Friday, May 28, 2010


Chris McCreary

Laurie Duggan the other day struck a chord I had not heard in a while, or perhaps more accurately the critical equivalent of a guitar string snapping mid-song:

Poets like Ron Silliman often enough claim Oppen, Niedecker, and Zukofsky at least for their own purposes. But the kind of chiselled, glyph-centred work the Objectivists produced … seems to me a long way from ‘the new sentence’.

As an alternative he points to three poets he enjoyed hearing recently in London, Michael Heller, Elaine Randell & Robert Vas Dias. I don’t know Randell’s work, but there’s no question that Heller & Vas Dias are just two of many poets who have found inspiration in the literary devices deployed by Objectivism, particularly in its earliest neo-Imagist phase. One would be hard-put to characterise Zukofsky’s “A”, Reznkoff’s As Testimony or Holocaust, Oppen’s late work, or any of the long poems written by Basil Bunting as “chiselled, glyph-centered.” Similarly, one would be hard put to characterise the earliest writing by the Objectivists as neo-Imagist if by that one included the work Zukofsky chose by Kenneth Rexroth for the Objectivist issue of Poetry, by Pound’s Cantos, H.D.’s Trilogy, Williams’ Paterson, etc. In neither instance is this question of heritage one of either/or, as if Michael Heller & I were fighting a custody battle over the right to claim the influence of Zukofsky or Oppen. Rather, I’ve always thought that it was more a matter of both/and – there are many roads that one might take from Objectivism, as indeed there are many that can be taken from Imagism as well. Had Duggan read my own contribution to the most recent Jacket, he might see that I have my own roots not so far from that same “chiseled, glyph-centered” tree. And, had he noted the work, say, of Rae Armantrout or Ted Pearson or Kit Robinson, he would have had to have acknowledge that it is something that one can find quite often associated with language poetry.¹

As do many, many others – say Robert Creeley, particularly in the work of Words & Pieces. It’s no accident that Creeley in the 1960s (when those books of his were written) was one of the poets most audibly advocating a recovery of Objectivism from the disappearance it had suffered over the previous 20 years. Tho one might say the same of Robert Duncan, a poet who shared much with Creeley in terms of an aesthetic, albeit “chiselled, glyph-centered” was not one of them. And who was himself the poet most responsible for bringing back the reputation of Hilda Doolittle. Or Larry Eigner.

The value that Duggan is identifying here is an intense focus on precision within the construction of the free verse line & stanza, and there is no question that it is one of the deep pleasures one can find in both Imagism & Objectivism, as well as in more recent work such as Heller or Vas Dias. But I would argue that this value has spread out much further than that in recent decades as well, that one should not just limit this attention to precision only to a kind of neo-Objectivism but rather recognize the broader aesthetic of precisionism that includes many otherwise different poets. Some of the New Precisionists whose work I enjoy a great deal these days includes Graham Foust, Joseph Massey & Chris McCreary. Might anyone confuse them with Objectivism, neo- or otherwise? Only carelessly. Do they read one another? I certainly hope so. As I hope they read the Objectivists, and poets like Michael Heller & Kit Robinson, Donna Stonecipher & Laura Sims. Are they in touch with one another? I have no idea. Do they constitute a movement? I think they would be the first to say no. What they do constitute, however, might just be part of a moment, one in which many writers – think of Devin Johnston or the brothers O’Leary or John Martone or Jonathan Greene, even Kay Ryan – in which what at first seems to be a poetics of minimalism exists precisely to magnify the etched qualities of precise poetics. Hence precisionism. All of this attention to the exact, occuring right now in a world of a blur, often feels like a political statement, a politics each of them shares dedicated to sharpness, to specifity. I would distinguish this from the so-called well-wrought urn of two generations ago by noting that this new generation, with few if any exceptions, explicitly rejects the glaze. It has, I suspect, less to do with craft than with ethics.

Next week, if I get the chance, I want to look at the work of Chris McCreary, who seems to me a test case because the language he deploys is the most figurative, and therefore the least “Objective.” But which, at its best, is as hard-edged as anything ever written by George Oppen.


¹ If my concern here were simply one of kvetching over Duggan’s too-narrow reading, I would argue further that the New Sentence represented an attempt to foreground some of the same values that he finds in Objectivism in the context of prose, and that the New Sentence never implied a devaluing of precision in the verse stanza at all. If anything, quite the opposite. But that’s a different, less interesting essay.


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