Monday, October 28, 2002

It was summer 1985, the week after the Vancouver poetry conference of that year, and I was still in Canada, having a conversation with Vancouver poet & film maker Colin Browne. Specifically, I interrogating Browne about what the implications might be considering how few U.S. poets appeared ever to have read the work of Louis Dudek, a writer I had heard characterized as the “Pound” of Canadian poetry, though I think I may have told Colin I’d found Dudek more to be the Edwin Denby or F.T. Prince, if one were to yoke together those sorts of analogies.* Who else was out there that I didn’t yet know about? Which poets did the Canadians worry about? “Our monsters are your monsters,” Browne replied.

But not really, as it turns out. For the past month Louis Cabri and I have been trading emails over the absence, as a Canadian influence, of the New York School. I had mentioned Louis’ superb The Mood Embosser in a piece I’d written on the blog about Ted Berrigan’s poem “Bean Spasms,” given how deeply simpatico the two poets strike me as being. I had simply presumed that Berrigan was a Yankee influence that had been internalized by Cabri, since he and I had never discussed him during Louis’ time here in Philadelphia.** But, as it turned out, Louis hadn’t read as much of Berrigan as I’d imagined. In a note that Cabri sent to a list of Calgary poets for a reading group he’s summoning together there, he spells out his thinking in response at greater length:

But, here are my motivations, guiding at least this email, in case you're curious. I could see reading some poetry from the 3+ generations of the so-called "New York School": John Ashbery to Ted Berrigan to Bernadette Mayer to maybe Lee Ann Brown or others. My interest in this partly stems from an email I sent Ron Silliman, who has recently posted some thoughts on his blog about Berrigan. I wanted to give Ron my sense of how Berrigan and the New York School generally has been received in Canada: hardly at all. Why? That’s the question that would interest me most of all. A New York School influence in Canadian poetry can be detected in the work of some poets associated with the founding of Coach House Press (e.g. Coleman), and CH did publish Lewis Warsh (Part of My History, 1972), co-founder of Angel Hair Books, a mainstay press of the second generation NYS. But, the various spokespersons and their ideological filters that brought continental theory to the Canadian poetry scenes (and to the academy) in the 80s left a poetics such as Berrigan's off the redrawn map. The story on Berrigan the way it got told me, for instance, was that he was "off limits." One might even say that leaving Berrigan off "the map" was key to opening new lines of influence for the poetic word, particularly the influence of "Language Writing" as understood in Canada via Steve McCaffery's famous mid 80s essay in North of Intention. Clint Burnham rehabilitated Berrigan's name as a general contemporary influence, in a short essay Rob Manery and I published in hole 5, in the mid 90s.

I’ve put that one phrase in boldface because I find it so intriguing. What it proposes, at least implicitly, is that what New American Poetry might have looked like without the active influence of the New York School is something not too dramatically unlike what Canadian poetry became.

It does seem, at least at the distance from which I get to observe things***, that the two primary sources of influence were, first, the migration north to Vancouver in the mid-1960s of people around Jack Spicer and his circle – Robin Blaser, George Stanley, Stan Persky – and then somewhat later the presence of Olson & Creeley in Buffalo, in close enough proximity to Toronto (and with some Canadians actually trekking to the eastern shores of Lake Erie). With the Spicer Circle to the west and Projectivism to the east, it does seem harder to see where exactly either the New York School or, for that matter, the Beats, might fit in.

In an email, Cabri expands on this take:

The absence of NYS is to me precisely how "Canada" differs from the "US," and by an unconscious social logic of mutual exclusion based on divergent histories.

Some for instances. American abstract expressionism hit French Quebec before the rest of Canada (around 1948 with Emile Borduas and the highly politicized "Refus global" manifesto for secular independence for art and culture in Quebec) and 1st gen NYS was not to my knowledge ever translated then (ever in Quebec? I doubt it) -- and, besides, the poetry would not necessarily have served the self-interests of political autonomy that the Refus global artists translated out of US abstract expressionism. Quebec poets nurtured surrealism, what with its anti-religious furor and suggestive connection to the idea of a repressed unconscious, long after Breton visited the eastern coast.

NYS is culturally sophisticated, urbane, American, and, with the 2nd gen., decadent, in a way that, say, Olson/projective verse never was, appealing as it did to those who had such as Davey, Wah et al rural working class backgrounds and a sense of the "autochthonous." NYS was literally urban in a way that Canadian city living could not understand in the 50s/even in the 60s and 70s (look at Ray Souster's squeaky clean city -- poetry of the individual, of pitiless "loneliness" and observation). And Berrigan et al flourished in the 70s when Canadian cultural nationalism and a befuddlingly stupor-inducing "regionalism" was at its heralded peak.

2nd gen NYS seemed to be of interest to some of the poets first associated with Coach House -- Dewdney, Coleman. But these poets were sidelined by both the kind of rustic theory that Nichol invoked in a straight-forward but entertaining way (pataphysical invention, concrete) and the highly abstract kind that McCaffery distilled from continental philosophy and art (in Steve's version, as you know, a conceptual artlike approach to language never gives language back to the five senses).

When I asked Louis yesterday if I could quote from his emails, he expanded even further:

Hi Ron,

Sure. Thanks for asking. A "second-order commodification" role that I perceive formally innovative Canadian poetics playing in its contribution to US/Canadian poetic tendencies -- from projective verse (the Vancouver 63 conference) to Language poetry (the 85 conference) -- connects to my sense of NYS's absence in Canada.

By "second-order commodification" (a term modified from Barthes's 1957 theory of the ideology of myth as a second-order semiotic system) I mean the following scenario. I'm quoting from an essay on hole magazine at

"Second-order commodification" is a condition of reception of the cultural "new" (a relative matter) where the emergence (of the new, from "here") and the arrival (of the new, from "elsewhere") intersect in a contested site-as-dialogue. That condition existed for us [i.e. as hole magazine eds.] in employing the term "language-centred." Second-order commodification refers to a myth-inducing condition in which there is simultaneously (a) the emergence ("here") and arrival (from "there") of primary writing only later to be identified as "new" (for instance, as "language-centred") with (b) the emergence/arrival of a metalanguage (in this case, conveyed by the term "language-centred") identifying the work as new. Second-order commodification results from a cultural context in which primary language without a name, and its metalanguage that brings a name, temporally co-exist. One reception-effect of second-order commodification, particularly in Canada, is to have poetics stances appear clearly staked, already amplified, distinctly audible, a critical lexicon already worked out and available to draw from in identifying aesthetic tendencies in possibly opposing, even reductive, ways.

Further in the essay, I consider three kinds of responses to this predicament of Canadian culture: resolute intransigence (Deanna Ferguson), resolute participation (Lisa Robertson), the resolute itself -- squared (Alan Davies). (Alan Davies is never considered in this inter-border context, but, originally from Canada, some of his first work is published in the anthology Now We Are Six [Coach House, 1976].)

Perhaps, then, the absence of NYS in Canada is due to an absence of a NYS metalanguage?

The role of absence is a traditional motif of Canadian literary cultural history. In its more interesting variants, "absence" is paradoxically ontologized and centred in an author's body of work -- for instance, Robert Kroetsch’s. But absence has never been discussed as a term in relation to poetic lineage, the back-and-forth of influence across the southern border (let alone in relation to KSW's and TRG's 'erasing-something [i.e. NYS]-that-is-in-fact-absent').

But the absence of NYS in Canadian poetry is to me precisely how "Canada" differs from the "US," and by an unconscious social logic of mutual exclusion based on divergent histories -- a difference that in these terms ("NYS") has never previously been articulated, to my knowledge, in all the efforts -- from the 70s on -- to identify "the difference" between "Canada" and "US" poetic cultures.


Cabri here entertains the possibility that the lack of a New York School metalanguage may have contributed to its inability to move north – it may even explain why the sudden disruption in the mid-1980s that the 2nd & 3rd generation New York School poets themselves experienced, wasn’t more immediately & easily overcome directly by those poets themselves. “Personism,” Frank O’Hara’s one serious statement of his poetics, does more to point up the absence of a metalanguage than it ever did to constitute one.+

* Part of the “problem” of Dudek to us Yanks, when one tries to place him alongside the history of U.S. poetry is that he comes along right during that fallow period of the Second World War – that is, after the Objectivists but really before the New Americans. Robert Duncan, the one major poet to have emerged from that same period south of the border during that same period, was cagey enough to avoid by aligning himself with the mostly younger poets of the NAP. Several of the other poets of interest who emerged during the war decade – May Sarton, Muriel Rukeyser – have remained more or less permanently in limbo, never really adopted by either of the major traditions of U.S. verse. To make any sort of simple analogy (Dudek = X) thus really isn’t possible, because X itself doesn’t exist.
Or, another approach, one might argue that Dudek = the Duncan of The Years as Catches, and most especially “African Elegies,” but without the later impact of the New American Poetry. What poet would Duncan have become without the push-pull influences of Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg, et al? It might have been something much closer to the Dudek captured in Infinite Worlds (MontrĂ©al: VĂ©hicule Press, 1988), edited not coincidentally by one man who knew both quite well, Robin Blaser. Dudek was born one year ahead of Duncan, closer in age than either Olson or Creeley.

** Cabri’s contribution to the poetics of Philadelphia is worth a blog or two in itself. He proved to be the single most influential spark to the various elements working more or less independently around the region, at least in the seven years I’ve lived here. The scene as he left it had many times the power (precisely of interactivity) as the scene as he originally found it. It left us all asking ourselves, “Who was that masked man?”

*** More distantly than it might have been. In 1962, my grandfather actively explored moving to Calgary as he helped to set up a paper recycling plant there. My grandmother’s mental illness finally functioned as the veto to that impulse.

+ Kerouac & Ginsberg gave the Beats a rough, but very usable metalanguage. In addition to his various notes on spontaneous prose, Kerouac’s ideas about writing creep into his prose on several occasions. Ginsberg’s many public statements served a similar purpose. Of the primary New American formations, only the New York School actively avoided discussions of their own practice.