Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Stephanie Young’s description of how she put together her anthology is worth looking at more closely:

I started with my friends, and then the writers important to my friends. I followed lines of personal relationship because I was curious what formal or tonal connection might emerge between those who share their affection. I tried to include both the known and the unknown, pairings and groups whose interrelationships are wildly complicated.

It sounds at first like a prescription for a closed – possibly even elitist – conception of what is currently going on in Bay Area poetry. And, as I suggested rather indirectly on Monday, the gathering of 110 current poets seems to have missed the School of Quietude (SoQ), almost entirely, as well as the neo- (or perhaps retro-) Beat scene. Interestingly, the book leads off with an untitled poem by Brenda Hillman, a poet who has sometimes been associated with the SoQ:

The lord is its shepherd and i

am its color captive

                    its color   color   color captive

in the tree that

has no

One could hardly call that a traditional anglophile verse form, not even with that twist of prayer in the first line. If anything, the poem points toward a post-division poetics, neither SoQ nor post-avant, something more than a few of the younger post-avant poets have called for in recent years. Putting this poem first is perhaps this book’s most polemic moment, a call for the conception that Bay Poetics is also a new poetics altogether. Similarly, I take it as no accident that the collection ends with Kathleen Fraser’s work, using typefaces as large as 60 points, visually the most striking (most “experimental”¹) in the entire book.

Older poets working in newer forms, younger poets – like Stephanie Young, whose poem I cited on Monday – using combinations that haven’t been conjoined previously, a key element in Bay Poetics – indeed, the reason why it’s called Poetics and not Poetry – is an assertion, never fully voiced critically, that poetry in the Bay Area has arrived at (is arriving at) a new place altogether. When one looks at the influences that are visible among the 110 – New York School (multiple generations), langpo, New Narrative, echoes of the New Coast moment in Buffalo, the indelible (but distant) presence of Chain, the always surprising (and surprisingly gentle) after-image of New Brutalism – one confronts American poetry as it has evolved over the past 20 years, only here it’s got this dual focus of the Bay as well, which accounts for the stereoptic effect.

Earlier collections of Bay Area writing often begin with a myth of origin that usually dates the scene to the day Kenneth Rexroth arrived from Chicago, the same day coincidentally that George Sterling – then the dominant figure in the Bay scene – committed suicide. One of the relatively few critical texts in Bay Poetics is Andrew Joron’s calling this into question, looking back at Sterling & the less well known Clark Ashton Smith, the nexus of what was, in the 1920s, called California Decadence. Garrett Caples, in a piece that precedes Joron’s recalls that when Ambrose Bierce was asked whether Lincoln or Washington was the “greatest American,” replied:

I should say that the greatest American that we know about, if not George Sterling, was Edgar Allan Poe.

Bierce’s logic was that the work of Sterling & Poe would outlast that of Lincoln & Washington. It’s a sign of the School of Quietude’s near total amnesia of anything even remotely outside of the box that Sterling, whom one might read as an antecedent, say, of James Merrill, has been almost entirely forgotten over the past eight decades.

While there are a handful of critical pieces – by such folks as Bob Glück, Elizabeth Robinson & Eileen Tabios in addition to Caples & Joron – there isn’t any sense of a party line here. In fact, except for the fact that Caples & Joron are both touching on the history, almost the prehistory, of Bay Area poetry, there’s not nearly as much of a sense of a shared project in the critical writing as there is in the poetry, tho that also presents a wide range of generally post-avant possibilities.

So Bay Poetics falls into a middle ground – too broad & democratic to be representing a movement, Nouveau Brutalism or whatever, but not “all things to all people” either. In a sense, I think the situation, or scene, as presented by Young, is much harder for an individual poet than it was circa 1970 when you had just two regular reading series – one at SF State, the other at Intersection on Union Street – for the whole scene. If there are 110 interesting post-avant poets now active between Sebastopol & Monterey & as far east as Vallejo if not Davis – and I think a realistic number would be more like 250, especially if we included the neo-Beat scene & a broader swath of the Quietists – having one’s work stand out is a genuinely daunting project. In that populous – I want to resist calling it crowded – scene, the absence of more rigorously self-defined tendencies pretty much reduces the challenge to “every man & women for themselves.” That still feels like an interregnum to me, a waiting until the Next Thing shows up. But the grounds sure are fertile.


¹ Only in the narrow sense that vispo, or any poetry with a visual component, is historically “experimental.” I think that Fraser knows exactly what she is doing, and in that sense this work is the product of a master craftsperson, not an experimenter.