Tuesday, July 24, 2007

When, in editing the first volume of Poet’s Bookshelf, Peter Davis got some 81 poets to respond to his request for a list of

5-10 books that have been most “essential” to you, as a poet

and asked his respondents further to “Please write some comments about your list,” he got an awesomely, if predictably, wide range of reactions. At one extreme were minimalist responses, such as J.D. McClatchy’s list of three:

Virgil, The Aeneid
The American Heritage Dictionary
William Shakespeare

followed by a five-paragraph essay that begins “The Aeneid is undoubtedly the greatest poem ever written….” Only two other contributors mention Virgil on their lists at all. Clark Coolidge tries the opposite approach to minimalism, citing 16 books, twelve of whose authors were in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and the other four (William Carlos Williams, Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, Joe Ceravolo) of whom would have been included in the Allen had they only been a little older or a little younger. Coolidge is marvelously specific as to which publication proved “essential,” noting that the version of Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight he has in mind is the selection of “the first 49 sections as printed in Big Table magazine, no. 1, 1959.” Coolidge is the only contributor to the first volume of DavisPoet’s Bookshelf to list Ray Bremser, let alone Drive Suite.

I was given a copy of Ray’s typescript by Buell Neidlinger, Cecil Taylor’s bass player in the fifties, in 1961.

But Coolidge’s entire discussion beyond the specificity of his list is extremely brief:

The publication dates are, unless otherwise indicated, also the years of first possession.

I do not intend this list as any sort of “canon.” This is the contemporary American poetry that most excited me as I began to seriously attempt the art.

As essays go, this is twice the length of Elizabeth Spires’ contribution:

These are authors and books that I greatly admire, and that I have been influenced by, but that seem to me “overlooked.”

Her list contains seven poets, including Josephine Jacobsen, A. R. Ammons, John Berryman, Elizabeth Coatsworth, May Swenson, William Meredith and Gwen Harwood. Considering that I have never even heard of two of her choices, I wish she’d expanded somewhat on what it is about them that makes them, for her, special.

Some contributions are eye opening. Thom Gunn lists no School of Quietude poets whatsoever, choosing instead:

William Shakespeare
John Donne
Charles Baudelaire
William Carlos Williams
Basil Bunting, Briggflatts and Other Poems

Another poet who for all purposes chooses no School of Quietude poets is Franz Wright, at least unless you count Hart Crane or Theodore Roethke among such – both special cases who suggest the limits of that designation. Seven contributors list James Wright as a primary influence; son Franz is not among them.

Here is Fanny Howe’s contribution, in its entirety:

Years ago Edward Dahlberg gave me a list of ten book that I was allowed to read, all the rest being trash. Some of the trash included Melville, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke and Joyce. These writers have populated my bookshelves for decades. Dahlberg would have been repelled by anthologies that I own: Jerome Rothenberg’s America: A Prophecy, The Negro Caravan, edited by Sterling Brown, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, Moving Borders, edited by Mary Margaret Sloan, and Early Celtic Poetry. He despised almost all fiction, and my large collection of contemporary fiction, which includes many friends and world poets, he would have called “an utter waste of time.” I will not provide his approved list here. But I will say that Dahlberg’s own autobiography, Because I Was Flesh, stays with me as an object and a model of enlightened prose literature. What would he make of that?

At the other extreme, Clayton Eshleman lists “Nine Fire Sources,” just four of which are books of poems. The others include “Tea for Two” by Bud Powell, Origin magazine, the paintings of Chaϊm Soutine, Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm and Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. Eshleman then writes twelve pages of commentary on these nine sources, making his contribution something akin to The Education of Clayton Eshleman. Tho his choices won’t be surprising to any of his readers, his discussion is the most detailed in the volume & thereby the most illuminating.

Barrett Watten’s draft of a response for a future edition of Poet’s Bookshelf on his website at Wayne State is in the same general vein as Eshleman. One value for me here is that it is not all just poetry – Watten, like Eshleman, includes music, art and theoretical writing. And Watten goes into greater depth, offering twelve categories and suggesting multiple possibilities for each, with some brief comments on each group. Beyond this, I have my own personal stake in Watten’s influences – Barrett is clearly one of the individuals who has had the greatest influence on my own life and work. Along with Rae Armantrout & Robert Grenier, he has had more impact on how I think about poetry & literature generally than just about anyone else.

With the exception of a category Watten labels “Great Books” (four pre-20th century authors, plus the German novelists Alfred Döblin & W. G. Sebald) which Watten posits last, literally on the far side of theory, film and the visual arts, his literary selections are grouped together in six clusters at the start of his piece:

Language Writing
Hybrid Texts
New York School

The modernists are predictable precisely because disputes over that generation, at least with regards to English language literature, appear to have been settled once Stein – who was almost entirely ignored in the 1950s & ‘60s – was returned to a central role: Joyce, Woolf, Stein, Pound, Williams, McKay, with the text selected from this group being Spring & All. That book was one of two by Williams on my own list of 12 in the first volume of this series¹ so this makes complete sense to me. My own list for this category would see Faulkner in place of Woolf or McKay, and possibly Hart Crane as well. But my real sense is that the deeper question here is the exclusivity of Watten’s focus on English-language modernism. I would almost certainly include Vladimir Maykofsky & Velimir Khlebnikov. I know there are people who would argue for Stevens or even Eliot, but I’d have to put Woolf & McKay back in, as well as a host of other writers (Brecht, Riding, Hughes, Hikmet, Cavafy, Borges, Kafka), before I’d get to Stevens. The list is a whole lot longer before I would reach Eliot.

The structure of Watten’s next five categories is worth thinking about, because it begins with one grouping, the postmoderns, who basically represent the Objectivists plus every kind of New American Poetry (NAP) other than the New York School, and ends with the NY School after proceeding through three groupings more of contemporary writers: Proto-Language, Language Writing & Hybrid Texts. The idea of breaking the New American Poetry into a binary strikes me as emotionally “right” in that I think most poets of my own generation tended to focus on just one of the NAP’s different possibilities – New York School, Projectivist (a.k.a Black Mountain), Beat, the Spicer Circle or New Western/Zen Cowboy² – grouping whatever was outside of one’s focus more or less as a friendly-but-less-interesting Other. My own focus differs from Watten – if I had to reduce it to two groups, it would be Projectivist & Other, with a lot of the Spicer Circle foregrounded in the latter. The incorporation of the Objectivists into this model makes a lot of sense, even if they were writing somewhat cohesively two decades before the NAP, since their books didn’t start becoming widely available until the 1960s, actually after most of the other NAP formations.

Watten’s own Other, his “postmoderns,” turns out to be the three horsemen of the Projectivist movement – Olson, Duncan & Creeley – plus sort of one each of the other non-NY schools: Zukofsky (Objectivism), Ginsberg (Beat) & Joanne Kyger (both Spicer & the Zen Cowboy clusters). The book he highlights as key here is Creeley’s Pieces, also one of the twelves volumes I had on my list in the first volume. Watten gets the New York School right also in including Koch for When the Sun Tries to Go On and recognizing “Second Avenue” as Frank O’Hara’s crowning achievement. I don’t share his enthusiasm for Ashbery’s Double Dream of Spring, at least not when compared against Three Poems or Rivers and Mountains or even The Vermont Notebook or Flow Chart. And while there is a rightness in including Mayer & Brainard in this grouping, I couldn’t personally imagine a New York School cluster without David Shapiro or Joe Ceravolo. Among the works Watten lists, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets makes sense as the volume highlighted. But I’d personally have picked Three Poems instead.

Ashbery shows up again in one of the three groupings that tend to be more contemporary, one of two authors to turn up in two clusters, the other being Clark Coolidge (who also is included under “new music/jazz” for his collection Sound as Thought). Both Coolidge & Ashbery turn up in the Proto Language. The whole concept of proto language – the idea, as I understand it, of writing that “arrived at” language poetry without necessarily meaning to get there, which includes The Tennis Court Oath, Coolidge’s The Maintains, Larry Eigner’s Another Time in Fragments, Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal, Robert Grenier’s Sentences and Rae Armantrout’s first book, Extremities – is interesting to contemplate. It certainly is the case that there are a number of people – Michael Palmer, Bernadette Mayer, Jackson Mac Low, Ted Greenwald, as well as the ones Watten lists – who either have been uncomfortable with any association with langpo, so-called, or whom others have felt were “roped in” just to lend the phenomenon some legitimacy. But just as, in the 1950s, Denise Levertov had virtually nothing in common with the “Beat” writers so many of the New American Poets initially were typed as, any literary movement, if it has any force, any serious social as well as aesthetic meaning, tends to incorporate any number of such “border cases.” Is John Clellon Holmes a Beat novelist? F. T. Prince a “New York School” poet? What about John Koethe? What about Tom Clark, who spent his years as poetry editor of the Paris Review first in England, then in the Bay Area? Why isn’t Aram Saroyan a langpo, at least for his minimalist works? Once you get going, questions like this become rather endless, and indeed one of their downsides is that they can enable the construction of pseudogroups like M. L. Rosethal’s confessional poets, a tendency that was alleged to include both Anne Sexton & Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell & Gregory Corso. As a concept, confessionalism was sillier even than the idea of a San Francisco Renaissance, but at least the latter seems to have been originally conceived in jest.

So I like the concept of Proto Language, simply because it acknowledges the complexity of categories per se, tho I don’t draw the Venn diagrams of poetry in the same way as Barrett – I don’t see anything “proto” about Armantrout, Grenier or Weiner, tho I could probably be persuaded about it with regards to Coolidge, and the likes of a Palmer or Mayer strike me as a no-brainer for this category. I’m persuaded, for example, that a purely formal definition of language writing, or for that matter any literary tendency, is both ahistorical as well as apolitical. That is why, for example, Rae Armantrout strikes me as a canonic example of language writing, whereas Peter Ganick & Sheila Murphy seem entirely outside the phenomenon. It’s not a question of the value of the writing any of the three, only one of historical & social context – and not being a New Critic, I do think those enter in.

But a second question might be if one were to break contemporary poetry into just three possible tendencies to list as “most formative,” are these the ones you would pick? I realize, of course, that Watten wasn’t asked to account for the whole of poetry, only what was personally important to/for him. There’s no need for him to identify his “most influential School of Quietude” poets. If I were to try to replicate this phenomenon for myself, I would obviously include langpo, a second category for writers whom I think of as simpatico, but ultimately doing something else – Bev Dahlen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Leslie Scalapino, C.D. Wright, Craig Watson, Elizabeth Willis, Rod Smith, Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jarnot, Forrest Gander, Joseph Massey & Graham Foust would all be on that list. But I would also have to have a third list just for writing the longpoem, again with Bev Dahlen & Rachel Blau DuPlessis, but also Frank Stanford, Ronald Johnson, Ted Enslin, Robert Kelly (especially for Axon Dendron Tree), bpNichol, Basil Bunting, even Hart Crane & Donald Finkel. Not to mention Wordsworth, Blake, Whitman, Pound, Zukofsky, Olson & Duncan.

But I would also have to add another category for more or less contemporary foreign writing in translation. For me, that is a list that would begin with Francis Ponge (maybe even St.-John Perse & Victor Segalen), would include Ivan Zhdanov, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Alexei Parschikov & Nina Iskrenko. This would need to be paired with English-language poetry from outside the U.S., starting with Steve McCaffery & Tom Raworth, but extending out for many, many names beyond that.

And while I like Watten’s concept here of the hybrid text – I can see how that makes sense for Barry and his own writing – I think my own experience would be to divide that idean into one category for poet’s fiction, starting with Kerouac’s Visions of Cody and This Railroad Earth, lots of Fielding Dawson, as well as Acker, Sorrentino, Leslie Dick, Nicole Brossard, while putting the likes of Harryman & Benson back into langpo proper.

A lot of this has to do with mental maps &, as always, that is a concept that turns me back to the questionnaire Jack Spicer used for entrance into his Magic Workshop at the San Francisco Public Library fifty years ago, where he asked respondents to pick one of two templates for a map of literary influences – one vaguely genealogical, the other looking like clusters of galaxies in the night sky. Pick one and fill it in with names. My own doesn’t look like anything Spicer might have recognized, but it’s also interesting to see how different the map is from somebody of my own generation & cohort like Watten. Both Watten & Spicer, it is worth noting, made my own list of 12 books.


¹ The other being The Desert Music, the volume that literally was my introduction to the pleasures of contemporary poetry.

² This isn’t the breakdown according to Donald Allen, but what really existed.