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 North Atlantic Turbine. I thought long and hard about adding the Genesis West issue partly devoted to Jack Gilbert (it is still his best publication) or a second Oppen book (in this order: Discrete Series¹, The Materials, Of Being Numerous), but such volumes are really ancillary to the list below. If I added one more name, I’d suddenly have to let in a whole bunch of the New York School (Starting in this order: Ashbery’s Rivers and Mountains, Ceravolo’s Spring in This World of Poor Mutts, O’Hara’s Lunch Poems & Meditations in an Emergency, David Shapiro Poems from Deal), and the first books of my immediate peers, beginning in this instance with David Melnick’s Eclogs & Barrett Watten’s Radio Day in Soma City. So I will keep my list of 20 just to the 33 volumes below, listed here in alphabetical order.

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 America

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 Berkeley would cause me to get over my resistance to her poetry, but instead it showed me why I was better off trusting my instincts. Joanne Kyger’s The Tapestry and the Web isn’t my favorite volume of her poetry, and Bev Dahlen wasn’t yet bringing out books. This list I think shows just how profound & radical the impact of HOW(ever) has been, but that journal didn’t start until 1983 when I was already 37 years old. Similarly, the first two poets of color whose work I genuinely would love – Erica Hunt & Lorenzo Thomas – were really unknown to me at the time. Erica may still have been in high school.

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 School of Quietude poet on this list. Jack’s Yale Younger Poets’ volume, Views of Jeopardy, really is the Gilbert of Jack Spicer’s Magic Workshop as much, if not more, than it is the protégé of Gerald Stern & Stephen Spender.

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 US, starting with Conrad Aiken & Ben Belitt & ending with Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, James Wright & Louis Zukofsky. In practice, the issue also functioned as an announcement by Rago, who had been the journal’s editor since 1955, that he no longer was going to focus exclusively on the academic poets of mid-century & while the issue has Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, Robert Graves, Randall Jarrell, Stanley Kunitz, James Dickey, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Howard Moss, Howard Nemerov, Delmore Schwartz & the other usual suspects, it also includes Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Koch & e.e. cummings. Koch, it might be worth noting, is the only New York School poet here, and the Beats are likewise conspicuously absent. This issue had the first Berryman “Dream Songs” I believe I ever read & it wouldn’t shock me to realize that I bought it for the Alan Dugan therein. By the 1965 double issue, post-avants made up exactly half of the 18 poets contained in its 172 pages, including Creeley, Duncan, Johnson, Koch, Levertov, Olson, Gary Snyder, Gale Turnbull & Phil Whalen. The conservative poets included Wendell Berry, Hayden Carruth, Galway Kinnell, David Posner, Ernest Sandeen, Anne Sexton, and Theodore Weiss. One could argue either way about the last poet, Charles Tomlinson (tho these are eight poems from his American Scenes period, his work most deeply influenced by Creeley & Williams). Am I the only one who would argue that the posties have aged much better over the last 44 years? Turnbull – a fine poet – is the only postie who has not yet achieved some sort of canonic status. Posner & Sandeen, on the other hand, have disappeared entirely from view, and Carruth & Weiss, whatever their relative merits, are no more widely read than Turnbull.

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.