What C.K. Williams thinks about you
From the December issue of The Writer’s Chronicle
Christian Teresi interviewing C.K. Williams
This struck me as an interesting exchange, for what it’s assuming about what’s going on in the arts these days.
Teresi: The poet Dana Levin, in the March/April 2006 issue of the American Poetry Review, contended that “many of the books published by younger since the late ’90s [offer] much to delight the eye and tease the palate,” but ultimately, “such books promise sensational tastes that in the end amount to light confections.” Levin goes on to say what she can and often does “admire about such poems—lingual beauty—doesn’t linger long after turning the page.” She blames the problem on a number of things, chief among them being the desire of “poets of her generation” to get away from confessionalism and the “cultural preoccupation” with modernism and the avant-garde. Levin then discusses how young poets have lost a sense of what Pound really meant when he said, “Make it new,” because, among other reasons, “the label ‘experimental’ can also offer young poets a forgiving brand for weaker work.” I was wondering what you thought of Levin’s assertion? How do you perceive the current efforts of younger poets?
[Before Williams answers, I’d like to add a couple things. In quoting Levin, Teresi is both making a very large claim about all young writers (which is an unwieldy concept) while at the same time distancing himself from it. It’s an interesting idea, but as I chase it, it falls apart. Who are these young poets? Who are they really? Name them. Are you one of them? Am I? If I try to name them, I find myself disagreeing with the specific assertion. Or, on the other hand, I find myself agreeing with it in the way that I would agree with it applied to any other generation as well. It could just as well be a blanket description of the vast majority of what’s ever been published. But, that said, here’s where Williams takes it.]
Williams: There are certainly a number of younger poets I admire, poets trying to find new directions for themselves, new sounds, new ways of assembling experience, often in wonderfully jagged ways. If I have noticed a tendency in some of the work by younger poets I don’t find as satisfying, it’s that often they seem to rely on a kind of existential irony, a mistrust of the possibility of creating meaning in the world, and a consequent resort to a wry juxtaposition of apparently irreconcilable elements of experience. It ends up embodying a world that seems to have a variant of surrealism as its epistemological first principle. Part of this surely has to do with the fact that so much of our world seems to be at risk these days, from our environment to our economic stability, and that kind of forced insouciance very well may be an appropriate response, but I do have trouble taking to heart the poems that come out of it. But who can really say? I’ve become very conscious lately of the fact that what I think and value is almost irrevocably determined by my own historical experience. You can’t stay open to everything, any single mind can only contain so much, and it may well be that I’m just not competent to judge objectively what people thirty or forty years younger than I am are doing.
What an interesting exchange. First, I’m interested in how correct might be the assumptions regarding the period style of “younger poets.” What is the percentage of poetry being produced that might be described in this way? This, for me at least, is a real question. I certainly know who they’re talking about, I think. They’re thinking about anyone associated with Wave books, right? Anyone who gets called elliptical or post-Avant? I guess? And if so, I think they’re shooting a little wildly. But even if they’re not, even if it’s just a matter of generation and taste as Williams says, I doubt that this is anywhere near 50% of the poetry published every years. I mean, there are plenty of poets who don’t write like that, and their names come just as readily.
So are they talking about you? Are they talking about me? And if so, what do you think about this assessment of your/my/our historical stance:
“. . . they seem to rely on a kind of existential irony, a mistrust of the possibility of creating meaning in the world, and a consequent resort to a wry juxtaposition of apparently irreconcilable elements of experience. It ends up embodying a world that seems to have a variant of surrealism as its epistemological first principle. Part of this surely has to do with the fact that so much of our world seems to be at risk these days, from our environment to our economic stability, and that kind of forced insouciance very well may be an appropriate response, but I do have trouble taking to heart the poems that come out of it.”
The part I have the most difficulty with is this idea of the “forced insouciance” these poets are said to rely upon. That’s not a word combination I would have thought of. Is it an accurate assessment of a tendency in American poetry? I’m sure it could be leveled at a few poets . . . but then similar things could be said about poets writing in the style of C.K. Williams, right? That elegiac lifting of the self into a kind of forced insouciance . . . ?
I don’t necessarily believe that, but it’s such an interesting finger being pointed at a whole slew of poets. I feel like painting a flower on it.