Sunday, December 14, 2008


Photo by Erica Jane Kaufman

When in 1946 Gertrude Stein died, she did not leave behind a generation (or, perhaps more pointedly, three generations) of younger women writers who looked to her as a model of theoretically sophisticated, formally progressive poetics. The women who were writing at that time – H.D., Muriel Rukeyser, Madeline Gleason, Elizabeth Bishop – were few in number & even further apart aesthetically than they were geographically. Those who came immediately thereafter, and who were then associated with the various New American poetries, such as Denise Levertov, Diane DiPrima & Joanne Kyger, were less apt to share the interest in theory that by the 1950s had pretty much dwindled to the Projectivists Olson, Creeley & Duncan. All of these women suffered from what can only be called shabby treatment on the part of their male peers.

Coming up as a poet immediately after that was a daunting task indeed, and it’s noteworthy of just how few poets of that next generation, male or female, have gone on to create major bodies of work. Somehow Beverly Dahlen, from the very beginning, was able to figure a poetry that spoke to, but was not of, the New American poetries, any of them, proposing a writing that was thoroughly knowledgeable about the world, both the seen & the unseen, and that understood that poetry was just one in an ensemble of contemporary arts. In a town that included Robert Duncan in his purple cape & even more purple manners, she showed us that there were more ways than one to true erudition. In A Reading, she has shown a path toward the longpoem that is entirely without precedent in English – not Stein, not Duncan, not nobody. And in its proposition of an “endless writing,” Dahlen was the first to coherently articulate the difference between a life poem and merely a long one.

Beverly Dahlen has been one of my heroes, and one of my models, for as long as I have known her & her writing. I once attempted to persuade her to take over the Tenderloin Writer’s Workshop because I thought she was one of the few human beings actually capable of handling a group that, circa 1981, included heroin addicts, street psychotics, senior citizens & young writers just starting to make their way, and which required some active policing of a “no guns in class” rule. I remain persuaded that she would have flourished in that role.

She has however flourished instead as one of the great poets of our time. With her founding co-editors at HOW(ever), Kathleen Fraser, Frances Jaffer, Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Carolyn Burke, Bev Dahlen has seen to it that the next several generations of poets do not need to confront the same hard circumstances her own cohort had to overcome to stake out the grounds for a serious body of work.

And most of all, I hope for the broadest possible distribution of her poems. I think we all need to read them deeply, to immerse ourselves in them, to understand what she means – as distinct from H.D. or Kristeva or anyone else – when she engages Freud, to hear how her sense of the line & sentence embody the fullest traditions of thinking. Beverly Dahlen is a master at what she does and we can learn from it all.


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