Monday, April 25, 2005

Nothing, literally nothing, angers me more than overt intellectual dishonesty. When Jacques Derrida misrepresented Roman Jakobson’s work in Of Grammatology, conflating it with a crude version of Saussure, simply so that Derrida could then “knock off” everything else Jacobson stood for, it told me that Derrida was interested much more in power than in the integrity or value of his argument. One need only read the excised passages from Jakobson’s source texts to realize that Derrida was doing a cut-&-paste hatchet job. From that moment forward, every word I ever read of Derrida’s was colored with distrust. Read but verify became the order of the day.

Imagine if you will, then, my reaction at seeing in the introduction to a relatively new poetry anthology entitled 180 More, edited by Billy Collins, former poet laureate, the following claim:

Here is how an inaccessible poem begins:

Streamline to instantaneous
voucher in / voucher out

Collins is defending his preference for allegedly accessible poetry, ostensibly mediating a dispute between Dana Gioia & Auggie Kleinzhaler. These lines are, as he notes, from Rae Armantrout’s “Up to Speed,” the title poem of her most recent book & the very first piece one finds upon opening The Best American Poetry 2002, edited by Robert Creeley. But this is just the first stanza from a poem written in five sections. Let’s pull our editorial camera back just a little to bring the entire first segment into view:

Streamline to instantaneous
voucher in/voucher out

The plot winnows.

The Sphinx
wants me to guess.

Does a road
run its whole length
at once?

Does a creature
curve to meet


Even in the fourth line, the “difficulty” of the first triad is contextualized. The third stanza presents the situation again, this time angled into a more overtly humorous tone. The fourth stanza presents it rather in the manner of a Zen koan. So does the fifth, calling up the image of a dog perpetually chasing its tale. Which is precisely what is named (or characterized, take your pick) in the final one-word strophe.

What is the subject of this “inaccessible” passage? Accessibility!

Or – because Armantrout is a far more subtle poet than this – it’s about the push-pull between the intractability of meaning (what I might call opacity tho a philosopher might prefer immanence) & a consumer’s desire to have it all, right now! You can bet Armantrout’s making fun of that impulse! And setting up the first stanza in procedural terms, a discourse of process rather than image, is precisely the distancing effect needed to act out this dynamic, the reader trying to identify just which system has been streamlined into an “instantaneous voucher in / voucher out.” The stanza is the process that it’s talking about. It would be hard to be more literal than this. Inaccessible? One can only wonder, dumb struck, at the literacy level at which this becomes inaccessible.

Here is what Collins has to say on the preceding page about the subject of accessibility:

I would suggest, “accessible” would mean “easy to enter,” like a building. An accessible poem has a clear entrance, a front door through which the reader may pass into the body of the poem whose overall “accessibility” – i.e., availability of meaning – remains to be seen and may vary widely. This more restricted use of the word would remove it from the stone-throwing argument between the camp of Clarity and the camp of Difficulty and require those combatants to come up with more specific and illuminating terms. After all, we may not be able to concur on the aesthetic worth of an architectural structure, but we can all agree that the building in either open or locked.

To pick as his example of inaccessibility a poem that – in perfectly literal terms – makes fun of his own position means what? That Billy Collins can’t read? Or that he can’t tolerate disagreement? I’ll wager that he imagines himself to be a part of the “camp of Clarity” in spite of his own self-obtuseness here.

Which bring me to Collins’ own, government sponsored website, Poetry 180, to which the anthology with this mind-boggling exercise in self-canceling logic is related. The premise is simple enough, to offer one poem for each day of the school year, targeted at high school students. Yet, far from being above the fray of the two camps envisaged by that paragraph above, a look at the actually existing poems included on the site shows Collins to be an exceptionally militant master of ceremonies. Consider the current table of contents. Of the 180 poems, composed by 139 writers, there are exactly two by contributors to the New American Poetry, one by Edward Field, one by the late Paul Blackburn. There is one poem by Richard Brautigan & another by Ron Padgett. That is the entire representation of the post-avant tradition, clear, opaque or polka-dotted, unless one wants to toss in my one-time student, the late Eskimo poet Mary Tallmountain, whose poetry, nonetheless, is perfectly consistent with the School of Quietude’s historic aesthetics. Collins’ own preferences show up most clearly in the twenty-five poets who have more than one poem included on the list. They, and their number of poems included, are the following:

·        Mary Oliver 5

·        Eamon Grennan 4

·        Robert Bly 3

·        Dana Gioia 3

·        Mark Halliday 3

·        Mac Hammond 3

·        Jane Kenyon 3

·        Ronald Koertge 3

·        Steve Kowit 3

·        Ted Kooser 3

·        William Matthews 3

·        Linda Pastan 3

·        Miller Williams 3

·        David Berman 2

·        Laurel Blossom 2

·        Martha Collins 2

·        Doug Dorph 2

·        David Ignatow 2

·        Julie Lechevsky 2

·        Phillis Levin 2

·        Thomas Lux 2

·        James Reiss 2

·        Kay Ryan 2

·        Charles Webb 2

·        Robert Wrigley 2

Even as a representation of the School of Quietude, that’s not a particularly wide roster. And, for what it’s worth, the list has absolutely no overlap with the 13 living “most frequently listed authors” from Poet’s Bookshelf’s lists of “essential books.” Eamon Grennan's inclusion so prominently here simply presents an Irish variant of the same Anglophilia that is the School of Quietude's historic obsession with "fitting in" to British letters.

Overall, Collins’ choices are not necessarily bad – he tends to pick the better poems out of his particular tradition – but it hardly is representative of American poetry. (The balance is only slightly better in the new anthology itself, with two Padgett poems, two by Kenneth Koch, and one each from Tom Clark, Tony Towle & Charles Bernstein.) And Collins' justification for the hard-line stance is, as his own “evidence” demonstrates, frankly nonsense. That’s okay, too, as far as I’m concerned. What gets me is the tone that suggests that he is above this historic argument when in fact he is a fundamentalist on a jihad. Is Billy Collins above the stone-throwing he allegedly deplores? Hardly.