Tuesday, October 31, 2006

 

  

Jed Birmingham sent me an email last week, asking me about poetry journals. Which were the ones that had had the greatest impact on me? Then, in his introduction of me at Autostart on Thursday, Charles Bernstein talked of the impact my own little poetry newsletter, Tottel’s, had had for him back in the early 1970s. And was kind enough to mention “The Dwelling Place,” a feature of nine poets that I did for Alcheringa in 1975¹ – my afterword to that selection, “Surprised by Sign: Notes on Nine,” was my first attempt to write about language poetry.

So I’ve been mulling over the question Jed asked. It’s two questions, really, for one’s relationship to the magazines one reads is not identical to one’s relationship to the magazines where one publishes. And I think for younger poets this is especially true.

So I would draw a fairly sharp line between my experience of magazines in the 1960s with that in the 1970s & after. Let’s think about the 1960s first.

There seemed to be a lot of magazines around, but in retrospect relatively few had deep meaning for me. Three in particular stand out: Coyote’s Journal, Caterpillar & Poetry. There were other magazines, of course, ranging from the New Directions Annuals – a once-a-year anthology that always made you wonder why, if this was the same press that had pioneered the work of Pound & Williams, it always seemed so bland & muddled – to Beatitude, the irregularly published journal of the SF post-beat street scene in North Beach – to journals like R.C. Lion, Hollow Orange, Odda Tala, Kauri & Work that all represented different aspects of the New American (and, tho I don’t know that anyone yet saw it as such, the post-New American) scene, to more academic fair, such as Poetry Northwest, TriQuarterly, Southern Review, Chicago Review & Arts in Society. The library at San Francisco State had Origin and I read it, even studied it, & started corresponding with Cid Corman, in what was really my first concerted effort to campaign my way into a journal I liked. But you couldn’t find it in a bookstore. Nor could you reliably find any publications of the New York School, save – very intermittently – for The World.

I’ve written before of Coyote’s Journal and its expression of an aesthetic I’ve called New Western writing, a swath of New American poetics that would begin with Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen, independent poets nominally associated with the Beats, and also include those, like Edward Dorn, who rose out of the Projectivist tendencies of Black Mountain, but actively engaged issues of the west. The journal got underway in 1964 when the University of Oregon campus magazine, Northwest Review, ran afoul of school officials & local reactionaries by publishing work by Phil Whalen, Antonin Artaud & an interview with Fidel Castro. The Journal published eight issues between then and the fall of 1967, before going into a more intermittent schedule – the most recent issue, numero 13, came out mostly online (& in print in Europe) in 1999. The eighth issue, from 1967 gives a sense of its range. Contributors included Charles Olson (“rages / strain / Dog of Tartarus”), Joanne Kyger, Richard Duerden, Tom Clark (still publishing as Thomas in those days), Ed van Aelstyn (one of the journal’s founding editors & later my linguistics professor at SF State), Robert Duncan (a chapter from The H.D. Book), Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, Jim Koller (by then the co-editor with van Aelstyn & over the long haul the journal’s driving presence), Peter Armstrong, Paul Blackburn, Larry Eigner, Edward Dorn, John Hall, Gary Snyder, & Sergei Bielyi. Armstrong, Hall & Bielyi are the only names I don’t recognize here. More than half of the contributors had appeared in Donald Allen’s breakthrough The New American Poetry a few years before.

I never felt confident enough in my own work to submit work to Coyote’s Journal during that incredible run, but right as its eighth issue in four years was coming into print (it would be another four years before the next one showed up), Clayton Eshleman, fresh from travels to Japan & South America, began Caterpillar in New York City. Physically, Caterpillar looked enough like Coyote’s Journal to give one the sense that a baton had been handed off – tho Eshleman has told me that his actual model was Corman’s Origin. Here was a journal from New York that (a) was visibly not the New York School and (b) was reliably distributed on the West Coast, something you couldn’t say about any NY School publication. In a sense, it was also a direct descendant of smaller, earlier journals, like Yugen & Floating Bear & Trobar, and not entirely unrelated to Lita Hornick’s larger but more occasional Kulchur. For the most part, those were journals I had heard of, tho never seen. Caterpillar printed many – tho not all – of the same poets you could find in Coyote’s Journal, such as Blackburn, Duncan, Snyder & Olson, but did so alongside other poets like Armand Schwerner, Hugh Seidman, Gilbert Sorrentino, David Antin, Jackson Mac Low, Diane Wakoski, Michael Heller, Robert Kelly & Jerry Rothenberg that gave the journal a far more Eastern & urban sensibility. Tho it also had a fairly short lifespan, maybe five full years before Clayton moved west & revamped his publishing energies into a new publication, Sulfur, Caterpillar (even more than Coyote’s Journal) had a remarkably centering impact. Everybody I knew had a strong opinion about it – not always favorable, although often so – and virtually every other post-avant publication could be characterized by the ways in which it was not Caterpillar.

Whereas I felt intimidated by the poetry gods who turned up in Coyote’s Journal – I was all of 21 when that eighth issue was on the stands –  I actively campaigned over the next few years to get my work into Caterpillar, Origin and Poetry.

Poetry may seem like the odd journal in this trio, but it’s not really. During Henry Rago’s 14-year run as editor of that journal, starting in 1955 & ending only with his sudden death while on sabbatical in 1969, Poetry went through an evolution quite unlike any other School of Quietude (or, for that matter, post-avant) publication before or since. The journal Rago inherited in 1955 was largely living on its laurels for having published Ezra Pound & his friends early on – one could politely characterize the aesthetics of virtually all of its previous editors not only as undistinguished, but indistinguishable. In part, this was because through the Second World War, the actual number of publishing poets in the United States was a fraction of what it is today, something that could be counted in the hundreds – the current figure is at least 10,000 – and for the most part Pound’s engagement with modernism & the one special issue Poetry had devoted to the Objectivists in 1931 had enabled it to say that it had “represented” the various forms of non-conventional poetries around. But if you weren’t somebody Pound was promoting, the chances of an avant writer getting into the publication were relatively slim. Gertrude Stein never once appeared there. Nor did Mina Loy. Nor did Bern Porter. Nor Philip Lamantia. Parker Tyler, Charles Henri Ford & Kenneth Rexroth were about as radical as it got once you strayed from the Pound-Williams tradition.

Well, there was one other exception, but it wasn’t particularly visible until the New American poetries started popping up everywhere in the early 1950s. The ongoing tension between modernist & anti-modernist poetries had percolated along quietly until the arrest & trial of Ezra Pound for treason after the fall of the fascist regime in Italy, when a number of poets, led by Robert Silliman Hillyer (1934 Pulitzer Prize Winner, first published in Poetry in 1924), sought to ban the writings of Pound, or at to least drive them from print. With the publication & subsequent obscenity prosecution of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, not to mention the combative tone of the poem itself, the gloves were off between the School of Quietude & the New Americans. And Poetry generally knew which side it was on.

Except when it came to Robert Duncan & several poets of the New York School, specifically Kenneth Koch (first published in Poetry in 1945), Frank O’Hara (December 1951) & John Ashbery (1955).² Duncan had first published in Poetry in 1942, well before the New American phenomenon congealed, & tho he was the person perhaps most responsible for the combative stance of the Allen anthology – he refused to appear in the Robert Kelly-Paris Leary Controversy of Poets collection because of the presence of poets like Robert Lowell – he had been able to publish in Poetry all along.³

With these exceptions, Poetry had only admitted token publication of a few New Americans – Robert Creeley in 1957, Denise Levertov in 1958 – until 1962, when the journal almost on a dime made a major reassessment of its role and began publishing everybody, the only publication in American history actually to do so in any kind of balance. Thus, to pick a random example, September 1966 starts off by giving pride of place on its cover to the publication of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-15, one of his most dense texts, starting as it does with a homophonic translation from the Hebrew. But also included in that issue are W.S. Graham, Robert Bly, Aram Saroyan, Gibbons Ruark, Shirley Kaufman, Richard Howand, Tom Clark (tho he goes by Thomas here also), and Guy Davenport. The October-November 1963 double issue leads off with John Berryman and includes such conservative stalwarts as J.V. Cunningham, Hayden Carruth, Randall Jarrell, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke & Karl Shapiro (like Carruth a former editor of Poetry), but it also includes Robert Duncan, Ronald Johnson, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder & Louis Zukofsky. Two years later, the summer double issue leads off with Wendell Berry & includes SoQ heavies Carruth, Galway Kinnell, Anne Sexton & Theodore Weiss. But it also includes Creeley, Duncan, Ron Johnson, Koch, Levertov, Olson, Snyder, Gael Turnbull & Phil Whalen. The January 1969 issue leads off with Kenneth Koch’s “Sleeping with Women,” and includes SoQ poets Philip Booth, Lewis Turco & Stephen Dobyns. But it also includes Anselm Hollo, Larry Eigner, Mitch Goodman (Denise Levertov’s husband, better known as a novelist), Hugh Seidman & me.

From 1962 through 1969, every poet in America knew to send their very best poems to Poetry, the ones around which they would organize their next book. And it shows – it’s an extraordinary run, unmatched certainly in my lifetime for breadth & quality of work. Henry Rago took a sabbatical for the 1968-69 school year & Daryl Hine, a little-known Canadian formalist who was teaching in the Chicago area, but who apparently either had the time or was able to take it, substituted for Rago on an interim basis. (He’s listed as Visiting Editor for the issue in which my work appears.) When Rago died of a heart attack, tho, Hine was able to stay on permanently & the current neocon regime was set in place. Now that there is serious money in the house, thanks to Ruth Lilly, it is unlikely that the pseudoformalists will ever let go. And once Hine flushed the last of Rago’s acceptances through the publishing process, that it was for ecumenicalism in American verse. But for seven years, Poetry was the best poetry magazine ever published. And it’s interesting to wonder if such a publication could ever happen again.

 

¹ It was published in 1975. I did the editing in 1973. The nine poets included Bruce Andrews, Barbara Baracks, Clark Coolidge, visual poet Lee DeJasu, Ray Di Palma, Robert Grenier, David Melnick, Barrett Watten & your humble correspondent.

² For this purpose, I would not include Edwin Denby’s lone appearance in 1926.

³ But see his letter to Denise Levertov of October 22, 1958 in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, pp. 143-145, where he complains about the editing practices of Rago, Don Allen & Cid Corman, one after another.

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