Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A read-through of Bay Poetics, Stephanie Young’s new anthology of Bay Area poetry, leaves one with a distinct impression that one possible impact of online typesetting is that the next generation in poetry is becoming much more hesitant about leaving the safe anchor of the left margin. While there are clearly exceptions to this – Chris Chen, Logan Ryan Smith & Dennis Somera stand out – most of the poets here who treat the left-hand margin as an option rather than a requirement are the likes of Joanne Kyger, Nate Mackey, Kathleen Fraser (working now also in variable type sizes as well), Larry Kearney, Susan Gevirtz.

One wonders what the longer term implication of all this might be. It’s conceivable that in ten years’ time the web will prove as resilient and easy to set type with the sort of point-by-point variations that Paul Blackburn adapted for his late work, but right now, frankly, it’s a pain & one cannot guarantee that what looks good in Firefox will look the same in Internet Explorer or Opera or what else have you. So younger poets are doing what seems obvious enough, which is returning to the margin or else never thinking really about departing therefrom. I sometimes have the sense of a generation of swimming students, afraid to let go of the edge of the pool.

But I’m clearly of the age of the typewriter. Ezra Pound was the first U.S. poet to make this machine – which evolved from an experimental piece of machinery to a much more standardized piece of equipment during the Civil War because it made reports from the field more readable and reliable (and no accident here that Remington, major manufacturer of rifles, was likewise one of the first major producers of this military product) – his normal mode of composition. Nor that Pound was the one who led American poets away from the left-hand margin. Make what you will of the fact that his finest single work, The Pisan Cantos, was written by hand on scraps of paper in a wire cage in the mud of a prison camp in Italy.

The New American poets – from Olson to Ginsberg to Duncan to Whalen to Blackburn to Snyder to McClure – were the ones who really moved away from the margin. A poet like Larry Eigner is unthinkable without the typewriter. To center his poems on the page, Michael McClure (and along the way a volunteer typist or two) had to count out the characters in every line and count backwards from the center space. Today, that’s a simple Control-C in Microsoft Word, so simple in fact that the practice appears to have declined in recent years.

I first learned to write poetry on a heavy manual Olympia typewriter that belonged to my grandfather. As a teenager, I’d haul the thing out from its stand in a corner of the dining room – the only use my grandfather ever gave it was to type up minutes for his Veterans of Foreign Wars meetings once in a rare while – and set it atop the kitchen table, typing away until it was time for bed. When I left home, my first pay check in my first job went not to rent but to buy a typewriter of my own, a little red Royal portable that cost, if memory serves, a princely sum of $125 back in the fall of 1964. When that puppy died – I dropped it in my apartment five years later – I immediately went out and bought a new one, preferring to give the landlord a complicated story and be a couple of weeks late on the rent. I had had to forego the machine for maybe three weeks back in 1968 when it was in the shop – a key broke off – and I tried to handwrite my poems on legal tablets. Later, when I typed up these manuscripts, they were almost all exactly one typewritten page long.

When I got my first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, I immediately went out and bought a $800 IBM Selectric, a machine I had coveted for some time. This, I was sure, was going to last me for decades. I made a point of getting a three-year service contract and carefully selected three font-balls of type. Within four years, I had stopped using it for my poetry (tho I continued to do so for correspondence), heading in to my office at the California Institute of Integral Studies to use a PC there. When I finally got my own PC in 1986, I held on to the Selectric for awhile, tho I found myself using it only to fill out grant forms once a year or so. At last I gave the Selectric to my mother, until a combination of her failing eyesight and some necessary repairs caused her to junk it.

I don’t think of myself as a poet-of-the-typewriter, tho there are clearly sections of The Alphabet, in particular, that reflect the impact of the New Americans on my own sense of the verse stanza. But I can escape what I see in Bay Poetics: poets who treat the lefthand margin as an option are almost always “of a certain age.” And I wonder what the Norton anthologies of two hundred years from now will look like – will poets have all moved back to the margin? Or will the idea of writing for two-dimensional surfaces have become obsolete? The possibilities are worth contemplating.