Friday, September 14, 2007

Brian Calvin’s Half Mast is the cover image
for Graham Foust’s Necessary Stranger

This started out as a rave review for Graham Foust’s Necessary Stranger, a book that certainly warrants that response. Over successive books Foust has demonstrated that the easy brilliance of his first works was not in any sense a fluke, and that he is one of the best younger poets now writing. But then I thought about what I take to be the real risk in his work, that of recognizability. Foust’s works do things with language that are not quite like anything I’ve read before, but the poems themselves feel immediately familiar as text. Consider “Huffy”:

August, the thick end
of summer where I’m
from. I’ve a grill, shrewd
tools, a bag of glue,
some Neil Young. (The world
eats what it orders.)
My neighbors cough and
wave and wave and frown.
Your youngest cousin
weaves by on a shit-
to-bed ten-speed, two
crutches tucked under
her too-white right arm.
This is to refer
to almost falling
from falling. It’s a
dream I’m not ashamed.

What in this poem makes me feel that it’s special? (Which I do feel.) Certainly poems have presented dreamscapes before, even if not particularly this accurately. Poets have been writing this sort of single-stanza free verse affair now for decades. Think of David Ignatow and Alan Dugan, both masters of the form. Yet there are details here that seem out of place, or not explained by this readily recognizable framework. What’s the bag of glue for? It’s emphasized by running the vowel-consonant combination by in reverse order in the word tools, that same central vowel at the heart also of the prior adjective shrewd. Note even the hard g and trilled l in the earlier grill. That’s an awful lot of a set-up for a detail that goes by in passing with no further mention.

Similarly, the reiteration of the phrase and wave, this time mid-line rather than over a linebreak alters the syncopation of the poem – it also sets up the later falling / from falling. Foust is brilliant with these little details that foreground certain elements almost in passing – it creates a tone to the poem that you can’t ever quite put your finger on, which is important in a text where the subject is never quite announced. Consider, for example, just how long the sentence goes that introduces the cousin before it gets to her gender, present only in a pronoun: five freakin’ lines.

There is, I think, a possible sequence of connotation that then builds from too-white, taken symbolically rather than, say, as an allusion to a recently removed cast, tying to the poem’s final word ashamed. The number of plausible schema available to the parsimony principle here is not small, ranging from having caused an accident that resulted in broken limbs all the way to child sexual abuse, real or simply imagined. One could likewise build back from that rather opaque title, “Huffy” – is that a description of the girl, I first thought, of the neighbors? – to the bag of glue (glue doesn’t come in bags, silly, unless you’re planning to sniff it), that suggests that the hidden word here is huffing, the process of getting high from fumes.

Foust’s poems often present just this sort of conundrum – at one level a suburban still-life, on another a tale of depravity just below the surface – the economy with which all this is accomplished can be startling, and is why I feel no hesitation in praising this work to the skies. Yet the frame of this poem, its presentation of a lyric dreamscape, something akin to a daydream, is so familiar that you can’t tell if Foust is the most avant-garde of writers, packing meaning in as densely as any writer we have, or the quietest of the School of Quietude? Yes, he is doing all these many things at once, and yet it’s all so recognizable, familiar, even comfortable.

This is an aspect of Foust’s work that he shares with Rae Armantrout, the poet of whom he most reminds me. (The one time I met him was at one of Rae’s readings.) It’s something I see as well in the writing of Michael Palmer and Fanny Howe, among those of my own generation. I’m sure it’s why Billy Collins seems so ravishingly fond of the work of Ron Padgett, among the poets in the generation immediately before mine. Or why many readers and more than a few critics preferred Robert Creeley or Denise Levertov among the Black Mountain poets, rather than Robert Duncan or Charles Olson.

It’s a question that Armantrout gets at obliquely in her famous essay, “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?” which leads off her new Collected Prose just out from Singing Horse Press. The implication in that question, of course, is that her work is comprehensible, whereas the likes of myself or Bruce Andrews will drive a reasonable reader to tears. Armantrout’s essay is hardly any longer than this note as she demonstrates how Susan Howe, Carla Harryman & Lyn Hejinian all write work that brings “the underlying structures of language/thought into consciousness.” Their work is no less “language-oriented” than David Melnick or P. Inman, it just takes something of a different form.

So it’s not an accident that Armantrout and Fanny Howe have appeared in The New Yorker and The Nation, where Foust also recently turned up. While I don’t think it’s impossible any more for the likes of a Christian Bök or Kenny Goldsmith to turn up in these venues, it’s certainly less likely. And P. Inman or Geof Huth? Don’t hold your breath.

There are two kinds of risk at play here, perhaps more. The first is that a young poet who discovers in him- or herself the capacity to write in such a manner that their work succeeds in reaching both traditions in American letters will decide ultimately to do only that, which then turns into a kind of holding back, atrophying the writing. This is, I think, the problem with the later work of George Oppen, for example, which is sentimental & lax in comparison to his earlier books. And I think it’s what ultimately kept Gustaf Sobin from becoming more than a footnote to expat literature. It’s an active element in the increasingly rapid production of self-similar books, all modeled on The Double Dream of Spring, in the writing of John Ashbery, and why, I think, his poetry is most likely to known not for that, but for the exceptions, the earliest books plus Three Poems, Vermont Notebook, Flow Chart, even Girls on the Run.

The second of risk is broader and effects us all. As MFA programs pop up like mushrooms in a damp forest climate, and the number of publishing poets in the USA moves beyond 10,000 toward the 20,000 mark or thereabouts, nobody will have any hope whatsoever of reading even a fraction of what is being written and American verse, which has suffered from its two competing visions now since the middle of the 19th century, will fragment that much further, so that there will be one audience that reads only the likes of Graham Foust, Lee Ann Brown, Laura Sims & Linh Dinh, another that reads only the next generation of Quietists, some of whom – take Daisy Fried and Alice Jones as examples – are terrific, while a third lives entirely in a world of performance, flash poetics & vispo. Plus a hundred or so metro scenes, poets who prefer their audiences face-to-face. Etc. Etc.

To some degree, what I see as the promise of a Graham Foust is that I think he works from any perspective. If you’re a fan of Wendell Berry, you will like Foust. If you’re a fan of Billy Collins, you will like Foust. If you like C.D. Wright, or Charles Bernstein or Lynne Dreyer, you will like Graham Foust. In this sense, he is one of the younger poets who strikes me as having moved toward a post-militant American poetics, neither post-avant nor Quietist. Which in a way is what Third Way poets, from Bob Hass to Forrest Gander to Ann Lauterbach to Jorie Graham have been advocating for years now. But the Third Way has always struck me as predicated upon the existence of the other two. Younger poets today I think have more of an opportunity of learning from all worlds without having to sign up & pick sides. And that in turn will itself impact how writing gets done, going forward.

One of the more interesting moments in the history of the School That Shall Not Be Named is the revolt of many of its younger stars in the 1950s when confronted with the reality of the New American Poets. Look, for example, at the poems Robert Bly published in Poetry in the early 1950s, or the first books of Bill Merwin or Adrienne Rich, or the magazine verse that James Wright was turning out until Bly recruited him. All were clearly little Lowells, little Wilburs & then, whammo, they were penning The Lice, discovering surrealism, doing all manner of things not heretofore admissible on the campuses of Kenyon or Harvard. The one book I know that really touches on this is David Ossman’s The Sullen Art, published by Corinth in 1963. A member of the famed Fire Sign Theater in Los Angeles, Ossman interviewed a number of postwar American poets for the Pacifica Radio station there, then transcribed the interviews for publication. In addition to New Americans such as Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Gilbert Sorrentino, Denise Levertov, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Ed Dorn and Allen Ginsberg, plus even Kenneth Rexroth & Paul Carroll, Ossman thought to interview the new Deep Image poets who were then emerging as their own literary revolt, including Bly, Jerry Rothenberg & Robert Kelly. He also interviews Merwin and John Logan, then two of the major young stars of the Quietist landscape. But he’s very conscious of the turmoil Quietists are experiencing. Bly is already in full revolt, while Merwin is already proposing something akin to a Third Way:

I don’t know what either “school” is supposed to consist of, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of either.

That’s disingenuous to the point of dishonest, but in fact Merwin’s already trying to imagine something beyond, tho he’s not very clear exactly what that might mean.

It’s interesting that the only one of this first generation of disaffected Lowell protégés to ever come close to the New American Poetry, as such, has been Adrienne Rich, who has long been a friend and advocate for the work, editorial & literary, of Clayton Eshleman, not necessarily whom you might think of if you were free associating from the conjunction of “New American” and “feminist.”

The others, including the non-Brahmin Quietists at Iowa City, who borrowed from Williams without ever really grasping the implications of his work (hence Open Poetry), all seem to have already crossed the New Americans off their list of possible places to go. At least once Bly, Kelly & Rothenberg came to realize just how incompatible their concepts of Deep Image really were. The long-term result of these revolts within Quietism was a pluralizing of the tradition. But one of the difficulties of participating in the School That Shall Not Be Named is that it’s difficult to discuss trends with That Which We Shall Pretend Does Not Exist. Thus one-time Stanley Plumly student & University of George Press poetry series editor Bin Ramke gets characterized as a member of the avant-garde by Poets & Writers in its September issue when he’s never really had a direct connection with the Pound-Williams-Stein-Zukofsky tradition at all – he’s a Quietist, an interesting one at that, who’s moved into some other directions altogether.

Ramke’s problem is exactly the opposite of Foust’s: Ramke seems to have become unrecognizable where Foust’s recognizability is apparent to any reader even if he turns out not to be quite what he seems.