Saturday, June 16, 2007

 

A guide to
Chinua Achebe

Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
on Achebe

§

Today is Bloomsday!

§

Talking with
Downriver Dan
Featherston

§

Pol tries to explain
his support for
the
Long Island laureate

§

Is poetry “the news”?
Jena Osman on
the Poethics
of the Found Text

§

Bronzing the dead

§

Finally
those Boots of Spanish Leather

§

Dear Bob…

§

Writers who rock,
rockers who write

§

Ti Jean’s scroll
goes home to Lowell

On the Road
as your summer travel guide

§

Sir Salman

§

American Poets in the 21st Century:
another POV

§

Poetry and/or nationalism

§

Pierre Joris
responds to my footnote
re Poems for the Millennium
Vol 2

§

Why the Pirahã
don’t have numbers

§

The joy
of used books

§

Celebrating the 100th birthday of
Antonio Delfini
by awarding
a lifetime achievement prize
to Tom Raworth

§

a poet as much as
(or even more than)
…a novelist”

§

DieKu
is tombstone haiku

§

Another nice obit
for
Richard Rorty

Rorty’s last interview
is in the new Progressive

§

Three women poets
of the
Harlem Renaissance

§

Lee Nagrin’s
last laugh

§

A conference on
the history of
Tamil poetry

§

Beowulf
the comic

§

ePoetry 2007

§

A podcast series
of Filipino poetry

§

Celebrating the bicentennial
of John Greenleaf Whittier

§

At night Chinamen jump
&
what really happens

§

Robert Penn Warren:
fighting the Enlightenment

§

Talking with
Marilyn Shelton

§

Reading Akhmatova
in Tehran

§

Translation wins
”best novel in English”
award

§

A perfect prescription
for bad poetry:

”larger themes
with lyric intensity”

§

A changing of the guard
in Pleasanton

§

Talking with
Tony Hoagland

§

A Calder breeds dragons
in the DC ‘burbs

§

The street sculptures
of Mark Jenkins
mostly are made of
Scotch Tape

§

This list of
the 5 most beautiful
museums in America

(exteriors only)
includes a former
box factory

§

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Friday, June 15, 2007

 



Sunday
in
New York City
at
the
Zinc Bar,

90 W. Houston,
corner of LaGuardia Place,
212-477-8337

7:00 PM

Jessica Smith & Ron Silliman

Labels:



Thursday, June 14, 2007

 

In 1965, one of the most interesting and innovative anthologies of American poetry ever published appeared as, of all things, a Doubleday Anchor Original, your basic mass market paperback. A Controversy of Poets, co-edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, contained the writing of 59 then-active American poets, roughly half of them members of the School of Quietude (SoQ) (tho they didn’t call it that at the time), the rest participants in the New American Poetry (NAP). The 60th poet was supposed to have been Robert Duncan, the one writer actually selected by both editors, but he refused to appear in the same pages as members of the SoQ, since he felt their work demeaned the craft of poetry.

The selections were presented in alphabetical order, a sequence that clearly favored the New Americans, beginning as they did with Ashbery, Blackburn & Blaser. Kelly also expanded his definition of the NAP beyond the range used by Donald Allen in his anthology, including poets who had come to the fore in the five years between books, such as Jackson Mac Low, Thomas Merton, Joel Oppenheimer, Rochelle Owens, Gerrit Lansing and Theodore Enslin, as well as reaching back for one poet who was just then returning literally from oblivion, Louis Zukofsky. Zukofsky gave Kelly the last word in the book as well.

In the 42 years since, some of the SoQ poets, such as Leary himself, Gray Burr, Ralph Pomeroy, John Woods & Melvin Walker La Follette have disappeared almost entirely from view, while others (including James Dickey and Donald Finkel) really have acquired the status of neglectorinos, good, even important writers who have undeservedly been forgotten. Rich kid formalist Frederick Seidel, long before he’d become known principally as a collector of expensive motorcycles, turns up writing such breathless verse as “My slippers / Exhale lamé.” “Dayley Island,” from which those immortal words are quoted, is a dramatic monolog in the voice of an old man, tho Seidel (who’d had a book from Random House two years earlier) was all of 29 – getting his T.S. Eliot chops down must have seemed important in 1965. Reading this poem in the same volume as Zukofsky’s brilliant smackdown of Eliot, “Poem beginning ‘The’” (written before Seidel was born) is one of the real joys of this book.

On the New American side, only Georgia Lee McElhaney disappeared from sight, abandoning poetry for politics for many years before re-emerging fairly recently in Shepherdstown, West Virginia where she runs the Bookend Poets writing group.

Long before Gerald Graff began to chant “teach the conflicts,” Kelly & Leary were content to put up their favorite poets side by side & let people see what the differences might be directly. It made for passionate reading. And it didn’t hurt that at that time, this was the only readily available source of work by either Mac Low or Zukofsky, or for that matter any of Jack Spicer’s mature poetry or Frank O’Hara’s “Biotherm,” printed in what looks like 8-point type, but may even be 7. This was – still is – an exciting book.

What brings A Controversy of Poets to mind is a volume that seems to share some of the same adventurous spirit, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, edited by Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell. This book is 30 percent shorter than Controversy, 400 pages to its 570, and its poets far fewer – 13 instead of 59 – but what one sees here is the clash of aesthetics between the two American literary traditions, with Mark Levine, D.A. Powell & Karen Volkman at one extreme, Kenny Goldsmith at the other.

But where Controversy really sets up a dividing line and speaks openly of the differences, this volume just as consciously tries to move beyond the Either / Or phenomenon that has dominated American verse since at least the 1840s, presenting its authors instead as

particular but representative shadings along the continuum of contemporary poetry

My own sense is that the spectrum model is ahistorical although it may represent a desire among younger contemporary readers who may well have been brought up in college reading both traditions & just maybe think that this ongoing dispute is a tad stupid. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that some SoQ readers think Lisa Sewell got snookered into fronting for a bunch of barbarians, since the move from one end to the other gets pretty post-avant very fast. In fact, it’s worth noting who is here & in what order:

Mark Levine
Karen Volkman
D.A. Powell
Peter Gizzi
Juliana Spahr
Joshua Clover
Kevin Young
Tracie Morris
Myung Mi Kim
Stacy
Doris
Susan Wheeler
Mark Nowak
Kenneth Goldsmith

Perhaps a strict version of the spectrum would be a little different – I’d probably put Kevin Young fourth, for example, and would have had Levine third – but it’s obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the context of each poet. Each poet is also given roughly 30 pages – indeed, the individual page counts are remarkably even, there’s nobody here positioned here the way Charles Olson was in The New American Poetry, taking up 10 percent of the main texts (out of 44 poets) & 20 percent of the critical material. There is poetry, an essay about the poet, a poetic statement, plus a CD in which each of the 13 appear (in the same order as the text). This is a model that Rankine and Spahr followed in their earlier American Women Poets in the 21st Century, also from Wesleyan, although that volume divided up 420 pages among just ten contributors and had no CD. As a presentation, this is impeccable. Contrasted with the jumble that is Saints of Hysteria – Powell and Wheeler are in both books – this is a powerful, intelligent production that makes me happy just to have it, even if – or even as – I don’t agree with all of its choices.

For choice, I think, is one of the book’s two serious questions. If you had to reduce all of contemporary American poetry to just 13 individuals, even narrowing the list some with that “21st Century” frame (weeding out, presumably, us old farts who made our bones way back when) whom would you choose? Three or four of the names on the list here seem plausible to me, but I have a hard time – no, impossible, I find it impossible – envisioning a list that small that does not have Linh Dinh on it. And I will admit that I think that the obvious stars among the younger “mainstream” poets have to include Alice Jones & Daisy Fried. I would have much sooner selected co-editor Lisa Sewell for one of the SoQ slots in this book than the folks she & Rankine chose.

But I think every reader is going to feel likewise, tho the names that may come up for them will differ. The minute I start thinking of who else I might select, I very quickly go way beyond 13 possibilities – I can get to over 100 in less than ten minutes without even thinking hard. There is a real issue here in presenting contemporary American poetry in so very few slices. You can’t even represent each major literary tendency and/or community with so few choices. Let alone make some kind of presentation of “representative shadings along the continuum.”

This is where the other problem, which is representing a phenomenon that is never just about who’s the better poet, but also carries within itself all of the social history of American writing, including the 160-year-old conflict between the School of Quietude & a broader, more experimental tradition – once they were called the Knickerbockers & Young Americans – in any kind of intelligible & useful form. A Controversy of Poets did a better job here for two reasons: it included more poets, which enabled both sides to show much greater diversity, and it didn’t superimpose what I suspect is a false model – “a continuum” – over something that is more complex.

Remember, when the New Americans were just getting started in the late 1940s, America was a nation of 150 million people, with an annual total of 8,000 book titles per year of all types and something under 200 publishing poets who were active enough to generate books. Today, the United States has twice as many people, but is now publishing, according to Bowker, over 290,000 book titles per year, of which some 4,000 titles alone are poetry. There must be somewhere between ten and twelve thousand publishing poets in the U.S. today in contrast with 200 fifty years ago. When Donald Allen presented The New American Poetry in 1960, his 44 poets represented at least one-third and perhaps half of all the poets in the tradition he was trying to capture. To do the same today would require a book with several thousand contributors. In the 1940s, there was one publishing poet for every 750,000 Americans. Today, there is one for every 25,000.

That is the origin of all “the culture is failing” predictions from one group of people who want, above all else, a predictable mass that they can control critically, using the same old tools & devices as were used in 1950 or for that matter 1850. And it explains also why there should be so many more poets now even as poetry itself seems less and less of a “popular” activity. How an individual poet constructs an audience, let alone a career, is fundamentally different today.

This is what Rankine & Sewell are up against. Frankly there is no way to do this with just 13 poets. I would be totally impressed by an effort that tried to do so with 130 if it were half as intelligently put together as this volume. So I think the editors here have given themselves an impossible challenge. But what they have given us is something very good indeed. These are not necessarily the 13 poets you might want to enshrine, but if you find that you have a serious interest in any one of them, then American Poets in the 21st Century really is an indispensable book.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

 

Merwin or McKuen,
you decide

And even more

(I always thought
Rod was better
than that)

§

Ousmane Sembène,
the great African filmmaker
& novelist,
has died

§

Lee Nagrin
has died

§

Richard Rorty
has died

Habermas on Rorty

§

Outsourcing journalism:
the next fun fad?

§

Why arts coverage
in daily papers
matters

§

Nicholas Kristof’s
Iraq Poetry Contest

§

Sheila E. Murphy
interviewing
Peter Ganick

§

Deep Oakland

§

More on the laureate’s revolt
of
Long Island

§

Children’s laureate’s
radical idea –
books!

§

Remix theory

§

Copyright as code

§

This year’s
Pew Fellows

§

Voldemort’s revenge

§

Greg Djanikian’s
latest book

The “Armenian Reznikoff”
is that rarest of creatures,
a poet who went to my high school

§

Things fall apart,
but the Booker Prize
goes to
Chinua Achebe

§

The god of poetry

§

Do excerpts sell books?

§

“Our state's libraries'
greatest patron
since Andrew Carnegie.”

§

ease
awes

§

Andrew Keen
wants to be the next
Hilton Kramer
but it won’t work

§

Lit bloggers
are generally pissed-off

(What is it Sartre says
about the political value
of resentment?)

§

as necessary as toast

§

Maria Mazziotti Gillan.
executive director
of the
Poetry Center
at
Passaic County Community College,
Paterson, NJ

§

Evicting small presses
from Richard Hugo House

§

The AA Independent Press Guide

(AA in this instance
refers to
Acid Angel)

§

Talking with
Farideh Hassanzadeh

§

Poetry &/or patriotism
in Iran

§

Concerning Martin Amis
declaration
that poetry is in decline

(maybe he means
his kind of poetry)

§

Remembering William Meredith

§

Haiku,
honku,
health

§

Discovering a new poet,
Wallace Stevens

§

Turkish
vispo

& more

§

When bad things
happen to good people,
the Bureau of Prisons
bans books

§

The Rupert Brooke market
deflates

§

Fiction software tools

§

Reviving Leonard Michaels
(one of the great
writers
of short fiction)

§

Billy Collins’
editor
departs

§

Art in the outback

§

Immigration
as
performance

§

Truth, advertising,
art poop

§

Dishing it out
but not taking it

§

Monument
to
Sol Lewitt

§

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

 

A great idea badly executed can be much worse than a bad idea.

My evidence for this assertion is Michael Benedikt’s anthology, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, published as a mass market paperback, a Laurel Original, in 1976. When I first saw the little blue book, I bought it instantly, thinking At last! But when I got to the French section and saw that there was no Victor Segalen, no St.-John Perse, no Marcelin Pleynet, no Jacques Roubaud, my heart sank. Then I got, not quite at the very end, to the American section, which includes only the following:

Kenneth Patchen
Karl Shapiro
David Ignatow
Robert Bly
James Wright
W.S. Merwin
Anne Sexton
Russell Edson
Michael Benedikt
Jack Anderson
James Tate

No Gertrude Stein, no William Carlos Williams, no Robert Duncan, no Robert Creeley, no John Ashbery, no Ron Padgett, not one of the language poets. It was a debacle, a book that appeared to have been edited in the worst of faith, a deliberate falsification of the record. The British selection, containing only Peter Redgrove & Cecil Helman, was, if anything, worse. I felt nauseated & furious all at once. I realized two things almost instantly. One was that this volume, issued in a mass market trade format, was going to crowd out the marketplace for a truly comprehensive volume. The second was that a book this self-consciously false wasn’t going to do all that well. It would seem I was right on both counts. The Prose Poem appears never to have been reprinted – you can’t even find used copies on AddAll or BooksPrice, perhaps because the trade format used such cheap materials that even my own copy has to be held together now with a rubber band, its pages so acidic they’re almost smoldering their way to the illegible.

And to this date, there has never been a comprehensive anthology of the form. This one little terrible book both crowded out & poisoned the market.

Later, I did meet Michael Benedikt once and he wasn’t the cynical sharpie I’d envisioned from this project at all. If anything, he seemed a well-intentioned if somewhat bumbling sort of guy. I wondered later just how much of the disaster that was The Prose Poem was literally his lack of knowledge of the materials. Could he really not have known about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, John Ashbery’s Three Poems, William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell, or Robert Creeley’s Presences? Or did he just lack the intellectual courage to step outside the confines of Robert Bly’s infinitesimal notion of what constituted a prose poem? Was he an active agent of the School of Quietude’s compulsive distortion of the record – his anthology certainly was – or merely its victim? He’s gone now, so I’ll never know.

I’d forgotten that whole deep sick-to-my-stomach feeling of a book that should be a great event but turns out just to be a mess until I acquired Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, co-edited by Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton & David Trinidad, just released by Soft Skull Press. It’s a disaster, not on the scale of The Prose Poem, but a disaster nonetheless. If The Prose Poem warrants an F, Saints of Hysteria is more of a D+ affair. It’s not a malevolent book, but more in the tradition of Doug Messerli’s Language Poetries or Eliot Weinberger’s American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, or, for that matter, Donald Allen’s attempt to “update” The New American Poetry, The Postmoderns, all of them examples of how you can make a bad book using only good poetry. That, for the most part, is the story here too.

Called by its publisher “first definitive collection of American collaborative poetry,” it’s anything but definitive. This volume is functionally incompetent as a historical record of the genre, and tho that may be the greatest of its sins, it’s not its biggest problem as a book. The three editors missed large swaths of collaborative work, yes, particularly among the language poets, the Actualists and among contemporary writers, but the volume’s largest hurdle – the one that makes it essentially unreadable as a book and unusable as a classroom text – is that it’s presented incoherently. With over 200 poets spread out over less than 400 pages, there is no index of authors anywhere save for an alphabetical list that mercifully takes up the rear cover. Presenting the material in what the editors claim is a “loose chronological order,” they’ve dated absolutely nothing. Allen Ginsberg turns up on page 3 alongside Neal Cassady & Jack Kerouac, then not again until page 59 when he collaborates with Kenneth Koch, then on page 75 with Ron Padgett, then on page 102 when he and Bob Rosenthal are working with an entire MFA class from Brooklyn College, then literally on the next page where he turns up with Lita Hornick & Peter Orlovsky. Hornick turns up again on the next page collaborating with Ron Padgett – it’s his first appearance since the Ginsberg collab & fourth in the book overall. An author’s index and end notes after each text listing any other pages each author appears on would have gone a long way toward making this book usable, but its present format renders it unintelligible. There are some interesting combinations here, but you’re on your own trying to find them. The occasional “process notes” serve to clutter, rather than clarify, what is already a mess. They should have been given their own separate section.

That overstatement from the book’s publisher that I quoted above continues, as follows: “ranging through the New York School, the Beats, Language poetry, to the present.” But when I search out the area I know best, langpo, I can find only three of the forty contributors to In the American Tree: Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer & Bernadette Mayer. And Bernadette appears here for her work with other NY School poets. Considering that language poetry uses collaborative methods so extensively that the process was used to call language poets “Stalinists” in venues from the Partisan Review to the San Francisco Chronicle, I’m startled not to find any excerpt from Legend, the first booklength collaborative poem in America outside of the New York School. Not only is it not present, not one of its five authors turn up anywhere. No Bruce Andrews, no Charles Bernstein? None of Ray DiPalma’s work with Paul Vangelisti? Rae Armantrout is another poet whom this anthology disappears – her poem “Engines” is a collaboration with yours truly (making her technically a co-author of The Alphabet). Also missing is any evidence of Hejinian’s booklength collaboration with Carla Harryman. The same is true for the extensive collaborations done by Alan Bernheimer & Kit Robinson. And there’s no evidence here of any collaborative work by Steve Benson. This book includes just enough to say that it’s not overtly excluding langpo, but the reality is that if it had thought even halfway seriously (and one percent politically) about this volume’s content, it would have recognized that language poetry’s use of collaborative tools is often quite different from the NY School standard that is dominant here, and that it would have been interesting, even important to explore those tensions. But there’s no way to even glimpse that from this volume.

Contemporary flarfists will I think have an almost identical complaint, tho with some different names (the token inclusion is Rod Smith). All forms of conceptual poetics are missing, such as the work Hannah Weiner did with John Perrault. Save for Keith Abbott & Pat Nolan, the Actualists – another Berrigan-inflected literary community of the 1970s – is completely absent. No Darrell Gray, no G. P. Skratz, no Dave Morice. It’s bizarre. No sign of Michael Lally anywhere. Is it really true that neither Jena Osman or Juliana Spahr have ever written collaborations? Sheila E. Murphy or Miekal And? Susan Schultz or Maria Damon? If they have, you can’t find out about it here. The editors have been careful enough to include smatterings of Robert Bly, Marilyn Hacker, Jim Harrison, Jane Miller, Reginald Shepherd, but it’s tokenism and easily identifiable as such. The result is that an unfamiliar or uneducated reader will come away from this book confirmed in the belief that the history of collaboration can be read as radiating outward from the writing of the three primary poets who dominate this volume and presumably the last half century of American poetry: Ted Berrigan, Joanna Fuhrman and David Lehman. That certainly is an interesting & curious history. I’m only buying one third of it.

So far as I can tell the title of this book must refer to its editors, given that what they have offered us is maybe half of an unedited manuscript. Actually, the cutesiness of the title is a way of deflecting attention from the actual proposition of the book – it’s a confession on the part of the editors that they know this book isn’t what it claims to be. The editors all have, or had until now, good reputations as poets & people. I can’t imagine why they didn’t do their homework, but it’s so manifestly absent throughout this misbegotten venture that this book easily is the disappointment of the year. Plus, as the example of the Michael Benedikt anthology demonstrates, what Saints of Hysteria means above all else is that we’re not likely to have a comprehensive or competent collection of American collaborative poetry for another thirty years at least. That’s tragic.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

 


Donald Allen

There’s no such thing as a perfect anthology. For one thing, the form is too complex, carrying as it must a world of social dynamics & implications on top of all the “usual” literary ones. For another, editors – all editors – are simply human & prone to all which that implies.

Case in point: Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry , unquestionably the most influential single anthology of the last century. It’s a great book, an epoch-making one in many ways. If you didn’t live anywhere near a location that might carry the small press books of the 1950s & early ‘60s, the Allen anthology was the place where you got to hear what all the fuss was about with the Beatniks, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets & so forth. I still keep my copy of the Grove Press edition right next to the more recent UC Press re-issue. My wife still keeps her copy of the Grove Press edition in one of her bookcases upstairs.

But it’s by no means a perfect book. Only four of its 44 contributors are women & 43 of the poets are white. It would have been a stronger book, and done a better job connecting back to the traditions from which this poetry arose if it had included the work of Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Lorine Niedecker or George Oppen, all of whom were active when the first edition appeared in 1960. One could even argue that it might have been a stronger book had it included William Carlos Williams, H.D. or even Ezra Pound, all of whom were still alive in 1960. In the afterword that has been added to the UC Press edition, Allen himself suggests that this is very much the kind of anthology he himself first envisioned:

I visualized leading off with recent work by William Carlos Williams, H.D., e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, to be followed by a few poems by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Louis Zukofsky, and then a larger selection of poems by twenty-four of the “new” poets.

According to Allen, it was Charles Olson who balked at this lineup, emphasizing as it did continuity rather than change. A little selective amnesia, omitting rather than incorporating these literary elders, gave the final product a much more radical air than it might otherwise have had. And I suppose that it didn’t hurt that the book leads off with a new version of the Grand Old Man than, say, Pound or Williams, Olson himself taking up the first 38 of the edition’s 386 pages given over to verse (another 70 are allocated to statements of poetics and bio notes, with Olson taking up 20 percent of that).

Where there are exceptions to this prohibition against an “older” aesthetics, every one is in the San Francisco Renaissance section of the book, the second of the volume’s five groupings. Helen Adam, James Broughton, Brother Antoninus & Madeline Gleason all extend out of a tradition that extends more directly from Pound’s old employer, William Butler Yeats. With the plausible exception of Antoninus (William Everson), a Dominican monk whose poetry owes a great debt to Robinson Jeffers, the others were all also confidants of Allen’s closest advisor on this anthology, Robert Duncan. If, as has sometimes been argued, the Allen anthology’s neglect of women can be traced at least partly back to Duncan, it’s worth noting that two of the book’s four female poets fall under this category & that a third, Denise Levertov, was Duncan’s closest female correspondent of all. Without Duncan’s influence, it’s conceivable that the Allen anthology would have been 39 guys and Barbara Guest.¹ But one wouldn’t have had to change the aesthetics or reach of the anthology in the slightest to have included, say, Diane DiPrima, Hettie Jones, Bunny Lang, Mary Fabilli or Lita Hornick. You could have tripled the presence of poets of color by adding Bob Kaufman & Steve Jonas. And you could have had a parallel to the West Coast “exceptions” out of New York if you wanted to be completely fair: Edwin Denby, F.T. Prince, David Schubert.

But this was not the only perceptible omission the Allen anthology made. Notably missing are non- or anti-academic poets who don’t come directly out of the Pound-Williams tradition, including Bern Porter, Bob Brown, Jackson Mac Low & Jerome Rothenberg.² If anything, these poets would have given Allen’s collection a more revolutionary feel than it eventually had. But there were also poets whose writing owed a heavy debt to William Carlos Williams, in particular, but who didn’t share in the vaguely Beat counter-culture that was the unspoken common ground for all the poets in the Allen, such as David Ignatow and Harvey Shapiro, whose absence I suspect drove a wedge between camps. Ignatow, Shapiro & Rexroth are all poets who could easily have been in the Allen who were later taken up as influences by more conservative writers who treat them as integral to a less Anglophiliac, less formalist variant of the School of Quietude. One can only imagine what poets like Phil Levine or journals like the American Poetry Review might have become had they seen the likes of Rexroth et al as part & parcel of the New American Poetry & thus understood their own history differently.

The New American Poetry also didn’t do a great job with its inclusion of younger poets. The two “babies” in the gathering, Ron Loewinsohn & David Meltzer, both turn 70 this year, having had very different careers. Meltzer stayed true to his neo-Beat roots & his recent selected poems, David’s Copy, demonstrates that the Meltzer of the Allen anthology was a solid & worthy selection. However at 23, Loewinsohn was still very much the perfect imitator of William Carlos Williams & not yet much more, a fact that let to considerable derision among his peers that was quite evident on the scene when I first came into it five years later. As Loewinsohn grew up as a poet, his own aesthetic evolved in a more narrative direction, eventually yielding one legit small masterpiece, Against the Silences to Come, a couple of decently sized collections, the most recent of which, Goat Dances, came out in 1976. Having gotten into Harvard after a fairly rough time as a Beat (he & Richard Brautigan were roommates for a time in an automobile), Loewinsohn published two novels, got tenure at Berkeley, and to my knowledge hasn’t published a book now in 20 years. Allen could have done much better by focusing more attention instead on the Spicer Circle (Joanne Kyger, George Stanley, even Harold Dull), some of the younger New York poets (Kathleen Fraser, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett) or looking away altogether from the “scenes” to writers like Besmilr Brigham, James L. Weil or Judson Crews.

One could make similar arguments concerning the problematic inclusion of at least six & conceivably as many as ten of the 44 contributors to the Allen anthology. Realistically, tho, one could make a case for the inclusion of every poet there, even Bruce Boyd. A more important question, tho, has to do with the book’s structure. Allen’s decision to divide his collection into “groups” was controversial enough at the time, but I think it had a lot to do with the book’s power & influence. By separating out different modes of the new poetry, Allen made the reading experience of unfamiliar work much easier for readers far from either literary center in the U.S. In essence, this strategy tells you not only who to read, but how to read them. Not devoting a section to Boston, for example, was every bit as important as devoting one to San Francisco, even if the so-called S.F. “Renaissance” is largely a fiction of this volume, one rendered even less intelligible by Allen’s decision to put Duncan – the archetypal San Francisco poet – into the Black Mountain section, as well placing Philip Whalen, Michael McClure & Loewinsohn into the final “independents” grouping.

In addition, there’s an implicit hierarchy of sections that goes well beyond the disproportionate number of pages given to Charles Olson. The hierarchy is: (1) Black Mountain, (2) San Francisco, (3) Beats, (4) New York School & (5) independents. This certainly downgrades the New York poets unfairly, and it misses the already emerging New Western poetry (now sometimes called ecopoetics) that Allen could have acknowledged by placing “SF Renaissance” poet Lew Welch (whose poems in the issue are entirely from his “Chicago period”) alongside Welch's Reed College roomies, Whalen & Snyder, perhaps adding “Black Mountain” poet Ed Dorn. That may have required more forward thinking analysis than anyone could have done at the time, but by the start of Coyote’s Journal by the middle of the next decade & the rise of other New Western poets like James Koller, Bill Deemer, Drum Hadley, John Oliver Simon & Keith Wilson, it was a joining together just waiting to be put on paper. The absence of the New Westerns from the Allen anthology has a lot to do with the ongoing neglect of this writing here nearly a half century later.

But for all of these warts, the Allen anthology is still unquestionably a great book, and it makes sense that it should be the most influential collection of the latter half of – indeed of any point in – the 20th century. Again, Allen himself notes how, in the 1950s,

Oscar Williams’ frequent collections of verse had given contemporary anthologies a bad name.

Which is surely true to my memory of the time (tho I first read Frank O’Hara in one of Williams’ gatherings when I was in high school before I ever saw the Allen). Anthologies like that were pitched, as are those today by Garrison Keillor, Caroline Kennedy & Billy Collins, at people who don’t read poetry & who may well find the simplest piece by Robert Creeley too taxing, too threatening for their noggins. Such readers desire a poetry without questions or ambiguity, which is like weightlifting without weights.

So Allen not only changed poetry, in making all this newfangled stuff widely available, he rehabilitated the genre of the anthology itself. That’s a tremendous achievement. Which is why I want to keep its limitations in mind later this week as I look at a series of new anthologies that have arrived on my desk (or, more accurately, on the floor next to it) over the past few weeks.

 

¹ Gertrude Stein’s absence from Allen’s original roster is attributable to her death 14 years before, but it definitely narrows the poetic range of what he was proposing.

² Thus one might read the debacle of Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 2, which embarrassingly under-represents the New American Poetry and its participants, as simply a matter of “payback” several decades later.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

 

My little informal poll on Friday looked like the sort of election Fidel Castro would love – the Ayes got over 97 percent of the vote, including nearly as many emails as there were remarks in the comments stream. So I guess that answers that.

I should note, since a couple of people drew the wrong conclusion, that there’s no fixed correlation between what I eventually review and the Recently Received list other than that I don’t see the point of putting something on the list if I’ve just actually reviewed it. I decide what I’m going to write about based on whatever I’m thinking about, pondering, at the time. The Gil Ott book I reviewed last Monday is 11 years old. It can take awhile.

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