Thursday, May 21, 2015

The kerfuffle over Vanessa Place’s Gone with the Wind tweets & Kenneth Goldsmith’s “performance” of Michael Brown’s autopsy is raising important & uncomfortable questions throughout the US poetry scene.  Maybe I should say “important because uncomfortable,” since the relation here is at least partly causal and entirely deliberate. To date, the best account & analysis I have found of this knotted circumstance comes from one John K on J’s Theater, one of two blogs he authors devoted to new tendencies in the arts. I seriously recommend that you read his post of 18 May. 

What I’m interested in here[i] is less in the sins, real or imagined, of Goldsmith & Place than in what the brouhaha itself tells us about changes that are taking place in the field of poetry more broadly. I am less concerned, for example, in the limitations of conceptual poetics than in what those limits might tell us also about this process. Because I think we are being offered some starkly useful indicators of changes that are occurring, and that will continue to occur going forward, that should have profound consequences over what gets seen and understood as poetry, its history and its potential.

Partly I am motivated here by echoes I have felt in this whole recent discussion of some of my own missteps in the past concerning these same dynamics over race, poetry, reading and canonicity. I learned some  lessons in the process that I felt were valuable, and that it might be useful to examine some of their implications here. 

I grew up as a poet in the latter half of the 1960s, a period in which the debate over poetry was very simply being cast as an alternative between the “cooked” poetics of the literary heirs of New Criticism (Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Wright, Stafford, Wilbur et al) and the supposedly “raw” poetics of the New American Poetry as articulated in Donald M Allen’s anthology of that name. Both choices were in fact false, which is to say historically and politically motivated by the various individuals advancing them, but there was no way for even the most enterprising student of poetry to grasp this at that time, save possibly as a disquieting sense of unease at the pit of one’s stomach, a nagging sensation that something here just doesn’t add up.

The New American Poetry, after all, was a volume that included exactly one person of color among its 44 contributors, and just four women. That literally was the world of expectation I was led to anticipate as a student. The cooked world was, if anything, whiter and if not more openly homophobic at least more closeted, albeit a smidgeon less misogynist. The women it held up – Elizabeth Bishop, Ann Sexton, Sylvia Plath – were themselves an object lesson in self-destructive behaviors that maybe suggested that no sane woman need apply.

The poetry that I and my cohort created in the 1970s understood this as the landscape we were then critiquing. What we didn’t fully understand – or at least I didn’t – was the degree to which these choices themselves occluded far more complicated histories. The revolution in poetry in the 1950s that began, depending on your taste, either with Howl and the reading of the Six Gallery in San Francisco, with Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay even earlier in Poetry New York, or with John Ashbery’s poem “Europe,” seemed revolutionary precisely because of the very large gap between the New Americans and their predecessors among the high modernists, most notably Ezra Pound & William Carlos Williams. A generation of later modernists, starting with Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Neidecker and the other so-called Objectivists were all but invisible until the very end of the 1950s. Perhaps as importantly, later modernists who were either more ambivalent about the Objectivist project than the notoriously eye-rolling Objectivists themselves, such as David Schubert, Edwin Denby or Kenneth Rexroth, and most especially Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, formed no intelligible alternative to the cooked poetics of the 1940s.

But – and this remains the most completely untold major story in the history of American poetry – the cooked poetry of the 1950s onward had very little in common with its predecessor poetry of, say, 1940. It is one thing to notice that the impact of the New Americans and the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s generally caused most of the acolytes of Robert Lowell to abandon rhymed verse – Bly, Merwin, Wright, Rich, Hall all fit this scenario – in favor of a looser conservative tradition, one that looked beyond England for European roots and traditions to feel traditional toward. But it is another to notice that the New Critical tendency that favored the closed poetics of late-‘40s/early-‘50s Boston-Amherst-Stanford-Kenyon cluster was profoundly different from the Yale-dominated “traditional” poetry of the period leading into the Second World War. Even Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 misses this.

During the period between 1941 & 1945, there were just four American poetry prizes of any consequence – the Levinson Prize at Poetry, the Pulitzer, the Yale Younger Poets and the Hopwood Prize at Michigan, given only to students of that school. Three of the five Pulitzers during that period went to Yale grads, two of whom were brothers, one of whom single-handedly controlled the Yale award. When Yale editor Stephen Vincent Benét died in New York of a heart attack in 1943, he was replaced – after a year in which no award was given – by the outgoing Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, both a Yalie like the Benéts and the 1941 Levinson winner. 

Hard as it might be to imagine John Brown’s Body as ground zero for the American poetic establishment, the Benét brothers interest in institutional power enabled them to consolidate it to a degree that was never matched, say, by Robert Lowell in the 1950s or ‘60s. As late as 1953, it was performed on Broadway by Tyrone Power, Judith Anderson & Raymond Massey under the direction of Charles Laughton and was listed by Life Magazine as one of the 100 “outstanding books” of the period 1924 – 1944. 

Benét’s verse is metrically simple and thematically earnest whereas the New Critics had a vested interest in promoting themselves and their students as specialized readers trained to deal with more nuanced writing on the one hand while simultaneously opposing the very real complexities of actually existing modernism. Hybrid poets, such as Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore, muddied the picture somewhat while enabling New Critics to appear open to modernist difficulty if done tastefully. Benét’s early demise had something of the impact one would recognize from the deaths of Frank O’Hara or Sylvia Plath 20 years later, but with the notable difference that the New Critics quickly erased his presence from their presentations of the canon. By 1960, Benét had become less visible than an airbrushed buddy of old Joe Stalin. Indeed it’s difficult to find him in the conventionalist anthologies of the 1950s. 

One might make the argument that the Southern Agrarians may even have had a racial agenda in subtracting John Brown’s Body from the canon, but the more direct motive would have been to put their favored works forward. We should remember that the Pulitzer did not go to Stevens or Moore until the 1950s after one had been awarded to Gwendolyn Brooks, and that Williams did not receive one until after The New American Poetry had appeared in print, seven years after the reading of Howl at the Six Gallery. Benét, 15 years younger than Williams, won his third Pulitzer posthumously in 1944. 

My point is that the poetic landscape my generation was brought up into in the 1960s was itself a recent (re)construction [and, indeed, one of the causes for the success of The New American Poetry as an intervention may well have been that the “old” tradition had hardly had any time to see its then-current configuration harden into received wisdom]. When I edited In the American Tree in 1981-2, there may well have been a certain smugness that the percentage of women included among that gathering of language poets had risen from the 9% in the Allen anthology to a quarter of our generation’s representation, but certainly our stats on race were not one bit better than Donald Allen’s. Nor did I ask myself yet – although I believe the women in the community did – why I thought 25% representation was “good,” let alone good enough.

Certainly I could have fudged the numbers. In editing the Tree, I used a number of formal criteria – who appeared in which presses and which journals, had been a US resident­, and was not thoroughly identified with a prior poetics community. I skirted the question with Jackson Mac Low by including him solely in the critical section and thought at the time I was editing the book that the questionable inclusions were Bernadette Mayer and Clark Coolidge, both of whom could easily have been seen as third generation New York School. My counterargument at the time (and even today) was that you could not talk intelligibly about language writing with talking about their work and influence. There were, however, three poets who fit my definitions whom I did not include, David Gitin and Curtis Faville, both of whom at that point had stopped publishing poetry, and Abigail Child, whom I read at the time as a filmmaker interested in poetry. In the case of Abigail Child, I was – as I’ve noted before – utterly wrong. 

I doubt that many, if any, readers would have objected if I had loosened my selection criteria just a smidge to include, say, Lorenzo Thomas and/or Nathaniel Mackey. Or for that matter Steve McCaffery or Joan Retallack, other poets who were definitely in the orbit of what was then happening with the new in writing, or with poets such as Leslie Scalapino or Beverly Dahlen or Jerry Estrin, who in the 1970s presented themselves not as language writers but as critics of language writing. There are, in short, a number of ways that the 44 poets of In the American Tree could have been expanded perhaps as high as 60 in ways that might have increased the gender and racial diversity of the project. 

My argument at the time was that I could have fudged it, yes, but that I was more interested in having a project that was historically representative of the real rather than some ideal, particularly as no one had appointed me to be the keeper of the ideal. This was the same sort of reasoning that David Melnick and I had used in putting together a selection of influential Bay Area writing in 1970 for the Chicago Review that included Al Young and excluded both Rae Armantrout and Robert Grenier. As it was, the harshest criticism I got at the time of Tree was for the inclusion of Tom Beckett, since many of the poets included felt that face-to-face interaction and influence was key to their understanding of the larger project and Tom’s geographic distance precluded that. I had in that sense violated what they took to be an unwritten, but nonetheless real, rule. 

All of which is a lead-up to my very real misstep on this subject in the 1980s when I was editing The Socialist Review and included a selection of younger progressive poets. I commented at the time that writers of color tended to be under-represented among avant- and post-avant poetries in part because of the push-pull of reader expectations on the part of communities that have been too often only the objects and never the subjects of history (which I take as a dynamic definitely motivating some if not all of the complaints now concerning Goldsmith and Place). I don’t think that statement at the time was particularly wrong – I’ve heard award-winning African American poets say largely the same thing just in the last year – but I believe I was writing then as if the 1970s configuration represented by In the American Tree was still the case even one decade later. And on that point Leslie Scalapino called my bluff. This led to a complex discussion that you can read at its fullest in the digital archives to Poetics Journal. 

This I think is at least partly the problem faced by Goldsmith and Place. I take both of their projects as good-faith attempts to bring up and critique racism, acts of solidarity with people of color however unsuccessful these acts might be. But both acts make presumptions about the nature of the field – poetics – that are visibly obsolete. They are acting as if the canons and established terrains of American writing primarily are white. In 2015 that’s a crazy notion, as silly as imagining John Brown’s Body might be the apotheosis of American poetry. Even Lindsey Graham knows that the US will be a “minority majority” nation within this century. The entire notion of the Republican party at this junction of American history is one of postponing the political consequences of that demographic shift as long as possible. But in the world of poetry, where women (for example) already have noticed that writing is profoundly a minority majority phenomenon already (and has been for a very long time), this dog – as Graham might say – won’t hunt. 

What I hear the Mongrel Coalition and their allies saying is that the old canon competition betwixt the raw & the cooked is thoroughly over, and in this there is no doubt that they are completely right. The world when Steven Vincent Benét died in 1943 was one in which less than 100 titles of poetry were being published in the US, and in which the number of active American poets was somewhere around 2,000 at the absolute max. Today that number has climbed to some 4,000 titles per year (much more if online PDF files are added in) and the number of active poets is at minimum ten times that. Some of this can be ascribed to the MFA-ification of American poetry since the creation of the GI Bill and expansion of higher education that began after the Second World War, so that today participation in AWP overwhelms that in the MLA. But an important side-effect of this massive democratization of poetics has been that the barriers to participation by people of color have lowered. The number of American poets of color who won the Pulitzer for poetry in the 37 years between Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove was exactly zero. The first decade in which it happened twice was the 1990s. Half of the poets to receive the award in this decade have been people of color. 

It doesn’t matter if you don’t care for this or that poet, it’s the world itself that is different and it’s getting differenter every day. I’m old enough to remember when Michael Jackson broke the color barrier on MTV. Actually, I’m old enough to remember Rochester on the Jack Benny Show and even Amos and Andy. Enter Cookie, as the stage directions say on Empire, a television program that seems predicated on showing off just how much great acting talent is presently being underutilized in the African-American community.

We are still getting criticism that acts, a la Goldsmith & Place, as if the debate in American poetry continues to be between Robert Lowell & Robert Creeley. In a world in which Harmony Holiday, Claudia Rankine & M NourbeSe Philip are possible, why would you even bother? What we do need, and what I don’t see yet, is somebody, anybody, precisely who can tell me what this new world is going to look like, in part by reading its version of a canon, one that includes Norm Pritchard & Steve Jonas & Pat Parker, as well as Mytili Jagannathan, Linh Dinh, Chus Pato & Heriberto Yepez. I can’t write this because I’m someone who should be reading it, but I am – to quote My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (a project that anticipates Goldsmith & Place in more ways than it should) – waiting for an answer….

[i] Here, in this instance, being in Northern California redwoods, housing-sitting a pair of the most civilized puppies I’ve ever met while their owners are in Salerno preparing for a global conference intended to deepen and further spread the work of 100,000 Poets for Change.