Thursday, June 14, 2007

In 1965, one of the most interesting and innovative anthologies of American poetry ever published appeared as, of all things, a Doubleday Anchor Original, your basic mass market paperback. A Controversy of Poets, co-edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, contained the writing of 59 then-active American poets, roughly half of them members of the School of Quietude (SoQ) (tho they didn’t call it that at the time), the rest participants in the New American Poetry (NAP). The 60th poet was supposed to have been Robert Duncan, the one writer actually selected by both editors, but he refused to appear in the same pages as members of the SoQ, since he felt their work demeaned the craft of poetry.

The selections were presented in alphabetical order, a sequence that clearly favored the New Americans, beginning as they did with Ashbery, Blackburn & Blaser. Kelly also expanded his definition of the NAP beyond the range used by Donald Allen in his anthology, including poets who had come to the fore in the five years between books, such as Jackson Mac Low, Thomas Merton, Joel Oppenheimer, Rochelle Owens, Gerrit Lansing and Theodore Enslin, as well as reaching back for one poet who was just then returning literally from oblivion, Louis Zukofsky. Zukofsky gave Kelly the last word in the book as well.

In the 42 years since, some of the SoQ poets, such as Leary himself, Gray Burr, Ralph Pomeroy, John Woods & Melvin Walker La Follette have disappeared almost entirely from view, while others (including James Dickey and Donald Finkel) really have acquired the status of neglectorinos, good, even important writers who have undeservedly been forgotten. Rich kid formalist Frederick Seidel, long before he’d become known principally as a collector of expensive motorcycles, turns up writing such breathless verse as “My slippers / Exhale lamé.” “Dayley Island,” from which those immortal words are quoted, is a dramatic monolog in the voice of an old man, tho Seidel (who’d had a book from Random House two years earlier) was all of 29 – getting his T.S. Eliot chops down must have seemed important in 1965. Reading this poem in the same volume as Zukofsky’s brilliant smackdown of Eliot, “Poem beginning ‘The’” (written before Seidel was born) is one of the real joys of this book.

On the New American side, only Georgia Lee McElhaney disappeared from sight, abandoning poetry for politics for many years before re-emerging fairly recently in Shepherdstown, West Virginia where she runs the Bookend Poets writing group.

Long before Gerald Graff began to chant “teach the conflicts,” Kelly & Leary were content to put up their favorite poets side by side & let people see what the differences might be directly. It made for passionate reading. And it didn’t hurt that at that time, this was the only readily available source of work by either Mac Low or Zukofsky, or for that matter any of Jack Spicer’s mature poetry or Frank O’Hara’s “Biotherm,” printed in what looks like 8-point type, but may even be 7. This was – still is – an exciting book.

What brings A Controversy of Poets to mind is a volume that seems to share some of the same adventurous spirit, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, edited by Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell. This book is 30 percent shorter than Controversy, 400 pages to its 570, and its poets far fewer – 13 instead of 59 – but what one sees here is the clash of aesthetics between the two American literary traditions, with Mark Levine, D.A. Powell & Karen Volkman at one extreme, Kenny Goldsmith at the other.

But where Controversy really sets up a dividing line and speaks openly of the differences, this volume just as consciously tries to move beyond the Either / Or phenomenon that has dominated American verse since at least the 1840s, presenting its authors instead as

particular but representative shadings along the continuum of contemporary poetry

My own sense is that the spectrum model is ahistorical although it may represent a desire among younger contemporary readers who may well have been brought up in college reading both traditions & just maybe think that this ongoing dispute is a tad stupid. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that some SoQ readers think Lisa Sewell got snookered into fronting for a bunch of barbarians, since the move from one end to the other gets pretty post-avant very fast. In fact, it’s worth noting who is here & in what order:

Mark Levine
Karen Volkman
D.A. Powell
Peter Gizzi
Juliana Spahr
Joshua Clover
Kevin Young
Tracie Morris
Myung Mi Kim
Susan Wheeler
Mark Nowak
Kenneth Goldsmith

Perhaps a strict version of the spectrum would be a little different – I’d probably put Kevin Young fourth, for example, and would have had Levine third – but it’s obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the context of each poet. Each poet is also given roughly 30 pages – indeed, the individual page counts are remarkably even, there’s nobody here positioned here the way Charles Olson was in The New American Poetry, taking up 10 percent of the main texts (out of 44 poets) & 20 percent of the critical material. There is poetry, an essay about the poet, a poetic statement, plus a CD in which each of the 13 appear (in the same order as the text). This is a model that Rankine and Spahr followed in their earlier American Women Poets in the 21st Century, also from Wesleyan, although that volume divided up 420 pages among just ten contributors and had no CD. As a presentation, this is impeccable. Contrasted with the jumble that is Saints of Hysteria – Powell and Wheeler are in both books – this is a powerful, intelligent production that makes me happy just to have it, even if – or even as – I don’t agree with all of its choices.

For choice, I think, is one of the book’s two serious questions. If you had to reduce all of contemporary American poetry to just 13 individuals, even narrowing the list some with that “21st Century” frame (weeding out, presumably, us old farts who made our bones way back when) whom would you choose? Three or four of the names on the list here seem plausible to me, but I have a hard time – no, impossible, I find it impossible – envisioning a list that small that does not have Linh Dinh on it. And I will admit that I think that the obvious stars among the younger “mainstream” poets have to include Alice Jones & Daisy Fried. I would have much sooner selected co-editor Lisa Sewell for one of the SoQ slots in this book than the folks she & Rankine chose.

But I think every reader is going to feel likewise, tho the names that may come up for them will differ. The minute I start thinking of who else I might select, I very quickly go way beyond 13 possibilities – I can get to over 100 in less than ten minutes without even thinking hard. There is a real issue here in presenting contemporary American poetry in so very few slices. You can’t even represent each major literary tendency and/or community with so few choices. Let alone make some kind of presentation of “representative shadings along the continuum.”

This is where the other problem, which is representing a phenomenon that is never just about who’s the better poet, but also carries within itself all of the social history of American writing, including the 160-year-old conflict between the School of Quietude & a broader, more experimental tradition – once they were called the Knickerbockers & Young Americans – in any kind of intelligible & useful form. A Controversy of Poets did a better job here for two reasons: it included more poets, which enabled both sides to show much greater diversity, and it didn’t superimpose what I suspect is a false model – “a continuum” – over something that is more complex.

Remember, when the New Americans were just getting started in the late 1940s, America was a nation of 150 million people, with an annual total of 8,000 book titles per year of all types and something under 200 publishing poets who were active enough to generate books. Today, the United States has twice as many people, but is now publishing, according to Bowker, over 290,000 book titles per year, of which some 4,000 titles alone are poetry. There must be somewhere between ten and twelve thousand publishing poets in the U.S. today in contrast with 200 fifty years ago. When Donald Allen presented The New American Poetry in 1960, his 44 poets represented at least one-third and perhaps half of all the poets in the tradition he was trying to capture. To do the same today would require a book with several thousand contributors. In the 1940s, there was one publishing poet for every 750,000 Americans. Today, there is one for every 25,000.

That is the origin of all “the culture is failing” predictions from one group of people who want, above all else, a predictable mass that they can control critically, using the same old tools & devices as were used in 1950 or for that matter 1850. And it explains also why there should be so many more poets now even as poetry itself seems less and less of a “popular” activity. How an individual poet constructs an audience, let alone a career, is fundamentally different today.

This is what Rankine & Sewell are up against. Frankly there is no way to do this with just 13 poets. I would be totally impressed by an effort that tried to do so with 130 if it were half as intelligently put together as this volume. So I think the editors here have given themselves an impossible challenge. But what they have given us is something very good indeed. These are not necessarily the 13 poets you might want to enshrine, but if you find that you have a serious interest in any one of them, then American Poets in the 21st Century really is an indispensable book.