Thursday, June 25, 2009
Highbrids, or The Curmudgeon Chronicles, Vol 2
This recent essay by Ron Silliman and Jonathon Mayhew's Apocryphal Lorca have dragged the idea of American poetry as this deeply divided thing to my attention, more or less against my will.
On the off chance you're unfamiliar with the concept, let me go ahead and ruin your life by explaining it. (Inuit to missionary: If you'd never come here and told me about Jesus, would I have gone to hell? Missionary: No, of course not. Inuit: Then why the hell did you come and tell me?)
On the one hand you've got "mainstream" poets. They tend to be a little precious, sometimes they rhyme, and their poems are often corny and tend to have "wise" little observations, some sort of epiphany, emotions, and/or some type of personal confession. Robert Pinsky is one. So is Billy Collins.
On the other hand you've got the other poets. There's debate on what to call these folks. "Experimental" is sometimes used, as is "avant-garde," and there are other terms as well. Silliman's got a whole vocabulary list but I decline to use his terminology for various reasons. Let's go with "avant-garde" because it's the most problematic, shall we? These poets tend to do the opposite of whatever the mainstream poets do. So their poems avoid preciousness, never rhyme, and eschew epiphany, emotions and confession as though they were contagious. Barrett Watten is one. So is Jena Osman.
Obviously my characterizations of these two camps are broad generalizations. Don't write me letters about Helen Adam or whatever. I know. But, as rough sketches of the general outline, I'd say this is fairly accurate. These two groups have been in state of civil war for damn near a hundred years now. I'd place the start of it in the Ezra Pound/Amy Lowell feud, which by the way is an entertaining story (See Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era).
The mainstreamers are hugely dismissive of the A-Gists, as when Donald Hall dismisses Charles Olson as an imitator-spawning demagogue. The A-Gists are likewise dismissive of the mainstreamers as a bunch of candy-ass hacks. Both sides regularly claim that the work of the other side is "not even poetry." It's a really boring, banal debate which, like most of the conversation around poetry, serves mostly as a way for people to get their pundit on, which is tiresome. Anybody talking about this at all, me included, would be better served by just forgetting about the whole thing and writing a new poem instead.
My feeling is that the division is largely phantasmal. Certainly, there are differences between the two camps. But there are differences between the Republican and Democratic parties as well, and yet somehow some Ivy League asshole is always President, and anybody who's poor is still getting shit on.
Point being, whatever the aesthetic differences are between the mainstream and avant-garde, they're not what gives rise to the conflict, which is really about competition for resources, in this case publication, grants, and teaching jobs. In a word: money. In another: fame, at least the lame sort of fame that exists for poets. One group denies the validity of the other, tries to erase the other, because then all the goodies can be kept for them and their cronies. How fucking boring is that. And anyway it seems pretty obvious to me at least that the net effect of this nonsense is to drive both camps into defensive postures in relation to one another, which backs poetry as a whole into an isolated position in relation to the larger culture. Which is bad for both poetry and the culture. Simply put: it's a Phony War that is a form of marketing, aimed as much at potential patrons as at potential customers. The people that wage it have more in common than they'd like to admit, and like in politics this dialectic bounds the debate, excluding voices and methods that are dangerous to the mutual interests of the two "conflicting" parties.
One of the big weapons in the Phony War is anthologies. It's a great trick. You put everybody you like and agree with in a book, slap "American Poetry" somewhere on the cover, and there you go. I have a mainstream anthology called The Contemporary American Poets, edited by Mark Strand, that pulls this trick. The Donald Allen anthologies and Silliman's In the American Tree do it for the avant-garde.
The Cole Swenson/David St. John anthology Silliman writes about in the linked essay is interesting in its attempt to step over this whoo-ha. I haven't seen the book yet, but I was immediately reminded of what has unexpectedly become one of my favorite poetry anthologies, The Voice That is Great Within Us, edited by Hayden Carruth, published in 1970.
I got the book from my friend Bettina Drew. It was in a box I helped unpack and I was checking it out, started freaking out and asked her where she got it. She says it was the text for a poetry workshop she had (in which Sparrow was also a student) at CUNY in the early eighties. It was assigned most likely by Ted Berrigan, though her recollection is a little fuzzy and it may have been Joel Oppenheimer. But she's reasonably certain it was Ted, who gave assignments from the book like "Pick a poem and write about it."
First of all, corny ass title, right? And Hayden Carruth was hardly a stalwart of the avant-garde. Here are some of his poems, check them out, pretty much textbook mainstreamism, though the man did write a book called Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, which gets him a point in my book. Carruth was an editor at Poetry and Harper's. The book's title is lifted from a poem by Mr. Stuffy, Wallace Stevens. All of which is to say, when I first got my hands on the book, I reasonably expected another Phony War bit of revisionism of the mainstream variety.
I flipped to the table of contents. 1. Robert Frost. 2. Carl Sandburg. 3. Vachel Lindsay. 4. Wallace Stevens. Then, right as I'm about to fall asleep I turn the page and find 5. Mina Loy. HOLY SHIT! Mina fucking Loy, are you serious? Mina Loy isn't in any anthology. Awesome. I mean, it's only two poems, but two poems is better than be totally forgotten, no?
And that's basically how Carruth's anthology works. It's full of the usual suspects from both the mainstream (Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath) and the avant-garde (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky). This in itself is remarkable, since every other anthology is one or the other. But then the book is also full of people who are doubtless avant-gardists, but who the avant-garde itself often overlooks, leaves out, or ignores. Like Mina Loy. And Lorine Niedecker.
Which raises what is, to me at least, an interesting question. There are all of these "forgotten" avant-garde poets who have had collected poems published in the last ten or fifteen years. Mina and Lorine. Stuart Perkoff. Helen Adam (great book, edited by Kristen Prevallet). Jack Spicer. Etc. But, who's doing the forgetting here? It's implied in the discourse that somehow the mainstream has forgotten these people, but how can that be, if the mainstream never gave a shit about them in the first place? It was avant-gardists who were into them, and it was avant-gardists who forgot about them and let them go out of print and fall into neglect, often because of petty personal grievances and factionalism. And it seems to take, on average, about three generations for anybody to get over this bullshit and read the poems and say, Oh, this is great stuff, and get it back in print. Then everybody loves it. Or at least acknowledges it.
But back to the Carruth anthology, you've got hand it to the guy. It really is an anthology of American poetry, i.e. poetry written in this country. Hayden apparently understood that he had to include examples of both camps and he did a great job of it. I think half the book is boring, and probably so did Hayden, but that's beside the point. It's an accurate reflection of the national poetry, in its totality. I have a hard time believing that some avant-gardist, given the same job, would have made the same good faith effort to be as inclusive as possible.
The book is, in its way, something of a forerunner of the idea of what Ron calls "Third Way" poetics, which means not exactly mainstream or avant-garde, but not not those things, but maybe something else too. Problem is to even use the term "Third Way" grants this division more validity than it really deserves. Call me crazy, or anything else, but I see this division having a net negative effect on poetry, especially on avant-garde poetry.
In reaction against the mainstream, the avant-garde has been pushed into this area where it's poetics can tend to resemble a long list of "don'ts". Don't rhyme. Don't just left-justify your lines, write like you're using a typewriter even though everybody uses computers now and they don't lend themselves to open-field writing like a typewriter does. Don't have emotions, or at least dissemble the hell out of them. Don't write about yourself, or things that really happen unless, again, you dissemble them a lot. Don't have ideas, have theories. Don't be performative when you read. Don't ever ever ever confess anything.
Snore. Most of this stuff is based on misinterpretations of Olson, O'Hara and Creeley. The rest is just boring, a way for derivative, imitative writers to elevate derivation and imitation as writerly virtues and suppress the things they lack: originality and talent and anything at all to say. And if you do anything outside of this, then they've got to undercut it, name it and spin it so that, while it may be interesting, it's in no way as valid as what they're doing. Oh, "Third Way" yes, isn't that quaint, now back to serious Poetry.
All of which obscures the fact that what thinks of itself as the contemporary avant-garde is in large part the new Formalism, the new New Critics, the new institutionalized academic nonsense that's as boring to me as Robert Lowell was to Frank O'Hara. Anybody with real taste can tell that Robert Pinsky is lame and uninteresting. It does not then follow that some contrived anti-Pinsky will be interesting.
What's interesting is someone off the scale, like CA Conrad, for example. Someone who writes really, really well, like Eileen Myles or Frank Sherlock. Somebody totally unexpected, like Dan Sociu. Somebody who lives in the real world, like Ryan Eckes or Laura Jaramillo. And yes, these are all my friends, and they're my friends for a reason.