Saturday, April 05, 2003


Robert Duncan began publishing poetry when he was just out of his teens in 1939. Yet during the last twenty-five years of his life – not to mention the 15 years since his death – the primary poetry that people were permitted to see was largely restricted to writing that began in the late 1950s with The Opening of the Field. That book, Roots and Branches and Bending the Bow were the trio of volumes that were widely available during most of the last period of his life as he abstained from publishing a book of new poetry for 15 years after Bow.


Perhaps most tellingly, Duncan did not permit Lawrence Ferlinghetti to keep his 1959 Selected Poems, published as the tenth volume of the City Lights Pocket Poets series, in print at a time when Ferlinghetti was very diligently doing just that. Duncan, who was notoriously fussy & not always wise about his volumes – his insistence on a typewriter font for Ground Work: Before the War, published in 1984, prevented that book from being anywhere nearly as influential as the three volumes of the 1960s – is almost certainly to blame for the City Lights Selected going out of print.


That volume had incorporated his poetry – or at least those portions he felt best about – written between 1942 and 1950. In 1966, when the Selected was already impossible to find, Duncan permitted Oyez, Graham Mackintosh’s press in Berkeley, to issue The Years As Catches, a more complete gathering of his earliest work, from 1939 through 1946. Framed very much as juvenilia – the subtitle is First Poems (1936-1946), Catches was reprinted in 1977. Jonathon Williams’ Jargon Press published a small edition of Letters, Duncan’s poetry immediately preceding the work of The Opening of the Field, in 1958. A Book of Resemblances: Poems 1950-1953, was published in an even more fugitive fine press edition – in Duncan’s handwriting – in 1966, with just 200 copies printed. Duncan’s early work became somewhat more available when Fulcrum, a small press in Britain, published Derivations, capturing the writing between 1950 & ’56, and First Decade: Selected Poems 1940-1950. But Fulcrum was never widely distributed in the United States.


Thus it has always seemed evident to me that Duncan saw The Opening of the Field as representing the true start of his mature writing. How Duncan arrived at this writing, what influences entered in, & in which order, has always intrigued me. Reading in The H.D. Book the other day – I was literally having dinner at the Country Kitchen in the Molly Pitcher service center on the New Jersey Turnpike, returning from a conference in Palisades, NY – I came across Duncan’s own account of the major influences during the fateful 1940s & realized that it was, in Duncan’s mind at least, the poetry of war that led him to the kind of writing that emerge in The Field and his later books.


Duncan accounts for it as the confluence of two events. One, his introduction to Charles Olson & Robert Creeley, is well known. The second Duncan characterizes as the recognition of the common elements of three works by his elders – Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and H.D.’s wartime trilogy, especially its final volume, The Flowering of the Rod. Duncan describes his relationship to the latter:


For a new generation of young writers in the early 50s, the Pisan Cantos and then Paterson had been the challenge. But for me, the War Trilogy of H.D. came earlier, for searching out those first vatic poems of Edith Sitwell that Kenneth Rexroth had shown me in Life and Letters Today I had come across H.D.’s passages from The Walls Do Not Fall. Then came “Writing on the Wall” and “Good Frend”. When the third volume of the Trilogy, The Flowering of the Rod, was published in 1946 I had found my book.


Sitwell, whose work Duncan had been seeking when he came across H.D., “was inspired to write in the prophetic mode of high poetry” by the Second World War. Beyond her & this trio of long poems by Pound, Williams & H.D., Duncan sees the scene of the 1940s as very bleak. There is “one lonely ghost light of poetry” in Hart Crane’s The Bridge and “one lonely acolyte of poetry” in Louis Zukofsky, “wrapped in the cocoon of an ‘objectivism’ . . . “a zaddik* hidden in a thicket of theory.”


These three — Pound, Williams, and H.D. — belonged in their youth to a brilliant, still brilliant generation that began writing just before the First World War . . . . They alone of their generation — and we must add D.H. Lawrence to their company — saw literature as a text of the soul in its search for fulfillment in life and took the imagination as a primary instinctual authority. The generative imagination Pound called it.


Against these musketeers, Duncan contrasts Stevens, Eliot and Marianne Moore, who “remain within the rational imagination and do not suffer from the creative disorders of primitive mind.”


As if “in London, in Pisa, in Paterson, there had been phases of the same revelation,” Duncan unites these three works in an algorithm by which war leads to transcendent insight. While H.D.’s surviving the bombing of London & Pound’s imprisonment in the cages at Pisa were, for each, defining experiences,** Williams in this regard seems to me a definite stretch. While the war is evident in the background for Williams, I’ve never thought of Paterson as a “war poem.” Yet Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-12, which at times seems almost an homage to Paterson, most definitely is. Perhaps one needed to be closer to the events at hand for this to be evident, or possibly I’m just sans clue.


None of Duncan’s poets were kids during WW2. As he notes, H.D. was 58 in 1944, the year she finished the trilogy, Pound 59, Williams 62. Although he doesn’t argue it as cogently as he might have, the premise behind Duncan’s claim for these three poets & poems is not merely that they had embraced the Romantic “Poet as Hero,” nor that they had opened themselves to influences of the irrational as part of their poetic processes, but also – and you can see why this resonates with me – that they were mature, mid-career (late mid-career at that) artists whose fundamental assumptions about the world & their art were challenged by the events of the war. The war, Duncan implies, proved a crucible in which each had to define their work anew under difficult circumstances. Pound’s situation was the most dire – he was housed literally in a cage out of doors; other prisoners were routinely being sent before the firing squad. But, of the three, it is noteworthy that Duncan looks first to H.D.


From the beginning then, certainly from 1947 or 1948 when I was working on Medieval Scenes and taking H.D. as my master there among the other masters, there was the War Trilogy. In smoky rooms in Berkeley, in painters’ studios in San Francisco, I read these works aloud; dreamed about them; took my life in them; studied them as my anatomy of what Poetry must be.


The Pisan Cantos represent a disordered mind confronting the wreckage of its presumptions – it’s less of a construction than a record. Its closest literary kin isn’t the work of Dante or Browning, but rather that of Hannah Weiner. Paterson, for all of Duncan’s claims, makes far less use of the intuitive, the “generative imagination,” than did Kora or Spring & All, written two decades earlier. So it is H.D., the esoteric, Freud’s analysand, a gay woman, who truly fits Duncan’s model. Which why this masterwork of plotless prose is called, out of all possibilities, The H.D. Book.







* Hebrew for miracle worker, leader, or pious man – it’s the same term that, as tzadik, John Zorn uses for his record label. Note that, especially as the H.D. Book was written a decade before Duncan began to attack langpo for its own “thicket of theory,” particularly when applied to Zukofsky, Duncan is charging LZ with the same offense!


** Between the bombing of Baghdad & the 600 plus prisoners in cages at Guantanamo, the parallels between the Second World War and the present are more than incidental.

Friday, April 04, 2003


Worse I fear by far than this obscene war – just yesterday the world was treated to hearing a mother’s tale of seeing her two daughters, ages 15 & 12, decapitated by U.S. firepower as it ripped through their vehicle that failed to heed what may have been an unclear warning to stop at a “U.S. checkpoint” – will be the “peace” that follows.


The words of Constantine Cavafy’s famous 1904 poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” have been ringing in my ears a lot these past few months, especially its final lines:


Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.
Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.


The presence of “barbarians” during the long Cold War were indeed a kind of solution. I think we are only now beginning to understand what we lost when the old Soviet Union collapsed, driven into bankruptcy through military overspending, internal corruption & its lack of democracy. We no longer have any check on the power of the American state, no countervailing force whatsoever, so we are going to see just how completely absolute power corrupts. It’s an awesome & terrifying prospect.


Consider the present circumstances:


§         We have an unelected president whose appointment came at the hands of a Supreme Court whose crucial “black seat” was itself gained a few years back through perjury. Bush’s appointment could not have occurred without the electoral vandalism of the Green Party.

§         The Republicans control both houses of Congress and the Democratic Party, for the most part, seems incapable of standing up to Bush: three of the “major” senatorial candidates for the presidential nomination, Kerry, Lieberman & Edwards, all support the U.S. invasion.

§         The authority of the United Nations, an institution designed in large part by the U.S. & whose Security Council rules are largely fixed so that the victors of World War II continue, nearly 60 years after the fact, to have a veto over all major policy, has been seriously eroded, perhaps permanently.

§         U.S. relations with other nations, from the members of NATO to the members of OPEC, are seriously strained.

§         The sitting attorney general is a man openly hostile to the Bill of Rights.

§         Over 600 prisoners from the war in Afghanistan are being held in Guantanamo precisely as a means of keeping them away from any of the legal protections that might – only might – be afforded them under either federal law or the Geneva Convention. At least another 44 people are being held largely incommunicado as “material witnesses” in the United States.

§         The Republican Congress has curtailed a woman’s right to control her own body – a decision to knowingly kill some women.

§         The Supreme Court is weighing the issue of overturning any form of affirmative action & is considering whether or not to overturn the Miranda decision’s protections against self-incrimination.

§         And Admiral Poindexter wants to read your email.

The list of outrages is rather endless – and there is a serious possibility that before too terribly long we may look back on this as the “good old days.”


The best explication of U.S. foreign policy that I’ve read to date is Joseph Cirincione’s “Origins of Regime Change in Iraq,” a report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It suggests that what we all fear – that Iraq is simply the first in what is apt to become a chain of U.S. “interventions” as it seeks to remake the world to its liking – is in fact the underlying dynamic behind this war. Cirincione, a one-time congressional aide to Tom Ridge & no leftist, identifies the origin of U.S. policy in the dissatisfaction of some neocons in the first Bush administration, most notably Paul Wolfowitz, then under-secretary of defense for policy, with the outcome of the 1991 Iraq war. In 1992, Wolfowitz redrafted a 46 page classified policy paper on U.S. priorities entitled “Defense Planning Guidance.” DPG as the document is known is the mission or values statement for the Defense Department & a version still exists today. In 1992, at the tail end of the first Bush administration, Wolfowitz penned a draft that:


§         Argued that the world’s last remaining superpower needed to exercise its unique geopolitical advantages for its own interest

§         Claimed that the U.S. had a right to act internationally in a unilateral fashion – a position largely foreign to the first 42 presidents

§         Called for addressing specific threats, mentioning both Iraq and North Korea

§         Sought to ensure, as a major goal, “access to vital raw material, primarily Persian Gulf oil”

This last point headed a list of key sources of potential conflict, even before the presence of “weapons of mass destruction.” When the New York Times & Washington Post reported the radical nature of the Wolfowitz draft, the White House ordered then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to rewrite the document.


The Wolfowitz DPG precedes by eight years the report by the Project for a New American Century, entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which has sometimes been described as evidence that the plan to “finish what we started” in Iraq was not a consequence of the September 11th attacks nor related to the so-called War on Terror. However, even if the attack on the Pentagon & World Trade Center was the “trigger event” that caused the old DPG to be put into action, it has little more to do with the plan itself than does Bush’s argument, one of several briefly advanced then later abandoned in the run-up to the invasion, that the United States was threatening war in order to protect the integrity of the United Nations.


If Cirincione is correct, the question is not whether the United States will proceed to attack Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba or any other nation that stands in its way, but rather when, at what pace & in which order. It is a foreign policy not without precedent in the history of the world – the major difference between, say, Germany’s attempt at global domination in the 1940s and this latest effort at empire was Germany’s presumption that it needed to conquer everything all at once. The Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld-Bush version of this same fantasy is methodologically more patient, cherry picking regional “bad guys” (Hussein is a perfect choice, having alienated himself from his neighbors), establishing a “presence” from which to govern while turning the local administration over to a client regime.


Historically, every attempt at empire has eventually failed. The costs, both economically & in human terms, are too high. The “governed,” as France, Germany & others have already demonstrated, refuse to give consent. This process can still be slowed, if not entirely reversed, simply by electing almost anyone else to the presidency in 2004. But if the people of the United States do not put a halt to this process, the fate of far more than just this nation appears grim indeed.

Thursday, April 03, 2003


The poem tells a simple enough story, one with which virtually anyone who has visited Russia over the past 15 years will identify. A man is walking down a Moscow Street when he sees a group of young men approaching, “apparently drunk, shouting a song.” His immediate response – to run – is thwarted by the logistics of the situation. Then he realizes that this is not a gang of skinheads who are about to beat him unconscious (or worse) precisely because they are singing in Yiddish. The recognition transforms the event itself as well as the broader set of implications & questions for the speaker. These young men, he imagines, are likely not to stay in Russia, but to move elsewhere – Israel, the U.S., Western Europe – leaving the streets of that nation to precisely the kinds of drunken young thugs the speaker fears most, those for whom there are no alternatives. The poem ends with a lengthy plea to the young people of Russia who might best represent its future to not abandon the country.


The title of the poem is “The Wasteland (A Translation)” & I found it over the weekend in At Andy’s, George Stanley’s book of poems from the late 1990s published by New Star Books. In spite of its title, I read the poem initially as a text of George Stanley’s, as surely it is. My first thought was that Stanley was presenting a parable that reflects back on the poem by T.S. Eliot, a poem whose role in American poetry was at once unique & oppressive at the time that Stanley, who will reach 70 next year, was coming into poetry in the late 1950s.


The title itself should have told me otherwise – Stanley would not intentionally conflate the three words of Eliot’s title into two.* Years ago, I recall a wonderful argument that Stanley had with Mark Linenthal at San Francisco State over whether or not the shift from an a to a the (or vice versa) “made a difference” in a poem. Stanley’s position, as I recall it, was that such a shift alone rendered the work a “totally different poem.” Linenthal’s position was that this wasn’t such a big deal. At least once I heard this ongoing debate carried out in raised voices in the corridor outside the Poetry Center. Students at the time took sides – as much as I’ve always liked Linenthal, a great deal indeed, then & now, I was clearly a Stanleyite. Or, more accurately, a Stanleyist.** In any event, nobody who ever took such a position is going to knowingly go hardcopy with a soggy version of Eliot’s hegemonic title.


Actually, I was through the poem before the title, which I merely glanced at, rather than read – an old habit I’ve discussed here before – sank in. Ignoring thus the obvious, I envisioned Stanley, a youthful looking gay man in his 60s, experiencing precisely the scenario depicted in the poem. As a narrative, it’s completely reasonable. So that it’s only when I get to the end of the poem and see it clearly marked “Adapted from the Russian of Arkadi Tcherkassov.” Slap of palm against forehead!


Just to exacerbate the point & to suggest just how much Stanley is not in any sense Tcherkassov, the poem was in fact translated not from the Russian as such but “through the French of Lionel Meney.” Like the samizdat version of Derrida’s Of Grammatology I once saw in Russia, translated not from the French but from Gayatri Spivak’s English, Stanley’s text functions like a literary version of Chinese whispers or telephone. I have no idea what might have been lost in this chain. Certainly any hint of the speaker as “Other” from the translator has been collapsed. “The Wasteland” is very visibly a poem by George Stanley, regardless of where & how he arrived at it.


I don’t know Tcherkassov as a poet &, when I hunt around for him on the Internet, trying out multiple possible variations of his names – Cyrillic doesn’t move smoothly into the Roman alphabet – I come across only a single mention, a characterization of him in French on Radio Canada from the year 2000 as a “canadologue marginalisé d’une Académie des sciences appauvrie,” a marginalized Canadoloist of an impoverished Academy of Science. The description is ironic, in that one can see Tcherkassov as a serious Russian patriot in this poem.


Reminders such as this are useful – always – at the gap between the “I” of the text & that of its author, whether we envision it here as being Stanley or Tcherkassov.*** Rereading the poem, it’s full of touches, such as the breaks in this opening stanza, that are identifiably Stanley:


I’m going to tell you a story –

but it’s not really a story –

it’s not all in the past –

it’s happening now.


Finally the poem settles into what I would characterize – in a literal, rather than “new age” sense – as a transpersonal space, the “I” ultimately serving as a shell inhabited by more than one person. There’s an irony in this, given that At Andy is presented as being very much a literature of referentiality, “reflecting,” as the anonymous jacket blurb puts it, “his idea that a poem after all about something” & quoting Stanley:


What’s wrong is somehow

          I think there’s something to write about – instead of writing.


That Stanley would characterize this as “wrong” comes very close to that crowded “I” in “The Wasteland.”






* One of those typos one sees far too often in the world of American poetry, like the misspelling of names, Ginsburg for Ginsberg, Olsen for Olson, Zukovsky for Zukofsky.


** Stalinists were forever calling Trotskyists “Trotskyites.” Trots rejected the label because of its parallel with the binary “socialist/socialite.”


*** I’m discounting Meney here not because he didn’t play a key role in the creation of this work – he clearly did – but because he sits at neither end of the chain, neither at the front with Tcherkassov, nor at the end with Stanley. Meney teaches in the language & linguistics department of the University of Laval in Quebec.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003


I got a few  notes about my absences the past few days – been traveling & my access to the web has been constricted. When I was online yesterday, the Blogger “publisher” server was down.


Ж        Ж        Ж


I want to say simply today how sad I am at the sudden death yesterday of Ric Caddel at the age of 53. I never got to meet the man in person, but as editor, poet & correspondent, he was a marvel. The volume of British & Irish poetry since 1970 that he co-edited with Peter Quartermain, Other, is a monument any man could be proud of. I am told, though I’ve not been there myself, that the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre at the University of Durham, which Ric co-directed, is equally magnificent.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003


Tim Yu credits Stephanie Young for posing a question about my blogging style: that in choosing the miniature essay form rather than, say, the pseudo-chat room blip, I’m involved in a curious (implying, I suppose, nefarious) “centering” aesthetic move. I.e., by making coherent arguments – to the extent that I do – I push poetry in the direction I want, as distinct from either the direction somebody else might see or want or even just the directionless evolution of that ever infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards.


Guilty as charged on the point of being deliberate in choosing a style that allows me to develop more of an argument. When I first encountered blogging a little over a year ago, the diary snippet aspect of the weblog put me off. But then my nephew, Daniel, who I think shares in the family trait of utter seriousness, started using an adjunct to his primary blog to post some of his college papers. That set my inner carillon off. It was that aspect of his blog that, as I mulled the question over on Brier Island last summer, set me to thinking.


If there’s a distinction between what I’m doing & the “average blog,” at least with regards to poetry, it’s not that my pieces are “centering” & others are not, but rather that mine are conscious that this function is inherent in the act of articulation, that I’m interested in exploring it, where I think some (not all) others seem more ambivalent, sometimes even embarrassed at the notion. By inherent, I mean that the immanence in any address registers exactly that, the presence of a point of view as a point. From the perspective of any writer, the act of writing / speaking / thinking invariably is one of organizing the world around that point, articulating proximities & distances – as I noted Monday, a cartography of poetics. From the perspective of the reader, the challenge is really no different. One navigates between the blogs of various poets much in the same way one does between poems or books. What totalitarians invariably forget (or pretend not to notice) is that these points differ for every individual. The world of literature is not a pyramid at whose pinnacle sits the mind of Harold Bloom, but rather an ever-changing sea of constantly moving relationships. Navigation is exactly, and only, that.

Monday, March 31, 2003


A back-channel comment from a blogger out in my old stomping grounds of the Bay Area made me sit up straight:


One thing that’s been really striking is discovering that for many younger poets, you are “Silliman’s Blog”; while they’re familiar with you in that role, they are often not familiar with your work, having only a general sense of you as an “elder” or as representing “language poetry” (understood as an institutionalized orthodoxy).


Big sigh. Permit me to suggest that readers might start here. The bibliography has over 700 items & one could literally start anywhere, even with Wet: The Journal of Gourmet Bathing, which once published an excerpt from Sunset Debris.


But, seriously, the problem of younger poets in particular lacking much sense of recent literary history is one of those unending tasks every writer confronts. When I taught my seminar in the graduate writing program at San Francisco State back in 1981, I had as good a class as a poet/teacher could want – Susan Gevirtz, Cole Swenson, Jerry Estrin, Terry Ehret, Margaret Johnson were all participants. At the first session of the class, I passed out a list of book titles & a second list of poets and asked the group to match the books with their poets. This wasn’t an obscure list – it had Plath’s Ariel & Dorn’s Gunslinger, volumes by Ginsberg, Levertov, Creeley, Ashbery & the like. Not a single student was able to match even 20 percent of the poets to their books.


My own experience at the Berkeley Poetry Conference some 16 years earlier reflects that same circumstance, except that I knew even less at the time. I had opportunities to see Spicer, even Olson, but didn’t know enough to understand that they were opportunities. Spicer only lived a few weeks beyond the conference. While Olson lived another five years, I believe he only gave one other reading in the Bay Area after that. I missed that one too. In retrospect, I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have seen writers like Lew Welch & Paul Blackburn, poets who died far too young, & who were heard by far too few in their lifetimes.*


In this blog, I’ve generally focused on writing from the 1940s to the present (or maybe the near future). While I myself didn’t awaken to poetry really until the 1960s, the writers who were then defining the literary landscape were themselves still actively engaged with the writers & issues of the 1950s & ‘40s, so all those elements were very active still. For example, I think that one could draw a reasonably coherent line from the poetry of Robert Duncan in the 1940s to the Canadian Louis Dudek & the New Zealand poet Allen Curnow – all three come out of a writing in which, say, both Yeats & modernism are active influences. After the impact of Olson & Creeley in the 1950s, however, Duncan spins off in another direction, as different from Olson & Creeley as it was from Dudek & Curnow. How & why & what the implications of this might be for reading the various poetries of all three nations matter – to me, at least.


The forty years between then & now have seen a bewildering array of different threads & strands mixing together, unraveling & often going in directions that seemed unimaginable up until the very moment when somebody did, in fact, imagine it. I can recall, for example, the first time I saw Judy Grahn’s  Edward the Dyke and Other Poems, the satire struck me as overwhelmed into artlessness by the rawness of the pain it reflected. Today, I read that work totally differently & see Grahn’s early writing as literally inventing its audience through the most careful acts of craft conceivable, confident that if she writes it, they will show up. One seldom sees Grahn mentioned in histories of langpo or more broadly within postmodern writing, yet Kathy Acker’s self-publication of her first novels, chapter by chapter, just putting the work out there without regard to the fact that there was “no place” at the time for anything even remotely like her writing could not have occurred in a world in which Grahn’s poetry did not already exist. Acker in turn had an enormous impact on language writing, even if she herself always tended to keep it at arm’s length. Nothing that Barrett Watten nor Bruce Andrews nor Bob Grenier nor I was going to do was apt to push the boundaries of our art form any further than Acker’s work did hers. In a decade in which Tom Marioni could throw a coil of metal tape in the air and call it a one-second sculpture, writers as diverse as Grahn & Acker demonstrated the various ways in which writing also might go forward, making it patently clear just what antiquarian hokum the old – as well as the new – formalism truly was.


But such linkages aren’t always obvious and context matters. If you want to read Jack Spicer, you at some point need to know not only the work of Robert Duncan & Robin Blaser, but also Joanne Kyger, George Stanley & Harold Dull. Writers who have long since stopped publishing, such as Ebbe Borregaard, as well as others who did not begin to publish until later & at a considerable remove from, say, the Spicer Circle, such as Larry Fagin, also need to be factored into the equation. This is, as Spicer himself would have recognized, a cartography of poetics. Tracing such routes is not just good discipline, it’s a lot of fun. Rereading George Stanley’s work over the past year has been some of the most enjoyable time I’ve spent with poetry in ages. There is also both pleasure & information to be taken by constructing imaginary lineages, such as one Annie Finch & I have concocted that runs Sara Teasdale → Helen Adam → Lee Ann Brown.


One question is always how far back does one need to go. For the blog, I’ve generally drawn the line at the 1940s, although there are a few writers – Pound, Williams, Stein, Zukofsky, possibly some of the other Objectivists – who could cause me to go back a little further. But reading, say, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ marvelous essay in Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry: 1908-1934, on the Hoos of Hooville, specifically the use of that nonword “hoo” by Lindsay, Stevens & Eliot in various poems, constructing whiteness – DuPlessis borrows the term “blanchitude” – out of their own depictions of an Other, I realize that to even approach this sort of topic I would have to construct a mental configuration of a world in which Vachel Lindsay is not déjà toujours a joke. & even if I could do so intellectually, I can’t get there emotionally – it never feels right.


While I enjoy older literatures – my kids have heard me reading Chaucer in Middle English & I sometimes listen to a tape by J.B. Bessinger, Jr. reading  Beowulf & other Old English texts in the original, a wonderful antidote to Heaney’s reduction of that text to Bad Sports Writing of the Gods or whatever he imagines it to be – my own sense of the importance of completely reconstructing those prior periods is that it recedes with each preceding generation. Conversely, the process of emasculation that occurs whenever one takes a work out of its historical context – the inherent problem with Straussian approaches to education – becomes even more acute as one approaches the present. Thus while it may not be more important in the larger scheme of things to understand the impact of Richard Duerden than it is Keats, the failure to do so can have consequences that are just as serious, perhaps more so. On one level, I plan to keep blogging until I understand all the ways in which Alexander Pope → Adelaide CrapseyTalan Memmott make sense. On another, it’s that latter connection that matters most.


There are of course poets in any generation who seem to do their work with no sense of the larger parameters of literary context – and some of these folks do interesting & valuable work. But in fact most people don’t seem to work that way – at some point, the Cole Swensons, Jerry Estrins & Susan Gevirtz’ of any given group of promising & talented young writers seem to make a decision to take responsibility for understanding where & how they fit into the larger scheme of things, which entails gaining a far better sense of what their own personal map of traditions & influences might be. Indeed, that decision seems to play a significant role in the transformation into a “successful” poet. It’s a commitment, among other things, to some hard (albeit pleasurable) work.**


If I am my blog, and perhaps I am, it is because, for some readers, this is the easiest way to make contact with my writing. These bite-size pieces are nowhere nearly as forbidding as the 79 page paragraph that concludes the new edition of Tjanting. Nor do you have to be anywhere near a bookstore to access it. On occasion, this blog might have the added advantage of being about you. All are incentives to turn here first. Yet the poets of the next generation – and the one after that who will get to define how all of this makes sense, will almost always be the ones who go out & do the work.











* I even got to hear Lew Welch do some of his “Motown” version of The Waste Land in that silky smooth tenor of his.


** Interestingly, neither of the two women in my class back in 1981 who struck me at the time as being “the most talented” of the writers there seems to be producing poetry now, or – if they are – at least not at all publicly. One, last I heard, was becoming a school teacher; the other appears to be a full-time member of a Buddhist residential community in upstate New York. As I’ve suggested here before, brilliance can be disempowering – the poets who feel that they need to work harder are the ones who ultimately do best.

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