Friday, September 20, 2002

Having praised Joseph Massey’s Minima St., one aspect of the book continues to haunt. If its truest predecessor might be George Oppen’s Discrete Series, what does that mean? Discrete Series was published 68 years ago; Oppen himself has been gone for nearly 20. Do my sardonic comments comparing “mainstream” poets with Bing Crosby* not apply if, in fact, the writing from the 1930s happens to be work within my own literary tradition?

I was mulling this over when I came across the first sonnet in Anselm Hollo’s most recent collection, So the Ants Made it to the Catfood (Samizdat, 2001), which begins:

now that some of the young ones
have taken to writing
like Eugene Jolas and Elsa von Freytag again
(if not quite as vigorously)
(pass the thesaurus, said the dinosaurus)
we may once again enjoy the “oh I see
(s)he just found out about that” experience

My own first book, Crow (Ithaca House, 1971), was composed largely under the spell of William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All, which Harvey Brown’s Frontier Press had re-released in 1970. Williams’ book, which had first appeared in 1923, was more radical than almost anything appearing in print in the 1960s. But it was radical not in the Jolas/von Freytag sense of a circus of typographies – Williams’ essay in action was revolutionary in its common sense about the nature of writing & its relation to the world. Forty-seven years after its first publication, Spring & All was still revolutionary.**

If the history of poetry is ultimately a history of change, any model of such a history would account not only for the movement of poetry, the elaboration of new devices and forms, the perpetual redefinition of literature itself, but also for the capacity of all forms to carry onward from whatever point they become socially established as viable. For forms linger indefinitely.

Consider this. Poetry Daily’s directory of current articles and reviews in web-accessible media ( lists the following, as the sum of what was being discussed this week:

<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Seven pieces on British poets, including two each on Auden and Motion and one review of a Wilfred Owens biography – the bulk of these come from The Guardian, perhaps the only English-language publication in the world that would consider running more than two pieces on poetry in one week
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Two pieces on Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? including one by Adam Kirsch in the militantly conservative New York Sun that characterizes the book as “"one of the most important American books of poetry criticism of the last 50 years."
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Two pieces on poet laureate Billy Collins from the Indianapolis Star and Seattle Weekly
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>An obituary of William Phillips, founder of the Partisan Review, the journal that proved central to the career of Robert Lowell and his group of Brahmans
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>A review of Mona Van Duyn’s Selected Poems from the New York Times
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>Seven items on poetry in relation to the commemoration to the September 11th attacks
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>One seasonal item – Edward Hirsch’s column from the Washington Post – on Yom Kippur
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>An article on the nominations process for the poet laureate position in Louisiana from the New Orleans Times-Picayune
<![if !supportLists]>·        <![endif]>A piece on the poet Susan Firer from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that actually mentions Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch and Alice Notley, “whose thorny work is a strong influences [sic] on her right now.”

Is it any wonder that a general reader might come away with the impression that American writing is, at best, a tributary of the most reactionary British literary tendencies? In this context, a work that demonstrates an affiliation with George Oppen’s early writing most definitely gets a pass – Discrete Series is in many ways more current and relevant than at least 14 of the 15 “non-911” items that appeared in the past week. Spring & All is beyond imagining.

But I worry that I/we fail to do ourselves justice if we merely settle for the perpetuation of our own favorite genres of the past. In my own case, it is true that I needed to go through the writing of Williams in order to begin my own work. It is also true that today there are at least a half dozen different versions of post-Objectivism about. Those that merely replicate the surface features of the poems seem to me radically at odds with what Oppen, Zukofsky, Rakosi, Reznikoff, Niedecker and Bunting were up to some 70 years ago.

*See my note for September 2 in the archive. What this question regarding Minima St. highlights, however indirectly, is that normative mainstream poetry really is the literary equivalent of something that comes before Bing Crosby! Thus Robert Pinsky might be thought of as the contemporary of, say, Scott Joplin, rather than of Anthony Braxton or John Zorn.

** & 32 years after the Frontier Press edition, it still is.