Tuesday, July 24, 2007
When, in editing the first volume of Poet’s Bookshelf, Peter Davis got some 81 poets to respond to his request for a list of
5-10 books that have been most “essential” to you, as a poet
and asked his respondents further to “Please write some comments about your list,” he got an awesomely, if predictably, wide range of reactions. At one extreme were minimalist responses, such as J.D. McClatchy’s list of three:
Virgil, The Aeneid
The American Heritage Dictionary
followed by a five-paragraph essay that begins “The Aeneid is undoubtedly the greatest poem ever written….” Only two other contributors mention Virgil on their lists at all. Clark Coolidge tries the opposite approach to minimalism, citing 16 books, twelve of whose authors were in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and the other four (William Carlos Williams, Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, Joe Ceravolo) of whom would have been included in the Allen had they only been a little older or a little younger. Coolidge is marvelously specific as to which publication proved “essential,” noting that the version of Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight he has in mind is the selection of “the first 49 sections as printed in Big Table magazine, no. 1, 1959.” Coolidge is the only contributor to the first volume of
I was given a copy of Ray’s typescript by Buell Neidlinger, Cecil Taylor’s bass player in the fifties, in 1961.
But Coolidge’s entire discussion beyond the specificity of his list is extremely brief:
The publication dates are, unless otherwise indicated, also the years of first possession.
I do not intend this list as any sort of “canon.” This is the contemporary American poetry that most excited me as I began to seriously attempt the art.
As essays go, this is twice the length of Elizabeth Spires’ contribution:
These are authors and books that I greatly admire, and that I have been influenced by, but that seem to me “overlooked.”
Her list contains seven poets, including Josephine Jacobsen, A. R. Ammons, John Berryman, Elizabeth Coatsworth, May Swenson, William Meredith and Gwen Harwood. Considering that I have never even heard of two of her choices, I wish she’d expanded somewhat on what it is about them that makes them, for her, special.
Some contributions are eye opening. Thom Gunn lists no
William Carlos Williams
Basil Bunting, Briggflatts and Other Poems
Another poet who for all purposes chooses no
Here is Fanny Howe’s contribution, in its entirety:
Years ago Edward Dahlberg gave me a list of ten book that I was allowed to read, all the rest being trash. Some of the trash included Melville, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke and Joyce. These writers have populated my bookshelves for decades. Dahlberg would have been repelled by anthologies that I own: Jerome Rothenberg’s
At the other extreme, Clayton Eshleman lists “Nine Fire Sources,” just four of which are books of poems. The others include “Tea for Two” by Bud Powell, Origin magazine, the paintings of Chaϊm Soutine, Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm and Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. Eshleman then writes twelve pages of commentary on these nine sources, making his contribution something akin to The Education of Clayton Eshleman. Tho his choices won’t be surprising to any of his readers, his discussion is the most detailed in the volume & thereby the most illuminating.
Barrett Watten’s draft of a response for a future edition of Poet’s Bookshelf on his website at
With the exception of a category Watten labels “Great Books” (four pre-20th century authors, plus the German novelists Alfred Döblin & W. G. Sebald) which Watten posits last, literally on the far side of theory, film and the visual arts, his literary selections are grouped together in six clusters at the start of his piece:
The modernists are predictable precisely because disputes over that generation, at least with regards to English language literature, appear to have been settled once Stein – who was almost entirely ignored in the 1950s & ‘60s – was returned to a central role: Joyce, Woolf, Stein, Pound, Williams, McKay, with the text selected from this group being Spring & All. That book was one of two by Williams on my own list of 12 in the first volume of this series¹ so this makes complete sense to me. My own list for this category would see Faulkner in place of Woolf or McKay, and possibly Hart Crane as well. But my real sense is that the deeper question here is the exclusivity of Watten’s focus on English-language modernism. I would almost certainly include Vladimir Maykofsky & Velimir Khlebnikov. I know there are people who would argue for Stevens or even Eliot, but I’d have to put Woolf & McKay back in, as well as a host of other writers (Brecht, Riding, Hughes, Hikmet, Cavafy, Borges, Kafka), before I’d get to Stevens. The list is a whole lot longer before I would reach Eliot.
The structure of Watten’s next five categories is worth thinking about, because it begins with one grouping, the postmoderns, who basically represent the Objectivists plus every kind of New American Poetry (NAP) other than the
Watten’s own Other, his “postmoderns,” turns out to be the three horsemen of the Projectivist movement – Olson, Duncan & Creeley – plus sort of one each of the other non-NY schools: Zukofsky (Objectivism), Ginsberg (Beat) & Joanne Kyger (both Spicer & the Zen Cowboy clusters). The book he highlights as key here is Creeley’s Pieces, also one of the twelves volumes I had on my list in the first volume. Watten gets the
Ashbery shows up again in one of the three groupings that tend to be more contemporary, one of two authors to turn up in two clusters, the other being Clark Coolidge (who also is included under “new music/jazz” for his collection Sound as Thought). Both Coolidge & Ashbery turn up in the Proto Language. The whole concept of proto language – the idea, as I understand it, of writing that “arrived at” language poetry without necessarily meaning to get there, which includes The Tennis Court Oath, Coolidge’s The Maintains, Larry Eigner’s Another Time in Fragments, Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal, Robert Grenier’s Sentences and Rae Armantrout’s first book, Extremities – is interesting to contemplate. It certainly is the case that there are a number of people – Michael Palmer, Bernadette Mayer, Jackson Mac Low, Ted Greenwald, as well as the ones Watten lists – who either have been uncomfortable with any association with langpo, so-called, or whom others have felt were “roped in” just to lend the phenomenon some legitimacy. But just as, in the 1950s, Denise Levertov had virtually nothing in common with the “Beat” writers so many of the New American Poets initially were typed as, any literary movement, if it has any force, any serious social as well as aesthetic meaning, tends to incorporate any number of such “border cases.” Is John Clellon Holmes a Beat novelist? F. T. Prince a “
So I like the concept of Proto Language, simply because it acknowledges the complexity of categories per se, tho I don’t draw the Venn diagrams of poetry in the same way as Barrett – I don’t see anything “proto” about Armantrout, Grenier or Weiner, tho I could probably be persuaded about it with regards to Coolidge, and the likes of a Palmer or Mayer strike me as a no-brainer for this category. I’m persuaded, for example, that a purely formal definition of language writing, or for that matter any literary tendency, is both ahistorical as well as apolitical. That is why, for example, Rae Armantrout strikes me as a canonic example of language writing, whereas Peter Ganick & Sheila Murphy seem entirely outside the phenomenon. It’s not a question of the value of the writing any of the three, only one of historical & social context – and not being a New Critic, I do think those enter in.
But a second question might be if one were to break contemporary poetry into just three possible tendencies to list as “most formative,” are these the ones you would pick? I realize, of course, that Watten wasn’t asked to account for the whole of poetry, only what was personally important to/for him. There’s no need for him to identify his “most influential
But I would also have to add another category for more or less contemporary foreign writing in translation. For me, that is a list that would begin with Francis Ponge (maybe even St.-John Perse & Victor Segalen), would include Ivan Zhdanov, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Alexei Parschikov & Nina Iskrenko. This would need to be paired with English-language poetry from outside the
And while I like Watten’s concept here of the hybrid text – I can see how that makes sense for Barry and his own writing – I think my own experience would be to divide that idean into one category for poet’s fiction, starting with Kerouac’s Visions of Cody and This Railroad Earth, lots of Fielding Dawson, as well as Acker, Sorrentino, Leslie Dick, Nicole Brossard, while putting the likes of Harryman & Benson back into langpo proper.
A lot of this has to do with mental maps &, as always, that is a concept that turns me back to the questionnaire Jack Spicer used for entrance into his Magic Workshop at the San Francisco Public Library fifty years ago, where he asked respondents to pick one of two templates for a map of literary influences – one vaguely genealogical, the other looking like clusters of galaxies in the night sky. Pick one and fill it in with names. My own doesn’t look like anything Spicer might have recognized, but it’s also interesting to see how different the map is from somebody of my own generation & cohort like Watten. Both Watten & Spicer, it is worth noting, made my own list of 12 books.
¹ The other being The Desert Music, the volume that literally was my introduction to the pleasures of contemporary poetry.
² This isn’t the breakdown according to Donald Allen, but what really existed.