Tuesday, October 08, 2002

The fourth issue of The Electronic Poetry Review is now live and includes a talk that I gave a couple of years ago at the annual confab of the Modernist Studies Association, “The Desert Modernism,” focusing in part on the question of why William Carlos Williams would have chosen to write a poem in 1951 that would lead to the famous, if somewhat abashed, affirmation of

                                             I am a poet! I
am.  I am. I am a poet, I reaffirmed, ashamed.

As I so often do when thinking about the history of poetry, I try to articulate a social context for Williams’ sense of isolation, which I do partly in terms of Objectivism:
The early 1950s was the nadir of Objectivism. Zukofsky, completing “A” 12 in 1951, would not touch the poem again until 1960. Some Time, Zukofsky's gathering of his shorter works between 1940 and 1956, contains just 33 poems for its seventeen years. In her bibliography of the composition of these works, Zukofsky's wife Celia notes that, in 1954, the only poetry he wrote were two sections of “Songs of Degrees,” one a nine-line valentine, the other “William / Carlos / Williams // alive!” George Oppen hadn't written anything since 1934. Charles Reznikoff was self-publishing and the collection Inscriptions: 1944-1956 takes up only 30 pages in his Complete Poems. Lorine Niedecker had published just one book and that with a publisher in Prairie City, Illinois; she would not publish another until Ian Hamilton Finlay brought out My Friend Tree in Scotland in 1961. “The Spoils,” which Basil Bunting wrote in 1951 was his first major piece of poetry since 1935 and last until 1965. He wrote just three odes, as he called his shorter poems, in the 1940s and none in the 1950s.
The talk in general and this passage in particular provoked a most interesting and thoughtful email from Eliot Weinberger, which he has kindly given permission for me to reprint here. I don’t agree with everything he says but he’s got me pondering the need to re-vision the 1950s in particular beyond the canonic box that is Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry. Here is Weinberger’s perspective:

Along with the silence/invisibility of the “objectivists,” you should add Rukeyser, who published no new books between 1948 and 1962. WCW told a depressed Reznikoff to keep writing, no matter what, so Rezi wrote the novel “Manner Music.”

I think you underestimate the presence of Pound who, though locked up, was writing a zillion letters a day and entertaining endless visitors. It's also a period of the first standard editions of Ez: 1948, Cantos; 1949, Selected Poems; 1950, Letters; 1953, Translations; 1954, Literary Essays. Then in 1954 you have the Confucian Odes and in 1955 Rock-Drill. He couldn't be more visible, however immobile.

I also wonder about WCW's isolation. If you look at his letters and essays from the time, he's praising (and is in contact with) a lot of poets: Lowell, Eberhart, Roethke, Rexroth, Harvey Shapiro, MacLeod, etc-- besides the New Americans you mention (Creeley, Olson, Ginsberg) and the honorary New American, Corman.

Also in the period you have Rexroth’s “Signature of All Things,” “Dragon and the Unicorn” and “Beyond the Mt” (reviewed by WCW). And Patchen had books from ND, Jargon, and the first City Lights pocket pamphlets.

I'm as guilty as everyone else, maybe more guilty, but I increasingly wonder whether we're all not prisoners of the Don Allen taxonomy. The problem is that Allen overlooks a (small) sort-of generation between the objectivists and the New Amers: Rexroth, Rukeyser, Patchen, etc. And the anthology wars c. 1960 obscured genuine affinities, at least in the early 50's. Lowell considered himself a Poundian; he loved WCW; everyone remembers his famous “raw and the cooked” as referring to him and Ginsberg, but in fact, RL thought he was one of the “raw,” compared to Wilbur etc. WCW and Roethke are not in opposition, etc. It is forgotten that Origin was pitched on two poets: Olson and Bronk, whom no one would put together any more. And the Allen obscured genuine hostilities: Joel Oppenheimer used to tell about Beats and Black Mountaineers getting into fistfights at the Cedar Tavern.

Is WCW in 1950-55 more isolated aesthetically/personally than anyone else, or himself at any other time? Snyder says somewhere that in the spiritual wasteland of the 50's one would hitchhike a thousand miles just to have someone to talk to. Outside of a few small groups-- like the SF Ren and the Black Mteers who were actually at Black Mt (unlike the Blk Mt group in Allen) and the inner-circle Beats-- how much physical community was there anyway?

Could the proverbial Martian be able to sort the poems c. 1950 of Levertov, Eberhart, Roethke, Duncan, Rexroth, etc into “avant-garde” and “establishment”? Maybe there's a new history to be written.