Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A great idea badly executed can be much worse than a bad idea.

My evidence for this assertion is Michael Benedikt’s anthology, The Prose Poem: An International Anthology, published as a mass market paperback, a Laurel Original, in 1976. When I first saw the little blue book, I bought it instantly, thinking At last! But when I got to the French section and saw that there was no Victor Segalen, no St.-John Perse, no Marcelin Pleynet, no Jacques Roubaud, my heart sank. Then I got, not quite at the very end, to the American section, which includes only the following:

Kenneth Patchen
Karl Shapiro
David Ignatow
Robert Bly
James Wright
W.S. Merwin
Anne Sexton
Russell Edson
Michael Benedikt
Jack Anderson
James Tate

No Gertrude Stein, no William Carlos Williams, no Robert Duncan, no Robert Creeley, no John Ashbery, no Ron Padgett, not one of the language poets. It was a debacle, a book that appeared to have been edited in the worst of faith, a deliberate falsification of the record. The British selection, containing only Peter Redgrove & Cecil Helman, was, if anything, worse. I felt nauseated & furious all at once. I realized two things almost instantly. One was that this volume, issued in a mass market trade format, was going to crowd out the marketplace for a truly comprehensive volume. The second was that a book this self-consciously false wasn’t going to do all that well. It would seem I was right on both counts. The Prose Poem appears never to have been reprinted – you can’t even find used copies on AddAll or BooksPrice, perhaps because the trade format used such cheap materials that even my own copy has to be held together now with a rubber band, its pages so acidic they’re almost smoldering their way to the illegible.

And to this date, there has never been a comprehensive anthology of the form. This one little terrible book both crowded out & poisoned the market.

Later, I did meet Michael Benedikt once and he wasn’t the cynical sharpie I’d envisioned from this project at all. If anything, he seemed a well-intentioned if somewhat bumbling sort of guy. I wondered later just how much of the disaster that was The Prose Poem was literally his lack of knowledge of the materials. Could he really not have known about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, John Ashbery’s Three Poems, William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell, or Robert Creeley’s Presences? Or did he just lack the intellectual courage to step outside the confines of Robert Bly’s infinitesimal notion of what constituted a prose poem? Was he an active agent of the School of Quietude’s compulsive distortion of the record – his anthology certainly was – or merely its victim? He’s gone now, so I’ll never know.

I’d forgotten that whole deep sick-to-my-stomach feeling of a book that should be a great event but turns out just to be a mess until I acquired Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, co-edited by Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton & David Trinidad, just released by Soft Skull Press. It’s a disaster, not on the scale of The Prose Poem, but a disaster nonetheless. If The Prose Poem warrants an F, Saints of Hysteria is more of a D+ affair. It’s not a malevolent book, but more in the tradition of Doug Messerli’s Language Poetries or Eliot Weinberger’s American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, or, for that matter, Donald Allen’s attempt to “update” The New American Poetry, The Postmoderns, all of them examples of how you can make a bad book using only good poetry. That, for the most part, is the story here too.

Called by its publisher “first definitive collection of American collaborative poetry,” it’s anything but definitive. This volume is functionally incompetent as a historical record of the genre, and tho that may be the greatest of its sins, it’s not its biggest problem as a book. The three editors missed large swaths of collaborative work, yes, particularly among the language poets, the Actualists and among contemporary writers, but the volume’s largest hurdle – the one that makes it essentially unreadable as a book and unusable as a classroom text – is that it’s presented incoherently. With over 200 poets spread out over less than 400 pages, there is no index of authors anywhere save for an alphabetical list that mercifully takes up the rear cover. Presenting the material in what the editors claim is a “loose chronological order,” they’ve dated absolutely nothing. Allen Ginsberg turns up on page 3 alongside Neal Cassady & Jack Kerouac, then not again until page 59 when he collaborates with Kenneth Koch, then on page 75 with Ron Padgett, then on page 102 when he and Bob Rosenthal are working with an entire MFA class from Brooklyn College, then literally on the next page where he turns up with Lita Hornick & Peter Orlovsky. Hornick turns up again on the next page collaborating with Ron Padgett – it’s his first appearance since the Ginsberg collab & fourth in the book overall. An author’s index and end notes after each text listing any other pages each author appears on would have gone a long way toward making this book usable, but its present format renders it unintelligible. There are some interesting combinations here, but you’re on your own trying to find them. The occasional “process notes” serve to clutter, rather than clarify, what is already a mess. They should have been given their own separate section.

That overstatement from the book’s publisher that I quoted above continues, as follows: “ranging through the New York School, the Beats, Language poetry, to the present.” But when I search out the area I know best, langpo, I can find only three of the forty contributors to In the American Tree: Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer & Bernadette Mayer. And Bernadette appears here for her work with other NY School poets. Considering that language poetry uses collaborative methods so extensively that the process was used to call language poets “Stalinists” in venues from the Partisan Review to the San Francisco Chronicle, I’m startled not to find any excerpt from Legend, the first booklength collaborative poem in America outside of the New York School. Not only is it not present, not one of its five authors turn up anywhere. No Bruce Andrews, no Charles Bernstein? None of Ray DiPalma’s work with Paul Vangelisti? Rae Armantrout is another poet whom this anthology disappears – her poem “Engines” is a collaboration with yours truly (making her technically a co-author of The Alphabet). Also missing is any evidence of Hejinian’s booklength collaboration with Carla Harryman. The same is true for the extensive collaborations done by Alan Bernheimer & Kit Robinson. And there’s no evidence here of any collaborative work by Steve Benson. This book includes just enough to say that it’s not overtly excluding langpo, but the reality is that if it had thought even halfway seriously (and one percent politically) about this volume’s content, it would have recognized that language poetry’s use of collaborative tools is often quite different from the NY School standard that is dominant here, and that it would have been interesting, even important to explore those tensions. But there’s no way to even glimpse that from this volume.

Contemporary flarfists will I think have an almost identical complaint, tho with some different names (the token inclusion is Rod Smith). All forms of conceptual poetics are missing, such as the work Hannah Weiner did with John Perrault. Save for Keith Abbott & Pat Nolan, the Actualists – another Berrigan-inflected literary community of the 1970s – is completely absent. No Darrell Gray, no G. P. Skratz, no Dave Morice. It’s bizarre. No sign of Michael Lally anywhere. Is it really true that neither Jena Osman or Juliana Spahr have ever written collaborations? Sheila E. Murphy or Miekal And? Susan Schultz or Maria Damon? If they have, you can’t find out about it here. The editors have been careful enough to include smatterings of Robert Bly, Marilyn Hacker, Jim Harrison, Jane Miller, Reginald Shepherd, but it’s tokenism and easily identifiable as such. The result is that an unfamiliar or uneducated reader will come away from this book confirmed in the belief that the history of collaboration can be read as radiating outward from the writing of the three primary poets who dominate this volume and presumably the last half century of American poetry: Ted Berrigan, Joanna Fuhrman and David Lehman. That certainly is an interesting & curious history. I’m only buying one third of it.

So far as I can tell the title of this book must refer to its editors, given that what they have offered us is maybe half of an unedited manuscript. Actually, the cutesiness of the title is a way of deflecting attention from the actual proposition of the book – it’s a confession on the part of the editors that they know this book isn’t what it claims to be. The editors all have, or had until now, good reputations as poets & people. I can’t imagine why they didn’t do their homework, but it’s so manifestly absent throughout this misbegotten venture that this book easily is the disappointment of the year. Plus, as the example of the Michael Benedikt anthology demonstrates, what Saints of Hysteria means above all else is that we’re not likely to have a comprehensive or competent collection of American collaborative poetry for another thirty years at least. That’s tragic.