Friday, December 23, 2005

Seth Abramson has questions. He is a poet who works as a lawyer & was a sociology minor in college, and who concedes to a fascination with the sociology of poetry. I’m a poet who has written – and passed – legislation & worked for years as executive editor of the Socialist Review, the largest group of whose editors were sociologists as well as socialists, and which was long associated with the qualitative (as distinct from quantitative) side of that discipline. I share Abramson’s fascination with the sociology of poetry, although I’m not sure that we actually like the same poets. Still, there are some magazines in which we’ve both appeared, albeit asynchronously: Verse, The Iowa Review, Southern Review.. It figures that he’s a public defender – most of my legislative work had to do with the rights & lives of felons. It’s even conceivable that Abramson may have once taken a government course at Dartmouth from my old colleague & dear friend Jim Shoch, who taught there for several years before heading back to California where he’s now ensconced at Sac State.

Reading Abramson’s weblog at moments is like looking at my own DNA tossed into a paper bag & shaken up into a different configuration. Except that he’s younger & obviously better looking. So when he published a blognote some 6,700 words long the other day on the sociology of poetry, I took notice. I took even more notice once I realized that the pathological symptom he chose to focus on is none other than yours truly. Not my poetry, which he doesn’t particularly discuss, but my weblog and what he perceives to be its social role at this particular moment. Abramson’s argument, in short, is that a sociology of poetry would seem to be impossible, that poets lack any objective position from which to establish the categorical terms through which to describe the literary landscape, and that the alternative is to behave as though someone’s personal dream of poetry were a shared reality. This makes knowing what you want to achieve in poetry, how you would go about that, and how you later ascertain whether or not you were successful, all but impossible.

Think, for a moment, about Ron Silliman's excellent and erudite blog. The denizens of the poet-blogger community frequent that blog as though it were a central hive for all things literary or theoretical or literary and theoretical, yet for me it engenders more questions than it answers, and not because have any complaint or contention with its author whatsoever (he is used, here, as a foil only, and he should know that); what I want to say, then, is that the appearance of sensibility on Silliman's blog is, to me, the final proof of its senselessness.

That it is so sure of itself, yet so manifestly exists inside an enormous vacuum – in the space where pragmatism meets ideology and loses both itself and the other – is at once terrifying and mystifying to me.

After all, why should Silliman be a kingmaker? Who is Ron Silliman? What place does Ron Silliman hold in the pantheon of modern writers, does anyone know? Does anyone agree? Why is Silliman the first, and not the second or the last, to bring us news of fresh voices on the national poetry scene? What other outlets bring us such tidings? Why do we choose Silliman over these other outlets? Are any of these newly-minted up-and-comers good? Is being "good" the same as being "relevant"? Would we ever hear of these poets if Silliman didn't discuss them? Are we better off reading these newer talents, or more deeply committing ourselves to reading and understanding existing talents? What's Silliman's bias? What's our bias? Do these new poets know Silliman's discussing them? Do they care? Did they ask for it? Will they last? Do they care if they last? Does Silliman care about us as much as we do about him? Will we ever meet Silliman? Would we have anything to say to him if we did? Who else reads Silliman? Anyone? How many? And which ones? And are they better for it? If I find myself left cold by the poetry Silliman favors, does that say something about me, about Silliman, about both of us, or about neither of us? If I'm satisfied to continue reading the poets I already read and not those pushed by the critic-of-the-day, does that make me a bad person? Or just a bad poet? How about if I've never heard of the poets Silliman discusses before he discusses them? Should I have known better? What does this say about my relative enthusiasm for poetry, as compared to Ron's? Can you hate poetry and be a good poet? Can you not understand some types of poetry and be a good poet? Can you love poetry and be a bad poet? Is being good a matter of work or a matter of talent? How much of each? Is Silliman a good poet? Who thinks so? Who doesn't? Does he teach? Could he teach? Anywhere, or just certain places? Is he improving over time? Or getting worse? Does he need an editor? A publisher? A ghost-writer? A collaborator? An interlocutor? A fan club? A School? A different School? Will we read Silliman in ten years? Was there another Silliman ten years ago? Is the name of that bygone Silliman clone luminous these days, or has it already been shelved and thus lost to us? When will we be shelved? Or our work? Is it too late? Has it already happened? Who decided? Can we convince them otherwise? Did we deserve it? Are the good things which happen to our poems the product of luck? Fate? Talent? Vision? Connections? Taste? Mere chance? Are there better poets than those Silliman talks about? Worse ones who've done better? Why did they do so well? Do we want to follow in their footsteps, or would that be an abrogation of our principles? What principles are in play here, anyway? Are the poets who do better doing better because they read Silliman or because they don't read Silliman or critics like Silliman? Or for other reasons? Do good poets read critics? Do they care about theory? Do they join Schools? Do good poets read lesser poets as much as lesser poets read their betters? Do good poets actually read poetry anymore, once everything they write has become eminently publishable? Are their interviews canned or spontaneous? Are they smarter than we are? Wiser? Did they have more money? More time? More drive? More talent? More street smarts? Is it okay to have some days in which you hate poetry? Would Silliman approve? Does Silliman sometimes hate poetry? Is it okay to admit these things, or will it cause one to be ostracized? Would one write better if one were ostracized? How much of what we write is material that has been adapted, copied, borrowed, improved upon, tweaked, unpacked, teased, paid homage to? How much is genius and how much what we think we can get away with? And just how much can we get away with, anyway? What are others getting away with? Are we being had? And do we deserve it, if so? How much love of poetry is too much? How much fear of poetry is not enough? Where does Art end and ambition begin? Where does ambition end and passion begin? And what's with academics? Are they wrong? Are we right? Is Silliman an academic? Could he be? Does he want to be? Do we want to be? What do we want? What do we want? Immortality, or just a good run?

There is no way I’m going to be able to answer a series of questions so dense as to call to mind my own Sunset Debris. But there are a number of good ones here, well worth thinking about, especially those that don’t fixate too much on my name. I take Abramson at his word that I am being used here strictly as a foil, even if I note that names one might substitute for the role he wants to assign for me would seem to be Vendler or even Bloom. That, I hope, is a misreading, one that I think results from the fact that Abramson is as far outside of the academy as I am.

I should note at the outset that the biggest problem I have with his argument and assumptions here is the existence of this “enormous vacuum.” If anything, I think that the problem is rather the opposite – there is an enormous quantity of evidence, books of poetry, magazines, on-line sites, now even weblogs. Poets House in New York collected – not just heard about, but actually got hold of – 2,100 books of poetry published last year. At that rate, over the next 40 years – the length of time I’ve been publishing – we can expect to see, at absolute minimum, 100,000 new books of poetry. And if we factor in the rate of acceleration from what it has been over the past few decades, a quarter million new books of poetry is itself a very safe prediction. The problem isn’t the lack of information, but just the opposite. How to make sense of all this: What about all this writing? as the doctor said.

I come along at the end of August 2002 and start posting to my weblog, reviewing maybe four books a week at the most, but often enough approaching the issues active in poetry from other perspectives – such as looking at Seth’s self-described “rant” on his weblog. Over the course of a year, it’s conceivable that I might actually discuss – at best – ten percent of a given year’s books of poetry. I’m not at all systematic, but I am informed, at least to this degree: as a poet, as a writer, as a reader, I come out of an identifiable tradition that stretches back pretty much unbroken at least to Blake & Wordsworth & Coleridge, and in the U.S. to Whitman, Dickinson, Melville & Poe. It’s not a random list, tho there are gaps that often strike me as yawning chasms of my own ignorance. My interest in Houseman, my interest in E.A. Robinson, my interest in Ted Kooser, my interest in Glynn Maxwell is pretty darn minimal. I read the Pound-Williams tradition, for example, as leading directly back to that quartet of 19th century Americans, whereas the School of Quietude (SoQ) leads instead to Robinson, Houseman, Kipling, Tennyson. But neither heritage is simple or unbroken – Gertrude Stein is a disruptive presence in the Pound-Williams tradition, for example, as is Joyce. The disappearance of the Objectivists in the 1940s – the first major modernist generation to virtually vanish, if only for a time – represents a crisis in modernism that I think we have yet to fully understand. I sometimes suspect that the shift from an avant-garde model, ushered in by the Preface to Lyrical Ballads in English & by Baudelaire’s prose poems in French (hijacking Bertrand more than following him), which ultimately is a military model, toward what I’ve termed the post-avant, which is more community focused and not inherently allergic to fessing up to its own sense of heritage, was triggered precisely by the absence of the Objectivists at the moment when the New Americans came along. Language poetry, my own generation of the 1970s, came along as a break within the New American vein in the name of that generation’s own higher values – it basically ditched the fetishized “I” and looked at the materials of writing with some of the same cold analytical eye that the abstract expressionists had used with a canvas & Jimi Hendrix used on a guitar. Somewhat inadvertently, it also exposed an inherent conservativism even within the New American tradition. Since then, we have seen a tremendous expansion of American poetry, fueled by an influx of women and people of color and different backgrounds. There are more poets now, and more good ones, than ever before. And the scene doesn’t look even remotely like what it did just 20 years ago when In the American Tree was about to be published.

I have been, I hope, reasonably out front about my own predilections, my likes & dislikes. I’ve insisted on a concept like School of Quietude because there is, and has been for over 150 years, a disequilibrium of power in American letters predicated on control of the publishing lists of the trade presses – the Gang of Eight I referred to in my note on the New York Times last week – and, at least once upon a time, around jobs within the academy. The most destructive and oppressive thing an elite group can do in our society is to pretend that it is the unmarked case, as if Robert Pinsky and John Hollander wrote poetry, but Kasey Mohammad wrote post-modern or New Brutalist poetry, Geof Huth wrote vispo, Erica Hunt & Harryette Mullen wrote langpo. That allows the unmarked set the opportunity of acting as if its monopoly of such traditional institutions as the trade presses and the awards conferred by the publishing industry – there’s that Gang of Eight again – were “normal” & anything outside of that were “exceptional.” In fact, the SoQ is one interest group among many, privileged more by history than by the bad acts of its current practitioners, but real nonetheless. It’s a little like white males coming to own their own whiteness & their gender. It really will be good for the SoQ to own their own heritage – they have more disappeared poets to recover than almost anyone.

The alleged centrality of my weblog is a bit of a myth, frankly. I was simply one of the early ones, and not as early, say, as Laurable or Joseph Duemer. My current daily readership is over 1,100 visitors per day, which is more than that of the New Criterion (745 per day) or Mark Woods’ (955 per day), but not that much more. My half million readers over the past 3¼ years are only about one-fourth of those that have visited Michael Bérubé’s site. And the roster of 700 similar blogs to the left suggest that a gradual democratization of poetic blogging is inevitable as well as a positive thing. For example, Kasey Mohammad has one of the very best sites, consistently provocative and intelligent. Currently, it gets less than 100 visits per day. That’s wasting a valuable resource.

But I will admit that I’m making a bet here. I’m betting not only that a Simon Armitage or Robert Pinsky or Franz Wright or whomever wouldn’t attempt to do the same kind of unsystematic daily commentary as this, but, further, that they couldn’t. One of the things this weblog forces me to do is to re-examine my beliefs as a poet every single day. Which is an interesting challenge – I’ve come to new conclusions in many new areas & about quite a few poets along the way.

I’m betting that any serious, sustained examination of the SoQ tradition would force its practitioners to change, not unlike the ways in which a whole generation of Boston Brahmin protégés in the 1960s bailed on the Old Formalism: Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, John Berryman, Donald Hall, W.S. Merwin, James Dickey, James Merrill. One of the reasons that there are more kinds of Quietist poetry today than there were 50 years ago is precisely that those poets all took flight from the old formalism they’d inherited – even Lowell did, after a fashion – so that the alternative within their broader tradition was no longer just the post-Auden branch that came mostly out of Iowa City. And one ironic consequence of that is today’s New Formalism, which has had to reinvent a tradition that had been left for dead by its own practitioners.

Just for the record, I’m not an academic. My “terminal degree,” a phrase that I just love, is a high school diploma. My teaching career consists of a graduate seminar at San Francisco State, two classes (one on fiction writing) at UC San Diego, a class on the prose poem at New College and a couple of one-week workshops at Naropa and Brown. I did work as a college administrator for four years, and have participated in accreditation visits at other schools, but it would be difficult to characterize that as much of an academic career. In fact, one of my out-front biases is that I think that the academy is an incredibly feudal institution and a dreadful arbiter of literary value. Rather, I look to the literary communities of the 1950s as a far healthier model, a period during which the only school that mattered for American poetry, Black Mountain College, went bankrupt. Of the other venues of that decade, Jack Spicer’s spot at the back of the bar at Gino & Carlo’s in North Beach was more important in the 1950s than Yale, Harvard or Berkeley combined. One of the real possibilities of blogging is to transfer a lot of the kind of authority that schools acquire almost like barnacles on the side of the Titanic away from the academy and back into the hands of poets. When Eileen Tabios recommends Allen Bramhall’s idea of positing the sign “Pullet Surprise” in bookstores atop books that have received that award for their poultry, webs of reference are constructed that really are, or ought to be, the focus of Abramson’s thinking here. That may be playful & deliberately in jest, but so was O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto, and for just that reason it’s more important than whatever theory ever showed up in a journal like Social Text or October. For one thing, it passes the basic seriousness test – a theory is not serious if its progenitor attempts to prove it by reading texts from the late 19th century. A theory is serious only if it attempts to intervene today, and if it attempts to throw light onto the art of the future. Any other theory isn’t about its subject, but about tenure. Which is why poetry is flourishing in 2005 and theory is not.

And which is why, ultimately, Abramson’s attempt to cast me in the Vendler/Bloom role strikes me as wrong. The institutional power they sought never wanted to leave the institution. I want to see it flow instead toward St. Marks & the Bowery Poetry Club & Woodland Pattern & SPD & Open Books in Seattle or Molly’s here in Philadelphia. I look at a scene like Tucson and it strikes me as obvious that a reading collective like POG is important, while the writing program at the university there is not. So I want to siphon some of the juju away from the school over to something like POG, and there is something like it in almost every major American city right now. Which makes me an optimist.

Which only touches the surface of Seth Abramson’s questions – and that passage I quoted above is less than one-seventh of what he wrote, all of which is well worth considering further, and more deeply.