Thursday, May 26, 2005

Grave of William Carlos Williams
Hillside Cemetery
, Lyndhurst, NJ


Tuscaloosa-bound Jeremy Hawkins, whom I met for the first briefly in New York a couple of weeks back, made a comment in response to my note on Jonathan Williams that has had me thinking, and writing about Radi Os yesterday redoubled the process:

People speak often of the politics of anthologies, but I'm curious about the effects of the formats you are discussing here: selected & collected works. For Jacket 27, Brian Henry wrote a terrific critique of Harold Bloom's selection of John Kinsella's poetry, really marking out how an editor can mottle the individual project in the process of selection. I think it follows that selection by other means, either when the author is able to pick from the entire catalogue, or when forced to only choose from what is available, has similar spin on the work. If we take it far enough, it gets political just in the publishing of volumes in general, never mind the selected & collected editions.

It seems obvious here that you favor the idea of a poet's Collected Works. I'm not sure that the format is necessarily helpful or inherently good. Do I have a better understanding of Wallace Stevens for having worked through his collected poems? Perhaps. I might have a better idea of the career, but depending on how the work is arranged and indexed, it could rob context from the individual volumes. I think that any Collection of Ashbery in the future will inherently strip away the independent continuity of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

Why will a Collected volume maintain Spicer or even Duncan in the consciousness more than reissues of the original volumes? Having volumes in print certainly maintains the relevance of a poet to an extent, but I'm not sure that collecting the work into a single volume advances that relevance in any way.

- Jeremy Hawkins

Actually, I myself have argued that neither the Collected Poems nor Imaginations justifies not having William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All in print as a separate volume. I feel the same about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons &, with less justification I suspect, Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & “A”-23, a pocket-sized volume from Viking Compass / Cape Editions that came out in 1975. Each of these works, when viewed separately, has an impact that cannot be assessed – indeed, can barely be imagined – when sunk deep into the context of a larger volume.

Robert Creeley, for example, used to note how important Williams’ The Wedge proved to him. Yet there is no way that seeing that volume embedded in the second volume of the Collected Poems can really give you a sense of it as a book. Similarly, I have made a point of buying The Desert Music in the same hardback edition which I first found it – or it found me, changing my life forever – in the Albany Public Library so many decades ago.

So I can certainly understand the value of having the individual books available – in many instances, they’re utterly indispensable. And yet I think that comprehensive collected editions are necessary as well. The situation I described yesterday, trying to cobble together a collected Ronald Johnson out of a series of small press books, knowing that at least five “volumes” of Johnson’s Milton (Radi Os) have never reached print, plus who knows just how much else, is the more unfortunate and common circumstance. Johnson had two books with Norton at the very beginning of his career, thanks to Denise Levertov (who got Louis Zukofsky & Joel Sloman & some others published there as well). But Sand Dollar, the press that published the first edition of Radi Os, went out of print as that press shut down after its publisher, Jack Shoemaker, moved on, first to North Point, eventually to Shoemaker & Hoard, an imprint of the Avalon Publishing Group. There are exactly three copies of that first edition available current in rare book shops according to, the very cheapest of which is priced at $50. Without a collected Ronald Johnson, it will be difficult 15 or 20 years from now for a young writer to find a number of the works we have even now. That’s the risk. That’s why it’s not an either/or question, the Collected vs. The Books that X published in his/her lifetime.

And even collected volumes are not immune from this – Lew Welch’s Ring of Bone will go out of print once its current supply is exhausted. So will Frank O’Hara’s Poems Retrieved, two volumes published by Donald Allen’s Grey Fox Press. Johnson already has that problem with the death of Gus Blaisdell of Living Batch. The Black Sparrow Collected Books of Jack Spicer is already out of print.

Maybe someday PDF files – or whatever succeeds that format – will enable a permanent treasury to exist of such books. Right now, the system is as haphazard as the one that determines which readings get preserved on tape & which tapes become CDs or MP3 files. If you have an interest, or maybe just a curiosity, in some out of the way movement of the past, you had better hope that a Ben Mazer will come along and document it the way he seems to be doing for the Berkeley Renaissance. The Actualists of the 1970s, a larger group that even had a couple of anthologies during that decade, has virtually vanished from the face of the earth, tho real live actualists, from Allen Kornblum of Coffee House Press to poet, memoirist & NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu, still abound.

So I think about the fact that Larry Fagin, of all people, has not had a big book out since I’ll Be Seeing You & Rhymes of a Jerk. It’s been 22 years since Nuclear Neighborhood, the most recent collection of any size that I’m aware of, has been published. It would be great if all these works were in print again & available, but it’s just unrealistic. The absolute logic of an epoch in which each generation produces more poets than the last is that the “invisible hand” of the market is going to whittle everything down, at an accelerating pace. The idea that we can keep all of Robert Kelly’s 62 books in print just makes presumptions about available resources that don’t compute in an economy of scarcity. But someday, a really good series of his collected works will enable a generation that is not yet alive to read & enjoy his writing. And that to me makes sense.