Saturday, April 23, 2005

 

Shiny, I have decided, has to be the most aptly named publication currently going. It arrives, just like the Harvard Business Review, in a clear plastic envelope with a separate sheet containing the address & mailing information. With its oversized page & impeccable visual production – perfect binding, ample uses of white space, at least one art feature & even, dare I say, five pages of ads in the back – it’s as good a looking poetry periodical as we now have. Shiny wants to be taken seriously – and absolutely deserves it – but it has no interest, for example, in critique. I’m not aware that it has ever printed a review or a page of theory. Nor is it even an annual. There have been just five issues in the past twelve years.

I see Shiny less as a magazine you would be apt to see on campus than in an art gallery – it’s almost an art object itself. Perhaps because it has this sense of poetry as close kin to the visual arts, I tend to think of Shiny as being related, however obliquely, to the New York School, even to the detail of being edited in what I think of as the uppermost end of Manhattan, which is Boulder, Colorado. Number 13, freshly at the door, reflects this heritage – it includes a six-page John Ashbery poem, plus work by Bernadette Mayer, Ron Padgett, Paul Violi, Anne Waldman & Lewis Warsh. There are also pieces from younger writers who are not so terribly distant in sensibility: Reed Bye, Richard Roundy, Eleni Sikelianos, Chris Edgar, Michael Gizzi & David Trinidad. There is Geoff Young, whose life encompasses very much this same poetry/art world connection, tho not always from the same direction. This issue also has a healthy number of what I’m coming to think of as the Blogger generation of poets: Katie Dagentesh, Jordan Davis, Noah Eli Gordon, Michael Magee & Brian Kim Stefans. Yet there are also poets whom I think as langpo, or of as being quite close in spirit to that, starting with Rae Armantrout, right on page one, and including Leslie Scalapino, Alan Bernheimer (a diary of ten days in Paris), and Rod Smith. Plus lots of folks whom I would have to chalk up as pure independents, from Lydia Davis to Merrill Gilfillan to Cole Swenson to Kevin Killian or Ray Ragosta. Plus Mark DuCharme, Steve Dickison, Tim Davis (there’s that art world-poetry thing again), Barbara Henning, Emma Rossi, Max Blagg, Andrew Brucker (not the head shots of celebs for which he’s known, but six photos you won’t show to your grandmother) & Rikki Ducornet. As a total package, it’s remarkably coherent.

Shiny is available for $15 from P.O. Box 13125, Denver, CO 80201, or via SPD. DeBoers will see to it that it gets into more than a few magazine stands nationwide as well. Oddly enough, it does not have a website, perhaps to avoid confusion with the British fetish magazine by the same name. Email to shinymagazine@aol.com.



Friday, April 22, 2005

 

Some people have asked me why I haven’t done an in-depth piece about the outing of Foetry.Com and its subsequent demise. After all, the New York Times saw fit to do an article about the investigative website whose self-announced goal was to expose cronyism at the heart of so many poetry contests.

There have been a couple of reasons. First, too much of the discussion about Foetry.Com has been fueled by the way in which the site went about its business. Was Foetry.Com a legitimate exposé of a layer of corruption at the heart of poetry or was it just an expression of resentful paranoia? My own perception is that the situation doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of question in which one has to pick a side. Rather it feels to me more like it’s a both/and circumstance, but that unfortunately means that the two aspects of the question are inextricably linked together. Which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to have much intelligent discussion about the problem.

Further, we ought to be asking ourselves if Foetry even asked the right question. What is it about contests that is supposed to make them less subject to nepotism & other literary fixes than, say, the hiring process at any college? Or publication, especially by a trade press? Or the peer review process of an academic journal? Is taking the money from hopeful wannabes in a contest any more contemptible than taking (much more of) their money for summer writing conferences? Or what about the 400 creative writing programs that turn multiple candidates for the 15 to 20 tenure-track jobs that open up every year in the academy? What is so different about the dynamics of contests? Nothing. Nada. Zip.

A lot of people claim that poetry is non-economic, which is a statement I understand, but which I think is more false than true. Rather, it’s an economics of extreme scarcity and subjective authority, which sets it up perfectly to be a test case for the worst possible instances of human coercion and duplicity. When I was a student in the 1960s, English professors routinely slept with their students if they so chose. Everybody knew which professors had reputations for this. That level of coercion largely got cleaned up – one of second-wave feminism’s greatest feats, actually – but the underlying dynamics haven’t changed all that much. Power still corrupts. The absence of any objective test means that it gets to do so largely without checks and balances.

The flip side of all this is that the psychology of anonymity that goes into contests – and in the review of papers at some refereed journals – also strikes me as pathological. It’s the absolute inverse of the idea of poetry as community. Richard Howard giving an award year after year to graduates of the program at Columbia & nobody else is community, however much it replicates the family life of the Sopranos. I’ve actually thought for some time that “blind contests” have it all wrong. Rather than manuscripts sans names, the judges should see & review just the names, nothing but the names. At least that way people would be judged on their professional reputations and their lifetime contribution to the art.

Without a community for these awards, they mean relatively little. The Pulitzer gets publicity because it offers newspapers a chance to congratulate themselves – poets & novelists are just along for the ride there. But even something like the Yale Younger Poets award has devolved from a state where it had modest credibility once upon a time. Winning an award like that is more of an albatross than a benefit to one’s career. And some of the more recent winners have actually been among the Yale’s best, but you wouldn’t know it. A Yale winner gets less community exposure than somebody publishing a first book with the Subpress collective.

I know there are exceptions to this for the same reason that we all know that there are exceptions to this – because they stand out as exceptions. And that is the real news.



Thursday, April 21, 2005

 

Tom Raworth has set up a web site for Kamau Brathwaite and the struggle to save CowPastor, Barbados, where Brathwaite lives.



 

Four or Five Things:

Originally, this was a note to link to something Ronnie Pontiac had written concerning a topic on this blog. For various reasons, that original blognote has been deleted at the request of some of the people involved, so this is simply a note telling you to think about Ronnie Pontiac.

If you check out the link to Pontiac’s band, Lucid Nation, I definitely recommend downloading “Kindred” from the CD Tacoma Ballet. To my (obviously untrained) ear, it reminds me a little of the best of Romeo Void, sans the saxophone. “Welcome to America” also rocks in ways that any fan of Patti Smith or The Doors will find simpatico. All, it is worth noting, bands or musicians with a high level of literacy.

Second (or third), the traffic on this blog has spiked upwards in the past few weeks, so much so that I didn’t even notice that our 300,000th visitor came & went.

Third (or fourth), even tho the blogroll to the left hasn’t increased in size in the past month, it has almost 50 new names. I’ve managed to delete a lot of dead links. Yesterday I added both Norman Fischer & Harvey Bialy.

Last, for fellow Blogspot users, one very useful trick I’ve learned. When making changes in the blogroll at certain times of the day (e.g., when highschools get out & every teen in the world is online), Blogger can hang for ever in that “republish your blog” mode. That’s because Blogger appears to assign template updates the lowest possible priority. Instead, go back to your most recent post and make an innocuous revision, such as adding a blank space at the end of a paragraph. Now the “republish” command gets the highest priority & the site updates quickly.



Wednesday, April 20, 2005

 

 

I have written here before that one of the great omissions from the set of Obviously Necessary Resources for poetry over the past half century is a good – or even a mediocre – anthology of the Spicer Circle. For while some members associated with Jack Spicer & his tightly knit of coterie of acolytes, friends, publishers, drinking buddies & lovers went on to become known, some widely, in their own right – Joanne Kyger, Robin Blaser, George Stanley, Larry Fagin, Steve Jonas, Graham Macintosh, Ebbe Borregaard, John Wieners, Stan Persky – the true shape of this extraordinary community remains largely mysterious to anybody who was not hanging out at Gino & Carlos in the years & days prior to August 1965, when Spicer’s alcohol-wasted body finally gave out at the age of 40. Which works of the above poets, for example, does one include in such a gathering (for Kyger, I believe it would be pieces later gathered into The Tapestry and the Web; for Wieners, The Hotel Wentley Poems, written when he & Spicer both lived in that establishment at the corner of Polk & Sutter in San Francisco)? What about the poets – many of them quite good – who did not go on to become household names: Joe Dunn, Harold Dull, James Alexander, Ronnie Primack, Jim and Fran Herndon, Lew Ellingham, Gerald Fabian, Russell Fitzgerald? How does one account for the presence of Jack Gilbert of all people in Spicer’s Magic Workshop? And where does one situate the third member of Jack’s Berkeley Renaissance trio from his college days at the University of California, Robert Duncan?

The late Paul Mariah -- who arrived in San Francisco from Utah shortly after Spicer died – included many others in his great 1974 special Spicer issue of Manroot, names one recognizes, like Thom Gunn, Tom Parkinson, Ron Loewinsohn, Robert Berner, Faye Kicknosway, Lynn Lonidier, Helen Luster, Robert Peters & even George Bowering, and names that I have hardly ever seen elsewhere, such as Larry Oakner, Peter Bailey, William Barber, Michelle Hickman, James Hoggard, Gary Lawless & Ottone Riccio. What was their relation to this phenomenon? Were they active somehow around the peripheries of this scene, as I suspect Lonidier – perhaps the first true avant-garde lesbian poet after Gertrude Stein – and Robert Berner may have been? Or were they just people who liked Jack’s work, which was almost certainly Parkinson’s role? Mariah did not propose the issue as a portrait of the Circle – only Harold Dull wrote explicitly about it – but rather as a mechanism to get Jack’s name back in front of readers, since at that moment it had been nine years since his death, nine years since his last book large enough to have perfect binding & five since Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar 12 had devoted an issue entirely to Jack & Robin Blaser (with a note from Persky). While the Black Sparrow Collected Books – now out of print again, as the world awaits the newer, bigger UC Press volume – was to appear within a year or so, Paul’s concern was that the person whom he used to characterize as the greatest gay poet since Whitman would become one of poetry’s disappeared.

That has not happened, happily. But the context for Spicer’s writing – the group of poets who met regularly in San Francisco, who together created magazines such as J (that’s the cover of J 5 at the head of this note, designed by Fran Herndon, who co-edited it with Jack) and small presses like White Rabbit & Open Space, who made up the core of the Magic Workshop, and who joined Jack regularly out at Aquatic Park in the afternoon & at Gino & Carlo’s later at night, is becoming ever harder to discern. Many of those concerned – Jack, Jonas, Wieners, Jim Herndon – have already died & the remaining ones aren’t getting any younger. The best one can do at this point is to read the one great about Spicer, the Ellingham-Killian biography, Poet, Be Like God.

Using Abebooks.com, the best used & rare book resource on the web, I’ve been gradually picking up volumes from some of these poets. In the past year, I’ve bought five books by Harold Dull, Jim Alexander & Ronnie Primack. Of these, Primack is probably the least well known. Other than a single poem that appeared in Exquisite Corpse No. 5 by a Ron Primack, who surely must be the same person, referencing as his poem does both “Joanne” and “Jack,” Primack appears to have published just one book, the serial poem entitled For the Late Major Horace Bell of the Los Angeles Rangers, published by Graham Macintosh’s White Rabbit press in 1963 with illustrations – most notably a map printed on something very close to tracing paper – by Macintosh. Historically, Bell (1830-1918) headed up a group of vigilantes in the Los Angeles area in the 1850s, in good part to even the odds against the more well organized gangs of outlaws, especially the one led by Joaquin Murrieta¹. One can see the influence of Spicer all over this book – the serial poem, the old west figure not so unlike Spicer’s own use of Billy the Kid, even the setting in old Los Angeles, Spicer’s home town. Indeed, one of the reasons that it still makes sense fifty years later to call it the Spicer Circle is that one sees his influences here almost anywhere one looks. Another book that took Spicer’s patented serial poem format was Jim Alexander’s The Jack Rabbit Poem, published by White Rabbit in 1966.

The 19 sections of For the Late Major Horace Bell of the Los Angeles Rangers strike me as wildly uneven. A number simply don’t hang together. The best, tho, not only work, but can be read as virtual studies in Spicer’s own methods as a poet:

Mae West gave no secrets when she planted Fields
      in the Palm of her hand

In the Movies the fall guy sees goldie locks
      as Hermes or Carmen Miranda
      covered in orange Blossoms.

This is appeal
This is a plot
This is a pot
      that boils a lot

The variable capitalization, the hanging indents that waver between being linebreaks & new lines altogether, the use of pop culture references, the structural echo of the nursery rhyme (literally The House That Jack Built) all come heavily marked by Spicer’s DNA. Ditto the ironic twist of the last lines when the poem identifies itself as a potboiler.

One wonders what Spicer must have made of such derivation. I personally find such gestures infuriating, but I know others who maybe know better how to see the compliment implicit there. There have always been some poets who seem even to strive to find their echoes, particularly among students and/or lovers. And Spicer seems very much to have needed a posse, not just a community, but someplace where he could actively be in charge.

Ronnie Primack by himself isn’t justification enough for an anthology of the Spicer Circle, but surely he would be included. Along with all its other underpublished members – even Larry Fagin & Ebbe Borregaard fit that definition – a Spicer Circle collection would bring together one of the major absences we still have of the poetries of the 1950s that have played such a vital role in shaping our own. Then we can get on with others – the Projectivist or Black Mountain anthology, the Beat anthology, an Objectivist anthology that covers all that movement’s phases.

 

¹ Bell went on to become a newspaperman rather in the mold of Ambrose Bierce, but, tho Bell was a self-promoter, he never succeeded half as much at it as did Wyatt Earp. For one thing, it was not his band that finally caught & killed Murrieta, but that of Harry Love, who severed Murrieta’s head & preserved it in a jar.



Tuesday, April 19, 2005

 

 

John Bloomberg-Rissman asks some interesting (and complex) questions:

I’m reading John Xiros Cooper’s Modernism and the Culture of Market Society (Cambridge, 2004), which has knotted somehow with topics you touch upon in your blog. I keep on picturing myself asking you these questions. So I thought, why not?

 First, on the off chance you haven’t read this book (you seem to be pretty omnivorous), let me summarize Cooper’s argument. I’ll quote the abstract: “... the avant-garde bears a more complex relation to capitalist culture than previously acknowledged. ... the modernist avant-garde epitomized the impact of capitalism ... [Cooper himself distinguishes between capitalism and “market society”, capitalism being merely the after-the-fact theory that tries to come to grips with a fait {better, a process) accompli, and would probably have written “market society” here rather than capitalism]. [Modernism] aimed to defend cultural values in a commercial age, but, in this task, modernism became the subject of a profound historical irony. Its own characterizing techniques, styles and experiments, deployed to resist the new nihilism of the capitalist market, eventually became the preferred cultural style of the very market culture which the first modernists opposed. ...”.

The suggestion here seems to be that a) “cultural values” (moral, religious, gendered, racial, aesthetic) arose in a pre-market-dominated society and are no longer what they were (no longer hold the place they held) in a market society; and b) the market can commodify anything. I’m sorry if this is old hat to you. Or worse (it wouldn’t be the first time I was a dollar short and a day late, as my dad used to say). But here are my questions.

– Is it possible to argue that a major problem with what you (and Poe, I believe you said) call the School of Quietude is that it appears to not recognize that “cultural values” no longer hold the place they held, no longer function as they did, and it therefore assumes certain inter- and intra-personal relations that no longer have anything to do with the world in which we actually find ourselves living?

– If non-School of Quietude poetry does come from the world in which we actually find ourselves, or will shortly find ourselves, living, what values, what kind of values, does it embody? I know it’s not a fair question, in a way, at least in the sense that there’s no such monolith as “non-School of Quietude poetry”. But I can’t think of any other succinct way to ask the question, which I think makes sense anyway. What kind of social object is being made here?

– How long do you expect it to be before the market has caught up to the non-School of Quietude, transvalued its values, and subsumed its strategies? Or has this already happened?

I have not, in fact, read Cooper’s work. Cambridge University Press charges obscene prices for its books & I rather systematically try not to buy them. Presses like Cambridge – the linguistics publishers are even worse, routinely charging over $100 for books that appear to have had no editing, not even professional typesetting – strike me as deliberately trying to undermine the concept of public intellectuals by drawing a boundary around audiences. These are books for university libraries, not readers, & those of us unattached to such institutions tend literally to be left out of the discussion. Cooper is a fan of Geoffrey Hill who has written that The New Criterion is “one of the few reviews that still takes poetry seriously.” Both aspects of that make me question Cooper’s ability to read, albeit I can understand an argument that could be made for Hill. So I’ll just respond to the structure of the thesis as presented here.

As represented– and both Cooper’s website & the Cambridge P.R. materials are consistent with Broomfield-Rissman’s characterization of the book – Cooper’s argument offers a variation on Peter Burger’s attempts to align historic change in the arts with social change in the world. Its hidden premise would seem to be that there is a relationship between the two that would be articulatable, a dream that has existed since (and which owes a great deal of its force to) the old model of base & superstructure, in which the economy is perceived as the engine of history, and culture is more like the design features of the locomotive itself.

To which one wants always to say yes & no simultaneously. It is the doubleness of that answer that is, I think, the true response. At one level, it would seem historically to be anything but an accident that avant-garde tradition as we know can be dated back to the work of Charles Baudelaire, even to his preface to his poems in prose, is historically close (in some sense almost parallel) to the first edition of Leaves of Grass in the U.S. and to the deepest, most passionate love letter that capitalism has ever received, The Communist Manifesto. The middle of the 19th century was an interesting moment in world history.

A century and one-half later, the flaws in the Marxian program, especially as practiced by what were once termed “actually existing” Communist parties, seem apparent enough. Marx’ depiction of the general operating principles of capital, both in the Manifesto & in his later writing, seem reasonably sound, in & of themselves. Marx’ prescription of how to proceed seems, in retrospect, deeply problematic in two critical areas. Both, I suspect, can be traced to Marx’ view of the world, which was always already that of the Eurocentric white man. Marx understood – and Engels later underscored – that anything approximating socialism was not remotely possible unless & until a unified world market system – today we might call that globalization – was achieved. That much, to the enormous frustration of Stalinists throughout the 20th century, Marx got right. He presumed, wrongly, however, that the latter half of the 19th century was quite close to arriving at that moment. This meant that globalization – a precondition for socialism – would be achieved just as the stage of world development was technologically reaching industrialism. In fact, we may still be a century or two from truly getting to a global economy. Which in turn means that the dynamics of capital would – and will – plow right through industrialism and the next few stages of technological development beyond that before the kind of worker resistance Marx envisaged could ever be anything other than a short-term defensive stop-gap. Remember, Marx anticipated the revolt to occur from within the most developed countries essentially as the winners of the race to globalization found themselves being transformed into losers at the next stage and once they held the capacity to generate worldwide political actions in response. Instead, Stalinism brutally modernized the most backward nations making them ready for capitalism. There’s irony enough there for millions of lifetimes.

One argument that seems implicit in the depictions of Cooper’s work is that Marx underestimated the power of markets. Rather, I would argue instead that he may have overestimated them, having presumed them to have arrived at a level of development in the 1880s or thereabouts that we may not get to before 2200 A.D. Along the way, unfortunately, those who took on the claim to Marx’ legacy, but only a part of his program, appear to have effectively – perhaps permanently – discredited the broader arcs of his work. I certainly won’t live to see if it can or will revive a century or more from now under another name, although that is one distinct possibility.

During the past 150 years, tho, the avant-garde has been politically all over the map. It has seen Communists like Eluard & even Mayakovsky, it has seen outright fascists like Pound & Céline. It has had poets & artists who reveled in the violence of war, such as the Italian Futurists, as well as others who were appalled by it, ranging from H.D. to Jackson Mac Low. We have had modern & postmodern painters who were great craftsmen of painting – Picasso, Matisse, Dalí, Gerhard Richter – and others who, with Tzara & Duchamp, argued against the dead hand of an ancient institutional genre.

There has been no one thing that the avant-garde has agreed upon, not even the need, in Pound’s great coinage, to make it new. Making it new, ostrananie, defamiliarization, Brecht’s alienation or “A-effect” are all conceived as being consistent with – and indeed reflecting – the fundamental drive at the heart of capitalism according to an argument such as this. Just as capitalism creates an inexorable drive to overturn whatever the current state of technology is with new tools that will revolutionize industries and markets, so the avant-garde creates an inexorable need to be the “next thing,” as if we can each be the It Girl (or Boy) of poetry for about 90 seconds before giving up the baton to that which overturns us (but only so that it too can overturned some 85 seconds later).

There is, it seems to me, no question that this is one dynamic that may be active in the arts in general – it’s what, if I understand him properly, Barrett Watten calls negativity in The Constructivist Moment – for my money the best theoretical investigation of modern & contemporary arts ever written – and it operates much as does capital’s process of technological (and process) innovation, by breaking phenomena down into their constituent elements & then looking at how they can be recast to arrive at the new, principally by addressing obvious flaws with whatever is (or was recently) current. This operates, tho, as a double movement, mimicking what goes on in capitalist markets on the one hand, yet absolutely necessary if the arts themselves are to address (whether or not we look at this as a reflection or other mimetic process, or even as an analytical one) the current – but always increasingly rapidly changing – life on this planet. There is always some grind in the gears as one recognizes that one’s elders either didn’t get it right or that their vision is now outmoded for whatever reason, and it drives younger poets (& other artists) to update what they are doing.

Not every poet has always bought into this scheme, even in the avant-garde. Robert Duncan’s arguments against originality can be read in exactly these terms, as a critique of this dynamic. That he did so within the framework of the avant-garde tradition makes his contribution here especially important, but it is harder to get to because of his own complicated relationship to critical theory, which I’ve laid out before & is best articulated in the interaction of his books of poetry with his great critical tome, The H.D. Book.

I really need to note here that one should not look, as it is evident Cooper does, at the avant-garde as furthering a specific or overarching argument, even if there prove to be larger tendencies in the work. I think it confuses what actually is at work here, which is why I repeatedly use the phrase “avant-garde tradition” (and, for artists after mid-century, even prefer post-avant, as in the great cry of Jim Behrle’s Ron is Ron comics, “Post-avants, wash your hands!”), a phrase that some have argued is internally self-contradicting. Because I do think it represents a larger social phenomenon for which, at least for the moment, no better term than tradition appears to exist. The avant-garde in its largest historical frame encompasses two dimensions, one that synchronous – community -- & the other that reaches across time – tradition. Baudelaire’s preface to his prose poems can be read as an act very much in kind with Kenny Goldsmith’s more recent provocations with uncreative writing. Both challenge existing formations in remarkably parallel ways.

The “scandal” of the idea that all forms of avant-garde poetry at some level engage the same dynamics of history as does capital (or, if you prefer, as do markets) is, I think, a canard fostered by a certain type of purist who cannot stand complex relationships. Engaging does not necessarily mean approving any more than it does condemning. One can find poets all along that continuum of possibilities, just as one once could find Marxists with any number of possible relations to the question of property & production, up to & including the successful capitalist Engels. Thus one would not expect Gary Snyder’s relationship to these questions to be the same as Christian Bők’s, even tho they might agree on many specifics. Certainly, within the avant-garde tradition there exists a strain of fundamentalists who would argue, as did Dada, that art that participates in historic genres is fatally flawed. The incorporation of Dada into the market economy simply demonstrates that one’s analytical position is not necessarily identical with the history of one’s own art. Pound’s five-foot bookshelf collapses under the same contradiction, merely in a different direction.

Let us then posit the avant-garde tradition as that phenomenon that at least engages the engine of history, however critically, from whatever part of the political spectrum, however successfully (or not) it may seem. What then of the School of Quietude? It has exactly the same range of political reactions – all the way from writers actively on the right, such as William Logan, to poets who legitimately think of themselves as dedicated progressives, such as Marilyn Hacker. Each of its succeeding movements, from the institutional & gentile old formalism of the late 19th century through to the Boston Brahmins & agrarians of the 1930s through the ‘50s, the APR school (which somebody last week proposed should be called the AWP school, for its relationship to the rapid expansion of creative writing programs in the 1960s thru the ‘80s), to the new formalists today, these poets would themselves appear to share very little besides a profound distaste for the avant-garde tradition. But what is that tradition other a community with an active engagement with the engine of history? Their explanations are many, but invariably it is that engagement – and its consequences – that most deeply binds these writers against that which they oppose.

In general, this creates in them a preference for conservative moves – the avant-garde is often conflated as one of the problems of history (and hence of capitalism). That is what is at the heart of Alfred Corn’s infamous declaration in The Nation¹ that his version of the new formalism was, in fact, post-modern:

I mean ‘postmodern’ in the sense of returning to narrative transparence in place of Modernism’s hermetic and allusive texture.

This kind of “the future is the past” argument echoes other aspects of the contemporary period, unfortunately, such as the Bush administration’s war is peace claims. But the real irony is not that an aesthetic conservative/political progressive should have to tie himself into such verbal knots as this, but the fact that the sequential history of the School of Quietude itself, proceeding from the Brahmins & agrarians with their formal lyric poems – in lock step with the critical regime of New Criticism – was itself “overturned” in the late ‘50s & early ‘60s by many equally conservative poets who opted instead for a free verse form and a wider range of content. That’s the context in which someone like Phil Levine actually is, or at least was, an aesthetic progressive. By the early 1970s, it was almost impossible to find a formalist poet born in the 1930s (Anne Stevenson is the major exception), simply because the engine of history & historic change is as operative on the SoQ side of the equation as it is in the avant-garde/post-avant sector. One could virtually predicted the New Formalists, whose reaction was that the AWP/APR poets were themselves hopelessly infected with the disease of modernism.

So if one follows the thesis ascribed here to Cooper, one discovers that both sides were equally operating under the same regime – as if anybody anywhere could actually escape the history of their times – and that the difference between the SoQ & what Bill Knott recently called the School of Noisiness is not a different relationship to capital, but to the understanding of history, which I would characterize here as a distinction between engagement and something closer to denial.

This doesn’t make necessarily make any poet right or wrong. Pound’s comments on Mussolini & Baraka’s comments on Mao are equal opportunities for cringing. The School of Quietude is equally at home in The Nation & The New Criterion. But one approach, it seems to me, is much more active in its engagement with the dynamics of change in the world. It is not an accident that William Carlos Williams defined poetry not simply as a “machine made of words” – how retro does that sound in 2005? – but as “inventions of form as additions to nature,” a process old as the first creation of tools out of stone & as new as nanotechnology & genetically engineered cattle.

One might go back even further than the beginnings of modernism – Stephen Greenblatt sees foreshadowing of this same division in the end of the 16th century, after all, one group determined to keep the benefits of literacy & authorship – literally authority – to those of inherited wealth & the “proper” educations, the other rising up out of small merchants & craftspeople (whom, we might note, were precisely the future of capitalism). So we have a dynamic nearly half a millennium long, one side always trying to stave off tomorrow, the other actively trying to engage it, both sides capable of the full range of tactical political reactions to the process. Do I think that post-avants are any more free of history than the School of Quietude? Hardly. But I do think they face it differently. And that makes all the difference in the world.

 

 

¹ August 9/16, 1999. Marilyn Hacker once told me that Corn could not possibly have meant what he wrote, but the larger context of that article shows no irony whatsoever.



Monday, April 18, 2005

 

It was Gabe Gudding who made me stop to think twice about Poet's Bookshelf, Peter Davis’ collection of poets’ lists of the books that have been, in the words of the editor’s invitation to its contributors “most ‘essential’ to you, as a poet.” Davis asked each contributor to list 5-10 such books, and to “write some comments about the list.” These questions went out to a wide range of poets, some 81 of whom replied, almost all American & mostly mid-career or older:

Ai, Nin Andrews, Antler, Rae Armantrout, Angela Ball, Marvin Bell, Charles Bernstein, Anselm Berrigan, Eavan Boland, Catherine Bowman, Alan Catlin, Henri Cole, Wanda Coleman, Clark Coolidge, Jim Daniels, Denise Duhamel, Stephen Dunn, Russell Edson, Elaine Equi, Clayton Eshleman, B. H. Fairchild, Annie Finch, Alice Friman, Amy Gerstler, Albert Goldbarth, Gabriel Gudding, Thom Gunn, Sam Hamill, Joy Harjo, Michael S. Harper, Lola Haskins, Bob Hicok, Tony Hoagland, Paul Hoover, Fanny Howe, Andrew Hudgins, Lisa Jarnot, Peter Johnson, X. J. Kennedy, David Kirby, Maxine Kumin, David Lehman, Philip Levine, Lyn Lifshin, Timothy Liu, Gerald Locklin, Thomas Lux, J. D. McClatchy, Peter Meinke, E. Ethelbert Miller, Thylias Moss, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ed Ochester, Molly Peacock, Lucia Perillo, Carl Phillips, Robert Pinsky, Charles Potts, Donald Revell, Adrienne Rich, Harvey Shapiro, Ron Silliman, W. D. Snodgrass, Juliana Spahr, Elizabeth Spires, Gerald Stern, David St. John, Virgil Suarez, David Trinidad, Paul Violi, Karen Volkman, David Wagoner, Charles Harper Webb, Dara Weir, Richard Wilbur, C. K. Williams, C. D. Wright, Charles Wright, Franz Wright, Dean Young, and Paul Zimmer.

That is an intriguing, if not entirely representative, list. For one thing – and I think this is a function of the age of the contributors as much as anything else – the ratio of male to female respondents is two to one, literally 54 to 27. More glaringly, tho, just seven contributors were born in 1960 or later, less than ten percent of the book. Just one poet – Anselm Berrigan – was born in the 1970s. Another way to put this is that, if you are in this anthology, you are as likely to have won a Pulitzer (also seven contributors) as you are be under the age of 45.

In terms of aesthetic tendencies, Davis has bent over to represent the entire range of contemporary poetry, so you will find post-Beat writers like Antler & Charlie Potts alongside of the quietest of the school thereof, along with langpos & other post-avants. If I note that I don’t find a single contributor to the New American Poetry here, I suspect that it was not because Davis failed to try. For one thing, there just aren’t that many of its contributors left, tho I’m saddened particularly not to see Creeley or Ashbery. The age range & this lack of the New American generation of post-avants means in practice that Poet’s Bookshelf is probably a more conservative cross-section of what is actually influencing poets today than really is the case.

Thus I was surprised to find my name among the 13 living poets listed among the roster of “most frequently listed authors.”¹ Gabe lists the thirteen as Ashbery, Edward Field, Charles Simic, James Tate, Louise Glück, W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Forché, Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Galway Kinnell, Michael Ondaatje, and yours truly. That’s an interesting mix, divided as it is almost down the middle, with six post-avants & seven more conventional poets. Had the book been issued a month earlier, when Robert Creeley was still alive, it would have been precisely an even break. One can only wonder what kind of breakdown might have occurred had Davis had broadened the age range of his respondents.

Gabe has some insightful things to say about some of the proclivities of the School o’ Q folks who participated. The tendency to

(1) cast the canonic as the public and (2) cast the things poets really like to read and that were influential as (a) private, (b) individual

is completely consistent with a larger program to their choices seem not like choices at all, but inevitable (to the degree that they reinforce the canon) & individual only insofar as they serve to differentiate the poet him- or herself. Duplicitous? You bet. Standard operating procedure? Ditto. I’ll wager that the culprits (Gudding names names) don’t even recognize that this is what they’re doing.

Not every quiet poet responded that way, however. The late Thom Gunn, a superb poet whom one probably shouldn’t include in the School of Q roster, since, like Auden, he comes by his Anglo-centrism honestly, lists only two twentieth century poets: William Carlos Williams & Basil Bunting. Of Bunting’s Briggflats, he writes “For me it is the greatest poem of the last century.” Marvin Bell lists Pound, Creeley, Ginsberg & two books by Williams to his list – and I was especially happy to see John Logan on his list of quieter poets as well. Several of the SoQ folks mention Williams and/or Frank O’Hara.

This actually points to a curious phenomenon that pops up in the book – one that I suspect is “real,” i.e. true of a broader spectrum of poet/readers than one can find in this book. SoQ poets are often apt to include one – sometimes more – post-avant types in their reading lists of “essential books.” But post-avant poets virtually never list SoQ poets in theirs.

That can be interpreted variously, all the way from “SoQ poets are forced to concede that post-avant writing includes some of the most compelling poetry composed in the past century” to “post-avant poets are far more cliquish & closed-off to a wide range of writing than are SoQ folks.” But what if the real answer is more both/and rather than either/or?

You can find my own responses to this survey sprinkled through this blog’s archives in late August and early September, 2003.

 

 

¹ Seeing that made my day. I’m the optimistic sort who is easily encouraged. If a raving drunk accosted me on the street &, in the midst of a long string of mumbled obscenities, said “nice poems,” I’d be humming a tune all afternoon. Happily, the people who listed my name (and who mentioned three different books in doing so) are all poets whose opinions have long mattered to me.

 



Sunday, April 17, 2005

 

I’ve almost never had a reading in my life where I didn’t have some instant of profound doubt half way through, where I didn’t feel like suddenly just shutting up & shutting it down. But I never actually did it.



 

 

Do me a favor. If you are on the blogroll – see the left column – can you double check your link and let me know if it’s out of date? Since I got this back up & running, I’ve come across at least a half dozen sites where the URL had changed – often for reasons that I don’t comprehend, since the blog continues to be hosted by the same provider. When I add a new blog, I make a note in a Word file, but sometimes, if the URL changes, I get lazy and update it only on the Blogger template. Now that’s come back to haunt me. Maybe haunt is too strong a word . . . .

And if you have a weblog you want added to the list, you have to actually tell me the URL..



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