via live audiocast. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT or see the special website: www.english.upenn.edu/~wh/rakosi.html.

 

 

November

 

6, Wednesday, 5:00: John Norton, author of an experimental novella Re: Marriage (San Francisco: Black Star Series) was published in 2000. A book of prose poems and sketches The Light at the End of the Bog (San Francisco: Black Star Series, 1989, 1992) won an American Book Award. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

7, Thursday, 7:30: Award-winning poets and fiction writers Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient, Anil's Ghost, Running in the Family, In the Skin of the Lion, The Cinnamon Peeler, Handwriting) and Fanny Howe (Selected Poems, One Crossed Out, The End, Nod, Robeson Street). Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center, 2nd & Cooper Streets, Camden NJ, 1-856-964-8300 or wwhitman@waltwhitmancenter.org. $6; $4 to students and seniors; free to members.

 

12, Tuesday, 5:00: Forrest Gander, the author of five poetry books, including Torn Awake and Science & Steepleflower, both from New Directions. He is the editor of Mouth to Mouth: Poems by Twelve Contemporary Mexican Women and the translator, most recently, of No Shelter: Selected Poems of Pura Lopez Colome and (with Kent Johnson) Immanent Visitor: The Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

13, Wednesday, 7:30: "Not To Be: Poetical Parody, Mock-Ups, & Outright Lies": the Rosenbach Museum and Library sponsors "an evening of poetic riffs and rip-offs" in conjunction with their Making Shakespeare exhibition, including William Henry Ireland's infamous forgeries. This panel of poets, reading both historical parodies and their own more seriously allusive work, will feature Nathalie Anderson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Daisy Fried, Paul Muldoon, and Bob Perelman. Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2008 DeLancey Place. For more information, call 215-732-1600, or see www.rosenbach.org.

 

14, Thursday, Nathaniel Tarn & Toby Olson, 6:00: Two veteran poets & authors who really need no introduction here. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

14, Thursday, 8: Pierre Joris (Poasis: Selected Poems 1986-1999, 4x1: Tzara, Rilke, Duprey & Tengour translated by Joris, translator of Celan, Picasso, Blanchot, Kerouac and Abdelwahab Meddeb, co-editor with Jerome Rothenberg of the two-volume Poems for the Millennium anthology, Toward a Nomadic Poetics), Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple University Center City, 1515 Market.

 

18, Monday, 7: George Economou & Rochelle Owens. Two of the younger poets associated with the New American poetry and around such journals as Caterpillar. Both have recently moved to Philadelphia. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

 

December

 

3, Tuesday, Time TBA: Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Among her books are Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan, 2001), part of her long poem project, and Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (Cambridge, 2001). She is also the author of Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985), H.D.: The Career of that Struggle (1986), both from Indiana University Press, and The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Routledge, 1990), a book of experimental essays. She is the editor of The Selected Letters of George Oppen (Duke University Press, 1990), and the co-editor of three anthologies: The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (Alabama, 1999), The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation (Three Rivers/Crown, 1998) and Signets: Reading H.D. (Wisconsin, 1990). Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

4, Wednesday, 2 events with Michael Ondaatje at Penn. 1:00 PM: Lunch with author Michael Ondaatje sponsored by Women's Studies, and co-sponsored with the Kelly Writers House. RSVP to wh@english.upenn.edu.  4:30 PM: Michael Ondaatje will read at Penn location TBA, sponsored by Women's Studies.

 

 

January

 

Nada. Are we expecting a heavy winter this year or what?

 

 

February

 

26, Wednesday, 4:30 PM: The Poet & Painters series presents poet Ron Padgett. Cosponsered with the Graduate School of Fine Arts and the Creative Writing Program. Padgett is also the author of New & Selected Poems (David R. Godine, 1995), The Big Something (1990), Triangles in the Afternoon (1979), Great Balls of Fire (1969), and other collections. Two new volumes are forthcoming: Poems I Guess I Wrote and You Never Know. ). Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

27, Thursday, Norma Cole – may be reading at Writers House, Temple or both.

 

 

March

 

5, Wednesday, Noon. Lunchtime discussion with Johanna Drucker, poet and book artist. 6:00 PM, reading. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

11, Tuesday, 4:30 PM: The Poet & Painter Series presents Steve Clay Editor of Granary Books. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

19, Wednesday, 5:00 PM: Dennis Barone. He is the author of three books of short fiction: Abusing the Telephone (Drogue Press, 1994), The Returns (Sun & Moon Press, 1996), and Echoes (Potes & Poets Press, 1997). He is also the author of a novella, Temple of the Rat (Left Hand Books, 2000), and he is editor of Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995). Most recently Quale Press published The Disguise of Events, a chapbook (July, 2002). Left Hand Books published his selected poems, entitled Separate Objects, in 1998. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

20, Thursday, Time TBA: Brad Leithauser. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

27, Thursday, 8: Symposium on Blues, Jazz, and American Literature, with Pew Fellows Sonia Sanchez (Does Your House Have Lions? and Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems) and Major Jackson (Leaving Saturn), with critics Robert O'Meally (Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, editor of the anthology The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, biographer of Billie Holiday etc) and Farah Griffin (If You Can't Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday). Scheuer Room Kohlberg Hall, Swarthmore College. For further information, contact Peter Schmidt at pschmid1@swarthmore.edu.

 

 

April

 

3, Thursday, 4:30: Simon Ortiz, the great Acoma poet. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

8, Tuesday, 7:30: Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott (Omeros, Tiepolo's Hound, The Bounty, The Odyssey: A Stage Version, What the Twilight Says), in a reading sponsored by the Marianne Moore Fund for the Study of Poetry, Thomas Great Hall, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. For further information, contact Helene Studdy at the Bryn Mawr College Office for the Arts, 610-526-5210.

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Thursday, October 10, 2002

 

A first book of 175 pages is simply remarkable. It can also be tough going at times. When I noted at the outset of the blog that I am a slow reader, Tan Lin’s Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe (LBG) (Sun & Moon, 1996) was one of the books I had in mind. I began it sometime in 1999 and just finished it this morning.

 

I’m not certain as to whether or not LBG is organized chronologically. I imagine that it might be, at least because I found myself quite resistant to the earliest sections of the book, but largely persuaded by the work later on. Either Lin improved as a poet, or else he simply convinced me over time.

 

Because Lin, at least in LBG, is very much an abstract poet (with a healthy Spicerian influence poking its head out from time to time), my experience reading the volume at moments reminded me of first reading the poetry of Bruce Andrews. Of all the language poets, Andrews was virtually the only one who apparently never went through a phase as a young poet writing in some variant of a New American poetry genre. It was, to borrow a trope from music that I’ve heard Andrews himself make, as though a young pianist had been exposed to the work of Cecil Taylor at the very beginning and just never saw the need to plod through the texts of Beethoven & Brahms before getting on with “the real work.” The result was that many readers took awhile to trust Andrews because his early books seemed so largely devoid of links backward to a knowable literary tradition.

 

Lin of course comes a generation later & does have some visible roots, including both Spicer & Andrews, Clark Coolidge, and what feels to me like pretty predictable elements of surrealism, dada & conceptual art. It’s an interesting enough gumbo, but it wasn’t until the final 50 pages that it felt as though the work here was really Lin’s own. As with all writing that tends toward the abstract, so much depends upon the ear of the poet. While there are a few authors with a genuinely great ear, such as Coolidge, Ken Irby or, most recently, Rod Smith, most writers have one that is only average. When that is the case, the poet needs to have something more going on in the poem, the way, for example, Andrews’ texts are resplendent with social satire & comment. That next dimension doesn’t quite ever show up in LBG, but the evolution of Lin’s book – or at least in my response to Lin’s book – makes me realize that I want to read more to find out what’s come next.



Wednesday, October 09, 2002

 

Special thanks today to Jordan Davis for catching more typographical anomalies than I care to admit. They’ve been corrected.



 

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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