Showing posts with label anthologies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label anthologies. Show all posts

Monday, June 10, 2013


The world of poetry is changing. This has consequences.

Overwhelmed by the absolute number of poets, the omnibus poetry anthology has become impossible in book form – examples  can be judged only by the degree to which they fail. It’s a form in which the best intentions of editors simply prove embarrassing, a circumstance that is never aided by the fact that the motives of publishers are far more venal than those of hapless compilers. More sharply defined collections – Poems for the Millennium, Vol. 4: The University of California Book of North African Poetry, Beauty is a Verb, The Reality Street Book of Sonnetssucceed to the degree that the best editors are rigorous in their containment of a given territory and honest with their readers as to what they do (and, more importantly, do not) address.

Like the omnibus anthology, such collections are inherently depictive: they represent the poetry of a terrain, a social category, or a literary form. Their virtue is to be found in their modesty of scope, their sharpness of focus and thus the diligence of their editors. If they attempt any intervention into the social fabric of poetry, it is primarily to indicate that X also is a part of the landscape.

Another type of anthology raises the stakes by adding a second, argumentative dimension, using the anthology form to make the  case for some new understanding of the poetic whole. The classic example – for good reason – is Donald M Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945 – 1960 (NAP) which sold over 100,000 copies and is credited with either opening mid-century poetry up to a wealth of new possibilities, or, alternately, triggering the irremediable decline of civilization. Allen’s anthology was not the first such venture in English – that would have been Pound’s Des Imagistes, which appeared as the February 1914 issue of The Glebe, published by Alfred Kreymborg & Man Ray. But, while both Des Imagistes & Louis Zukofsky’s 1932 An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology would have significant long-term implications for poetry¹, neither remotely approached the impact of the Allen.
Neither did Daisy Aldan’s excellent A New Folder: Americans: Poems and Drawings, which appeared one year before the Allen anthology, covering much of the same aesthetic terrain, but with some notable differences. I’m interested in why one anthology becomes a transformative event for a generation of writers and readers, while another, similar in scope, arguably comparable in quality and first to market, essentially sinks out of sight. Less than a dozen copies remain available in used book stores.

The differences are telling. As Michael Hennessey notes in his Jacket2 essay on the Aldan anthology, the collection included over 30 visual artists. The Allen, by not including the likes of Pollock, de Kooning, Mitchell, Kline, Rivers, Motherwell et al, presents instead an unwavering target.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

My sense that that the free-range anthology has outlived its value as an object, at least in codex form, does not mean that I think that book anthologies as such are useless. Quite the opposite. The form is perfectly suited to more sharply defined functions, focusing in on a narrower spectrum of poetry, or for introducing a new terrain or category altogether. Examples that I’ve praised in the recent past – and would do so again – include Beauty is a Verb, a gathering of poets with visible disabilities, or The City Visible, a collection of recent poets from Chicagoland, or Bay Poetics, Stephanie Young’s panoramic look at poetry from the SF-Bay Area.

But Young herself noted – and I agreed (& this is nearly seven years ago at this point) – that her task was itself problematic to the edge of ludicrous. Her 110 poets (more than the first edition of the Norton PoMo) managed not to include Kay Ryan, Tom Clark, Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Michael Rothenberg, David Meltzer, Bob Hass, David Buuck, David Bromige, Michael Palmer, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Truong Tran, Alice Jones, DA Powell, Edward Smallfield, Rusty Morrison, Judy Grahn, Aaron Shurin, Renee Gladman, Norman Fischer, Gail Sher, Curtis Faville, Eavan Boland, Morton Marcus, Alan Soldolfsky, Joyce Jenkins, Richard Silberg, Dennis Schmitz, Joe Stroud, Robert Sward, Chana Block, Rochelle Nameroff, Jack Marshall, Julia Vinograd, Richard Denning, Sotère Torregian, Jack & Adele Foley, Scott Bentley, Ebbe Borregaard, Harold Dull, Nina Serrano, or Al Young. For starters. That list includes two US Poets Laureate & one laureate of the state of California. And Young did a terrific job. But, even though the Bay Area represents just one (or maybe two if you break the South Bay out as a separate entity) of the nation’s top 100 metropolitan areas, it already is quite beyond the stage where it can be represented by 110 poets. Brooklyn – let alone greater New York City – would present parallel problems for anyone who likewise attempts the implausible.

So it’s a tricky question, how much is reasonable, and what is the dividing line between do-able and just plain silly. Some recent anthologies show this question generally in its most positive aspect. I’m completely pleased that each exists, because I know that they broaden my scope of knowledge. Which in turn focuses the question a little differently. What if I knew more about their areas of coverage? There was a time after all when I knew more or less nothing & the Oscar Williams paperback anthologies of the mid-20th century half-persuaded me that I didn’t need to know more, focusing as I did then – I was maybe 15 – on Robert Frost, failing to notice the presence of Frank O’Hara, William Carlos Williams or Ezra Pound. It wasn’t until I was 18 and had The New American Poetry in hand that the world really opened up for me.¹ But at 15, I had no means for opening a book & thinking “right poets, wrong poems” or how to pose the problem. Or that it even existed.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The first omission you notice – a poet dropped from the first edition of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology in the new much-revised & updated version coming out this spring – is Paul Hoover himself. I take that as an index of two vital facts about the new Postmodern (hereafter in contrast with the 1994 ). The first is a statement as to Hoover’s own diligence & commitment to the project. If, in order to make room for many of the new poets whose work has emerged over the past two decades in this slightly larger edition (917 pages, up from 700), Hoover is going to have to make the excruciating decision to leave out X, Y or Z to free up some pages, then he is going to go first himself. It’s really a statement about integrity and hardly something that any reader would expect Hoover himself to have to do. But he knows full well that every one of the 47 poets dropped from the first edition – nearly half of the original roster of 103 – are going to be furious, unless they have already move on to the great card catalog in the sky. And I suspect Hoover knows that the love he gets from the 59 new poets added to won’t prove nearly equal to the reaction he can expect from departed. It’s a hopeless task. So he has made a gesture to this fact by putting himself at the top of that list of the missing. I for one bow deeply to him for the act.
But this marker is also an index of a larger problem with trying to pull together a broad-based anthology in 2013: the project is a hopeless task. It is one thing to attempt what Donald Allen achieved in the 1950s, a decade for which no estimate made at the time of the number poets publishing in English in the US market exceeded 100. Allen’s gathering of the “other” tradition, the counter formation to the anglophiliac imitators of the mainstream that then ran all of the major institutions of American verse, incorporated 44 poets. (The Donald Hall, Robert Pack Louis Simpson New Poets of England and America, the Quietist counter to the Allen – tho note its broader reach – was itself just 52 poets in the 1957 first edition, 62 in the expanded 1962 “second selection.”) Today, when estimates of the number of publishing poets in English start at 20,000 – and some more than double that figure – the notion that anyone could represent the progressive side of American verse with just 115 poets is, on its face, preposterous. Even if you presume – as I do – that the numbers cited in the middle of the last century were laughably low in contrast with any real survey, such as the one Cary Nelson did on poetry between the first & second world wars in Repression and Recovery, even if you presume that the true count for poets in the 1950s should have been 500 or 1,000, then 44 poets represents maybe four percent of the total of all poets. Four percent of the lower number for today’s poets would be over 800.
And that is not taking into consideration the undeniable fact that the progressive side of American poetics is far less marginalized than it was in 1960 when the Allen anthology debuted. While there are still clunkers of the Olde World among some of the institutions – as when, for example, the majority of the poets nominated for one of the major awards this year are versifiers who rhyme, just as tho the 19th & 20th & 21st centuries never happened – the progressive tradition in American poetry has for the most part been incorporated into most of the major platforms poetry has. Maybe not yet in numbers equal to their participation in the actual act of writing, but light years ahead of progressive representation just 30 years ago.
Which means that, in practice, that hypothetical four percent (4.4% to be persnickety) really ought now to be much higher. 800 poets would not be enough to represent today what the Allen anthology managed with 44 poets in 1960 (of whom just four were women, just one anything other than white). I think I can prove this with the Norton.
Consider, to begin with, the 56 poets who appear in both editions:

Friday, December 07, 2012

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Editing articulates value by picking winners: a mass grave at Wounded Knee

Aaron Belz asked for my list of the “top 10 books of 2011” for something he’s writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch & I responded with a list of 18 titles, precisely because the entire concept of “top ten” (or, for that matter, top anything) strikes me as deeply problematic. Since then, even more titles keep popping into my head. Contrary to what one might hear from self-interested gatekeepers (think Vendler), we are living in a renaissance of English-language poetry, so much so that it is impossible for any critic – repeat, any – to read all that is deserving now.

Even in the 1980s, the national boundaries between different national brands of English-language poetry were becoming more tangled by the minute. What, after all, made Tom Raworth a British poet, Steve McCaffery Canadian, or David Bromige, Alan Davies or Anselm Hollo American? One might trace this intermingling back to Stein in Paris or even to Pound’s stint as Yeats’ secretary, but wherever one draws that line, the rise of the world wide web has obliterated such borders pretty much for good. In 2011, I think it’s safe to say that the only national literature produced in English that isn’t widely read in the United States is that of Nigeria. It’s just a matter of time before the division ceases to be national altogether – a world literature complemented by / balanced against multiple regional or metropolitan scenes, as well as a mind-numbing range of affiliational aesthetics, from ecopoetics to LGBT to crip poetry and beyond. Hybridity? Nomadism? You bet.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I am old enough to remember the world of poetry before Jerome Rothenberg began to issue his extraordinary anthologies. Which is to say that I still retain a visceral sense of just how dramatically Shaking the Pumpkin, Technicians of the Sacred & Revolution of the Word, in particular, transformed one’s sense (my sense) of what poetry had been, was & could be. Part of what made those three books so important was that they greatly expanded & deepened one’s understanding (my understanding) of those things. They left the world not only more complex, but more articulate as to what those complexities might be. This might be a literal definition of enrichment.

I recall getting this also when I first read William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All in 1970. It had been out of print at that point almost continuously for more than 40 years. Spring & All completely recast my sense of what modernism and the modernist project might be about – indeed it was impossible afterward not to take the work of Gertrude Stein utterly seriously, not because Williams wrote about her, although he does in a way, but because it was impossible afterward not to see how what the good doctor was doing was not, at least in part, a response of her writing. In everything he did from the early 1920s onward. Which made (& makes) him a much more modern writer than his peers (Pound, Eliot, even Joyce) who did not. Their work reaches the earliest portions of the 20th century but then freezes as to what it can do, say, or think about. Williams does not, it keeps going, developing for another half century, precisely because he is able to respond to the challenge of Stein. This is what makes him so valuable for the poets who come after. In ways that even the Pisan Cantos is not. Williams’ “American language” is built up precisely from Stein’s little words. Yet I don’t think you would get this, “grok it” as we might have said in 1970, if you have not read Spring & All or even if it had always been a part of the Williams you knew, always already there. Books change you in just this way. The moment when Gertrude Stein went from being a marginal character of comic relief, Life magazine’s favorite avant-gardiste, into being one of the foundations of 20th century writing was the moment that Harvey Brown reissued this book by Williams. It is the part of the modernist jigsaw that suddenly makes it all cohere.

Which is exactly my take on Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, co-edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black & Michael Northen, & just released by Cincos Puntos Press, the terrific little press run by the Byrd family of El Paso, Texas. This is not just the most ambitious publication Cincos Puntos has attempted to date, it’s going to be one of the defining collections of the 21st century – and let’s hope it doesn’t take nearly half a century for us all to recognize it.

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.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I was reading Marjorie Perloff’s interview with Hélène Aji and Antoine Cazé, and in it Perloff discusses – and for the most part dismisses – anthologies. It made me stop and think about how the role of the anthology, as a project, changes not just with the book, but over time as well.

Consider for example the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, published in 1960, and still the most successful volume in the genre nearly 50 years later. It included 44 post-avant poets at a time when no contemporaneous account of the total number of publishing U.S.poets estimated more than 100. In hindsight, I think those estimates were low and that a more reasonable figure in 1960 would have been somewhere between 200 and 500, but certainly not more than that latter tally. Whatever the actual count, the Allen anthology represented a substantial portion of the publishing poets in America, somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the entire spectrum. What Allen was doing was gathering together and foregrounding a particular part of the spectrum of what was being done. In doing so, he repositioned the spectrum itself, which could no longer pretend that there were simply competent American poets and the rest.

A half century later, there are well over 10,000 poets publishing in English in the U.S., a sum that is at least 20 times – and conceivably 100 times – the number active when Allen pulled together his book. One of Perloff’s complaints is that “anthologies have gotten narrower rather than broader,” but this is looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope. The narrowest of the three examples she gives, “experimental women poets,” is today a category so large that an anthology – there is more than one with this focus – represents an attempt to sort through the hundreds, if not thousands, of poets who might legitimately seek to be included. The New American Poetry had four women poets: Helen Adam, Barbara Guest, Madeline Gleason & Denise Levertov. Even when one acknowledges the other women writers who should have been included – e.g., Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Kathleen Fraser, Hettie Jones – the number is tiny. Indeed, the first anthology of post-avant women’s writing, published in 1962 by Totem/Corinth Press & with an introduction from the then-LeRoi Jones, was entitled Four Young Lady Poets, and included Barbara Moraff, Carol Berge, Rochelle Owens & Diane Wakoski. In 1962, this is not a category that appears to have inspired double digits. That title tells you just how far removed from the present day that epoch was.

So it is not that anthology editors have become more narrow in their conception over time, but rather that the field itself has become so large & diverse that new tools, and new levels of specificity, are required to make sense of it. For someone like Perloff, who is anxious to preserve the role of the critic as gatekeeper – as she says elsewhere in the same interview “I like to pick the winners” – the recalibration required just to stay in focus when going over a constantly (and rapidly) expanding field presents an enormous challenge. The whole idea of seeking “to see who ‘the great ones’ are” requires a stability of perspective that may in fact not stay stable when the terrain expands by an order of magnitude, and then does so again.

Plus Perloff is certainly smart enough to see that arguing, instead, for “timeless values” is the same old con invoked by Official Verse Culture when it lamely attempts to pass off the likes of an Andrew Motion as a serious writer. As she herself notes in the interview¹, English-language poetry in the 19th century, especially in the U.K., was the expression of the culture of Christian white males. Power – political and economic – was close at hand. As we enter the 21st century, poetry instead has become the domain of outsiders – subalterns are everywhere. In the U.S., even among the more conservative poets, you will find relatively few committed Republicans with major corporate backgrounds a la Dana Gioia. Many more are gay or lesbian, and more than a few are immigrants a la Charlie Simic. Indeed, one of the most interesting moves by Official Verse Culture in the U.S. has been the adoption of several successful Irish quietists, such as Paul Muldoon and Eavan Boland, who both represent the “center” over there that some factions within the School of Quietude seek to preserve, while themselves being literally ec-centric from a strictly Oxbridge perspective. And the posties? We’re as motley a crew as one can find on these shores.

But just tracking the evolution of even one strand of oppositional poetics from its location in the 1950s – four women in an anthology of 44 poets from a field that did not exceed 500 – to large anthologies of “experimental women poets” will demonstrate the transformation. Mary Margaret Sloan’s Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, a volume that is already demanding escalated rare book prices just eleven years after publication, has 50 poets, tracking the transition from the New Americans in the 1950s up to the early ‘90s. Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv, edited by Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace & Lesley Wheeler, has 259 contributors, the bulk of whom could be called innovative as well. Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics has over 100 poets – the “San Francisco Renaissance” section of The New American Poetry had just 13.

Both Bay Poetics and Letters to the World aren’t focused precisely on post-avant poetics, tho it would be easy to read them that way as that segment of the spectrum has expanded at a faster rate than any other over the past half century. But – and this was the point I set out to make when I sat down to write – the expansion itself is by far the more important process. We are rapidly reaching the point where one’s relationship to the overall map is less important than one’s relation to how the map is changing as it grows.

In the poetry wars of the late 1970s & early ‘80s, the primary objection that some poets had toward language writing was that it changed the map to which they’d sworn allegiance. They were committed to their reading(s) of the New American Poetry and the idea that it no longer was an Eternal Truth as to how poetry existed was considered heresy. Today we are twice the distance from that era than it was from the New Americans. It is all but impossible to even characterize the map of poetry today. If this were the 1950s, a quarter of America’s poets would be producing flarf, another quarter conceptual poetry. What we have is a much bigger pie, and one sliced into many more fairly narrow slices. And it’s up for grabs as to the order in which they fit.

That’s very bad – very nearly fatal – for the process of “picking the winners.” But it’s actually very good for poetry, which is far richer today than it has ever been in its history. What we need, however, is for our critical thinking to catch up.


¹ “There is no question that Modernist and Postmodernist literature is by definition an exile literature. Think of the Romantics and Victorians in England—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning and the novelists Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens—they were all English writers, with English names and they were all Christian. In the 20th C, this changes. Think of the ‘French’ poets Apollinaire and Cendrars, both of them pseudonymous poets who were not French at all. Think of Tristan Tzara (Sammy Rosenbaum) or the Czech Jewish Kafka writing in German or in the U.S., the various African-American poets. By the later twentieth century in America, exile has become the aesthetic norm from Black Mountain (founded by Joseph Albers) to the absorption of French poststructuralist theory and the Frankfurt School.”

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The success of The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson, is such that it throws light on the limitations of other recent anthologies. One that I happen to like a lot, tho not without reservation, is >2: An Anthology of New Collaborative Poetry, edited by Sheila E. Murphy & M.L. Weber, recently published by Press. After the disappointment of the badly edited Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry, it’s instructive to see a major collection of collaborations that would not even appear to exist if one took Saints’ heavily blinkered view of history at face value. Which seems particularly bizarre since, regardless of how one conceives of it, contemporary collaborative poetry exists mostly on the post-avant side of the Grand Canyon of literary aesthetics.  (Hysteria does include work by Robert Bly, Olga Broumas & Ted Kooser, but they jump out as the exceptions they are.)

Yet here is a 200-plus book containing work from 41 different collaborative combinations that includes such well-known literary names as Mary Rising Higgins, George Kalamaras, Maria Damon, mIEKAL aND, Michael Basinski, Rupert Lloydell, John M. Bennett, Jim Leftwich, Penn Kemp, Alan Halsey, Jesse Glass, Nico Vassilakis, Geof Huth, Bob Grumman, Eileen Tabios, Nick Carbo, Vernon Frazer, K.S. Ernst, Juka-Pekka Kervinen, Erica kaufman, Anny Ballardini, kari Edwards, Steve Dalachinsky, Mark Young, Nico Vassilakis, Peter Ganick, Tom Taylor, Andrew Topel, David Baratier, jUStin!katKO, Tom Beckett & Thomas Fink, & many more. One wonders just how the three editors of Saints could have conceivably missed this much work by these poets. Of that list, Tabios, Fink & Carbo may be the only ones to appear in both books.

The happy thing about >2 is that it doesn’t seem bothered by this exclusion in the slightest. Rather, it presents the more experimental side of collaborative writing pretty much as it has occurred over the past decade. It’s fun & exciting, as a book like this should be. Not that it’s perfect. It takes great freedom with typefaces, because the poets themselves have, but the ones that use courier as a font look washed out & amateurish, because courier always does. Perhaps the book’s largest & most telling weakness is the exclusion is the work of Sheila E. Murphy herself, a primary practitioner within this terrain, but that’s a conscious decision discussed in her excellent foreword. Murphy traces her own interest in collaborative writing, interestingly enough, to Absence Sensorium, perhaps the finest extended collaborative project ever written, a book-length poem by Tom Mandel & Dan Davidson composed shortly before the latter’s suicide. Unfortunately, that project isn’t represented in either anthology tho Mandel contributes a blurb to >2.

Collaboration itself has existed in English-language literature since at least the days of Elizabethan theater (contrary to Hysteria’s genealogy, which extends back only to the surrealists), yet it has almost always been treated as the ugly stepchild of Western LitCrit’s focus on the individual. If the Allen anthology in 1960 had no prose poetry, it also had no collaborations, either by its NY School contributors (Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch & Schuyler are all in Hysteria) or the Beats (Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Kerouac & Welch also in Hysteria). Indeed, the taboo is significant. T.S. Eliot’s role as the apotheosis of the New Critical version of modernism largely collapsed once it was shown that virtually all of The Waste Land’s major literary devices were editing effects from that ultimate avant agitator, Ezra Pound. The whole notion that The Waste Land might not be a collaboration, frankly, reveals which decisions count as writing & which might not, even when they turn out to be the most substantial ones of all.

Collaboration has been nearly as prominent among the language poets as it has amid the New York School (or the Actualist movement of the 1970s, which is not visible in either of these collections¹). Langpo is included strictly on a token basis in Hysteria & referenced only in Murphy’s intro to >2, tho she gives a better sense of its role than the other book. A truly comprehensive anthology of the form would need to take in all of these different strains &, ideally, have some idea of historic drivers & aesthetic principles active in each.

For example, one might read the New American collaborations as part of a larger resistance to the rugged individualism behind New Critical theory in the 1950s, and on the part of the Beats as an element in an aesthetic that was actively looking to get away from the poet’s ego as sole proprietor of textual real estate, essentially for the same reasons that John Cage & Jackson Mac Low turned to chance operations in that same decade.

But the real distinction between these two books is social. In general, one might say that most of the poets in Hysteria used collaboration as a mechanism for cementing face-to-face relationships with their buddies while most of the poets in >2 are using collaboration as a means of transcending physical distance, exploiting the web’s capacity to erase geography.  One thing that is curious about >2 is that, while it includes the writing of many poets widely known for their visual poetry, there’s really no vispo here. Have we not yet learned how to collaborate in that genre? Or does a visual aspect to collaboration instantly move us over toward the realm of the conceptual or performance art? Here is Geof Huth in five different combinations with other poets – and no vispo?

There are other questions also that both books raise. What is collaboration’s relationship to poets’ theater? I’m reminded of Actualism’s relationship to physical theater & even contact improve, a version of dance, and the fact that Actualist Conventions were held in conjunction with Berkeley’s Blake Street Hawkeye’s theater troup, run by Dav Schein. Indeed Schein’s wife-at-the-time, Karen Johnson, took her work from the Conventions onto the stage successfully as a one-woman show under her then-emerging stage name, Whoopi Goldberg. Which leads to the question: what about spousal collaboration? Or between parents & their children? Spousal collaboration goes back at least to Alice B. Toklas' work with Gertrude Stein, and to Celia Zukofsky's “A”-24.

And then there is the question of invisible collaboration – Pound’s role in the work of Eliot, Eliot’s use of his own maid’s text, Dorothy Wordsworth’s role in the work of William, Ginsberg determining the order of pages in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. My own editors at the University of Alabama didn’t recognize that the epigram at the start of “Engines” in The Alphabet, which reads with Rae Armantrout, actually signaled her role as co-author of that piece (the poem also appears in her selected poems, Veil).

We are still a long way from having a good understanding of what collaboration means & why it seems so powerful on one side of the divide between American poets while it is so muted & marginal among the School of Q. And we are still a long way yet from having a decent first comprehensive gathering of the historical field. What we can hope for, at best, at this juncture in history, is going to be projects like >2, which focus intently on specific parts of the overall spectrum without making too much of a claim to represent the whole. And on those terms, >2 is a job well done.


¹ The most prolific collaborator of that decade, Darrell Gray, died young of alcoholism & his residential hotel landlord simply threw his belongings, including 15 years of manuscripts, into the dumpster. Yet a search of the journals of the 1970s in particular ought to produce a collection of collaborations by Gray & such other Actualists as George Mattingly, Pat Nolan, Jim Nesbit, Victoria Rathbun & G.P. Skratz along with fellow travelers Andrei Codrescu & Jim Gustafson as large, & possibly even as impressive, as >2. Gray may have been the first poet for whom collaboration was a primary, if not the primary, mode.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

One advantage of e-books is that you can have an odd number of pages, like Issue 1’s 3,785-page debut. A second is that you aren’t bound, literally, by the physics of binding. A 3,785-page “book” is not an impossibility.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jeff Hilson’s new anthology, The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, is flat out the best book of its kind I have ever seen. It is easily – too easily, alas – the finest collection of contemporary sonnets ever put together. And it’s one of those books – not unlike Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry, or Jerry Rothenberg’s first ventures into the field, with Shaking the Pumpkin & Revolution of the Word, that make you realize that just how important and powerful a truly good anthologist can be. And what a force for good. Hilson, by gathering together the very best that has been done in the name of the sonnet, along with his contributors, from Edwin Denby & Ted Berrigan & John Clarke to Laynie Browne, Juliana Spahr & Jay MillAr – called here Jay Millar – may just have rescued this venerable genre from the necrotic clutches of nostalgia, the formalist side of the School of Quietude.

If the new (and old) formalists have claimed the sonnet as their own turf for far too long, it’s part of a larger program of bitter disappointment that the present is not the 19th, or perhaps the 16th, century. For those poets, the sonnet represents an ideal to which one can aspire, although perhaps “long for” is a more accurate verb phrase. What separates that approach from the 84 poets Hilson gathers, a roster that is simply stunning from Robert Adamson & Tim Atkins to John Welch & Geoffrey Young, is that contemporary poets – starting no doubt with Ted Berrigan (tho he is not the first, and obviously took permission from Edwin Denby in ways that would be worth discussing) – have seen in the sonnet precisely the dynamics of constraint that elsewhere drives Oulipo toward its amazing proliferation of forms. The point of the sonnet therefore is not to put oneself up against the likes of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson, but rather to see the sonnet for our time as a series of powerful literary devices that can open the present up completely.

Hilson’s collection is not perfect – notable absences include the sonnets of Zukofsky’s “A” -7, Robert Duncan’s “Domestic Scenes,” John Tranter’s Crying in Early Infancy, & there are some names missing I expected to see, including John Ashbery, Joe Ceravolo, Jack Spicer, Lee Ann Brown, David Schubert, Duncan McNaughton, Frank O’Hara & Tom Clark (tho Thomas A. is here)¹ – but this book is as close to perfect as we have yet had or are likely ever to get. Some of the important innovative poets who have worked in this form & are gathered into these pages include Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Christian Bök, Ebbe Borregaard, Jonathan Brannen, Pam Browne, Adrian Clarke, Bob Cobbing, Clark Coolidge, Bev Dahlen, Ken Edwards, Allen Fisher, Kathleen Fraser, William Fuller, Bill Griffiths, Alan Halsey, Anselm Hollo, Lyn Hejinian, Lisa Jarnot, Justin Katko, John Kinsella, Michele Leggott, Tony Lopez, Steve McCaffery, Jackson Mac Low, David Miller, Geraldine Monk, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett, Bern Porter, Tom Raworth, Peter Riley, Stephen Rodefer, Robert Sheppard, Aaron Shurin, Eléni Sikélianòs, Mary Ellen Solt & Lawrence Upton. That list is simply stunning.

The sonnet began to morph from the rigid backward-looking template of the SoQ as early as the 19th century – many of Baudelaire’s first poems in prose are 14 sentences long. But for the English speaking world, it would require some key poets making the form their own & showing others that it could be taken not as a limit, but as a baseline from which to move forward. Edwin Denby was the first, but as or more important, at least in the United States, have been Berrigan, John Clarke & Bernadette Mayer. All are amply included here. Clarke’s inclusion strikes me as  the best test of this book, since he never received the accolades his level of accomplishment warranted & if you didn’t have pretty direct access to the Buffalo scene you might not realize that he was nearly as influential on the young poets coming out of that town as were Charles Olson or Robert Creeley.

In choosing to present the poets here in order of birth year – Denby, born in 1903, goes first, Sophie Robinson, born in 1985 (after both Denby & Berrigan have died) is the youngest – Hilson gently suggests patterns of influence, as well as foregrounding an interesting set of poets. The first ten include, in this order, Denby, Bern Porter, Mary Ellen Solt, Jackson Mac Low, Ebbe Borregaard, Clarke, Berrigan, Anselm Hollo, Bev Dahlen & Kathleen Fraser, every one of whom can be read as influencing a good part of what comes after. Thus Denby & Berrigan are vital for Bernadette Mayer, while Dahlen & Fraser lead us to both DuPlessis & Shurin further on. Etc. And, as Hilson makes clear in his introduction, Shakespeare is never that far from many of these pieces.

No doubt, of course, this anthology will prove to have been the weakest with the youngest generation represented. For one thing, until poets are in their 40s, there doesn’t seem to be much parity of access to print, so there could be a lot of good work by younger writers that just hasn’t gotten around yet. And many younger writers no doubt still have their work in this form still in front of them. It’s worth realizing that poets like Hilson, Sikélianòs, Bök, Spahr, Jarnot, Laynie Browne – some of whom feel like they’ve been around forever – are just now entering their 40s.² But Jackson Mac Low didn’t have his fourth book until he was 48 & didn’t really become widely known until he was in his 50s. We’ll no doubt see that same sequence replicated again.

As valuable as putting his contributors into chronological order is the decision to include poets from five nations: the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia & New Zealand. This more accurately captures the world of poetry in the age of networks – not the situation in letters 30 years ago, but certainly the one we face today (and which will only become more, not less, international in the coming century). This in particular acknowledges the degree to which American poetry influenced its peers worldwide in the 20th century, while recognizing that, thanks to technology, we are now in a position where the link between location & influence is flexible, if not broken altogether. You need not live anymore on St. Marks Place or in San Francisco’s Mission District to have a global impact on poetry.

Donald Allen was fortunate (and also unfortunate³) in having the assistance of Robert Duncan in formulating his anthology roughly 50 years ago. While he was an active reader, it’s almost certainly true that he could never have come up with such a good selection of 44 poets entirely on his own. Hilson, in contrast, shows us that he did not have to rely on luck in putting together his collection, with an introduction that is considerably better than the brief one Allen was able to mount. You can download a PDF of Hilson’s here. It’s a good short discussion of the recent history of the sonnet and exemplary as an act of positioning for an anthology.

Shakespeare’s own sonnets were themselves written as an act of contestation – the “unlettered” writer from the sticks, better known for his work with a “low” form, theater, demonstrating that he could fashion a cycle of verse as well as any of the so-called University wits, as the School of Quietude was then known. Much of what makes this book great is that same sense of engagement – Berrigan’s sheer joy of composing sonnets “out of school,” so to speak, resuscitating a pattern that William Carlos Williams once dismissed as moribund & that Pound thought simply a “mistake.” Or Tim Atkins’ “Sonnet 20”:


in jet-streams, jet-streams


Certainly a sonnet is possible in which these words fall in these places. Yet is not clear if anything, in fact, is missing. As such, the text stands mute, ironic, self-amused all at once. Its use of reiteration & of slang, the mystery of the capital at the left-hand margin. Another poet who uses erasure is Jen Bervin, who grays out all but a handful of words in Shakespearean sonnets to fashion new ones that may be as simple as: “sluttish / wasteful war // you // wear this world out.” These words appear on lines 4, 5, 10 & 12 of Shakespeare’s 55th sonnet. Simple proximity pairs them into two two-line assertions. Each, it turns out, is five syllables long, the first breaking out into a two / three pattern focused on two-syllable words, the last into a one/four pattern, every word a single syllable. The force is palpable and one doesn’t mind at all the ways in which the poem has mined Ronald Johnson’s process with Milton’s Paradise Lost that resulted in Radi Os.

Poem after poem here offers new delights, like watching 84 brilliant physicists attack the same theoretical problem (or, conversely, 84 choreographers compose for the same score). Of the major forms in poetry, the sonnet is unique in not being predicated in some fashion upon prime numbers, the way we speak of iambic pentameter rather than the 10-syllable line, or how classic haiku uses three lines of 5, 7 & 5 (a sum of 17) syllables. Yet the sonnet’s 14 lines can be taken as double sevens, as three quatrains & a couplet, as multiple combinations adding up to an eight & a six, without even once challenging this strange conception I can only call 14ness. David Miller’s visual sonnets are paintings of 14 brushstrokes each. And we see poets here working in prose, in shorter forms or even, as in Allen Fisher’s excerpts from The Apocalyptic Sonnets, with a 28-line form (seven quatrains) that manages never to lose sight of its point of origin. Or Maurice Scully’s “Sonnet” that uses 14 stanzas, from two to nine lines each. Instead of stanza breaks, Scully’s shift their indentation.

So this book is a wonder. In addition to showing all the ways in which the sonnet might yet have a rich post-avant history, it is also a terrific demonstration of serious thinking about form as such. Nothing I’ve seen in the past decade, certainly, does a better job of showing just what that might be in practice, in contrast say to the use of pattern by so-called new formalism, which is a sham formalism at best. If, going forward, a poet takes the sonnet seriously, this book is where they will begin.


¹ One suspects that some of these absences can be traced directly back to questions of getting permission from persnickety estates, and the costs associated therewith.

² When I attended the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, really my first attempt at getting involved in the world of poetry, both of my own parents were 38. Anyone that age seemed self-evidently ancient.

³ Because some of the obvious omissions of the anthology – say Diane di Prima – can be traced back to Duncan’s hand. Plus Robert went around for decades telling everyone that he’d picked the poets who were included in the book, ultimately an overstatement.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Back when mastodons roamed the earth & all television was in black-&-white, I could mosey up to Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley & find, as part of its poetry section, the current edition of a publication known as the New Directions Annual (NDA). But even more significantly, at least from my perspective this morning, was the fact that I could also find last year’s edition as well, and maybe the year before that. These rather largish collections – NDA ran between 400 & 500 pages – did not disappear the way magazines tend to, the instant the next issue arrived.

In one sense, the New Directions Annual was a remarkable publication. The 1951 issue, to pick one example, included Tennessee Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Harold Norse, George Seferis & May Swenson. At that moment, Rexroth would have been the only one with any significant name recognition. The 1942 edition – a bit before my time – advertises Pound & Williams & Kafka as well as Christopher Morley & Katherine Anne Porter. The 1937 edition offers Cocteau, Stein, Williams, Cummings, Henry Miller, and William Saroyan. The 1952 edition: Edward Dahlberg, Ginsberg, Cummings, Kafka, Ashbery. Again: well before the publication of Howl or Some Trees.

By the time I arrived on the scene in the mid-1960s, James Laughlin was getting on in years & his unerring interest in “what’s next” was gradually being eroded by writing that was just an extension of the landmark advances he’d captured in his pages decades before. It’s worth noting that among the thousands of books I own, including the “San Francisco Scene” issue of The Evergreen Review & all the double-issues of Poetry from the 1960s, I don’t today have a single copy of any New Directions Annual. The contributors above are what can be found out from various rare book dealers on the web.

New Directions – the full title was New Directions in Prose and Poetry: An Annual Exhibition Gallery of New and Divergent Trends in Literature – came to mind this week because it was cited as evidence by one of two sets of folks who’ve complained lately that I’ve misallocated their publications in my “recently received” lists – putting both Zoland Poetry and A Sing Economy down as journals, when each is an annual anthology. A Sing Economy is a publication of flim forum, which tries to accentuate the non-journal nature of its annuals by giving each a new name. Last year it was Oh One Arrow.

My first reaction was that, if it were still being published today, New Directions Annual would end up on my journals list as well. It came out periodically – you could set your calendar by it, if not your clock – consisted of almost all new work or new translations, and there was no general principle of editing that you could identify other than an aversion to the School of Quietude. That describes, even to this day, a majority of the journals of poetry in the English language. And NDA wasn’t even restricted to poetry.

If I look at, by way of contrast, a volume like Reginald Shepherd’s Lyric Postmodernisms: An
Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetics
just out from Counterpath, it’s immediately clear that this is an anthology. It’s not a periodical, tho in fact Shepherd has edited more than one anthology (and I believe is currently editing another), and if he offered them on a regular basis from the same press, perhaps he could make an annual or biannual out of these projects. It’s immediately clear what the editing principle is. It includes work that has appeared elsewhere previously – the acknowledgements page is a dead give-away – which reinforces both Shepherd’s editing principles and the argument that it’s not a periodical. Indeed, Shepherd reinforces all of this by offering a statement on poetics from each of his contributors.

On any of these counts, neither Zoland Poetry or the different one-shots from flim forum pass muster. This doesn’t make them any less interesting, but it does make them less anthologies. So far as I can tell, the sole grounds on which they would be called such is from a desire to survive on a bookstore shelf longer than a journal, and presumably over by the poetry rather than next to Playboy or Popular Mechanics. Those are not ignoble desires, but they have more to do with the incompetence of bookstore stocking trends than they do the genres these journals would mimic.

A more complicated case might be The Grand Piano, the series of books being produced on a roughly quarterly basis by a collective of poets, yours truly included, documenting the history of Bay Area language writing in the 1970s. If I use my same criteria – does it appear predictably, does it have a clear editing principle, does it feature work that has appeared before – I get a different skew on the answers. It does appear predictably & in that regard is like a journal, but it has a strong editing principle – each issue has the same ten contributors, each time in a different order – and the work is being written precisely for the book at hand. In this sense, I wouldn’t call any volume of The Grand Piano a journal or an anthology, tho it partakes of some elements of each.

In like manner, there have been journals -- Chain was one, Poetics Journal another – that have focused each issue around a theme. Tho the editors of neither proposed their publications as anthologies, both come closer than either Zoland Poetry or the flim forum one-shots. Their publications demonstrate a strong editing principle above & beyond “what’s new.”

Does this really matter? I think it does in terms of how poetry gets organized on shelves, and also in our heads, and in how (and what) things get preserved. An anthology is always an argument and the book is better the stronger the argument happens to be. I think Shepherd’s volume, for example, is an excellent argument for what I would call Third-Way Poetics in contemporary America, but I also know that Reginald wants to argue against the notion that there is any such thing as third-way poetics – he has a completely different argument, and I think that’s a much more complicated discussion (which I hope to get to before too long). I can’t tell you what the arguments for A Sing Economy or Zoland Poetry are, though there is good work in each publication. What this almost inevitably means, though, is that, if I happen to be around in another 30 years, I almost certainly will still have Lyric Postmodernisms on my shelves, but these annuals will have moved – as journals almost always do for me – into some cartons in the attic.