The next essay in the stack is “The Abuse of the Second-Person Pronoun” and there was no author attribution or note as to where it was published. Which is typical for a lot of these essays. An online search says the author is Jonathan Holden and book might be The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric. Not sure about that. The book is out-of-print and I can't find a table of contents.
In this essay, the author makes a very good point but then stretches it to 18+ pages. Maybe an essay covering all the pronouns would have been tighter and more helpful.
Holden is taking issue with “the deployment…of an ambiguous ‘you’ that could refer to the reader, that could convey the third-person-singular sense of ‘one,’ or that could be the poet…musing to himself.”
“Such ambiguity is not," Holden says, "accidental…for the apparent bonuses are enormous….one would suppose that the reader, feeling that the poem were addressed to him personally, would enjoy a greater sense of intimacy with the speaker and stronger sense of the narrator’s speaking presence…”
“[the pronoun] helps to spur a poet through the lonely process of composition by providing him, in his solitude, with the illusion of a listener, with the sense that he is speaking to somebody, however ill-defined."
Holden talks about "the blurred ‘you’ “like the expression ‘you know?’ so often tagged onto the end of a sentence…the purported universality of the proposition…an unpremeditated, colloquial intimate tone that is far less pretentions that the sermonic ‘we’…which in a poem would sound unbearable stuffy and tweedy.”
With the universal 'you,' poets can “simultaneously emphasize particularity and universality at every juncture…both personal and prophetic…”
Holden summarizes with these three possibilities:
Holden also suspects the second-person pronoun “may lessen the danger that the poet will sound self-pitying, over-introspective, whining or that the entire poem will seem somehow ‘too personal’ to be relevant…this impulse to place the poet in a more peripheral position in the poem is...the result of a continuing reaction against the excesses of the confessional mode….trying to find a less central position for the poet…”
Unfortunately, at least during the time of the essay (which as far as I can tell was in 1980 so this must be infractions of the 1970s), “too often it is being misapplied by poets in poems that have basically a testimonial or a narrative character.”
He goes on to give examples of 'you' poems that would be better as 'I' poems:
In these cases Holden feels “the substitution kills most of the poem’s feeling. ‘My place now’ is far less wooden than ‘your place now” and that “the speaking voice takes clear responsibility for what it is saying.” Plus, “the poem becomes a single human voice, and whether the speaker is fictional or real is of no consequence.”
Holden feels autobiographical poems should use the ‘I’ pronoun. However, there are instances when one part of the poet’s self is taking to another part of the self. Holden also insists the “blurred-you is a defensive tactic…[that] betrays the author’s anxiety by trying too hard.”
Perhaps. But there are many reasons why a poet would want to suppress a known ‘you’:
Millions of secretes lie within poems for various reasons, not all due to defensiveness or anxiety (although they can be). Holden insists the ‘you’ “grasps at the reader’s collar, insisting too shrilly on his complicity.” (I think that’s projection).
Or that the second person “….protests far too loudly that the poem’s subject has universality.”
And here I think he has a point. Sometimes we over-estimate our 'you' universality. Holden calls this a form of faking, but I think it’s just one of the very human biases, consensus bias.
Holden is right in finding the style a bit trendy though: “it lends the poem a cool, poised attitude, a veneer or public decorum…”calls into question…the assumption of its absolute sincerity…the suave ‘you’—the you that commits itself to nothing and can turn the finest poem into an empty, elegant-sounding workshop exercise.”
Holden asks “Why is the first-person…so much better?” He says because the view simply assumes the reader’s participation instead of cajoling it. He says, “true earnestness is the mark of the best poetry…”
Here we go. The best poetry is [insert your own self-satisfied idea here].
Holden says the best poetry is willing to make a fool of itself. But I say there is plenty of room for that in ‘you’ poems, too.
Good examples of the ‘you’ in a poem, according to Holden:
In these poems, the substitution of 'I' for 'you' ruins the poem And that’s exactly what Holden recommends doing, writing your pieces both ways to see the tonal effects of both versions. He also spends pages describing how reading the poem before a live audience can tell you whether the ‘you’ pronoun is working for you and why reading poems in front of audiences is a swell thing and the difference between talking to the self in a lyric and an oral addresses, all of which seems a bit in the weeds for this essay.
Although critics of the second-person pronoun often claim, like Holden does, that “the reader cannot decide how to take this poem unless he knows to whom ‘you’ refers.” I disagree. As long as there is a vague outline of who the poem is addressed to, which can be hinted through the content, you're a-ok. And that’s the responsibility of the poet, to give some kind of guide (is this a love poem, a sibling poem, a friend poem, etc.?).
Similarly with the general 'you' as a casual replacement of ‘one’, this is the responsibility of the poet to identify somewhere in the content that the address should be taken as universal.
The student who contributed this essay to our class forgot to note the author so I had to look that up, “Variations on a Generation” by Gregory Corso and as far as I can tell it's from The Portable Beat Reader edited by Ann Charters. This is another good example of how an essay could be historical, instead of simply a craft essay or personal opinion about some aspect of poetry.
Corso starts by defining writers who are members of a group as if to say the better talents belong to groups (which would leave out Emily Dickinson among plenty of other excellent loners): “every man works better when he has companions working in the same line, and yielding the stimulus of suggestion, comparison, emulation,” what Corso calls clusters joined by “geological location” or “philosophical sympathies” like the transcendentalists who were joined both geologically and philosophically. His other examples are “local-color realists…born between 1849 and 1851” or “experimental modernists…born in the decade between 1879 and 1888.” These “clusters or constellations” occur in all the arts.
(This might be a good time to note The New Yorker recently had a good article on the drawbacks of thinking in terms of generations...but that's a digression.)
Anyway, we're used to thinking along this generations line so Corso explains F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of the Lost Generation, a “reaction against the fathers which seems to occur about three times in a century…distinguished by a set of ideas inherited …from the madmen and the outlaws of the generation before.”
This is a helpful definition, Corso says, when considering the Beats and their “intricate web of perceptions, judgements, feelings, and aspirations…the shared experience for the Beat writers was historical and political, based on the tumultuous changes of their times.”
Corso lists the good and the bad as influences here: anti-Communist hysteria, the Cold War, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Arthur Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas.
He traces the word “beat” in etymological detail, coming out of Jazz and meaning 'down and out' from 'dead beat' or beat-up or streetwise. The genesis of the word started in 1944 and traveled from Herbert Huncke to William Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who saw in the word as a “melancholy sneer” like “solitary Bartlebies” (from Herman Melville’s short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener"), the “archetypical American non-conformist.”
Ginsberg’s friend Lucien Carr said, “maybe it was term we just sold ourselves. It was trying to look at the world in a new light, trying to look at the world in a way that gave it some meaning. Trying to find values…that were valid.”
[A generic enough a statement to stick to any rebellious manifesto.]
The term “Beat Generation” was coined in 1948 when bop music writer John Clellon Holmes wrote a piece appreciating the stories of junkies and the new consciousness, furtiveness and the “weariness with all the forms”....and the movement had “the subversive attraction of an image that just might contain a concept, with the added mystery of being hard to define….a vision and not an idea.” Holmes saw Jack Cassidy as the central figure after the publication of his novel Go. Then an article by Gilbert Millstein appeared in 1952 in The New York Times' Sunday Times, which officially launched the term.
Early works of note were:
Kerouac was dubbed the spokesman by this time and in 1958, Esquire Magazine published “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation.”
The Beat poets are often conflated with the San Francisco Renaissance writers but were only associated to them via Allen Ginsberg who had moved from New York to California. The West Coast group was already a community by 1954 and contained a loose group of poets including Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Duncan, William Everson, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Philip Lamentia, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Weldon Keys and Gary Snyder.
According to Michael McClure: “we saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead—killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life…We wanted voice and we wanted vision."
The West Coast poets tended to revolve around presses: Unitide Press, Equinox Press, the Pocket Poets Series from Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore that published "Howl" which was seized by San Francisco customs officers and the press was charged with “publishing and selling an obscene book. But that just led to national attention and big sales.
Meanwhile, the word Beat came to be associated with the milieux of bop music, drugs, hipsters, the new kids of rock ‘n’ roll and soon it just became synonym for bohemian rebellion. Other terms in early competition were 'hip generation' (Norman Mailer), “the subterraneans” (Allen Ginsberg), “bop generation” (Jack Kerouac). A San Francisco Chronicle columnist coined the word “beatnik” as a condescending term in Look Magazine in 1958 when he referred to the “250 bearded cats.”
There was plenty of criticism for the poets in the US and the UK. Poet George Barker wrote a poem called “Circular from America” where he said, “Mill of no mind…1/2 and idea to a hundred pages….For laboring through/Prose that takes ages/Just to announce/That Gods and Men/Ought all to study/The Book of Zen.”
They were seen as “an amusing phenomenon" in the English magazine X although the UK had its own Kitchen-Sink Writers or “Angry Young Men,” a group that included John Osborne, Colin Wilson, John Wain and John Braine.
Conservatives in the encyclopedia The Americana suggested in 1958 that these writers were simply “self-conscious delinquents, addicted to…jazz, dope and the lunatic fringe of sex and literature, received attention out of all proportion to its significance…”
McClure insisted “at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and naives and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases.”
In 1958 Jack Kerouac published The Dharma Bums which was based on the poet Gary Snyder’s life and values and which became “a blueprint for hippie culture a decade later.”
“Like the work of the radical writers of the 1930s (but without their specific political agenda), Beat poetry and fiction was an alternative literature by writers who were sweeping in their condemnation of their country’s underlying social, sexual, political, and religious values...Earlier modernist poets like Ezra Pound or Lost Generation writers like Ernest Hemingway had attacked the system from the safeguard of their life abroad as expatriates, but the Beat Generation writers protested their country’s excesses on the front lines.”
William Burroughs understood the threat to conservatives as "much more serious...say, than the Communist party…you can’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already. The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road….Art tells us what we know and don’t know that we know.”
The important works:
According to Corso, “the Beat Generation did less well for its women. Reflecting the sexism of the times, the women mostly stayed on the sidelines as girlfriends and wives.” This group was more about “male bonding.” It’s experimentation involved what Gregory Corso called, “bop prosody, surreal-real images, jumps, beats, cool measures, long rapid vowels, long long lines, and the main content, soul…the brash assertiveness of the postwar years.”
When I met Julie Wiskirchen at Sarah Lawrence in the mid-1990s, the first thing she invited me to join was a Guggenheim event in Manhattan to see an Allen Ginsberg reading. In my memory Ginsberg sang, "Don't smoke, don't smoke....the government dope. Smoke weed!" But this is the full text of the piece proving my memory is not very good....but in any case Julie and I have been lifelongs every since.
I received a Masterclass subscription for Christmas and I started right away with Ru Paul. I felt he would be the best person to help me reorient myself to the new year. His talk was about recalibrating the self at the deepest level.
The class was not about drag, per se, other than his famous quip, “We’re all born naked, the rest is drag.” It was mostly about tuning your frequency to what people see. Not suprisingly he recommended meditation for this and talked about cycles of cynicism that stall in bitterness, how the ego co-opts joy. He talked about his cultural lighthouses (Monty Python being a surprising one). In the second half, he also gave red-carpet and makeup tips (which are always mesmerizing to watch). For example, he says if you want more money wear a suit. Full stop. I don’t need any more money, so I won’t be buying new suits. But I appreciate the spirit in which that advice was given. He talked about your life’s work being to communicate yourself, but lest we fall into an ego-hole, he also talks about paying it forward and serving others. (“It doesn’t work if we’re all solo agents”). He tells you how to talk to your inner kid.
Then I watched the Cornell West Mastercalls which completely turned me inside out. West’s suggestion that we could see differently, act courageously and feel deeply was the invitation I needed to sign up in the first place). Ostensibly this class was an introduction to Philosophy, what does it mean to be human, etc.? Surprisingly he talked a lot about love and music. He asked us to, like Socrates, question our presuppositions. We can’t live without them, he says, but we need to question them with humility. We need to learn how to die. That was a big one. He talks about moving from being an observer to being a participant. He talked about pity versus compassion and he inspired me to read Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh to learn the difference.
I really needed to hear his message about leaving “a bit of heaven” behind “in a world run by the hounds of hell,” to stay out there in the thick of it, even though things are really awful right now. After all, if the cracked vessel Cornell West can move ahead in the world with a positive attitude, what the hell is wrong with me?
He said that no matter how bad things are, love, joy, holiness and the sublime are still happening. (and I have to remind myslef, still happening on the internet). Both Ru Paul and Cornell West helped me reorient myself to 2022, not just in spite of recent anxieties but a lifelong one as well.
So how do these Masterclasses relate to writing? Well, these talks were both about what you choose to pay attention to and that's what writing is all about at its deepest level too.
That said, I’m excited about two new projects this year, an online poem about my grandfather and a more traditionally conceived Katharine Hepburn epic. NaPoWriMo 2022 is also coming up in April. I’ll only be doing two more years of NaPoWriMo and then I’ll have reached my goal of 300 poems. I haven't decided if I'll follow the prompts one last time or pick another theme.
I was very sad about the news that Joan Didion had passed away. Didion is my favorite writerly model for many reasons. After moving to Los Angeles many years ago Sherry, a friend from Sarah Lawrence College recommended Joan Didion as the best writer about LA (or California, I can’t remember exactly what she said). But yes, she is. I checked out every Joan Didion book from the Redondo Beach library. Although she was not a probable writer for me to love as a John-Wayne loving, glamourous, Hollywood insider. My favorite books of hers were Where I’m From (which helped me think about my own family history in a critical way) and The Year of Magical Thinking (which made me soberly approach my own magical thinking).
Didion also helped me think about Los Angeles in a new way. She talked about America and the cult of exclusion (class, race, etc.)…she understood intelligentsia and she understood California and she was a long-time New York City resident. She could credibly make the case for a west coast intellectualism. And yet no one seemed more included, seemed more a part of the upper crust of that culture than did Joan Didion…and yet she called it out anyway, which is remarkable.
Some interesting tributes online:
Joan Didion and the Voice of America: This piece talks about her connection to Normal Mailer and V.S. Naipaul’s pessimism-as-style, how that was always misread as white-woman fragility. The article also focuses on her important writings about race and how she typed out Hemmingway’s sentences to learn the craft of the sentence. The article also mentions “her ability to combine the specific and the sweeping in a single paragraph.” Apparently the writer is working on a Fall 2022 exhibit on Didion at the Hammer Museum. I look forward to that.
Joan Didion’s California: This article talks about “the foundational mythologies of California” and “Didion’s generational ties with the state…her mercurial and melodious sentences…her signature lilt…her own indelible, intruding, and exacting subjectivity…the routine admission of her presence across all her writings…her deep displays of sentimentality” and how “no one who enunciates the moods of this place [California] quite like Didion does….to write hard about the places we love and has permitted us to be a little glamourous while we do it.”
What Joan Didion Saw: “Didion was a pattern-seeker” this article says, she found “the markers pointing out how the whole thing worked….through her efforts, the craft of journalism changed…her ominous, valley-flat style…[working] in the danger zone between sensibility and objectivity: to be receptive to a passing feeling, a change in cast, and then to bear down, with unsparing rigor, in the work of understanding why.” The article explains her “flash cuts”…her “restless mind” and quotes Didion to say, “In retrospect, we know how to write when we begin. What we learn from doing it is what writing was for.” Didion teaches us “how to put together a paragraph, whether to add the ‘the’ or not…what to do with those sentences, how to turn the craft of storytelling away from shared delusion, is the effort of a life.”
Nobody Wrote Sentences like her: According to Didion, “to shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.” This article talks about her “incisive, steely prose,” the piercing restraint … palpable down to the grammar, which she called “a piano I play by ear.” The article also mentions her musicality, “controlled and concise sentences,” how she deconstructed mythologies including the California dream, the myth of New York City, her disillusionment, her economy, her questioning of the self, her sarcasm and irony, her understatement and the enigmatic way she could convey a mood.
There are two Library of America editions available:
And a book about her writing style, Joan Didion: Substance and Style by Kalthleen Vandenberg
Didon’s husband writer John Gregory Dunne was no slouch about writing about Los Angeles himself. And their movies are worth checking out. A particular favorite of mine from my college Al Pacino obsession is The Panic in Needle Park.
Didion taught me there was a way to speak as the self in a self-obsessed time, how you can be hard on yourself or ambivalent about yourself without letting yourself either disappear or take over the message. Not that I ever get there, but she’s the writer I most wanted to be like, the reality of her suffering, the mythology of her seemingly enchanted life, the hard, slogging work…all of it.
A friend of mine in Albuquerque recently told me about the book of poetry Life of the Party by Olivia Gatwood because it’s a book about violence against woman (which we were talking about at dinner one night) and because Gatwood is an Albuquerque poet.
There are some really good poems in the book but it was honestly a hard read for me. Very hard. I could only read a few poems A WEEK because I felt the author put herself in dangerous situations and then felt traumatized by them. She did things for men long past when she could (and should) have easily stopped. Dare I even say it, she felt like a doormat complaining about being a doormat.
But I then felt a lot of guilt over blaming the victim (because some crappy things happened to her). Her lack of boundaries frustrated me (granted, I have too many probably) but many of her conclusions were a bridge too far for me.
But that said there were some great poems: “Girl,” “Ode to Pink,” “Ode to the Women on Long Island” (a particularly memorable one I recommended to Monsieur Big Bang for a character of a show he's working on), “Sound Bites While We Ponder Death."
Over Christmas I discussed the book with friends at a dinner party and how I was struggling over how to verbalize my frustration with Gatwood’s lack of boundaries. My friend who recommended the book, her significant other gently said to me, “maybe her definition of love is very different from yours.” And I was like, oh yeah; that would explain it pretty much.
Talking about books with other people is a good thing.
So for the last post this year I wanted to link to this lovely nature piece by Shelly Jackson called "Snow," a work I read about very early this year in Poets & Writers (from a Jan 2020 issue! I'm very behind).
She's slowly writing a story in the snow. That would be so much fun! (And yes, I realize certain people have been doing that for centuries now by other means. Let's just leave that there.)
Merry Christmas! See you next year.
In one of my final posts of the year, I wanted to check in one last time with a bunch of thoughts about digital lit. This past year I cracked the gargantuan New Media Reader textbook (this thing: it will take me years to finish it!) and I’ve continued working on my own digital lit projects.
The introductory chapter itself was blowing up my head, “Inventing the Medium” but Janet H. Murray and it was basically a review of the history that got us to this point.
She talks about technology’s “breathless pace of change” and “braided interplay of inventions mid-century” (1950s/60s). She believes new media solved the issue of “linear media’s failure to capture structures of thought.” I would agree that linear media has limitations but we’re finding now that digital media is also struggling to keep us from a new kind of madness and that when Murray extols the new “consciousness reforming itself” we can now see that this is not always in positive ways.
She says the “shelf of Knowledge exploded.” Unfortunately, so did the shelf of false knowledge, (oh yes, the earth is flat again), to which Murray says this might speak more to the gaps between technical prowess and social development.
Digital tools have also increased, she admits, weapons acceleration, “killing someone as a way of information processing” in a deadly proliferation of creation and destruction. But Murray ultimately has (or had, this book is from 2003) faith in the same progress that led us to the atomic bomb. We are smart enough to find a way out.
And here is where I found the essay pretty illuminating. She divides us into two camps: the engineer and the humanist. This demarcation pretty much can be applied to any argument you’re having with someone over technology. (Oh well, you’re just a humanist!) But seriously, it shows us the roots of all the enthusiasms and resistances. And I have great sympathy for both sides, being in a humanist avocation and having an engineering vocation.
According to Murray, the humanist is worried the technological changes will lead to cultural confusion and existential befuddlement. The engineer would say we just need to invent the proper fix or instrument to solve any problem that comes up. The answer, for them, is problem-solving systematically.
To which the humanist (in me) might argue there are a lot fewer people thinking systematically these days.And when Murray speaks of the failed promises of print, I can’t help but think of the failed promises of the internet.
Murray invokes Hitler when she talks about the trajectory of unchecked rationalism (it would be most efficient to eliminate people draining the system, the elderly, religions we don’t like, etc.) but unchecked irrationalism is also horrifying she says. Humanists the see limitations of systemized thinking and the ultimate unknowability of life, its absurdities, suffering, longing, and needs. Engineers are solutions-based but often blind to the sufferings their solutions can inflict.
Murray says digital artists are interested in the exploratory processes of the mind. And personally, I find this to be a very, very interesting idea but I just wonder if we're in a better place than after 25 years of tinkering with mental processing.
New media artists are attracted to random combinations, the arbitrary nature of stories, choice and the garden of forking paths. Murray says in this way, we have “outgrown the garments of print” (and yet books, to a lesser degree than before, still thrive). She points to the failures of newspapers and their slowness to recover from inacurate news (Paul McCartney is dead, Ernest Hemmingway is dead, Dewey won) and yet I can’t help but think about the statistic that false news travels on the internet 10-20 times faster than the truth.
She takes us through a historical tour of the decades.
In the 1950s we saw quantitative data manipulation, artificial intelligence, databases, networks, multi-user terminals, the first formulated idea for the internet and hypertext as a term was coined, early ideas about networking that would one day transform institutions. In fact, she says, many of the ideas ended in the 1960s, but machines were too slow and those ideas didn’t get far at the time, only becoming realized in the 1980s and 90s.
The 1980s and 90s brought us personal computers, word processing software, storyspace, hypercard, video games, immersive worlds, cooperative programming, easier user interfaces, the second self, projected consciousness, an online community and complex social relationships. By the end of 1990s digital media had swallowed entertainment and education.
And by now, banking, commerce and almost everything else.
So here we are today with some great muti-media experiences, and yet corporations still have too much power over consumers and we suffer under the illusion of choice. We are more alienated from the real world and the damage humanists predicted is not just a dark fantasy anymore. We have seen an increase in surveillance, exhibitionism, stalking, threats to our productivity, shared hallucinations, disorienting data overload and Murray does admit this was all predicted by the post-modernists who “no longer believed anything [previously] asserted.”
We’re also now experiencing the death of expertise (unintended consequence of DIY and self-help).
Murray describes computer scientists as having an “exhilarating earnestness” while learning about “active construction of meaning” while at the same time humanists were celebrating deconstruction and the unraveling of meaning. Humanists have been exploring fragmentation, distrust of the imagination and a “loss of faith in the great meta-narratives,” a distrust of endings. They revel in the middle.
But there is something to be said for the potato root system, of a growth with no beginning or end, as long as it’s ultimately digestible (to stay in the metaphor). Digital media has also given us new avenues for whimsey and all the “good” kinds of communication and expression.”
And it bears a reminder, this is a 2003 book. Murray made grand predictions about how new media would resist commodification (it didn’t), that we would not crushed by our own knowledge (we did become crushed by our inability to parse the good versus the bad knowledge), and that our machines would not become our Gods (uh…yeah), and that new media would somehow miraculously escape ideologies (about that…).
10 Finds This Year:
So all my angst aside, I’m keeping-on with exploring digital media and some of it is delightful.
I’m still seeing some problems with accessing digital works. A lot of these older sites were not build as https, today’s secure protocols, and the authors have not upgraded them for usability. This is not unusual. It’s so much work to launch a project as it is and then by the time you move on to your next project, there’s no time to continually return to older ones and update all your old stuff. It makes the pieces highly perishable and costly, especially considering the time involved in making them.
https://breathe-story.com/ You have to read this short story on your phone. It doesn’t work well for ipad or computer because it uses your GPS location to build suspense into the story. It was short and too much of a sketch than a finished piece. Plus the GPS insertions were more unintentionally funny than suspenseful. (Even my dog Franz was captured in the first screenshot part of the story).
The next essay is from editor A. Poulin Jr. talking about "Contemporary American Poetry" (soon he would have a 1991 anthology of the stuff, my copy looks like this) in a piece called Contemporary American Poetry: The Radical Tradition.
And this is a good time to stop and reflect on the quite significant narcissism of those early 20th century poets labelling themselves 'modernists,' thinking the word modern would always apply to them and somehow defy the march of time. Similarly, post post-modernism (which technically could mean anything in the future) poets subsequently understood the problem and started labeling themselves 'Contemporary' like they were doubling down on a delusion. Their 'contemporary' poems are now 60 years old and as far from contemporary as poems could possibly be. I wouldn’t be surprised if poets now start calling themselves the Right-Nows. It's a straight line for there to here, narcissistically speaking,
In any case, we’re all soon Long-Agos, as are those modernists and contemporaries. But this little essay of self-congratulations actually has some interesting things in it. It attempts to define this body of “contemporary” poetry as poets writing since 1945 up to the current year (1980).
Poulin starts by exploring how all generations tend to rebel against previous ones, the previous generation's “essential beliefs….its excesses, principle atrophied into prejudice….petrified into cliché…[and] tyranny” but Poulin maintains that “the revolution doesn’t always realize a clean break….the blood, the genes remain, camouflaged by a radical façade.”
He then talks about what revolution these poets represent, their ceasing to believe the “orthodoxy of T.S. Eliot and the New Critics.”
And at this spot of the essay I have a crazy bit of marginalia right here talking about prescriptive craft advice and how it somehow corresponds to diet advice and how that makes us all fat” and I read it today thinking well maybe that’s true in some weird way, but what the hell does it have to do with this essay? Who was this person?
There is one word in this essay that is probably my least favorite essay word in these academic essays: unquestionable (unquestionably, kin to undeniably). A few sentences later there a phrase that something “is simply untenable.” All of a group, those words. Nothing is unquestionable.
He then lists the cast of New Critics,
John Crowe Ramson
those poets who were an addendum to modernism and enforcers of Eliot's ideas, those "who transformed the experiments…into a legislative critical system…the New Critics…no longer regarded as sacred commandments”).
He lists the influences of the new poets, but during the entire essay fails to name the women who probably had more influence on experimental contemporary poetry than anyone else: Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein, a good example of how important women were marginalized during this period of mythmaking about contemporary poetry. Poulin credits the French and Spanish surrealists as influences, Neruda and Vallejo and the popular arts (singling out Lana Turner, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan).
Like the Modernists before them of these “contemporary” poets, Poulin says, read the English Metaphysical poets and John Crowe Ransom…and that "the most adequate and convincing poetry” for them “accommodates mixed feelings, clashing ideas and incongruous images.”
Where they parted with the Modernists was regarding intimacy, the personal revelation, removing “artistic distance between the poets and their subjects, the poets and their poems.” Contemporary poets use persona and sometimes other formal devices but focus on “individual personality” and “intimate experiences” in disagreement with T.S. Eliot who claims that “poetry was an escape from personality.”
Contemporary poets incorporate “biographical details” and make the speaker, the “I”, themselves…writing “as if that reader were a confessor, psychiatrist, intimate friend, or lover.” In fact, a lot of these poets are interested in exploring the borders and depths of the Freudian subconscious and multidimensional personality….the self’s discovery of the outer world…sexual honesty…personal illness, madness, failure and self-destruction” And here he says something about the “near hysteria of Sylvia Plath.”
But this part is good: “…the requirements of technique and craftsmanship raise…questions about just how personal and immediate a poet can be…any poem is a fabrication and takes time and calculation to complete. Like any other art... [it] is selective, calculated, and public gesture, a formal utterance for which the poet selects a language and voice, even if they are approximate to his or her own as the poet can manage.”
Poulin also discusses irony and paradox and raises the issue of irony's problematic distance: “Irony may thwart much genuine emotion, its absence also makes genuine emotion virtually impossible.”
How’s that for a paradox?
Poulin shows how irony helps in certain cases, like for Plath and O’Hara, to “temper the intensity of suffering by undercutting the vehement…” Camp irony can find a sense of humor in Plath’s suicide or O’Hara’s descriptions of emptiness and decadence. “…[where] laughter camouflages horror."
I would also argue that irony done well can express its very own deep-seated emotion, like hidden Easter Eggs, to reward the most engaged and patient readers. But that this technique wasn't being used as much with this set of poets, more so a technique used with later Generation X and Millennial poets.
Poulin talks about levels of ambiguity where reader interpretations are encouraged (Ashbery), where punctuation and pronouns are manipulated (Merwin and Berryman). Metapoetry is discussed, and allusions after "The Waste Land."
These poets, Poulin says, are not as interested in mythology in the classical sense. They are not likely to allude to ancient Greek poets. They are having a contemporary experience and are concerned with their own survival, not mythmaking except for “the suffering, middle-aged, white ‘human American man’…[the idea that] I am my own myth.”
Poulin then categorizes these poets as decedents of the Puritans or Whitman, basically pessimists and optimists.
The Puritans (ex: Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton) are descendants of the fall of Adam, they see “humans as essentially corrupt, limited spiritually and physically and deteriorating. There poems tend to be “complex, emblematic, and metaphysical.” The Puritan poet is threatened by madness and…tempted to self-destruction.”
The Whitmans (ex: Allen Ginsberg, Louis Simpson, David Ignatow) “assert the holiness of Adamic self…a holy universe.” These poets are “often scornful of intellectualization” and believe in the “self’s limitless potential for transcendence.” There poems are often “open, loose product of emotion rather than of intellect or conspicuous craftsmanship, its language…more recognizably ‘American.’”
That’s a pretty good distinction. Poulin then lists poets inspired by the French symbolists, Chinese and Japanese poetry (Gary Snyder, W. S. Merwin, James Wright), the Spanish Surrealists (Philip Levine and Robert Bly), those who experimented with the prose poem as action painting or verbal jazz (John Ashbery, Lawrence Ferlinghetti).
He admits there was an “obsession with originality” and that
“each age discovers or fabricates one or two all-encompassing metaphors for the quality of human experience that it confronts or seeks. It was T. S. Eliot, of course, who fabricated the first encompassing metaphor for the twentieth century: the waste land was the image of human spiritual and cultural sterility…a powerful mise en scene of the modern situation, to a large extent its characters were composite ghosts, unreal men and women in an unreal city…Eliot set the scene, but contemporary poets have peopled that waste land, mostly with their individual selves.”
And they’ve done it with language, “by making poetry out of the full range of everyday speech—including obscenity, vulgarity, and slang.”
These poets are also very political and create a poetry that “responds directly” to the “broad spectrum of everyday political realities.”
Then he drops this bomb: “the political tradition was all but ignored during the first half of the century” completely ignoring the group of socialist poets of the 1920s and 1930s who wrote extensively about social conditions during the depression and against the Spanish Civil War, many of whom were blacklisted to such an extent they now literally don’t exist in the minds of New Critics and contemporary poets. There’s a whole book about this historical blacklisting called Revolutionary Memory by Gary Nelson.
Poulin talks about the “imagination of commitment” which he classifies into three groups. The first is the sociopolitical consciousness and nuclear holocaust. He lists the poets that deal with this:
The second is historical events, personages:
More specifically, the Vietnam War poets. Poulin says it is interesting that “despite the fact that many of today’s poets were active participants in World War II—or perhaps because they were—the experience did not seem to grip their imaginations as much as the conflict in Vietnam did.” He says not since World War I has there been so many poems about a single event.
He lists a few World War II poems here for contrast:
The Vietnam poems he lists are:
This raises questions, Poulin says, about where poetry leaves off and propaganda begins and can propaganda poetry be any good. He also notes that all the poets writing about Vietnam were noncombatants and had never “been in the embattled country in contrast to “Wilfred Owen’s poems in the trenches.”
These poets experience only “the removed reality of the media…atrocities were not witnessed, but were ‘viewed’” and that their poems deal more with “the perpetrators of war” and “the language of war” and “the policy of war.”
The third group involves sexual politics and explorations of sexuality from poets like Adrienne Rich, James Wright, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Robert Bly and Anne Sexton writing a celebration of her uterus.
Poulin then talks about the ecological poems of Gary Snyder and John Logan and the meta-poetries:
He ends talking about spirituality in poems:
All in all this is a good summary of this group (which we totally need because the moniker is so unhelpful). Here's the big list I compiled from the essay:
David Wojahn, whose book Mystery Train I loved while I was at Sarah Lawrence, wrote an essay called “Generations 'I': The Future of Autobiographical Poetry" which is an awful title. I could understand "Generation I" singular and unquoted but not this plural quoted thing. Anyway, the essay appeared in a 1996 issue of the journal The Missouri Review.
This essay is about the dependence of current writers on Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, “possibly the most influential book of American poetry published in the last half-century” and how his legacy is “complex and troubling.”
“Without Life Studies, the careers of as diverse a list of poets as Plath, Sexton, Merill, Levine, Heaney, Bidart, Pinksy, Gluck, Hass, C.K. Williams, Sharon Olds, Frederick Seidel and Charles Wright would be hard to imagine.”
The autobiographical lyric, which has become so ubiquitous even “a former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter” had published a volume of autobiographical poetry, which to Wojahn might just signal “the utter exhaustion of a particular style of autobiographical verse…merely another form of…self-therapy movements…the very sort of specific personal solace offered also by AA, Al-Anon, Rolfing, Zoloft or Sufi dancing...”
Ouch. Wojahn then addresses the alternative avant-garde tradition of neo-New Criticism, close readings and “a rather schoolmarmish and moralizing tone.” He quotes Marjorie Perloff’s essay, “The Changing Face of Common Intercourse: Talk Poetry, Talk Show, and the Scene of Writing” (another farty title) to talk about how “the self” is packaged for TV talk shows “with their emphasis on intimate disclosure (usually centering upon what were once called shameful secrets),” in other words, “the media’s crass commercialization of human suffering.”
So he’s looking for a happy medium and admits that it’s “very hard to draw a clear line between work whose main value is therapeutic or inspirational and work that really addresses and expands the possibilities of the art itself.”
Wojahn feels talk show culture has negatively influenced the current confessional poetry and proposes Mary Kinzie’s alternative idea of “applied poetry."
In Wojahn's paraphrase, Kinzie blames Anne Sexton (practially for being a famous poet), for “a persona intrinsic to the making of poetry [being] mistaken all the way around for an excellent poem” as if those things were mutually exclusive. Sexton is to blame for “the dumbing-down of autobiographical poetry, a loss of aesthetic gravity which it [possessed] from writers such as Berryman and Lowell…a litany of victimhood.”
I feel this is a very mistaken impression of Sexton but let's continue.
Hhe turns to fiction writers who take use elements like “a sense of point of view, of strategic timing and delayed exposition” for granted…”ruminated asides” and artful “jump-cuts.”
Examples of this are C.K. Williams’ Tar and Frank Bidart’s Golden State (a book which, by the way, is now selling for 300-400 dollars used on Amazon right now).
“The new poetry of self, in other words, is seen as expansive and inclusive in ways which confessional poetry decidedly was not….One of the mysterious legacies of confessionalism is the reader’s implicit belief that poets tell the truth about themselves, and that this activitity is not only good, but sufficient in itself to create a good poem.”
He uses Bruce Weigl’s poem “The Impossible” as an example of a failed autobiographical poem, mostly because it doesn’t earn its end after some harrowing self-disclosure. (I took the ending as a bit sarcastic, but I could be wrong.)
I don’t have much patience for people trying to shoe-horn poems into their cookie cutter ideas about what poems should be, people who themselves who have little patience for the full panoply of what poems can be, or poems in the process of becoming something, which I feel applies to Weigl’s poem.
Wojahn insists personal poems must have “psychological perspective,” to overtly explain why a particular moment is explored, why it was chosen, to explain the “consequences” for the writer. He talks about “an inherent contradiction typical of many recent autobiographical lyrics…more frequently designed to convey the illusion of reportorial fact than to emphasize the complexity of psychological truth—or beauty” as if this is the final definition of poetry in all cases.
He prefers Susan Mitchell’s “Leaves that Grow Inward” and it’s “circuitous meditation.” Mitchell's poem is full of challenges to the idea of telling the truth or one's own truth, the role disguising the truth plays in an autobiography. This does make the poem very interesting, but not better or worse than poems that don’t do that.
Wojahn says the Mitchell's poem “refuses…to reduce the struggle between the self and the world to a well-intentioned truism.”
I would say Wojahn is not bringing the same skepticism to the first poem with his assumption that the author buys into the final truism or if maybe that truism is part of a longer journey. Plus, truisms are not, in and of themselves, bad to include or end upon.
Wojahn says he likes that the Mitchell poem’s pain has not “somehow been solved.” But there’s nothing in the first poem that feels “solved” either.
I have marginalia at the end of the essay that says,
“Doty [Mark Doty] – Stay with it longer. Don’t clip that edge. Write beyond end. A real end doesn’t end neatly.”
I don’t know if that means Mark Doty was a guest lecturer that day. He did make an appearance in one of our workshop classes and then a tornado of competetion ensued when the students found out he would be teaching one class the next semester and there were only limited seats. Tears were shed. (Not by me; I didn't know who he was yet. If I had, I would have been a tornado too.)
The note could also be someone in the essay class quoting Doty though.
In any case, terms like “a real ending” are just as full of hooey.
The final essay in the David Rivard Sarah Lawrence class packet is an introduction to the book Helpful Hints, Notes on Writing Poetry by Jon Anderson. Coincidentally, the next essay in the Suzanne Gardinier essay class is also an introduction (in some cases, these are really good essays) to the book The Postmoderns, The New American Poetry Revised edited by Donald Allen and George F. Butterick.
Anderson’s tips are from his days teaching and he cautions us that all his tips are “not applicable to everyone’s writing, that, in fact, their opposites might be useful.”
He states he wanted the tips to be brief, not prescriptive. Our teacher, David Rivard, must have considered these useful tips as well. When reading any list of tips, there are always plenty of things you like and don’t like. Everyone’s experience is so different as writers. I won’t focus on the tips I disagreed with. But I can tell by my notes from the 1990s in the margins that any advice to try imitate another poet’s voice or style struck me as scary and dangerous. I must have been afraid of losing myself.
Oh as if.
Here are my favorite tips:
The editors date postmodern poetry to begin at the end of World War II. “Modernism came to an end with the detonation of the Bomb in 1945."
The preface doesn’t remark on Theodor Adorno's famous quote post-Auschwitz that ''after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric'' (1949) . Most definitely this influenced post-modernisms experimentations too.
Postmodernims is characterized as “experimental” and the editors list poets' influences as “Emerson, Whitman, Pound and Williams," egregiously ignoring ALL the womenfolk: Gertrude Stein, H.D. and Emily Dickinson whose influence was just as powerful.
This “underground” was first formed in “schools” like The New York School, the Beat poets and the San Francisco renaissance poets and the Black Mountain Poets, and all the other avant-garde of the 1950s.
Their poems didn't gain respect in the 1960s and 1970s.
Conceptual inspirations were: imagism, French symbolism.
Topics include: the limits of industrialization and high tech, spiritual advancement, communal energies, American individualism.
They were writing against: academic formalism.
They consider themselves: revolutionaries.
“Their most common bond is a spontaneous utilization of subject and technique, a prevailing “instantissm” that nevertheless does not preclude discursive ponderings and large-canvased reflections. They are boldly positioned and deft, freely maneuvering among the inherited traditions, time-honored lore, and proven practices, adopting what they need for their own wholeness and journeying.”
Yes, that’s how this preface talks. :-(
Because the photocopied prefeace is from a later-day reissue of the anthology (1994), the editors briefly sketch out which poets were added since the original volume came out 20 years prior.
List of mentioned poets: Charles, Olson, William Everson, Robert Duncan, Laurence Ferlinghetti, Barbara Guest, Jack Karouac, Jackson Mac Low, Denise Levertov, James Shuyler, Philip Whalen, Robin Blaser, Kenneth Koch, Jack Spicer, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Lew Welch, John Ashbery, Larry Eigner, Edward Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Gregory Corso, Joel Oppenheimer, Gary Snyder, Jerome Rothenberg, Michael McClure, Diane Di Prima, Anselm Holo, Amiri Baraka, Joann Kyger, John Weiners, Robert Kelly, James Koller, Ron Loweinsohn, David Meltzer, Edward Sanders, and Anne Waldman.
That's 38 poets of which 5 are women. Just sayin’ they could have done better. The editors tried and failed to organize poets by geographical boundaries. They ran out of room for theoretical writings and poet statements.
Charles Olson’s essay “Projected Verse” starts things off, as Olson they say was the first to use the term “postmodern.”
The most interesting part of the preface for me was the comparison of how each writer conceptualized the idea of postmodernism:
They see postmodernism as “bold” and “heroic” which seems a bit over-the-top.
But there are some other adjectives that apply to the definition more specifically and helpfully: “idiosyncratic, “flexibility,” resilient and advantageous syntax,” exploration of language as a system,” “a different disposition of self,” a “quick willingness to take advantage of all that had gone before.”
Although the postmoderns are too "of their time" to comment on their own culpability in leading us where we are today, they are distant enough from their elders to criticize the moderns for similar liabilities. As they constrast postmodern from modern, the editors say “…if it’s true that the attitudes and commitments of modernism helplessly produced the Bomb and other forms of species alteration.”
We all helplessly produce untintended consequences.
This paragraph is a good definition what postmodernism is:
"These poets have taken advantage of the gains of imagism and surrealism, the chief accomplishments of poetic modernism. They are the grand and multifarious [not so multifarious if your read the table of contents] fulfillment of the vers libre of the early 1900s. Many demand a reorientation of values, a reexamination of the very premises of Western civilization. Most seek for the individual, a new relation toward his or her world, a new 'stance toward reality,' where each poem’s line, whether long-breathed or tightly controlled, is open to its own possibility, where the syntax responds with vital immediacy to the moment’s pulse. They are revolutionary, characterized by a willingness to seize the romantic imperative, to seek alternatives to the ‘static’ quo.”
We’re getting down to the last two essays from the David Rivard class at Sarah Lawrence back in 1994-ish. It’s another Philip Levine one and I would say this is my favorite essay in the project so far, but then Levine is one of my favorite poets so this is not a surprising thing. This essay makes me want to do a deep dive into all of his prose. It’s called “Mine Own John Berryman” and it talks about his experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop with teachers Robert Lowell (who sucked) and John Berryman (who was great). This essay, like “Entering Poetry” which we covered a few weeks ago was from his autobiography of essays that had just come out, The Bread of Time (1994).
The most wonderful thing about this long essay experiment has been how I’ve come to soften about essays I formerly disliked. I’ve grown up, changed. But Philip Levine: it is so heartwarming to be able to say there has been no change. I still love his poetry and prose and this feels like a rediscovery.
This essay is full of not only beautiful passages, but criticism and praise of his teachers that hits exactly the right notes, like this beginning:
“I can’t say if all poets have had mentors, actual living, breathing masters who stood and sat before them making the demands that true mentors must make if the fledgling is ever to fly. Some poets seem to have been totally self-starting….I’m thinking of such extraordinary examples as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, who over a hundred years ago created not only their own gigantic works but the beginnings of something worthy enough to be American poetry, and they did it out of their imaginations and their private studies and nothing more. But then, they had the advantages of being geniuses….I think also of those poets who had to be poets, whom no one or nothing short of death could have derailed from their courses—John Keats, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud—who outstripped their mentors before they even got into second gear. There are those who were lucky enough to find among their peers people of equal talent and insight to help them on their way, like Williams and Pound, who for the crucial early years of their writing careers ignited each other…As for those of us here in the United States of America in the second half of the twentieth century, we have developed something called Creative Writing…One can only regard it as one of the most amazing growth industries we have. Thus, at the same time we’ve made our society more racist, more scornful of the rights of the poor, more imperialist, more elitist, more tawdry, money-driven, selfish, and less accepting of minority opinions, we have democratized poetry. Today anyone become a poet; all he or she has to do is travel to the nearest college and enroll in Beginning Poetry Writing and then journey through the dozen stages of purgatory properly titled Intermediate Poetry Writing and Semi-Advanced Poetry Writing, all the way to Masterwork Poetry Writing, in which course one completes her epic on the sacking of Yale or his sonnet cycle on the paintings of Edward Hopper, or their elegies in a city dumpster…”
Did he write this yesterday? From his grave? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of it. And how he threads the success of poetry workshops to the decine of civility. It's like he was my mentor and I didn't even know it.
And then! And then he goes into his own early experiences squeezing poems out of the collegiate poetry factory, with Mr. Confessional Robert Lowell no less who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Lord Weary’s Castle. Ground zero for the whole enterprise at the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Levine didn’t go to Iowa in 1953 to study with John Berryman (not yet famous for his “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”) but to study with the famous Robert Lowell.
“To say I was disappointed in Lowell as a tacher is an understatement…a teacher who is visibly bored by his students and their poems is hard to admire. The students were a marvel: we were two future Pulitzer Prize winners, on Yale winner, one National Book Critics Circle Award winner, three Lamont Prize winners, one American Book Award winner.”
Wow. Taking down Robert Lowell of the great Boston Lowells, relative of famous poets Amy Lowell and James Russel Lowell in just two sentences! Who Lowell was contrasted with who "we" were. It’s like buttah!
And what an amazing workshop class it was: Donald Justice, W.D. Snodgrass (who would continue in the tradition of Robert Lowell confessional free verse), Jane Cooper, William Dickey….among others.
“Lowell was, if anything, considerably worse in the seminar; we expected him to misread our poesm—after all, most of them were confused and, with few exeptions, only partialy realized, but to see him bumbling in the face of ‘real poetry’ was discouraging.”
Levine then gives an example of Lowell misreading a Housman poem and continues with a final discomforting scene:
“His fierce competitiveness was also not pleasant to behold…he seemed to have little use for any practicing American poet….During the final workshop meeting he came very close to doing the unforgivable: he tried to overwhelm us with one of his own poems….someone, certainly not Lowell, had typed up three and a half single-spaced pages of heroic couplets on ditto masters so that each of us could hold his or her own smeared purple copy of his masterpiece. He intoned the poem in that enervated voice we’d all become used to….I sat stunned by the performance, but my horror swelled when several of my classmates leaped to praise every forced rhyme and obscure reference…No one suggested a single cut, not even when Lowell asked if the piece might be a trifle too extended, a bit soft in places. Perish the thought; it was a masterpiece. And thus the final class meeting passed with accolades for the one person present who scarcely needed praise and who certaininly had the intelligence and insight to know it for what it was: bootlicking.”
I love this man.
Levine goes on to contrast the experience of his next workshop teacher, John Berryman.
“To begin with, he did not play favorites: everyone who dared hand him a poem burdened with second-rate writing tasted his wrath, and that meant all of us. He never appeared bored in the writing class; to the contrary, he seemed more nervous in our presence than we in his.”
“We returned the next Monday to discover that Berryman had moved the class to a smaller and more intimate room containing one large seminar table around which we all sat.”
My favorite teacher did that too. That must have been a thing.
Levine describes how Berryman managed to weed out “unserious” students, “a contingent of hangers-on” until “all but the hard-core masochists had dropped.” And incredibly not only was Levine one of these masochists, he was too poor to pay for the class and was coming anyway. Berryman would joke about it to Levine when Levine tried to say there had been a mix-up with the registrar. “I was the only nonenrolled student attending, but so extraordinary were his performances that the news spread and by the time he gave his final Whitman lecture the room was jammed to the bursting point.”
It never occurred to me to sneak into classes I wasn’t registered for. Dagnabit.
Berryman taught them how to find “hot” areas of their poems and revise toward the heat, how to be ruthless and make radical revisions. “There are so many ways to ruin a poem,” Berryman said. Levine talks about how Donald Justice was the superstar of the class.
Berryman also was a scholar of Shakespeare and one day had the students all re-read The Tempest. “There is great poetry hiding where you least expect it,” Berryman said. “We must find our touchstones where we can.” Beautiful.
Levine is often sarcastically funny. When Berryman was extoling the virtues of Macbeth, how Shakespeare had less than two weeks to write the play and how Berryman said it “’took him no time at all to write it, and yet it would take half the computers in the world a year to trace the development of the imagery that a single human imagination created and displayed in a play of unrivaled power.’" Levine, a former auto factory worker, retorts, "So much for the School of Engineering.”
Berryman also put students in their place. He “made it clear, those who best understood prosody—Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Blake, Hopkins, Frost, Roethke—had better things to do than write handbooks for our guidance.”
Other great Berryman quotes:
“Speed, achieved by means of a complex syntax and radical enjambment.”
“Certain poets are so much themselves, they should not be imitated: they leave you no room to be yourself, and [Dylan] Thomas was surely one of them, as was Hart Crane, who probably ruined the careers of more young poets than anything except booze.”
“Better to learn from a poet who does not intoxicate you, better to immerse yourself in Hardy, whom no American wants to sound like.”
“Write everything that occurs to you; it’s the only way to discover where your voice will come from. And never be in a hurry. Writing poetry is not like running the four hundred meters.”
“’No poet worth his salt is going to be handsome; if he or she is beautiful there’s no need to create the beautiful. Beautiful people are special; they don’t experience life like the rest of us.’ He was obviously dead serious, and then he added, ‘Don’t worry about it, Levine, you’re ugly enough to be a great poet.’”
Levine also drops the bombshell that Snodgrass claimed Lowell discouraged his confessional poems instead of inspiring them.
Levine talked about how Lowell’s favoritisms divided his class into “hostile factions” whereas in Berryman’s class everyone in the class stayed friends and “took pride and joy in each other’s accomplishments…we were learning how much farther we could go together than we could singly, alone, unknown, unread in an America that had never much cared for poetry.”
This essay made me reflect on my own experience with the best teacher I ever had, Howard Schwartz. Later at Sarah Lawrence College when I was getting my MFA in one of the imfamous Creative Writing programs, Tom Lux confidently announced to us that in his workshop and classes we would get the closest reading of our lives. And to his credit, it was pretty close, but no cigar on the closest. That was in Howard Schwartz’s class. Lux would take us line by line, but Schwartz took us work by word like a poet mechanic. We’d spend ten minutes debating whether a title should be using the word “A” or the word “The” and it drove some students batty but I wouldn’t have changed a thing about any of the many classes I took with Howard Schwartz. He too was the just right combination of encouraging with no-bullshit tolerated. You had to have a tough skin or develop one. Some students couldn’t do it.
I'm going to order the full Levine suite toot suite!
This next article from the Suzanne Gardiner class at Sarah Lawrence was an interesting one, "1NK M4THM4T1CS, 4N 1NTRODUCT1ON TO L4NGU4GE POETRY by JOEL LEW1S" and it appeared in the magazine Poets & Writers in Sept/Oct 1990.
One of the interesting things about this old P&W article from 1990 is that it wasn’t wall-to-wall Writing MFA ads like it is these days. This article only has three: Washington University in St. Louis, Vermont College and Cleveland State University. Which seems like a lot but it's not. There are also ads for journal subscriptions, writing competitions and book publishers.
In this essay, Joel Lewis quotes Language poet Charles Bernstein to say Language poetry “does not involve turning language into a commodity for consumption; instead it involves repossessing the sign through close attention to, and active participation in, it’s production.”
Total sense, right?
Lewis traces what exactly Language poetry was reacting against starting with the New York School's opposition to the New Criticism of the 1950s, “the egocentric, single-image, quasi-romantic poem that dominates literary magazines.”
The irony here is that language poetry has come to dominate magazines and book prizes over the last few decades every bit as much as new criticism once did. And how strange it is that everyone is always reacting against literary magazines and most likely because their poems were not getting into them (which involves its own egocentricity). And then considering the very small readerships of literary magazines, it's quite amazing so many revolutionary poetries result.
“I look out my/window and I/am important” jokes scholar Robert J. Bertholf. Even the line breaks are true. Bertholf continues with the satire of the typical workshop instructor asking, "Has s/he earned this last line, class?”
You can see why someone would want to revolt.
Lewis says “it seems that mainstream poetry exists simply to justify an apparatus of writing grants, workshops, summer poetry camps, and magazines, rather than for any reading audience.”
Which is an interesting thing to say because I can tell you this: thirty years later Language poetry has done nothing to change that fact, but arguably made it worse.
There’s a fine line between art pieces that use words as visual material and experimental poems that do the same; and I feel language poems sometimes cross that line depending upon the intent of the poem. Lewis overtly states this when he says Clark Coolidge’s landmark 1970 book Space “turned the subject of poetry onto itself by treating words as solid objects, much in the way a painter uses a tube of oil paint—as material for making art.”
The intent of sense making by parataxis is a different intent that separating words entirely from any sense-making aim. And word as paint, wood or any kind of object steps away from poetry and becomes a physical object of art. I have the same issue with digital poetry that likewise doesn’t use words for any language-sense-making aim.
Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman (pictured above), Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andres and their journals from the 1970s and 1980s are discussed.
“Admittedly, a good deal of the poetry is difficult. It requires that the reader drop his or her notion of the poem as anecdote or self-revelation and accept it as a ‘living document of the author’s engagement with the reader and the world through language as the agent of shared thinking.’”
This reminds me of a very talented undergraduate poet I knew at University of Missouri-St. Louis named Diane Harvestmoon who once said she read Gertrude Stein like listening to rain falling. I finally got it and still believe her definition of language poetry was the best I've ever heard.
“This is not writing aimed at reaching the masses, but at that fierce and devoted group of believers who are already serious readers of poetry.”
Poet’s poets. Scientist’s scientists. There is a definite need in the world for pure experimentation away from any practical application. And sometimes, like unintended consequences from pure scientific experimentation, there are found practical benefits. These poets ask “’How does it make meaning?’ Rather than ‘What does it mean?’” This means these poems study the way we read poems, which is important but not for everybody. There are other neccessary goals for poetry. When anyone makes the statement that this is the new poetry and other poetries are done for, then we have a problem. When magazines and book prizes publish mostly language poetry, then we are leaving out other vital audiences and experiments.
I, myself, am interested in project-based language poetry which Lewis here calls “procedural investigations”like Ron Silliman’s using no verbs in his poem “Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps” or Ted Greenwald’s poem on one-word lines, “Makes Sense” or David Melnick’s poem using a “self-invented vocabulary list,” “PCOET” or Len Hejinian’s poem “My Life” which is almost autobiographical but in a mishmash scramble:
"…Why are these people writing to each other. It’s true that there are times when its embarrassing to have come from California. The late afternoon light, which my mother always referred to as “backlighting,” gentled the greens with blue and grey. I only want the facts. It’s o.k. to have pancakes for dinner.”
These writers are trying to get out of their own heads and Lewis says they are not interested in writing what they already think. He traces their influences to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louis Zukofsky, Gertrude Stein, Robert Creely, Charles Olson, John Ashbery, Larry Eigner, Francis Ponge, Paul Celan, Vladimir Khlebnikhov, early William Carlso Williams, 1960s cinema and art, the writings of earthworks artist Robert Smithson, minimalism, scientific, nonliterary vocabulary, Rolan Barthe’s writings about the death of the author and other ideas of post-structuralists. These poems reject new Criticism’s ideal of "representational language carrying meaning in a story or anecdote."
The problem with destabilizing authorship (which eventually results in destabilizing expertise and somehow humility) is the atmosphere of meaninglessness we are living in today, where everyone accuses their neighbors of fake news. To challenge reality is to destabilize it and there are political ramifications for that once the cat is out of the bag. To use a flawed piece of rhetorical language.
Like digitial poets, language poets have written a lot of criticism and theory. And Lewis admists “these critical writings are far more interesting than Language Poetry itself.” I’ve said as much about early digital poems. “Their works may become little more than fodder for numerous internalized academic debates. Will Language Poetry become part of the very institutions it opposes by providing yet another entrée on the menu of Modern Language Association (MLA) conventions.”
Yes and yes and yes.
Lewis also points out that Language Poetry “has generated a great amount of outright hostility….Poetry raders, at some level, are a society of believers….has faith in the rituals of the form: the conventional handling of metaphor, closure, and the narrative are not only accepted by expecte, and any desecration of the tabernacle of poetry often results in the cry of ‘philistine’ or anti-poetry.’”
There’s also a new accusation of white privilege made against language poets, that these poets exist in a safe harbor that permist the luxury of experimentation and play. Marginalized writers may feel pressed to keep trafficking in sense-making. No group is monolithic, however, and there are experimental black poets like Harryette Mullen. But many other poets from marginalized communities might feel they cannot afford to avoid the poetry of poltical witness in service of what Language Poetry critic Tom Clark calls “the usual disjointed, self-referential mucking about grammar.”
Because even these attempts to avoid the self somehow comes back upon the self and self-referenced process.
Ron Silliman admits this poetry “threatens established thinking” and so it now exists as threatened. We are now wringing our hands at the loss of rational thinking on social media and in govnerment. Instead of pushing readers to use their critical thinking skills more, people have given up figuring out the new quagmires and as a society we're all doing far less critical thinking.
So although I feel there is a need for this type of experimentation and I personally enjoy reading the results, the project’s goals have not been met…like...at all. I compare these language experiments to spending the last decade watching ghost-hunting reality shows. I really enjoy it; I always hope they’ll find proof of a ghost; but reviewing the results from ten years ago against shows of today we don’t have much to show for all of it. Does that mean we should stop trying to prove ghosts exist? I don’t think so. But we should have more humility and, like any good scientist, reconsider our hypotheses.
The artcile also includes some sample writings from Charles Bernstein which encapsulates language poetry's goals in a surprisingly sensical way:
“Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference,
it brings you to your senses.”
And this from Rae Armantrout
“Going to the Desert
is the old term
"landscape fo zeroes"
the glitter of edges
again catches the eye
to approach these swords!
lines across which
beings vanish / flare
the charmed verges of presence”
and this fragment from “Person” by Bob Perelman:
no matter how liberal the building codes
glass houses conceived in sin from day one
blizzards of chance down on the fountain of youth
all without a verb
because capitalism makes nouns
and burns connections.