Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Once upon a time, when Small Press Traffic was primarily a poetry-centered book store on
Of the manifestos up at the journal’s front, the one that gets the closest reading from me is, no surprise, Jordan Davis’ brave “Peeling Oranges on Top of the Skyscrapers: Towards a Name-Blind History of Poetry since 1960,” focusing, in this issue on the
- an actual history of the
, at least through the first three generations New York School
- an attempt to write literary history without resorting much to names (most of the names he mentions – Kane, Gooch, Lehman, LeSueur – aren’t those of major practitioners but of writers of histories, biographies & memoirs)
- a glance at some of the social forces at play in the creation of literary formations, especially during this period (which, contrary to his subtitle, really is 1950-1985 or thereabouts)
If Davis doesn’t always succeed, or succeed completely, it’s not for want of effort & lots of good-will & hard thought. In a sense, what he has done is throw down the gauntlet to other poets of his generation to come along & either correct his basic model or offer a better one of their own.
One problem with
Generation One: “a central group of four to seven
Generation Two: “a core group of four to seven poets, several of whom studied at
Generation Three: “a core group of four to ten poets, some of whom studied at the
Generation Four: “one, more or less: Joel Lewis (and he chose to remain in
There is quite a bit more to each of these definitions (save, really, for the Joel Lewis Generation, which may be at least partly a joke, but which does get confusing later on when Davis refers, more than once, to the “fourth wave” and how it did or did not follow in the footsteps of the third), oh, but you can hear the shouting already – Waddya mean, Joe Ceravolo isn’t one of the four core poets in Gen 2? etc. – and that
But the name that really is missing here, more than any other, is that of Frank O’Hara. His Irish moniker pops up as a visible absence in the very second bullet of
This is not unlike the question of Oppen’s role among the Objectivists. Treated by a lot of them prior to World War 2 as a youngster who just might print their books, Oppen really doesn’t get accepted as an equal as an author until well into the 1960s, when his work proposes a radically different orientation for Objectivism than the model offered by Zukofsky in the Objectivist issue of Poetry. At least Oppen got into that issue – still using his middle initial, the way beginning writers often do – which is more than one can say for Lorine Niedecker.
None of this is to suggest that Ashbery isn’t a wonderful poet or that any of the first or second generation poets didn’t value his work and his friendship. But his role, socially, is worth thinking about. When I was a kid – more or less literally – first getting to know the various subdivisions of the New American Poetry, only David Melnick, a serious Ashbery aficionado, ever acted as if the New York School, gen one, was anything other than a term for what might better be called Frank & His Friends. The importance of the social, in fact, which is so evidently an O’Hara quality rather than an Ashbery one (or Schuyler or Barbara Guest, tho it is for Koch) is literally what empowers Ted Berrigan – the furthest thing you could get from the gay Harvard aesthetes – to use his own legendary social skills to create a second generation largely out of whole cloth. Even if you can’t imagine Frank & Ted holding, say, a cocktail party together, I think you have to acknowledge what Ted picks up, more than anything, from his first generation predecessors is the enormous consequences of introducing people to one another & being, in general, the social secretary for the club. Indeed, throughout literary history, you’ll find that this formula works in many different environments – it works for Pound & for Stein, for Olson & for Jack Spicer. O’Hara clearly had it – the PBS documentary by Richard Moore of O’Hara is virtually a love letter to it – but when Frank was hit by the dune buggy, the person who had that skill next is a working class ex-GI from
But when Frank is gone, Frank is gone. Ashbery is back, but certainly not about to fill that void. Jimmy is too disorganized, Barbara too shy & Kenneth too far uptown, where he certainly is social, especially if you are female undergraduate. Here,
But rather than avoiding all the messy (& frankly unpleasant, almost regardless of which decisions you make) discussions that show up the minute you begin raising names, Davis’ solution here, what really needs to happen, long term, is to have that discussion, frankly & in depth. It’s really a book project, not an eight-page magazine essay, but to even begin to confront the contributions & facets of that generation critically & theoretically, that is almost what has to be done. Not to begin then asking, how come the second generation
But the poets of the Third Generation are all now in their 50s, just as a fourth – if it really exists or ever did – are turning 40 or thereabouts. I think the whole question of this most formidable of all group formations is very interesting to think about, to spatialize as a metaphor something akin to what happens to ripples in a pond after a large stone is tossed in. If that first stone was, as I would argue, Frank O’Hara, then by the time of the 3rd generation, the ripples have not only reached the shore, but begun to bounce back, so that we have outward ripples now intersecting those coming back in, making it impossible really to discern who really is, or is not, 4th generation, let alone 5th or 6th, which is about what we would be at right now.
It may sound like I’m arguing with Jordan Davis, but I’m not, really. He deserves a huge public hug for taking on this hopeless project in the first place, because it’s important, and because it takes considerable courage to venture in where so many are bound to feel differently from whatever the hell you say.
He touches on langpo largely in passing, and does so in a way that is sweet & amusing, and really not wrong in his assertion that it is the natural inheritor of certain aspects of Projectivism, or at least one of them. The New Western tendency I focused on a couple of weeks back there is another way that card could be (and was) played, as is the New York version of Projectivism, following Blackburn, Kelly, Eshleman, Wakoski & their more experimentalist friends Mac Low, Antin & Rothenberg. And there is feminism & identity poetics in general that one would have to take on in this larger history – the best piece I’ve ever read on that subject, decades ago at this point, was by Jan Clausen. And Actualism, and (cough) New Formalism. And what about all the little regional post-Beat scenes, from the folks around John Sinclair in
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¹ One less war, thousands of fewer deaths, a government focused on projects to help the American people & a Supreme Court that might soon border on the rational, even with Thomas & Scalia still there. The response to Katrina would have been faster & far more powerful with someone other than a horse show administrator in charge. I believe we still would have gone into
² A date chosen, I suspect, so that the history doesn’t have to rehearse the New American Poetry in great detail.
³ Which would also require us to figure out how it is so many of the students of Berrigan at Iowa & Chicago who did not head off to New York City tended to group around Darrell Gray’s idea of Actualism, and had such a different fate in terms of their writing, than did the 3rd generation NY school. Not to mention explaining how students of Berrigan’s at Yale (Kit Robinson, Steve Benson, Alan Bernheimer) and students who were at least all at Iowa City when Ted was there (Barrett Watten, Ray Di Palma, Bob Perelman, even Bob Grenier & Curtis Faville) ended up out west involved in some very different writing.