Monday, September 02, 2002

The abstract lyric certainly existed before Barbara Guest – Stein, for example, and some of Williams’ work, especially prior to World War II; the French can go back to Mallarmé – but it was/is Guest who in English seems to have perfected the form in the 1950s, a period in which she was largely (and unfairly) unnoticed with the significant exception of the Allen anthology – it is Guest who lead off the New York School section in that epochal collection, even as she had the fewest pages of work represented. Reading her poetry of that period sends me back along a different coordinate – to the texts of David Schubert and through him to the short poems of Hart Crane. I don’t know if Guest read Schubert, who seems to have largely slipped through the cracks of literary history (albeit acknowledged as an influence by John Ashbery and visibly evident in the poetry of Frank O’Hara). 


There is a tendency in American poetry that one might characterize as academic in the old-fashioned pejorative sense & certainly the letters and essays in the 1983 QRL issue on Schubert reflects that tradition: Alan Tate, Ben Belitt, Horace Gregory, Louise Bogan, Ted Weiss. In a sense, the New American poetry and its descendents (which include virtually every progressive mode of U.S. poetry some 50 years hence) has exorcised itself of even the memory of that tendency. Pound and Stein were geographically inoculated from it, the Objectivists simply avoided all interaction (the feeling appears to have been mutual). Yet Williams dealt with it and Marianne Moore positively thrived in that environment, and it is evident that at least through Auden (curious interloper that he is after the Second World War) the New York School was willing to let some elements in.


In some sense, trying to sort out the role of such influences is not unlike those followers of Creeley who do not understand his enthusiasm for Crane or Stevens. Reading is itself always a narrative, the unfolding of meaning in time – I read this book before that one. In my own life, it was Philip Whalen’s poetry that gave me the inroads I needed in order to appreciate Clark Coolidge’s work in the 1960s, yet I know of poets who came upon those two writers in the opposite sequence and I simply cannot imagine what one would make of it: I cannot fold my mental map into that configuration.


An analogy from music might be the relationship between Bing Crosby and Jimi Hendrix. Before Crosby, singers belted out tunes as if they were still performing from the stage of an auditorium, even as they were finally being recorded. It was Crosby who understood that the implication of the microphone was that you could sing softly and bring out a whole new range of possible music. Similarly, Hendrix was the first performer to understand the full implications of the electrification of the guitar. Crosby and Hendrix equally revolutionized music.


In a decade in which so many academic poets continue to sound as if they were the contemporaries of Bing Crosby, I find it intriguing that Barbara Guest should become the most influential of the New American poets. In part, it no doubt is because her work has not yet been fully incorporated, much as the Objectivists of the 1930s needed to wait until the 1970s to be brought completely into view. So perhaps it is because the current generation of academic poets seems as relevant to poetry as astrology does to astronomy, the abstract lyric carries forward within itself aspects of a tradition all but unheard elsewhere.