Monday, October 09, 2006
Eleanor Anne Porden (1797-1825)
This past week has not been an easy one – I’m paying the piper, so to speak, for having taken some time off this summer & find myself in the midst of multiple major reports, all with deadlines, all more or less simultaneously. On top of which my sons are both starting high school, but at different schools in different counties (long story) – not even adjoining counties at that – and the gauntlet of orientations, open houses & curriculum nights has gobbled up what little other time I’ve got. Then Anne Boyer & Ian Keenan were kind enough to steer me in the direction of Elizabeth Treadwell’s blog, which has a note about my blurb for Pattie McCarthy’s Verso that interprets what I had written in ways I’d never imagined possible – my first thought, on reading Treadwell’s angry & dismissive comments, was that it was strange indeed for anyone to be reading another person’s blurb as being a statement about herself. I still think that may be a primary dynamic here, but at the same time there is another level on which I can see Treadwell’s argument as being completely reasonable. And some of what she writes points to important fissures in writing at the present moment.
Obviously, I brought this on myself. In writing a blurb sufficiently modular for Apogee publisher Alice Jones to edit it down to what she & Pattie wanted to use, I’d left myself open to one on the inherent dangers of any critical endeavor, even as simple as a blurb – I’d written something that could be taken out of context where its meaning comes across fairly differently (to my eye & ear, at least) than it does if one runs just the final four sentences. Here is the actual blurb as it appears on the cover of the book. I’ve italicized the portion that Treadwell quotes.
What if Frank O'Hara had been, literally, a court jester? Or, at the very least, tutor of the King's children? Those are questions that linger in the imagination as one reads Pattie McCarthy's Verso. McCarthy strikes a new tone in & for her poetry. At the same time, however, all of the concerns — with history, naming, gender, etymology & referentiality — that have always animated her work rage on unabated… She makes the membrane between the visible and its opposite her focal point… Pattie McCarthy has been one of our most intellectually ambitious poets— a tradition she shares with Rachel Blau DuPlessis & with H.D. And indeed with the likes of Pound & Olson. We can still count the number of women who attempt writing on such a scale on the fingers of our hands. So it is worth noting & celebrating this addition to that roster.
Any strategic hyperbole in the comparisons of the final four sentences comes across as simply unjustified blanket assertions absent the earlier text. With the full statement, tho, I might be wrong, but I’m not without my reasons.
The objectionable points, as I understand Treadwell’s remarks, as well as those made in its comments stream and in subsequent blog notes by Kasey Mohammad, Shanna Compton, Anne Boyer & Jessica Smith, in the comments streams thereto (see, for example, Jonathan Mayhew’s comments in Kasey’s blog, as well as those made to more than one blog by Ian Keenan & in Treadwell’s stream by Jim Behrle) as well as to the pussipo listserv, are functionally three: the use of superlatives, as such; a comparison with other writers, especially male other writers; and my “fingers of our hands” remark, which can be interpreted apparently as meaning that there would be as few as 10 such writers (tho that is not how I read the plural our). Beyond these surface issues, there is a question of a tradition that would include high modernists like Pound & H.D. with one of the early coiners of the term postmodern in Olson with a contemporary feminist poet like DuPlessis. And, if I read Jessica Smith’s blog – and several emails I’ve received from other people – a general irritation that “the language poets” and/or possibly just myself have far too much “power” on the poetry scene today. Lets take a look at each of these.
The use of strategic superlatives – Shanna Compton & Jonathan Mayhew are largely correct in their assessments of this – is one of the inherent risks of blurbing. One important reality – and part of what motivates Treadwell’s initial reaction, I think – is that there are, in fact, more good writers today than ever before. When you go from a few hundred publishing poets, the situation in this country a half century ago when the New Americans first came onto the scene, to the more than ten thousand who are now publishing, not just writing, there is going to be a major dispersal of the landscape. Blurbs are endorsements – unlike at least a couple of the New Americans, I won’t blurb a book I don’t like (just as, in my blog, I very rarely bother to write about a book I don’t like) – and superlatives are a foregrounding device.
Given that I could write “this is a terrific book” about at least 100 books in any given year, I use comparisons as a means of giving a better sense of shape to my experience of this landscape. Literature is not without its history & a little reading allows any reader to begin mapping out what matters to them – it is the primary device for making sense of the cornucopia of data points that 4,000+ books per year constitutes. As the alternate modes offered by Jack Spicer in his application for the Magic Workshop nearly 50 years ago underscores, there’s no one right way to see things, no Mercator projection that will always identify Gertrude Stein as having a value of X, e.e. cummings a value of Y. I know a number of mostly younger poets who chafe at being so pigeon-holed, but that is an act of denial I always reject. A work that stands truly outside of any plausible mapping of the landscape, not just of the present but going back at least to the start of the 19th century, can only be described in a few ways. One is the category of “things that don’t fit” or at least don’t fit yet. Another is works ignorant of history. A third is works with a lack of self-knowledge. Some really good writing can fall into these interstices – consider Bern Porter as an example – but the one sad certainty is that all these categories are paths to neglect.
A second plausible objection to my use of comparisons here is that I overhyped Pattie McCarthy’s work, placing it alongside canonical poets like Pound, Olson, H.D. & DuPlessis. This is where I think Treadwell’s quoting out of context distorts what I actually wrote. All four poets – regardless of how much one does (or doesn’t) think of them – were involved in larger literary projects that usually gets described as the composition of the “contemporary epic,” or “long poems containing history” (tho one can make a case that H.D.’s Trilogy at least is concerned more with mythology). Verso, like McCarthy’s earlier bk of (h)rs, strikes me very much as preparation for a project on the scale of The Cantos or Drafts. This doesn’t mean that such is the only path a serious poet can take – I would number Emily Dickinson, Larry Eigner, Rae Armantrout & Robert Creeley as four of my favorite poets of all time, not one of whom used that approach. Nor does my statement even mean that Verso itself is such a work – as a project in its own right, Verso’s scale is closer to that of Mauberly or The Waste Land or “Poem Beginning ‘The.’” But it is hard – for me impossible – to read McCarthy’s work and not be taken with the sense of intellectual horizon that is everywhere implicit in her poetry.
There is, at some point, a good piece that needs to be written on what actually constitutes a longpoem. From my perspective, there are questions of the scale of the text, time of composition (a different scale altogether) & scope of the project & its internal structures that all come into play. It is perfectly possible to write large books that are not so much long poems as they are fast ones – which is how I read Anne Waldman’s Iovis or John Ashbery’s Flow Chart or some of A.R. Ammons’ work – just as there are works that seem long in the literal sense of the number of pages, but which are deliberately narrow, a type of poem that Ted Enslin & Frank Samperi have elaborated & explored. These poems are long in much the same way that a block of clay can always be rolled into an ever thinner string thereof. There are also booklength poems that use different scales altogether, such as verse novels, Jack Spicer’s serial poems, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, most of Leslie Scalapino’s work. McCarthy’s first two books fall into this last category for me, but do so clearly invoking the tradition toward which I think she’s working. If we look at the actual tradition, it’s fair to ask how many poets of all kinds are attempting projects that engage that scale I implicit in McCarthy’s writing – not one of the poets listed in Treadwell’s blog seems to fit that definition, tho that doesn’t mean that several of them aren’t tremendous poets. But they are doing different things. Treadwell’s argument is akin to complaining that I haven’t included the likes of Susan Bee or Francie Shaw among a roster of great sculptors simply because they make paintings.
There is also a history yet to be written of the longpoem and its relationship to women, one that would include, for example, Eleanor Anne Porden – a woman with a complicated relationship to my own family tree¹ – as well as Frances Boldereff, Charles Olson’s mistress & unacknowledged collaborator, not to mention Celia Zukofsky, Hilda Doolittle, Beverly Dahlen & Rachel Blau DuPlessis. But while this history would need to look at the work of writers like Gertrude Stein or Susan Howe or a project like Diane Wakoski’s George Washington poems, it would be for the purpose of contextualizing the project within its actually existing history, not because they are doing the same thing. A history like this is nothing but comparisons. And a history that failed to be able to distinguish between Stein’s The Making of Americans & Doolittle’s Trilogy would frankly be a failure.
Superlatives & comparisons both make distinctions, which, complains Treadwell, “are divisive. “ But that is precisely what distinctions do. They are the fundamental device of organization: not this, not this. Not only do distinctions enable us in daily life to separate out the wolf from the dog, but the romaine from the hydrangea, which, however beautiful, is quite toxic. Any mycologist had better be able to distinguish which mushrooms are edible & which lead directly to liver & kidney failure & ultimately death. Distinctions are not inherently pernicious – they are, in fact, the primary function of culture itself.
Treadwell’s blog is itself an attempt at distinction, at dividing. She seems clearly to want to set in a motion – or at least to proclaim critical mass – a paradigm shift in American writing. Where Bob Grenier once wrote, all in caps, “I HATE SPEECH,” Treadwell’s argument in her blog, her choice of a strident tone as well as some of her comments to the pussipo list, all suggest that functionally – not personally, I hope – Treadwell proposes to substitute my name for Grenier’s noun.
Treadwell’s thesis as I read it is that women have sufficiently arrived as poets to enable them to constitute a literature without the help or examples or history of male writers. Fair enough. As I read it, this is different from the separatism of certain feminists in the early 1970s – Judy Grahn has characterized separatism as it rose up then in the lesbian community as a tool, not a program – tho its motivation may be similar. It is certainly true that with the thousands of interesting poets writing now & the enormous increase in the number of female poets since the early 1950s that a poet could easily read only women poets & still never find the time to read even all the good or great ones. So what Treadwell is suggesting is not at all implausible as a next stage in the evolution of writing in the
I will admit to a certain ambivalence to being proposed as the icon of all that is old. It’s an index of how far from what I experience as “the old world,” i.e., the institutions of what Charles Bernstein still calls Official Verse Culture, the world of poetry has come that Treadwell would think to pick a blogger with no academic affiliation, someone who has never once had a book from a trade press. Why me, rather than, say, Ed Hirsch over at the Guggenheim Foundation, Dana Gioia at the NEA, Harold Bloom, Christian Wimen at Poetry or Jonathan Galassi at FSG? In going after me, Treadwell is saying a great deal about just how much those institutions actually matter.
It is also, however grudgingly & ironically, a deep compliment. And, ever since Elizabeth Treadwell posted her blog note and the ancillary discussion began on pussipo, my blog has experienced a 33 percent increase in the number of pages read by each visitor – a sea change, given that that figure has been stable at 1.2 pages per visit for perhaps two years. This includes two days in which more than 1,900 pages were visited. Those numbers will surely go down again as the new readers Treadwell has brought either move on or focus instead just on what has been said recently. But I have to recognize & acknowledge that Elizabeth Treadwell has done more to bring people here than anyone in a long time. And for that I can only say thank you.
¹ Porden was the first wife of British explorer Sir John Franklin who my maternal great grandfather’s family was taught had been a direct ancestor. It has only been in the last couple of years that my cousin Richard Tansley has been able to prove conclusively that the John Franklin in the family tree in the first half of the 19th century was an illiterate fish monger, not the former Tasmanian prison master & naval captain. Porden wrote several longpoems – large booklength works in the epic mode, even if they were written fairly quickly, given just how young she was when she died, just 28. It was Porden’s longpoem on arctic exploration that led her to meet