Friday, January 05, 2007

Bill Knott

Three times in the past week, I’ve seen missives from poets that echoed one another. One was an email from a friend of mine, not a langpo, but somebody with a significant birthday this year and a big beautiful selected poems due out in a few months who is in despair that anyone reads him or, if they do, understands what he is trying to do. The second is the degree of alienation positively radiating from Jonathan Mayhew’s second blognote about things little known about him – he says that he hates poetry readings (he told me as much when I ran into him at the MLA, and he stayed away from the big group reading, tho many there would have loved to have met him) and is too angry all the time really to be the nice guy I know him to be. The third, and most extreme, was this New Year’s Day message on Bill Knott’s blog:

Once they get to a certain age, poets should be put to sleep; I don’t mean all poets, not real poets, successful poets: but poets like me, second-raters, third-raters, run of the mill whether SOQ hack like me or superannuated avant, we should get it in the neck. 

I know there is a significant correlation between depression and poetry, and that the holidays in particular can be especially hard, but it disturbs me that the social environment of poetry is such that it seems to reinforce these feelings. Bill Knott may not be my kind of poet, but one thing he is not is a failure. It’s doubly ironic, perhaps, that he is doing to himself precisely what he insists elsewhere on his blog the likes of Geoffrey Hill & Gjertrud Schnackenberg (whose aesthetic program Knott characterizes, not incorrectly, as fascist) do to other poets. But with Knott’s sense of satire – he was Andy Kaufman avant le comic – you never quite know.

Knott teaches – or has taught, I don’t find him on the current faculty roster – at Emerson College in Boston, Mayhew at the University of Kansas (his family lives in St. Louis) tho not in the English Department, my friend teaches somewhere in the New York area, tho like Mayhew not in a writing program as such. What each is expressing is an enormous sense of isolation related precisely to their writing. Both Mayhew & Knott talk about it in competitive terms – at least Jonathan hasn’t concluded that the game is over yet.

These seem to me terms predicated on an image of writing as part of a false economy, one dominated by schools &, to a lesser degree, publishers, where the absolute ratio of jobs (and books from the likes of FSG, Knott’s publisher) to actual writers is so severe that even the most successful feel cut off from the community of their peers. This is really directly related to the same issues as I discussed on Wednesday. Poetry may be, as that silly piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer insisted, “hot,” but these three poets can’t get beyond the incredible chill they feel.

The idea of the poet competing for the FSG volume or the tenured job in Lawrence may have made some sense in a world like, say, the 1950s, when the number of poets wrestling for such goodies was around 200. But in a world in which there are at least 10,000 U.S. poets, it can only lead to the conclusion that, even if you’re a winner, you’re still a loser. That’s sad at best & potentially tragic.

The distinction I always make between avant and post-avant poets has always been around this very recognition. The mythology behind the idea of a tenured elite or the card-carrying Surrealist are just flip sides of the same coin of exclusionary gate keeping. But the Beats and the New York School (and to a lesser degree even the Black Mountain poets & the Spicer Circle) seemed clearly to get it that they were a community first, individuals second, and that that was just fine. This seems to me the inescapable implication of reading the work of Frank O’Hara – it’s literally what “Personism” means – and Ted Berrigan. Jack Spicer, one example I cited on Wednesday, is famous for being a misanthrope, but his Lorca letters, his imitation of Creeley, the intimacy of Language and the literary games of Book of Magazine Verse are all, every single one, acts predicated on the importance of community. That’s why I wrote, on Wednesday, poetry is a community. It really, legitimately is. And if you hate readings, that says a lot about your relationship to that community. Why wouldn’t you want to see what your friends are doing, and check out their work? It doesn’t matter, finally, if the event is more social than focused on the literary – there is plenty of time for that elsewhere. And isn’t it an incentive to push yourself even harder when a friend is doing something interesting?

But if you think that beyond a certain point, the “failed poets” should be taken out & shot, Knott’s modest proposal, there is something seriously wrong. I feel about failed poets the way Larry Fagin & C.A. Conrad feel about “neglectorinos” or, to use one term I’ve employed in the past, “the disappeared.” That disappearance – usually from print first – is invariably tragic. It robs me of my heritage as a poet that I can’t find the work, say, of Gail Dusenbery on the web. I’ve already been robbed no doubt of many good poems by Weldon Kees, Lew Welch or Dan Davidson because they acted on an impulse not so different from Knott’s. I don’t want to lose one poem or poet more. One of the real long-term potentials of the Internet, and of archival programs like PennSound, Ubuweb, Eclipse & Project Gutenberg, is that “the disappeared” could be, can be kept accessible literally forever. That’s the goal we should be seeking.