Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Jordan Davis posted a comment in the Squawkbox for Monday that got me thinking:
Not really here to take the bait, Ron, but curious why you'd go along with my (and Jeff's) contemporary Jollimore's framing of Kenneth's work in terms of negative superlatives. Does anyone want to start discussing Barrett's worst poem, or Bob P's? Not much. Nor for that matter is working out what someone's best, or single most representative work, worth the effort, unless we're anthologizing.
Hopefully, I’m misreading Jordan, at least in part. I was not subscribing to Troy Jollimore’s claim that When the Sun Tries to Go On is Kenneth Koch’s worst poem. In fact, as Kenneth well knew (because we’d corresponded on this very topic), I think that When the Sun was Koch’s very best poem, that moment in the heroic phase of the New York School – i.e., the period when it was reaching out to see just how far it could reach, a phenomenon that would include Ashbery’s “Europe” & O’Hara’s “Second Avenue” & “Biotherm” – when these still-very-young-at-the-time poets sketched out directions & possibilities that poets even today are still finding fruitful, even as most of the “mature” work of the first gen NY School itself never fully again came so close to that horizon (there are exceptions, of course, most notably Ashbery’s finest work, Flow Chart).
But, having said that, there are other points worth thinking through further in Jordan’s note. First, every mature poet will have what I think of as his or her “Van Buren Cantos,” those works that, while consistent with the poet’s project understood at its deepest levels, can really only be appreciated by “completists,” who must read everything that poet ever wrote. This is quite apart from juvenilia, which is another problem altogether, although each, as such, could teach a careful reader a great deal about the poet.
I have written quite critically about projects from poets whose work I like very much, including Bob Perelman & Jerome Rothenberg, but it’s not a practice I do routinely or without giving it a lot of thought. As I commented just the other day, life is too short, and interesting, positive projects in the world of poetry all too often go without comment, & that generally strikes me as what I should be doing with my life. It really only makes sense to get into the sometimes quite painful interpersonal realm when something larger is at stake, as I felt it was when Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 2, came out with its implicit argument that Fluxus had been the central artistic movement of the last half of the 20th century, a claim I don’t think anyone can make out loud without bursting out into giggles. That in turn led to bizarre & troubling omissions that rendered the collection far less representative & useful than its predecessor volume. As somebody who was included in Vol. 2, I felt I had a special responsibility to speak up. But I sure didn’t enjoy it.
It might be an interesting project – and I’m sure we would all learn a great deal – to discuss what the least successful projects are of all our favorite poets. I have a sense of what my own Van Buren Cantos might be. But I’m not going to share that here, and I don’t think, really, that it’s possible to have a broader public discussion of that kind of issue in the still very charged & partisan universe of poetry that exists in the real world. Similarly, it would be illuminating to think about which avant or post-avant poet has been the most over-rated – John Cage would be my vote – but I think that the benefits of such a discussion would be disproportionately minimal to the energy it would require to explore it adequately.
When I was first contemplating this blog back on Brier Island a couple of summers ago, one of the ideas that drove my thinking was the sense that we – I & other poets – needed a place in which we could discuss the most minute literary issues – say the space between two words & how that gap might function differently depending on what the words themselves are, & thus how silence & absence are far from neutral or unshaped. Papers given at academic conferences struck me then (& strikes me now) as precisely where one doesn’t want to conduct such a discussion. The blog, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited to the occasion.