Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Henry Rago (second from right) with the editorial staff of Poetry, 1956
L-R: Robert Mueller, Margaret Danner, Elizabeth Wright, Rago, Frederick Bock
Because I wanted to reread – for a third time – Roberto González Echevaría’s review of Clayton Eshleman’s translation of César Vallejo’s The Complete Poetry, I held onto the May 21st edition of The Nation.
Echevaria’s review isn’t that illuminating on the questions of translation – he nitpicks a few gotchas mostly & reminds us that, as a young scholar, he turned to Eshleman for help reading Wallace Stevens, assistance for which he is obviously grateful. But the bulk of his piece is a decent history of
Poem Windy and Continued
very cold. My small
and panicked last
kiss was like making
a noise to make sure
I was there.
mouth was only
space – a kiss
reversed and kept
inside to bite.
This off-kilter lyric – something Foust does as well as any living poet – actually appears on the corner of a page (the third of four) of Echevaría’s piece, as if insinuating that some of the spirit of Vallejo has sipped into American poetry. This is quite an amazing leap for a journal like The Nation, a well-intended, but culturally plodding, progressive publication whose curiously bellicose title reminds readers to this day that it was first started to support the northern cause during the Civil War. If you count Calvin Trillin’s regular feature as “deadline poet” among the op-ed pieces at the issue’s front (I seldom do, but this is one of Trillan’s better efforts), the May 21st issue has not one, but four different items related to poetry in a single edition. I’ve been reading The Nation since 1963 & I can’t even remember a solstice books issue that did that before.
But consider Trillan’s immortal lines, which begin
So who ever thunk
That Tenet’s “slam dunk”
Was really the chunk
Of intelligence junk
That got our boys sunk
In quagmire gunk?
Then turn to the hapless works by this year’s Discovery winners, Paula Bohince, Darcie Dennigan, Joseph Heithaus and Melissa Range, chosen by Mark Jarman, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Phillis Levin (which “associate coordinator Ellen Paschen helped to screen”). Here are the opening lines of “Green”:
The child affixes one of her little pictures to my refrigerator.
She asks, Can you detect the radiation?
There is a house, one tree, and grass in dark slashes. A sun
shining. Beneath, in her child letters, she has written
At kindergarten they must be having nuclear energy week.
This is one of those “excuse me” moments in literature, in which writing so padded that it suffocates thought: “little pictures,” “child letters,” really? One can only imagine how the losers of this competition must write if something like this leaked through. At least in the first line of the second stanza there is that string of single syllable words leading up to the two-syllable shining to suggest that something is occurring cognitively. But what we have here is the start of a dumbed-down allegorical narrative that mostly reveals the poet not to be a serious thinker about radiation, about children, or about poetry.
At least Darcie Dennigan spares us the tub-thumping metrics offered by
His every hair and shred
sheds two uses, or more, for our daily bread.
Good sidekick, stock stand-by,
he helps us tear the ground and haul the rye.
Too much sweetgrass made him lame,
or we did; to much bridle made him tame,
which we did. Nails in the foot
mean he’s not good-for-naught;
disease in the hoof, he’s a no-shoe
no-show on the field. It’s a no-go,
when he founders on the clock:
he’ll go free, barefooted, to the block.
And so on for another eight sterling couplets.
Paula Bohince at least appears to be writing after the birth of
Stiff as a fish
in a boat, I lie in the grove
inhaling dirt’s pepper, my cheek
wet against stubble,
eye to mineral eye,
tracing the bodies of fish
onto wood’s floor – infinity in mud,
curves of hourglass
until I cannot hear
The poet re-enacting her childhood: here’s a cliché that really needs to be revisited. At least she has some idea of line that is not stiff as a fish in a boat.
Alongside a discussion of
Green False Hellebore
We must warn the good sheep: Dear pregnant ewes,
stay away from the stout, erect, unbranched
stems, pleated leaves, flowers B inconspicuous
clusters, green or greenish white. I blanched
at what they do to you, your little lamb.
If you eat false hellebore on the fourteenth
day of gestation, expect your new ram
to be monkey-faced, cycloptic, come a month
early or die. Really, aside from weakness,
trembling, the stomach ache you’ll feel, you’ll give
birth to truth, small brained, defected, helpless,
just for taking what you thought sheep might live
on. This is nature’s justice, something cruel
to chew: we’re empty headed beasts, poison’s fool.
Just wait till he starts writing as tho he were born after 1892. This at least is worth reading, tho frankly there’s less to think about than meets the ear. It’s ultimately a set piece intended to display the verbal dexterity of the poet. That there is some to display is its saving grace.
Between these four selections, we have an interesting phenomenon, The Nation displaying the very different directions of contemporary poetry, from something completely new (Foust) & groundbreaking work of the 20th century (Vallejo), to poetry that imagines that, by simple denial, it can erase the writing of the last 150 years, first as tragedy (the Discovery four), then as farce (Trillan). I’m reminded that John Palattella recently replaced Grace Shulman as poetry editor of The Nation, and it’s his presence that I credit for the Foust, maybe even Echevaría’s review of the
In the years before I became the executive editor of the Socialist Review (SR), I used to marvel at the breadth of that publication, which had been started in the very early 1970s under the name of Socialist Revolution to be a place where the veteran on-campus organizers of the 1960s might discuss the theoretical implications of their post-school work “in the real world.” There could be a discussion of class in the sugar industry in the
So what I see in this really peculiar single issue of The Nation is something not that terribly different. I don’t think John Palattella is necessarily a post-avant type personally, my sense is that he’s trying to be broader than that, but he is somebody who reads, intelligently so (based on the reviews I’ve seen), the likes of Ted Berrigan & Allen Ginsberg, something that a poetry editor at The Nation hasn’t done since the days when Denise Levertov was there in the 1960s. And the result may be that we are going to get, at least for a time, this sort of quirky, uneven coverage as the journal presents a wider view simply because different editors think very differently.
I’m reminded that the one brief renaissance in the history of Poetry magazine came not during the years when Ezra Pound was periodically breaking through the deadened crust of work Harriet Monroe preferred, but rather the latter half of Henry Rago’s tenure in the 1960s. During the first several years of his editorship, Rago was the same sort of predictable
The simple presence of Creeley, Duncan, Levertov, Koch, Mac Diarmid, Olson, Rexroth & Zukofsky in this list was revolutionary in 1962. But it merely was the piercing of the veil of benign neglect with which the Pound-Williams tradition had previously been treated, and it was, frankly, tokenistic. Thirty months later, the April-May 1965 double issue devoted to works-in-progress, long poems & sequences actually reflected the world more as it was. Its contributors included, again in alphabetical order (and this is the complete list), Wendell Berry, Carruth, Creeley, Duncan, Ronald Johnson, Galway Kinnell, Koch, Levertov, Olson, David Posner, Adrienne Rich, Ernest Sandeen, Sexton, Gary Snyder, Tomlinson, Gael Turnbull, Theodore Weiss & Philip Whalen. The issue feels as tho its 20 – maybe 50 – years more contemporary than the one less than three years earlier. Indeed, more contemporary than any issues of Poetry that have been published in the past 20 years.
Since the Poetry Foundation got its boatload of cash from a sheltered pharmaceutical heir a few years back, the organization has gone through some convulsions that suggest that it too is having some of the same sorts of pressures straining on it that we may be seeing in The Nation. The website for Poetry is already much more interesting than the journal, but there have been some token attempts even in the publication not to seem completely out of it. This is all to the good, regardless of how incomplete & conflicted these little moments might be.
I’m reminded of Gerald Graff’s refrain to “teach the conflicts,” which I’ve always thought made sense in terms of curriculum, albeit unless one is team teaching with somebody quite opposite one’s own inclinations, one always teaches these conflicts from a particular point of view. There is, after all, a scenario in which the post-avants represent the barbarians at the gates that are disrupting the idylls of quietude & therefore must be repelled. And it’s not like I don’t have a pony, if not a sheep, in this race. So barring the emergence of saintly editors a la the later Rago, perhaps the very most we can hope for in our more public literary institutions is what we find in the May 21st issue of The Nation, that the rag will actually embody those very conflicts, all sides.
To readers who don’t pay much attention to poetry, this may feel incoherent. There is almost no way to connect the dots between Trillan & Vallejo, Foust & the Discovery 4, that is going to be readily accessible to anyone not immersed in contemporary poetics. That in itself is probably a good thing, since it shows The Nation demonstrating what anthologies like those by Garrison Keillor do not, that it’s not all one thing, but many, diverse, conflicting ones. That Vallejo’s own conflicts over his own poetry & its relation to language, nation, politics, aesthetics are no less tortured than those of any thinking person today.