Tuesday, October 23, 2007

In recent years, different Poets Laureate of the United States – a position Donald Hall transforms into the acronym PLOTUS – have seen and used their tenure very differently. Robert Hass, in many ways the first of the contemporary holders of the office, used his tenure to actively promote poetry, which Robert Pinsky did also – he continues to write the “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post every Sunday. You can argue about Pinsky’s choices, but he almost always tries to show what he likes in a positive light & to explain for a mass audience why he does. Donald Hall has done much the same, on a smaller scale, just by going around, giving readings and interviews during his year. Just giving interviews was quite enough work for Stanley Kunitz as he neared his 100th birthday. Billy Collins and especially Ted Kooser used their stints in the post to try and dumb poetry down – they want a verse that is accessible to people who don’t read poetry, or at least don’t much like it. That’s a debatable, but not unimaginable, goal. Indeed, of the recent laureates only Louise Gluck essentially did nothing with the post. Her term passed quickly and all but silently, perhaps fitting for a job that has never actually gone to anyone not already a member in good standing of the School of Quietude.

Charles Simic, it would seem, has a different idea. He wants to use his term as PLOTUS to enhance his newly self-appointed role as the enforcer of neophobe literary values. Simic has been given, it would seem, a big stick and he plans to use it. His role as the chair of the most embarrassing set of National Book Award nominees in recent history is one item and he already shares the poetry editing responsibilities at the moribund Paris Review. His article on Robert Creeley in the October 25th issue of the New York Review of Books represents an even clearer instance of this agenda, and it’s worth looking more closely at what the article says and why. Simic’s article has been controversial since it first appeared in NYRB, a journal founded in part of Robert Lowell & his wife Elizabeth Hardwick that was important in the 1960s for its presumption that public intellectuals were, by definition, tenured. One poet – who has read publicly with Simic since the article appeared – told me that reading it made them “want to throw up in my mouth.” Other reactions have hardly been more tempered.

I’ve read Simic for decades. He’s never been my cup of tea, but that’s true for all of the soft surrealists who grew up around James Tate in the 1960s.¹ I could never distinguish a poem of Simic’s from any unsigned translation of the work of Vasko Popa and I still can’t. The time George Quasha brought Simic by my little North Oakland cottage in the summer of 1970, Simic struck me as a man with an accent that would have been fabulous to process through the careful oral annotation that was at the heart of Charles Olson’s projective methodology. Could one actually capture that lilt in which English, French & Serbian all perceptibly cohabit each sentence & every phrase? I always thought that his impact on American letters would have been far greater & more lasting if he had. Instead, he has written in a way that seems calculated to efface any trace of the Other. A true neophobe, the last thing Simic wants to represent is the new – soft surrealism itself is about packaging such disquieting phenomena in ways that are always already understood. It is, in this sense, the antithesis not just of the original surrealist movement, but even of more recent surrealist practitioners, from Bly & Wright to Joseph Ceravolo or David Shapiro.

It should be noted, however, that Simic’s assault on Creeley isn’t exactly that. Instead, he uses Creeley to make a larger – and much more pernicious – argument. His real target is the post-avant.

Simic’s essay begins by bemoaning “the large number of collected poems appearing in the last few years . . . as if there was a huge, untapped market for every poem ever written by every dead and living American poet.” This “challenge of sheer quantity” should not be unfamiliar to anyone who has read the critical writing, say, of Hilton Kramer over the past twenty years, bemoaning the fact that critical writing no longer serves a hypothetical role as gate-keeper. Simic pretends not to recognize that a collected poems serves a different social function, say, than a City Lights Pocket Poets volume that “one can comfortably read to oneself on a park bench or to a lover in bed,” and asserts “there are not many poets, even among our best ones, who are likely to have more than eighty pages worth reading.” That is the sort of blanket assertion that readers of this blog might be more apt to expect from one of the loose canons of the comments stream, but it is particularly disturbing coming from our Poet Laureate. The implicit argument, of course, is that if there are only 80 pages of, say, Charles Simic worth reading, then the control of literature properly belongs to those who select those 80 pages – critics and editors. In this sense, Simic’s goal is exactly the opposite of his predecessors Hass & Pinsky – whereas they sought to broaden the audience for poetry, of all kinds really, Simic wants to reassert its containment. The appropriate attitude toward any writer’s collected poems, thus, is “both curiosity and dread.”

It’s worth meditating on that word dread awhile. Even if we actually believe that a reader as sophisticated as Simic really doesn’t grasp the difference between a collected & an 80-page selection in terms of its social function as published object, the idea of dreading poetry is worth contemplating. It’s in little moments like this that a writer such as Simic, who likes to suggest that he has no theory, tells us precisely what his theory is. He’s willing to make exceptions to his dictum that nobody has more than 80 pages worth reading – only one of his four examples, Frost, is likewise a neophobe– but not many. The others (Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens) either belong to the non-phobic tradition that is ever open to the different, such as Whitman & Dickinson, or at the least willing to play the two traditions off one another, as with Stevens. The image of poetry this suggests – fewer poets, slimmer volumes – just happens to look a lot like poetry circa 1954, a time when Allen Ginsberg had not yet upset the apple cart with his poem “Howl.” In a world of 10,000 publishing English-language poets, one can only imagine what “the challenge of sheer quantity” might mean to someone committed to returning us back to the days in which literature could be contained & upstarts like the Objectivists virtually disappeared.

It’s at this point in his essay that Simic finally introduces Creeley, characterizing him as having once been “a cult figure.” That’s an interesting phrase, every bit as dubious as the assertion about collected books. The definition of “cult” given – that Creeley had nearly as many readers as Ginsberg or Lowell – doesn’t say why this should be a cult phenomenon unless Creeley for some reason did not deserve that many readers. If anything, the poet among the three whom more properly fits the traditional dictionary definition of a cult would be Lowell, a poet raised high by a sect whose influence dwindles rapidly south of Manhattan or west of Amherst and whose reputation has declined even more rapidly than T.S. Eliot’s. It’s worth checking off these assertions that are arguable if not patently false. It’s not that Charles Simic isn’t allowed to have his opinions, even when they’re silly, but rather a pattern of coercive frames inserted into this essay that underscore the degree to which Simic’s actively trying to resurrect the gate-keeping role he imagines (wrongly) serious neophobe poet-critics once had. He’s not done with these misstatements.

Waving the charged term cult does serve at least one function – as a prophylactic against a critique such as this one, since any nay-sayer arguably might be a member of the Creeley “cult.” It should be noted, as I have done on this blog, that the distinction between early Creeley – the volumes largely gathered in the first volume of his Collected Poems – and late Creeley is not imaginary. There has long been a discussion, sometimes heated, among Creeley’s most devoted readers, as to the arc of his career – should the later work be read as a falling off of his talents or as a shift away from the constant push toward innovation that characterized his early books, having finally arrived at the poetry he personally needed? This is, I suspect, one of those unsolvable puzzles, tho one can take (and fiercely hold) one side or the other. This debate is Simic’s frame, but not his ultimate focus.

Simic spends two paragraphs introducing Creeley generally:

His poems seemed both adventurous and old-fashioned…. They were almost all about love…. A member of the little-understood but already fabled circle of poets that included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn, and Ed Dorn, he came across as both a poet and an intellectual.

This almost sounds like praise, and bits of it actually are. Soon enough we will discover that Simic wants to trim this wild writer of a two-volume collected down to a topiary he thinks of as Creeley the love poet, and he’s carefully laying out the grounds for his move. We will see before the essay is over that old-fashioned is higher praise than adventurous and that intellectual is no praise at all. After all, the result of being an intellectual is that your work may end up little understood even if already fabled.

Simic now shifts gears and gives us a biographical background that is as long as this introductory movement. For the most part, this is what you could get out of Wikipedia. It also serves the important function of introducing Charles Olson, and with Olson the ideas associated with Projective Verse. Here is Simic’s representation of those core ideas:

[Olson] argued for “open form poetry” in which traditional ideas of form would be replaced by poems in which form would depend on the content. In other words, the right form for a poem trying to describe a red wheelbarrow next to a couple of white chickens, or one about staring into a bathroom mirror at midnight, is to be found in the experience itself and is not to imposed mechanically from outside. So understood, form is not what Shakespeare and Keats thought it was, but the property of the content and the language of everyday experience.

This is an especially weird interpretation, particularly insofar as Olson’s major accomplishment prior to the publication of “Projective Verse” was a study of the profound & positive impact of Shakespeare on Melville. Olson specifically names Chaucer’s Troilus and “S’s Lear” as examples of what ought to be emulated. Simic is committing the third of his ungrounded assertions, presuming that Projective Verse” is aimed at countering everything that has come before in poetry, rather than making choices, inserting the bard & Keats where Tennyson or Housman would have been far more to the point. Simic also is conflating history by invoking a poem of the 1920s, Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow,” as a demonstration of a method not developed for nearly another 30 years. Olson’s actual proposition is so muddied that it’s hard to tell if Simic is satirizing him. There is also ample evidence, particularly in Creeley’s writing – some of it as early as 1953 – to suggest that Simic’s content-centric reading of “form is nothing more than an extension of content” is a profound misinterpretation and that the dynamics between the signifier & signified in a poem are infinitely more complicated than represented by the paragraph above. If you didn’t know anything about Projective Verse before you read Simic’s account, everything you knew about after those three sentences would be wrong.

Simic appears to want to separate out Olson’s stance from Creeley’s:

Like Pound, Olson saw the role of a poet as a teacher, someone who makes new ideas available to his readers. Creeley thought that what defines our poetry is the prototypical American proclivity since Whitman and Dickinson for speaking in the name of an extraordinary single self, which nevertheless feels itself to be representative.

Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas, but Simic appears to want to use the latter sentence not just as a wedge against Olson & the poetry of ideas, but also as a foretaste of his account of Creeley the love poet. We will later see the word "teacher" used as a pejorative again, which is eyebrow-raising coming from a retired teacher. The bridge between this passage and that account is a one-paragraph history of The Black Mountain Review, the journal Creeley edited. For Simic, the important thing about the Review is that it

was almost impossible to get hold of except in a few little bookstores around the country. Still, it circulated among poets and was exciting to read since it had poems and essays by Olson, Duncan, Levertov, and Creeley, whose ideas and work were far more intriguing than what one usually encountered in university quarterlies. Not until 1962, when Scribner brought out Creeley’s For Love: Poems 1950-1960, was it possible to have some sense of what his poetry was like unless one happened to come across one of his small-press books published in Spain or North Carolina.

This account, it’s worth noting, directly contradicts Anselm Hollo’s report that one of the great things about the 1950s – when far fewer poets were trying to publish in any format – was that, as a BBC reporter in London, he could easily get any American small press volume at virtually any decent local bookshop. The pyramid between, say, FSG and the humblest of small presses was not nearly so pronounced in an environment in which there were, at most, ten thousand titles of all kinds being published each year, and the present in which there just under 200,000 titles reach print annually. A good-sized bookshop in the 1950s, with maybe 50,000 different titles on its shelves, could pretty much stock five years of everything. That same store today is apt to have far fewer titles, even though 50,000 would represent only what was issued over the past three months. Further, Creeley had been published in 1960 in The New American Poetry, the best selling poetry anthology of all time, where his contribution of 14 poems was exceeded only by Frank O’Hara, and where only he and Charles Olson were permitted two separate statements on poetics. Creeley was hardly the hidden flower of this portrait. My point is not that Simic’s picture of Creeley’s marginality prior to For Love is, to say the least, overblown, but rather that we are seeing another plank in Simic’s theoretical platform set into place: only trade publishing is real, because it aims at a “non-specialist” audience. By “Spain and North Carolina,” what Simic means is “not Boston or New York.”

At this point, something very interesting happens. Simic’s tone changes – not entirely, but substantially – for several pages. Simic now proceeds to close read four poems from early Creeley, and for the most part does so enthusiastically if not brilliantly. He refers to “I Know a Man” as “such a little poem,” but does a credible job reading it, noting that, as “in a number of other Creeley poems, the conflict here is between two sides of the self.” He discusses spelling, line breaks & prosody and does so without misrepresenting the object of his study. Simic’s reading of these four poems may not be my own, but they’re certainly within the range of reasonable. After the loopy start, I almost wondered if he hadn’t actually approached NYRB with a pitch that went something like this – “You know, Creeley’s a great love poet, but not enough people appreciate that about him. Let me write about that.” – and had done so, only to insert it into this polemical superstructure. At least for the first three poems, Simic appears to genuinely like and feel sympathy of Creeley’s project. It starts to turn, though, with the fourth, entitled “The Language”:

Locate I
love you
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

love you

then what
is emptiness
for. To

fill, fill.
I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.

“Words are holes,” Simic begins, immediately misstating the very lines he has just quoted. This is quite different from Creeley’s proposition here, which could be stated as “Words have holes.” No wonder Simic concludes that what Creeley

ends up espousing is a form of solipsism which holds that the primary reality for the self if the mind and the sole truth is the immediate and unshared experience that occurs there.

With a single word, solipsism, Simic dismisses the broader phenomenological tradition into which Creeley’s work fits. For what it’s worth, Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty all refuted this same equation (their point being that phenomenology doesn’t cancel out descriptive objectivity, but rather fixes depiction very close to the observer) but it’s a position that continues to pop up in the literature. But Simic’s not really focusing on Creeley as intellectual here, so much as trying to spell out what he sees as a serious epistemological shift in Creeley’s work, one that he hopes to demolish.

“By broad agreement, For Love is Creeley’s best book,” Simic begins – yet another dubious assertion. Presuming that Simic has read the secondary literature on Creeley, he has to know of the cancellation by Scribners of Creeley’s first Selected Poems, edited by Robert Grenier, which in fact gave just 44 pages to the early poems of For Love and The Charm, centering itself – 91 pages worth – on Words and Pieces. The emphasis is even more clear when you realize that these two volumes were much shorter than For Love and are thus much more deeply represented. You can find this easily enough in the Creeley issue of boundary 2, Spring/Fall 1978, right there on pages 426-429. Scribners’ interest in poetry was waning – the imprint survives today as a brand of the Thomson Gale house, a reference publisher – and with it Creeley’s own relationship with the press. The cancellation precipitated Creeley’s move to New Directions, where Robert Duncan, another Scribners author, had already preceded him.

What Simic is actually doing here is a variation on an old School of Quietude attempt to co-opt Ezra Pound by professing to love the old fascist’s early work gathered in Personae, rejecting the innovative structure of The Cantos, even tho those are the very poems – particularly the early ones in which he articulated his mature method and the much later Pisan Cantos – which gave rise to the whole Pound-Williams-Zukofsky tradition in contemporary poetics. “Words,” Simic writes, “is an uneven book.” Simic notes that there are “several powerful poems” in it, but finds that Creeley is moving away from descriptive or narrative lyrics.

Such specifics are rare in his work. Ordinarily, his lovers, friends, and the places he travels are not shown in any detail. Poetry denies its end in any descriptive act, Creeley has insisted, since it leaves the attention outside the poem.

This last sentence may be the focal point for Simic’s entire essay. He needs to deconstruct this position to make his case. He thus quotes Creeley from an interview with Linda Wagner, giving what essentially is a characterization of contemporary verse that sounds very much like the verbal equivalent of action painting, the version of abstract expressionist art favored, say, by Jackson Pollock:

Poetry seems to be written momently – that is, it occupies a moment of time…. I seem to be given to work in some intense moment of whatever possibility, and if I manage to gain the articulation necessary in that moment, then happily there is the poem.

Simic is open enough in his disagreement: “If this is true – and it is not true for most poets – all we can expect from Creeley’s poetry will be jottings, words and phrases about his state of mind which will rely on his knack for colloquial speech to conceal the paucity of content.” Simic can’t bring himself to use the term reference here, for to do so would force him to admit that there is every bit as much content in these poetics as in his own. But it is evident from such phrasings as “all we can expect,” “jottings,” and “paucity” where Simic stands. This analysis also suffers from the minor inconvenience that its first assertion - that it is not true for most poets - fails to acknowledge that it has been true for many for well over three decades now.

So the real target of this piece turns out to be Creeley’s Pieces. “Pieces…,” Simic writes, “is all about such poetry.” He goes after the book with the tenacity of a pit bull. “Having convinced himself” of these poetics – the implication being that this is some sort of delusion – “Creeley eschews even the beginnings and endings of poems.” He quotes, almost arbitrarily, the first half of “A Step,” concluding that “even this much ought to be enough to show the slightness of such poetry.” Acknowledging that he likes “Numbers,” a collaboration with painter Robert Indiana and that there “are a few good poems in his earlier manner in Pieces, but the rest of the book doesn’t amount to much,” Simic sums up his dismissal: “Creeley confused ideas about poetry with poetry itself… Creeley had ceased to be a lyric poet and become a teacher-preacher type giving us classroom demonstrations of how poetry, written according to a particular theory of poetry, works.” Of course, Simic in this essay has shown us his theory by which I suppose we can now dismiss his own writing out of hand.

What Simic is not saying here is what Pieces actually does as writing – he could have found much more provocative examples of what he doesn’t like. And he fails to put the book into any sort of larger context – notably absent in this essay are the two names Ted Berrigan and Louis Zukofsky – since Simic seems to want this to appear to be Creeley’s deviation – the phrase “teacher-preacher” may intend to recall Olson – rather than a broader movement in the arts. The latter, of course, would patently negate this argument.

But, in fact, Pieces was read by a generation of younger poets for the revolutionary work that it is. Its most important review was Grenier’s amid his famous critical statements at the back of the first issue of This, which declares in its second sentence (and in Grenier’s distinct style):


The statement centered on the page so that you cannot miss its importance, and Grenier’s claim that the same Projective Verse essay that Olson had published some dozen years earlier – Simic himself notes that the manifesto is “famous” and that the “ideas and work were far more intriguing” than the squat neophobe stanzas of the 1950s – has now moved beyond the point of prolepsis, speaking as tho the future were the present, and that Pieces represents the first fully manifested instance of actual projective writing.

This, we should note, is the onset of the revolution in writing that is most often associated with the term Language Poetry, a phrase Simic does not use and whose practitioners he never mentions. From this point forward in the essay, however, it is clear that what Simic is trying to accomplish is to strike from the record everything that has been written in the post-avant tradition from Pieces onward. He quotes both Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan to the effect that the new poetry should be intellectually inclusive and move away from the sentimental frameworks of neophobe writing and comments

The most charitable interpretation of these two awful pieces of advice is that Ginsberg was pulling his leg and Duncan meant something else.

Actually, the more charitable one is that Simic himself isn’t intellectually capable of following a serious discussion of the arts. He’s like the jazz fan who likes Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain or Kind of Blue, or Coltrane’s Giant Steps, only to freak out at their later work because it demands more from him as a listener, let alone the music of Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy et al, musicians who come along later and take this new material as a given. It confounds him that Creeley doesn’t at least fill his poems with “nicely observed details and memorable stories.” In what I suspect Simic must think of as the crowning touch of this supposed demolition, he writes

The aesthetic theory – and there is always a theory behind such reductive views – may sound persuasive, but it was foolish on Creeley’s part to believe that it could ever validate a poem. If poetics were like cooking and one could write down a recipe for all of one’s future poems, that would be true. However, great cooks rarely bother to consult cookbooks.

What should be obvious to the reader by now is that the theory-ridden poet here is not Creeley, but Simic. And it is a true enough conclusion about Simic’s own poetry, but not a terribly accurate one about Creeley. If anything, the problem of Creeley’s later writing is not that it adheres to the poetics of Pieces, but that it steps back from the boldness of that volume. (I ran my own review of Pieces here three years ago)

Simic continues his essay by reading a couple of the works from the last 30 years which he likes because they contain “comic touches and sharply observed details.” He concludes with the critical equivalent of crocodile tears: “It’s a pity that he felt the need to remain faithful to ideas about composition long after it became clear that they not only were limiting him but were a dead end.” That is, however, a misreading of Creeley – hardly a surprise given how imaginary this figure is in every previous stage in Simic’s hands – and a statement that far more accurately describes Simic’s own writing. He has, at this point, been firing bullets so long that he fails to notice the degree to which his primary opponent is the man in the mirror.

Overall, Simic’s assault wants to be strategic – if Creeley’s Pieces is the linchpin for all of the poetry that has passed him by for the past 35 years, then taking it down would solve ever so many problems. But to do so would actually require reading the book, closely even, noting the degree to which any phenomenological account of poetics has to confront the materials at hand, and that what he terms “slightness” is in fact the very opposite, the magnification of minute particulars to an almost gargantuan focus. That Simic isn’t intellectually capable of handling this task – presuming for a moment that it were possible – is palpable from the fact that he let slide many moments in Pieces that, as is the case with all minimalism, can be extracted from context for ridicule by any Babbitt who comes along.

done, the
rest follows


Not from not
but in in.


Here here
here. Here.


¹ If the surrealism of Robert Bly & James Wright was a conscious rebellion against the Boston Brahmin scene around Lowell, the soft surrealists – who emerged after Tate’s sublime first volume, The Lost Pilot – represented a kind of rapprochement. The three who matter are Tate, Simic & Bill Knott, tho one can detect its influence to this day in the work of, say, Dean Young.