Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The absolute number of reviews that have come to a book of correspondence, the letters between Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop, Words in Air, caught my eye. I don’t recall anything like this for the letters betwixt Robert Duncan & Denise Levertov, two other authors of approximately the same generation and at least the same stature as poets. But the Duncan-Levertov tome was published by Stanford, which lacks the PR engine (fueled principally by ad dollars) of FSG, the publisher of Words in Air.

In each volume, one might argue that there is one great poet & one very good one, the twist being that in the Duncan-Levertov correspondence, it is the male who is the transformative figure in American verse, whereas in the Lowell-Bishop volume the woman is clearly the better poet. While Robert Lowell was once taken for a major writer – he even got his visage onto the cover of Time magazine back in the 1960s – his writing has not worn well over the decades. Today he reads like a blurred rehearsal for his more brilliant colleagues, John Berryman & Sylvia Plath. Indeed, his best poetry often strikes me as terrifically talented but terribly marred by his problems & his meds – at his finest, he reads like Frank O’Hara on way too many Quaaludes. Not so Bishop. As even the recent collected that brought back many of the poems she preferred lost or discarded makes evident, she is a writer of the first rank, no ifs, &s or buts.

The Levertov-Duncan correspondence has the added advantage of documenting one of the most important developments in mid-century poetics, the cultural revolt of a major practitioner, as Levertov abandoned her roots in the New American poetry during the Vietnam period, moving left politically but right aesthetically, a contradictory set of impulses that was matched after a fashion by parallel revolts on the part of LeRoi Jones & Edward Dorn. None of the three would write like their youthful selves again, nor would they appear to have all that much in common with one another, other than their choice for apostasy.

The New American Poetry & the social turmoil surrounding the Vietnam debacle & civil rights movement had just as much impact on the other side of the avant line, as several key Quietists, many of them students of Lowell, went through changes just as profound as Jones/Baraka or Levertov: Robert Bly, Bill Merwin, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, even for a time Donald Hall all dropped the quest for mid-century rhymed verse in order to seek out a more authentic path forward. One might argue that even Lowell made a grudging nod in that direction, but it’s impossible to read Life Studies now without noticing just how much of that book is pure kitsch, For the Union Dead likewise. Or, for that matter, just how much both volumes seek to imitate Bishop’s chiseled verse, albeit with a shaky hand. Lowell’s best poetry would come later in his return to a sonnet form he truthfully understood.

This is the context I bring to a review, such as the one in the Los Angeles Times by Jamie James (presumably the Indonesian restauranter) that claims

Lowell was the most famous and influential American poet of the generation that came of age after World War II,

an assertion that is true only in a world in which time stops forever in 1955, prior to the arrival of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, The New American Poetry and a half century of other work. Such inaccurate hyperbole is not minor even in a world in which we’re told Sarah Palin was ready to become Commander-in-Chief, but it pales as nonsense when set alongside this opening passage of a review of the very same book by James Longenbach, a University of Rochester prof, in The Nation:

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are the two most prominent members of the second wave of modern American poetry - the generation of poets who came of age after the groundbreaking achievements of T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. Other poets of this second wave may seem more relevant: George Oppen's combination of formal adventurousness and emotional lyricism has been especially influential over the past twenty years, and the profligate energy of John Berryman (perhaps the most gifted poet of the second wave) has yet to be assimilated. But Bishop and Lowell continue to dominate the stories we tell about twentieth-century poetry ….

One wonders about the alternate universe Mr. Longenbach must inhabit, rather the way some old hardened Marxists somewhere may still debate the theoretical contributions of Enver Hoxa. Are the winters in Rochester really that hard? Is the city devoid of contemporary literature, or even work of a half century (or, for that matter, century) ago? Has nobody there heard, say, of Ted Berrigan?

Even more, one is taken back that The Nation, which in recent years has seemed to have widened its literary perspective from the inverted telescope of the Grace Schulman years, suddenly has reverted to this sort of nonsense. Nothing in the half-paragraph above is accurate. First, Bishop & Lowell are hardly figures of a second-wave of “modern American poetry,” so much as late inhabitants of a pre-modern poetics that struggled to stay relevant in a world in which Gertrude Stein & Ezra Pound had already rendered the 19th - (if not 16th-) century verities they upheld marginal & silly. Second, the trio of “groundbreaking” poets are conspicuously minor when set alongside the aforementioned Pound & Stein, not to mention Williams, Zukofsky, H.D., Langston Hughes & Hart Crane. Only Stevens can really be said to have functioned at that level. Eliot’s success, as has been evident now ever since the facsimile edition of The Waste Land came into print in 1971, was in fact the handiwork of Pound, whose radical editing made that poem interesting. One need only read The Four Quartets to get a sense of just how dreadful Eliot can be left to his own devices. Moore is a more interesting question in that she’s a much better writer. The tragic limit to her career was an internal need to play both sides of the aesthetic divide to her own (very short term) advantage. She was the American modernist the anti-moderns not only loved, but employed. (She was also, even more than Stevens or Crane, the first true “third-way” poet.) Williams, on the other hand, was an embarrassment, precisely because he was willing to point out the obvious – that these poets were not modernists, but rather holdovers from the previous regime who “dominate” only when their advocates airbrush history.

But airbrushing a half century of literature takes a lot of white-out in 2008. Still it goes on. If you look at Yale’s one online-to-the-public course in modern poetry, taught by English Dept. Chair Langdon Hammer, whose sessions are available in both video & audio formats, you will again see a curriculum of exclusion, of calculated, even willed ignorance. Three sessions on Frost, three on Yeats, three each on Eliot & Stevens, two on Crane, Auden, Moore & Bishop, but only one on Pound, one on Williams, one on Imagism, none on Stein, none on Zukofsky, none on the Objectivists, none on modernism in other languages.

Every time I point out the distortions of history that are the hallmark of the School of Quietude, I get howls of complaints from younger quietists. Their protests generally fall into two camps – one that asserts that such airbrushing of history never existed, the other conceding it, but arguing that those days are long behind us and that such self-lobotomizing approaches to writing no longer apply. But Hammer’s course was recorded in 2007 and these reviews of Bishop & Lowell’s correspondence are less than two weeks old. There may well be many younger poets of a more traditional bent who don’t share this will-to-denial that so characterizes these wannabe power-brokers, just as there are traditional poets – take Wendell Berry as an example or the writing of the late Thom Gunn – who continue to produce first-rate poetry.

But there is a larger and more vocal layer, of which Longenbach, James & Hammer are but three, who seem to want their world never to have changed (and who must be pained to realize that Tender Buttons was written over a century ago). Their approach to literary history is the equivalent of the unhappy child who sticks her fingers in her ears and hollers “La La La” when she doesn’t want to hear that it’s time to go to bed. Little do they realize just how long they’ve already been asleep.