Saturday, May 28, 2005

 

Craig Allen Conrad

 

I made a point of not reading Gary Sullivan’s answers to Jonathan Mayhew’s questions until after I had answered them myself. But I really like his answers, even where (maybe especially where) we don’t agree. Nick Piombino had a great response to one of Jonathan’s inquiries. Allen Bramhall likewise had some interesting things to say.

As it happens, Anthony Robinson proves to be a lot more like Ron Silliman than he may think (or like). Someone who calls him- or herself Radical Druid responded as well. May I note, Rad, that the last question you would add to Jonathan’s list suggests that your use of a deep pseudonym is a contradiction. Laura Carter took her time & is very cool in showing us both her answers and the things she crossed out along the way. Michael Helsem replies in red. Even tho he was feeling lousy, Henry Gould gave the questions solid thought in his reply. Jack Kimball answered two questions, if you scroll down his page. Jordan Stempleman, Anne Boyer & Bill Marsh also took the test, albeit more whimsically.

 

Ш Ш Ш

 

Speaking of Gary Sullivan, his “open letter”/non-review of Under Albany totally made my day. And back on May 16, CA Conrad posted a note in my general defense to the Poetics List that sent shivers up my spine. When I get irritated with the pettiness of the literary world, responses like these & events like Jonathan’s questions & all the good thinking it has generated offer me a kinder, smarter & more generous view of the poetry community.



Friday, May 27, 2005

 

Jonathan Mayhew, second from left in hat, with (L-R) David Shapiro,
Katie Degentesh, Drew Gardner & Douglas Rothschild
Photo © 2005 by Jordan Davis

 

Prompted by the twelve questions currently being posed of a number of poets by Fulcrum, Jonathan Mayhew has crafted ten questions for me of his own.

1. What is your sense of the poetic tradition? How far back does your particular historical sense range?  What defines your tradition? Nationality, language, aesthetic posture? What aspect of your poetic idiolect or tradition most distinguishes you from your closest poetic collaborators?

This has certainly evolved over time. When I was young, under 30, it extended back to Pound & the high modernists, with maybe a sense that Whitman belonged there as well, but not an intuitive sense of how he fit into my sense of things. Now I would extend it at the very least back to Wordsworth, Coleridge & Blake, the first real avant-garde in English, and to Baudelaire in France, but on an expansive day, I might argue for Chaucer – who has been a personal favorite for decades – and possibly the Beowulf poet.

Having been raised in a house without books or music to speak of, at least not beyond my mother’s collection of King Cole Trio 78s, I have rather had the typical working class kid’s problem of starting relatively close to the present – with poets who were, if not of my own generation then at least that of my parents, and constructing a sense of tradition backwards out of that. So it feels more like an archaeological project than an inheritance, not something I was given but which I’ve had to go back to reconstruct. I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare lately & thinking of how he fits into this as well. Stephen Greenblatt, in his biography, makes a good case for Shakespeare very much as an oppositional figure to the Official Verse Culture of the University wits such as Ben Jonson.

Probably what defines my sense of tradition more than anything is an attitude towards form & creativity, that it must be ever-questing, attempting to evolve, and looking coldly at the material conditions of its time for how its relationship to that social strata is changing. I believe in a poetics of constant change, always informed by engagement. That’s not a sense of “progress,” for example, so much as it is one of continuing alertness & literal responsibility.

With regards to “my closest poetic collaborators,” which I’ll define here (overly simplistically) as the poets included in the anthology In the American Tree, I always think that the “secret” differentiator between us all often has to do with one’s relationship toward the New American Poetry that dominated avant poetics in the 1950s & ‘60s. One aspect of the New American Poetry that proved to be extremely generative for the next several generations was that it was rich with possibilities – New York School poets were different from Projectivist poets were different from the Spicer Circle were different from the Beats, etc. Of the poets included in The Tree, I sometimes think only David Bromige had a deeper engagement with Projectivist poetics than I had as a young writer. You can sense elements of that same engagement in the work of Rae Armantrout, Barrett Watten, David Melnick & even Ray DiPalma, but for various reasons all of these writers seemed to have stayed more independent in that relation than did Bromige or I. And there are so many other langpos whose engagement was with the New York School rather than Projectivism, and somebody like Melnick can reflect engagements with both, but I don’t think that I do. But I don’t think it’s any accident that some of the langpos whose poetry I have felt closest to, and learned the most from, have been precisely people like Armantrout, Watten, Melnick & Bromige. I see/feel/hear, can almost taste, so many layers of deep resonance in their work that at times it feels spooky.

 

2. How would you define contemporary poetic practice? (Say, the typical poem that would be published alongside one of your in a magazine where you are published.) How does this practice relate to the tradition defined above?  Does poetry of the "past" (however you define the past for these purposes) occupy a different corner of your mind?

I’m not sure that I would define contemporary poetic practice. That, to my mind, is one of its issues, very possibly also one of its attractions. I have, as you must have guessed, a strong mental map of the history of poetry up to, say, my own generation – all of whom are now in their 50s & 60s – but after the language poets & the poetry wars of the 1970s & early ‘80s, the American literary map has felt far more atomized – in the negative sense that Sartre gave to that term – which amounts to “every poet for him- or herself.” There have been a few attempts at movement formation, most notably the Apex of the M thrust circa 1990 (which also incorporated much of the editing of work that was presented at the New Coast conference in Buffalo then, published as a double issue of O•blēk) that argued that the previous generation (my own) had failed to incorporate a spiritual dimension into its/our poetics. That didn’t go anywhere, largely because it wasn’t accurate as a diagnosis, but it was the last serious move of that kind we’ve had. The more recent New Brutalism scene out of Oakland has been a more parodic gesture toward movement formation. Ellipsism, by which I mean the poetry one might ascribe to the work of C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, Ann Lauterbach & others, seems to me not to be a self-organizing phenomenon at all, but an attempt by individuals to write a middle path between the post-avant & school of quietude worlds. It’s not an accident that that term was coined critically by an outsider to that phenomenon, not by one of its poets. So the one real attempt I do see in this regard is Geof Huth’s work at creating & developing a serious intellectual underpinning for visual poetics. Because of him, I think anyone working in that general vein is going to either have a much sharper sense of what it is they are doing, or else they are going to have to operate in a far deeper well of denial pretending that they don’t.

 

3. Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?

That’s a tough one, in part because that category has been ever changing in my head. There was a time, 35 years ago or so, when I would answered “Clark Coolidge,” but it was precisely learning to see the humor in Clark’s work that offered me the road in to its great depth & charms. Right now, I don’t feel that there is anyone who seems fully opaque to me, more that there are aspects of people’s practice I wish that I understood better. For example, I am completely in love with what Leslie Scalapino does with syntax & the sentence & the role of time in/with meaning, but I wish I had more insight into her theory of genre. I wish I had a better sense of the inner workings of Will Alexander’s longer pieces – are they really as improvisatory as they feel to me? Taylor Brady’s work is something that I feel I really need to learn & understand, even tho I think it’s evolving rapidly still, so that maybe he feels the same way right now.

In historic terms, tho, I might respond Wallace Stevens. His work is the hardest thing for me to quite get & pin down. But – and I know some folks will think this heresy – I’m not sure that I really need to do so.

 

4. Are we over-invested in poetic "hero worship"?  Is it necessary to have a poetic "pantheon"? How does the poetic pantheon relate to the notion of an academic "canon"? Are they mirror opposites, rivals?

Heroes & a pantheon is just a mechanism for valorizing one’s mental map. We each have our own private canon, quite apart from the alternate social ones that also exist – the academic canon, the “poetic” canon & the institutional canon – the books that get treated as “serious” by the daily press (because they’re published by the trade publishers who are significant advertisers) – may overlap, tho not as much as we tend to think. Louis Zukofsky has gone from being a marginal figure to a canonic one in my lifetime because so many poets found in his work a means of furthering their own thinking. Such mental maps are constantly shifting.

And open to question. The howls that went up at the publication of Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 2, really had to do with the fact that the volume was implicitly arguing for a reading of poetic history in which Fluxus was the central literary event of the 1950s & ‘60s, not the New American Poetry. You can see where that argument could be made – tho it’s awfully easy to disprove – but it’s not an argument that Rothenberg in particular had created the grounds for previously, even in a publication like Alcheringa. So instead of being taken as a bold attempt at a redefinition of the literary map, people perceived Millennium 2 instead as a failed attempt to counter the School of Quietude anthologies.

Are the various canons rivals? If you go back far enough, the answer tends to be no. The School of Quietude is in the curious position of constantly having to promote its relationship to poets like Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, even Shakespeare, who, if anything, really belong to the counter-tradition. That tends to make SoQ historical writing sound incoherent or else leads them to mischaracterize all of the above. Random House has a series of CDs of poets reading that includes both William Carlos Williams & Frank O’Hara, each of whose accompanying paperback volume is introduced by series editor J.D. McClatchy. While I’m glad that McClatchy chose those poets to include in the series, and his introductions are well-meaning, all they really tell us is that he doesn’t much get the work of either writer. Imagine having a volume of McClatchy’s work with an intro by Charles Bukowski.

 

5. Is "total absorption in poetry" benign? How about "poetry as a way of life"?

I can’t even envision what “total absorption” would mean. I do think that poetry can be – almost has to be for a practicing poet – a way of life. Yet I don’t think that excuses the poet from living in the world. Think of Williams’ work as a pediatrician, for example. Poets who argue that they can’t – or shouldn’t – have “real jobs” because it would take away from their writing are really just using that as an excuse to cover over other kinds of social disabilities. Some of these folks grow up eventually, others do not. One peculiar thing about poetry, tho, is that it won’t punish you – it’s one of the few media in which a person can be a schizophrenic or profoundly physically disabled & perform perfectly well. It’s extremely democratic in that regard.

 

6. Do you see poetry as a part of a larger "literature," or is poetry itself the more capacious category?

Poetry is one of the few “universal” art forms, practiced orally in pre-literate cultures and throughout the written world. Historically, poetry predates even drama & every other literary medium has emerged as an outgrowth of poetry, or of a genre that was itself an outgrowth of poetry. There were 25,000 novels published in the United States last year – roughly double the number of books of poetry, if we include chapbooks – and yet in 500 years, I wonder if the novel will have survived. It was an outgrowth driven by the need for a focus on narrative & character, social needs that have subsequently shifted to cinema. Unlike poetry, the novel has almost no relationship to communities – the one serious exception might be the cyberpunk authors, especially around Austin – and it is obvious that the economics don’t exist for the sustained printing of 25,000 titles in which less than 100 will prove profitable from the vantage of a publisher.

 

7. Are humor, irony, and wit (in whatever combination) a sine qua non?  Or conversely, is humor a defense mechanism that more often than not protects us from what we really want to say?

I’m not certain what’s really being asked here. Absolutely, humor is an important part of the toolkit of any writer – we still get most of Shakespeare’s jokes 400 years later – and yet hardly any serious poet strives to be a comedian, as such. It’s an easy mode for a young poet to slip into, especially if one is part of a scene driven by public readings, the poet as standup comic. I actually went through a period in the late 1960s where I refused to do any readings for a couple of years because I felt that that was a trap. And the history of Actualism shows that it can be.

 

8. Is the poem the thing, or the larger poetic project?

I’m interested in poetry far more than in poems, but I’m less convinced that this is a universal truth, tho it certainly is me.

 

9. What is the single most significant thing anyone has ever said about poetry?

How about all of William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All? That is the most accurate portrayal of the role & life of the poem ever written. If I had to encapsulate just one statement out of a work that, in its Frontier Press edition, is 98 pages long, I’d pick this line from page 70:

poetry : new form dealt with as a reality in itself.

 

10. Which of these questions asks you to define yourself along lines of division not of your own making, in the most irksome way? How close do these questions come to the way in which you habitually think about poetry?  What other question would you add to this list?

The question about humor, number 7. These questions do come reasonably close to some ways in which I think about poetry. The fact that I took anthropology seriously as an undergraduate – it was the only subject I ever served as a reader for (the junior college equivalent of a T.A.), at Merritt College in Oakland, between my stints at SF State & Berkeley – has always led me to thinking of poetry sociologically as well as “simply” aesthetically. I don’t think you can have one without the other.

The question I would ask – and if I could answer, I would, since a good answer would help lead to the next shaping or defining literary movement (or moment) – is: what is poetry currently missing?



Thursday, May 26, 2005

 

Grave of William Carlos Williams
Hillside Cemetery
, Lyndhurst, NJ

 

Tuscaloosa-bound Jeremy Hawkins, whom I met for the first briefly in New York a couple of weeks back, made a comment in response to my note on Jonathan Williams that has had me thinking, and writing about Radi Os yesterday redoubled the process:

People speak often of the politics of anthologies, but I'm curious about the effects of the formats you are discussing here: selected & collected works. For Jacket 27, Brian Henry wrote a terrific critique of Harold Bloom's selection of John Kinsella's poetry, really marking out how an editor can mottle the individual project in the process of selection. I think it follows that selection by other means, either when the author is able to pick from the entire catalogue, or when forced to only choose from what is available, has similar spin on the work. If we take it far enough, it gets political just in the publishing of volumes in general, never mind the selected & collected editions.

It seems obvious here that you favor the idea of a poet's Collected Works. I'm not sure that the format is necessarily helpful or inherently good. Do I have a better understanding of Wallace Stevens for having worked through his collected poems? Perhaps. I might have a better idea of the career, but depending on how the work is arranged and indexed, it could rob context from the individual volumes. I think that any Collection of Ashbery in the future will inherently strip away the independent continuity of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

Why will a Collected volume maintain Spicer or even Duncan in the consciousness more than reissues of the original volumes? Having volumes in print certainly maintains the relevance of a poet to an extent, but I'm not sure that collecting the work into a single volume advances that relevance in any way.

- Jeremy Hawkins

Actually, I myself have argued that neither the Collected Poems nor Imaginations justifies not having William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All in print as a separate volume. I feel the same about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons &, with less justification I suspect, Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & “A”-23, a pocket-sized volume from Viking Compass / Cape Editions that came out in 1975. Each of these works, when viewed separately, has an impact that cannot be assessed – indeed, can barely be imagined – when sunk deep into the context of a larger volume.

Robert Creeley, for example, used to note how important Williams’ The Wedge proved to him. Yet there is no way that seeing that volume embedded in the second volume of the Collected Poems can really give you a sense of it as a book. Similarly, I have made a point of buying The Desert Music in the same hardback edition which I first found it – or it found me, changing my life forever – in the Albany Public Library so many decades ago.

So I can certainly understand the value of having the individual books available – in many instances, they’re utterly indispensable. And yet I think that comprehensive collected editions are necessary as well. The situation I described yesterday, trying to cobble together a collected Ronald Johnson out of a series of small press books, knowing that at least five “volumes” of Johnson’s Milton (Radi Os) have never reached print, plus who knows just how much else, is the more unfortunate and common circumstance. Johnson had two books with Norton at the very beginning of his career, thanks to Denise Levertov (who got Louis Zukofsky & Joel Sloman & some others published there as well). But Sand Dollar, the press that published the first edition of Radi Os, went out of print as that press shut down after its publisher, Jack Shoemaker, moved on, first to North Point, eventually to Shoemaker & Hoard, an imprint of the Avalon Publishing Group. There are exactly three copies of that first edition available current in rare book shops according to Abebooks.com, the very cheapest of which is priced at $50. Without a collected Ronald Johnson, it will be difficult 15 or 20 years from now for a young writer to find a number of the works we have even now. That’s the risk. That’s why it’s not an either/or question, the Collected vs. The Books that X published in his/her lifetime.

And even collected volumes are not immune from this – Lew Welch’s Ring of Bone will go out of print once its current supply is exhausted. So will Frank O’Hara’s Poems Retrieved, two volumes published by Donald Allen’s Grey Fox Press. Johnson already has that problem with the death of Gus Blaisdell of Living Batch. The Black Sparrow Collected Books of Jack Spicer is already out of print.

Maybe someday PDF files – or whatever succeeds that format – will enable a permanent treasury to exist of such books. Right now, the system is as haphazard as the one that determines which readings get preserved on tape & which tapes become CDs or MP3 files. If you have an interest, or maybe just a curiosity, in some out of the way movement of the past, you had better hope that a Ben Mazer will come along and document it the way he seems to be doing for the Berkeley Renaissance. The Actualists of the 1970s, a larger group that even had a couple of anthologies during that decade, has virtually vanished from the face of the earth, tho real live actualists, from Allen Kornblum of Coffee House Press to poet, memoirist & NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu, still abound.

So I think about the fact that Larry Fagin, of all people, has not had a big book out since I’ll Be Seeing You & Rhymes of a Jerk. It’s been 22 years since Nuclear Neighborhood, the most recent collection of any size that I’m aware of, has been published. It would be great if all these works were in print again & available, but it’s just unrealistic. The absolute logic of an epoch in which each generation produces more poets than the last is that the “invisible hand” of the market is going to whittle everything down, at an accelerating pace. The idea that we can keep all of Robert Kelly’s 62 books in print just makes presumptions about available resources that don’t compute in an economy of scarcity. But someday, a really good series of his collected works will enable a generation that is not yet alive to read & enjoy his writing. And that to me makes sense.



Wednesday, May 25, 2005

 

Gravitations! reads Ronald Johnson’s one-word message inked – he had gorgeous penmanship, bordering on calligraphy – on the inside cover of my copy of Radi Os, a book that I realize is now 28 years old. Long out of print, it has just been reissued by Flood, a publication that is at once something to celebrate & a bit of a mystery.

A bit of a mystery because this wasn’t the book I was expecting. This edition typographically resets, but does not fundamentally revise (save for some changes Guy Davenport made to his afterword in 1981), the Sand Dollar Press volume of ’77, containing the same works, representing Johnson’s transformations of the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost, literally Paradise Lost. A note on the text at the end indicates that Jeff Clark retained “the orthography and spacing of the original,” though with a page that is one centimeter wider than the Sand Dollar Press edition, a retention, to call it thus, that Clark accomplishes by kicking the font size up one-half point to 9.5.¹

Yet Johnson, as Peter O’Leary noted in a letter printed here in 2003, drafted a total of nine sections of Radi Os, the opening portion of a larger sequence originally conceived to have been the final canopy or dome over the architectural project that became Ark – a book that itself has become hard if not impossible to locate since publisher Gus Blaisdell’s passing two years ago. When Johnson decided not to complete the transformation of Milton, he may – it would appear – have decided just to go with these four that Sand Dollar had already released. But the decision to cut the project short was, so far as I can tell, made after the publication of the Sand Dollar volume, so it’s impossible, at least from this distance, to tell whether or not Johnson meant the other five to disappear forever. Hopefully not.

To add to the mystery, the volume O’Leary wrote about in ’03 wasn’t Radi Os at all, but

The Outworks, which includes RADI OS & some later poems, including his incredible monument to the victims of AIDS, "Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid," is in the works with Flood Editions. This book will include the republication of RADI OS (which, regrettably?, before he passed away, RJ retitled, "Poem Excised Paradise Lost").

I agree with O’Leary that “Blocks” is indeed incredible, possibly the finest work Johnson ever completed. And I’m afraid I agree as well that retitling Radi Os “Poem Excised etc.” demonstrates a remarkably tin ear to the resonance of Johnson’s own poetry. What could he have been thinking of? Well, that’s a sentence that’s run through my mind when contemplating Ron & his work more than once before. Ark as a whole strikes me as a unique combination of over-reaching & reluctant compromises. Of the major longpoems of the last century, it is the one whose seams most resemble duct-tape, which is saying something given how The Cantos peter out & Zukofsky lets Celia’s “A”-24 come to that work’s formal rescue. A completed “excised Paradise Lost,” at least in the format presented here, would have run to 2,250 pages, more than five times the length of the rest of Ark. Some dome. Johnson may have favored architecture as a metaphor for his poetic structures, but the resulting works often most resemble the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

What I suspect must have happened – this is pure speculation – is that the editors of Flood Editions may have come up against the formal difficulties imposed by Johnson’s poetry, as such. With “Blocks” for example – you can glimpse an excerpt here – should the conversion from poster-sized broadside proceed left to right, or top down? Even if you think that it’s uncontroversially the former, you have to admit something is lost in flattening out the spatial relationships between individual stanzas. Releasing Radio Os as is, so to speak, at least positions them to come back with a new edition that includes both “Blocks” and the five lost books from Paradise Lost.

Having said all this, I should note, absolutely, that Radi Os is a great book – it’s one of those “must-have” volumes for any contemporary poetry collection & it’s great fun read aloud. I do think that we need to have all of Johnson’s work readily at hand, ideally from a publisher who can (a) keep it in print and (b) do a decent job with distribution. When I think of all the New American Poets – the generation immediately preceding Johnson’s – who have yet to arrive at such a state, this seems a Herculean task to ask of a small press. That Flood has taken on this much is a sign of terrific devotion.

 

¹ Notably easier on the eye, which I applaud.



Tuesday, May 24, 2005

 

Jordan Davis, somewhere in the West Village

 

By my count, 22 of the 81 contributors to Hat are bloggers – in that they are now (or have been in the past) represented on the blogroll to the left. Slightly more than one in four – I wonder how representative that might be of poets who are currently – by which I mean right now this year, not (say) 1995 – publishing in magazines. Or is it, as I suspect, high, a consequence of Jordan Davis’s own blogging? And if so, by how much? I, for one, would be surprised if even one in ten poets were publishing a weblog. One in twenty, maybe. Of course the implication of that when aligned with the 530-plus names on the list to the left would be something on the order of 10,000 currently active poets.

Life is so full of questions when you’re the permanently curious type, as am I. For example, I suspect, but can’t prove, that a number of the younger or less widely published poets from outside of New York City appear in Hat because they’re known, or at least more widely known, as a result of blogging. Jonathan Mayhew is a case in point, but so are James Meetze & Tony Tost & CA Conrad.

Historically, younger or newer poets have achieved some initial level of broader recognition through running reading series or publishing little magazines. That’s literally a form of service work than enables you to contact whichever poets whom you happen to like and ask if they would be willing to participate in one’s series or zine. From Pound’s work with Poetry even before World War I to something as recent as My Vocabulary, the poetry program on KSDT radio, the infrastructure of poetry has been constructed on the shoulders of younger writers in just this way. Davis, one of Hat’s editors, not only blogs & is himself prolific as a poet, but also is the producer & host of the Million Poems Show, a poetry talk show (no, I don’t know what that is, exactly, tho I might guess) at the Bowery Poetry Club. With Sarah Manguso, Davis edited Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books. His collaborator on Hat, Chris Edgar, works as the publications director at the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, in addition to his own work as poet, translator, essayist, etc.

So this makes me wonder at some of the implications of blogging for poetry in general. One is that it might be easier for a newer writer outside of New York &/or San Francisco to make serious contact with publications all over – a democratizing effect that I suspect can only be positive. But a second might be that younger poets may eventually discover that they have less of a need to start their own little zines, some of which might have turned out to be the Sulfur, Chain, Shiny or Hat of tomorrow. Thus an unintended consequence might be a longer term reduction in the absolute number of possible places for a poet to publish. And it’s also possible that these two impulses might cancel one another out. Or that an increase in the number of people publishing poetry might generate more of a felt need for journals, not less.

A publication like Hat tends to evoke questions like this for me. For one thing, the journal has been constantly expanding over the years, from the 14 contributors to the first issue in 1998, to 41 for the fifth issue, which came out during Winter 2003-2004. With no visible organizing principle other than the alphabeticization of authors’ surnames, Hat’s one perceptible theme is quantity. And at its current rate of growth, number seven will come out around the end of next year with some 160 contributors, number eight some time in 2009 with over 300.

Or maybe not. I’m teasing of course, but the logic of the process seems inescapable. When you have a publication in which the average contributor gets exactly 2.37 pages, you can – as Hat does – have almost nothing but terrific work, and yet offer it in such small portions that no one author will be able to think of this as a major publication in their life. The effect for a reader is simultaneously exhilarating & frustrating, like a museum that offered one of everything, but groups of nothing whatsoever.

I can understand the resistance to organizing a periodical around stated themes – there is no journal of poetry I’m less likely to read (and less apt to like) than one in which all the poems are “about” something, regardless of how global or noble it might be. I don’t write that way myself & virtually none of the poetry I value would be characterized in this fashion either. But I don’t necessarily think that it’s an either/or kind of situation. For example, if one simply grouped together the poets in this issue who live in Brooklyn, or who live in California, you might get some sense as to how the work bounces off of its environment. And if you were doing that while actually editing the issue, then maybe you’d send off notes to people who fit one or another category & ask for work.

A more modest magazine that thus has a bigger impact might be Carve, whose current issue has literally just arrived. Carve is a particularly useful example, in that I think there’s no aesthetic discord between this mag & Hat. Carve’s editor, Aaron Tieger, appears in Hat & Jordan Davis appears in Carve.

Although Carve is just 32 pages, humbly saddle stapled, compared with Hat’s 192, dividing Carve’s number by just six contributors gives each more room to stretch out & convey a stronger sense of what they’re doing, even with a “title page” accorded all but one of the participants. I say “all but one” because two are William Corbett presenting an introduction to the poetry of the late Ric Caddel, the wonderful British poet, editor, publisher & librarian who passed away too young in 2003 from leukemia. The other contributors are Stacy Szymaszek, the Milwaukee poet whom I’ve praised here more than once, Davis of course, Guillermo Juan Parra, whom I think of as a Venezuelan poet but who is listed here as being from Boston, and Cheryl Clark, also of Boston, whose work I did not know at all prior to this issue.

Clark makes a good test case for my reaction here, in that I already know that I like the work of all the other poets involved with Carve. And the magazine’s simple enough printing format – generally on a par with Hat save for the binding – does show its ragged side here, with one line of one poem (I shan’t say which) literally excised via white paper pasteover from the end of one poem only to appear, typed & pasted on to the end of the next. Yet here is “Nearest Distance,” another of the five Clark poems in the issue:

Crushes me
to think
I will be
a part
of some
long
string
of white
faces
in a city
you
used to
live in.

Here enjambment ramps up emotion to the max & it fits what otherwise appears to be a simple, paintful statement perfectly. Cheryl Clark is someone whose work I’m going to be looking for henceforth.

It seems odd to think that, having died just two years ago, Ric Caddel lived mostly too soon to see the impact of blogging on the poetry scene. But here I note that three of the five other contributors to Carve are active bloggers: Davis, Parra & Clark. Maybe that one in twenty estimate I ventured at the head of this note isn’t as good a ballpark figure as I imagine. It’s something to think about, as I look at the literature that arrives at my door.



Monday, May 23, 2005

 

Allen Ginsberg & Gregory Corso

 

The last time I saw Gregory Corso was in a liquor store at the corner of Columbus & Union in San Francisco. He and the clerk behind the counter were engaged in a furious tug of war over a credit card, which the clerk was attempting to wrest from Corso’s hands in order to cut it up. “I am Norman!” thundered Corso, to no avail. The clerk got the card & snipped it in twain to Corso’s howls. I exited quietly so as not to have to venture the words, “Hello, Gregory.”

Little events like that have a lot to do with why there isn’t more reasoned discourse about Corso’s poetry. Or like the time when, having been told at Naropa that he should teach what he knew, Corso offered a workshop on stealing valium. Just as Jack Spicer’s reputation seems to have benefited greatly from a generation of readers who didn’t have to wade through a problematic personality to get to the work, it may take another decade or so before people start to emerge who can sort through Corso’s work dispassionately, presumably to his benefit.

Kirby Olson has written “I wish Ron would reply to the Matt Merlino question regarding why Beats are in the post-avant group.”

It’s because the question itself struck me as preposterous. Remember, these categories are not, repeat NOT, like identifying which position on an imaginary baseball team your poet should play (In my league, Corso would be the bullpen coach, or maybe a bench coach in the mold of The Gerbil). The School of Quietude is an actual literary movement, self-selecting & ongoing now in the U.S. for at least 160 years. One of its primary features is that it doesn’t believe that it is a movement – it thinks it’s the unmarked case. Like white males who imagine they have no ethnicity, no gender. Like heterosexuals who think only gays have sexual orientation. Like any majoritarian speaker in a culture who imagines that he, or she, has no accent.

When the Beats suddenly emerged in the mid-1950s (they’d been studiously ignored previously, save for the appearance of Ginsberg as the author of a letter incorporated into William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and Kerouac’s critically acclaimed, but mostly unread, first novel), the School of Quietude consisted primarily of a core group of Boston Brahmins around Robert Lowell at Harvard, with a second – and far less institutionally powerful – pole that centered around Auden & was only starting to emerge as a conscious counter-balance to the Brahmins in Iowa City. The Brahmins at that moment were still the darlings of the New Critics (most of whom were poets associated with the agrarians of the 1930s, it should be noted). And the New Critics were profoundly anti-romantic. They thought the romantics were too over-the-top to focus on the well-wrought urn, literally. Their focus was more the sonneteers of the 17th century.

The howls of protest when the Beats arrived were loud & unmistakable – even at ten years old & still several years from really getting into poetry, I could hear the rumbles of thunder as it spilled over into Life and Time & onto the pages of the daily paper. They were unlettered, unwashed, not interested in academic (or any other, it was implied) careers. They sneared at the squares & the straights. They took their inspiration from Walt Whitman, himself a disgraceful etc. etc. This echoed in part some of the same dismissal that Pound & Stein & Joyce had received in the previous decades, from earlier SoQ types like Robert Silliman Hillyer, the sonnet hack who won the 1934 Pulitzer. The loudest and most famous protest, of course, was Norman Podhoretz’The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Podhoretz & the other protestors, confident in the lasting value of their institutions, predicted that the Beats & their kind would soon disappear from view. Podhoretz was wrong about that, and his subsequent role as one of the founding fathers of neoconservativism isn’t much to be proud of, either. But at least he knew where he stood.

When Anchor Books published A Controversy of Poets, jointly edited by Paris Leary (for the SoQ) & Robert Kelly (for the New Americans), Corso was clearly on the team that today would be characterized as post-avant. In fact, it should be remembered that the two editors agreed on only one poet for their volume – and that this one poet refused to participate – Robert Duncan.

It is true that the SoQ has generally been characterized by an anglophilia that can seem a tad pathological, but historically it hasn’t been just any Brit whose writing they happened to like. People like Basil Bunting, David Jones & Shelley tended not to show up on their list. Today, Tom Raworth, J.H. Prynne, Allen Fisher, Tom Pickard, Lee Harwood, and the late Douglas Oliver tend not to appear on SoQ reading lists.¹ Instead it’s Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Motion (whose nickname, were he ever to be drafted by a fantasy baseball team, would have to be “Slow”), Simon Armitage, Glyn Maxwell & any of several Irish conservatives. The distinction is a phenomenon that extends beyond U.S. shores. Its class & political implications may be clearer in the United Kingdom than here, tho Podhoretz’ role amid the neocons seems perfectly consistent with the emergence of a rag like The New Criterion.

Characterizing the Beats as SoQ because they represented a return to romanticism in American letters, and because some used traditional forms on occasion, is like calling Chomsky a Republican because he teaches at a science school. It makes me want to twitch with its ahistoricity.

I’m going to let Corso have the last word, with his poem “I am 25”:

With a love a madness for Shelley
Chatterton       Rimbaud
and the needy-yap of my youth
            has gone from ear to ear:
            I HATE OLD POETMEN!
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poetmen
who speak their youth in whispers,
saying: – I did those then
              but that was then
              than was then –
O I would quiet old men
say to them: – I am your friend
                 what you once were, thru me
                 you’ll be again –
Then at night in the confidence of their homes
rip out their apology-tongues
                 and steal their poems.

 

¹ Which is why Thom Gunn’s championing of Briggflats as the finest poem ever written is so noteworthy. Gunn may have been a Brit who trained in the New Critical stronghold of Stanford, but he integrated himself mostly into the lifestyle of San Francisco’s gay community, and continued teaching at Berkeley even after Louis Simpson’s well-publicized resignation from that school on the grounds that the local scene’s fascination with all things New American made it impossible for an SoQ poet to continue.



Sunday, May 22, 2005

 

Matt Hart, second from right, in the band Squirtgun

 

After my piece on Matt Hart, I heard from both. The following letter, run here with its author’s permission, is from the Matt Hart with whom I read in New York.

Dear Mr. Silliman,

Imagine my surprise to find, upon arriving home from work the other day, that I (and my doppelganger) had been mentioned in your blog-posting for the day. How strange. But also, as it turns out, how terrific.

As it turns out, I have been aware of your Matt Hart for some time. A few years ago, when I was introduced to Dana Ward, the poet and editor of Cy Press, he immediately started going on and on about how much he liked some very astute sounding article I had written. Sadly, I had to tell him, he had the wrong Matt Hart. Thus, when Thomas said that you were very happy to be reading with ME and Anselm Berrigan, I just assumed (because you live in Philly) that you thought he meant YOUR Matt Hart. Very confusing. Of course, at the actual event I was far too nervous and in awe of you to mention it. And I’m glad you didn’t mention it either, as I would’ve been even more terrified than I was already. I had never read in New York before, and as goofy as it probably seems, it was a big deal to me.

In any case, I appreciated very much your thoughtful comments about my work, though I must say I’m not at all certain what you’re talking about when you say School of Quietude, nor do I know anything about Actualism. Forgive me. I’m neither well read nor particularly articulate in terms of the detailed history of poetry. I am, however, like everybody else who’s serious about something, always looking to both the past and present for new input, new words, new ideas. With that in mind, I plan to research some of the poets you mentioned in your post, and I would be grateful for any other suggestions you may have for further reading. Of course, I do know Ted Berrigan’s work quite well, and Dean Young was briefly a teacher of mine. In the early 90’s, when I was a grad student in philosophy (horror of horrors), I studied the later Wittgenstein pretty intensely, and thankfully it cured me of any desire I had to understand the world absolutely (though not my desire to pine for the possibility of an absolute)—I bought his whole “philosophy is a mental illness” shtick—but also the idea that “meaning is use,” which opened up huge possibilities for me in poetry.

Still, for me poetry has to be about saying something and making it stick—that is, I want to move people in the old sense—and also, of course, I want to be moved myself. Expressiveness, beauty and contact with other human beings are what I value, and I’m willing to do that by any means necessary. These are old values to be sure, but by my lights I’ll take even old (dead) values in the face of no values any day. This is, I think, the Corso connection. For all his cantankerous, outsider ferocity, his work has heart, which is manifest by turns as a) an all too human on-the-go sloppiness, b) a willingness to believe in something (by any means necessary) in the face of believing that there’s nothing to believe in, and c) in a relentless (and hyper-romantic) pursuit of beauty in the face of no beauty, no value, no future. Bomb.

My experience in poetry thus far (that is, the poetry world—yikes!) is that my work is too talky and “weird” for the conventional academic poets and too boringly heartfelt for the post-avant hipsters—which is only to explain or account for where I’ve published my poems. The Ploughshares thing was a total fluke. Heather McHugh guest edited that issue, and she was one of my teachers. Otherwise, they wouldn’t give me the time of day. In general, it seems that the LUNGFULL!s and Pom2s (hell, even the Fences and Verses) of the world think my work is idiotic (plus none of their friends know me), and the Virginia Quarterlys, etc. think my work is really OUT THERE (plus their friends don’t like any of my former teachers). Anyway, I’m not particularly interested in being a member of any single camp. I believe that the things that connect us, even (esp.?) as poets, are both numerous and far more important than the things that divide us. Your post from today about community is just what all the doctors NEED. As for me, I’ll keep sending my work to everybody, and hopefully they’ll find something in it to like - as I find things to like in almost everybody else. High aims? You bet.

Again, I appreciated so much your blog comments. I thought the reading was fantastic, and it was a huge thrill to get to open for you and Anselm.. Perhaps we’ll meet again under less surprising circumstances. I certainly hope so.

Sincerely,

(the other) Matt Hart

 



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