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. 


At 8/13/2012 11:34 AM, Blogger Katie Scarlett said...

This is a fascinating post, John, and I was so glad that you pointed out immediately the absolute down-the-line inclusion of only white guys, which indeed would be unimaginable now--thankfully. But also intriguing is no mention of Wright, Bly, Kinnell, Ashbery, those folks I consider elemental to that time. Now I have to go back and drag out all my old anthologies....BTW, who would you say were the contemporary poets who most influenced your apprentice years?

At 8/14/2012 5:34 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

That's from Absences, isn't it? Not in Tate's Selected, but good. I think there was more variety in Tate's work before it settled into, you know, Hello, I'm Arnie Aardvark, I enjoy bowling with trepanned skulls, etc., etc.

I used to see some of Benedikt's early books--The Body, Sky--in libraries. If you like funny surrealism, they're a good read. Benedikt edited a great anthol of surrealist poetry, too. I remember being taken with the Peret translations in it.

C.K. Williams was a different poet back then, circa Lies, which has a lot of startling metaphors redolent of the era. With Ignorance was much different, closer to the long Whitmanesque lines of Tar. Maybe he started writing that way in I Am the Bitter Name? I don't know; I've never seen that book.

What happened to your comments, John? A couple years ago your posts usually had like 80+ comments. Did you start losing commenters when you disallowed anonymous comments?

At 8/15/2012 7:59 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


All the Benedikt I have is from this anthology, though I’ve seen a few things around. From what I’ve seen, I would expect him to be more read. Like I said in the post, I imagine he’s going to be rediscovered imminently. If I knew someone at a press I’d be calling them right now. Maybe someone’s already doing a selected or collected? I think people would buy it.

C.K. Williams, agreed. And Tate. A lot of people just know him now, as you’re saying, from this post-1990 or so style. These little adventures, yes. But I agree, when his story is written, it will mostly focus on pre-1990 work. There’s a lot there to go back to.

And then there’s the blog. I don’t know why comments have basically evaporated. Anonymous certainly has something to do with it. Maybe I should turn that back on, if it would make people feel more comfortable talking. Or maybe I’m just posting on less interesting things. Or maybe it has something to do with Twitter. When I put a link up to this post on facebook, it ended up with about 50 comments there, so maybe that has something to do with it.

Do you think I should turn Anon back on?

At 8/15/2012 8:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Hi and thanks for commenting. The argument of this anthology would have made a lot more sense, and would have had a lot more staying power if Lee would have included poets from a wider pool. Jean Valentine. Bernadette Mayer. Alice Notley. Diane Wakoski. Etc.

As for the exclusions of Wright, et al, Lee was working with a definition of “young” (35 and under) that those poets would have been ten or so years too old for. But certainly the argument here, a kind of blending of NYSchool and Deep Image (with maybe a little Beat thrown in there), would have been strengthened by their inclusion.

This question you raise: “who would you say were the contemporary poets who most influenced your apprentice years?” is a doozy. I’ll try to answer it. It’s a difficult one because we’re all influenced in some way by everything we read. When I was much younger, say twenty, the first poets I came across for myself (outside of the obvious high school reading lists and etc) were in anthologies, because anthologies were cheap. I bought A Caterpillar Anthology along with The Major Young Poets and anything else I could find. It made for a highly idiosyncratic personal canon.

The big lights, by the end of the 1980s for me, were John Ashbery, Jean Valentine, Russell Edson, James Tate, Jorie Graham, Gertrude Stein (and Stevens, Williams, Cummings, Moore, and Eliot), Charles Wright, James Wright, Bin Ramke, Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Mark Strand. I didn’t find Rae Armantrout and Cole Swensen and Martha Ronk, who have become absolutely important to me, until the 90s. And my own contemporaries I didn’t find until about that same time, but when I did, the whole idea of even writing down names became impossible.

At 8/15/2012 8:24 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Well, John, I don't think the quality of your posts has declined or anything like that. Maybe the decline of blogs and the incline of Twitter has something to do with the evaporation of comments. Turning anon back on might help. Some of the anon comments were a little mean, but some of them were quite intelligent, too--probably written by people whose names we'd recognize. I used to have fun posting comments here under pseudonyms like "Annie." Being balaclava'd by a persona loosens me up a little.

At 8/15/2012 8:27 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Anonymous comments are turned back on then!

Yeah, Twitter and facebook are the best places to hang out, I hear. Facebook's fine, but I really dislike Twitter.

At 8/15/2012 12:47 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Has anyone figured out a worhtwhile way to use the tweet as a poetic form? Seems a waste if that hasn't been exploited.

At 8/15/2012 4:19 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

At The French Exit Elisa Gabbert posted her favorite tweets. Some reminded me of epigrams or one-line haiku (didn't Ashbery write a bunch of those back in the 80s?)--or like the spoon-sized poems that were fashionable in the late 60s or early 70s. Like Knott: "Just hope that when you lie down your toes are a firing squad." I hope I didn't misquote.

At 8/15/2012 8:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know for a fact that Al Lee asked another white male to be in that Major Young Poets,— someone who did not appreciate its sophistic elitist concept and who declined the invitation to be in it . . . but another question is why would Tate and Strand and the rest of them agree to it, why didn't they stand up and say I refuse to be in an anthology where there are no women, no black poets, no alternative voices—? Why didn't they protest? Burn their fuckin draft cards (as it were). Lee couldn't have edited this racist sexist shamthol without their cupidity and complicity, could he? Blame him, blame that bigoted publisher, but don't forget those MAJOR YOUNG COWARDS.

At 8/16/2012 4:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I know for a fact that one of the poets included in this anthology did not know who else was going to be in it (except for Mark Strand) until after it was published, and was distraught, and very happy that the anthology had a short shelf-life.

So perhaps Strand knew, but not at least one of the others.

At 8/16/2012 4:31 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well David, perhaps it was not allowing anonymous comments that kept people from commenting after all.


At 8/16/2012 6:55 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I was just wondering off-hand what women & women of color could have been in this anthol of under-35ers in '71. Heather McHugh and Sandra McPherson, both of whom I rather like, were under 35 then; but I don't know if McHugh had good stuff at the time. McPherson did. Anne Waldman did. Joy Harjo and Jorie Graham were under 35 then, but they were pretty young. I don't know if Graham had anthologizable stuff before '74. Marilyn Hacker, Eileen Myles, Laura Jensen--all good, but I doubt they produced anthologizable stuff before the late 70s, since all of them except maybe Hacker were only about 20 in '71. I think diPrima would have just missed the under-35 cut-off.

At 8/16/2012 8:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, Gallaher, you know for a fact what that unnamed poet told you for a fact . . . what I know for a fact is what Al Lee wrote in a personal letter to another white male soliciting his poems for that Major Young Poets anthology, and I know that in that invitation Lee named the poets who were to be included, and boasted about the exclusivity of the list. Maybe the poet who told you how "distraught" he was in hindsight by the anthol (huh, I bet he didn't leave it off his CV), maybe he was the first one solicited and therefore didn't know who the others in that hierarchy were going to be . . . but does it seem believable that he wouldn't be curious and want to know who those SEVEN other MAJOR YOUNG POETS were? It's not like your distraughtee couldn't write back to Lee asking to know. (If you're editing BAP you can't deal with 75 poets each on a one to one basis, but if you're editing an anthology called The Major Young Poets and you have only 7 or 8 contributors in it, you could respond to them personally). . .

At 8/16/2012 8:39 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


The point Lee was making about theory or anti-theory would have been stronger and would have done some good if he would have chosen from a wider pool of writers. It could have been these very eight still, but with eight more. We could go on a long time about those missing poets. I would say he easily, as I mentioned before, could have found Alice Notley, Jean Valentine, and Bernadette Mayer if he found Michael Benedikt. And this exclusion of his, for whatever reason (blindness, tone-deafness, sexism, racism, cowardice, etc [as Anon charges]), doomed his argument. It could have been a good argument, but it wasn’t. And now, 40 years later, I’m seeing in a lot of new poetry (Heather Christle, Dorothea Lasky, Matthew Zapruder [and a lot of books published by Wave Press], Mary Ruefle) something of the same anti-theory or somesuch that Lee was seeing.

As for Anon. I would love to see that letter. It would stand as an indictment of just how bad things were, and a very good thing for us to remember (and to look for in current practices as well). But, being as it’s a general statement from an anonymous source, I can have no reaction to it except to say that it’s certainly plausible what you say, but not also that it’s not something I can take on your word, either. I’m sure Mark Strand knew who was going to be in the anthology, as I’ve heard he and Lee knew each other in some academic capacity of some sort. Other than that, I can’t say.

This is the problem with anonymous comments! And here, on the first day of letting people post anonymously, it jumps right to strong, unsubstantiated accusations. I’m not sure what good comes from it, but I’ll keep it up a week or two and see.

At 8/17/2012 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, six or seven of eight of The Young Majors being recognizable and/or having some modern day currency is kinda cool maybe, but not exactly amazing, is it?

All sample size and gender issues aside, most of the group probably had a couple books with a decent publisher under their belt at the time that the anthology was released (I'd have to google that to be sure). Couple that with the fact that as of publication date, in 1971, these gentlemen were now without fail among the eight major younger poets in the USA, and you have a recipe or at least a couple ingredients for success, whatever success might entail.

I'd be more impressed with the resale ability of some of the guys in the 70s anthology titled The The Fairly Insignicant Middle Aged Poets (1972) or somesuch, all things being equal. Best,


At 8/17/2012 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

corrected to read:

The Fairly 'Insignificant' Middle Aged Poets (1972), Viking, edited by Gordon Lightfoot

- tpeterson

At 8/17/2012 5:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A commenter asked:

“What happened to your comments, John? A couple years ago your posts usually had like 80+ comments. Did you start losing commenters when you disallowed anonymous comments?”

Perhaps part of the reason John has lost commenters is because he has asked a number of his patrons to go away, for example: Franz Wright, Gary B. Fitzgerald, Kent Johnson. Perhaps other readers have concluded that the host is somewhat ungracious and unwelcoming (and opinionated) and have simply migrated elsewhere.

Guess Who

At 8/18/2012 4:24 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Which member of Guess Who are you? Burton Cummings? Love your voice.

At 8/18/2012 5:46 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

I think Thomas Brady is chasing away John's guests.

Most poets are thin-skinned, and Brady has both a sense of humor and a take-no-prisoners approach.

That's what I'm thinking...

I'll stay away if you want, John...

At 8/19/2012 3:32 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I went to Chicago then Kansas City and now I’m back.

So, on the topic of people going away or not going away. I don’t recall ever telling FW or anyone else to go away. Maybe I did say that to KJ. He did kind of get me riled up about something, though now I can’t remember what it was. Time.

Tom, nah, I’ll also not ask you to leave. I think I might have even agreed with something you wrote recently, which means one of us is getting soft. It’s probably me.

Now that I’m back, I’ll have to get on the stick and get something new posted up that Anon can get all commenty about!

And as for guessing who, well, nah, that's OK. I'm a terrible guesser anyway. I always go with Neil Young.

At 8/20/2012 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tell us more about Wm Brown, John.


At 8/21/2012 6:10 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Yeah, John. For example, how do you pronounce "Wm"? Wim? Wum? Womb?

At 8/21/2012 7:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neither Twitter nor Facebook -- Tumblr. All criticism from now on will take the form of animated gifs.

At 8/21/2012 7:47 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Shivering from the dream,
Brashly belching (stuffed the maw),
Vaunt like fumaroles asteam,
The drinks are on the clown
(Low, Wm Brown),
And the shiv shall scotch no boa.

Chidden of the BAP
Is the fire none can draw;
So your lava snails its pace,
But the teeming beehives drone
(Weird Wm Brown),
The pipes of Alloa.

At 8/21/2012 8:21 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Wm Brown, indeed. I can find nothign more on this person anywhere except in this anthology. I guess I could post a poem or something.

At 8/25/2012 11:46 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I haven't posted here for quite some time. As John mentions above, there was some kind of argument he and I were having and both of us got testy about things, as I recall, though that's all that I can remember. It had something to do with poetry, I guess. But JG never banned me from commenting or chased me away, as an Anonymous commenter suggests here. I just haven't been reading this blog lately.

On another note, I just signed up for this course and hope to learn some things. I don't know about the line-up of Great Faces there on the home page, but Filreis's and grad student co-producers' video of intro is worth a watch.

At 8/25/2012 12:20 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

You didn't miss much. It's been a fallow field.

Ten weeks! That’s a pretty big commitment, even if it is fast-paced. Good luck, and let me know how it goes. I, too, would like to learn how he teaches people to read poems that are supposedly “difficult.”


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