Monday, December 31, 2007

What kind of year was 2007? If you judge by the books that came out – Rae Armantrout’s Next Life, Alice Notley’s In the Pines, collected editions of Whalen & Kyger, lots of good & great books, that whole shebang – 2007 was a good, even terrific year. But if you look at the loses the literary community sustained, it was a very bad year indeed.

Do the math. If there are – just to pick numbers that are plausible, reasonable – 10,000 publishing poets in English who have careers roughly of 50 years between the time when they first begin to turn up in print or in ezines and when they pass on, then we are very quickly going to live in a world in which 200 of these poets die every year. That we don’t quite have such numbers already has much to do with the degree to which the numbers skew young, not because many poets publish for a year or two then stop – tho that certainly is the case – but because the vast expanse of writers is to a significant degree fed by the unprecedented (if not unwarranted) growth in college level creative writing degrees. Still, looking back over any given year sometimes is just appalling when you think of the poets and writers who now are gone. Just a few of the voices we lost in 2007 include Tillie Olsen, Gene Frumkin, Michael Benedikt, Artie Gold, Emmett Williams, Nancy Shaw, Kurt Vonnegut, Sarah Hannah, Grace Paley, Mary Ellen Solt, Michael Hamburger, Darrell Grayson, Sekou Sundiata, Dmitri Prigov, Sandy Crimmins, Harvey Goldner, Gloria Helfgott, Liam Rector, Ralph J. Mills, Jr., Carol Bly, Siv Cedering, Margaret Avison, Aura Estrada, Tom Cuson, Bill Griffiths, Mary Rising Higgins, Sargon Boulus, Herschel Baron, Landis Everson, Norman Mailer, Jane M. Cooper, Sandy Taylor, Liam O’Gallagher, Diane Middlebrook, John Moritz, Sylvester Pollet & Vincent Ferrini. To this add many important musicians, such as Leroy Jenkins, Eric von Schmidt, Andrew Hill, Rod Poole, Luciano Pavarotti, Max Roach, Tommy Makem, Art Davis, Frank Morgan, Karlheinz Stockhausen & Oscar Peterson. To these lists, add the other important cultural workers who passed on as well, such as philosophers Jean Baudrillard & Richard Rorty, artists Sol Lewitt, R. B. Kitaj, Sigmund Laufer, Jeremy Blake & Theresa Dunan, filmmakers Ousman Sembène, Ingmar Bergman & Michelangelo Antonioni, photographer Fred McDarragh, columnist Molly Ivins & Elizabeth Hardwick, who co-founded the New York Review of Books.

Not everyone of these were people whose work I approved of or liked. I thought Hardwick had a pernicious impact on virtually everything she touched and said so in print. Baudrillard and I argued over the impact of celebrity on critical thinking. He was also the least considerate person I’ve ever met.

But some of these writers, like Artie Gold & John Moritz, I’ve long thought of as friends. I’ve slept in Gene Frumkin’s house & eaten his food – he was a fine writer & a wonderful guy. Others I’d met or at least seen in person, from Olsen – who may very well have been the first author to have given me a book as a gift – to Sembène. Many, even the non-writers, had an important influence on me in ways they themselves could scarcely have imagined. When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I used the school’s student rental program to get Kitaj’s portrait of Robert Duncan, which hung on my living room wall for a full school year. Lewitt’s sculptures are objects I’ve stared at long & hard because I sense that their aesthetic is very close to my own. So, in a completely different way, is the music of Leroy Jenkins.

Not everyone died at the end of a long & fruitful life the way Olsen & Ferrini did. Rod Poole got into an argument with a woman who nearly ran him over in a Mel’s Drive-In parking lot & her husband got out of the car & stabbed him to death. Dasuram Mahji, who wrote in the Dravidian tongue of Kui, died of cholera at the age of 35. In the 21st century. Orissa, the state where he lived in India, is one of that nation’s wealthiest. Darrell Grayson, who came to poetry while in prison, was executed by the state of Alabama in July. African-American, he’d been tried by an all-white jury & defended by a lawyer with no experience in criminal trials. Existing DNA evidence was never tested. In the 21st century.

Perhaps saddest of all, five people listed above took their own lives: Sarah Hannah, Liam Rector, Landis Everson & the artists Theresa Duncan & Jeremy Blake, a couple that also happened to live in the rectory at St. Marks Church. Of these, only Everson’s death makes even the slightest sense – he was not young & his ability to write had been cut off due to the effects of a stroke. But even he had recently had a book manuscript rejected by the publisher of his first book – disappointing certainly, but hardly the sort of thing that should cause anyone to walk out into the woods with a gun.

I have written before, and I almost certainly will write again, on the importance of recognizing & treating depression. It’s common enough in society as it is – but in the arts it’s an epidemic. One of the reasons I was so very glad to see Ken Rumble talk of his own challenges with this on CA Conrad’s blog awhile back is that bringing this up & bringing it out of the closet is the first step in dealing with it, both personally & in society. This is not to suggest that everybody should become macrobiotic, or that that is a program that will treat even a fraction of the depression that is out there, but it does apparently work for some, and getting help is absolutely essential for anyone in this condition.

It will be forty years, really, before we can intelligibly begin to talk about all the great writers & artists who were born in 2007 as well. Almost without question, that list will be much longer than the ones above. That’s the good news.¹ And that’s one other reason why the arts of the next generation won’t look remotely like the ones of this, or of any of the previous generations as well. If I’m around then, I’ll be 101 (and intolerably cranky). But since not one of my male ancestors ever made it to 75, I’m not going to worry about that.


¹ I was intrigued, reading Stanley Kunitz’ 1977 Paris Review interview the other day, to see him already talking back then about the impacts of the expansion in the number of poets over even the 1950s – this phenomenon is not new & Kunitz is right when he notes that it’s not just more writers, it’s more good writers as well, which is an infinitely trickier question to sort through in the long run.