Tuesday, November 25, 2008

 

Here’s a little thought experiment. Place the following three poets into chronological order –

A) John Ashbery

B) Clark Coolidge

C) Basil Bunting

Most readers I dare say will select the sequence C, A, B – not only replicating the order in which these poets were born, but also that of the emergence of the literary movements with which they are associated: the Objectivist Bunting (tho you may have a harder time explaining why he should be so labeled), first generation New York School icon Ashbery or Clark Coolidge, who has been associated at times with both the 2nd generation New York School and with language writing. And who am I to say that anyone is wrong here?

So let me add a little more detail to my thought experiment and run it again:

A)  John Ashbery’s River and Mountains

B)  Clark Coolidge’s Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric

C)  Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts

By now even the sleepiest reader must realize that there is some trick afoot. Let me add a few other titles: The Diaries of Anaïs Nin, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Jack Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse, George Oppen’s Discrete Series, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Louis Zukofsky’s All: The Collected Short Poems, 1956-1964.

All of these works were published in a single year, 1966, although both the Oppen & Stein were reprints of long unavailable editions.

This is a detail I pulled out of the bibliography that’s in the back of The Grand Piano, Part 7, the most recent volume in this collective interrogation into the history of the poetry scene of San Francisco during the latter half of the 1970s. We decided that it would be a good idea to simply list, in order of their year of publication, the books that were important to us, starting in 1965 and running through 1985. Nor did we just list the poetry that mattered to us. 1966 was also the year that LeRoi Jones published Home: Social Essays and Kenneth Burke brought out Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method, from UC Press.

Going through the list again Wednesday night, trying to distract myself from a too long flight from LA to Philadelphia, I thought to myself, “Hey, how about that?” seeing Ashbery, Coolidge & Bunting all bunched together like that. Rivers and Mountains is actually one of Ashbery’s early books (also one of my personal favorites) & Bunting himself has been defined by the volume Briggflatts as by nothing else in his life. But here is Clark Coolidge already tossing the onions & chard in what Robert Sward would later dismiss as “psychedelic word salad” in a review of this very book in the journal Poetry. In my mind at least, these three works fit into very different slots, which is to say that each volume has become part of a larger narrative, and that these narratives themselves are parts of a larger whole ensemble.

All of this is thoroughly imaginary, even if I fancy it as some sort of history of contemporary poetry – and I’m perfectly capable of arguing for my sense of it in reasonably strong terms, downgrading the likes of Robert Lowell, for example, or elevating (as a few correspondents tell me I have done without justification) Elizabeth Bishop from some margin of trivia. What is not imaginary, however, is the actual history of publication of any of these works. George Oppen published Discrete Series some 32 years before in an edition of maybe 300 copies. But in 1966 he was publishing for the first time in a generation and his terrific first books from San Francisco Review / New Directions had generated interest in the even earlier pre-communist poetry of the 1930s, so Ron Caplan of the Asphodel Bookshop in Cleveland brought out this reprint. Likewise Dick Higgins (one of the most underappreciated poets & publishers of the entire period) brought out Stein’s early opus, a big brick of a book at a time when all you could get of The Cantos, say, was an edition of the first 90.

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