Saturday, July 12, 2008

I know I’m repeating myself, but this seems to be a point that a lot of people get stuck on. Plus this is my 2,000th post to the blog, and I’m feeling feisty. The history of poetry, like the history of any art form, is not a procession of its “best works.” Indeed, the well-wrought urn is, if anything, the deservedly forgotten one. Having codified and smoothed out the rough edges of any given tendency in poetry, such works are monuments to triviality and soon ignored.

In the 1960s, there were dozens of young poets who wrote “just like” Robert Creeley or any of a number of other, first-generation Projectivists. John Sinclair was a terrific approximation of Charles Olson transplanted to Detroit. Ross Feld had Jack Spicer down cold. More than a few poets during that same period “did” John Ashbery almost better than Ashbery himself. And there quite a few Allen Ginsbergs & Gary Snyders as well. Where are they now? Those that persevered – many did not – have changed, sometimes quite radically. There were a hundred Ted Berrigans, but it is worth noting that Alice Notley has not been one of them. Last I heard, John Sinclair was a DJ down in New Orleans – his great magazine Work has had its title appropriated by some folks out in Oakland – I wonder if they even know the literary heritage of that name.

In The New American Poetry, Ron Loewinsohn – just 23 when the book was first published – demonstrated an uncanny ability to channel the style of William Carlos Williams. A look at his professor emeritus page at UC Berkeley shows no publication of new poetry since 1976, no new writing of any kind in over twenty years. Yet Against the Silences to Come, Loewinsohn’s 1965 chapbook from Four Seasons Foundation, arguably is the best work ever written “in the Williams mode” of stepped free verse. Who (but me) celebrates that?

That’s the phenomenon in micro- form. It has a macro- variation as well. Articulating the possibilities of the prose poem, say, or dramatic monologue, or free verse – the three great formal innovations of the 19th century – has meant dramatically transforming what those genre mean. Charles Olson’s Maximus is possibly the only innovation in dramatic monolog in the 20th century even worth discussing. But look at how Pessoa’s heteronyms carry the underlying dynamics of dissociating author from speaker in a completely different direction. Now, a few decades hence, heteronyms are a dime a dozen as well.

The history of poetry is the history of change in poetry, an account not of best works, but of shifts in direction, new devices, new forms, as Williams once put it, “as additions to nature.” The cruder writing & rougher edges of the first to do X, whatever it might be, invariably are preferable. Better Spicer than Ross Feld. Better Howl than _________ – you can fill in that blank yourself.

There are of course poets and readers who hate change, sometimes hate it intensely. There are, for example, those who claim that Pound’s “good” writing stops basically at “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” avant The Cantos. Pound in those years was something of a stylistic gigolo, plagiarizing all that was interesting in Victorian poetics. Had he stopped there, he would have been the Ron Loewinsohn of his generation. And you would never have read him.

This may be why, actually, the School of Quietude generally does such a poor job of celebrating, preserving and carrying forward the work of its own stalwarts. Does anyone think you could fill up an auditorium at Columbia for a weekend, for example, to celebrate the centenary of Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Robert Francis or Richard Eberhart, the SoQ poets closest in age to Louis Zukofsky? Why is it that the London Review of Books still thinks it necessary to order a hit piece of Zukofsky when all these contemporaries of his have long since disappeared from view? Or that Charlie Simic does the same to Robert Creeley (or William Logan ditto to Frank O’Hara)? It’s not that the SoQ poets, then and now, were bad writers – I think you can demonstrate that it’s objectively not the case. But they didn’t create change for poetry in their poetry (and, indeed, the most interesting of that earlier quartet are the two who helped to create institutional change in the academy through their critical writing, tho they did so precisely to thwart a modernism that was already threatening our shores). The assaults on Zukofsky, Creeley & O’Hara are little more than tantrums on the part of writers who understand that they’re the Robert Francises & Richard Eberharts of today, and are doomed to be just as widely read. They’d love to be able to curb the influence Zukofsky et al are having and will continue to have on younger writers, but they know already that this is impossible. Their pain is real.

Each art form has its own dynamic around issues such as form and change. For example, one could argue that the visual arts world, at least in New York & London, has become self-trivializing by thrusting change into warp drive because of the market needs of the gallery system. There, capital demands newness at a pace that hardly ever lets a shift in the paradigm marinate awhile. I seriously wonder if any innovation in that world since the Pop artists let in the found imagery of the mid-century commercial landscape has ever had a chance to settle in. That settling process seems to be an important part of the run-up in helping to generate the power of reaction, to motivate whatever comes next. The problem with the visual arts scene today is that innovation is constant, but always unmotivated.

Poetry has the advantage of not being corrupted by too much cash in the system. That ensures that change can occur at a pace that has more to do with the inner needs of writers as they confront their lives. Change, when it occurs, is driven by this confrontation.

But this may also be why, at least partly, there are so many poets still thoroughly, even comfortably, ensconced in the aesthetics of the 19th, let alone 20th, century. Why not? There are plenty of people to read you now. Do you even care what readers think 40 years after you’re gone? By their actions, Simic & Kleinzahler & Logan are telling us they do, but should we assume that this is true of every conservative or traditional poet? Can’t you just be Wendell Berry & do your thing? I’d like to say, sure – just don’t go throwing tantrums. (Those tantrums aren’t about aesthetics, anyway – they’re about power.)

All of which is to say that I take the current murmurings of flarf, conceptual poetry & now even slow poetry to be a very good thing indeed. In contrast with Simic et al, this really is the right way to discuss change. Not that any one of these is the “solution” to the question of What Comes Next in poetry, nor even that the roster of possibilities is anywhere near to being filled out. But we are hearing the first signs of a new discussion and that’s a necessary stage, preparing the ground for whatever will in fact show up. Which ought to be some great writing (and in some instances already is).

Part of this discussion, at least as its currently being framed, makes me wonder just how much of these aesthetics are being conditioned, for example, by the existence of the net, and beyond that by changes in technology, capital formation & globalization. Both conceptualism and flarf are, in very different ways, enabled by the existence of new technology, while slow poetry seems precisely to define itself by carrying forward other, older literary values. You could probably do a Harvey Ball chart plotting how each of these formations relate to a series of these kinds of issues and the answers would be interesting. Maybe even enlightening.

Some people have been complaining about the use of labels in this discussion – they’re still pissed at the idea of post-avant & the School of Q, which (to my mind, at least) designate much broader & looser aesthetic formations. Stephen Burt’s idea of ellipticism, of a third-way poetics, sort of an avant-quietude, gets similarly abused. I think these complainers are misreading the use of all these terms. Rather than representing constraints, such labels as flarf or slow poetry or uncreative writing are really statements of positionality. (It’s no accident that each occurs within – or in Burt’s case, right at the edge of – the terrain of the post-avant, since that’s the tradition that’s friendly to ideas of change.) Each term organizes how we see the entire field of poetic practice. In a sense, they’re aesthetic markers that might be as clear as saying Amherst, Iowa City , San Francisco, the Lower East Side. And it seems to me obvious that these catch phrases are necessary because, without such terms, people wouldn’t be able to talk about what’s changing and what still needs to do so. For example, conceptual poetry and uncreative writing are often used to refer to the same set of poets, but these phrases have radically different aesthetic implications. You could call Jena Osman & Juliana Spahr conceptual, but I don’t think you could call either uncreative, not even in the highly ironized meta- use of that term. As I’ve written here more than once, there is no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry. An example like this shows exactly how that works in practice.

If you step back and look at all this anthropologically, it has a logic – almost an inevitability – to it that seems unassailable. This discussion – where is poetry going? – needs to occur right now, and we need it to be passionate and detailed and committed. I can see pros & cons to every position out there, and I really don’t have a dog in this race. Or maybe mine just hasn’t shown up yet. But I look at other, just slightly earlier formations – I’m thinking of New Brutalism and the PhillySound – that made use of this same kind of group adhesive without positing an accompanying aesthetics. It’s as if they were announcing the need for this discussion without actually starting it. What I wonder is will they – can they – now revisit the question (all these questions) and come forward with their own ideas? Here’s hoping they can.