Monday, January 25, 2010

Darrell Gray (photo by Alastair Johnston)

The Poltroon Press has decided to re-open one of the most toxic & painful periods of recent literary history by republishing what appears to be a fascimile editon of Life of Crime, now with the subtitle Documents in the Guerrilla War Against Language Poetry. A few things are worth noting, the most important being that the publisher here is not the editor of the original zine & his website acknowledges the reticence of the original editors at the idea of going forward with this project. One parenthetical comment to a contributor from Alastair Johnston’s website pretty much captures the spirit of the entire venture:

(Aside to Uno Who: What are you going to do? Sue me? Go ahead... the magazine was published without copyright & no one asked you to sign your name to the homophobic or misogynistic crap you wrote. Try and sue me!)

“Homophobic or misogynistic crap” pretty much captures my view of that entire journal at the time it was originally published. My question to Johnston is what does this say about you that you’re willing to invest in this 30 years later? WTF? Why not publish a collected works by Darrell Gray or Victoria Rathbun, or an Actualist Anthology that’s comprehensive to that movement? It’s not just that Actualism dwindled & died because Darrell Gray killed himself with alcohol – Johnston was a primary drinking buddy – but the inability of that aesthetic tendency to mount & sustain positive projects on its own that ultimately made it a footnote to the decade. How is it that the Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945 – 1985 offers nothing from any of the Actualist Conventions? Oh, & by the way, did you notice just how many language poets participated in those Conventions? Pretty much all of the ones on the West Coast, yours truly included.

Actualism’s premise was that there was nothing inherently New York about the New York School & that it could be transplanted straight to the West Coast without much in the way of rethinking the project. The one person who really had that vision, and the charisma & intelligence to pull it off, was Gray, but he arrived in San Francisco fairly early in the 1970s already thoroughly addicted to alcohol, and his time in the Bay Area makes Leaving Las Vegas look like Alvin & the Chipmunks. One or two attempts at collaborating with Darrell & realizing that the gallon of red wine next to the typewriter was as important as the typewriter were enough to scare me off.

The hidden assumption behind that premise, of course, is that the map of the territory as outlined by the Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, was more or less a fixed landscape. I have no doubt that it was traumatic for anybody who bought into any variant of that vision that way to discover a new group of poets who were both off that map & yet engaged with it had shown up like a volcano in downtown LA.

William Keckler in his blog does a better-than-fair job of noting that, 30 years later, it’s pretty clear that virtually all of the charges against langpo made during the poetry wars of the 1970s were bogus. My own work vis-à-vis the New York School, just to pick a case in point, has been to try to raise the visibility not just of those poets most like language poetry (Bernadette Mayers or Clark Coolidge, for example), but writers like Joe Ceravolo & David Shapiro, whose work (a) warrants being read by everyone and (b) demonstrate a much broader spectrum of interests & concerns. Indeed, this blog is one of the few sites on the net that takes Actualism & its history seriously. I really don’t have quarrels with any of those poets any more, which makes this attempt to resurrect the wars all the more counterproductive. And some of the charges – my favorite is the Stalinism one – are just silly. Maybe a third of the langpos have had a serious engagement with Marxism, but without exception they’ve all been quite visibly anti-Stalinist. One of the ironies of this republication 30+ years hence is recalling that David Benedetti, who later wrote his doctoral dissertation on my work, was himself a Maoist at the time of Crime.

One serious charge that is worth commenting on here, tho, comes not from the Poltroons, but from Eileen Myles, to the effect that langpo is in some way deficient because there is no “great AIDS poem” associated with it. It’s really the wrong complaint for two or three reasons that are worth recalling (I choose that particular verb because these are all pretty obvious):

It erases David Melnick’s elegy for his spouse, Davy Doyle, who died of AIDS in 1992, A Pin’s Fee.

Not all language poets, nor poets who might be better characterized as close to language poetry, are straight or exclusively so. Eileen certainly knows that. That list probably begins with Aaron Shurin – whom I’ve known for only 40 years, even before his first name was Aaron – and most definitely includes Eileen Myles.

Most importantly, there are no great poems about anything. If there is any lesson we have learned about poetry in the last century, that is it. Great poems about AIDS and war (plenty of those to choose from) are just like great poems about Cocker Spaniels, birding or breaking up with your lover, poems about, works that ultimately put themselves into an instrumental position that ensures their dissolution the instant they come into contact with time. A poem is no more about AIDS than Central Park is, or the Grand Canyon. The real political critique of the School of Quietude would be an anthology of nothing but Poems About. You could even let Ted Kooser or Billy Collins – or Alastair Johnston – edit it. But it would be devastating.¹

There are great poems that do engage topics or themes – Michael Gottlieb & Fanny Howe have written profoundly on the experience of 9/11 & James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage remains the best book on the subject I know of, tho it was written & published many years before 2001. But to call these works “about” the assault on Manhattan is to fundamentally misread each of them. That’s like reading Pound to study economics: good luck with that.

There are, in fact, many positive projects still to be taken up that would help balance the literary history of the past half century so that it doesn’t simply look like the language poets were the only thing happening. There is no anthology as yet of the Spicer Circle, nor – with the exception of a couple of tiny efforts that have been out of print for over 25 years – of Actualism, nor the New Western poets that stretch from the work of Reed 3 in the 1950s (Whalen, Welch, Snyder) to the work of Bobby Brown, Drum Hadley & Tenney Nathanson today. The history of 20th century American poetry will remain incomplete until those are readily available. Plus hybridism or whatever you choose to call it still is waiting for its great anthology – the one currently posing as such really ought to be called Forerunners of American Hybridism since its rule of excluding those with less than 3 books edited out virtually every major practitioner.

My question – I was asking Kaplan Harris this at the MLA & it is definitely worth repeating here – is why isn’t anybody taking these projects on? I would love to find out that I’m wrong & that they’re all in progress. But I’m not holding my breath.


¹ This is why the correct response to Eileen Myles is not “because you haven’t written it.”