Showing posts with label New American Poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New American Poetry. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Returning to the Bay Area after a gap of a few years away & just under 17 since I moved to Chester County, PA, is a complex, often bittersweet experience. When I left in 1995 UC Berkeley, where I’d once studied poetry with Robert Grenier, James EB Breslin, Jonas Barish, Ed Snow & Dick Bridgman, had yet to invite me to give a reading, so I recall being quite amazed when both Temple & Penn asked me within six weeks of arriving in the Philadelphia region. Not quite two decades later, Berkeley finally caught up, thanks to CS Giscombe, with the aid of co-curator Rosa Martinez, my co-reader Jill Richards (who, as I noticed & several people in the audience made a point of reiterating for me, gave a terrific performance), Claire Marie Stancek (who gave me a generous introduction) & some others (David Brazil in absentia even). Wheeler Hall had not changed all that much in the 41 years since I last took a class there, tho what they now call the Maud Fife Room was a warren of grad student offices back then.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The 1960 Symposium

Both video & audio of all two hours & 20 minutes

With Al Filreis, Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman,
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Chris Funkhouser, Erica Kaufman,
Judith Goldman, Kristen Gallagher, Danny Snelson,
Michael S. Hennessey, Charles Bernstein & Mel Nichols

Since these two points come up in the Q&A, it’s worth noting that Henry Rago, the editor of Poetry, died on May 26, 1969. I was thinking that his 14-year tenure with the journal began in 1952. It began in 1955. And the exact statement by Creeley is “There is nothing quite so abrupt and even pleasant as rape — ask any woman.” It appears in his essay on Franz Kline in the Winter 1954 Black Mountain Review & was reprinted in A Quick Graph but is cut from the essay in the 1989 UC Press edition of Collected Essays. Thanks to Al Filreis & Rachel Blau DuPlessis for running down the details, and to Clayton Eshleman for originally noting the discrepancy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Courtesy of the Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Five American poets, only one of whom is over the age of 40, 1963

There is always a lot to think about in the links lists as I patch them together & this week’s no exception. The link that I kept coming back to, not because it was the deepest or most insightful, was the article by David Barber in The Boston Globe, a review of three poets from that generation now coming into its eighties, that the headline suggested was “perhaps the greatest generation.” Barber, who is the poetry editor of The Atlantic, reviewed John Ashbery, Phil Levine & Gary Snyder, and may or may not have suggested the title, which in the daily press is something usually imposed on articles by the editorial staff. Which is to say that I don’t necessarily think that Barber himself deserves either credit or blame for this title.

A friend who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for decades once described the process to me this way: when the articles first get selected to run that day, junior editors work out where they will go and propose tentative titles. At the Chron there was something of a running competition among the junior editors to see who could propose the most lewd double entendre as a title for an article, and also to see who could get one all the way through the editing process without being caught by the editors. Every once in awhile, you’d pick up the morning paper & just gasp at something in the television section, realizing that the top editors were not up-to-date with the latest slang on Folsom Street. It’s how alienated labor makes the job bearable, and most offices have some version of this same process.

But the idea that the poets born between, say, 1925 & 1930, constituted something akin to a “greatest generation” gave me pause. For one thing, it equates these poets – and their peers – with the men & women who fought in combat during World War II, which none of the three writers that Barber reviews did. They were basically too young to serve during most if not all of the war. If, like John Ashbery, you were born in 1927, you didn’t turn 18 until 1945, something my father (born in January 1927) got around when he lied about his age to get into the Navy in ‘44. He became a radio operator on the USS Merriwether & got to make one trip across the Pacific during combat conditions, but most of his service was ferrying GIs home from the Pacific after the surrender of the Japanese.

In fact, Barber draws his boundaries much more widely – the “Prohibition years” (i.e., poets born between 1920 & ’33) – & is careful to lead with “Classifying artists by generation is an inexact science at best….” He’s no doubt correct that there is/was a “bumper crop” (his term) of American poets born during those years. But what does that mean? Using Hayden Carruth’s Voice That Is Great Within Us as an index of whom might be included, since that book lists poets by their year of birth, we find the following:

Hayden Carruth
Richard Wilbur

Marie Ponsot

James Dickey
Mitchell Goodman
Arthur Gregor
Anthony Hecht
Denise Levertov
Louis Simpson
Philip Whalen

Cid Corman
Harvey Shapiro

Philip Booth
Donald Justice
Bob Kaufman
Carolyn Kizer
Kenneth Koch
Jack Spicer

A.R. Ammons
Paul Blackburn
Robert Bly
Robert Creeley
Allen Ginsberg
James Merrill
Stanley Moss
Frank O’Hara
David Wagoner

John Ashbery
Larry Eigner
Galway Kinnell
Philip Lamantia
W.S. Merwin
James Wright

Bill Anderson
Philip Levine
Anne Sexton

Edward Dorn
Adrienne Rich
Jonathan Williams

Gregory Corso
Joel Oppenheimer
Gary Snyder

George Starbuck

Patricia Low
Sylvia Plath
David Ray

Robert Sward

Rich as Carruth’s list might be, he still missed Jack Kerouac & Jackson Mac Low, born in 1922, Barbara Guest, Alan Dugan & Jimmy Schuyler, born in ‘23, Edward Field (1924), Jack Gilbert, Gerald Stern, Robin Blaser all born in 1925, Lew Welch in 1926, Paul Carroll in 1927, Gerrit Lansing & Hannah Weiner in ’28, Gilbert Sorrentino in ’29, Bobbie Louise Hawkins in 1930 and David Bromige in ’33. That’s just off the top of my head, so no doubt I’m missing others. And of course, Barber is right about the arbitrariness of such a process. Expanding to 1919 would have brought in Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & May Swenson,for example. But note that there is nobody on either Carruth’s list or on my expanded version born in 1920, just one in 1921. One could make an argument that there was a renaissance in American poetry, and that these poets were at the heart thereof, but it’s much more concentrated than, say, the Prohibition years. I’d go so far as to argue that it really concentrated around poets born between 1925 & ’27, tho the outer ring reaches back to 1922 & forward to 1930. Just 9 of the 63 poets in my augmented list were born outside of those years, while 26 were born in those three crucial years between ’25 & ’27.

It’s worth thinking about what that means in terms of American poetry, what social conditions emerged during the years in which those poets came into their lives as poets. It’s also worth noting that of the 63 poets, just two – Kaufman & Anderson – are African-American. The most obvious is that these are poets, especially those born in 1925 onward, who escaped WW2, but got to reap the benefits of economic prosperity & a rapidly expanding educational system, that both democratized post-secondary education after the war and ensured that pretty much anyone who wanted to could get a teaching job.

Second, not one, but both traditions in American writing underwent profound transformations in the 1950s, with the New American Poetry arising out of a strand that had mixed roots in both modernism & an Americanist tradition that could be traced further even than Whitman, while the neo-colonialist Anglophile poetics of the more genteel tradition likewise saw a hard rupture in the revolt of The Fifties, as Bly, Wright, Merwin, Rich & even Hall moved away from their own heritage of closed forms to embrace aspects of European literature & a more open poetics. What’s notably absent from Carruth’s list (& my expansion of it) are direct descendants of the agrarians: Randall Jarrell, Robert Penn Warren et al. James Dickey & Jonathan Williams are the only real southerners here, neither of whom could be so described. The closest you might get are indirect descendants, all students of Robert Lowell’s. Indeed one might say that the disappearance of the agrarian strain in American poetry is nearly as dramatic as that of the Objectivists, except that the Objectivists returned circa 1960, while the closed verse poetics of the agrarians simmered underground before returning as the New Formalism of a decade later.

So in the 1950s you had this clash between these two traditions – the raw & the cooked, as Lowell himself put it – but even the cooked poets were offering a version of nouveau cuisine, each side with its own variants. Phil Levine is as unlike Sylvia Plath as Gregory Corso is to Jonathan Williams. The degree to which these poets were their generation is worth underscoring. If I pick up one of the big double-issues of Poetry from that period, such as the October-November 1963 number, every single American poet born between 1920 and 1933 comes from the list above. All but two of the rest are older poets: John Berryman, J.V. Cunningham, Jean Garrigue, Randall Jarrell, Lowell, Charles Olson, Henry Rago, Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, Elizabeth Bishop, Vernon Watkins & Louise Zukofsky. There is one poet who is younger, Ronald Johnson, born in 1935, and one British poet from this period, Charles Tomlinson. The 1965 double issue has fewer poets who are older (Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Ernest Sandeen & Ted Weiss), and two who were born after 1933 (Ronald Johnson again, and Wendell Berry, born in 1934). Again there are two Brits, Tomlinson & Gael Turnbull, and nine poets from my expanded list: Carruth, Creeley, Kinnell, Koch, Levertov, Rich, Sexton, Snyder & Whalen. There is however one not on my list but from that generation, David Posner, born in 1921, educated at Kenyon & Oxford, who taught for awhile at the University of Buffalo & at the University of California (it’s not clear at which campus). Posner’s status within the canon, which is pretty much nil, tells you everything you need to know about the boundaries of this list.

The degree of prominence that so many members of this “greatest generation” earned was not solely because they were fabulous (some were, some weren’t), but because they were it, pretty much the sum of what was available by writers in that age cohort during those years. In 1960, they were the poets between the ages of 27 and 40. Ginsberg, for example, was just 34.

But by the middle 1960s, you already had the kudzuing of MFA programs across the land, meaning that there were an increasing number of writers everywhere. If you look at my expanded roster, one thing you will notice is that most of the poets who did not teach, or at least not teach much, during that decade, came primarily from the post-avant tradition: Eigner, Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, Corso, Ginsberg, Spicer, Blackburn, Whalen, Corman. Ashbery & Ginsberg would go on to teach later, but not during that critical decade. So that even tho the numbers of post-avants and quietists are almost even in that expanded list, ten, fifteen years hence creative writing programs would acquire a distinct orientation – and reputation – they are only now fully outgrowing.

By 1975, the number of poets had already grown substantially. We were already beginning to experience the Babylon effect of having several different tendencies in poetry, each with several dozen members between the ages, say, of 27 & 40. Another 15 or so years, and these scenes had expanded all that much further. The 1993 Writing from the New Coast anthology presents the work of 119 poets from post-avant side of the street, 70 or 80 of whom I suspect would be every bit as recognizable to readers of this blog as that the names from that original list by Hayden Carruth. And here’s the secret: many of these poets are every bit as good as their elders. Plus there were at least as many post-avants excluded as included in that volume – the scale was already impossible for any attempt at completism. And very probably just as many non-post-avants as well. That 119 is just the tip of the iceberg.

So my point is this: what made the generation of the 1950s special were three things. First was breaking out of the doldrums of the Second World War; second was the presence of multiple kinds of new poetry in lively (& often bitter) debate; and third was scarcity. That third item is at least as important as the first two. Even in my expanded list, the number of 34-year old poets in 1960 was a grand total of ten. Fifty years later, I’d be curious to know just how many of today’s poets were born in 1976. I’ll wager that the number is much greater than ten, and I’ll wager further that the best of them are every bit as good as the poets born in 1926.

Monday, June 16, 2008

This is only going to get me into trouble, but…

I was thinking about the debate, to call it that, between flarf & conceptual writing, and specifically thinking that such a debate was in many respects the healthiest single phenomenon I’ve seen regarding poetry in several decades, because it meant that there were two contending (contesting) approaches to the new, and that you can actually feel the discourse getting off the dime finally of what to do after langpo and just doing it. And that feels so long overdue, frankly.¹

Then I had the thought, what if this were the 1950s? There are some interesting parallels. Flarf & conceptual writing appear literally decades after the last collective literary tendency, not unlike how the New Americans showed up 20 years after the rise of Objectivism. And there are already different voices & formations, again as in the 1950s. So the question occurred to me: if these are the new 1950s, just who are flarf & conceptualism. And then suddenly it was as clear as sunlight in spring:

Flarf is Projective Verse
Conceptual Poetry is the
New York School

Flarf, precisely by its interest in “deliberately awful” writing, is amazingly writerly. Its first notable device, Google sculpting, is not unlike way Olson et al reconceived the use of the linebreak & its relationship to speech so as to completely redefine how everyone (not just the Projectivists) would think about poetry. In this scenario, Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson is For Love for its generation. K. Silem Mohammad’s Dear Head Nation is what – the first Maximus? I don’t want to carry this analogy too far – Nada Gordon & Katie Degentesh don’t have to fight over who gets to be Denise Levertov (both are considerably more interesting in the long run, anyway). It would be valuable to note the differences between these formations as well – flarf is far more democratic, small d, for one. One doesn’t see Gary Sullivan pulling a “Reading at Berkeley” number any time soon. And is Rod Smith the Duncan, the Blackburn, the Edward Dorn?

Conceptual Poetry, like the NY School, borrows importantly on concepts from the New York visual arts world. Like Personism, it’s not about individual works of great art. It doesn’t overvalue personal creativity. It opts for fun. And it’s nostalgic for traditional forms – Kenny Goldsmith & Christian Bök, to name two, are deeply retro in terms of the projects they choose. Their relationship to fluxus & dada are as direct as Ashbery’s are to Stevens & Auden. All they’ve done is to switch the nameplates.

So where are the new Beats? Is that what slam or def jam poetics are about? I doubt it, actually, given just how completely the key early Beats were into form & literary history, but the whole valorization of the street poet, especially by the numbskulls who confuse Bukowski for a beat, has a deeply anti-intellectual strain one finds at a lot of slams.

And what would be the new SF Renaissance? One senses that the New Brutalist phenomenon really has not borne a distinct literary sensibility (one doesn’t hear anyone speaking of the New Yipes series as the foundation for a new poetics, for example, tho maybe I’m just hard of hearing). Is there a distinct aesthetic perceptible in Bay Poetics? Or are Bay Poetics as much of a fiction as was the first SF Renaissance? Maybe what that scene needs is a Jack Spicer, but is there anyone just plain grumpy enough?

It will, I think, be obvious that such an analogy as this does a lot of violence to all those named, for which I apologize, sort of. Sort of, because I don’t think my gut feel here is wrong. What we are seeing is the resurrection of some very basic tendencies active within poetry for over half a century, seeing them coalescing once again into shapely coalitions we can actually name. From my perspective, old collectivist that I am, this can only be a good thing for moving poetry forward.


¹ From my perspective the great “tragedy” of langpo is that there were no other seriously contesting approaches to poetry. Actualism, which I’ve written about before, dissipated after the death-by-alcoholism of Darrell Gray, and the NY School, gen 3, was never interested in working out its relationship to other poetics, period. Everyone else was pursuing the isolato mode of individualism, still the most popular (and futile) option.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Donald Allen

There’s no such thing as a perfect anthology. For one thing, the form is too complex, carrying as it must a world of social dynamics & implications on top of all the “usual” literary ones. For another, editors – all editors – are simply human & prone to all which that implies.

Case in point: Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry , unquestionably the most influential single anthology of the last century. It’s a great book, an epoch-making one in many ways. If you didn’t live anywhere near a location that might carry the small press books of the 1950s & early ‘60s, the Allen anthology was the place where you got to hear what all the fuss was about with the Beatniks, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets & so forth. I still keep my copy of the Grove Press edition right next to the more recent UC Press re-issue. My wife still keeps her copy of the Grove Press edition in one of her bookcases upstairs.

But it’s by no means a perfect book. Only four of its 44 contributors are women & 43 of the poets are white. It would have been a stronger book, and done a better job connecting back to the traditions from which this poetry arose if it had included the work of Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Lorine Niedecker or George Oppen, all of whom were active when the first edition appeared in 1960. One could even argue that it might have been a stronger book had it included William Carlos Williams, H.D. or even Ezra Pound, all of whom were still alive in 1960. In the afterword that has been added to the UC Press edition, Allen himself suggests that this is very much the kind of anthology he himself first envisioned:

I visualized leading off with recent work by William Carlos Williams, H.D., e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, to be followed by a few poems by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Louis Zukofsky, and then a larger selection of poems by twenty-four of the “new” poets.

According to Allen, it was Charles Olson who balked at this lineup, emphasizing as it did continuity rather than change. A little selective amnesia, omitting rather than incorporating these literary elders, gave the final product a much more radical air than it might otherwise have had. And I suppose that it didn’t hurt that the book leads off with a new version of the Grand Old Man than, say, Pound or Williams, Olson himself taking up the first 38 of the edition’s 386 pages given over to verse (another 70 are allocated to statements of poetics and bio notes, with Olson taking up 20 percent of that).

Where there are exceptions to this prohibition against an “older” aesthetics, every one is in the San Francisco Renaissance section of the book, the second of the volume’s five groupings. Helen Adam, James Broughton, Brother Antoninus & Madeline Gleason all extend out of a tradition that extends more directly from Pound’s old employer, William Butler Yeats. With the plausible exception of Antoninus (William Everson), a Dominican monk whose poetry owes a great debt to Robinson Jeffers, the others were all also confidants of Allen’s closest advisor on this anthology, Robert Duncan. If, as has sometimes been argued, the Allen anthology’s neglect of women can be traced at least partly back to Duncan, it’s worth noting that two of the book’s four female poets fall under this category & that a third, Denise Levertov, was Duncan’s closest female correspondent of all. Without Duncan’s influence, it’s conceivable that the Allen anthology would have been 39 guys and Barbara Guest.¹ But one wouldn’t have had to change the aesthetics or reach of the anthology in the slightest to have included, say, Diane DiPrima, Hettie Jones, Bunny Lang, Mary Fabilli or Lita Hornick. You could have tripled the presence of poets of color by adding Bob Kaufman & Steve Jonas. And you could have had a parallel to the West Coast “exceptions” out of New York if you wanted to be completely fair: Edwin Denby, F.T. Prince, David Schubert.

But this was not the only perceptible omission the Allen anthology made. Notably missing are non- or anti-academic poets who don’t come directly out of the Pound-Williams tradition, including Bern Porter, Bob Brown, Jackson Mac Low & Jerome Rothenberg.² If anything, these poets would have given Allen’s collection a more revolutionary feel than it eventually had. But there were also poets whose writing owed a heavy debt to William Carlos Williams, in particular, but who didn’t share in the vaguely Beat counter-culture that was the unspoken common ground for all the poets in the Allen, such as David Ignatow and Harvey Shapiro, whose absence I suspect drove a wedge between camps. Ignatow, Shapiro & Rexroth are all poets who could easily have been in the Allen who were later taken up as influences by more conservative writers who treat them as integral to a less Anglophiliac, less formalist variant of the School of Quietude. One can only imagine what poets like Phil Levine or journals like the American Poetry Review might have become had they seen the likes of Rexroth et al as part & parcel of the New American Poetry & thus understood their own history differently.

The New American Poetry also didn’t do a great job with its inclusion of younger poets. The two “babies” in the gathering, Ron Loewinsohn & David Meltzer, both turn 70 this year, having had very different careers. Meltzer stayed true to his neo-Beat roots & his recent selected poems, David’s Copy, demonstrates that the Meltzer of the Allen anthology was a solid & worthy selection. However at 23, Loewinsohn was still very much the perfect imitator of William Carlos Williams & not yet much more, a fact that let to considerable derision among his peers that was quite evident on the scene when I first came into it five years later. As Loewinsohn grew up as a poet, his own aesthetic evolved in a more narrative direction, eventually yielding one legit small masterpiece, Against the Silences to Come, a couple of decently sized collections, the most recent of which, Goat Dances, came out in 1976. Having gotten into Harvard after a fairly rough time as a Beat (he & Richard Brautigan were roommates for a time in an automobile), Loewinsohn published two novels, got tenure at Berkeley, and to my knowledge hasn’t published a book now in 20 years. Allen could have done much better by focusing more attention instead on the Spicer Circle (Joanne Kyger, George Stanley, even Harold Dull), some of the younger New York poets (Kathleen Fraser, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett) or looking away altogether from the “scenes” to writers like Besmilr Brigham, James L. Weil or Judson Crews.

One could make similar arguments concerning the problematic inclusion of at least six & conceivably as many as ten of the 44 contributors to the Allen anthology. Realistically, tho, one could make a case for the inclusion of every poet there, even Bruce Boyd. A more important question, tho, has to do with the book’s structure. Allen’s decision to divide his collection into “groups” was controversial enough at the time, but I think it had a lot to do with the book’s power & influence. By separating out different modes of the new poetry, Allen made the reading experience of unfamiliar work much easier for readers far from either literary center in the U.S. In essence, this strategy tells you not only who to read, but how to read them. Not devoting a section to Boston, for example, was every bit as important as devoting one to San Francisco, even if the so-called S.F. “Renaissance” is largely a fiction of this volume, one rendered even less intelligible by Allen’s decision to put Duncan – the archetypal San Francisco poet – into the Black Mountain section, as well placing Philip Whalen, Michael McClure & Loewinsohn into the final “independents” grouping.

In addition, there’s an implicit hierarchy of sections that goes well beyond the disproportionate number of pages given to Charles Olson. The hierarchy is: (1) Black Mountain, (2) San Francisco, (3) Beats, (4) New York School & (5) independents. This certainly downgrades the New York poets unfairly, and it misses the already emerging New Western poetry (now sometimes called ecopoetics) that Allen could have acknowledged by placing “SF Renaissance” poet Lew Welch (whose poems in the issue are entirely from his “Chicago period”) alongside Welch's Reed College roomies, Whalen & Snyder, perhaps adding “Black Mountain” poet Ed Dorn. That may have required more forward thinking analysis than anyone could have done at the time, but by the start of Coyote’s Journal by the middle of the next decade & the rise of other New Western poets like James Koller, Bill Deemer, Drum Hadley, John Oliver Simon & Keith Wilson, it was a joining together just waiting to be put on paper. The absence of the New Westerns from the Allen anthology has a lot to do with the ongoing neglect of this writing here nearly a half century later.

But for all of these warts, the Allen anthology is still unquestionably a great book, and it makes sense that it should be the most influential collection of the latter half of – indeed of any point in – the 20th century. Again, Allen himself notes how, in the 1950s,

Oscar Williams’ frequent collections of verse had given contemporary anthologies a bad name.

Which is surely true to my memory of the time (tho I first read Frank O’Hara in one of Williams’ gatherings when I was in high school before I ever saw the Allen). Anthologies like that were pitched, as are those today by Garrison Keillor, Caroline Kennedy & Billy Collins, at people who don’t read poetry & who may well find the simplest piece by Robert Creeley too taxing, too threatening for their noggins. Such readers desire a poetry without questions or ambiguity, which is like weightlifting without weights.

So Allen not only changed poetry, in making all this newfangled stuff widely available, he rehabilitated the genre of the anthology itself. That’s a tremendous achievement. Which is why I want to keep its limitations in mind later this week as I look at a series of new anthologies that have arrived on my desk (or, more accurately, on the floor next to it) over the past few weeks.


¹ Gertrude Stein’s absence from Allen’s original roster is attributable to her death 14 years before, but it definitely narrows the poetic range of what he was proposing.

² Thus one might read the debacle of Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 2, which embarrassingly under-represents the New American Poetry and its participants, as simply a matter of “payback” several decades later.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

(Photo by Larry Keenan)

I’ll wager that I knew who Hettie Jones was as an editor, and as a presence on the New York City poetry scene, before I was 20 years old. So I find myself amazed to admit that it has actually taken me now 40 years to read a book of her poetry, the quite lively Doing 70, published by the redoubtable Hanging Loose Press. It’s like discovering a whole new New American poet. And with my roots and interests as a poet, that’s a considerable gift.

It’s not like the emergence not so long ago of Landis Everson, who was a marginal enough member of the Berkeley renaissance a half century back, but who has returned now in his later years as more postmodern writer, full of subtle shadings nobody would even have noticed back in the early 1950s. Nor is it like the big belated book, A Tall, Serious Girl by George Stanley, a long overdue selected poems by a major writer of the Spicer circle who was largely out-of-print in the U.S. after having moved to Canada some 40 years ago. No, Hettie Jones is writing what are patently New American poems today almost in the same way that Michael McClure or Gary Snyder could be said to be doing the same, carrying forward that aesthetic from the 1950s to the present unbroken:

Here Is

a woman who know
what here is, through

long years of being

by a window that offers
others, there

here then is
this woman

ten thirty pm
on April seven

a struggling spring
in two thousand six

These are clean, simple poems, never trying too hard, but not written out of any nostalgia for the “beat scene” of Jones’ fabled youth either. When she says, in an interview given to Nancy Grace, that “I was much too logical and much too old fashioned and much too linear” to be a language poet, she’s not putting them or herself down, simply placing herself in the larger universe of literary possibilities. But this doesn’t mean that she’s not capable of complex statements, done with both great precision & notable grace, as in the poem “About Face”:

In Ghana, in August, in
the Golden Tulip’s
Demba Lounge

Nat Cole sings
“Merry Christmas”

as lone white men
on cell phones listen,
some with evident
nostalgia, to a black man
singing of home

Some remind me actually of the short lyrics of the late Carl Rakosi, ringing out changes, that, while completely predictable, can be quite satisfying simply for the precision involved, as in “Shades”:

black for the season
blue for oh how I need

this gray afternoon
when the drummer at the green
subway kiosk
red hot

Many of the poems are explicit in their feminism – an attitude that I suspect would have made The Boys of 1955 & thereabouts more than a little anxious & perhaps even dismissive – but it isn’t the simplistic finger-wagging of a Denise Levertov that Jones is after (tho one could argue that that was needed some three dozen years ago). Rather, what one notes about its presence in Jones’ work is the absolute variety of possibilities that come up with this as a subtext, ranging from the utterly grim, such as a poem about a Turkish woman stoned to the edge of death for “having sex / or being raped, same shame” who hangs for three months before dying, or of a female soldier killed in one of Bush’s wars, to poems that are simply, or not so simply, celebrations.

One of the more interesting examples of this can be found in the title poem, a not-quite six page narrative of having one’s car break down on the way back from Boston¹, only to have the trucker from the AAA-plus card (which gets you towed back where you need to be, not just five miles to the nearest rip-off station) turn out to be an engaging boy (Jones guesses his age at 23) who’s been to New York City only a couple of times before. Of course Jones was doing 70 on the Mass Turnpike when her starter broke – and of course just turned seventy a few weeks before – so what ensues is a complete gender reversal of the dynamics I outlined awhile back in the Peter O’Toole flick Venus.

So this is a case of the New American poetry doing something, with a few notable exceptions, the New American poetry itself seldom did. And it’s a pleasure to see it, because it is so clearly not imitation anything.

I want to close with a poem of Jones’ that caught my eye, “Naming Hettie Slocum,” perhaps because the house right next to the monument to Joshua Slocum on Brier Island off the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia (where Slocum was born, tho he did much of his sailing from Olson’s Gloucester) belongs to Krishna’s cousin, Dan Hunt. Given that my own side of the family has its own sailing mythology (thanks to my maternal great grandfather telling everyone that his grandfather was Sir John Franklin, which was right only insofar as that was the grand-dad’s name, tho he was an illiterate fishmonger, not the arctic explorer), this seems too good a coincidence to let pass. But I don’t think this poem needs any further comment from me. Hettie Jones does just fine:

Hettie Slocum once went
halfway around the world and back
in a sailboat. Then she gave up
the nautical life for good
and took off to farm

leaving her husband, Captain Joshua,
the well-known navigator-storyteller,
to the heave and swell of that vast
and wily mother, the sea.

Hettie was a pretty seamstress,
twenty-four and fresh from Nova Scotia;
Slocum, a cousin, forty-two and lonely.
His first wife, love of his life, mother
of his sons, had died. It was 1886.

Hettie was game; she sewed Slocum’s sails
cruised with him and the boys
to Rio, bought a tall hat, survived
an epidemic. He wrote a book
about their adventures, called her

his wife, called her “brave enough to face
the worst storms” – but never once mentioned
her name. Let us then remember her: Hettie!

Hettie Slocum!

Now all is said and done.


¹ Carrying with her the correspondence, no less, of the late Helene Dorn, the literal purpose of this trip.

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.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Another New York School poet who would do very well to have a big, well-edited, selected poems from a publisher with good distribution (you listening, Penguin?) is Lewis Warsh. For four decades now, Warsh has been one of the prime movers of that tradition’s third generation, alongside David Shapiro, the late Joe Ceravolo, Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman & the ghost-in-the-machine that is Larry Fagin – that’s a pretty terrific list of poetic talent – but as central as he has been, as writer & as publisher of United Artists books & such journals as Angel Hair, Warsh seems never to have been a hustler when it comes to pushing his own wares. There is no page for Warsh at the Academy of American Poets, the Electronic Poetry Center or the Modern American Poetry websites, which is really scandalous. The best you can do, besides the link above to his site at “day job” Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, is the search engine at Small Press Distribution, which at least will get you to 11 of his books that can be had there.

One book that you won’t find listed there is The Flea Market in Kiel, published as a fine art chapbook by The Rest Press, the micropublisher founded by Patrick Masterson & Ryan Murphy. Like a lot of Warsh’s best work, Flea Market is quiet, observant, meditative. In spite of the allusion in the title to the city on the German Baltic that is known to most Americans, if it is known at all, merely as the root to kielbasa, there is nothing exotic in Warsh’ content, much of which could as easily be set in Kiel, Wisconsin:

My dental insurance doesn’t cover my family.
But today I found out I can borrow on my retirement plan.
My heart is still beating, but I don’t know for whom.
For an encore, I’ll sing “Some Enchanted Evening”
or “Up on the Roof.”

It’s remarkable just how much context can be gleaned from these four simple sentences, not the least of which is the tension between the image of family in the first line & the lovelorn tone of the third.

Many of Warsh’s poems apply techniques that may have origins elsewhere, as the one above does the leaps of surrealism. One can imagine poets as diverse as Bill Berkson & Robert Bly using this same four-part exoskeletal structure & coming up with something very different. In the following, I certainly caught the Pound in the first line & heard the irritated tone of Jack Spicer in the last, but it was the ambience of Frank O’Hara, rising up almost as an echo, that lingered the most:

And then Diana Ross & The Supremes were singing “Stop! In the Name of Blub

But as I was leaving the theater I realized I could no longer understand the words

Because all of the people in the audience who were singing along

Or possibly we can say it was a faulty sound system

Or more to the point maybe all the words began to blur in my head.

The way people look alike when you see them from a distance

So the words & the sounds never convey the same meaning

Or when I thought they meant something it was really the opposite

The glitter in Diana Ross’s hair, for instance, or her dress which consisted

Of thousands of tiny sequins (blinding, really, as she tottered onto the stage)

Each sequin a tiny mirror reflecting the sun, the stars & the planets

That make up a galaxy where existence is a bad dream

From which you wake up in a cold sweat, hair matted to the sides of your face

The indentation of your head on the pillow –

Diana, shut up.

Here Warsh uses the additional spacing between lines to permit him to stretch them out without seeming somehow dense as he builds this satire predicated on two different O’Hara poems, “The Day Lady Died” & “Lana Turner Has Collapsed!” His image of Diana Ross as “tottering” turns tragedy into farce – and recalls, as much as the tone of the last line, the way in Spicer characterizes the Beatles as corporatist bubblegum rock in Book of Magazine Verse.

Each section here is built with such care, deliberately aimed at limited effects, but with an overall cumulative impact far more powerful than any of this book’s individual sections. That seems to be a particularly Warshian virtue.

Flea Market is printed in an edition of 350 copies, exquisitely produced by Masterson with great attention to detail & a clean design. Ryan Murphy, who co-founded A Rest Press with Masterson¹, told me that his Ori is the New Apple Press, which does editions of just 75 copies, can only be reliably found at one bookstore – McNally Robinson Booksellers in New York’s SoHo, a purveyor with an active interest in small and independent presses. Given that we’re about to embark on our annual Bad Poetry Month, it might be worth your while to check out a store dedicated to something more than the lowest common denominator. Hopefully you will find The Flea Market in Kiel & give it a good home.


¹ Making me wonder if the shift from A to The Rest press is an indication that Murphy’s no longer directly involved.