Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Remembering Poets: Eileen Simpson on John Berryman & Charles Boer on Charles Olson

Memoirs about poets offer a particular kind of pleasure by affording a view of the actual person, in all of his or her neurotic quirks, the live human behind "the figure of the poet." The way these two aspects interact and are bound up with one another is endlessly fascinating. I’m thinking specifically about accounts of poets written either by non-poets, or former students. Though sometimes poets themselves are the best recorders of each other. I suppose the gold standard is Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Near the beginning of his account of the ill-starred Savage, he writes:

“To these mournful narratives I am about to add the "Life of Richard Savage," a man whose writings entitle him to an eminent rank in the classes of learning, and whose misfortunes claim a degree of compassion not always due to the unhappy, as they were often the consequences of the crimes of others rather than his own.” Edward Trelawny’s Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron is another exemplar. A somewhat ramshackle account of his brief associations with both poets, it has the gift of the gab. It entrances, even if much of it is made up out of whole cloth.

We could all make a list of our favorites, but the two that I’ve returned to most over the years have been Eileen Simpson’s Poets in Their Youth and Charles Boer’s Charles Olson in Connecticut. I must have read each of them three or four times.

Poets in Their Youth is sustained by a tone of consistent faith in youth's ardent aspirations and finely undercut by the melancholy of the failure and madness that often accompanies such Icarian passions. It's sensitively and lovingly written, a compulsively readable recollection by John Berryman’s first wife, the lovely and eloquent Eileen Simpson. Simpson is a sympathetic witness. She praises the beauty of these dashing young men, even while bemoaning their obsessive drive, their egotism, and their infidelities. Her account of young male poetic ambition at mid-century, when Eliot had become the unobtainable apex of cultural authority and everyone who mattered read The Nation, is exhilarating, but also cautionary. In the end, the totalizing ambition of these poets proves to be deranging; it pushes them all headlong into excess, betrayal, alcoholism and dementia. Still, it sparkles with the droll, mischievous wit that ran like an infection through these poets and critics. To give just one of many examples: "Out of the blue at a very proper dinner with people we didn't know very well, he'd [R.P. Blackmur] say in full voice [to Berryman] -- 'John, have you ever noticed that while many women have bottoms like cellos Eileen's is like a viola?'" And then these puckish "lads" would be off and running. Simpson was largely amused by such antics. But the narrative grows darker as Berryman sinks deeper into depression and booze, all of it leading up to his first masterpiece -- and their divorce -- "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet."

Charles Olson in Connecticut, by his former student, Charles Boer (notable, among other things, for his glorious Projectivist translations of The Homeric Hymns) paints a similar picture. This warm, vivid portrait of the utterly alive and charismatic Olson in his final year of life also shows how completely tyrannical and manipulative he was (or had become). He is the house guest from Hell, yet poor Boer, to his infinite credit, cannot at first bring himself to dislodge this friendly, all-consuming overbearing ogre. Olson had an insatiable appetite for conversation. Which generally meant, his holding forth on a wide array of esoteric topics until all hours of the night while the hapless Boer lay prostrate with exhaustion. The memoir uses a device that is notably effective. It's addressed to Olson himself, usually referenced as "you," as in "It was so hard for you to go bed before four or five in the morning..." This gives the book a vivid immediacy, as though we were overhearing a dialogue between author and subject. Olson drives Boer to despair, yet throughout it all he continues to love and revere this great preposterous bear of a man who wants nothing less than a total resurrection of the human spirit, here and now.

There are many priceless and touching moments of Olson being Olson in this book, but one that immensely amuses me, I don't even know why, is of Olson's queer nocturnal habits. As Boer tells it:

"That night, and for many nights to come, you took large amounts of the refrigerator's contents to bed with you -- everything from a jug of orange juice, a quart of ginger ale, candy, a head of lettuce to a box of crackers, cheese and hard-boiled eggs ... you dumped everything on the bed. I remember well ... hearing you in the next room furiously turning the pages of the books, munching vigorously on the lettuce ... it went on all night."

This stuff is priceless -- and heartbreaking.

Boer manages, finally, to get Olson installed in a local motel, where he immediately charms the entire staff in his best Lord of the Manor mode. It ends, all too soon, in death. Olson, stricken with liver cancer, aghast, yet valiantly struggling to the end to pierce the veil, to come to grips with the essence of myth, as recorded in his last piece of writing, the fascinating and almost incoherent “Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum.” Charles Stein has devoted an entire book to decrypting this esoteric text, written, as it were, from beyond the grave. Olson’s folly, I suppose, was that he tried to embody the archetypal truths of myth in his own psyche. But that way lies madness. One cannot traffic so openly with such dangerous godly energies.

This memoir of a poetic genius is still the most moving I have ever read. It shows how his extraordinary magnanimity of spirit is complexly bound up with a certain kind of self-delusion. Olson was a mixture of PT Barnum and Homer. A showman/barker decrying the real spiritual shipwreck and urging us to look outside the bounds of the quotidian for the mythic reality of real renewal. He was a grand and noble soul and at the same time, a bit of a bullshit artist. Maybe that’s what was needed – and still needed. The prophet speaks in tongues. It is up to us to decode it.

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.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Power of Negation in the American Novel

Now that the obnoxious new pseudo-documentary gilding Salinger’s woebegone lily is out, this seems apt enough, though I wrote it back in 2010.

When JD Salinger died, Adam Gopnik wrote a spirited, if rather glibly positivist, apologia for his place in American literature in The New Yorker’s "Talk of the Town" section. Singling out Catcher in the Rye in particular, he elected it to a troika of American letters, setting it alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. For Gopnik, evidently, the symmetry of this grouping is non-pareil. Each novel presents the struggle of the man-child to come of age which, of course, means learning what it means to be disillusioned. As with the man, so the Republic? Twain and Fitzgerald get no real argument from me, but Salinger has always seemed grotesquely over-rated; a minor satirist masquerading as Dostoevsky.

If I had my druthers – and in this blog, I do, reader – I would nominate an alternate troika: a darker, more perturbed vision of the loss of innocence. Moby Dick, Nightwood, and On The Road. In place of narratives of guileless innocence corrupted or betrayed by experience, I would substitute tales of darkness and perverse desires for deranged orders of transcendence. Of baroque language over so-called plain speaking. Of the radical abundance and darkness of experience over the paucity of disappointed affirmation. Each of these works places a premium on the power of negation in a way that Gopnik’s bland choices do not.

As Adorno insists, “Art is true to the extent to which it is discordant and antagonistic in its language and in its whole essence, provided that it synthesizes those diremptions, thus making them determinate in their irreconcilability. Its paradoxical task is to attest to the lack of concord while at the same time working to abolish discordance.”