Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Henry Rago (second from right) with the editorial staff of Poetry, 1956
L-R: Robert Mueller, Margaret Danner, Elizabeth Wright, Rago, Frederick Bock

Because I wanted to reread – for a third time – Roberto González Echevaría’s review of Clayton Eshleman’s translation of César Vallejo’s The Complete Poetry, I held onto the May 21st edition of The Nation. Vallejo, for me, is both fascinating & problematic, terms that I might choose to describe Eshleman as well. More than any other poet, Vallejo is the one who challenges whatever received simplicities I might still carry about in my head as to how modernism spread in the 20th century & the moment at which one had (has) to acknowledge that there is far more to world literature than the Europeans & a few classic texts from Asia. Yet just how “non-European” is Vallejo? Half of this deceptively fat volume (with facing Spanish, there are roughly 300 pages of poetry) was written during Vallejo’s eleven years in France & Spain. Vallejo is full of questions like that – how much Spanish, how much Indian influence, how much French, the language lurches & veers to a degree that I think I, at least, still find unsettling. Eshleman, one of the strongest personalities in poetry over the past few generations, has made a lifework of this project & done so faithfully, even brilliantly. Yet there is always that question in translation, especially when, as here, or as in Pierre Joris’ Celan, the translator is himself a major poet, how much Vallejo, how much Eshleman? I’m persuaded that Clayton lets as much Vallejo through as is humanly possible, which makes it more of a question for Walter Benjamin: how much is that?

Echevaria’s review isn’t that illuminating on the questions of translation – he nitpicks a few gotchas mostly & reminds us that, as a young scholar, he turned to Eshleman for help reading Wallace Stevens, assistance for which he is obviously grateful. But the bulk of his piece is a decent history of Vallejo, which is what I actually was after. This time, tho, it was The Nation as a whole that caught my eye. For the May 21st issue also contained the 2007 Discovery / The Nation prizewinners, the thirty-third annual selection of a “new poets’” award that has, with a couple of exceptions, been the kiss of death for many a School of Quietude poet over the past three decades. And, completely separate from this year’s Discovery poets, there is a poem in the same issue by one of my favorite writers, Graham Foust:

Poem Windy and Continued

very cold.
My small
and panicked last
kiss was like making
a noise to make sure
I was there.

Your quiet
mouth was only
space – a kiss
reversed and kept
inside to bite.

This off-kilter lyric – something Foust does as well as any living poet – actually appears on the corner of a page (the third of four) of Echevaría’s piece, as if insinuating that some of the spirit of Vallejo has sipped into American poetry. This is quite an amazing leap for a journal like The Nation, a well-intended, but culturally plodding, progressive publication whose curiously bellicose title reminds readers to this day that it was first started to support the northern cause during the Civil War. If you count Calvin Trillin’s regular feature as “deadline poet” among the op-ed pieces at the issue’s front (I seldom do, but this is one of Trillan’s better efforts), the May 21st issue has not one, but four different items related to poetry in a single edition. I’ve been reading The Nation since 1963 & I can’t even remember a solstice books issue that did that before.

But consider Trillan’s immortal lines, which begin

So who ever thunk
That Tenet’s “slam dunk”
Was really the chunk
Of intelligence junk
That got our boys sunk
In quagmire gunk?

Then turn to the hapless works by this year’s Discovery winners, Paula Bohince, Darcie Dennigan, Joseph Heithaus and Melissa Range, chosen by Mark Jarman, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Phillis Levin (which “associate coordinator Ellen Paschen helped to screen”). Here are the opening lines of “Green”:

The child affixes one of her little pictures to my refrigerator.
She asks, Can you detect the radiation?

There is a house, one tree, and grass in dark slashes. A sun
Beneath, in her child letters, she has written

At kindergarten they must be having nuclear energy week.

This is one of those “excuse me” moments in literature, in which writing so padded that it suffocates thought: “little pictures,” “child letters,” really? One can only imagine how the losers of this competition must write if something like this leaked through. At least in the first line of the second stanza there is that string of single syllable words leading up to the two-syllable shining to suggest that something is occurring cognitively. But what we have here is the start of a dumbed-down allegorical narrative that mostly reveals the poet not to be a serious thinker about radiation, about children, or about poetry.

At least Darcie Dennigan spares us the tub-thumping metrics offered by Melissa Range:

His every hair and shred
sheds two uses, or more, for our daily bread.

Good sidekick, stock stand-by,
he helps us tear the ground and haul the rye.

Too much sweetgrass made him lame,
or we did; to much bridle made him tame,

which we did. Nails in the foot
mean he’s not good-for-naught;

disease in the hoof, he’s a no-shoe
no-show on the field. It’s a no-go,

when he founders on the clock:
he’ll go free, barefooted, to the block.

And so on for another eight sterling couplets.

Paula Bohince at least appears to be writing after the birth of Vallejo (1892) with her “Hide Out,” which begins

Stiff as a fish
in a boat, I lie in the grove
of crabapples,
inhaling dirt’s pepper, my cheek
wet against stubble,
eye to mineral eye,

tracing the bodies of fish
onto wood’s floor – infinity in mud,
curves of hourglass
repeating –

until I cannot hear
my breathing….

The poet re-enacting her childhood: here’s a cliché that really needs to be revisited. At least she has some idea of line that is not stiff as a fish in a boat.

Alongside a discussion of Vallejo or the poetry of Graham Foust, these are not just comically bad expressions of a brain-death aesthetic, they’re bad writing alongside Calvin Trillan. At least Joseph Heithaus offers some of the density & linguistic acrobatics that raise, say, Geoffrey Hill or Paul Muldoon above this sort of swamp. Heithaus merely asks that you believe he talks to sheep. With School of Quietude poets, I’m ready to believe almost anything.

Green False Hellebore
Veratrum Woodii

We must warn the good sheep: Dear pregnant ewes,
stay away from the stout, erect, unbranched
stems, pleated leaves, flowers B inconspicuous
clusters, green or greenish white.
I blanched

at what they do to you, your little lamb.
If you eat false hellebore on the fourteenth
day of gestation, expect your new ram
to be monkey-faced, cycloptic, come a month

early or die. Really, aside from weakness,
trembling, the stomach ache you’ll feel, you’ll give
birth to truth, small brained, defected, helpless,
just for taking what you thought sheep might live

on. This is nature’s justice, something cruel
to chew: we’re empty headed beasts, poison’s fool.

Just wait till he starts writing as tho he were born after 1892. This at least is worth reading, tho frankly there’s less to think about than meets the ear. It’s ultimately a set piece intended to display the verbal dexterity of the poet. That there is some to display is its saving grace.

Between these four selections, we have an interesting phenomenon, The Nation displaying the very different directions of contemporary poetry, from something completely new (Foust) & groundbreaking work of the 20th century (Vallejo), to poetry that imagines that, by simple denial, it can erase the writing of the last 150 years, first as tragedy (the Discovery four), then as farce (Trillan). I’m reminded that John Palattella recently replaced Grace Shulman as poetry editor of The Nation, and it’s his presence that I credit for the Foust, maybe even Echevaría’s review of the Vallejo. But obviously the Discovery prize still lays in the hands of the old regime.

In the years before I became the executive editor of the Socialist Review (SR), I used to marvel at the breadth of that publication, which had been started in the very early 1970s under the name of Socialist Revolution to be a place where the veteran on-campus organizers of the 1960s might discuss the theoretical implications of their post-school work “in the real world.” There could be a discussion of class in the sugar industry in the Caribbean followed, literally, by Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs.” It wasn’t until I actually joined the Bay Area editorial collective that it fully dawned on me that this was the result of SR having not one, but two editorial collectives – there was very briefly a third, albeit before my time – and that the Boston collective was predictably the origin of economic materialist analysis, some of quite good, but much of it old school Stalinist Marxism at its most reified. What had happened was the journal began with a single collective in San Francisco – the funding for the journal came at first from Jimmy Weinstein, a veteran of Studies on the Left, the 1960s antecedent to SR, and later the founder of In These Times. Most of the first collective were off-campus organizers, but as the 1970s wore on, a number headed back to grad school and the collective became closely identified with the grad students in the UC sociology department – at least those who were not part of the number-crunching faction. When the first generation of these graduated and some got jobs with colleges in Boston, they started the second collective, which now was a phenomenon of junior (and later senior) faculty at a number of schools, people whose evolution in their careers led them in different directions than the Bay Area collective, which remained constantly evolving and continued its focus around graduate Soc students (the longest term member, Carol Hatch, was a departmental secretary, something that could never have occurred in the Boston collective which increasingly got involved in tenure disputes at the different schools there). By the time I arrived in 1986, just a year after the “Manifesto for Cyborgs” publication, the two collectives were barely speaking to one another. Indeed, the bitterness over publishing Haraway – seen as pure heresy by the Boston collective – kept the SF collective from later having the courage to run Samuel R. Delaney’s even more highly metaphoric analysis of it, which had lost out on publication by a single vote shortly before I arrived (and which, two years later, lost again when I tried to revisit that decision). Within three months of joining the collective & immediately making a journey to Boston to meet the collective there (which was not pleased in the slightest that a poet with few academic credentials was now executive editor), I was able to go back, literally, for years, pointing out which article had been accepted for publication by which collective. The great eclecticism of SR, really its strength throughout most of its history, was in fact a construct, the result of ongoing – and often internally quite hostile – conflict between two editorial groups with radically different ideas about what the left was, and the role a journal might play in that.

So what I see in this really peculiar single issue of The Nation is something not that terribly different. I don’t think John Palattella is necessarily a post-avant type personally, my sense is that he’s trying to be broader than that, but he is somebody who reads, intelligently so (based on the reviews I’ve seen), the likes of Ted Berrigan & Allen Ginsberg, something that a poetry editor at The Nation hasn’t done since the days when Denise Levertov was there in the 1960s. And the result may be that we are going to get, at least for a time, this sort of quirky, uneven coverage as the journal presents a wider view simply because different editors think very differently.

I’m reminded that the one brief renaissance in the history of Poetry magazine came not during the years when Ezra Pound was periodically breaking through the deadened crust of work Harriet Monroe preferred, but rather the latter half of Henry Rago’s tenure in the 1960s. During the first several years of his editorship, Rago was the same sort of predictable School of Quietude type that the journal had grown moldy with in the post-Monroe years. But then, around 1962, Rago came to some sort of epiphany that the magazine ought to represent all of American poetry, and for the next seven years it did (until a heart attack killed Rago on his sabbatical, leaving the publication in the worst of hands, Daryl Hine, who made it even more a repository for reaction than had Monroe). I still keep the three double-issues that punctuated the early years of Rago’s renewed vision by my desk. The fiftieth anniversary issue, October-November, 1962, has just a glimmer of what was to come, presenting its poets in alphabetic order and including, among others, Conrad Aiken, Ben Belitt, John Berryman, Louise Bogan, Hayden Carruth, John Ciardi, Robert Creeley, e.e. cummings, James Dickey, Alan Dugan, Robert Duncan, Robert Frost, Robert Graves, Thom Gunn, Anthony Hecht, Randall Jarrell, Kenneth Koch, Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Hugh Mac Diarmid, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Howard Nemerov, Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser, Delmore Schwartz, Anne Sexton, Karl Shapiro, Stephen Spender, Charles Tomlinson, Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, James Wright & Louis Zukofsky.

The simple presence of Creeley, Duncan, Levertov, Koch, Mac Diarmid, Olson, Rexroth & Zukofsky in this list was revolutionary in 1962. But it merely was the piercing of the veil of benign neglect with which the Pound-Williams tradition had previously been treated, and it was, frankly, tokenistic. Thirty months later, the April-May 1965 double issue devoted to works-in-progress, long poems & sequences actually reflected the world more as it was. Its contributors included, again in alphabetical order (and this is the complete list), Wendell Berry, Carruth, Creeley, Duncan, Ronald Johnson, Galway Kinnell, Koch, Levertov, Olson, David Posner, Adrienne Rich, Ernest Sandeen, Sexton, Gary Snyder, Tomlinson, Gael Turnbull, Theodore Weiss & Philip Whalen. The issue feels as tho its 20 – maybe 50 – years more contemporary than the one less than three years earlier. Indeed, more contemporary than any issues of Poetry that have been published in the past 20 years.

Since the Poetry Foundation got its boatload of cash from a sheltered pharmaceutical heir a few years back, the organization has gone through some convulsions that suggest that it too is having some of the same sorts of pressures straining on it that we may be seeing in The Nation. The website for Poetry is already much more interesting than the journal, but there have been some token attempts even in the publication not to seem completely out of it. This is all to the good, regardless of how incomplete & conflicted these little moments might be.

I’m reminded of Gerald Graff’s refrain to “teach the conflicts,” which I’ve always thought made sense in terms of curriculum, albeit unless one is team teaching with somebody quite opposite one’s own inclinations, one always teaches these conflicts from a particular point of view. There is, after all, a scenario in which the post-avants represent the barbarians at the gates that are disrupting the idylls of quietude & therefore must be repelled. And it’s not like I don’t have a pony, if not a sheep, in this race. So barring the emergence of saintly editors a la the later Rago, perhaps the very most we can hope for in our more public literary institutions is what we find in the May 21st issue of The Nation, that the rag will actually embody those very conflicts, all sides.

To readers who don’t pay much attention to poetry, this may feel incoherent. There is almost no way to connect the dots between Trillan & Vallejo, Foust & the Discovery 4, that is going to be readily accessible to anyone not immersed in contemporary poetics. That in itself is probably a good thing, since it shows The Nation demonstrating what anthologies like those by Garrison Keillor do not, that it’s not all one thing, but many, diverse, conflicting ones. That Vallejo’s own conflicts over his own poetry & its relation to language, nation, politics, aesthetics are no less tortured than those of any thinking person today.

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