Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of all the links I posted on Tuesday of last week, the most disturbing (to me) was not Paul Zukofsky’s sad thrashing about with regards to his father’s work & its potential to support the violinist in his old age, distressing as that is, but Ben Friedlander’s more subversive declaration that

For me, Marianne Moore is the center of modernism, not Eliot, or Pound, or Williams, and that means I can read Merrill and Ashbery with equal pleasure, while finding Lowell and Duncan — who drank too deeply of the Four Quartets — almost unbearable.

Ben’s rationale was that, as a scholar of the 19th century (dissertation I believe on Dickinson) & a poet who began his career in the 20th, he has different responsibilities with regards to each period.

For instance, the fact that I’m happy ignoring whole areas of activity in the later period, whereas, in the earlier, I’d like someday to have an understanding of the whole. In the later period, I’m even willing to ignore major figures (so-called), whereas, in the earlier, importance, however defined, serves perfectly well as a basis for paying attention.

He characterizes this as a distinction between reading like a scholar vs. reading like a poet, arguing that while he can led by whim & desire in each period, in the former he has a need to comprehend the larger panorama that is American poetry that is not needed in the latter.

Certainly, there is plenty of evidence that a thorough understanding of the field of writing is unnecessary in order to create great work. Nobody ever took Rimbaud for a scholar. And several of Friedlander’s implicit & explicit value judgments strike me as perfectly reasonable – Four Quartets is an unforgivably turgid, even stupid piece of writing, Joanne Kyger’s poetry will prove far “more lasting” than that of Robert Frost, Lowell is for the most part unbearable (and some of Duncan is likewise), YET dot dot dot

I don’t think this permits me as a poet to hallucinate a world in which “Marianne Moore is the center of modernism.” It is, I think, irresponsible – to ourselves, most of all – to simply wish the world is some way that it never was. Irresponsible to ourselves, because this is the literary equivalent of presuming that I can drive on the left side of the road in the United States just because I’d prefer to do so. There are consequences & they’re not all pretty.

I don’t think that Moore was the center of modernism any more than I do Olson or Oppen or Zukofsky or Stein. Each has a particular, and vital, role to play in the history of this period – which largely was over by the time I was born at the end of World War 2 (and well before Friedlander was born) – but which cannot responsibly be characterized as central. I do think that you could argue that Pound and/or Eliot was in fact central, particularly in the period between the start of the first & end of the second World Wars. Stevens, Williams, Crane, Frost all fall well outside that central (centering) dynamic – and the work of each is more interesting because of this, I think. Ditto Stein, ditto H.D., ditto Langston Hughes, ditto Marianne Moore.

Moore’s poetry places her closer to her friends among the imagists than anywhere else in the American poetic landscape, but her professional practice, in particular her work at The Dial, positions her elsewhere. More than any other poet of the period, she was the one who managed to stay in the good graces of both sides of the divide between anglophile conventionalists & the avant-garde. She was, for all extents & purposes, the Cole Swensen of her day, the perfect hybrid.

To declare her thus “the center of modernism” is to erase the historical shape & direction of this phenomenon altogether. I wonder about the consequences of this. Possibly it enables Ben to read what follows with more of an open mind, so that if he should decide that, say, Steve Jonas is a more interesting writer than W.S. Merwin, that doesn’t carry with it a host of repercussions that make it harder for him to appreciate George Starbuck or Gerald Stern, or force him to prefer Joel Oppenheimer to Thom Gunn. Just because you like Jack Spicer doesn’t mean you have to love Harold Dull or George Stanley. Liking Robert Duncan (as Ben apparently does not) doesn’t commit you to liking Helen Adam. Nor, for that matter, vice versa.

A history of recent writing that is idiosyncratic to the point of seeming arbitrary isn’t just to drive on the wrong side of the road, but to leave the road entirely, plowing through back yards & fields alike. It’s not illiteracy so much as it is a willful a-literacy that Friedlander seems to seek as a poet. With the presumptive advantage that it will be more useful to learn how best to read Donald Finkel than to dismiss him out of hand because he hung out with the wrong crowd.

Maybe a better analogy would be a walk in the woods, an experience that is entirely transformed if at some point in your life you become an active & moderately knowledgeable birdwatcher, or get to know the names of the flora & fauna. The difference between a salamander & a skink can transform an afternoon. Knowing the spiral-like call of Swainson’s thrush echoing through the trees gives shape to a forest it would not otherwise have, even if you never actually see the bird.

Friedlander’s position here is to organize his terrain along some axis of his own choosing, like determining that birds should be grouped not by genus, but perhaps by color, so that the flamingo, the cardinal & the rufus-sided towhee are of a “kind,” birds bearing red. The problem in this analogy is that Friedlander the poet is a bird in this terrain as well, just as is Moore. And a robin or swallow that can’t distinguish between a sparrow & a kestrel is going to lose its young to the latter.

Friedlander argues that his approach is necessary because so much recent poetry – from mid-century on, it would seem – “irritates” him. I’ve always thought that this was why he chose the 19th century as his specialization in the first place – he knew that Robert Lowell was at best a mediocre writer (albeit major, largely wasted, talent) but didn’t want to have to say so in public where it might offend those who are still picking through the carrion of the Boston Brahmins. Nobody is much offended if you say you like/don’t like any particular 19th century poet mostly because those bones have been picked clean.

The poet whose absence looms large in all this – the one who sits squarely between Pound & Eliot, provoking the former & giving some kind of permission to the worst impulses of the latter – is William Butler Yeats. A problematic case in that he was not American & is virtually the point at which the history of the two literatures (with Auden being the second, yet another instance of Marx’s adage about the first time as tragedy, the second farce) commingle. Is Yeats the first hint of modernism or the last whimper of Victorian literary values? He clearly is the source that enables The Four Quartets & the mushy overwriting that Duncan permitted himself, especially before his confrontation with Charles Olson at Black Mountain. (And if you want to see what the SF Renaissance, so-called, might have looked like without that blast from Olson – and with & thru him Pound, Zukofsky, Creeley – the one to read is the Canadian Louis Dudek. The Duncan of the years before Bending the Bow seems very much on Dudek’s wavelength, but after the impact of Olson it’s as tho Dudek & Duncan are of different generations altogether.)

Yeats was a Victorian through & through. There is nothing modernist in his work, nothing in his world that remained by the time I was born. Eliot’s quietism, implicit even in the great early works (he hates the modern world), is exactly where he wanted to be. Four Quartets is for him a real choice. Eliot’s modernism, we have known now for the past three decades, is almost entirely the consequence of Pound’s editing. As hateful as Pound was as a person, and as crazy as he got to be, any defintion of a center for American modernist poetry that doesn’t at least present him as one pole of what was going on, is a strange beast indeed. I can buy a version that sees it as a contest between Pound’s sense of modernity & the inherent conservatism of Eliot & the agrarians (and their New England protégé, Robert Lowell), tho a far more sensible one would be between Pound & an American-centric verse (largely the Objectivists) versus a more cosmopolitan & internationalist one centered around Stein & Paris, or even a push-pull phenomenon between all three poles. But Moore at best is the modernist wing of quietism, or vice versa, a domesticated variant on the Pound-Eliot collaboration/contestation.

But it’s precisely the disjunctions & cloudiness between these two sets of triumvirates – Pound, Eliot, Yeats being the first; Quietism, the Pound-WCW-Zukofsky complex & rue de Fleuris modernism being the second – that gives rise to so many bizarre interpretations of what “modernism” means in poetry. The two triads are not parallel, not equivalent. But they are active dynamics. To talk about a center in modernism – and modernism was perhaps the last aesthetic tendency to dream of such a thing¹ – entails accounting for the pull of each. The polished poetics of Marianne Moore, as hard-edged as any Jeff Koons rabbit, seems to me the very denial of this dynamic.


¹ Which is why abstract expressionists were modernists, not posties.