Monday, January 05, 2004

On New Year’s Eve, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a review* of Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works by John Timpane, who is a poet & author of the surprisingly no-nonsense Poetry for Dummies, as well as the newspaper’s Op-Ed page editor. Given that the Inky’s primary poetry reviewer these days is new formalist Frank Wilson, this was a great breath of fresh air & a good way to cap off the old year. I posted the link above to the Poetics List & Wom-Po, where I thought there might be others interested in reading Timpane’s piece. This led, eventually, to my receiving an email from Gloria Frym who noted that Timpane had invoked what by now has become a familiar trope in Niedecker’s reviews by comparing her work with Emily Dickinson. To underscore the point, Frym also sent along a paper she’d given (apparently at the recent Niedecker conference in Wisconsin) that examined the history of that trope, tracing it back to Niedecker’s mentor & onetime lover, Louis Zukofsky.


This reminded me of how we deploy such tropes, generally. Rae Armantrout, for example, has more than once been compared with Niedecker. Yet once the core elements of the trope are examined, any true parallels between these poets seem trivial. Indeed, once one has gotten beyond the “woman who writes short poems & lives at some distance from a cultural center,” one tends to have exhausted whatever might be gleaned from the figure. Rather, tropes work in other ways &, I am reminded, are not at all unlike the utilization of rubrics, banners beneath which one might cluster all possible modes of poetry. Thus, for example, the two figures I’ve used a lot here – post-avant and School of Quietude (SoQ) – but also beat, modernist, Romantic, Black Mountain, agrarian, Projectivist, New Formalist, New York School, Language, Harlem Renaissance, San Francisco Renaissance, McPoet, etc. And there are a lot of et ceterae in these woods.


Every time I employ my post-avant/SoQ figure in this blog, I tend to hear from certain readers, sometimes directly, sometimes in the comments box & occasionally on other blogs. Generally, objections fall into three general types.


Type A: I have inaccurately included poet X in some category.

Type B: A particular category has been inaccurately drawn.

Type C: Categories in & of themselves are problematic.

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with most of these complaints. I have sometimes been sloppy and committed what might be called Type A & Type B errors.**  But it’s the Type C problem that strikes deepest into my soul, simply because I think it’s unavoidable. There is no way to throw a conceptual rope around a particular kind of behavior – which can include poems of a given type, any given type – that does not alter the landscape, highlighting some features while casting others aside or into some sort of intellectual shadow. In identifying the New American Poetry, Donald Allen & his cohorts figured a breach in mid-century poetry that may have been true enough with regards to the paleopoetics of writers then associated with New Criticism, but which left other poets more or less in a theoretical void. In particular, younger poets who were heavily influenced by William Carlos Williams but generally outside of Objectivist or post-Pound social networks, such as Harvey Shapiro or David Ignatow, found themselves in the literary equivalent of the duck-rabbit problem. One can cite similar examples around virtually every other possible grouping that has been posed, sometimes with twilight zone consequences. Thus Larry Eigner, severely challenged by cerebral palsy, was routinely grouped with the Projectivist poets & their “line = breath unit of speech” poetics at a time when he was barely capable of speech.


Many, perhaps most, poets – one might even say people – experience categorization, whenever it is applied to them directly, as the mode of violence it inevitably entails. Yet to avoid categories altogether would reduce any speaker or writer to a kind of nominalism that renders any kind of predication, including description as well as judgment, impossible. No ideas but in things, Williams argued, failing to note that these are two of the broadest of all philosophical categories.


I hardly proceed with the kind of rigor that contemporary philosophers can summon to such issues as categorization, explanation, causality, probability and the like.*** Rather, my approach tends to be strategic: I deploy categories when & where I think they will do some good, and only to the degree that they might accomplish this. When I’m hurried or sloppy, the strategic tends to devolve into the tactical, but I’d like to think that I’m at least conscious of that as a problem, even if I don’t entirely avoid it.


I prefer post-avant precisely because the term acknowledges that the model of an avant-garde – a term that is impossible to shake entirely free of its militaristic etymological roots & that depends in any event upon a model of progress, i.e., teleological change always for the better – is inherently flawed. The term however acknowledges an historical debt to the concept & recognizes the concept as temporal in nature – the avant-garde that interests me is a tradition of consistently oppositional literary tendencies that can be traced back well into the first decades of the 19th century, at the very least. The term also has an advantage in being extremely broad – Tom Clark is post-avant & so am I – nobody gets to lay claim to it.


School of Quietude is more complex, I think. The phrase itself was coined by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840s to note the inherent caution that dominates the conservative institutional traditions in American writing. I’ve resurrected the term for a couple of reasons:


·         It acknowledges the historical nature of literary reaction in this country. As an institutional tradition that has produced writers of significance only at its margins – Hart Crane, Marianne Moore – the SoQ continues to possess something of a death grip on financial resources for writing in America while denying its own existence as a literary movement, a denial that the SoQ enacts by permitting its practitioners largely to be forgotten once they’ve died. That’s a Faustian bargain with a heavy downside, if you ask me, but one that is seldom explored precisely because of the SoQ’s refusal to admit that it exists in the first place.

·         Perhaps the most significant power move that the SoQ makes is to render itself the unmarked case in literature – it’s poetry, or perhaps Poetry, while every other kind of writing is marked, named, contained within whatever framework its naming might imply. Hence Language Poetry, Beat Poetry, New Narrative, the San Francisco Renaissance, etc. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the few cases in which SoQ poetics has named some of its own subcohorts, such as the agrarians or new formalists. These can be read, rightly, as the sign of a struggle within the SoQ over relations of hierarchy & institutional advantage. The agrarians, as it turns out, were successful, the new formalists it would seem were not. I choose the School of Quietude category just to turn the tables here – to call into question the issue of paleopoetics being the unmarked case in American writing. If I am correct in applying a social interpretation to their activity over the past 16 decades, the only way to unhinge them from their position of hegemony through blandness is to name them, to historicize them, maybe even to rescue some of their forgotten heroes so that we begin to understand the pathology at the heart of their poetry. Robert Hillyer, anyone?

This is hardly the only tool in the SoQ kit, but it’s the one that empowers the others, such as:

o        “Salting” their movement presses – FSG, for example – with token examples of other kinds of poetry (Ginsberg, Ashbery) so that readers presume that an FSG poet might be something other than a militant member of a small literary cult.

o        Treating the process of naming per se as though words have no consequence – M.L. Rosethal’s cockamamie “confessionalism” is a reasonably blatant example, as is Alfred Corn’s infamous statement in The Nation (9/16/1999): “I mean ‘postmodern’ in the sense of returning to narrative transparence in place of Modernism’s hermetic and allusive texture.” That’s a proclamation that means nothing unless & until one realizes that by postmodern, Corn means both premodern & antimodern. But by 1999, even the SoQ had heard of postmodernism & was trying to sound hip, just like Pat Boone in biker drag.


I have read that it’s “hurtful” to be called a member of the SoQ – this would distinguish the process from being called a language poet or a beat poet or a fauvist in what way, I wonder. At some level, who among doesn’t think, I’m not an adjective poet, I’m just a poet? And who among us doesn’t know that any poet who tells you that he or she is not an X or Y kind of writer, but is “just a poet,” isn’t being deliberately disingenuous? I wouldn’t say that’s hurtful myself, but the process may in fact be painful. If, after 160 years, SoQ poets still object, I’ll be happy to call things square. However, what I’d really prefer to see is those poets actually taking up the question(s) inherent in their poetries, addressing them positively, even naming themselves. Ed Hirsch & Dana Gioia could learn a lot by paying closer attention to New Brutalism & how those poets are taking charge, however deeply Brutalist tongue may be embedded in cheek.


But in the meantime, I think that I will try harder here to be conscious of the implications in categorizing any of the poets I’m discussing. Tropes like the Dickinson = Niedecker = Armantrout one may be well meaning – the insinuation is that these latter writers are important figures not being taken seriously enough in their own lifetime+ – but it’s a slippery slope, and one should be conscious as to just how far downhill terms like that may lead.





* This link will work only through Tuesday, at which point the article will convert to the Inquirer’s archive collection, available for a fee.


** Chris Stroffolino caught me using “sublime” in a non-pejorative fashion the other day. One could argue, I suspect, a Type D error as well, the problem of inconsistency.


*** Check out the work of Malcolm Forster or Michael Strevens, for example.


+ This seems particularly spurious in the case of Armantrout, who is justly considered one of the major writers alive.