Thursday, August 30, 2012

31 New American Poets

The news that stays news.

Another view of new American poets. 

31 New American Poets

Jack Anderson

G Bishop-Dubjinsky

Besmilr Brigham

Victor Contoski

Gail Dusenbery

Dave Etter

Gene Fowler

Dan Georgakas

John Gill

John Haines

Phyllis Harris

Jim Harrison

Robert Hershon

William M. Hoffman

Emmett Jarrett

Sister Mary Norbert Körte

Robert Lax

Ethel Livingston

Dick Lourie

Clive Matson

Jason Miller

Doug Palmer

Marge Piercy

Alex Raybin

Joel Sloman

Lynn Strongin

John Unterecker

John Stevens Wade

Nancy Willard

Keith Wilson

Jay Wright

Anthologies are always an argument.  This was Ron Schreiber’s argument, published in 1969, with an introduction by Denise Levertov.  Schreiber left out, which might have changed the longevity of this anthology, poets from Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and Robert Kelly’s A Controversy of Poets, because he wanted to bring newer poets into the mix.  By and large, his argument didn’t go far, but this anthology did bring John Anderson, John Haines, Jim Harrison, Marge Piercy, Nancy Willard, and Jay Wright to the conversation, and they stayed around awhile.  What’s interesting, with these six, is that he was pitching this as something of an outsider, experimental anthology, and the writers that lasted from it are not remembered now as experimental poets.  That’s six from 31, though.  Time is hard on anthologies. 

He writes of these poets as writers of “Direct Verse”:

“What is happening with direct verse is a continual discovery of new forms.  And new forms are important because the form of a poem is the vehicle for its content.  As forms expand, so does the vision of poets.  . . . .

Well, the poets here are worth listening to, not just for the ways they sound but because they see clearly.  . . . .  and all have found those places where the spirit can exult on rage.”

Here are a couple interesting poems, to give you a feel for the aesthetic position:

Victor Contoski

I love people
she said
from a distance. 

Everything in perspective. 

Look over there toward the horizon. 

No, no.  More to your left. 
Right where I’m pointing. 

See it now,
that black dot in the landscape? 

my love. 


‘In the most lightsome darkness’
Sister Mary Norbert Körte

How I would be some night-creature of God
who moves contained in his
quiet          from mulberry to privet
with little hesitation
                             the stumble alien to his feet
his swift going sure in
                    circle, pace, and halt
the step slow as need summons

He knows, this shuttered being
without learning          he culls his black
hours          presses them well
                                                  to hunt
to find his seeking

How I would be some night-creature of God

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Michael Benedikt Project

I’m in the accumulation phase of a most excellent project.  With the poet and editor, Laura Boss, I’m putting together a selected poems of Michael Benedikt.  Michael Benedikt was the author of five collections of poetry published between 1968 and 1980, as well as several important anthologies on prose poetry, Surrealism, and plays.  At the time of his death, in 2007, he also had quite a lot of unpublished work that Laura Boss saved from being tossed into a dumpster.  When I heard that, I knew this project had to happen. 

Here's a bit from his statement in connection with his apparance in The Young American Poets (1969), to give you a feel for where he was coming from:

"A condition in which all possibilities are open, offering the widest range of choice, including the choice of not choosing at all - not writing, I mean - strikes me as a very spiritual condition. I want poetry to be a way of both creating and experiencing.  I want my own poetry, increasingly, to contain a maximum of spiritual information."

I posted this on facebook last week, and now I’m posting it here.  My thought is the more I mention it publicly, the greater the chance of it getting done.  It’s going to be a lot of work.  All of the poetry of Benedikt’s is in hard copies only.  There’s going to be photocopying, cataloging, and putting it into electronic format.  There’s going to be reading and selecting (from among undated versions, possibly, as well).  And finally (or at some point in this process) the proposals to publishers. 

If anyone reading this has a favorite Michael Benedikt poem that they hope is included, and/or if anyone reading this knows of a publisher that might be interested, feel free to comment or to email me at jjgallaher at hotmail dot com. 

I’ve come across a lot of goodwill toward Benedikt already (as person, editor, and poet) as I’ve mentioned it to people, and I’m hoping that crowd-sourcing will make this a fun adventure.  Thanks already to Don Share for directing me toward Laura Boss, and to Nick Courtright for finding her email address.  And to many others for notes of encouragement.  Thank you all so far.  I’ll probably be asking many questions over the next few months. 

Here’s a poem from his first book, The Body, that I hope will make people who don’t know his work curious, and begin to help push to get this book completed:


Nothing is going to get elucidated any more around here, we rely
On the natural course of events to explain itself;
And the way we are leaning forward, shading our ears and cupping our eyes
And the blank looks on our faces
Tell us not what we need to know, but only
Who it is that is looking and listening

The bathroom mirror is revealed as the site of revelation
At 11:35 p.m., on the last Friday of October, 1967, its truth is told
The truth of the bathroom mirror with its toothbrushholder, its fingermarked waterglasses, the twisted toothpaste tube, the false eyelashes and the razor
Revelation revelation
Revelation of the thing we have always been closest to. 
Now, without our having to ask it to, it shows us all the depth of the things we have known and loved the best

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey

I’m enjoying the new book by Mary Ruefle, titled Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures.  It’s from Wave Books.  Here’s a snippet of one of the chapters to give you a feel for it:

from On Theme

The call for poems is astounding.  Anthologies want poems from you and they want poems from me.  This is only a partial listing of some of the themes that are in demand, like certain toys at Christmas, and this is not invented by me for my own purposes of persuasion, but extracted verbatim: AIDS, California expatriates, quilts, victims of child abuse, dogs, automobiles, sailing, incest, condoms, those who have known and loved African American men who have been incarcerated, childbirth, spiritual experiences among lesbians, New Jersey, poems by women in response to poems by men, and, my favorite, a call for poems for the “Unique Anthology”—they  want “any theme, but especially interested in Sweet Revenge, Fish Out of Water, Narrow Escape, Reversal of Fortune.”

Something is terribly, terribly, terribly wrong here.  Isn’t AIDS trivialized by being on this list?  Isn’t childbirth?  African American men who have been incarcerated?  Aren’t dogs?  Isn’t sailing?  What’s being trivialized here is poetry.  When the New Critics emphasized “reading as thematizing” little did they know to what extent their thrust would be extrapolated by poets in the twenty-first century.  Although the dictionaries define theme as subject or topic, the new critical definition of theme—and I take this from a glossary of literary terms continuously in print from 1941 to 1971—and now out of print—is that theme is “the basic idea or attitude behind a work.”  The key word here, I think, is behind, because to an ironist—and all postmoderns are ironists—there is no behind.  Of course Shakespeare was an ironist, since Timon of Athens lifts the silver lid off the banquet platter and—lo and behold—nothing’s there, and Melville was an ironist, since he wrote: “By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and no body is there!”  Today we mine many poems with similar results—the themes on the surface pass as admirably deep embodiments of the human condition, but once we get inside we discover something worse than nothing: we discover a mess of wires, we discover the android that theme has become.  Is it any surprise to discover that poets themselves are becoming androids?

Androids are supposed to imitate human beings.  The best thing about the best androids is that they are indistinguishable from human beings.  When a poet is said to imitate his or her self it implies that his or her signature—a repeated, recognizable style—has grown too familiar; the instantly recognizable personality is not a personality, it is a commodified cult.  Having such a thought, one is seized with a gripping fear: Is this going to happen to me?  Has this already happened to me?  Young poets are always talking about voice: Do I have a voice?  How can I get a voice?  What is a voice?  How long will getting a voice take?  And then, voila: Now that I have a voice, I am terribly depressed by my voice, having a voice has kinda made me a robot, hasn’t it?  The fear is amplified not out of personal paranoia but out of a collective one: we live in a culture where no one can escape being instantly recognizable.  No purdah for us!  In a culture based on the proliferation of choice, even one’s outward appearance, whether or not you are conscious of it, whether or not you care, is interpreted by the public as a decision.  Please do not misunderstand me: you may not have had a choice, but the public is going to assume you made one.  The political implications of this are many, and would be best discussed by a political, which I am not.  What I am equipped to discuss is Polartec.  I recently acquired my first article of clothing made out of Polartec.  I like the fabric for its texture, that it’s soft, warm, light, and washable.  But to me it carries with it connotations of an outdoorsy, athletic lifestyle—since it was originally developed for these activities—and I am not an outdoorsy, athletic type, because I believe, stupidly, that this will disenhance whatever intellectual qualities I may possess.  I choose not to be associated with L.L. Bean, the clothing manufacturer whose first appearance in American poetry was, by the way, in a poem by Robert Lowell.  So I found myself in a quandary I finally resolved by choosing a bathrobe made out of Polartec; I could enjoy the qualities of the fabric I liked without having to be seen wearing it in public.  While wearing my new robe I was given a copy of the October 2, 1995, New Yorker—a magazine I refuse to subscribe to but secretly read—and there, in an article by Susan Orlean on the difficulty of dressing in a seasonless urban society, exacerbated by temperature control in the forms of air-conditioning and central heating, was my synthetic bathrobe and the synthetic person wearing it:

Take polar fleece for instance.  Polar fleece is a plush, spongy, totally artificial material that weighs nothing and conveys no quality of warmth or coolness; in fact, you can wear it in the most bitter weather or in the hottest heat.  Polar fleece looks neither flimsy and light nor hearty and warm.  It has no historical, cultural, or physical association with a place, a season, a society, or any living thing.  It is the first existential fabric—eminently useful, meaningless, dissociated and weird. 

My god, I thought, it could be Dean Young talking about poetry!  I recognized the same themes everywhere, as they overlapped and cross-referenced themselves ad nauseam. 

[. . .]

Everyone is self-conscious of having a signature; so what if there aren’t an infinite number of hard-won styles; the next best thing is to join the camp closest to you. . . .  I’m lucky enough to occasionally be able to do something I love—write poems—and unlucky enough that what I love confuses and overwhelmes me. 

[ . . . ]

Louise Bogan, in 1969, nearing the end of her life, after reviewing poetry for the New Yorker for thirty-eight years . . . . wrote in confidence to a friend, “But really . . . I’ve had it.  No more pronouncements on lousy verse. . . .  No more struggling not to be square.”  Poetry is, in so many ways—and I am not the first to say it—a young person’s genre. 

[ . . . ]

As Roland Barthes reminds us, Maupassant often ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower, because it was the only place in Paris from which the Eiffel Tower could not be seen.  Where is the Eiffel Tower of poetry, and could we have lunch there?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Someone Else’s Orthodoxy

Mirror, mirror, on the wall.

The past we look back on, the past we call the past, of course, is always changing.  That’s as true as any new edition of a history book. 

So anyway, as this is all old hats now, here’s a reminder of what the past might have been, and was. 

A couple weeks ago, I don’t remember why exactly, but Don Share wrote something or linked to something on facebook that made me think of the forgotten (I think completely forgotten?) poem Wm Brown. 

It took me a bit to find the anthology I remembered him from.  It was The Major Young Poets (1971), edited by Al Lee. 

What remains interesting to me about this anthology becomes apparent immediately, once one reads the poets included:

Michael Benedikt

James Tate

Mark Strand

Wm Brown

David P. Young (who we know now as David Young)

C.K. Williams

Charles Simic

Marvin Bell

First, yikes, the editor chooses eight poets to represent “These are the new American voices,” and they’re all male.  In 1971, an editor could get away with such a blind spot, but now it screams at us.  That’s one thing.  A big thing.  But, looking at the poets included (the poets can’t be blamed for the blind spots of the editor), they all (with the exception of Wm Brown, and possibly Michael Benedikt, who mostly stopped publishing in 1980) went on to be pretty important figures.  What a great stroke of luck or imagination to pick eight poets under 35 at any one time, and then, 40 years later, to still have six or seven of them be recognizable.  It’s kind of amazing. 

What’s more interesting even than that is to imagine what poetry would be like now, if these poets would have ended up representing the mainstream of American poetry.  One might argue that they have (I mean, how much more mainstream can one get than Simic, Tate, Williams, and Strand?), but I would argue against it.  The gestures that people describe the poetry of the late 60s – early 90s through barely exhibit in these poets.  They are the (somewhat) popular outliers of the mainstream of their day. 

For example, here’s a representative poem from Michael Benedikt:


A conversation with Cornelia about her friends.  People just love to meet them, she says.  There’s Harry—he amuses everybody by sitting in a corner and staring at the wall with his thumb in his mouth.  There’s St. Angelo—he likes to make kites and is covered from head to foot with a fine yellow down.  There’s Lemuel Mole—his vocabulary includes a complete repertoire of subway sounds.  He’s also good at imitating plumbing.  There’s one they call The Nameless One—he’s up there on the roof right now, fixing up a pair of wings for himself.  Some company!  Then, one night, whispering in a dark place, Cornelia tells you she’s throwing a party for all her favorite people and you’re to be the Guest of Honor.

This looks a lot more like the poems being written in 2012 than 1971.  I predict that in a few more months Benedikt will be rediscovered.  If I were an editor at Wave, I would be looking for the publishing rights, as I believe his books are all out of print.  There’s also, apparently, a wealth of unpublished work from 1980 to his death in 2007. 

All this is really just to say that conversations about poetry revolutions and such are always going to be less revolutionary than they at first appear.  That’s fine with me. 

A few bits from Al Lee’s introduction that I found amusing, looking back from 2012:

“The happiest achievement of this ‘generation’ has been to join the community, more or less, undisrupted by the squabbles of circles, coteries, and cabals.  The Fifties and early Sixties were an age of instant ‘school’: a school was a handful of poets who didn’t like the way another handful was writing—one could be fifth best in a school of five and still think of oneself as the fifth-best poet in America. 

Just as the schools have broken up, the styles of the younger poets have broken out with more adventure.  They have become more uncharacterizable.”

And this:

“Call this absence of theory an anti-theory, if not a pre-theory: “all possibilities are open.”  It is an attitude (“a spiritual condition” perhaps) that stands where esthetic principles used to in poetry, and where they may return.  [. . .]

This moment—the contemporary nerve of our literary and social history—is the controlling factor that prevents the anarchy that’s supposed to go along with abandoning the rules.  The diversity stays under one roof.  [. . .]

The influences, what there are, are predictably from the preceding age-group(s) of American poets, but more noticeably from an assimilation of European surrealism.  [. . .]

One quality that distinguishes the younger poets, perhaps from those a few years older who are themselves a part of the new poetry, is the far-off places they have gotten to.  There are things happening in their poems, stories being told, that we aren’t used to in poetry, that we have only lately learned to imagine in public.”

That should give a little splash of air on anyone who’s written about what we’re recently calling the new poetry.  Just saying. 

To close, a more familiar poet to these sorts of discussions, James Tate:

On a clear day
I can see England
and England can see me. 
I would prefer to write
“a month of Sundays!”
or “Mrs. Gundy’s
flunky has a glamorous hernia.”
Second, all
is forgiven:
          “Dear Vinnie
We sure are worried about you
We’re always going around here
wondering where you are
or what you’re doing
When we got that telegram
we all almost fainted.
          Jimmie sure is cute
he can almost sit up
when he laughs he looks
so cute. I take care
of him a lot.
          I was sick (awful sick)
and last night and last night I
and last night an and yesterday
and the day before I was sick
but I’m not now
          We have to quit now
I can see England. 
The planes are loaded,
they are never coming back.