Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I had just gotten off the phone with a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, doing background work for an obit of David Bromige, when I got an email telling me that Victoria Rathbun, a fine young poet who hung with the Actualists in the late 1970s, had passed away last month. Actualism was the brainchild of Darrell Gray, an attempt to create a 3rd-generation NY School out of the Iowa City-Bay Area axis, and a number of its practitioners were first-rate poets. Of course the whole idea of the NY School sans New York is an interesting, if problematic, concept to begin with, but Actualism was never able to transcend Darrell’s mercurial (and fatal) alcoholism. If you hunt for Victoria Rathbun (there’s more than one) on Google, what you’ll find for the poet is the Dick Grossinger-Kevin Karrane anthology, Baseball Diamonds, in which she has work alongside Tom Clark, John Sayles, Philip Roth, Fielding Dawson, Roger Angell and A. Bartlett Giamatti; records of two readings at the Grand Piano (one a Punk Rock Reading – a quintessentially Actualist event – with G.P. Skratz & Michael-Sean Lazarchuk, the other with me); a reading & chat with Alan Bernheimer on the radio show In the American Tree (MP3); and mention of her participating in an Actualist Convention video among the archives of the defundt La Mamelle artspace.

I don’t know why Victoria Rathbun didn’t publish more in other post-Actualist contexts. But the email (like the phone call from the Chron) came right while I was at the end of a more thorough reading of Stephen Burt’s “New Thing” essay, thinking of the heated reactions to it I’ve seen & heard, and it made me think of all the old questions of survival as an artist, individuality & community, the phenomenon of groupness, the shadow side of critical discourse, and the fate of poetry in a managerial society such as the United States.

Burt’s essay, to the degree that it focuses on what might be called neo-Objectivism or the new minimalism, is not half so bad as the critics of it make it sound. But you can see where he brings the reaction on himself by over-reaching, especially toward the end, trying to make a case for a new relationship toward referents in language, one that allows him to invoke both C.D. Wright – an iconic “Third Way” poet – and Juliana Spahr, whom I might characterize as a political conceptualist, as further examples of what he’s getting at. At which point, it sort of dissolves into a fog of anything goes that dissipates the earlier force of his argument.

More interesting perhaps is the way he frames the discussion at the outset, as an alternative to the old bad regime of Elliptical poetics,

slippery, digressive, polyvocalic creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets’ life stories (they did not tell stories at all), the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from continental philosophy, although they never laid put philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete truths at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were, in M.H. Abrams’ famous formulation, less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older aughors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O’Hara, some at had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the Language Writers of the West Coast.

Given that Burt was himself instrumental in first describing this phenomenon eleven years ago, what jumps out at me more than anything is just how bad this framing is as description. Dismissive in each of its characterizations, it notably fails to mention the single most influential poet that the American Hybrid, Abstract Lyric or Third-Way poets have responded to over the past twenty years: Barbara Guest. And it fails to acknowledge just how Guest’s proliferating work toward the end of her life – the first 30 years of her career accounts for just 40% of her Collected Poems, the last 15 for all the rest – transformed for many young writers the meaning of the New York School as profoundly as the resurrection of George Oppen in the late 1950s reconfigured Objectivism. Indeed, Burt’s use of Objectivism in this essay largely means Oppen, Neidecker & possibly Rakosi, but not Zukofsky.

So Burt sets himself up for trouble both at the beginning & end of an otherwise reasonable assessment of the New Minimalism. But what may make this maldescription of The Old Thing particularly poignant in 2009 is that it occurs almost simultaneous with the publication of American Hybrid, the anthology edited by Cole Swensen & David St. John. The anthology represents the first major attempt by the poets involved to characterize this new aesthetic, right at the moment that Burt is throwing it out for a new one predicated upon (his words) fidelity & restraint. Their anthology is every bit as problematic as Burt’s cast of thing-based poets, and the problems of both are perhaps best noted by the names that show up in American Hybrid who are on Burt’s list of anti-hybrid poets, starting with the very first: Rae Armantrout.

Further, Burt doesn’t seem to notice that his description of Language Poetry as congruent with hybrid poetics (he could have pointed to Lyn Hejinian, the sisters Howe, or Michael Palmer, all in American Hybrid as well, had he wanted to) obscures the fact that its relationship to language & reference is much closer, in many cases, to what he’s calling The New Thing. The fact-based poetics of Barrett Watten (or, for that matter, most of my work & virtually all of Hejinian’s) comes right at that point where Burt starts to overreach and lose his way – he just doesn’t notice.

Clustering – whether done internally, such as a bunch of poets announcing that they represent X, whether it’s New Formalism or Flarf, or done externally, by a critic like Burt – is an attempt to give shape to the literary landscape. It highlights & foregrounds, and ideally what it highlights shows the poets’ work to best advantage. Sometimes it can have a terrific impact on a writer’s work being noticed – Carl Rakosi, by his own admission, had not even read poetry in 25 years when Andrew Crozier tracked him down because of his relationship to the Objectivists. But sometimes it misfires too. Hardly anyone remembers the Mesa phenomenon in Bolinas in the early 1970s, tho there were terrific poets involved. The Activist Poets around Lawrence Hart, Robert Barlow, Rosalie Moore, Marie Wells & Jeanne McGahey in the 1940s likewise have disappeared, though Barlow was H.P. Lovecraft’s literary executor & collaborator & a teacher of William Burroughs. The Actualists are gone as well.

As the absolute number of practicing poets swells – I find Seth Abramson’s figure of 50,000 plus in the English language unconvincing, but 20,000 does seem reasonable – I anticipate that we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of clustering, whether around journals or “scenes” or aesthetic fundamentals. The whole notion of the poet as a solitary practitioner – the splendid isolato – is so out of touch with reality as to be bizarre. Sure there are poets who eschew the companionship of their peers – but there is a reason for it. These are poets with issues.

Still, it would be well worth the effort to think through in greater depth than I can do tonight just why one group goes on to provide a nourishing context for its members – the New York School, Language Poetry, Surrealism are all examples – while others do not. One of the obvious answers, I think, is that the poets themselves have to recognize & acknowledge their internal dynamics, maybe even honor them as such. They have to have a reason to talk with one another.

So I can’t tell you when Victoria was born, but David Highsmith has forwarded a photo. If you listen to that show with Alan Bernheimer, I think you’ll agree that we lost a very talented woman.