Showing posts with label Schools of poetry. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Schools of poetry. Show all posts

Thursday, May 31, 2012

On numerous occasions, I’ve made the point that the recognition of community – starting implicitly with the Black Mountain poets & the New York School and continuing explicitly with Langpo – is exactly that which distinguishes the post-avant from its predecessor, the avant-gardist late modern. Having taken community as an antidote to individualism, it is disconcerting to see the category figured negatively either by one’s peers who are not reactionaries (Johanna Drucker is one of writing’s most positive forces, for example) & by those who come immediately thereafter (as were the “new coast” poets of the O●blēk Anthology). What third term might exist that would untie the knot created by conflict between the endless competition that is the hallmark of individualism & the social elitism of inside-vs.-outside of any community? If I have a frustration with the post-Langpo / pre-Conceptual poets of the past few decades, it is largely that no such third term has been forthcoming, merely a sense of alienation toward the two pre-existing alternatives.
Listening to the talks of Poetry Communities and Individual Talent, I’m struck not just by John Paetsch’s use of “ collectivity” or “collective” as a potential third term, but even more profoundly by just how much this conference is not about community so much as it is about credentialing and canonization: credentialing the speakers – all intelligent & well-intended in their work – and canonization of the figures of their work, most often by foregrounding a previously overlooked, misunderstood or controversial aspect of the writing itself. But the core fact of the conference was that of younger academics talking on panels moderated by their elders. Of 22 speakers who presented papers (the one on Prynne is mysteriously absent from the PennSound record), only a few – Damon, Dworkin, Karasick & Schultz – are known primarily as poets. Only a few – Paetsch, Jessyka Finley, Kaplan Harris – fully address the construction of community itself (or, in the case of Spicer, the refusal of same). None of the speakers, moderators included, is him- or herself free of an academic context.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wise Guys Meet in La Jolla
Clockwise from RS at rear of table:
Rae Armantrout, John Granger, Ted Pearson, Dustin Leavitt
(photo by TC Marshall)

Because I was in California for half of April, I missed the Poetry Communities & Individual Talent conference that took place at Kelly Writers House while I was gone. But the relationship of poetry & community was constantly on my mind, reading at UC (which still fails to treat me to the usual glut of alma mater literature, a mistake that SF State never makes, tho in fact I never actually received a degree from either), going past the house I grew up, the house eight blocks away that I owned prior to the move to Pennsylvania, visiting dear friends, including David Melnick in San Francisco & Cecelia Bromige in Sebastopol. I’m co-editing collected poems for both Melnick & David Bromige and had things I needed & wanted to discuss with each. Plus the primal pleasure of visiting dear friends. I was amazed, at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, to see that Steve Fama has a pretty good collection of my writings on prisons from my days with the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ), which is to say 1977 & before. Later in the week, Kathleen Frumkin & I sorted through the NY Times to find the crossword puzzle that listed “Pulitzer Prize Poet Armantrout & others” on April 13 (Rae’s birthday – did they know that?), plus the solution the following day, which was “Raes.” It was one of those deeply satisfying psychic journeys in which I traveled more than just geographical distance.

My first event on the West Coast was at the Center for Psychoanalysis in San Francisco, an interesting blend of resonances in my life given just how many psychoanalysts I know, how many therapists & the number of decades I’ve been in therapy of one sort or another. One of the first questions in that informal give & take setting was did I still think of myself as a Language Poet and had my sense of Language Poetry changed since the 1970s. My response was to begin with something I’d written in the foreword to in In The American Tree, that I understood Language Writing as a moment more than a movement, which was true in the early 1980s when I first penned that sentence, and is even truer today, when that moment seems to me clearly past.

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.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A gathering in New Jersey for the journal Others in 1916.
Alfred Kreymborg, front row, second from the left, in front of Marcel Duchamp & left of WCW (holding cat).
Duchamp has his arm looped with Walter Conrad Arensberg, Man Ray folding his arms,
Maxwell Bodenheim on the far right.

One day last year, I was driving in the rain through southern Chester County when I happened to pass Baldwin’s Book Barn, one of the quirkier book establishments hereabouts. While Baldwin’s is on the web these days, it appears in situ to have largely managed not only to have ignored the digital age, but even the world after the Second World War, when paperbacks took over publishing.¹ The Book Barn claims to have 200,000 books somewhat anarchically shelved in its rambling establishment, perhaps 99% of which are hard cover. I always need the map they hand out at the counter to find my way to the poetry section & this time returned with a signed copy of Alfred Kreymborg’s The Little World: 1914 and After, published by Coward McCann in 1932 for the price of a paperback.

In 1932, Kreymborg would have been 49, publishing for over 20 years & widely known as an editor with some serious (if waning) avant-garde cred. The first literary figure to become a regular at Alfred Stieglitz’ 291 gallery, Kreymborg and Man Ray brought out a magazine called The Glebe in 1913 & ’14, the fifth issue of which was Ezra Pound’s anthology of Des Imagistes. While the younger Man Ray (the imaginatively reinvented Emmanuel Radnitzky of New Jersey) went on to establish himself primarily as a visual artist in Paris, Kreymborg stayed literary, editing a series of magazines and anthologies. Two years prior to The Little World, Coward McCann had published Kreymborg’s Lyric America: An Anthology of American Poetry (1630 – 1930), which, while aimed at the general reader, included not one, but three sections of its final age cohort of poets, those born from the mid-1880s & after, one large one focused on modernists (Amy Lowell, Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Lola Ridge, Pound, H.D., Williams, Walter Conrad Arensberg, Stevens, Loy, Moore, Hartley, Cummings, Eliot & even Haniel Long among others now forgotten), the second focused on formalists (DuBose Heyward, Aiken, Ransom, Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Robert Penn Warren & George Dillon, but also Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Fenton Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes & Countee Cullen²) & finally a third group of more eclectic or relaxed quietists³ (MacLeish, Tristram Coffin, Dorothy Parker, Mark Van Doren, Robert Silliman Hillyer, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Stephen Vincent Benét, Babette Deutsch, Louise Bogan, Kenneth Fearing, Horace Gregory, Stanley Kunitz, Stanley Burnshaw &, last but not least, Hart Crane), hybridism avant la lettre.

The work I’d seen of Kreymborg’s earlier anthologies, mostly compilations of poetry published in his journal Others, had led me to pigeonhole him as a later, lesser imagist, although already by the 1930 anthology Kreymborg’s selection of his work own suggests a gradual move away from the modernist group – where he positioned his work in Lyric America – toward the third tendency. By the end of his career, Kreymborg was giving readings accompanying himself on the mandolute, a larger version of the mandolin, anticipating by a few decades Robert Bly’s similarly folksy performance style. I wasn’t prepared for the work that forms the dominant strain of The Little World, political doggerel – think of deadline poet Calvin Trillin – presented in imagist format.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

I know, whenever I use the phrase School of Quietude in some pointed fashion, what kind of response I’m going to get, and the comments that sprouted around my note on the elevation of W.S. Merwin to the PLOTUS on Friday were unusual only in the increased number of defenders who turned up to rescue me from those who would simply prefer to tar & feather anyone for the sin of characterizing one of the broad traditions of American poetry. I do appreciate their presence & their willingness to suffer foolishness on my behalf.

Surely I could have used some other term, though the only adequately descriptive alternative I can think of is Neophobe. Yes, there is an audience for neophobic literature & always will be. But I would challenge the idea that there is anything “mainstream” about neophobia & I cringe to think of it as “Official Verse Culture.” Even worse, however, is that idea that it should continue to be the Verse That Dare Not Speak Its Name. That, of course, is precisely what is wrong with the neophobic tradition.

If there are to be adjectival poetry, whether we call our particular adjective Beat, Deep Image, Projectivist, Modernist, Surrealist, Actualist, New York School, Black, Gay, Feminist, Visual, Brutalist, Flarf, Hybrid or New Formalist, invariably it must be an instance of a marked case, something that sets it apart from the unmarked noun: Poetry.

Regardless of the noun involved, the Unmarked Case invariably has a history & a politics, one that should be apparent to anybody to the left of Glenn Beck. That phrase in the Declaration of Independence about “all men are created equal” is a good case in point. At the time it was written, it clearly did mean men, white men, white men of property. But when I was growing up in the 1950s, we were told instead that “men” really meant everybody, but anyone who could read the words knew better. Men meant men. This is precisely what those who argue for preserving the “original intent” of the Constitution mean when they propose that the letter of the law is unchanging.

Well into the 1950s (and in some realms perhaps even today), men were simply the unmarked case of people. You don’t find Freud writing about vagina envy. My great grandmother did not have the right even to vote until she was 65. Nobody thought to teach my grandmother how to drive. Whole segments of the world were simply carved off and set beyond the reach of these women.

Similarly, when I was growing up, history was a subject that meant American history, which was by no means the history of everyone who ever lived here. I was fortunate to have one teacher, Charles C. Clarke, who had spent part of his childhood homeless, coming to California with his family from Oklahoma during the Depression. He lived for a year in a potato cave near Fresno. Coming as I did from a “broken home” in the age of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best & Leave it to Beaver, I was painfully conscious – every day – of being the poorest kid in school. Whether I wanted to be or not, I was the marked case & it wasn’t until I met “Chico Charlie” that I realized that this condition was not unique to me, and certainly not “my fault.” And that it connected to an entire network of other similarly marked cases, economically, socially, politically, aesthetically, pretty much in every aspect of life.

The School of Quietude is poetry’s unmarked case, and its most characteristic – even defining – feature is the denial of its own existence. This in large part is because the phenomenon is invisible precisely to those who in turn are defined by it, just as the exclusionary maleness of “men” was once invisible to guys.

If being the marked case has consequences, in poetry as elsewhere in life, so does being the unmarked one, and they’re not entirely positive. Perhaps the worst is not having a clear sense of one’s own heritage as a poet. Where marked case poets tend to be obsessive about the preservation of the work of their ancestors, many major neophobe poets of the recent past are virtually forgotten today. When I wrote about Audrey Wurdemann, the youngest person ever to win the Pulitzer for poetry – she was just 24 –the spouse of Joseph Auslander (who first held the Library of Congress’ Consultant in Poetry post that has evolved into today’s PLOTUS), and the great-great-granddaughter of Shelley, her family contacted me because so few people write about her work (or that of Auslander’s) today. She is hardly the only Pulitzer poet of the 1930s to disappear entirely from view. George Dillon was the editor of Poetry for a dozen years, but I cannot recall the last time I saw anyone cite him as an influence. Robert Hillyer, whose middle name happened to be Silliman, became more notorious for his anti-communist activities, and for seeking to ban the work of Ezra Pound after World War 2. Though published by Knopf in his lifetime, the Wikipedia discussion of his life & work consists of less than 10 sentences. Dillon’s is even shorter.

One might argue that these poets just weren’t terribly good, but these were all Pulitzer winning poets from the same decade that saw other Pulitzers go to Robert Frost (twice), Conrad Aiken & Archibald MacLeish. The other winners? Robert P.T. Coffin, Marya Zaturenska & John Gould Fletcher. What I think this list suggests, really, is that neophobe poetics itself evolved in some fairly significant ways between the 1930s & the 1950s, back when W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly & Donald Hall were all first publishing poems that rhymed. The shift is every bit as profound as that from the Modernists to the New Americans, but it’s far less well documented, and one doesn’t see attempts to hold conferences to resurrect Wurdemann, Dillon or Coffin the way there has been, say, to explore the life & writing of Lorine Niedecker.

All of which suggests to me that the School of Quietude would benefit from acknowledging its own existence, which would appear to be a precondition for excavating its own history. Frankly, I’d rather they pick a term of their own choosing – School of Quietude was originally intended as a nudge to do so.

Which is why I find D.A. Powell & Kevin Prufer’s Dunstan Thompson: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master to be one of the more important books of 2010. The first volume in an announced “Unsung Masters” series, Thompson was a one-time student of Hillyer’s & part of the wartime poetry scene, appearing in The New Yorker & Paris Review, even translated by Borges before disappearing entirely. Prufer in particular has done a superb job in tracking down this poet & in getting his work not only back into print but contextualized by a number of sympathetic essays, from Edward Field to Dana Gioia.

Is Thompson a lost master? I’m obviously not the audience for somebody who in his life characterized William Carlos Williams as a “tiresome fake,” but there is some spark in a passage like

The darling boy
Snatched from his mother’s arms
And God-foreseen terrible harms
By that unmerited convulsive pain
Which won the flying coward
An extravagance of valour,
Never even having to think of sacredness again

It’s worth plowing through those crude rhymes, awkward rhythms & melodramatic excess just to get to “unmerited convulsive pain.” These aren’t my values in poetry, but that’s different from declaring that they aren’t values at all. One wonders what might have happened if Thompson had not flunked out of Harvard & had not moved to England & stopped writing. But that question is just part of a much larger narrative that would trace the history of the Harvard Aesthetes as an actual literary movement that leads in part to the Baby Brahmins of Merwin, Bly, Rich & Hall.¹

Or, given his anglophilia, homosexuality & deeply Catholic imagination, it would be even more interesting perhaps to speculate what might have occurred had Thompson drifted down to the North Carolina to meet up with Boston’s other tradition, Charles Olson & Robert Creeley, and especially to meet Jonathan Williams & Robert Duncan.

But such was not to be, and Thompson ends up as a neglectorino in a tradition that – traditionalist as it is – often appears to have only the haziest notion of its own past. It would be terrific if Prufer et al would expand their efforts to bring back many of the other forgotten neophobes from the Harvard Aesthetes onward. But to do so ultimately will require having & deploying terms to discuss relations between these poets. If a term like School of Quietude isn’t to their liking, I’d suggest that they come up with one of their own.


¹ To what degree was the turn each made away from the closed forms of their early writing the consequence of having to live simultaneous to the New American Writing, and how much of it was given permission by Robert Lowell’s own turn toward a more open aesthetic in Life Studies?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

One value of Sarah Rosenthal’s sumptuous collection of interviews, A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Bay Area Authors, just out from Dalkey Archive, is Rosenthal’s introduction to the collection, which offers a solid history of Bay Area poetry. Like the interviews themselves – a dozen in all, averaging maybe 25 pages in length – Rosenthal’s intro shows a depth of homework on her part that may come as a sobering reminder to the Facebook generation that this is how it’s done when executed properly. The book contains discussions with Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Hillman, Kathleen Fraser, Stephen Ratclife, Robert Glück, Barbara Guest, Truong Tran, Camille Roy, Juliana Spahr & Elizabeth Robinson.

Not that the introduction is perfect. Whether it’s an emphasis here¹, or a detail there², one could argue the minutiae because the larger structures are basically right on. Rosenthal is careful to document her sources & qualify her approach, noting that Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics includes 110 poets, dozens of whom could just as easily have been interviewed here. Personally I hope Rosenthal continues her work here. Future volumes beckon. Some writers I would love to see Rosenthal devote this same attention to would include Judy Grahn, Lyn Hejinian, Al Young, Kit Robinson, Etel Adnan, Bob Grenier, Bill Berkson, Bev Dahlen, Dodie Bellamy, Mark Linenthal, Norma Cole, Joanne Kyger, Kevin Killian, Barbara Jane Reyes, Aaron Shurin, Robert Hass, Pat Nolan, Alice Jones, Stephen Vincent, Eileen Tabios, Bill Luoma, Laura Moriarty, Alli Warren, Stephanie Young, Jack Hirschman, Curtis Faville, Diane di Prima, David Melnick, Michael McClure, Norman Fischer, Adam Cornford, Mark Linenthal, Jack Marshall & Jack Foley. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure I’m forgetting as many others just as worthy.

The one thread I don’t feel Rosenthal’s introduction does sufficient justice toward is the relationship between post-avant writing & literary traditions that consciously understood themselves as working class &/or even lumpen in their orientation. One is that post-Beat aspect of street poetics that has roots in the New American Poetry, from the late Bob Kaufman to Jack Hirschman to many of the poets particularly around North Beach. A second is a similar approach to LGBT poetries. Paul Mariah & Steve Abbott are gone, as are Pat Parker & Paula Gunn Allen, but it would be really useful to note how the interactions of these writers informed & impacted much that is covered here. Mariah, for example, was as instrumental in keeping Jack Spicer’s memory & work alive in the first ten years after his death as anyone. I was surprised to see Claudia Rankine note the Left/Write Unity Conference spearheaded by Abbott & Bruce Boone in her blurb on the book’s back cover, but not to see it mentioned in the introduction. The important role Actualism – explicitly a Bay Area literary movement – played in the poetries of the 1970s (especially in the “poetry wars”) is entirely invisible here. Given Rosenthal’s own engaged approach to poetics, these little blindspots seem surprising.

All of which is to say that Rosenthal’s introductory history is superb, tho the reality was still a dimension or two more complex than even a first-rate telling can suggest.


¹ Barbara Guest, to my reading, didn’t just continue “to produce important work” once she moved to Berkeley in her seventies, she really blossomed, becoming one of the most influential poets of the past 30 years & offering a model for “late work” that may yet prove transformational for poetry going forward.

² e.g., “Spicer … spent much of his adult life moving within a few blocks in San Francisco’s North Beach” ignores Spicer’s soujourns to Minneapolis & Boston, his day jobs – when he had them – in Berkeley, and the simple fact that his home at Polk & Sutter, an address made famous for poetry by John Wiener’s Hotel Wentley Poems, is a considerable distance from North Beach. The same holds true for Spicer’s favored afternoon hangout of Aquatic Park.

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, January 25, 2010

Darrell Gray (photo by Alastair Johnston)

The Poltroon Press has decided to re-open one of the most toxic & painful periods of recent literary history by republishing what appears to be a fascimile editon of Life of Crime, now with the subtitle Documents in the Guerrilla War Against Language Poetry. A few things are worth noting, the most important being that the publisher here is not the editor of the original zine & his website acknowledges the reticence of the original editors at the idea of going forward with this project. One parenthetical comment to a contributor from Alastair Johnston’s website pretty much captures the spirit of the entire venture:

(Aside to Uno Who: What are you going to do? Sue me? Go ahead... the magazine was published without copyright & no one asked you to sign your name to the homophobic or misogynistic crap you wrote. Try and sue me!)

“Homophobic or misogynistic crap” pretty much captures my view of that entire journal at the time it was originally published. My question to Johnston is what does this say about you that you’re willing to invest in this 30 years later? WTF? Why not publish a collected works by Darrell Gray or Victoria Rathbun, or an Actualist Anthology that’s comprehensive to that movement? It’s not just that Actualism dwindled & died because Darrell Gray killed himself with alcohol – Johnston was a primary drinking buddy – but the inability of that aesthetic tendency to mount & sustain positive projects on its own that ultimately made it a footnote to the decade. How is it that the Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater 1945 – 1985 offers nothing from any of the Actualist Conventions? Oh, & by the way, did you notice just how many language poets participated in those Conventions? Pretty much all of the ones on the West Coast, yours truly included.

Actualism’s premise was that there was nothing inherently New York about the New York School & that it could be transplanted straight to the West Coast without much in the way of rethinking the project. The one person who really had that vision, and the charisma & intelligence to pull it off, was Gray, but he arrived in San Francisco fairly early in the 1970s already thoroughly addicted to alcohol, and his time in the Bay Area makes Leaving Las Vegas look like Alvin & the Chipmunks. One or two attempts at collaborating with Darrell & realizing that the gallon of red wine next to the typewriter was as important as the typewriter were enough to scare me off.

The hidden assumption behind that premise, of course, is that the map of the territory as outlined by the Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, was more or less a fixed landscape. I have no doubt that it was traumatic for anybody who bought into any variant of that vision that way to discover a new group of poets who were both off that map & yet engaged with it had shown up like a volcano in downtown LA.

William Keckler in his blog does a better-than-fair job of noting that, 30 years later, it’s pretty clear that virtually all of the charges against langpo made during the poetry wars of the 1970s were bogus. My own work vis-à-vis the New York School, just to pick a case in point, has been to try to raise the visibility not just of those poets most like language poetry (Bernadette Mayers or Clark Coolidge, for example), but writers like Joe Ceravolo & David Shapiro, whose work (a) warrants being read by everyone and (b) demonstrate a much broader spectrum of interests & concerns. Indeed, this blog is one of the few sites on the net that takes Actualism & its history seriously. I really don’t have quarrels with any of those poets any more, which makes this attempt to resurrect the wars all the more counterproductive. And some of the charges – my favorite is the Stalinism one – are just silly. Maybe a third of the langpos have had a serious engagement with Marxism, but without exception they’ve all been quite visibly anti-Stalinist. One of the ironies of this republication 30+ years hence is recalling that David Benedetti, who later wrote his doctoral dissertation on my work, was himself a Maoist at the time of Crime.

One serious charge that is worth commenting on here, tho, comes not from the Poltroons, but from Eileen Myles, to the effect that langpo is in some way deficient because there is no “great AIDS poem” associated with it. It’s really the wrong complaint for two or three reasons that are worth recalling (I choose that particular verb because these are all pretty obvious):

It erases David Melnick’s elegy for his spouse, Davy Doyle, who died of AIDS in 1992, A Pin’s Fee.

Not all language poets, nor poets who might be better characterized as close to language poetry, are straight or exclusively so. Eileen certainly knows that. That list probably begins with Aaron Shurin – whom I’ve known for only 40 years, even before his first name was Aaron – and most definitely includes Eileen Myles.

Most importantly, there are no great poems about anything. If there is any lesson we have learned about poetry in the last century, that is it. Great poems about AIDS and war (plenty of those to choose from) are just like great poems about Cocker Spaniels, birding or breaking up with your lover, poems about, works that ultimately put themselves into an instrumental position that ensures their dissolution the instant they come into contact with time. A poem is no more about AIDS than Central Park is, or the Grand Canyon. The real political critique of the School of Quietude would be an anthology of nothing but Poems About. You could even let Ted Kooser or Billy Collins – or Alastair Johnston – edit it. But it would be devastating.¹

There are great poems that do engage topics or themes – Michael Gottlieb & Fanny Howe have written profoundly on the experience of 9/11 & James Sherry’s Our Nuclear Heritage remains the best book on the subject I know of, tho it was written & published many years before 2001. But to call these works “about” the assault on Manhattan is to fundamentally misread each of them. That’s like reading Pound to study economics: good luck with that.

There are, in fact, many positive projects still to be taken up that would help balance the literary history of the past half century so that it doesn’t simply look like the language poets were the only thing happening. There is no anthology as yet of the Spicer Circle, nor – with the exception of a couple of tiny efforts that have been out of print for over 25 years – of Actualism, nor the New Western poets that stretch from the work of Reed 3 in the 1950s (Whalen, Welch, Snyder) to the work of Bobby Brown, Drum Hadley & Tenney Nathanson today. The history of 20th century American poetry will remain incomplete until those are readily available. Plus hybridism or whatever you choose to call it still is waiting for its great anthology – the one currently posing as such really ought to be called Forerunners of American Hybridism since its rule of excluding those with less than 3 books edited out virtually every major practitioner.

My question – I was asking Kaplan Harris this at the MLA & it is definitely worth repeating here – is why isn’t anybody taking these projects on? I would love to find out that I’m wrong & that they’re all in progress. But I’m not holding my breath.


¹ This is why the correct response to Eileen Myles is not “because you haven’t written it.”

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I have become accustomed to pausing to say thank you whenever this blog reaches a new milestone. Today, eleven months & one week after having passed the two million visit mark, we – you & I together – pass the 2.5 million threshold. Thank you, thank you, thank you. That it should happen today is one of the great little ironies of life.

2,500,000 feels quite amazing to me. To be honest, the 50,000 mark felt stunning when I reached it in August 2003, not quite a full year into this project. If you told me then what the numbers would be now, I would not have believed you.

Which brings up a good point someone on the comments stream, I think it may have been Johannes Göransson, made the other day ( not, I should note, Monday) – that my binary opposition of the two literary traditions, quietism and the post-avant, has become ludicrous. I’m of mixed minds about that criticism. When I look back, as I did Monday, at 28 straight years of quietist Pulitzers, a string still unbroken, I think the empirical evidence is flat out overwhelming. And when I think of Johannes' impluse (see Monday's comments stream) to read literature ahistorically, my instinct is to be distrustful. But when I look at my own blog, and at that list in the left column of more than 1,200 other blogs, 98% of which are likewise discussing poetry, day in & day out, I think Johannes is quite right. The old model of doing business has been irrevocably broken. Something completely new is afoot. If anything, the old binary could make it harder to see clearly just what that is.

How can both of these be true at the same time?

Partly I think the answer is generational. If you came into poetry in the mid-1960s as I did, when poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery & Larry Eigner were still in their thirties, as were Donald Hall, Bill Merwin & Robert Bly, when the Allen anthology was still a new book, Howl less than ten years old & the newly published Naked Lunch something that could be found in relatively few bookstores, the cleavage between the Raw & the Cooked – as Robert Lowell once characterized the two traditions – was a gulf. To anyone who is in their sixties now, or who (like The New York Times) primarily gets their information about poetry from people that age or older, that’s still pretty much the map on which all the pins must be placed. American hybrid? Hybrid of what, pray tell, if in fact that old binary isn’t operating just beneath the surface?

But I’ve made that mistake before, so maybe I shouldn’t make it twice. In the late 1980s, I proposed a model of poetry that suggested that the post-avant tradition was disproportionately white through the social function of narrative within different communities. Never having held the subject position, I suggested, people of color might find a need to explore that while others, having held it for centuries, might well be more interested in exploring its fissures & contradictions.

I caught hell for that, initially from Leslie Scalapino, but ultimately from a much wider range of poets, most of them people of color. What they were noticing that I had not was that the composition of younger poets had already changed not only on American campuses, but in the key metro areas that serve as incubators for so much that is new. You might in turn explain this by noting that the middle class itself had already expanded beyond the white enclave one sees, say, today in Mad Men’s recreation of the Sixties. The 1980s were not the 1960s & I was wrong for not noticing.

Still, my outdated vision might have led one to expect that one day we would find a list of finalists for a major prize, such as the National Book Award, divided neatly between white post-avants & black conservatives – exactly the circumstance this year. (And, I might suggest, not the last time we’ll see that particular configuration.) Yet already Nate Mackey has won a National Book Award, so the historical narrative of all this comes as it does in real life, jumbled. The reality is that we live in a transitional period in which all of these phenomena can occur pretty much in any sequence at any time. There is not a right or wrong position here, tho there might well be a “less interesting” or “more interesting” one, which will vary depending on the position of the reader.

But it’s more important to recognize that while 1980s were not the 1960s, the teens of the current century – which get under way in less than 40 days – will not even remotely resemble the 1980s, and may even be more different from the first decade of the new millennium than this old fart is ready to concede. To be a young poet today is to come into a scene where there are already more than 1,000 blogs talking about poetry. I can’t imagine that world, even as I see it right here on my own web page.

So Johannes is unquestionably right. The old binary is just that: old & binary. It’s entirely inadequate to describe the scene of today, even as the inertia of that binary continues to drive some of the phenomena & some of the behavior. The old model will prove even less adequate tomorrow. The real question is, or should be, what models better characterize what is going on now, and what will be going on tomorrow?

Thus my own goal, going forward, will be to get my head out of the 1980s, the 1970s (the focal point, after all, of The Grand Piano project) & the 1960s, at least into the 21st century. Not that I won’t note the inertia of the past as it plays out in the present when that seems appropriate. But because I think the readers here deserve a response, however tentative & groping it may be, to the more interesting question: What’s next?

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.

Monday, August 03, 2009

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Is poetry written to be read? That seemingly no-brainer of a question was roiling my half-sleep in that shadowland the other morning between the first sounding of my alarm clock & the moment, 30 minutes later, when I actually dragged my poor self out of bed. The answer appears obvious & yet it’s not, at least not once you start to tease out the assumptions implicit in such a question. Perhaps even stranger, the answer may be changing even as I write.

Homer, to pick an author, even if it is one that we agree represents a construct at least as much as it does an individual, never “wrote” with the presumption of a book. The meaning of the word text in an oral culture is one of those problematic horizons that French theory loves to gaze upon without end. The much more recent poet of Beowulf was no different in this regard. Chaucer, not quite 700 years ago, seemed to envision the Tales as texts, something that might be read & passed on even after he is gone, but his conception of the book does not include moveable type, let alone mass production. Shakespeare’s utter disregard to the preservation of his plays makes clear just how marginal the concept of a book was to his own textual practice, tho it is arguable that this is less true in the case of The Sonnets.

I would suggest that the first English poets to really write with the book – and all the implications for distribution & consumption that the book entails – always already as part of the package, indeed the primary location for the life of the poem, are the likes of Wordsworth & Coleridge.¹ The distance between Lyrical Ballads and Walt Whitman’s self-published first edition of Leaves of Grass, complete with photo of the author, is less than 60 years. In another 60, you will find Ezra Pound contemplating The Cantos as a keystone to his imagined five-foot bookshelf containing the Great Works. For Pound, the first English-language poet to make use of the typewriter not just as a site for writing, but as a compositional element in the spatial construction of his works, the book is thoroughly a given. It’s unquestionable.

But what is the book with regards to poetry? Anyone who spends any time in used book shops will know that it’s hardly a static thing. The classic hardback form of the 1950s consisted of one longer poem or sequence surrounded by shorter lyrics of a page or two, a format codified in that decade by the Wesleyan series & mimiced by all the trade & university houses. It was the apotheosis of the School of Quietude’s presentation of verse & seldom exceeded 120 pages.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the first “paperback original” to have a defining impact on the writing of its time. As revolutionary as that book was, Howl really didn’t stray all that far from the big poem-as-regent ringed by a court-of-lyrics mode. Robert Creeley’s For Love, which pointedly omitted The Big Text in a notably fatter collection, was in this sense a more radical production. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s first true revolutionary impulse was to start a bookstore predicated on the primacy of the paperback. His second was to start a series of paperbacks that could be carried around in one’s back pocket. By the 1970s, the paperback was the principle mode for poetry, with the notable exception of that reactionary sliver of poetry presented by the New York trade publishers. For awhile, the SoQ was able to characterize its social dominance over an increasingly diverse writing scene by pretending that it was the poetry important enough to come out in hardback.

Today it is the hardback that is the afterthought, a calculation as to how many copies might be destined for libraries, and when a press like Wesleyan, perhaps the only press of the 1950s stalwarts to have evolved with the times, moves back to hardback originals, its authors groan over the retro & backward-looking implications of that shift. But the one thing that virtually every poet in the last century – with a handful of notable exceptions² – has agreed upon is that poems go in books. Even the concrete poets mid-century made works primarily for the page, a page that could be printed, bound & distributed. One of the more radical projects of the seventies was Richard Kostelanetz’ Assembling, a magazine that was produced by inviting contributors to send pages that would be bound, etc. Tom Phillips created one of the more radical projects of the century, A Humament, by transforming a book. Ronald Johnson “wrote” another entirely by redacting lines from a particular edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.³ Louis Zukofsky began his career with “Poem beginning ‘The’,” a parody of T.S. Eliot right down to the footnotes, a textual element that places both LZ & TSE thoroughly within the terrain of the book.

Poets since Wordsworth & Blake have not focused on the role of the book itself simply because, for them, it was a given. The great theoretical move of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, after all, is its declaration for speech. And, indeed, one could track innovation in writing for the next two centuries by its evolving focus on the materiality of the signifier, whether it plays out as a surfeit of run-on mad spoken word, a la Ginsberg’s Howl – let alone “Wichita Vortex Sutra” actually composed via audiotape (a device learned from Kerouac’s Visions of Cody) – or the notational palimpsests of Olson’s Maximus. Language poetry could be read as a logical next step in that chess strategy, but notice already that James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, has gone everybody one better – he already imagines (and manifests) the book as unreadable.

One might think that the arrival of the printed book should have moved texts away from the idea of speech – and in some sense it did so, as spelling & grammar became standardized in the 1760s with nary a comment from anyone. Yet the declaration for speech in Lyrical Ballads also is a recognition that the printed book has become a democratic thing, and that books are no longer the shut-ins of a few institutional libraries controlled by popes & kings. Again, Whitman takes this idea quite a bit further. One can imagine him celebrating what poets in the 1960s used to call “the mimeograph revolution.”

But what now unites both conceptual writing & flarf – not to mention tendencies within the videopoem movement, aspects of vispo such as the use of Java flash & GIF technologies, & even the retro-to-the-metro spoken word dynamics of slam – is that each, to one degree or another, seems predicated on some glimpse of poetry after the book. After, that is, the age of mechanical reproduction.

Until recently it has been easy enough for the School of Q to simply act as if those alternative poetries just did not exist. Sound poetry was neo-dada Euro-nostalgic & otherwise Other & slam poets for the most part were notoriously ill-read, unschooled (or, worse, wrong schooled) & didn’t much look like your typical pledges from Greek Week in Cambridge or Amherst.

But as Official Verse Culture – to use Charles Bernstein’s term – has expanded in recent years to include the likes of Charles Bernstein & others like him, some (not all) of its institutions have shifted toward recognizing greater diversity than previously had been acknowledged. The journal Poetry pointedly has had features on vispo & on the conceptual-flarf alliance in the past year. Can a CD of slam champions or portfolios of haiku &/or cowboy poetries be that far behind? And if not, why not?

Each of these poetries has a different relation to the book. If it has been the traditional distillation & repository for the poetries of both the School of Quietude & the historical avant / post-avant traditions, this is not necessarily the case for any of these others. And one could take the hubris of Kenny Goldsmith & the Flarf Collective as indicators suggesting that the post-avant tradition may be opting out forthwith as well.

But even within an aesthetic we see some significant differences. Kenny Goldsmith’s books are icons of conceptuality, but are they written to be read? Not in any sense one might traditionally have associated with literature, although it is conceivable that somebody with an abiding interest in weather or in baseball might find the volumes devoted to those topics of interest, much in the way that a memoir by Jim Brosnan or Jose Canseco might be. In this sense, Goldsmith’s wry polemics on conceptualism give him something he’s not really had before as a poet: readers. As distinct from audience, or buyers.

But with Christian Bök, we find a very different sense of conceptualism. Anyone who has ever heard Bök read aloud cannot fail to recognize that his works are most fully captured & presented in performance. It’s no accident that Eunoia is also available in CD format, an unusual option for a small press, even one as well-appointed as Coach House Books. As the website for the CD states,

Now you can invite that jazzman into the comfort of your own home! Reading Eunoia to yourself was fun, sure, but now you can hear it as it was meant to be read - by the author himself! Listen as he wraps his mouth around page after page of the most convoluted tongue twister you've ever heard! You can even follow along in your copy of Eunoia as he trips the vowels fantastic!

Recorded in the studio by Torpor Vigilante and Coach House author Steve Venright, this CD features Bök reading Eunoia in its entirety - in his uniquely energetic, well enunciated dadaist style.

Bök’s books, however, are themselves fully realized projects & eminently readable & pleasurable in text format. It’s almost the perfect hybrid (to use that slightly toxic term) of a performative project in book form. Which is why it became the best-selling book of poetry in Canadian history.

To date, most conceptual writing – at least if I judge it from the brief bibliography of “book-length examples” at the back of Fitterman & Place’s Notes on Conceptualism - tend to bunch around Bök’s end of the spectrum.

Flarf approaches the problem from the opposite end of the telescope, by fundamentally questioning – if not outright attacking – received concepts of The Literary. Here the spectrum seems to run between those works that make use of the Standard Flarf Toolkit (Web-based appropriation, Google-sculpting, the use of traditional [albeit often post-avant] exoskeletal structures as tho they were the purely plastic moulds proposed by New Formalism) to render a work that reads as if it were entirely literary – Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson would be a case in point – and works that seem predicated on the idea of disrupting the reading so as to push the reader away from the text – K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation might be an example. Some of Kasey Mohammad’s texts strike me as nearly as unreadable as the work of Kenny Goldsmith, albeit for different reasons.

Thus conceptualism, at least near its outer limits, seems to call into question the social functions of the book as fetish – something about which flarf has thus far been mute – while flarf brings into question what goes on within the page as such.

Like the sound poetries of the seventies, animated vispo & videopoetry operate outside of the book by focusing on features – sound & motion – that are excluded by the book & printed page. The implicit problem that these tendencies have thus far failed to solve in any consistent manner has been the formal definition of their own territory, as such, as distinct from the various other art forms that often influence & inform them. Much the same is true with the mounted (or sometimes projected) minimalist scrawls of Robert Grenier, which approach the status of mounted language that has become familiar through the works of Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer & Ed Ruscha. To fully challenge the literary swamp from which Grenier’s scrawls have emerged, they have to steer clear of being captured by the gravitational pull of The Art Scene, even if there are real financial reasons to wish this were not so.

So the role of the book, and of The Literary, are definitely up for grabs going forward, and not every kind of poetry has anything like the same kind of commitment to these institutions as we have inherited them. Not everyone is bemoaning the death of the bookstore, for example, or of the daily newspaper and traditional journalism. And I sometimes think that the emotional energy I see in various critiques of newer types of poetry has as much to do with despair over the potential historical fate of just such institutions as these, and with the implicit fate of the work of anyone committed to these older forms. Maybe that’s as it should be – one way to register the success of flarf or of conceptual poetics, just as was the case with langpo 30 years ago, is by the volume & pitch of the howls of outrage that accompany any expression of their success or their entry into the polite society of the SoQ page.

But those howls really are irrelevant. To the degree that we get bogged down in such backward-looking battles, we fail to look hard & long & dispassionately at what makes the new new, and what differentiates its various tendencies going forward. Those are the questions that, once we begin to see & understand them, will begin to tell us where poetry is today, as well as just where it’s heading.


¹ Both of whom likewise wrote theoretically, something I suspect is directly related. Blake likewise is quite conscious of the book, but, first, it’s not the sole locus for the poem or at least his poem, & Blake’s conception of book form differs materially from that of his peers.

² Such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, some European dadaists (plus the dada nostalgics of Fluxus), & the mostly Canadian sound poets of the seventies.

³ Milton’s own relation to the idea of the book is more complicated than I could attempt to sort through here.