Thursday, February 06, 2003

Unquestionably the most ironic inclusion in the new issue of Radical Society is Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian exile turned Louisiana academic & part of NPR’s decorative collection of “quaint dialect” commentators alongside the likes of Bailey White. For reasons that are understandable enough, Codrescu has always been an anti-Communist & resistant to the idea that would be shades of difference between the likes of, say, Stalin & western Marxists in general. To find Codrescu in a journal that was issued initially under the banner Socialist Revolution is itself an index of exactly how much the world has transformed in the past thirty years.

Not that Codrescu can stop himself from revisiting the past in introducing the work of Eugen Jebeleanu (1911-1991), whom he characterizes as the “epic poet” of Romania’s Communist period (1947-89). In Codrescu’s narrative, Jebeleanu started as a true believer in Soviet bloc modernism. Codrescu compares him with Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda & Yannis Ritsos, all of whom played important roles in their own national literatures. However, as the Stalinist project decayed into “folk kitsch,” Jebeleanu rebelled. In Codrescu’s words, “Jebeleanu woke up.”

The poetry we are offered in Radical Society comes from Jebeleanu’s later works, when he has become a lyric surrealist of a modern, maybe even post-modern type. Vasco Popa & Tomaž Šalamun are closer in temperament & style to the works that Mathew Zapruder has translated here (and elsewhere across the web – Zapruder has been the key to Jebeleanu’s arrival in the West) than Yevtushenko or Vosnesenski.

The poems themselves are okay but the question they raise for me is one of value with regards to the context of language & state. What does it mean to be a national figure as a poet when the nation itself consists of just 22 million people? It’s a question that bedevils any thoughtful writer, regardless of our proximity to the imperial center. Twenty-two million people is notably fewer than the number who live in Canada, which itself has only two-thirds of the population of California. The situation for any Canadian poet is in some ways more complex, given their participation in at least two larger linguistic literary traditions as well as their nearness to the heavy-handed hegemon along their Southern rim. But these broader traditions mean that a writer like Steve McCaffery, George Bowering, Michael Ondaatje or Nicole Brossard can reach & have an impact far beyond their borders without necessarily having to submit to the curiously alienating process of translation, whereas the Romanian-writing Jebeleanu was constrained by a literary community that did not exist significantly outside of his country’s own borders.

Twenty-two million certainly makes a nation if it so chooses. Romania’s population today ranks 47th among the 235 nations of the world, well ahead of Australia & Greece, though smaller than Uzbekistan or Tanzania. It’s twice the size of Pennsylvania, maybe 1½ times the size of metropolitan New York. This is precisely where questions of state & language on the one hand and the value of the local on the other flood one another. One poet becomes, in Codrescu’s formulation (for which he credits Allen Ginsberg), the “epic poet” of his nation, another is merely a New York School writer in a town that is itself wider & more diverse than that.

One Sunday last November, I posted an email from Juliana Spahr in which she argues for a diversity of literatures:

I think it is crucial that we all not be scared of the diversity of contemporary poetries. I think it is a great sign of health. I love it. I like to think, and I think it might be true even, that right now, when I am alive, right now there are more poetries or I have the possibility of reading more poetries than humans at any other time. What a huge weird world of poetries! I can't read it all. I admit it. But what a great thing.

Yet, now the note of sadness, what has happened is a peculiar myopia. I say this over and over, but one of the strangest, saddest?, things that is the result of this wealth is not that it is hard for readers, but that so few of these poetries talk to each other. So language poets and Nation language/Caribbean poets and pidgin/Bamboo Ridge poets and Scots poets and etc. all have these arguments against standard English. They are different arguments but they meet in various ways. And yet the poets so rarely meet in journals, in readings, at parties. What a lost opportunity.

Spahr’s complaint, which is completely legit, seems to me the obverse face of this same coin. For these poets to meet, to truly commingle & communicate, there has been a commons & little magazines are never that. Either they are local, if not to a region, then to an aesthetic, or else they are entirely shapeless. Neither strategy can claim to solve the problem of the minority language writer exiled within a city or state of another tongue. Neither can bring Jebeleanu’s poetry to us without the intermediation of a Mathew Zapruder (aided in Radical Society by Radu Ioanid). Writers who inhabit more than one such world – I’m thinking of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa as one example, but Edwin Torres could just as easily serve as another – never do so abstractly. They are as specific to their respective contexts, each one, as a human could be.

It’s not clear what the role of poetry will prove to be in Radical Society over time. The history of Socialist Review doesn’t necessarily auger well. The journal has had what can only be characterized as a tortured relationship to culture over the decades.* The presence of so much creative work in the first issue of the new regime is noteworthy, but so is the somewhat scatter-gun nature of its aesthetics. Hirschman’s Depestre and Codrescu’s Jebeleanu fall into the category of a late modernism of the margins. Charles Bernstein & Katha Pollitt may have attended Harvard at the same time, but they represent radically divergent poetics. & only Sikelianos offers a sample of what writing might be like by anybody under the age of 50. Samples of diverse poetics presented precisely as that comes closer to a mode of literary tourism** than it does to the commons for which Spahr & I yearn alike.

Where is Radical Society heading? We shall see.

* Thus the journal may have published Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” but it twice – several years apart – failed to accept Samuel R. Delany’s classic response to Haraway.

** Thus it strikes me -- & the Sikelianos piece I looked at yesterday is what really drove this home – as being poetry for people who don’t read poetry, that curious genre. But does that expand the audience for poetry or merely absolve these non-readers from ever having to confront all of poetry’s gloriously incommensurate difficulties?