Saturday, April 16, 2005

 

One of the people involved in the incident described in my earlier post asked me to take it down. And I decided to agree with him on that.

 



Friday, April 15, 2005

 

Feeding a bird on the head of Charles Olson

If the current regime in Washington appears to be the most hostile to intellectuals since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when the People’s Republic of China sent a generation of them out to collective farms in the hinterlands for education – if they were lucky – one of the little ironies of the present historical moment is that an administration that thinks nothing of tossing overboard the last century of diplomacy in order to bring democracy to the Arab world at gunpoint, and which would happily deconstruct Social Security in order to send more of our dollars into the coffers of its contributors, has actually been good to the National Endowment of the Arts. It has not be eradicated, which had been a non-negotiable demand of a lot of conservatives heretofore. It has even had its budget expanded, albeit modestly.

There is something bordering on universal agreement that no small measure of the credit for this counter-intuitive trend can rightfully be assigned to its current chair, poet Dana Gioia. Gioia, a Republican businessman who writes poetry, has demonstrated to his peers in D.C. that there is nothing inherently un- or anti-American about the arts & has even engineered something of a rapprochement between the two constituencies.

Two programs in particular have stood out in Gioia’s attempt to return the NEA to credibility with his fellow conservatives. The first is a series of creative writing courses being taught to U.S. troops; the second, developed actually in advance of Gioia’s arrival at the NEA but so heartily taken in hand by him that it has become his signature effort, is Shakespeare in American Communities, underwriting some 1200 performances of the bard’s plays in 550 U.S. locations, mostly focusing on areas traditionally untouched by Shakespeare in the Park productions in New York City. For example, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival brought its version of Macbeth – an interesting choice given the short cuts George W took in claiming the throne in 2000 – to 13 military bases. And got $1 million in Defense Department funding to help pay for the effort. The program also has produced 25,000 education resource kits for use in schools. Shakespeare, as it turns out, is to be a unifying element for American culture, or so envisions the NEA.

Shakespeare, to my mind, is an interesting choice. One can imagine, for example, what might have happened had some other foreign playwright been imported & underwritten on a similar level. Such as Bertolt Brecht or Dario Fo. Even, I dare say, an attempt to underwrite 1200 performances of African dance or Indonesian gamelan might have had the xenophobes who populate capitol hill slicing away at the artery of federal funding that makes all this possible. Shakespeare, on the other hand, gets a pass. Nobody seems to notice, for example, that the dude never set foot in this hemisphere.

I have argued – even this week – that one of the defining elements of the School of Quietude is its sense of American art as a tributary of British culture & a national program to immerse the American psyche in the works of the glove maker’s son from Stratford sure sounds like the apotheosis of that worldview. One can only wonder what the Americans whose ancestors can’t be tracked back to the British Isles must think of this attempt to insinuate this perspective into our culture at this late date. “The thought of what America,” as the old Pound poem puts it, “would be like if the classics had a wide circulation, well it troubles my sleep.” Of the 6,379,157,361 people on this planet as of last July – the estimate is the CIA’s – just 51 million come from Great Britain, Scotland included. Roughly twice the size of Canada, but less than that of the two most populous states.

One might argue, as does Harold Bloom, that Shakespeare creates the modern psyche, regardless of nationality. Or merely that he was the greatest of playwrights or poets, a position more than a few credentialed people here & elsewhere are prepared to advocate. But the fact remains, whatever else one might wish to say about him, there is nothing American, nothing even remotely “national,” about William Shakespeare. Save perhaps for his influence always already on American writing.

When the Royal Shakespeare Company filmed its minimalist version of Macbeth for the BBC in 1979, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, the rest of the 12-person cast & the accompanying production crew got together to simply count the number of different versions of the play they had worked on or in during the course of their careers. The total went into the hundreds. In a society the size of Britain, this obviously could have some impact. By comparison, even the ambitious program of the NEA must seem like a token effort, a drop in an ocean of just under 300 million people. Further, the context is radically different. The idea that Shakespeare in America could have the same meaning or import, even on a far smaller scale, is a fantasy.

I do see Shakespeare as a decisive influence in the work of two major American writers, Herman Melville, especially in Moby Dick, & Melville’s most direct literary descendant, Charles Olson of Gloucester. Indeed what makes Melville’s novel about the whale unique, in Melville’s own writing as well as in 19th century American letters, is the degree to which its author’s diction & imagination have been bathed, completely immersed, in the diction & drift of the Shakespearean tongue. That even accounts, I would suggest, for the book’s crash-and-burn reception when it was first published, a reaction so brutal it functionally undermined Melville’s career. No one, at least in the U.S., in the latter half of the 19th century, was prepared for a work that would not only short-cut fiction’s long march toward a pictorial (and, in some instances, psychological) realism, bypassing modernism entirely, on its route to what might now be recognizable as pomo literature. Even in the United Kingdom, writers needed to go through the realist crucible of Joyce’s “The Dead” to begin the modernist revolution in prose with Ulysses.

The echo of Shakespeare is everywhere in Olson, from Call Me Ishmael, which explicitly reads the impact of Lear on Moby Dick to Olson’s sense of quantity in verse, which he traces back to the last decade of the bard’s plays. But where I really hear it, constantly, is directly in Olson’s verse. As in this opening strophe, from a poem named for its first line:

As the dead prey upon us,

they are the dead in ourselves,

awake, my sleeping ones, I cry out to you,

disentangle the nets of being!

Or, to take another first stanza, this time from “In Cold Hell, in Thicket”:

In cold hell, in thicket, how

abstract (as high mid, as not lust, as love is) how

strong (as strut or wing, as polytope, as things are

constellated) how

strung, how cold

can a man stay (can men) confronted

thus?

So much of Olson reads as tho it were written to be shouted out over a heath, or else to be whispered to an audience, a stage whisper capable of reaching hundreds of ears at once. It is not so much dramatic monolog – tho Maximus is a persona – as it is soliloquy. Olson’s sense of how a sentence interacts with the line – something I suspect an entire generation or two has internalized so deeply we don’t even recognize it – has always struck me as coming right out of Shakespeare, far more than from Melville or Pound. This feel for the materiality of the relationship between the two is apparent, right there on the surface, in Olson, & through his influence it radiates outward. I can hear echoes in Creeley, in Duncan or Levertov, in O’Hara & Whalen & even in Ginsberg. And it ripples again, just a little more faintly, through every one of us influenced by any of them.

So the idea of all these people reading, seeing, hearing Shakespeare is, I suspect, much more of a wild card than the NEA’s leaders may comprehend. Because where it won’t lead is back to is either the homogenous retro-utopia of so many a Congressman’s dream nor to the same ol’ stuff the School of Quietude has been shoveling. Inseminating Shakespeare into the American literary landscape is far more apt to generate a bunch of wild men & wyrd sisters instead. As Olson himself most certainly was.

My own reaction to all this has been to return to Shakespeare – I’m midway through the Greenblatt biography, Will in the World, I’ve watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s DVD of Macbeth, & I’m halfway now through a rereading of Lear. While I probably see one Shakespeare production maybe every 15 months or thereabouts anyway, I haven’t visited this body of work in this concentrated a fashion since I was a student of Jonas Barish at Berkeley some 35 years ago. I’ll let you know how it turns out.



Thursday, April 14, 2005

 

 

Black Sparrow is back. John Martin’s deservedly famous small press imprint, which from 1966 until Martin’s retirement in 2003, published many great books of poetry, fiction, memoirs & correspondence, had been relegated to the netherworld of backlist distribution on the part of David R. Godine, who took over the largest portion of the catalog – the exceptions being a trio authors, Charles Bukowski, Paul Bowles & John Fante, who were picked up by Harper Collins, & Wyndham Lewis, whose work was taken by Marshall McLuhan’s publisher, Ginko Press. While Godine, for the most part, got the best books – he has the voluminous Robert Creeley-Charles Olson correspondence, several volumes by Larry Eigner, David Bromige, Robert Kelly, Tom Clark, John Yau, Eileen Myles, Jimmy Schuyler, Paul Goodman, Edward Dorn, Kenneth Burke, Jane Bowles, Andrei Codrescu, Mary Oppen, Wright Morris, Carl Rakosi, John Wieners et al – his only commitment was to sell the copies he had literally trucked back from Black Sparrow’s warehouse in Santa Rosa. On his website, still surprisingly primitive for a trade publisher with decent enough distribution, Godine admitted that, once gone, most titles would not be reprinted. “Only a select few will be — and they will be joined by judiciously selected new titles published under Godine’s Black Sparrow Books imprint.”

 

Now that is starting to happen. Godine has reprinted Diane Wakoski’s early selected poems, Emerald Ice, in an edition as well produced as any Martin ever did, its gloss cover a good step up from the matte finish of the earlier books. In addition, Godine has just published new books by two poets closely identified with the Black Sparrow brand, Clayton Eshleman’s My Devotion & Robert Kelly’s Lapis. Volumes by Beat fellow traveler Janine Pommy Vega & the dean of Los Angeles poets, Wanda Coleman, may already be out. And new volumes by Lyn Lifshin, Kenneth Burke, Alfred Chester and others have been announced. Perhaps the most important title this year will in fact be a collected short poems by Charles Reznikoff, something the world has needed for decades.

 

I have never quite figured out David Godine’s editorial taste – it seems to combine some of the world’s most interesting authors, like Ron Padgett, Georges Perec & Christa Wolf with the likes of William Logan or Albert Goldbarth. Thus I have been wary of the idea of Godine trying to shape a second imprint with a separate personality. Or, as we marketing types put it, brand identity.

 

So this first flurry is definitely an encouraging sign. Not only are the first poets ones already closely aligned with Black Sparrow, all three books are genuinely worth reading on their own & make great sense together. Kelly & Wakoski, after all, were two of the poets most closely associated with Eshleman’s literary journals, starting with Caterpillar & continuing through the life of Sulfur.

 

One could make a case that all three of these poets are underappreciated, that we generally don’t acknowledge just how important they have been to the creation of the current poetry scene, even Kelly whose volume here, Lapis, is his 63rd book to date. Certainly this is true of Diane Wakoski. She first came of age as a poet right at the moment when Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry, was setting up the landscape for the next two decades of writing in America. And while she was clearly on the side of the New Americans (NAPs), she was also female during a period when that was not easy. Indeed, one of the first things one notices of the many younger poets who followed in the wake of the Allen anthology, is just how many of them were not male. Like Wakoski, some of these younger poets have persevered & done well – Diane DiPrima, Joanne Kyger & Beverly Dahlen come immediately to mind – but if Ed Foster’s Talisman House hadn’t published the collected works of Madeline Gleason – one of only four women included in the Allen anthology – her poetry today would be as difficult to locate as that of Gail Dusenberry, Mary Norbert Körte, ruth weiss or Barbara Moraff.

 

I will always think of Diane Wakoski as a western poet because she grew up in California & attended U.C. Berkeley, where she worked on the literary magazine Occident, as had Robert Duncan & Jack Spicer earlier on (and as, circa 1970, would David Melnick & myself). If her sense of the line comes very directly out of projective verse, it had an almost matter-of-fact directness, radically unlike such enjambed, even halting New England voices as Olson or Creeley. Of the other westerners attracted to this kind of line, only Duncan really exceeds Wakoski in their interest in long, complex (& in Duncan’s case, convoluted) sentences. Her use of larger structures – narrative, dialog, the employment of personae – separates her out from writers like Phil Whalen or Gary Snyder. In some respects the poet she most reminds me of is someone whom I don’t know whether or not she ever even met – Lew Welch. He’s the only other one who combines that sense of line & that tone of discourse in anything like a similar fashion. Like Wakoski, tho, he also counterbalanced a life between the Midwest (in his case Chicago) and the West Coast. Wakoski has been in Michigan since at least 1975.

 

When I first was reading Wakoski in the 1960s, she was really the first poet in the New American tradition to be an out front feminist – it was a tone, a focus, and a content I had not heard before, certainly not in Levertov (who came to it not all that much later) or, at that moment, in either DiPrima or Guest. It gave her work an edginess that enabled her to establish herself as a poet on a national scale very quickly, yet at the same time it separated her out from all the other poets in her own aesthetic neck of the woods, at least until Caterpillar, where her emotional rawness fit in very well with a similar sense of electric inner life that one finds in Clayton Eshleman as well.

 

At her best, Wakoski is as good as it gets. Consider, for example, the opening lines of the 1966 poem, “Poet at the Carpenter’s Beach”:

 

Building up

in any way,

a structure that will permit you to say

no,

a structure that will permit you to say

yes,

as the thin small poet stood on the beach

in the light of the torch and was

run down and immediately killed

that night, on the beach, the sand

soft and cool, like his breath, just a few

minutes before.

 

Being around when somebody dies

requires a leap of imagination,

this reality too complete to comprehend,

 

as when you left me

 

and after that you were not in my life,

though just the day before you had kissed me and touched my mouth

with your large sculpturing fingers.

 

The weight of the line here is argumentative & dramatic, the better to foreground specifics & evoke the psychic devastation that is being described.

 

Emotional directness, as I suggested, is a signature element of Clayton Eshleman’s poetry as well. My Devotion is his first collection of poems since 1998 &, not unlike Roger Clemens, Eshleman still knows how “bring heat” to the page. Here are two examples from different works. The first is a stanza from a poem entitled “Animals Out of the Snow”:

 

Caryl and I were visiting the young poet Stephen Smith

in the world of 3 AM,

I was generating organs for a new book.

We were invited, as if for a cottage

or mountain cabin stay, but the beds were uneven,

things were tilting, for hours it seemed

I worried about my throat and

the corpse of John Logan

putting itself into my throat.

 

The second is the first paragraph of the prose poem, “A Yonic Shrine”:

 

When I piss into your blood (paper decomposing, pink furls, red under-risings), I feel an aimless goodness, a fascination with deconstruction – then a new spurt, making a new pattern, sinks me back, joyfully, into the childhood sandbox.

 

No poet depicts the logic of dream with greater care or precision than does Eshleman. His works often suggest a level of violence – and a discursive authority – that I think must put some readers off. It surely can overwhelm the unsuspecting. The way, for example, the reiteration of the word throat in that first stanza (just the sort of thing a bad MFA instructor would tell you is redundant) is what drives the sense of panic in the last line.

 

The paragraph from the prose poem works in exactly the opposite direction – from an image of violence or violation back toward the dreamtime of childhood. As is so often the case, the most important word here is the one that at first looks like it doesn’t belong, as if it wandered in from some other text or discourse: deconstruction. It sets up every other phrase in the paragraph to mean something other than what it claims to say. Also visible here – in both excerpts actually – is Eshleman’s grasp of the phrase as a locomotive element of prosody. I would call it muscular, tho Clayton might prefer the term peristaltic. Eshleman, Peter Seaton, Leslie Scalapino are all poets I could read endlessly just to think through how the phrase operates as a mode of music.

 

What is amazing is not that Lapis is Robert Kelly’s 63rd book. What is amazing the vast range of poetry with which Kelly is completely adept. Unlike, say, Larry Eigner, who also produced literally thousands of poems but did so within a relatively uniform aesthetic framework that enabled him to use his form as a method of thinking, Kelly is the closest thing we have to a literary chameleon. He can produce long, indeterminate, post-projectivist texts in which line & phrase are every bit as much the locomotive governing the poem’s energy & he can produce lyrics as simple & powerful as “Light”:

 

The chastity of light

is a torment to the damned

 

who want to sully it

with our nature

 

want to give it skin

and suck the skin

 

want to penetrate the light

force our way

 

into everything.

Nothing yields.

 

Nothing can be broken,

everything intact

 

and light is the skin of it.

We howl around the campfire of each fact.

 

Constructed from just four sentences – the length of each is essential to the balance of the whole – with relatively few nouns, this poem is a close spiritual kin to the work of Rae Armantrout.¹ The way Kelly operates is that each book of poetry tends to focus on a specific aspect or side of his writing. The poems in Lapis one could call short, at least in contrast to some of Kelly’s writing, but they’re hardly all lyrics. There is a “Political Poem” named exactly that here that looks to, and acknowledges, Alan Gilbert & Kristin Prevallet. A prose memoir turns the act of asking one’s father to ask one a question into a vertical (& vertigo-ridden) descent into hell. And, as will happen in any book I read of Kelly’s, there are terms here on which texts depend that will have me reaching for the dictionary: ar-Ruk, cantelina, Caillebotte. Kelly knows exactly what he is doing. Who else, after all, would start a poem entitled “Gary Gaetti Retires” with “Recentior D H Red Soxorum?”

 

So maybe this new home for Black Sparrow is going to work after all. It would be great to see the press keep the most important books – the Olson-Creeley correspondence, the Eigner, the Bromige – in print forever. But it will be just as critical that Black Sparrow's next generation of texts make sense in terms of the great history of John Martin’s press. So far, so good.

 

 

 

 

¹ Tho I doubt that Armantrout would ever write that last line – her howls are inner & silent.

 



Wednesday, April 13, 2005

 

I’ve toyed around with a variety of different solutions, and think I’m going to stick with this for awhile. I even thought about Curtis’ idea of trying to recreate the old format – but that seems like a lot of work for very little payoff, given how tired of it I’ve become. But I haven’t been able to get the Squawkbox tool to size right, so I’m going to stay with the Blogger comments tool for now. It actually appears to be more flexible graphically, although I’ve had two occasions in the past year when I’ve been glad that I could delete defamatory statements about others from the comments tool – and I’m not sure that I can do that with this version.

 

Perhaps the most interesting (bizarre?) aspect of this format is how different it looks in Internet Explorer & Firefox. In Firefox, the column on the left is maybe only two-thirds as wide as it appears in Internet Explorer. I’m more apt to use Firefox myself, but I can see that I’m going to have to watch the spacing on certain items, like photographs and linebreaks in poems.



 

Sometime after I went to bed last night, a major portion of my Blogger template got blown away. How, I do not know. But it’s going to take awhile to recreate the material that was there. I've switched over to the Blogger comments tool, at least for the time being. As it is, it's a good opportunity to refresh the look & feel of it all.



Tuesday, April 12, 2005

 

Wendell Berry receives a lifetime services award
from the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission,
Earth Day 2004

 

 

Wendell Berry may well be the finest conservative poet now writing. I mean that both formally and politically – Berry is that rare poet who will write in opposition to a woman’s right to choose not to carry a pregnancy to term as well as he is a constant advocate for the preservation of America’s remnants of agrarian culture. That may seem like a complicated position, but Berry is not at all unthoughtful. It’s that he takes the word conserve very literally.

 

This month, Shoemaker & Hoard will issue Given, Berry’s first volume of poetry in a decade. As with all his poetry, it is absolutely worth reading. The book opens with two introductory sections composed of the kind of short, often occasional poems one associates with Berry, as in “They”:

 

I see you down there, white haired

among the green leaves,

picking the ripe raspberries,

and I think “Forty-two years!”

We are the you and I who were

they whom we remember.

 

This is as effective a love lyric as I have read in a long time. For a poet who is not afraid of rhyme, it is interesting to note here how carefully the prosody of this piece is set up, with each of the first four lines containing an odd number of syllables, just enough variation to shake the gait of the language toward prose, setting up the glide of the metrically even final sentence. It’s a pleasure to read someone so fully in control of his craft.

 

The third section of Given is a short verse play entitled “Sonata at Payne Hollow,” issued previously as a chapbook. The play invokes the lives of painters Harland and Anne Hubbard, of whom Berry has written previously. I say “invokes” because in the play the two characters carry forward literally from the beyond the grave, set up through a foundational dialog between a man and a boy. It’s a complex little piece, just 12 pages long, but one that I think demonstrates both what can be so attractive about Berry’s poetry as well as problematic with the vision that motivates it.

 

But the final section of Given is the real news here, taking up as it does two-thirds of the volume. Berry has been writing poems he calls “Sabbaths” since 1979 and the selection here carries that project forward from 1998 through 2004, continuing the work already collected in his last collection, A Timbered Choir. More personal than the mostly short pieces of the two opening sections, “Sabbaths” is the work for which I think Berry will ultimately be known. In general – there are exceptions, including one elegy here for Denise Levertov that would have fit better elsewhere – Berry’s focus in this ongoing series tends to be the natural world, especially that around his farm in Kentucky. This offers his writing a level of specificity that is often lost in other works, especially those that tend toward the polemic. My favorite work in the book is a poem from 2002 that, on the face of it, appears to have no purpose whatsoever:

 

The Acadian flycatcher, not

a spectacular bird, not a great

singer, is seen only when

alertly watched for. His call

is hardly a song

a two-syllable squeak you hear

only when you listen for it.

His back is the color of a leaf

in shadow, his belly that

of a leaf in light. He is here

when the leaves are here, belonging

as the leaves belong, is gone when

they go. His is the voice

of this deep place among

the tiers of summer foliage

where three streams come together.

You sit and listen to the voice

of the water, and then you hear

the voice of the bird. He is saying

to his mate, to himself, to whoever

may need to know: “I’m here!”

 

Even in Berry’s “Sabbaths” tho, description often turns to parable &, regardless of how well written it might be, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the contradictions that are at the heart of his vision. I have the same problem with his view, ultimately, that I have when watching the films, say, of Michael Moore. To construct their respective world views, they’re required to omit far too many of the details, many of which simply cancel out their reasoning. In Moore’s case, telling what happens to the city of Flint when a factory moves presents a cross-section of a detail taken from a larger, far greater process. Moore’s utopia is the industrial segment of the American Midwest while Berry’s is somewhat closer to an early agrarian view – and the political conclusions they draw are for the most part quite different.¹ But each is largely bemoaning the movement of the world away from what they perceive to have been its optimum moment. Both are telling narratives of decline.

 

Berry’s a utopian poet, but utopias can exist only outside of history. Berry’s idea of a self-sustaining local economy was already fatally passé even before the growth in the population of nomadic hunter-gatherers led to the rise of agriculture &, with agriculture, property, cities, divisions of labor, armies, and all the rest, up to & including nuclear pollution & genetically modified crops. When he rails against science and medicine, as he does in “Some Further Words,” a credo from which the book’s second section takes its name, it’s not because these methodologies help people, but because they ultimately force change, tipping the world off of its axis into a spiral of decay & despair. Yet the only communities historically that have ever been to survive for extensive periods in the kind of suspended animation Berry seeks have been those, mostly in the South Pacific, that have evolved in isolation on islands, with substantially lower levels of agriculture than that figured in Berry’s imagination. Even there, it was historical change – migration – that populated those nations in the first place. There is no such thing as an “indigenous” population, nor any such thing as a local economy, which is just a Prairie Home Companion version of Stalin’s Socialism in One Country model. It didn’t work for Stalin & it won’t work for Berry. It’s not clear whether or not he actually knows this, but all the ways in which the world fails to adhere to his vision of the possible will no doubt continue to fuel some of the saddest, sweetest verse we can get.

 

 

 

 

¹ They would, I suspect, agree on the stupidity at heart of the war on Iraq & at the idea that we can dictate democracy & modernism to the Middle East at gun point.

 



Monday, April 11, 2005

 

I was in Austin for 22 hours last week, did a quick spot on Bloomberg TV (not about blogging or poetry), then headed back out again only to get caught up in Canceled Flight Blues at Dallas-Fort Worth, my least favorite of airports. While I was doing all this, I got the first email I’ve received since starting this venture two-plus years ago that felt more than a little like hate mail:

 

Our "one moment in history" will be remembered long after your wooden lightless writing or whatever it is has been superceded by that of other arrogant and envious groovy robots of the next instantaneously obsolete avant-garde as must be pretty obvious by now even to you. (I will grant that you briefly had an invigorating effect on a few real poets, you should get credit for that, except you won't, because only emotion endures and you won't be remembered.)

 

That’s the whole letter, save for the signature. Its author is a relatively recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize. My sense is that his poetry isn’t much better than his prose, a case of the overwrought urn. If he had a better sense of literary history, he might know that School of Quietude (SoQ) poets such as himself have a very poor track record for being kept alive in the memory of readers, largely because they’re not the Blakes or Wordsworths or Whitmans or Melvilles, but rather the Jones Verys & Robert Silliman Hillyers of history. It’s not an accident that his last line quotes Pound. As Marjorie Perloff has noted, if one were writing out of some desire to be remembered, the avant-garde tradition is clearly the way to go.¹ If my correspondent wishes to gauge my envy, I suggest that he do a search on our names on Google.

 

But I was glad to see that he cared. It’s a sign that he’s not writing badly only to gain the approval of boors, a feeling I do sometimes get in the presence of SoQ poetics. And his verbal brick came through my email window just as Kirby Olson & several other voices in the Squawkbox commentaries were clamoring for me to sketch out a history or schema of the School of Quietude itself.

 

The term, as I like to remind folks, was coined not by me, but by Edgar Allen Poe, responding in the 1840s to criticism that his work needed to be a tad more quiet. Back then, the literary world was already caught up in a dispute between one cluster of writers (the Knickerbockers) who felt that American literature needed to pattern itself after English & European tradition. Literature in that sense was viewed as index of how America was becoming refined & sophisticated. Opposed to the Knickerbockers were the Young Americans who felt that the writing of the New World needed to be taken on its own terms. Both sides courted Poe, tho it seems clear that his heart was mostly in the camp of the Young Americans. And, ironically, he was the first American author to have a substantial influence overseas. Six years after Poe died, Whitman showed up with the first edition of Leaves of Grass & the debate has only intensified ever since.

 

I first used the phrase to suggest a sense of how old this dispute is. There is no question – absolutely none – that a tradition in American letters existed that sought mightily to quash the reputation of the New American poets when they first began publishing in the 1950s. Hillyer – not a blood relation of mine, I’m relieved to say – actively sought to have the works of Pound banned after the Second World War. The exclusion of Pound, Stein, Williams & all the Objectivists – the exclusion of modernism in general, in fact – was consistently practiced by these more conservative poets throughout the first half of the 20th century. A lot of this was over-the-top & embarrassing in retrospect, such as Louis Simpson’s angry resignation from UC Berkeley after the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, fleeing back to the culturally safe environs of the Eastern seaboard. Before he became a founding member of the neoconservatives, Norman Podhoretz’ tract against Jack Kerouac & the Beats, the “Know-Nothing Bohemians,” represented a fellow traveler’s attempt to support the very same authors who already had close to a monopoly on the trade publishing houses – more of whom printed poetry in those days. The militancy that one sometimes finds in the writing of (or in support of) the New American Poets in the 1950s was itself largely a reaction of the militancy of conservatives like Podhoretz who tended to treat the New Americans as if they were the Barbarians at the Gates. A concept like M.L. Rosenthal’s silly Confessional Poetry was a slightly later (& inadvertent) admission that (a) the NAPs were not going away, (b) they represented the most exciting poetry of the 1950s and (c) the surest way to rescue a moderately interesting SoQ poet like Lowell was to find a way in which he could be argued to be doing “the same thing” as Allen Ginsberg. As a moment in intellectual history – let alone intellectual honesty – this was not a high point.

 

Historically, then, the SoQ could be said to be any poetry that looks to the establishmentarian traditions mostly in the U.K., but also on the continent, for validation, and who seek an American verse that largely is clone of European sophistication. By this, the SoQs do not mean Basil Bunting, Tom Raworth, Douglas Oliver or most of the French poets of the past half century, or even the earlier experimental tradition in Russia. This is why even now second-tier conservative talents from overseas are so often over-hyped here in translation. There is a doctoral dissertation to be had in watching, for example, the translations of Paul Celan. SoQ writers act as if Pierre Joris & his work does not exist. Their Celan is not an innovator of language, but the tortured, tragic soul of the Overwrought Urn, to be read breathlessly & slow. Joris’ Celan can actually write.

 

In 1950, the Boston Brahmin tradition largely ruled the SoQ universe, counterbalanced only somewhat by Auden, who at least came by his Anglo-centrism honestly. The Brahmin tradition had several first-rate talents – Lowell, Berryman, Plath being the most conspicuous – but there was no way its establishmentarian commitments & conformist impulses could have survived the next two decades as a serious literary force. As it broke apart from within, with notable defections on the part of Bly, Merwin, Wright, Rich & Hall², the American university was expanding dramatically with the great postwar economic expansion of 1946-64 (conspicuously identical to the Baby Boom Generation) with MFA programs springing up all over the map. Most of the early teachers in these programs came literally out of the Writers Workshop in Iowa City, which had never been a Brahmin outpost (Auden had been a far greater influence). These younger establishmentarians found themselves treated as lesser talents in part because they did not go to Harvard or Yale. And they had little in common socially with that world of inherited wealth & social customs. One can find pronouncements of Open or Naked Poetry from that period, largely from the same poets who would associate themselves with the American Poetry Review, that are every bit as much fun to read as Bly’s pronouncements in The Fifties and The Sixties. The APR innovation was to write the same establishmentarian poetry, but in free verse. Thus by the mid-60s a James Tate could come along with a smattering of surrealism & suddenly be treated as a savant by people who had never heard of Ron Padgett.

 

It was precisely the disintegration of the Brahmins & decentralization of the SoQ landscape in the 1960s that would lead a little later to the reformation – one can almost mean that in the old liturgical sense – of the so-called New Formalism, a group of even younger poets who were militantly anti-New and clueless about form, which they confuse with pattern. The New Formalists are interesting sociologically, because they represent an SoQ tendency that to this day remains largely outside of the academy.

 

I agree that there is a good history of the SoQ to be written, although I for one have no desire ever to attempt it. There is not enough time to read all of the good poetry being written. I cannot fathom wanting to devote very much of that precious commodity to an in-depth examination of a tradition I see as reactionary at best, and often pathological.

 

Actually, the most interesting new insight I’ve seen about all this of late can be found in Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant speculative biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World. Greenblatt notes a serious division already among the playwrights & poets of the late 16th & early 17th centuries in & about London, a class division, setting apart those university-trained authors, most of whom may have written for the theater, but who did not actively participate in productions, and rough-hewn actors who wrote for their companies and did not have proper educations or family credentials, Shakespeare himself being one of the latter & actually an occasional subject for scorn on the part of these society authors for it. Greenblatt adopts Shakespeare’s term for what in the U.S. today I would call the SoQ: he called them the “university twits,” a marvelous phrase. I would be tempted to start using that phrase as well if I didn’t know a lot of poets in universities who are not, in fact, twits. But that’s what educational expansion will do for you.

 

Class may in fact continue to be a subtext between SoQ & post-avant poetics to this day, although I suspect it is one largely rendered illegible in all the ways American history has dealt with that touchy issue. Thus Phil Levine writes of workers & Marilyn Hacker is an articulate feminist, tho both produce work that reinforces the most conservative literary traditions in America. At least Dana Gioia & Wendell Berry are consistent in both their writing and their political commitments.

 

It should be obvious that many SoQ poets are talented – Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Roethke, just to keep to that generation, all qualify. But if you put them alongside of the New York School poets of that same period (the NAP tendency they were “most like”), these same Brahmins strike me as klutzy and a little sad, operating as they did within literary constraints that really functioned as blinders. Reading Life Studies is like going through Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems on Quaaludes. Lowell’s synapses in his poems are like a Jim Carrey impression of slow motion. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t enormously gifted. But it does mean that mostly he wasted it. If only he had had a Pound to edit his work, as Ezra did a generation earlier for T.S. Eliot, the ultimate Anglophile.

 

Since the embarrassing disaster of the attempts at quashing Pound & the Beats in the 1950s, the SoQ has largely employed benign neglect toward the new poetries that have emerged since then – viz., Joris’ Celan. Like all hegemons, a major part of its strategy has been to pretend that it’s the unmarked case. Like white males pretending that identity politics doesn’t include them. So that today we have “poetry” and we have “language poetry” (or maybe “post-language poetry”). The Pulitzer mostly is reserved for poetry, not that other stuff. The biggest single reason to use a phrase like School of Quietude (or Brahmins or university twits or whatever) is to make it visible. The SoQ is a series of interlocking (and sometimes disputatious) literary tendencies every bit as coherent as the New American Poetry.

 

So I was glad, genuinely, to get an email that showed a little passion, regardless of how ill worded & misguided it might be. It would be far healthier – riskier too – if the SoQ as a whole would stand up to be counted. In general, the one segment of it that has been willing to do so have been the new formalists, who may be as appalled at the nonsense of what used to be called “APR types” as am I, but who fail to understand how that poetry came about – they would have to change their own poetry & poetics forthwith if they did.

 

 

 

¹ My correspondent worries about being remembered. The best response I can imagine to that anxiety is something I saw recently on Len Edgerly’s blog, which quotes Robert Creeley from an interview in the Cortland Review:

 

Williams says he'd rather go off and die like a sick dog than be a well-known literary person in America. A poll taken on the streets of Manhattan discovered that less than one percent could tell who Norman Mailer was. Poets write, I do believe, because they have to—it's something nothing else quite satisfies. One has to do it — compulsively. I remember Carl Rakosi saying before we were to teach at Naropa some years ago ( we were musing over just how to proceed): "Well, the last thing poets need is encouragement!" They'll do it come hell or high water. My own "acceptance and recognition" came from peers, as Olson, Duncan, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Cid Corman—and elders like Williams and Zukofsky. The company is what matters.

 

² Richard Tillinghast’s brief diversion off into the Sufi Choir in the late 1960s can be seen as a residual round of this (in the Marxian phrase, “this time as farce”), but he returned to the fold before too terribly long.



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