Monday, June 25, 2007


The use of names in jacket blurbs or, for that matter, as points of comparison anywhere is a process that needs to be handled with considerable delicacy if it is not to descend instantly into nonsense. In Dave Itzkoff piece on the new Library of America volume of Philip K. Dick novels in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review notes, Jonathan Lethem recently penned a piece on Dick that

tells us Dick is a bit like Dostoyevsky, a bit like Robert Altman, a bit like Bob Dylan.

The result, Itzkoff argues, is not unlike the famous scramble suit of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly,

all one sees is a shifting set of characteristics that add up to a vague blur.

But Lethem’s triangulation of the sci-fi master has the virtue of having at least put if not the “right,” at least reasonable¹ stakes in the ground. What happens when the names invoked are profoundly, even goofily, inappropriate?

This thought ran through my head as I gazed at the rear cover of Copper Canyon’s new volume poetry by Marvin Bell, Mars Being Red. The names invoked on the jacket are, in this order, Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot & Allen Ginsberg. That is such a peculiar troika that it’s ultimately unfair to Bell, whose poetry may not be my favorite, but for whom one could certainly make an argument. Bell is, at least to my reading, a victim of his own book jacket at least to the degree that these names set up expectations on the part of unfamiliar or unsuspecting readers. There are lots of reasons one might want to read Bell, might want to read this book, would find this book utterly fascinating, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg, with the possible plausible exception that Ginsberg wrote passionately about the war in Vietnam & Bell here writes his most topical poetry ever, taking on Rumsfeld, Cheney & Bush. Yet one could say that Donald Justice, with whom Bell taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop early in his career, likewise wrote passionately about Vietnam, as did James Dickey & Robert Bly. The choice of Ginsberg in this context seems especially gratuitous.

And it’s not even the claim the jacket is making. The actual quote, from an unnamed author at Booklist reads as follows:

T.S. Eliot meets Allen Ginsberg . . . [Bell’s poetry] will fascinate those interested in seeing what language can sometimes do in the hands of an expert.

To suggest that Bell’s poetry is in any manner the aesthetic lovechild of Eliot & Ginsberg does a kind of violence to all three – and it reminds us that Booklist doesn’t get knowledgeable people to write about the books it covers – but it is Bell who is most deeply wronged here. Because it is what is unique about his poetry that seems to me to be exactly what is being paved over by such a crude analogy.

Eliot, after all, was the anointed one amongst large portions of the School of Quietude (SoQ) right at the moment when Bell emerged as a young poet & settled in at Iowa City for two solid generations before his recent retirement (he’s now teaching in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon). Eliot was the poet raised to canonic heights by the New Critics, the point on which the older Fugitives and the younger Brahmins around Robert Lowell in Boston could all agree.

Iowa City was a major node on the New Critical map because René Wellek taught there between 1939 & ’46, tho he was originally greeted with open hostility by the old guard literary historians. Robert Penn Warren taught there for a semester in 1941. When John Berryman, one of the Brahmins, taught in the Workshop, his students included W. D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Robert Dana, Constance Urdang, Donald Finkel & Henri Coulette. And when Murray Krieger, who had studied with both Warren & Allen Tate & taught at Kenyon, was named M.F. Carpenter Chair in Literary Criticism at Iowa in 1963, it was the first named chair for that discipline in America.

Yet as that class list makes clear, the teacher does not predict the student. Robert Grenier was the student of Robert Lowell just as I am very much the student of Jack Gilbert. For all of the conscious inbreeding implicit in a program like the Iowa Writers Workshop picking alumni like Bell & Justice to lead it for the next generation, the Workshop was hardly the paradise of the old formalism & in fact functioned much more as a counterbalance to it within the broader spectrum of the School of Quietude.

This actually is what I think Booklist must be getting at with its inclusion of “Allen Ginsberg,” who was never anything but the antithesis of Quietude during his own lifetime. In fact, the Workshop proved much closer to the new free-verse aesthetic of “open,” “naked, or even “leaping” poetry that grew up around apostate SoQ institutions like the American Poetry Review & poets such as Phil Levine & Robert Bly. A much more appropriate name than Ginsberg here would have been Kenneth Rexroth, the god of the Copper Canyon aesthetic generally, and an importance source for many of the poets who opted out of the old formalism but didn’t buy into Bly’s crabbed version of internationalism as its alternative.

How Rexroth, the one-time anarcho-surrealist who was published early on by Zukofsky among the Objectivists & later functioned as a grumpy uncle to the Beats & other New American poets in San Francisco, gets to be adopted by this side of the School of Quietude & becomes, in fact, an important resource, is a long story worth some investigation. An awful lot of cultural revisionism can be traced back to this phenomenon, which would have surprised Rexroth were he alive today almost as much as the new diversity & liveliness in present-day Iowa City might have surprised Ginsberg.

Within all of this movement within the SoQ, Bell has always been a middle figure, fully capable of writing formally & yet comfortable with most of the tenets of the so-called Open poetry. Further, Bell has never been one of the dapper bards in suits comfortable with corporate boards & the like. In this sense, he’s the antithesis of the likes of Edward Hirsch, Dana Gioia & Robert Pinsky.

But to characterize this as T.S. Eliot meets Allen Ginsberg is plausible only in a world in which the readers aren’t going to recognize any poets less famous than those two.

The Whitman reference is even slipperier. If one takes Whitman’s primary literary legacy to be a rejection of the tradition of European closed verse forms, a preference for indeterminacy & the rejection of closure, none of that is true of Bell, who fits 61 poems into 81 pages here, using 12-point type. But the claim that’s being made isn’t finally about Whitman the poet. Quoting (again without naming the actual author) Harvard Review, the jacket says, in its entirety,

Bell has the largest heart since Walt Whitman.

That sounds like a diagnosis of congestive heart disease, but is really not much more than a claim that Bell is an empathetic, caring guy, not the sort of thing you’d write about either Jack Spicer or Robert Frost or Ezra Pound, not in fact a statement about writing at all.

These are the only names actually mentioned on the jacket of Mars Being Red. None really has anything to do with Marvin Bell. It might have been far mor powerful to write, for example, that Marvin Bell’s students have included . . . and listed some of the more successful of those poets, a list at least as powerful (and considerably longer) than Berryman’s. Or to have discussed his own actual context and influences. The remainder of the back cover text does not do much more than indicate that these are Bell’s most overtly political poems.

My question is: does this serve the poet? I can’t imagine that it does.

I’ve written before that I think that that the School of Quietude generally has a hard time discussing influences & forerunners, in part because it doesn’t do much to preserve their legacies. One doesn’t hear of, for example, Robert Hass & Galway Kinnell as representing a “School of John Logan,” although Logan manifestly was the most influential poet in the development of each. The result of which is that Logan has become a classic neglectorino.

In contrast, look at how post-avant poets continue the work, say, of a Spicer or a Frank O’Hara. O’Hara may have been dead for 41 years, but he has a new book out, Poems from the Tibor de Nagy Editions. Spicer is demonstrably more famous now than when he died and is about to have multiple new volumes of his poetry & correspondence out.

You will find few contemporary poets, if any, actively trying on the writing style of an Amy Lowell the way they do Gertrude Stein, tho the two women were born in the same year. Similarly, SoQ modernists like Conrad Aiken, Archibald MacLeish & Edna St. Vincent Millay don’t engage contemporary poets in quite the same way as Pound, Williams or Zukofsky. Why not? It would be easy enough to argue that, well, the Whitman - Dickinson - Pound - Williams - Zukfosky - Olson - Grenier - Goldsmith line of writing survives because it’s objectively better or more powerful or more formally innovative, but it’s obvious also that SoQ poets don’t believe that. Why then do they let their own heritage vanish into the mists of time?

The result is something like what we see on the back of Marvin Bell’s book. Names are invoked, but not meaningfully. It’s no help to the poet and no help to the reader.


¹ I might have chosen Roger Corman in lieu of Bob Altman.

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