WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
by Douglas Messerli
This essay was to have introduced the 2005-2006 Gertrude Stein Awards, a book that did find enough funding to be published. Since I have now embedded those awards, as well as later years, in the PIP Poetry entries, I have now determined to reprint the essay here.
Writing in 1994 in the first Sun & Moon volume of The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry, I noted that it had continually struck me “that at the end of a century primarily defined, in terms of literature, by its innovative poetry, the major literary awards, anthologies, and other publications devoted to American poetry still consist of the kind of academic and thematically based poetry that Ezra Pound might have railed against in the first decade of the 20th century; a poetry that Frank O’Hara, who at mid-century claimed a poem had to be at least as interesting as the movies, might today have perceived as less interesting than the worst of television. In the commercial publishing world, the media, and the university, innovation is primarily frowned upon, if not outrightly dismissed.”
There was, obviously, no single solution to the situation I recognized that year, but I felt that at least by presenting an anthology of more innovative poetry, I might somewhat balance the equation and reveal what I perceived as a truer representation of the continuing tradition of late 20th and early 21st century American poetry and poetics. Predictably, such a gathering of writers resulted in some critical dismissal, one reviewer claiming he found little of interest in the work of the 94 poets included—such a broad-ranging disinterest that I can only surmise that he simply didn’t like poetry. The conservative press (which, in the context of their coverage of literature, includes The New York Times Book Review and Los Angeles Times Book Review) mostly ignored these anthologies, while attending to others such as David Lehman’s The Best American Poetry series (which I feel represents a more narrative-based poetry and works which the populist-conceived online encyclopedia Wikipedia has characterized as “Precious Moments Poetry”). For the writers of more innovative work and the less highly funded review publications, however, The Gertrude Stein Awards volumes offered a refreshing alternative. Unfortunately, after only two volumes, the series suffered as part of the more general financial difficulties facing my Sun & Moon Press, and I had to cease publishing.
In the ten years since the 1994-1995 volume, we have seen, with ever more increasing determination, what appears to be an almost concerted attempt to redefine the 20th century tradition of American poetic writing, one of the most obvious of these examples of literary revisionism being David Gates’s comment in The New York Times Book Review (in a basically negative review of Pound’s great poetic contribution) that, “Compared with equivalent stretches of ground-clearing and throat-clearing by Frost and Yeats, little [of Pound’s poetry] remains readable. This is partly because, thanks to the modernist emphasis on subjective experience, poetry has largely come to mean their [Frost’s and Yeats’] sort of post-Romantic personal lyric.” Given the remarkably energizing output of poetry by established and younger authors that I noted in 1993, it is evident to me today that Gates must have read very few of those poets I had described as innovative writers.
Evidently Brad Leithauser had also read few of those poets, given the evidence of his Seamus Heaney review published recently in The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 16, 2006). It seems almost beyond belief that a critic at the beginning of the 21st century, after 100 years in which all but the most traditional of poets writing in English have eschewed end-line rhyme, could begin a review by asserting, “I sometimes think there’s no more reliable way of initially entering a poet’s private domain than by examining what he or she rhymes with what.” Only a handful of contemporary poets, in fact, might reveal themselves under Leithauser’s criteria. How many poets in the Gertrude Stein volumes, I wonder, might reveal their “private domain” through rhyme? Is there one?
The New York Times Book Review’s peculiar representations of American poetry have continued, more recently, with their deification of Helen Vendler and her poetic tastes in the December 10, 2006 issue, where that critic is described not only as the most “powerful arbiter of the contemporary poetry scene,” but, as John Leonard, their own former book review editor, proclaims, the “best [critic] since Randall Jarrell.” Even if one were to share the self-consciously reactionary presumption that Jarrell is the high-water mark of poetic critical writing, the Times is quite shameless in such proclamations, particularly in this case, since Vendler was the “secret” selector of books of poetry for review in the Book Review throughout much of Leonard’s tenure as the Book Review editor, which, as Charles Bernstein suggested in a recent conversation, puts the paper in the enviable position of praising their own literary taste. Indeed, the editor who followed Leonard, Harvey Shapiro—who felt Vendler’s “anonymous power” was, perhaps, not a “healthy arrangement”—is chastised for being sexist. Bah! to those who might question this authoritative expert on “contemporary poetry”—praised for admiring the work of dead poets such as Lowell, Stevens, Plath, Bishop, and Merrill, while challenged for liking such “radical” works as those of Allen Ginsberg and Jorie Graham, as if these figures might awaken the sleeping readers of their review! The New York Times Book Review’s self-congratulatory hymn, however, is nearly overshadowed by the ego of its subject, who argues—in the context of her attacks against Alice Quinn’s assemblage of Elizabeth Bishop’s “uncollected poetry,” Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box—that even art exalted as that of Kafka and Virgil should have been destroyed—since the authors had asked for the destruction of their work after death—and proclaims that she would consider it a “personal betrayal” if something she had asked to be burned was not, even if it had been the “Mona Lisa.” Is it any wonder that this “great” critic finds she cannot read the work of poets under 50, since “They’re writing about the television cartoons they saw when they were growing up,” and concludes that she does not share their “frames of reference.” Now, I suppose, the Times can also quote Rachel Donadio, the author of this abysmal piece, in their justifications for their narrow aesthetic tastes.
Even before this paean to mandarin values, the Times had already proclaimed, in the words of David Orr (April 2, 2006), that Bishop was the greatest poet (correction: the greatest artist) of the second half of the 20th century!
“You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces—Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray—but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-79). That she worked in one of our country’s least popular fields, poetry, doesn’t matter. That she was a woman doesn’t matter. That she was gay doesn’t matter. That she was an alcoholic, an expatriate and essentially an orphan—none of this matters. What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, “a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.” The publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box, which gathers for the first time Bishop’s unpublished material, isn’t just a significant event in our poetry; it’s part of a continuing alteration in the scale of American life.”
Such absurdly grandiose claims of a New York Times Book Review cover piece leave one nearly speechless. How does one talk about contemporary poetry in the context of such blather?
For the Times, evidently, one simply blunders forward—or backward. On January 28th of this year, William Logan (you know, that profound American social commentator—this, from his Vain Empires: “Our mothers drank martinis and sweet gin: / we were too young for anyone to love us. / That fall our boys invaded Vietnam.”) went even further in revising modernist and contemporary poetic assumptions, dishing out a dismissal of Hart Crane, whose complete poems had just been republished by the prestigious Library of America. According to Logan, Crane’s formerly great The Bridge “seems inert now—overlong, overbearing, overwrought, a Myth of America conceived by Tiffany and executed by Disney.” Early poems such as “Chaplinesque” are a “dreadful mess.” The poet himself might be similarly described, Logan commenting in an aside about Crane’s sexuality, “He was frank about his homosexuality only with close friends—his sexual appetites were voracious and involved far too many sailors. (The definitive work on the United States Navy’s contributions to cruising has yet to be written.)” In short, Crane was “no innovative genius…,” but was “a Midwestern striver out of a Sinclair Lewis novel.”
In this piece I do not need to defend the much beloved, if sailor-starved, “Midwesterner.” I might observe, however, that while a consideration of an artist’s sexuality might indeed lead to insights into his or her art, I see no possible insight or relevance to Logan’s judgments about Crane’s poetry based on the frequency of this poet’s sexual encounters. What assumptions lie latent, if hidden, in a critic’s negative evaluation of a poet’s art with regard to the frequency of his sexual activity and his choice of partners? Any insights gleaned may be more about the critic than the poet, and the implications are both suspect and disturbing.
I find “The Tunnel” section of The Bridge, several of the Key West poems, and other later, uncollected poems—poems that go unmentioned in Logan’s attack—to be highly memorable and important works. And I see the heightened—and, yes, occasionally melodramatic—language of The Bridge as being a long way from the “brassy versifying” that makes one feel one is “stuck in a mawkish medley from Show Boat and Oklahoma!” (Moreover, I like those musicals!) Finally, what does Logan mean in his use of an epithet regarding Crane’s Midwestern birth? Should we presume that, had Crane, like Logan, been born in Boston to those martini-sipping mothers lounging at the “seductive swimming club,” everything might have been different? As publisher Daniel Halpern argued in a letter in reaction to Logan’s attack that he saw the role of the critic to reveal to the reader more about the poetry than the poet’s sexual life or place of birth.
Where to from there? The Times blithely moved forward (or spiraled downward, depending upon one’s point of view) the following week (February 4th) in an attempt to further the canonization of Robert Frost with David Orr’s review of Frost’s Notebooks. To demonstrate just how “experimental” (as opposed to “mainstream”) Frost was, Orr chose to quote from Marjorie Perloff, sometimes described as representing the opposite of Vendler’s Harvard-based, more conservative encampment. Diving into two pages of Perloff’s 21st-Century Modernism (pages 8-9), he quotes the critic as arguing that, as opposed to the dominant mode of “expressivist” writing, experimental writing “involves constructivism…the specific understanding that language, far from being a vehicle or conduit for thoughts or feelings outside and prior to it, is itself the site of meaning-making.” He continues with a quote from Charles Bernstein (“there are no thoughts except through language”) and Rosmarie Waldrop (“as soon as I start listening to the words they reveal their own vectors and affinities, put the poem into their own field of force, often in unforeseen directions”), following up, in the next paragraph, with four further quotes on the performative nature and pleasurable ulteriority of poetry, pausing only to self-consciously “admit” that these issues might not appeal to “more conservative tastes.”
Oh, did he forgot to mention?—Orr cagily reveals—only Perloff’s first comment and the next two quotes were from contemporary poets; the others were all from Frost! So, he implicitly declares, he has proven that Frost is a contemporary experimentalist!
In fact, the Perloff quote is not at all that of a contemporary poet, but is a summary of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas, and—without diminishing the importance of Bernstein’s and Waldrop’s comments (it is interesting to note that Orr did not feel it necessary to mention their names)—I’d like to suggest that Bernstein’s statement is primarily a restatement of not only Wittgenstein, but of Pound, Williams, and the Russian Futurists; Waldrop’s comments might as well have been those, as Perloff later reveals in her book, of Gertrude Stein! One must ask, accordingly, are we truly talking about contemporary experimental poetics in this context or about modernist values of Frost’s own generation, which might lead one to question if Frost was at all involved with the poetics of his own time?
It is no surprise that the San Francisco-born poet, pretending to be a New Hampshire farmer writing primarily dramatic monologues in the tradition of Robert Browning, might describe his poetry as being “performative”; and nearly any poet of merit understands that writing (any writing, not just poetry) and even lecturing is often a procedural act, that “may not be worried into being.” Yet, I hardly think that what a poet writing in rhymed stanzas means by the word “performative” can be described as the same as the performative acts of the far more associative and chance-generated works of John Cage, David Antin, or Jackson Mac Low.
Orr’s conclusion, that had Frost’s journals included essays on Gertrude Stein and Walter Benjamin (it is nearly unimaginable that Frost would have read these writers!) he might be recognized as an American experimentalist, is an absurdity. Have most “experimental” poets written on Stein or Benjamin? That some of the most conservative of writers—Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, Glyn Maxwell, and “nearly every Northern Irish poet born after 1935”—declare Frost to be “the greatest American poet of the 20th century” might reveal, I would suggest, something more about Frost’s stature with contemporary poets. That younger writers might be led to satirically imitate Frost’s works does not mean, moreover, that they think Frost is therefore a viable influence on contemporary writing.*
Again, my goal in these observations is not to criticize the poet or his writing. Indeed, I wish David Orr had discussed the topic at hand, the Notebooks of Robert Frost, which I am sure is filled with an aphoristic-like writing I might appreciate. It is clear, however, that Orr had the adoration of a poet more on his mind than a relevant discussion of Frost’s own poetry and poetics.
Given the active rewriting of American poetics I have described above, is it any wonder that most younger readers interested in contemporary poetry do not bother reading The New York Times Book Review or similar desolate visions of poetry presented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (no longer a freestanding publication) and, when they admit to poetry’s existence, The New York Review of Books?
Perhaps, I now feel, I had expressed the problems facing us at the turn of the century too simplistically. For it is not really a matter of whatever one defines as innovation against some vaguely understood concept of a more traditionally-based writing. No matter which “side”—if one is even interested in taking “sides”—one allies oneself with as a reader or writer, the real issue is that commentators such as Gates, Leithauser, Vendler, Logan and Orr ignore the vast majority of writing by poets who are not interested in “personally expressive,” transparently thematic poems. Indeed, such a narrow definition of contemporary poetry—one, I would argue, that dominates not only the American press but award-giving institutions such as the Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Awards, and National Endowment for the Arts literary panels—disenfranchises the wide range of poetic expression that in its very diversity may be the most challenging and defining writing of our time.
As with the Russian revolutionary democrat, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, I can only ponder, accordingly, “What is to be done?” And, without attempting to overthrow the autocracy, I have openly wondered what I might do to help reveal to readers in the USA and throughout the world a “larger perspective” of contemporary poetry. One answer resulted in my ongoing Project for Innovative (PIP) series of World Poetry of the 20th Century, currently in its eighth of a projected sixty to seventy volumes. Another is a revival of the Gertrude Stein Awards. Now a product of my Green Integer publishing activities, this anthology—since the Sun & Moon volumes already included Canadian writers, and the Green Integer publications are international in perspective—has been expanded to include all English-language poetry, including writers in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India and other countries in which poets write in English. This broader perspective, I feel, might help to make it clear that the achievements of the poets included are not simply representative of one or two nations, but of writing in English around the world. I also believe these poets might benefit from putting the poems I’ve chosen—with no intentions of describing their single contributions as the “best”—within the context of their writing in general. Although my choices are not based on any previous poetic publications—in fact, some of the chosen poets are quite young, with few or no book publications to their name—it may also help new readers who I suspect feel I am representing only lesser known, “experimental” poets to perceive that the majority of the poets included have been writing for many years and have produced numerous volumes.
I have been overwhelmed with the enthusiasm and expressions of appreciation with which my announcement of this revival has been greeted. All of the poets whose works are included have happily provided me with substantial biographies and complete bibliographies of their poetry. Let us hope that it helps to bring attention to that wider range of contemporary poetry that has been proposed by the great figures such as Pound, Stein, Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson, O’Hara, Ginsberg, Ashbery, and numerous others over the last century.
*I haven’t read what David Orr describes as Susan Wheeler’s “very funny imitation” of Frost, but I myself have written a satiric poem “after” Frost:
(after Robert Frost)
I have been, I have
walked, I have outwalked.
I have looked, I have passed
And dropped my eyes.
I have stood still
When far away,
Come to houses
But not to call
And further still
One luminous clock
Proclaimed the time
Taken to be.
I might add that perhaps the funniest of all “satires” on Frost might be the Richard Adler and Jerry Ross song from The Pajama Game, “Hernando’s Hideaway,” the music of which is written in the same rhythm as Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” If one puts the music to Frost’s poem, it is difficult to read the poem thereafter with a straight face.
Los Angeles, July 18, 2006
December 13, 2006
February 15, 2007
Reprinted in different form from The Green Integer Review, No. 4 (August-October 2006).
Reprinted in another version in Jacket [Australia] No. 32 (April 2007).
There ya go.
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