Tuesday, March 03, 2009
Henry Rago in the 1950s
There is a meme going round – identify the 20 books that first caused you to fall in love with poetry. I first ran into it on Javier Huerta’s blog & have since seen it several other times. That’s an interesting, nagging proposition. It’s quite different, actually, from the question posed by Peter Davis in his Poets’ Bookshelf series, which asks about those books that have most influenced you, although obviously there is going to be overlap. But the question here seems more to be what got you here in the first place, what work made poetry the art you love.
I tried to come up with a list of twenty, and as you can see below, couldn’t really do it. Any item off the list below would fundamentally falsify the list. It has 31 lines and since one line consists of three items, my roster comes to 33. These aren’t the first books of poetry I read (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Frost, Oscar Williams & Alan Dugan would be on that list – Dugan is the only one of the four I still read with interest today). And I could do another circle around this of other books from this same time period – basically 1960s into the earliest part of the ‘70s – that certainly did not hurt, including volumes by Roger Shattuck, Donald Finkel, George Starbuck or Robert Sward that might surprise you. David Ossman’s collection of interviews, The Sullen Art, Ed Dorn’s
Donald Allen (editor), The New American Poetry
Paul Blackburn, The Cities
Robert Creeley, For Love
Robert Creeley, Words
Robert Creeley, Pieces
Robert Duncan, Roots and Branches
Robert Duncan, Bending the Bow
Jack Gilbert, Views of Jeopardy
Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Allen Ginsberg, The Fall of
Ronald Johnson, The Book of the Green Man
Ronald Johnson, The Valley of the Many-Colored Grasses
Robert Kelly, Finding the Measure
Robert Kelly, Axon Dendron Tree
Robert Kelly, Twenty Poems
Robert Kelly & Paris Leary (editors), A Controversy of Poets
George Oppen, This in Which
Charles Olson, The Distances
Ezra Pound, The Cantos
Henry Rago (editor), Poetry double issues (Fiftieth Anniversary, Oct.-Nov. 1962; Works in Progress – Long Poems – Sequences, Oct.-Nov. 1963, Works in Progress – Long Poems – Sequences, April-May 1965)
Jack Spicer, Book of Magazine Verse
Jack Spicer, Language
Gertrude Stein, Writing and Lectures 1909 – 1945 (esp. Tender Buttons)
Gertrude Stein, Stanzas in Meditation
Philip Whalen, On Bear’s Head
Jonathan Williams, Amen, Huzzah, Selah
William Carlos Williams, The Desert Music
William Carlos Williams, Spring & All
Louis Zukofsky, “A” 1-12
Louis Zukofsky, “A” 22-23
Louis Zukofsky (editor), Poetry (The “Objectivist” issue, February 1931)
I’m very conscious just how very white and very male this list is. My argument would be that it was the time. I had hoped that meeting Denise Levertov when she came to
The situation of Bev Dahlen also points to another feature of this list – it’s book-centric. Poets like George Stanley & David Gitin had a profound impact on me in my early years, but not because of any specific books of theirs that were available then. Ditto John Gorham & I don’t know that this once-upon-a-time student of Robert Kelly’s ever had a book published.
Looking at that list today, I don’t think there’s one bad book on it. I still think those two Norton volumes are Ronald Johnson’s best work, even though they aren’t the ones people focus on most today. And it’s interesting to me to realize that only one collection by Charles Olson – and not of Maximus – would be on this list. I have a deep interest in Olson, but until the complete Maximus was in print, that volume seemed scattered. Another very conspicuous absence is Larry Eigner – I loved his work wherever I read it, but that was as apt to be in journals as books (or, for that matter, on postcards), and even if he’s one of my half-dozen favorite poets, I don’t have anything like a favorite book.
Another surprise might be Jack Gilbert, whom some will read as the only
It might also surprise people to see four separate issues of Poetry here, given that I haven’t been all that wowed by the quality of that journal’s work over the 40 since Henry Rago had a fatal heart attack while on a sabbatical. The 50th anniversary issue brought together – in alphabetical order – many of the best known poets in the
There is a liveliness to the Rago double issues that they share with two of the other anthologies on my list, The New American Poetry & A Controversy of Poets. Like the Kelly-Leary anthology, Rago’s trifecta does try to include all kinds of American poetry. The first – and to my thinking, still the only serious – attempt to heal the wound between the two traditions of American verse.
When Rago died, his interim replacement, Daryl Hine, took over – this was more akin to losing Obama & getting Gov. Palin in his place. Hine & his successors have generally kept the coup intact. Even though the Poetry Foundation – by now the more important institution over there – has emerged as a heterogeneous site for American poetry, the verse actually printed in the journal, with a few notable exceptions (vispo!), still covers the waterfront mostly from A to B as if we were still living prior to 1962.
When I see the other lists that are emerging on the web of people’s 20 books, I realize just radically different the world has become from what it was in my youth. There are relatively few times when I envy younger people, but the greater diversity of what any young poet was reading who came up in the 1980s or ‘90s strikes me as a mode of richness we should not underestimate.
¹ Discrete Series is a volume that has had a greater impact on me over time, but I never would have gotten to it without This in Which.