Friday, March 30, 2007

Rachel Blau DuPlessis has a fascinating, even disturbing, critical piece in Jacket 31, which is technically the most recent issue of this by-now-fabled online literary project. Called “Manhood and its Poetic Projects,” the essay close-reads texts by Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley & Charles Olson, looking at how their work embodies, indeed creates, a code of masculinity in the 1950s that challenges traditional definitions of what it means to be masculine, but without any ancillary analysis of the role & social position of women. DuPlessis goes so far as to incorporate material concerning Olson’s professional behavior as an academic:

As has been documented, Olson made sexist remarks to women in the classroom (mainly sexual innuendo), and sometimes excluded women from the educational experience. For example, as Michael Davidson has carefully noted, Charles Olson told Nancy Armstrong “that [his] course [at SUNY-Buffalo] was going to be about ‘Men’s Poetry,’ and any women who wanted to attend would have to watch from the hallway” — an incident probably from the first of Olson’s two years at Buffalo, 1963….

DuPlessis goes on to note that Olson was hardly alone in this sort of abject nonsense during that period, nor was it a phenomenon peculiar either to poets or to one kind of poetry.

But I’m not sure that I would have read DuPlessis’ piece when, or how, I did, had it not been for the comments stream that flowed from my note awhile back on the selected poems of Edward Dorn. I may joke from time to time about there being a “Wounded Buffaloschool of American poetics, but it comes as a dousing of ice-water to think at times just how thoroughly gendered some reactions to certain comments and issues can be. I had not thought of Dorn as an index for White Male Rage, nor for that matter of many of my regular comment-stream nabobs as participants therein, but there isn’t much question that the comments stream skews heavily male nor that some of the commentators there seem perfectly content to characterize such behavior as the public wish of “the gift of AIDS” on Allen Ginsberg as merely “provocative.” What is the level of behavior required to cross the line, one wonders, if one is prepared to excuse that away?

I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t read Dorn or Tom Clark. In fact, I think quite the opposite, even when I find it troubling or, as I noted re the last 20 years of Dorn’s writing, disappointing. But I do think one has a responsibility to discuss such events & behavior in any piece of writing one does about them. It’s as much of an 800-pound elephant in the room of their poetics as is Pound’s fascism or the anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot or e.e. cummings. And to say nothing says far more about the critic than it does about the poet in question.

More subtly, tho, DuPlessis’ piece brings up the issue that there are certain poets – Dorn & Olson among them – who are peculiarly men’s poets, by which I mean that not only do they write as men for men but that the vast majority of their readers are guys as well. This is not the same, at least I don’t think so, as seeing the writing, say, of Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich or Susan Griffin as being women’s poetry in a separatist model of feminism (tho the three did not all take the same position with regards to that, nor always express the same sense of that across time either – as Judy Grahn has said, separatism was a tool, not necessarily an end in itself). Or, for that matter, a somewhat parallel male gay liberation aesthetic that once would have included, say, the early poetry of Aaron Shurin.

Part of what makes DuPlessis’ piece worth reading is the inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” as one of the texts she takes on, and the ways in which she demonstrates how the homosocial construct of the New American poetry plays out “the same but different” in the hands of at least one gay man. She notes, of course, that it would have been different had, say, she focused on Jack Spicer rather than Ginsberg, although it might have been interesting to look further and ask how it might have been different in the hands of John Ashbery or Frank O’Hara, or of Robert Duncan. Or, for that matter, Amiri Baraka or Steve Jonas. Or if she had looked at other poetry by Ginsberg that touched on his relationships with women, most notably his mother in “Kaddish” or his Aunt Rose.

One of the dynamics that DuPlessis is most interested in – troubled by – is precisely the double-nature of this male critique of masculinity that could be shared by such poets while at the same time not expanding its reach to incorporate women. She quotes Susan Howe from a conference on Olson to drive home the implication:

After hearing conference papers by two of Olson’s committed commentators, Don Byrd and John Clarke, Howe remarked: “I am a poet. I know that Charles Olson’s writing encouraged me to be a radical poet. When I was writing my first poems I recall he showed me what to do. Had he been my teacher in real life, I know he would have stopped my voice.” Then, playing on her status as a “respondent” to conference papers: “Can daughters ever truly respond to factors that come into play in such a patronymic discourse?” (S. Howe, 166, 168). She follows with a cited catalogue of intensely misogynist passages by Olson and then balances this impression with some other citations. “When he is at his best, frontiers are in constant flux” (S. Howe, 172).

Howe’s point here strikes me as very much on target because it acknowledges the degree to which writers, including the most problematic among us, are not continuous monoliths, but indeed ensembles of complex layerings, some of which can be at complete odds with one another. There is the Gertrude Stein whose writing completely flung open the doors of possibility for women & especially lesbian women in poetics, whose attitude toward other Jews could best be characterized as ambiguous, and whose attitudes on all issues of class & privilege are cringe-worthy. Her presentation of African American female voices in her early prose is generous, but it is also condescending. She is always all of these writers. Leaving one or two of them aside robs you of the whole of Gertrude Stein, even if including all of them might not be as much inspirational or as much fun.

As the absolute number of poetry books expands so dramatically as it has in the U.S. over the past 20 years, it increasingly becomes possible for younger poets & readers to self-select & even balkanize their own reading, to become enmeshed almost exclusively in this particular branch of the post-New American poetries or that particular variant of the School of Quietude. And while it is certainly the case that it is better to be passionate about something than merely a tepid sampler of everything, I do worry about the ease with which these problems can all be avoided through the worst of all solutions, selective ignorance.

There’s no question in my mind that I think every woman writer needs to have both the collected Olson and The Maximus Poems on her bookshelf. Just as every male poet needs to have a comprehensive collection of the work of Judy Grahn on his. Even if her later poetry is, to my reading, as problematic as that of Ed Dorn’s. But it also means dealing with all these issues, whenever & however they arise, with some generosity one hopes (Susan Howe & Rachel Blau DuPlessis are both good examples of this, frankly), but always with eyes wide open.