Monday, December 19, 2005


The very last item in the new Chicago Review is Paul Hoover’s “note,” entitled “My Kind of Town: Local Literary Community,” the text actually of a talk given at an AWP conference in Chicago maybe 18 months ago. In fact, this piece could just as easily have been the first, not a manifesto exactly, and too personal perhaps to be a major piece of literary theory as such, but much meatier than the term “note” implies. It is (a) a history, sweet, generous & surprisingly full of detail for a piece of writing that’s only five pages long, of Chicago literary scenes from Carl Sandberg to Ray Bianchi, (b) a record of Hoover’s own influences and their relationship (sometimes strong, sometimes not at all) to the city of Chicago itself, (c) a consideration of the impact of the local on Paul’s life, writing, career, and (d) a meditation on Chicago’s rise from being a “fly-over city” insofar as poetry is concerned to becoming one of the major contemporary destinations of the post-avant.

Hoover moved, albeit part-time, to the Bay Area roughly six months before I moved from Berkeley to Chester County, Pennsylvania, and I read his account, especially his sense of distance from Chicago & not-quite-really-being-there in Mill Valley, through the lens of my own experience. I certainly had trepidations about the scene in Philadelphia before I moved. Would APR be an overwhelming presence? Would it be like a small city scene, where the only events that happen are invariably linked to a university? What would become of my own sense of relatedness to San Francisco & the East Bay? At the time, I know that I told several people that I wasn’t sure I could have made the move without the existence, then relatively recent, of the Poetics List from SUNY-Buffalo, and without knowing that Gil Ott had found it a reasonable place to be, since I knew that his own relationship to universities was nearly as distant as my own.

One thing that really jumped out at me was Paul’s characterization of the impact of Poetry on the city in which it has been published now for some 93 years. This is it in its entirety:

Chicago’s main poetry event used to be Poetry Day, sponsored by Poetry.

As it turns out, this is a notably greater impact than APR has on Philadelphia. In ten years now, I’ve been in the same room with an APR editor exactly three times. On one of those occasions, I had a great chat with Arthur Vogelsang. And, when APR sponsored a special local edition as an insert to one of the local weekly newspapers, I was included. So my anxieties in that regard proved groundless.

The other thing that jumped out at me was Hoover’s recitation of the “incredible growth of experimental poetry in Chicago in recent years.” As Hoover says of Chicago, Philadelphia likewise “has finally grown up” as a literary community in its own right, not merely a feeder scene into Manhattan.

I would suggest that this is because there are more good writers now doing various kinds of post-avant work than at any previous time in U.S. history. Of the more than 700 poets listed in the blogroll to the left, at least 500 have some relationship to the post-avant, those interwoven traditions that grew out of the New American poetry & other modernist veins. Even if the percentage of post-avant poets who blog is ten percent – I personally suspect that three to five percent is more like it – then we’re talking about 4,000 active post-avant writers. Contrast that with the 44 participants in the Allen anthology a half century ago. Which is how you get active local literary communities in Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, North Carolina, Seattle, a whole series of places that literally didn’t have enough poets outside of English departments two or three decades ago to order a pizza. Hence even the Missouri Linebreaks, with very nearly as many poets having a shared aesthetic as there were in the first generation of the New York School itself.

I can already hear in my mind’s ear, certain voices – Curtis Faville, Joe Green – wanting to remind me that quantity is not quality, with which of course I concur. But I think you can make the quality argument also, tho the logic of it is different. For one thing, community itself has a salutary effect on poets. Friends push one another to work harder & then turn around & work harder themselves. Read the Ellingham-Killian biography of Jack Spicer, for example, or any of the memoirs of Black Mountain, or consider why so very many students of Ted Berrigan turned out to be good poets. While it is still true that you can have a superb writer working more or less in total isolation – Emily Dickinson or, more recently, Besmilr Brigham – the fact is that community impacts the writing, even tho and as it is never the writing itself. As I remember explaining to somebody once at the Grand Piano coffee house sometime in the 1970s, a reading series – your basic community event – is never the house of poetry, tho it just might be its kitchen.

It makes sense that institutions that come out of the School of Quietude, as APR always has & as Poetry has since the death of Henry Rago, the last editor to see that journal as representative, not merely partisan, should have so little impact on their communities. For, with the two exceptions of the Boston Brahmins around Robert Lowell & a generation of poets associated with the Iowa Writers Workshop, literary tendencies associated with place – the New York School, the Berkeley Renaissance, the D.C. scene, Black Mountain, the Bolinas poets – have always been part of the post-avant heritage. Indeed, recognizing that the modernist military metaphor behind avant-gardism is not the same as moving writing forward through formal innovation & that community has been as important a part of the avant tradition since Baudelaire arrived in Paris is precisely the shift in stance by which avant becomes post-.

So what Paul Hoover rightly celebrates as the emergence of Chicago as a destination city for poetry also is part of a much larger social phenomenon, one in which the number of poets in this country have expanded dramatically, even while the number of poetry books from trade publishers is dwindling down to a final few. This new cornucopia of writing is having an impact well beyond the Windy City, and not all of it is geographically focused (viz the web). Thus the concept of local itself is changing, just as the relationship of the poet to an audience is moving away from the few-poets-many-readers template of past centuries. It will be interesting to see if, at some point, this transformation has an impact on literary values as such, which in theory you would expect.

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