Wednesday, January 16, 2008

 

If you give them a little time, poetry anthologies can turn into wonderful instruments for looking at the world of poetry historically, even sociologically. One that I picked up not that long ago is The New Writing in the USA, published by Penguin for the commonwealth market in 1967, and edited by Donald M. Allen & Robert Creeley. This places it seven years after the breakthrough The New American Poetry, known to everyone as the Allen anthology, two years after the Robert Kelly-Paris Leary A Controversy of Poets attempted to put on display the differences in poetics between the New Americans & the School of Quietude.

The New Writing has 33 contributors – Donald Allen’s preface makes it clear that Robert “Duncan, disenchanted with anthologies, has refused us permission” (as indeed he did also to Kelly & Leary). Of the 33, just 22 appeared in the Allen anthology seven years earlier. Among the more notable absences here of contributors to that earlier volume are Brother Antoninus, Paul Blackburn, Paul Carroll, Larry Eigner, Madeline Gleason, Kenneth Koch, Philip Lamantia, David Meltzer, Joel Oppenheimer, Peter Orlovsky, Jimmy Schuyler, & Jonathan Williams. Some of these may be all the more surprising when you consider that Richard Duerden & Ron Loewinsohn appear in both books. But less surprising, given the broader range hinted at in the title – Writing instead of Poetry – is that over half of the eleven additions new to this volume are either prose writers – such as William Burroughs, John Rechy, Michael Rumaker, Hubert Selby, Jr. & Douglas Woolf – or, in the case of Richard Brautigan, are represented solely by fiction.

Of the five new poets that show up here but not in the Allen anthology, four are younger – James Koller, Joanne Kyger, Ed Sanders & George Stanley – while the fifth is Louis Zukofsky. Of these, only Zukofsky shows up in A Controversy of Poets. In that book, each editor contributed 30 poets (the total of 59 was a consequence of Duncan’s refusal). Besides Zukofsky, some of the non-Quietist poets Kelly added to Controversy included Kelly himself, Ted Enslin, Jerry Rothenberg, Diane Wakoski, Gerrit Lansing, Georgia Lee McElhaney, Joel Oppenheimer, Rochelle Owens & Jackson Mac Low.¹ It’s a volume very much intended, at least by Kelly, to demonstrate the evolution of post-avant writing since 1960.

The differences between Kelly’s choices in 1965 & Creeley’s two years later are interesting. Kelly’s are very visibly the core poets – only David Antin & Clayton Eshleman are missing – of the journal Catepillar, which Eshleman will begin publishing in the fall of 1967. Except for Lansing, who’d already moved from a job with Columbia University Press up to Gloucester, Massachusetts, & the New York-raised McElhaney who’s bio note gives no clue where she might be living (she now resides in Shepherdstown, WV), it’s a New York-centric reading of contemporary poetry.

With the exception of Sanders, the one true Beat who was close to the Projectivist Poets (Olson’s fascination with documentation leads pretty directly to Sanders’ investigative poetry & the two shared a fetish for all things Egyptian), Creeley’s other choices are noticeably Western – two members of the Spicer Circle (Kyger & Stanley) & two who could easily be placed as New Western/Zen Cowboy poets (Koller & again Kyger), the orientation most clearly articulated by Koller’s magazine, Coyote’s Journal. Even among Creeley’s prosoid choices you see this – first in Brautigan & then Rumaker, a Black Mountain graduate who’d headed to the great gay Mecca on the Left Coast. “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard” from Brautigan’s then-in-progress novel Trout Fishing in America is an iconic instance of West Coast aesthetics.

Because the focus here is writing rather than poetry, as such, it’s interesting to see which poets are represented by prose, fictive or otherwise. Creeley’s own selection begins with the story “The Book,” and follows with two poems from Words. Ed Dorn has just one poem, tho possibly his very best ever, ”From Gloucester Out” followed by the story “1st Avenue.” LeRoi Jones’ work consists of his “Crow Jane” series of poems, followed by the play “Dutchman.” Kerouac is strictly prose. McClure has two poems followed by the essay “Suicide and Death.” Olson, whose 24 pages are exceeded only by Kerouac’s “Before The Road” with 26 (Burroughs has 23, Rumaker 21 and everyone else quite a few less), starts off with “A Human Universe,” following up with two poems.

It’s interesting to think of the fate of other forms & the New Americans generally. With the exceptions of Burroughs, Brautigan, Bobbie Louise Hawkins & Gil Sorrentino, four very different writers, the fiction of that generation isn’t easy to come by. Yet clearly, in Creeley’s eyes at least, fiction & even theory were important New American projects, as such. Less than a decade later, the language poets will get slammed by the likes of Tom Clark & Andrei Codrescu for their own interest in critical & especially theoretical writing. And langpo itself had already jettisoned fiction. Indeed, after Mabel, the last 30 years of Creeley’s life are fiction free.

What happened? For one thing, I think the market constraints on fiction as product proved infinitely stronger than those the big trade presses were able to bring to bear on poetry. The New Americans had impacts on a wide range of interesting prose writers, from Keith Abbott to Jeremy Larner to Harry Matthews to Kathy Acker, but in the advertising driven world of trade fiction even these writers have been substantially marginalized.

Olson’s death had a huge impact on critical writing, as such. While he was not the only such writer – arguably Creeley was the more important critic overall – it was Olson who goaded the likes of both Creeley & Duncan to produce theoretical work. Other than O’Hara’s wry “Personism,” nobody else among the New Americans really produced any to speak of. What they did produce, like Sorrentino’s chronicles of short reviews, were mostly critical rather than theoretical. And when the NY School poets figured out that critical writing applied to the visual arts paid money, that was all she wrote. Some, like Peter Schjeldahl, John Yau & Carter Ratcliff, would become very good at this, but only Yau has kept much of an identity as a poet.

Actually, The New Writing in the USA may have been the first anthology related to the New Americans that had to acknowledge death at all – the contributor’s notes for both O’Hara and Spicer mention their recent deaths. Kerouac, Olson & Lew Welch will all die within the next four years.²

And in some sense, it does a better job acknowledging death than it does gender. Just three of its 33 contributors – Guest, Kyger & Levertov – are female, the same dim ratio of ten to one that applied to The New American Poetry which had four women (add Gleason & Helen Adam, subtract Kyger) among its 44 poets. Of the 59 poets in Controversy, seven were female, including Guest & Levertov, but now adding McElhaney, Owens & Wakowski among the New Americans, Nancy Sullivan, Anne Sexton & Adrienne Rich among the Quietists. In getting to a ratio of not quite six to one male to female contributors, Robert Kelly shatters the ten-to-one glass binding that Leary, Allen & even Allen plus Creeley maintain.

Another thing worth noting here is the actual quality of the work. In addition to printing the best poem Ed Dorn may have written, Creeley & Allen include Ron Loewinsohn’s “Against the Silences to Come,” easily his best work to this day, Jack Spicer’s “Love Poems” from Langauge (contrast this with “Billy the Kid,” “The Book of Percival” & “The Book of Merlin” in Controversy and the early “Imaginary Elegies” in The New American Poetry), Jones’ Dutchman, plus some very interesting & atypical Allen Ginsberg, “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express, July 18, 1963” and “Kral Majales.” In part, this is just a generation of poets having grown more mature in the seven years since the Allen anthology, but it’s also Creeley’s much sharper eye (Trout Fishing in America, an excerpt from Naked Lunch) coming to bear. If they could have gotten his permission, Creeley & Allen would have printed Duncan’s “The Apprehensions” as well.

The one place they don’t seem particularly sharp is around the work of the New York school. While Creeley & Allen pick pieces from two of Ashbery’s very best books, Rivers and Mountains & The Tennis Court Oath, including “These Lacustrine Cities,” they tend to stick to the safest works there, missing “Europe” and “The Skaters,” for example, entirely. O’Hara is restricted to one lunch poem and two pieces from the Tibor de Nagy edition of Love Poems. A Controversy of Poets, which printed all of “Biotherm” – in six point type! – puts this British collection to shame. If they do a better job by Barbara Guest, it’s probably because they asked her advice – the two poems included here, “The Blue Stairs” and “The Return of the Muses,” had not previously appeared in print.

One final point – feelings about The School of Quietude. Here are the first two-plus paragraphs of the first full section of Creeley’s “Introduction”:

The forties were a hostile time for the writers here included. The colleges and universities were dominant in their insistence upon an idea of form extrinsic to the given instance. Poems were equivalent to cars insofar as many could occur of similar pattern – although each was, of course, ‘singular’. But it was this assumption of a mold, as a means that could be gained beyond the literal fact of the writing here and now, that had authority.

It is the more ironic to think of it, remembering the incredible pressure of feeling also present in these years – of all that did want ‘to be said,” of so much confusion and pain wanting statement in its own terms. But again, it is Karl Shapiro’s Essay on Rime (written in the South Pacific at a military base, ‘without access to books’, in iambic pentameter) which is successful, and Auden is the measure of competence. In contrast Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams (despite the token interest as Paterson begins to be published), Hart Crane, and especially Walt Whitman are largely disregarded

The situation of prose I remember as much the same.

The sharp partisan tone of Creeley’s writing here clearly reflects his feelings. You don’t sense – not yet, anyway – any certainty that the likes of Shapiro & Auden are destined for the dustbin of history & that the likes of Whitman & Crane will live on. Shapiro has already arrived at something approximating anonymity & the lingering fans of Auden today are like meeting Ward & June Cleaver, still in black & white, suddenly deposited by time machine into the 21st century.

At the time Creeley was writing, the stranglehold of New Criticism on English Departments still seemed endless. The fact that English Departments were themselves a relatively recent phenomenon wasn’t yet perceived. Nor, for that matter, were the inroads that opponents of the New Critics, starting with Northrop Frye, were starting to have. The simple arrogance of presumption that characterized anti-New American criticism in the 1960s – viz. Norman Podhoretz – has been replaced by a new strategy whereby SoQ poets & their critical sponsors deny the very presence of their own existence as a community. But the old institutions have largely crumbled. Anthologies like The New American Poetry, A Controversy of Poets & The New Writing in the USA all had something to do with that.

 

¹ Some Allen anthology participants who turn up in A Controversy of Poets but not The New Writing in the USA include Blackburn, Eigner, Edward Field (who may have been a Paris Leary choice), Edward Marshall & Jonathan Williams. Some who turn up in The New Writing, but not A Controversy include Duerden, Guest, Loewinsohn, Sorrentino, Welch & Whalen. The 15 poets who appear in all three books are Ashbery, Blaser, Corso, Creeley, Dorn, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Jones (Baraka), Levertov, McClure, O’Hara, Olson, Snyder, Spicer & Wieners.

² In happy contrast, just two of the 40 poets included in In the American Tree have passed in the 22 years since its publication.

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