Wednesday, July 07, 2010

I know, whenever I use the phrase School of Quietude in some pointed fashion, what kind of response I’m going to get, and the comments that sprouted around my note on the elevation of W.S. Merwin to the PLOTUS on Friday were unusual only in the increased number of defenders who turned up to rescue me from those who would simply prefer to tar & feather anyone for the sin of characterizing one of the broad traditions of American poetry. I do appreciate their presence & their willingness to suffer foolishness on my behalf.

Surely I could have used some other term, though the only adequately descriptive alternative I can think of is Neophobe. Yes, there is an audience for neophobic literature & always will be. But I would challenge the idea that there is anything “mainstream” about neophobia & I cringe to think of it as “Official Verse Culture.” Even worse, however, is that idea that it should continue to be the Verse That Dare Not Speak Its Name. That, of course, is precisely what is wrong with the neophobic tradition.

If there are to be adjectival poetry, whether we call our particular adjective Beat, Deep Image, Projectivist, Modernist, Surrealist, Actualist, New York School, Black, Gay, Feminist, Visual, Brutalist, Flarf, Hybrid or New Formalist, invariably it must be an instance of a marked case, something that sets it apart from the unmarked noun: Poetry.

Regardless of the noun involved, the Unmarked Case invariably has a history & a politics, one that should be apparent to anybody to the left of Glenn Beck. That phrase in the Declaration of Independence about “all men are created equal” is a good case in point. At the time it was written, it clearly did mean men, white men, white men of property. But when I was growing up in the 1950s, we were told instead that “men” really meant everybody, but anyone who could read the words knew better. Men meant men. This is precisely what those who argue for preserving the “original intent” of the Constitution mean when they propose that the letter of the law is unchanging.

Well into the 1950s (and in some realms perhaps even today), men were simply the unmarked case of people. You don’t find Freud writing about vagina envy. My great grandmother did not have the right even to vote until she was 65. Nobody thought to teach my grandmother how to drive. Whole segments of the world were simply carved off and set beyond the reach of these women.

Similarly, when I was growing up, history was a subject that meant American history, which was by no means the history of everyone who ever lived here. I was fortunate to have one teacher, Charles C. Clarke, who had spent part of his childhood homeless, coming to California with his family from Oklahoma during the Depression. He lived for a year in a potato cave near Fresno. Coming as I did from a “broken home” in the age of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best & Leave it to Beaver, I was painfully conscious – every day – of being the poorest kid in school. Whether I wanted to be or not, I was the marked case & it wasn’t until I met “Chico Charlie” that I realized that this condition was not unique to me, and certainly not “my fault.” And that it connected to an entire network of other similarly marked cases, economically, socially, politically, aesthetically, pretty much in every aspect of life.

The School of Quietude is poetry’s unmarked case, and its most characteristic – even defining – feature is the denial of its own existence. This in large part is because the phenomenon is invisible precisely to those who in turn are defined by it, just as the exclusionary maleness of “men” was once invisible to guys.

If being the marked case has consequences, in poetry as elsewhere in life, so does being the unmarked one, and they’re not entirely positive. Perhaps the worst is not having a clear sense of one’s own heritage as a poet. Where marked case poets tend to be obsessive about the preservation of the work of their ancestors, many major neophobe poets of the recent past are virtually forgotten today. When I wrote about Audrey Wurdemann, the youngest person ever to win the Pulitzer for poetry – she was just 24 –the spouse of Joseph Auslander (who first held the Library of Congress’ Consultant in Poetry post that has evolved into today’s PLOTUS), and the great-great-granddaughter of Shelley, her family contacted me because so few people write about her work (or that of Auslander’s) today. She is hardly the only Pulitzer poet of the 1930s to disappear entirely from view. George Dillon was the editor of Poetry for a dozen years, but I cannot recall the last time I saw anyone cite him as an influence. Robert Hillyer, whose middle name happened to be Silliman, became more notorious for his anti-communist activities, and for seeking to ban the work of Ezra Pound after World War 2. Though published by Knopf in his lifetime, the Wikipedia discussion of his life & work consists of less than 10 sentences. Dillon’s is even shorter.

One might argue that these poets just weren’t terribly good, but these were all Pulitzer winning poets from the same decade that saw other Pulitzers go to Robert Frost (twice), Conrad Aiken & Archibald MacLeish. The other winners? Robert P.T. Coffin, Marya Zaturenska & John Gould Fletcher. What I think this list suggests, really, is that neophobe poetics itself evolved in some fairly significant ways between the 1930s & the 1950s, back when W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly & Donald Hall were all first publishing poems that rhymed. The shift is every bit as profound as that from the Modernists to the New Americans, but it’s far less well documented, and one doesn’t see attempts to hold conferences to resurrect Wurdemann, Dillon or Coffin the way there has been, say, to explore the life & writing of Lorine Niedecker.

All of which suggests to me that the School of Quietude would benefit from acknowledging its own existence, which would appear to be a precondition for excavating its own history. Frankly, I’d rather they pick a term of their own choosing – School of Quietude was originally intended as a nudge to do so.

Which is why I find D.A. Powell & Kevin Prufer’s Dunstan Thompson: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master to be one of the more important books of 2010. The first volume in an announced “Unsung Masters” series, Thompson was a one-time student of Hillyer’s & part of the wartime poetry scene, appearing in The New Yorker & Paris Review, even translated by Borges before disappearing entirely. Prufer in particular has done a superb job in tracking down this poet & in getting his work not only back into print but contextualized by a number of sympathetic essays, from Edward Field to Dana Gioia.

Is Thompson a lost master? I’m obviously not the audience for somebody who in his life characterized William Carlos Williams as a “tiresome fake,” but there is some spark in a passage like

The darling boy
Snatched from his mother’s arms
And God-foreseen terrible harms
By that unmerited convulsive pain
Which won the flying coward
An extravagance of valour,
Never even having to think of sacredness again

It’s worth plowing through those crude rhymes, awkward rhythms & melodramatic excess just to get to “unmerited convulsive pain.” These aren’t my values in poetry, but that’s different from declaring that they aren’t values at all. One wonders what might have happened if Thompson had not flunked out of Harvard & had not moved to England & stopped writing. But that question is just part of a much larger narrative that would trace the history of the Harvard Aesthetes as an actual literary movement that leads in part to the Baby Brahmins of Merwin, Bly, Rich & Hall.¹

Or, given his anglophilia, homosexuality & deeply Catholic imagination, it would be even more interesting perhaps to speculate what might have occurred had Thompson drifted down to the North Carolina to meet up with Boston’s other tradition, Charles Olson & Robert Creeley, and especially to meet Jonathan Williams & Robert Duncan.

But such was not to be, and Thompson ends up as a neglectorino in a tradition that – traditionalist as it is – often appears to have only the haziest notion of its own past. It would be terrific if Prufer et al would expand their efforts to bring back many of the other forgotten neophobes from the Harvard Aesthetes onward. But to do so ultimately will require having & deploying terms to discuss relations between these poets. If a term like School of Quietude isn’t to their liking, I’d suggest that they come up with one of their own.


¹ To what degree was the turn each made away from the closed forms of their early writing the consequence of having to live simultaneous to the New American Writing, and how much of it was given permission by Robert Lowell’s own turn toward a more open aesthetic in Life Studies?