Monday, April 11, 2005

I was in Austin for 22 hours last week, did a quick spot on Bloomberg TV (not about blogging or poetry), then headed back out again only to get caught up in Canceled Flight Blues at Dallas-Fort Worth, my least favorite of airports. While I was doing all this, I got the first email I’ve received since starting this venture two-plus years ago that felt more than a little like hate mail:


Our "one moment in history" will be remembered long after your wooden lightless writing or whatever it is has been superceded by that of other arrogant and envious groovy robots of the next instantaneously obsolete avant-garde as must be pretty obvious by now even to you. (I will grant that you briefly had an invigorating effect on a few real poets, you should get credit for that, except you won't, because only emotion endures and you won't be remembered.)


That’s the whole letter, save for the signature. Its author is a relatively recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize. My sense is that his poetry isn’t much better than his prose, a case of the overwrought urn. If he had a better sense of literary history, he might know that School of Quietude (SoQ) poets such as himself have a very poor track record for being kept alive in the memory of readers, largely because they’re not the Blakes or Wordsworths or Whitmans or Melvilles, but rather the Jones Verys & Robert Silliman Hillyers of history. It’s not an accident that his last line quotes Pound. As Marjorie Perloff has noted, if one were writing out of some desire to be remembered, the avant-garde tradition is clearly the way to go.¹ If my correspondent wishes to gauge my envy, I suggest that he do a search on our names on Google.


But I was glad to see that he cared. It’s a sign that he’s not writing badly only to gain the approval of boors, a feeling I do sometimes get in the presence of SoQ poetics. And his verbal brick came through my email window just as Kirby Olson & several other voices in the Squawkbox commentaries were clamoring for me to sketch out a history or schema of the School of Quietude itself.


The term, as I like to remind folks, was coined not by me, but by Edgar Allen Poe, responding in the 1840s to criticism that his work needed to be a tad more quiet. Back then, the literary world was already caught up in a dispute between one cluster of writers (the Knickerbockers) who felt that American literature needed to pattern itself after English & European tradition. Literature in that sense was viewed as index of how America was becoming refined & sophisticated. Opposed to the Knickerbockers were the Young Americans who felt that the writing of the New World needed to be taken on its own terms. Both sides courted Poe, tho it seems clear that his heart was mostly in the camp of the Young Americans. And, ironically, he was the first American author to have a substantial influence overseas. Six years after Poe died, Whitman showed up with the first edition of Leaves of Grass & the debate has only intensified ever since.


I first used the phrase to suggest a sense of how old this dispute is. There is no question – absolutely none – that a tradition in American letters existed that sought mightily to quash the reputation of the New American poets when they first began publishing in the 1950s. Hillyer – not a blood relation of mine, I’m relieved to say – actively sought to have the works of Pound banned after the Second World War. The exclusion of Pound, Stein, Williams & all the Objectivists – the exclusion of modernism in general, in fact – was consistently practiced by these more conservative poets throughout the first half of the 20th century. A lot of this was over-the-top & embarrassing in retrospect, such as Louis Simpson’s angry resignation from UC Berkeley after the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, fleeing back to the culturally safe environs of the Eastern seaboard. Before he became a founding member of the neoconservatives, Norman Podhoretz’ tract against Jack Kerouac & the Beats, the “Know-Nothing Bohemians,” represented a fellow traveler’s attempt to support the very same authors who already had close to a monopoly on the trade publishing houses – more of whom printed poetry in those days. The militancy that one sometimes finds in the writing of (or in support of) the New American Poets in the 1950s was itself largely a reaction of the militancy of conservatives like Podhoretz who tended to treat the New Americans as if they were the Barbarians at the Gates. A concept like M.L. Rosenthal’s silly Confessional Poetry was a slightly later (& inadvertent) admission that (a) the NAPs were not going away, (b) they represented the most exciting poetry of the 1950s and (c) the surest way to rescue a moderately interesting SoQ poet like Lowell was to find a way in which he could be argued to be doing “the same thing” as Allen Ginsberg. As a moment in intellectual history – let alone intellectual honesty – this was not a high point.


Historically, then, the SoQ could be said to be any poetry that looks to the establishmentarian traditions mostly in the U.K., but also on the continent, for validation, and who seek an American verse that largely is clone of European sophistication. By this, the SoQs do not mean Basil Bunting, Tom Raworth, Douglas Oliver or most of the French poets of the past half century, or even the earlier experimental tradition in Russia. This is why even now second-tier conservative talents from overseas are so often over-hyped here in translation. There is a doctoral dissertation to be had in watching, for example, the translations of Paul Celan. SoQ writers act as if Pierre Joris & his work does not exist. Their Celan is not an innovator of language, but the tortured, tragic soul of the Overwrought Urn, to be read breathlessly & slow. Joris’ Celan can actually write.


In 1950, the Boston Brahmin tradition largely ruled the SoQ universe, counterbalanced only somewhat by Auden, who at least came by his Anglo-centrism honestly. The Brahmin tradition had several first-rate talents – Lowell, Berryman, Plath being the most conspicuous – but there was no way its establishmentarian commitments & conformist impulses could have survived the next two decades as a serious literary force. As it broke apart from within, with notable defections on the part of Bly, Merwin, Wright, Rich & Hall², the American university was expanding dramatically with the great postwar economic expansion of 1946-64 (conspicuously identical to the Baby Boom Generation) with MFA programs springing up all over the map. Most of the early teachers in these programs came literally out of the Writers Workshop in Iowa City, which had never been a Brahmin outpost (Auden had been a far greater influence). These younger establishmentarians found themselves treated as lesser talents in part because they did not go to Harvard or Yale. And they had little in common socially with that world of inherited wealth & social customs. One can find pronouncements of Open or Naked Poetry from that period, largely from the same poets who would associate themselves with the American Poetry Review, that are every bit as much fun to read as Bly’s pronouncements in The Fifties and The Sixties. The APR innovation was to write the same establishmentarian poetry, but in free verse. Thus by the mid-60s a James Tate could come along with a smattering of surrealism & suddenly be treated as a savant by people who had never heard of Ron Padgett.


It was precisely the disintegration of the Brahmins & decentralization of the SoQ landscape in the 1960s that would lead a little later to the reformation – one can almost mean that in the old liturgical sense – of the so-called New Formalism, a group of even younger poets who were militantly anti-New and clueless about form, which they confuse with pattern. The New Formalists are interesting sociologically, because they represent an SoQ tendency that to this day remains largely outside of the academy.


I agree that there is a good history of the SoQ to be written, although I for one have no desire ever to attempt it. There is not enough time to read all of the good poetry being written. I cannot fathom wanting to devote very much of that precious commodity to an in-depth examination of a tradition I see as reactionary at best, and often pathological.


Actually, the most interesting new insight I’ve seen about all this of late can be found in Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant speculative biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World. Greenblatt notes a serious division already among the playwrights & poets of the late 16th & early 17th centuries in & about London, a class division, setting apart those university-trained authors, most of whom may have written for the theater, but who did not actively participate in productions, and rough-hewn actors who wrote for their companies and did not have proper educations or family credentials, Shakespeare himself being one of the latter & actually an occasional subject for scorn on the part of these society authors for it. Greenblatt adopts Shakespeare’s term for what in the U.S. today I would call the SoQ: he called them the “university twits,” a marvelous phrase. I would be tempted to start using that phrase as well if I didn’t know a lot of poets in universities who are not, in fact, twits. But that’s what educational expansion will do for you.


Class may in fact continue to be a subtext between SoQ & post-avant poetics to this day, although I suspect it is one largely rendered illegible in all the ways American history has dealt with that touchy issue. Thus Phil Levine writes of workers & Marilyn Hacker is an articulate feminist, tho both produce work that reinforces the most conservative literary traditions in America. At least Dana Gioia & Wendell Berry are consistent in both their writing and their political commitments.


It should be obvious that many SoQ poets are talented – Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Roethke, just to keep to that generation, all qualify. But if you put them alongside of the New York School poets of that same period (the NAP tendency they were “most like”), these same Brahmins strike me as klutzy and a little sad, operating as they did within literary constraints that really functioned as blinders. Reading Life Studies is like going through Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems on Quaaludes. Lowell’s synapses in his poems are like a Jim Carrey impression of slow motion. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t enormously gifted. But it does mean that mostly he wasted it. If only he had had a Pound to edit his work, as Ezra did a generation earlier for T.S. Eliot, the ultimate Anglophile.


Since the embarrassing disaster of the attempts at quashing Pound & the Beats in the 1950s, the SoQ has largely employed benign neglect toward the new poetries that have emerged since then – viz., Joris’ Celan. Like all hegemons, a major part of its strategy has been to pretend that it’s the unmarked case. Like white males pretending that identity politics doesn’t include them. So that today we have “poetry” and we have “language poetry” (or maybe “post-language poetry”). The Pulitzer mostly is reserved for poetry, not that other stuff. The biggest single reason to use a phrase like School of Quietude (or Brahmins or university twits or whatever) is to make it visible. The SoQ is a series of interlocking (and sometimes disputatious) literary tendencies every bit as coherent as the New American Poetry.


So I was glad, genuinely, to get an email that showed a little passion, regardless of how ill worded & misguided it might be. It would be far healthier – riskier too – if the SoQ as a whole would stand up to be counted. In general, the one segment of it that has been willing to do so have been the new formalists, who may be as appalled at the nonsense of what used to be called “APR types” as am I, but who fail to understand how that poetry came about – they would have to change their own poetry & poetics forthwith if they did.




¹ My correspondent worries about being remembered. The best response I can imagine to that anxiety is something I saw recently on Len Edgerly’s blog, which quotes Robert Creeley from an interview in the Cortland Review:


Williams says he'd rather go off and die like a sick dog than be a well-known literary person in America. A poll taken on the streets of Manhattan discovered that less than one percent could tell who Norman Mailer was. Poets write, I do believe, because they have to—it's something nothing else quite satisfies. One has to do it — compulsively. I remember Carl Rakosi saying before we were to teach at Naropa some years ago ( we were musing over just how to proceed): "Well, the last thing poets need is encouragement!" They'll do it come hell or high water. My own "acceptance and recognition" came from peers, as Olson, Duncan, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Cid Corman—and elders like Williams and Zukofsky. The company is what matters.


² Richard Tillinghast’s brief diversion off into the Sufi Choir in the late 1960s can be seen as a residual round of this (in the Marxian phrase, “this time as farce”), but he returned to the fold before too terribly long.