Charles River

Charles River
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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Wages of Taxonomy

I’ve been reading Robert von Hallberg’s masterful “book,” Poetry, Politics, and Intellectuals¸ which appeared as the first part of Volume 8 in The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and Criticism, 1940-1995 (1996), edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. I place book in quotation marks since it’s not a stand-alone volume and can only be read by those with access to university libraries. I downloaded mine for free through Harvard and have printed out the entire thing. Yet while at 259 pages on type-set single sheets it would only make for a short book of only 130 pages or so, it’s nevertheless a full-scale work of sweeping literary history, encompassing and thoughtfully argued.

It’s rare that a work of this kind should be not only so eminently and pleasurably readable, but that its judgments and assessments of postwar American poetry over nearly six decades should also be so judicious and free of partisan axe-grinding. (It's a shame it's not more widely available, but cooped up in the vaults of the library). Not that Von Hallberg doesn’t occasionally reveal a glimpse of his own aesthetic and ideological biases and preferences. But overall his tone is remarkably free of cant even when his judgments of say, Charles Olson’s “Le Preface” (which he simultaneously derides and praises) are severe. Though I’m reading the chapters out of order (in typical fashion) and have so far only read “Avant Gardes” and “The Place of Poetry, 1995,” I don’t feel I’d be amiss in claiming that this is literary history at its best.

In the final chapter, Von Hallberg recalls that for Frank Lentricchia it was enough to name four poets as the most representative of the period from 1900-1945. Though he doesn’t elaborate, he’s referring to Modernist Quartet, a study of Frost, Stevens, Eliot and Pound (a version of which appeared in an earlier volume of the Cambridge series). It would be, he notes, much more difficult to settle on four similarly representative poets from 1945-1995. Historical conditions have changed significantly and the cultural dominants of the first half of the 20th Century have been superseded by numerous emergent trends, many of which have established their own dominance. The map of poetry is simply more diverse now and more complex.

(The real problem, here, is that it was already diverse then. Where is Stein,or HD, or Moore?)

But if one were foolish enough to try forming such a list, what would it look like? First of all, the numbers of poets would have to be expanded from four to six as an acknowledgement that the accomplishments of American poets can no longer be adequately described by the arbitrary but appealing smaller even number. One can contend of course that such lists themselves are clumsy tools for the work of literary history, that they tend to re-enforce existing hierarchies and hegemonies, that they are nowhere near subtle or flexible enough to map the territory. But just as Jameson claims that we can never not periodize, perhaps literary historians can never not make lists. They serve a specific set of needs both psychological and cultural. The logic of the list is that it organizes and makes stable a certain set of trends and developments, ideally enabling us to see them more clearly.

So who would the six most representative poets from 1945-2000 be? By representative I mean not the best, not those who have produced the most brilliant or enduring work, but those who have been the most influential, whose cultural impact has been felt more widely and lastingly than others.

A first provisional List of Six might look like this:

Charles Olson
John Ashbery
Amiri Baraka
Adrienne Rich
Jorie Graham
Charles Bernstein

This list gets at something, but it leaves out something too. It’s a more difficult business than I thought. While I feel confident about the first four names on the list since they’ve each acquired a sizeable body of settled opinion, and since each conveniently represents a major trend or school, I'm troubled by the fact that there’s no Robert Lowell here. So mark a spot for him. At the same time, when one gets to around 1980, the task becomes harder. Graham seems to deserve a spot if only because of her immensely influential stewardship of several generations of poets at Iowa. Yet I could make an equally strong case for Anne Waldman, whose program at Naropa has nurtured a whole left-hand counter-tradition that runs parallel to yet outside of the lines drawn by Graham. Bernstein is here, not because he’s a great poet (though he's wonderful and his provocations in essay form have done as much, if not more, to reshape the poetic landscape) but because his tenure at first Buffalo then Penn has likewise shaped two or three decade’s worth of poet-critics.

This tension between "greatness," however measured, versus the range of influence, which is more easily demonstrated, goes to the heart of the vexed question plaguing efforts at recent literary history. Olson, Ashbery, Baraka, and Rich all answer to major movements: Olson, for the post-Poundian New American Poetry, Ashbery for the incursion of European surrealism with postwar New York; Baraka for a second, more politically radical Harlem Renaissance; and Rich for a similar forceful resurgence of feminism. Lowell occupies an odd middle-ground. His swerve, in the late 50s, from the Eliot-Tate-Ransom brand of Catholic modernism to Williams' wide-open secular poetics has defined what we've come to think of as the mainstream.

Graham and Bernstein belong on this list, I would argue, because they are the most prominent heirs and proslytizers of modernism, via their respective positions at Iowa and Buffalo. Graham carries forward the metaphysical densities and aspirations of Eliot; Bernstein, the ludic play of Stein and Zukofsky. The former invests in metaphor, the latter in metonymy, and I wonder really if this isn't all that marks the divide, finally, between the so-called mainstream and the so-called avant-garde.

Part of the difficulty in forming a representative taxonomy is due to the broader changes in academic institutions that have taken place since 1945. I mean, of course, the professionalization of poetry. Von Hallberg addresses this in light of Joseph Epstein’s observations in his 1988 essay, “Who Killed Poetry?” This is old news, but it’s still relevant. It’s hard to disagree with Von Hallberg’s conclusion: “many undistinguished writers manage now to earn their living teaching in creative writing programs of colleges and universities.” (Here I silently grind my teeth as I think on mediocre writers who beat me out for jobs).

When columnists decry, as they do with calendrical regularity, what happened to poetry? what they are really lamenting is the alleged grab-up of poetry by the cult of experts (i.e the New Critics, and then the rest of us), which is itself a phenomenon that can only be understood in terms of the Cold War’s bogus economy of meritocracy. Poetry, according to this account, was whisked away from a hungry public (say who?) and embalmed within the groves of academe, where it sheltered behind walls of esoteric jargon and elitist ambition. All of this has been debated to death for some years now, with much anguished hand-wringing and elegies for the fall of poetry.

This process can be summed up in a word: “gate-keeping.” None of Lentricchia’s poets ever held an academic position, with the irregular exception of Frost, who was the nation’s first poet-in-residence at Amherst, but seems not to have wielded any larger influence beyond having the library named after him. Of course, Pound aspired to being the ultimate gatekeeper, even as Eliot actually achieved it, while Stevens remained indifferent to such crass ambitions.

But has gate-keeping gotten a bad rap? Can’t a gate-keeper also be a gate-opener? Certainly both Graham and Bernstein have lived up to the cultural demands of this role, in their respective aesthetic spheres of influence. The problem is that these spheres are always already determined by the iron logic of the institution. And that logic, vestigial though it is, has been dictated by Cold War strategy: in a word, containment. Whether from Iowa or Buffalo. Both are subducted into the State which funds them, no matter how they may rail or protest or transgress. This is a problem poets have yet to address successfully.

All lists are unsatisfying. They rely on a scale of hierarchies. On what are finally crude distinctions of inside and outside/us vs. them. To give one simple example: where are the visionary poets in my schemata? Where is Duncan? Or Lamantia? Or Mackey? Or Anne Waldman? Or Jay Wright? But these practitioners of trance, political or erotic, are simply not mappable onto the culture-at-large. Which is just as it should be. In the end, lists are a form of hysteria, as DeLillo says. They don’t merely try to settle the past, but the future as well. They are predictions of the impossible.

As scholars, we cannot not make lists. But as poets, we should just ignore them and get on with it. Unfortunately, when one is both a poet and a scholar it’s not quite as simple as that, and that is big part of the problem of what’s happened to poetry.

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