Saturday, November 23, 2002
Ruth Lilly, heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, has made a donation to Poetry magazine estimated to be worth at least $100 million. It’s an interesting proposition, not nearly as random in nature as some of those who have publicly bewailed her foolishness have suggested, and is likely to set off any number of consequences, intended and otherwise. Let’s cast a cold eye at the facts:
a monthly magazine that has been around for some 90 years, currently with a
subscription base of about 10,000, down some 20 percent from its
§ Its current annual budget of around $65,000 enables it to actually print over 100,000 individual copies of the magazine per year and employ a staff of four, a record of frugality that is worth noting (though subsidized by such things as free rent and, I believe, academic salaries).
§ For the past 33 years, since the sudden death of then-editor Henry Rago, Poetry has been merely one of several larger publications associated with what I’ve been calling the school of quietude, no better, no worse.
§ Poetry’s fabled beginning as the official publication of American modernism, of which much has been made, is to some degree a myth – a look at any early issues that do not reflect the somewhat overbearing assistance of Ezra Pound shows the publication to have almost always been at heart muddled in the middle of the road, with a bias toward the conservative.
§ There was a period of greater diversity and experimentation between the late 1940s, when Hayden Carruth & Karl Shapiro were briefly in the editor’s role, & Rago’s death in 1969 – particularly during the latter half of Rago’s 1955-69 tenure – but was something of an aberration in its history.
§ During that brief period – 1962 through ’69 – Poetry actually achieved for a brief moment what its editors seem always to have envisioned as the magazine’s true role, as the closest thing possible to “the publication of record” for American verse culture. During this period, it was where poets of all stripe would invariably send the poems they envisioned as the title pieces for their next works. It not only published the best of everybody, but did so with a balance that reflected a much larger vision of American poetry. Let’s look at three representative issues from that period:
1. October , 1965. The issue is devoted to a single poem, Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-14, Beginning An. In addition, there are three reviews: one of All by Robert Creeley; a second review of the same book by “Thomas” Clark (not yet Tom, although already poetry editor of The Paris Review); a review of Bottom and After I’s by Gerard Malanga. Finally, there is an article on Blake by Zukofsky, “Pronounced Golgonoozà.” Is the publication you associate with Poetry today?
A general issue. The lead poet on the cover is Denise Levertov, listed next to
the title of her poem, “A Vision.” Also on the top portion of the cover with
their works more or less listed are, in this order, John Logan, Tom (now it’s
Tom) Clark, John Woods, Thomas McGrath & Edward Dorn (“The Sundering U.P.
Tracks,” one of his finest poems). On the center of the cover, six other poets
are listed without mention of titles: Barry Spacks,
Etta Blum, James L. Weil (a fine poet in the Corman tradition, better
remembered today as the publisher of Elizabeth Press books), John Ingwersen (“his first appearance anywhere” according to the
contributor’s note), Louise Gluck and Frank Samperi. There are also five
critical articles by Laurence Lieberman, Hayden Carruth,
January, 1969. Another general issue. Just two poets listed alongside the titles of
their contributions in this issue, Kenneth Koch (“Sleeping with Women”) and
Helen Singer. Then comes the first of two clusters of
other poets: Philip Booth, Anselm Hollo, Larry Eigner, David Galler & Lewis Turco. That’s
quite a quintet. The second group includes four poets making first appearances:
Mitchell Goodman (the novelist & then still married to Levertov), Stephen Dobyns, Hugh Seidman and “Ronald”
(yes!) Silliman, identified in the contributor’s notes
as a sophomore at “
This last issue appeared just before Rago’s death, which occurred while he was taking time off to write, leaving “Visiting Editor” Daryl Hine (a Canadian old formalist) to accidentally inherit the journal and take it rightward with a vengeance.*
I go on at some length here to make a point. Putting Kenneth Koch along side Helen Singer, or Louise Gluck on the same line as Frank Samperi is an act of radically representing the breadth of American poetry on a scale that has not even been attempted in the 33 years since Henry Rago died. While there certainly are a lot of little magazines, especially around colleges, that will publish poetry of any stripe, none do so with any sense of shape as to the broader whole, even if that vision is understood as the editor’s first responsibility. And without that sense of shape, they also lack the potential for impact.
It is worth noting that this broad view was still the image of Poetry that lingered for some time after Rago’s passing – indeed, it was still the image of the magazine back when Ruth Lilly was submitting her poems to then associate editor Joseph Parisi. If the publication today is viewed as sleepy & harmless, a narrow journal that drifts between the sclerotic & the bathetic, it was not (and need not be) always thus.
If Hine’s takeover was accidental, so in a way is the Lilly endowment – while it was not an accident that Lilly chose Poetry, the publication appears not to have planned for such a gift. $100 million might do a lot. But let’s take a look at what it will not do – change the balance of power between the two primary traditions in American literature. The mainstream will continue to have all the resources. The Whitman-Dickinson / Pound-Williams-Stein-Zukofsky / New American tradition will continue to have all the poetry & fun.
What it is much more likely to do is to radically transform the power relations within the school of quietude. APR and all the other pretenders to Poetry’s role as the hegemonic “mainstream” journal of verse are now cast as establishment subalterns, a curious phenomenon indeed.
Parisi, to his credit, seems – if his public statements are any indication – to understand that this changes his role dramatically. He is now the CEO of the largest poetry non-profit organization in the world, a role that may well soon preclude his editing a journal that is sure to be only one of many Modern Poetry Association projects. Parisi himself is already talking about teaching institutes, high school programs, and a line of books.
I have seen the word “horror” used to describe the potential of a generation of high school students introduced to American poetry through the vision of Poetry magazine as it is currently edited. But I don’t agree. It hardly matters what poetry a teenager is introduced to if they have, at some point, that “aha” experience that will set them off to be serious readers & possible writers of poetry for the rest of their lives. The absolute number of post-avant writers who themselves began as students of the most reactionary professors imaginable makes it quite clear that, if these students are going to find their way, they will do so as people always do, on their own.
So even in the worse case scenario, one in which Poetry & the Modern Poetry Association acquire pseudo-state status over many institutions of poetry, rather like the role of the Red Cross in medicine, it is likely to have very little impact on the post-avant world that I inhabit, and the poetry about which I care most deeply. In this sense, it is a non-event.
If anything, simply the need to expand its horizons in order to make use of such sudden abundance, Poetry might even take a step or two back in the direction of Henry Rago’s heyday. One obvious first task would be to hire a new full-time editor for the magazine so that Parisi can turn his attention full-time to the institution building tasks that are now on his plate whether he wants them there or not. It would be great – even utopian – if he were to hire somebody with the breadth and vision for American verse that Rago had and who would stretch the magazine beyond its current narrow confines. C.D. Wright would be an stellar example of such a person, but even in Parisi’s own back yard he can find Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff, whose New American Writing for over 20 years has done a far better job at representing its subject than Poetry.
* It was Rago, not Hine, who accepted my work for publication.
Friday, November 22, 2002
Here is the third & final installment of Carl Boon’s questions:
7. "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World" is your major contribution to the debate over reference in poetry. Some critics see the question of reference as the major theoretical battleground in the wide debate between "Language poets" and the group Charles Bernstein calls "workshop poets." Do you think the question of reference continues to be an important, relevant one? How have your ideas about reference changed, say, since the publication of "Disappearance of the Word" or The Chinese Notebook?
“Disappearance” was really
the first serious piece of theoretical writing I ever attempted, so I’m both
very fond of it while simultaneously a little appalled at the impact it seems
to have had over the 27 or so years since David Highsmith
and Carl Loeffler talked me into writing it. I
basically just sat down, banged out what I’d been thinking, sent one copy to
their publication, Art Contemporary, with
a second copy to Alan Davies,\ for his photocopied newsletter, A Hundred Posters. Since then, it’s been
in The New Sentence, been reprinted
three times in anthologies – one in a collection of pieces on Baudrillard that
features a debate he & I had at the
I do think that referentiality continues to be important, not because I privilege the opaque signifier as such, but because I think it reveals a range of phenomena both in writing and in the world that become invisible the instant that language is presumed to be transparent.
Whenever I think of Jakobson’s model of the six functions of language, I tend to group them into three pairs or axes: contact & code; addresser & addressee; signifier & signified. I envision the model in my head as a six-sided three-dimensional figure, not unlike a die, although in practice I don’t think it really works like one. Non-referentiality focuses on the signifier, de-emphasizes the signified, tends to ignore addresser & addressee and generally privileges the contact (e.g., the physicality of sound) over code (including, though not limited to, syntax). In practice, individual texts tend to be very complex & interesting when looked at in terms of their relation to these six aspects of the linguistic experience, and the idea that one would want to fixate simply on one of them seems to me inherently narrow & limiting.
8. A related question. In his essay "Poetry as Explanation,
Poetry as Praxis," Bruce Andrews engages a roundtable discussion of poets
and theorists on the question of reference. (Andrews, as you well know, has
written extensively on the question-especially in "Total Equals What" and "Constitution / Writing, Politics,
Language, The Body.") But in that roundtable, Jackson Mac Low,
192. A friend, a member of the Old Left, challenges my aesthetic. How, he asks, can one write so as not to "communicate"? I, in turn, challenge his definitions. It is a more crucial lesson, I argue, to learn how to experience language directly, to tune one's senses to it, than to use it as a mere means to an end.
If you would expand on that answer, just how do we "experience
language directly"? Twenty years later, does your answer to your friend
remain the same? Has history altered your answer? Does the current political
situation (a conservative
We experience language directly whenever we sense its presence as embodied, whether it is as a “pure” signifier or just as the embodiment of whatever message might be associated with it. Often, in practice, this is felt as a form of alienation. We hear someone’s accent as “difficult,” recognize a verb phrase as “non-standard,” or are irritated that a comment is sexist, racist or ageist. If the message is transmitted electronically, there may literally be static.
There are multiple elements
in play with any statement. All six functions come into play and there are many
times in which something other than the signified is the most significant. This
is most evident in forms of advertising, as when a Mc
As your question suggests, we’re at an especially dangerous time in human history, but the ability to actually hear & read are skills that are always useful.
9. Another related question. Your aesthetic, at least in many volumes of The Alphabet, is considerably more traditional (in terms of reference) than the work of Watten or Andrews. I see this as a departure from, say, Tjanting, which goes further in challenging our perceptions of words and grammatical construction. I think Tjanting is more playful with language than many of The Alphabet volumes. Am I all wrong, or does this perhaps indicate a discord between your theories on reference and your poetic practice?
This goes back to the question of reference you asked in connection with “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World.” Referentiality is not a toggle switch of avant attitude, or even of playfulness. The idea of maximum non-referentiality is every bit as boring as the idea of maximum referentiality. Rather, there is a range, really a series of registers, which move both closer to and further from any idea of unproblematic depiction through language. I have no interest whatsoever in being at either extreme. What does interest me is a full exploration of the range & all the various points along the way.
One of the things I wanted to accomplish with The Alphabet was to explore as many different aspects of my poetry as possible. Almost by definition, that desire moved me into a variety of different pursuits. Simply repeating what I had done before would have been the least interesting of possible alternatives. Thus, to pick a pointed example, Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect continues the poem Ketjak per se, but does so without the repetition that was its original organizing device.
On the question of
playfulness, I hardly know how to gauge that. Jonathan Mayhew’s blog commented
the other day on the “earnestness” of my blog as though that were some kind of
fault. But there has always been a divergence here between my critical prose
and my poetry. Even in the poems, however, I’ve never been that attracted to
10. Here is a quote from Gregory Jay's American Literature and the Culture Wars (1997), a book that captures (from the
standpoint of pedagogy) the firestorm and subsequent debate E.D. Hirsch stirred
up with his theory of "cultural literacy." Jay's book explores what's
often sensationalized by the popular media in headlines such as "
"What is the aim of teaching 'American' literature?" Is it the appreciation of artistry or the socialization of the reader? The achievement of cultural literacy or training in critical thinking? Can it be all these things without contradicting itself (or hopelessly confusing the student)? (5)
I have argued that your work is a better teaching tool than, say,
What do you think the aim of teaching American literature should be? Is there such a thing as the perfect syllabus? Should "classic," canonized works be taught at all? What would be the point of doing so?
There is a presumption here that this has something to do with writing. But the reality is rather the other way around. The question has to do with how poetry might be utilized for other social purposes that are not really connected to the writing. That famed Martian sociologist might find it strange indeed that historically the basis for what once was the standard educational program, especially at the college level, consisted in good part of the systematic study of works that were produced entirely for other purposes & uses. The poet’s game becomes the student’s midterm.
I’m not qualified to pontificate about the broader issues of curricular theory any more than I am to prescribe medications for high blood pressure or provide a recipe for cheesecake.
Having said that, I do think that there is a difference between a canon and a classic. Every individual carries around within himself or herself an intuited view as to the works that matter – that is an inescapable part of being human. This intuited map might be characterized as a personal canon, but it is the adjective that matters rather than the noun in that phrase. Further, groups of individuals might share some of the same enthusiasms, such as the ones that have rescued the work of both Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky in the past half century, ensuring that their works stayed more or less in print, or which got Lorine Niedecker really into print in the first place. That is a social canon, and there are literally thousands of them co-existing at any given moment in time. Again, the adjective is more important than the noun.
It is when you superimpose
one fixed structure over all of the possible ensembles of personal and social
canons that you get a “classic,” which is
Before the 19th century, the amount of actual writing in English was little enough so that there really isn’t that much difficulty reading key figures from the various centuries. But with the extension of the English speaking world, fissures seriously do begin to develop & by the start of the 20th century, they are already pretty deep.
11. You have chosen not to pursue a teaching career in the academy, yet professors and graduate students have written about your work extensively. At last count, there have been nine doctoral dissertations about your work and dozens of critical articles and books. Do you find this ironic? Do you find it disheartening that what you have taken a political stand against (the academy) seems to latch onto your work?--that is, at least a few of us.
Actually, I think it’s more like two people have written dissertations on my work while another half dozen or so have found it to be a useful terrain for examining whatever issues their dissertations directly addressed. My work hasn’t been so much an object of study as an example.
Use in any critical writing targeted toward the academy is always something about which I’ve been ambivalent, partly because that is not where I myself would direct my own energies but also because the actual quality seems so random. Some of the most very positive articles about my poetry have struck me as being the crudest readings imaginable. And I think that one result of that is to reinforce some of the stereotypes of language writing or of my poetry, even when the article was intended in a helpful way.
said that, though, I’m hardly an absolutist in opposition to the academy or to
teaching. I’ve taught at
But if a school were seriously interested in having me teach, I wouldn’t be shocked to find myself doing more of it in the future.
12. In her new book, 21st-Century
Modernism, Marjorie Perloff
claims, as other critics have previously, that Language poetry (she looks
especially at the work of
A year or so ago, somebody posed something very close to the question to P. Inman at Kelly Writers House and several of the students in the audience seemed surprised at his announcement “for” modernism. That is where that sort of stereotyping by one’s advocates comes in, joining language poetry to postmodernism simply because that latter term has, for a period, a certain cachet.
But this attraction to the modernist project has been a thread you can find in many, perhaps most, of the contributors to In the American Tree. I’ve never thought of langpo as being post-modern or post-structural, but rather much more in line with Habermas’ argument that we need to return to the modernist project and see how it might be done without the internal contradictions history imposed – totalitarianism chief among them.
13. What do you see beyond The Alphabet? Are there any new long-term, long creative projects on the horizon?
I think I’m finally ready to tackle a long poem. I have some ideas about a project that I found literally on p. 61 of Anselm Hollo’s book Corvus where he writes “alphabet ends universe begins” and I thought, Aha! So I’ve been making notes, looking a lot at Stephen Wolfram’s book, A New Kind of Science. But I’m a year away from completing The Alphabet – if I’m lucky – and I feel that I’m learning so very much right now that it would foolhardy to get ahead of myself.
14. I think The New Sentence was one of the best books of literary criticism to come along in a while. Do you envision putting together any new books of criticism in the future?
I’ve had the makings of a new volume more or less ready for some time, but don’t really plan to do the work I need to package it up qua book until I get The Alphabet complete and make more firm arrangements for getting a complete version of The Age of Huts ready.
15. And finally, recently you wrote to me that Bob Dylan is one of the few artists from (near) your generation still doing "relevant new work." I am including a chapter on Dylan in my project, arguing that his songs and liner notes from the mid-1960s constitute a kind of "Language poetry," that he indeed is one of the originators of the school. How would you respond to that? Additionally, why do you think Dylan's new work is "relevant"?
Well, as you might imagine from my previous responses, I don’t agree with the premises of your argument. Dylan as a musician has had a serious influence on poets, not just because of the extraordinary concision and use of metaphor in his lyrics, but also because he has been such an example of a person consciously shaping & changing an art form in response to his times. But his liner notes & the novel Tarantula are really imitative Beat fare, sort of adolescent Ferlinghetti as swirled through a blender that would include William Burroughs, Jacques Prevert & the surrealists. At that level, I would pay more heed to Ray Bremser or Charlie Plymell. & I would pose the question of what your argument has to do with either Dylan’s music or the writing to which you might yoke it.
In one narrow sense, though,
you might be right. Burroughs is certainly the not-so-secret source of much of
the imagery one finds in Highway 61
Revisited and Blonde on Blonde
and, in the process, Dylan does demonstrate how such
elements might be brought into play in the radically different form that is
song. As such, he does demonstrate how any genre incorporates material from
beyond its traditional borders, a process that Shklovsky argued was
Further, Dylan’s sense of
what his style was or means has changed constantly, even restlessly, over the
years. When I last heard him live just about a year ago, he was singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a style that was on the hard edge
of Nashville-type country, closer in tone to the Southern rock group
Similarly, the artist who may be closest in cultural impact to the young Dylan in how he pushes peoples buttons, Eminem, also demonstrates precisely how a form can expand & redefine itself. A song such as “Cleaning Out My Closet” could be examined in the terms that one sets for the analysis of any Dylan song (& its video adds layers Dylan has never achieved) or for the highest order poetry. But that doesn’t make it poetry any more than his extraordinary talent makes Marshall Mathers a nice guy.
** The absence of which is also the death of a genre, which is precisely what is wrong with the school of quietude.
Thursday, November 21, 2002
Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Tuesday, November 19, 2002
To read another take on this same material by Spicer, check out John Erhardt’s blog. Two blogs on the same Spicer poem in two days & a meteor shower to boot!