Reviews of my books tend to alternate in (roughly) 30-year cycles. Back in '79 I got a very positive review of my first book. This one, in '06, is faintly damning. So hang on to your hats - there should be another positive one coming along around 2040.
Simon DeDeo reviews Dove Street. & this is the first review I've gotten in 30 years. I'm glad it's not an excerpt from a blurb.

His take on it seems to quote (without attribution) from this stanza:

  Under the Bruegel-skies of late November
a hobo stumbles on, hunched-over, broken-
down, his fortunate misfortune taking on
a common nature – weathered, as it were.


...an illustration, from Dove Street (apologies for repetition):


Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire

He was on board ship, sailing from Byzantium
when the moment of illumination came, a flash
of light that staggered him (as happened to Paul
on the Damascus road): when he understood
there can be no ratio, no means of comparison,
no middle term, between the finite and the infinite
Thus, since God is infinite, we have no means
of knowing Him (invisible, incommensurate); so,
as Paul says, If any man thinks he knows anything,
he has not yet known as he ought to know
It follows then, for Nicholas (De Docta Ignorantia)
our proper study is, to understand our ignorance.

I think of him in Constantinople, looking up
into that limpid sphere, that massive cupola,
Hagia Sophia: gazing back at those gigantic eyes:
Christos Pantokrator, hovering there, magnificent
in lapis lazuli, translucent marble. He would
have known that, even then, all-conquering armies
of the Pasha were encroaching on the city gates;
had swept away, already, the last flimsy shreds
of once-almighty Christian Rome – history itself
grown incompatible with that triumphant
image glaring down.
I cannot know You
as You are
. But when I think of you
I think of Bruegel panoramas: there’s Mankind
(a little, furry, muddy, peasant thing – yet
at home upon the earth – its caretaker – self-
conscious, quick – inventive builder, gardener –
blind governor – your tarnished mirror);
and, as he painted in The Road to Calvary,
you hide amongst us, suffering servant, near
the center of our troubles: buried in the crowd:
one of the roughs (disguised, in camouflage,
Busy with work & worries these days.

I seem to have the sort of mind, if you can call it that, which has to circle around & re-invent the same problems/solutions over & over again.

Like, mainly, the question of God.

These days am trying to get into a long-poem (or simply poem) writing state again. Many causes for discouragement; but it's even more discouraging not to be writing at all, so...

I'm in favor of a sort of neo-medieval sensibility, I guess. Medieval in a good way, that is (there are lots of bad ways too, as we know).

What do I mean by that?

Well, to my way of thinking, the "solution" to the mystery of God's existence/non-existence rests in a concept of what Mankind is.

We have trouble imagining a "personal" God : but there is a way to do it. It has to do with extrapolating from what we know about the personal or personality or personhood in a human sense.

It's a matter of admitting our ignorance : we don't know clearly, or we know only in a very dream-like or subjective sense, what a person really, substantially, is. But we experience persons.

God resides somewhere in the "transcendent" or supernatural realm of personhood.

This, if one can accept it (provisionally), changes how we perceive existence, reality, as a whole. A subjective, personal element is infused.

This is extremely difficult for the modern, "scientific", sceptical mind to accept. In fact it's easy to read it as absurd.

But there is a way of interpreting experience, reality, existence which incorporates this notion (of human & divine personhood). This is what I'm calling "neo-medieval". It could also be seen as an analogical or symbolic or "literary" reading of Nature.

It's possible to see Mankind on earth in terms of a divine/symbolic ecology.

Again, it's a matter of extrapolating or analogizing.

If you consider human consciousness & presence on earth as an anomaly - what makes it so?

Think about this. This is at the conceptual root of the analogical notion of Imago Dei (man as "image" of God). & that is at the root of "neo-medieval" vision.

To many it will sound like I'm talking in circles, talking nonsense, talking non sequitur, talking talking. So be it.


When you read, as I read in the Victorian and Modern Poetics book noted below, about how the famous Moderns (Yeats, Pound, Eliot, in her telling) in substantial ways repeated the formulae of the Victorians (Hallam, Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, Pater), and that both generations were still struggling with the dilemmas and ambiguities bequeathed by the Romantic poets (the status of the imagination; solipsism and objectivity; sensation, will and intellection; discourse vs. "the picturesque"; aesthetics and didacticism; etc.) -

well, I know this sounds awfully boring, but...

actually I draw the lesson that the vocation of the poet - & the techniques of poetry - are still very much in play :

& that there are a lot of interesting avenues a poet can take, if in an adventurous and problem-solving mood -

the game is poorly described by the ponderous & pedantic theoreticians of the day (& I'm not talking about Ron Silliman here : but rather of the philosophers & "theory" mongers) -

a panoptical, literary-historical perspective - from within the actual practice of the poets - is more helpful, maybe -


The bohemian and the primitif : two very different animals. Enemies, almost.
John Kinsella translates Rimbaud's poem "Larme" [tear] in the recent issue of Poetry magazine.

The poem employs a number of "conceits" to (simultaneously) narrate & conceal the story that young Arthur spent a lot of time in the woods, and that while he was there, he got drunk on sunlight.

The poem sort of jars with the book I'm reading about Victorian & Modern Poetics, which begins with a history of the dramatic monologue, the persona, as a technique shared for varied reasons by poets from Browning & Tennyson through Swinburne & Wilde.

Rimbaud as far as I know never projected a persona. He was a sort of french Whitman, apparently - naturally endowed with literary savoir-faire.

Poets of the 19th & 20th centuries (& 21st, I guess) assume various counter-cultural and bohemian poses - which are, paradoxically, very limiting. (C. Christ discusses this.) The mask, the dramatic monologue, the persona - for these poets - counterbalances the (bohemian) pose.

This is complicated, I know.

Hart Crane tried to juggle all these elements - but he seems pretty close to Rimbaud in a number of ways. They were both extremely tough, in an odd way.

Rimbaud rejected both the sophisticated, hypocritical, "dramatic" literary world of the poseur, & the Rousseau-ish romance of a narrated childhood. For Rimbaud, childhood was too real, too profound, too immense for sophistry.

I guess something similar could be said for Proust. (Proust prevailed against all the febrile worries about "personality" & "subjectivity" & "narcissism" etc. which beset the 19th century. He only talked about himself.)
Started reading an interesting (& nice & short) study by Carol T. Christ, published by U. Chicago Press back in 1984, titled Victorian and Modern Poetics. (Book was referenced in the Langdon Hammer Crane/Tate book.) Explores the extensive continuities between Moderns & Victorians (despite pervasive & very influential Eliot/Pound attacks on their predecessors).

Both literary generations wrote in shadow of the Romantics : that is, within a practice of poetry which focused on, & represented, a personal/imaginative response to the external world. Both were wary of the individualism and subjectivity of this approach, and tried to find ways to counter it.

Just getting into it. Maybe such a panoptic perspective will help me write some more mini-essays at some point.


Two incredibly good poems by Rimbaud in latest issue of Poetry, translated by John Kinsella. They stopped me in my tracks, so to speak.


Children should be taught how to write from, say, first grade through junior high school. After that, teaching should focus solely on how to read.

Poetry is for dilettantes and amateurs, sorry. Others need not apply.
The Thousand and One Nights is, I guess (I'm not an expert), structured on the idea of saving life by wasting time : idling it away with stories-within-stories, told to keep the tyrant amused - distracted.


Josh Corey has been conducting an interesting improv on the differing time-effects in prose fiction & poetry. He suggests that good fiction involves an experience of "time-forgetting", whereas poetry always brings us up short with its focus on the fine grain of speech and language, the music of performance.

I've written some on this topic here at various times. What has struck me is that, while good storytelling does encourage us to lose ourselves in the story & forget time, nevertheless fiction tends to make time a theme of the story, so that the experience of reading it is double-edged : we lose ourselves (& time) in stories which describe the effects of time's power. The Odyssey and In Search of Lost Time are, I guess, the prime examples.

Poetry, on the other hand, does not simply intensify our experience of time : poetry changes the basic character of that experience. Prose may demolish our awareness of time; poetry seems to demolish time's very objectivity (as sequential, historical, impersonal phenomenon). Poetic time is a kind of performed Now, in which language spirals back reflexively on itself - and in the process, reshapes perception, knowledge, the sense of self and others.

I think it's worthwhile to emphasize these distinctions between the time-effects of prose fiction and poetry. And to repeat that the experience of a pleroma or a fulness of NOW (containing pasts and futures) - the recapturing and transmuting of past into present, chaos into order - is a theme of major narratives. Thus a notion of poetry is implicit or encrypted in the substance of fiction.


Responding in part to Robert A.'s interesting post on public/private manners & mannerisms:

Here's a passage from an essay that TS Eliot published in The Egoist in 1919 (& never republished):

"This relation is a feeling of profound kinship, or rather a peculiar personal intimacy, with another, probably a dead author. It may overcome us suddenly, on first or after long acquaintance; it is certainly a crisis; and when a young writer is seized with a passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks even, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person...
...We may not be great lovers, but if we had a genuine affair with a real poet of any degree we have acquired a monitor to avert us when we are not in love... We do not imitate, we are changed; and our work is the work of the changed man; we have not borrowed, we have been quickened, and we become bearers of a tradition."

- this is quoted in Langdon Hammer's Hart Crane & Allen Tate, as part of his history of Crane/Tate/Eliot's ambiguous-subliminal erotic psychologies. Crane responded (as a gay man) to this early Eliot; Tate, on the other hand, to the reserved, impersonal, authoritative Eliot of "Tradition and the Individual Talent".

I post this to point to the contrast between this, on the one hand, and the informal, relaxed familiarity of the NY School approach (which RA describes). Poet-friendships, there, are not surrounded by an aura of ambiguity, romance & taboo.

This "demotic" attitude seems connected with the general relaxation (or vulgarization) of sexual mores : the taboos have broken down.

The idea that private name-dropping in poems, etc., impinges on the boundaries of traditional public speech is true in more ways than one.

I think it's possible to send private, personal messages & public messages - separately - in one and the same poem. The overuse of obviously private messages seems kind of slack, in a way. But it may also be a realistic acknowledgement of the limits of a poet's reach & impact. & it reflects, back to us, the quality of our own private lives.

Eliot's passage above, by the way, seems like a script for my own comically-representative experience (I mean Mandelstam's impact, & the "Shakespeare episode"). Shakespeare's ambiguously erotic & narcissistic sonnets literally knocked the wind out of me - & threw me back into the Biblical fold.

Oddly, Eliot here seems sane & healthy to me. He's talking about love, not "eros" or sex (hence his phrase, "we may not be great lovers" - funny). Love may involve passionate erotic energies, but it's not only that. Contemporary mores often simply reduce love to eros.


One of the old, "pre-epic" poems in Way Stations, which (in very partial illustration of previous post) contains a kind of vow to Mandelstam:

The wind exhaled, this world
sprawled – a spring disaster, flocks of embraces
in the garage, under the oil refineries
hospitable sirens, waltzing on broken silver.

And night deepened around the temple,
a yellow-black wafer, crust for the swans;
and the wind circled the olives, a morning watch
all night by the Kedron, all day by Euphrates.

And we'll meet again by the wintry river
where we swaddled the sun in a double wreath,
cedar and lilac, tangled in a knot of beaten
gold – sea-roses, breathing in Jerusalem.

(sounds like an OM poem passed through an Eliot-modifier)
So... I guess when I think about my own long poems & what I have tried to do, I fall somewhere in between the paths laid out by Crane & Eliot -

since I tried to carry on with Crane's affirmative-visionary stance, yet I share, in certain ways, Eliot's faith.

My whole poetry life has oscillated between, & tried to integrate, faith & imagination, faith & poetry - since the days of the "Shakespeare ghost" (1973).

& since it was my response to Mandelstam which set in motion the terms of that synthesis, he has remained the key to the "plot" of my long poems.

So... if somebody ever takes the trouble to read, seriously, Stubborn Grew, and The Rose, & the other things, they will find out what I am talking about. (All handy over there at Lulu !)

It has to do with seeing poetry as one door to inward or spiritual renewal, & the renewal of time & history in that light. & it has to do with an interpretation of faith which is in most ways diametrically opposite the stance taken by Eliot & Tate & the other conservative religionist-poets.

If you look into my long poems, you'll see a "ghost dance", where the impulses & writings of Whitman, Melville, Twain, Poe (& others) are aligned with those of Crane, Mandelstam, Berryman (& others) to represent a sort of symbolic "epic America-Russia" (RUS-US), rooted in Crane's, Melville's & Whitman's awareness and acknowledgement of the American Outcast as the spiritual key to America. Where Eliot & Tate experience their faith as a kind of spiritual hierarchy, separating them from modern life, I understand the Biblical tradition as a prophetic framework, or verbal model, for human equality and mutuality. (Melville's Ecuadorian doubloon nailed to the mast of the Pequod; Mandelstam's "gold coins of humanism".)

But my long poems have yet to be read & taken seriously, I guess. I went into a tunnel for about 8 years in order to prepare for & write them. So that made it more difficult for me to write short poems, or interact, as poet, in the magazine culture.

"Time flowers on the lips of whispered clay." That's how it starts.


I meant "moral substance" in previous post in a vague sense. What I'm thinking of, I guess, are artistic or aesthetic approaches which do not intentionally close off moral-ethical ramifications, or meanings in general. Such intentional hermeticism has always been an option for poets and schools of poetry, to one degree or another. A defensive maneuver. You can see it in the so-called "decadent" aesthetes of the 19th-century fin de siecle; in some versions of Imagism; in New Critical valorizations of the autonomous "aesthetic object"; in aspects of the NY School; in latter sections of The Maximus Poems; in Language Poetry & other postmodernisms.

You can see it also, in a way, in the bourgeois-boho, fashionable epicureanism which Robert Archambeau recently analysed. What he describes is certainly not hermeticism : but it's a set of cultural codes which restrict artistic implications to a very narrow range.

I am not trying to criticize these defensive aspects of poetic practice just for the sake of being negative. I have practiced them in many ways in my own writing. Rather I'm trying to make room for the recognition of other possibilities, other avenues - the kind of thing that Langdon Hammer attributes to Hart Crane's project (which was over-compensatory & extreme in its own way). I mean the approaches akin to what is referred to as (or used to be called) "seriousness", "the grand style", epic, heroic poetry.


Any substantially affirmative poetry would have to be willing & able to grapple with the deepest, the most unbearable, the most intractable evils & sufferings & injustice.
This is the problem with blogging - you feel the urge to respond before you've thought things through. I want to respond to Bob Archambeau & Mark Scroggins & Ange Mlinko & Josh Corey & Ron Silliman all at once... but I can't put it togedda!

I want to tell Bob that I still have misgivings about the grid project, since it seems like some kind of critical trespass, an over-reaching into the domain of the poets. How so? Well, for one thing, because there is a quiddity & a particularity to individual poets & their work which is more than the sum of their placement on a chart; in fact, perhaps the central literary strategy, for some of them, has consisted in transgressing the boundaries of previous charts! How does that fit into the snowflake?

More importantly, the grid is a power-move. It reifies poetry, & in so doing, achieves its own (upper-hand) purposes. The aims and teleologies of individual poets, paradoxically, often transcend literature-as-system. The grid, on the other hand, boxes them in (to a critical GPS location).

But I'm repeating myself.

& what I really want to talk about is the L. Hammer book, & Hart Crane, & the meaning of it all. But I can't. It's too complicated.

Eliot, Allen Tate, the New Critics : they tried to create a new version of pure poetry, of Symbolism, of autotelic art. Under the sign of a backward-looking, authoritarian (anti-democratic) religious perspective. It was a neo-classicism, which rejected Romantic-humanist-renaissance notions of world-renovation and the (Blakean) power of the imagination.

Crane was their opponent & their scapegoat.

The poetry movements of the 50s and after broke up the NC monopoly. Now poetry was personalized, democratized, psychologized. At the same time, the institutional "craft" approach of the New Critics helped establish academic support for the newly-popular poetry professions.

Underlying the turmoil and spiritual angst of the 20th century was a philosophical problem : what is the relation between reason & faith? Between logic and imagination? The Enlightenment never completely resolved the deeper issues, which stem from medieval and archaic (prehistoric) times, having to do with the human conceptualization of what is real (myth? superstition? faith? science? rationalism? realpolitik?) The modernist quarrels over the proper attitude toward art & poetry are really only epiphenomena of these deeper unresolved issues.

Now we have a broad-based popular many-sided poetry scene, with no official dogma and much uncertainty. As I understand it, however, there are two fundamentals which underly the good poems. These are:

1. Pure literary skill. The best poetry displays an awareness of past efforts, and re-makes them - with its own originality, elegance, intelligence, beauty, pathos. It carries forward without losing or denying the past; instead, it wins the past for the present. (This is part of the platform of literary (Russian) Acmeism.)

2. Moral substance. The poetry gives evidence of a personality, engaged with human problems, above & beyond the functional, acquisitive, superficial values of someone else's (debased) measure of literary prestige. This poetry, in contrast, reveals its own inherent values. It may do so with great malice and spite : but it shows awareness, nevertheless. It aspires to ends beyond itself - within itself.

It may have to keep very quiet, considering the braying noise of the jumpy & yakkety culture surrounding it.

Then again, it may find a way to be epic & heroic again. This is what Crane proposed, and tried to achieve : a new grand style, a contemporary form of spiritual affirmation through the poetic Word. That (neo-Romantic) aspiration is what the neo-religious poets (Eliot, Tate, Winters et al.) found so threatening. In a sense, they were searching, too : but in the climate of the 1st half of the 20th-century, for those aspiring snobs, only a very dogmatic and reactionary religious attitude seemed possible. It was a time of war on all fronts.

But the religious (and, equally, anti-religious) imagination can work synthetically, too - with reason, with imagination, with individuality, with communal norms and laws. It reconciles these things, shows them to be still viable, makes Earth a veritable home.

I think this was a basis for Crane's generally positive, yea-saying, visionary attitude. I think John Berryman, also, was working, terribly and agonizingly, & humorously, in this direction - toward freeing himself, toward spiritual liberation. His late poetry encapsulates, sums up that struggle.

It's the autonomous strength of the imagination - Stevens' giant, Stevens' lion - which carries both the threat and the redemption. Because faith only becomes nourishment (that is, truly reasonable) when the imagination can assimilate and accept it; and only the imagination dares come close to expressing the (dangerously) inexpressible.
Very interesting post over here today.

Robert's approach seems to parallel what Langdon Hammer does (in Hart Crane & Allen Tate) with respect to an earlier generation. I mean he looks at the relation between a poet's ambition to address (or create) a certain social class of reader, a social group with certain habits & assumptions - and the effects of this ambition on style, subjects, philosophical attitudes.


I wonder if that "pebble cabinet" I liked so much in the Guggenheim Russian show was, in part, a sly nod to Mandelstam. There are so many "stone" & pebble images & themes running through his poetry! The "stone fallen from heaven", the stones along the Black Sea shore, the "unloved grey pebble" (unknown soldier), the sand sifted from hand to hand (in the poem for Tsvetaeva), the stones of Roman builders & other architecture, the title of his first book (Kamen, "stone", acronym for AKME), and so on.

Sarah's German tutor (from Russia) gave us a box of (terrible) Voronezh chocolates for the holidays - she said "Henry will like them". Well, I liked the brand name. I asked Sarah to bring my copy of the Voronezh Notebooks to class tonight, & have her read the last poem out loud ("To Natasha Shtempel") in Russian. I hope it wasn't too much to ask.
Those obscure liminal charismatic experiences, when I was around 19, probably helped protect me from the literature industry. One of the things Harry Howe said at the time has stuck with me : "It's because you're a poet, and you can't deal with it yet."

The years when I gave up trying to write, & went into community organizing. I have a master's degree in that. One of the signal aspects of my poetry is that it came out of a slow return to writing, by way of Russian poetry. Everything written after 1975 - and that means everything except one college chapbook & a few scattered college & high school poems - stems ultimately from Mandelstam. Even my interest in Crane, which led to my interest in long poems.

(Oddly, though, there was Nabokov, even before then. In my high school lit mag (Talisman) for 1969 or '70, there's a little prose sequence which is a primitive pastiche of Nabokov. In one scene, some school friends jokingly re-enact scenes from War & Peace in the snow in a Minnesota park. So those Russkies were always lurking nearby.)

Now, thanks to changes in communications technology, I have my little literary niche here, even if no one publishes me other than myself. I'm privileged. I have my day job in a well-stocked Ivy League library on the East Coast.

Which has its costs, too. Now, when I go around scrappy old Providence, I'm seeing scenery from my youth - those affects & experiences of a rougher world, slowly thinned-out by the routine of a campus sinecure.

That kind of (political) dissonance could be the motor for a whole cycle of epic poems. I mean the distance between the old me & the young, between the campus & the town, between this street & that street, between the known & the unknown. So Ulysses measures the distance between Joyce & his father, between Dedalus & Bloom.
Jeffrey Bahr writes:

"I've posted a challenge to any who would engage seriously in the attempt to -- if not reconcile, then at least identify the goals -- among the disparate views of what poetry is, should be, must do."

Tall order. Definition is power. Criticism creates the vocabulary and context for understanding & reception. With such a large abstraction ("poetry") fitted out to explain such a diverse phenomenon, the resulting contention is inevitable.

Langdon Hammer's book mentioned here yesterday presents a sort of close-sociological comparative analysis of the interrelated careers of Crane, Tate & Eliot. Hammer starts out by demystifying some of the reactionary-traditionalist rhetoric offered by some of the big Moderns, Eliot & Pound in particular. Rather than looking at them as defenders of tradition, or backward-looking medievalist-traditionalists, Hammer tries to show how they were pioneers of literature's New Class : entrepreneurs in the business of culture. He talks about how their differing attitudes toward established sources of cultural reception (Eliot's embrace of English establishment, Pound's opposite tack) influenced the amazingly contrastive outcomes of their careers (Eliot the lauded Nobel prizewinner; Pound the jailed treasonous crackpot).

He then looks at the differing responses of Hart Crane & Allen Tate to the cultural atmosphere which Eliot did so much to invent. I'm just getting into this section of the book. He contrasts Eliot's (& Stevens') ability to separate making a living from their identities & prestige as poets, with Crane's theatrically conflicted background. (I will never get over this iconic conjunction : Hart Crane, the son of successful Cleveland candy manufacturer - inventor of the Life Saver - dies a suicide-by-drowning in the Caribbean. Poets' lives often have such strange symbolic-fateful resonance. This is a real cultural-psychic phenomenon, if not an act of Providence.) Crane's path was marked, early on, for the taboo-scapegoat-genius-outsider role.

Hammer argues that Allen Tate's own conflicted response (on many levels) to Crane's example only spurred him to emulate Eliot's career path, and take it further - firmly installing (along with John Crowe Ransom & others) the presence of poet-critics in the English Departments of American academia.

The poet-critic was a new kind of professional person, who combined valuable technical knowledge of two kinds : poetry-making and scholarship. With this dual capability, such a professional could be included in the intellectual power-structure of the "New Class"; with anthologies and textbooks like Understanding Poetry, the ground was laid for the next generation's innovation : the Creative Writing Program.

So I'm just getting into Hammer's book. It's really a "close reading" of the literary biographies of these men, and the consequences for poetry and for "poetry careers" generally. I think it's a wonderful book; provides a kind of lens for viewing today's different atmosphere. Hammer in the early pages focuses on the paradoxical prestige and authority which accrued to Eliot's forms of detachment & disinterest. Because he was neither an academician nor a professional writer or journalist, his criticism augmented the sense of poetry's (and the individual poet's) independent cachet, its cultural autonomy.

In thinking about this, alongside Jeffrey's challenge mentioned above, my first vague thoughts in this direction circle around the idea that whatever poetry offers a society at large must be grounded in some kind of imaginative and intellectual empathy. Poetry has to present a fiction of its own independent momentum : that is, independent to some extent of the poet's individual background, capable of understanding and interpreting others. Yet, at the same time, poetry, if it is to fulfill its purpose, has to be a kind of end in itself : it has to be a source of pleasure for its own sake. And here the special verbal and intellectual capabilities of unique and individual poets are brought to bear. Take, for example, a fine poem in the current issue of Poetry, by Carolina Ebeid, "Reading Celan in a Subway Station". In this poem, with metaphorical sleight-of-hand, the poet fuses listening to an accordion player in the subway with the emotional atmosphere of Celan. It's a very curious magic.

So these dual imperatives - the ability to penetrate history & experience beyond the private & personal, and the ability to raise personal (poetic) expression to a highly-integrated state - seem to underly what poetry is about.

The question about the "professionalization" of creative writing - has been very controversial. When poetry becomes an institution, and part of a larger institution, and a kind of business... what is lost, what is gained? I guess there are no simple answers or single truths about this.

Spiritual truths, down through history, have shown themselves rather disruptive to social arrangements. And sometimes poets must experience life outside the circles of privilege and custom and family and economic self-interest, in order to speak with any authenticity or imaginative empathy about the conditions and lives they encounter. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (discussed in current issue of New Yorker) is an American classic which confronts this issue head-on.


I know, I know. I need to find a new hobbyhorse. a new hamster cage.

Reading Langdon Hammer's book again, Hart Crane & Allen Tate : Janus-faced Modernism.


I want to deal with 2 main arguments made by RS (quoted in previous post).

The first argument (to paraphrase) is that American poetry bifurcates into two paths, lines, traditions, models - the Romantic/Amer. Renaissance/Modernist/avant-garde/post-avant, on the one hand, and the "School of Quietude" traditionalists on the other.

The 2nd argument is that the traditionalist camp exerts an inordinate power & influence over the cultural scene, through control of major awards, publishers, etc.

In order to accept the 1st argument, one must, at all costs, put aside any detailed sense of the flow, and the particularities, of American literary history. But it's not that hard to retain a sense of such flow, such particularities : all you have to do is open up what is probably the best-selling, mid-20th-century poetry anthology, re-issued decade after decade, used in countless classrooms, bought & read by thousands : the Mentor Book of Major American Poets, ed. by Oscar Williams & Edwin Honig. Here you will find "avant-garde" moderns (Cummings, Pound, etc.) side by side with Frost, EA Robinson; Whitman & Longfellow and Dickinson & Bryant; Stevens & Marianne Moore & Auden. Of course it's not inclusive - the poets are white, & mostly male. It's from 1950 or so. But you can learn a lot more about the variety & vitality of "central" American poetry - even from this dated collection - than from Ron's historical dichotomy.

Ron wants to pretend that the vital midstream of American poetry history never existed. Why? So he can use his reductive labels to exaggerate the importance of his chosen canon. If you can somehow deny the impact of mid-stream, "populist" poets of the 20th century - the powerful careers of (just for example) Auden, Berryman, Lowell, Merwin, Dickey, Bly, Wakoski, Piercy, Rich, Gary Snyder - I'm thinking of the standing-room-only crowds at their readings, the big sales of their books, 1950s-1970s - if you can somehow pretend those things never happened - then you can present a simplified version of that history, which is really an insult : both to the intelligence of readers, and to those dynamic & resourceful careerist-poets themselves. They didn't depend on some cabal of old white guys at Lofty Publishing Houses to make themselves well-read, famous & influential. But... but... if they never happened, then look how Important the "New American Poets" (Olson, Beats, NY School, post-avant) suddenly seem to be!

And I haven't even begun to dismantle the simplifications involved here. The idea that American poetry somehow subtends like a spider from either the early American experimentalists (Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville) or from stuffy old Anglos (Tennyson, Housman, Kipling) is just utterly ridiculous. Where do you place Eliot in this scheme, and where do you place the New Critical dominance of mid-century poetics, which one could quite seriously argue developed out of Eliot & Pound by way of Frost & Stevens (or vice versa!)? The fact is, American poetics developed a dynamic of its own, filled with crosscurrents & dichotomies & contradictions, drawing both on Eliot's notion of "tradition" and on Emerson's notion of "invention" (see Langdon Hammer's wonderful book Janus-Faced Modernism, on the interplay between Crane & Tate, and the consequences for the academic poetry establishment, for just one example of the "particularities").

What irks me no end about Ron Silliman's conspiracy theory of American poetry is the odd image of a displaced "canon" or "prestige" which haunts the background of his polemic. It's as if his theory is built on a single primitive, unrecognized ideal image : that of a mythical Avant-Garde Classic Period, when people like Pound & Eliot could be both heroic, iconoclastic innovators, and supremely prestigious cultural authorities, at one and the same time! Thus the strategic thrust of his complaint : if only we could break down the walls of that whitened sepulchre, the SoQ Establishment, why, then we - the New Americans! - we will be the arbiters! It's a dream of power (oddly parallel to some of Poe's late-career fantasies, when he wandered drunk down Benefit St., here in Providence, trying to woo a bride/benefactor for his projected Great American Literary Magazine...).

As I have tried to imply, the best antidote to a-historical conspiracy theories and fantasies like this, is simply to read 20th-century American poetry, in all its ample complexity and capacious contradictions. And why do we need such an antidote? So that "future American poets" can work in an atmosphere of openness and possibility, rather than within such melancholy, theoretical corridors, dank with the perspiration of resentful struggle - rank with the odor of imaginary, puzzle-palace stratagems.
Here's a long quote from Ron Silliman, posted on his blog on 12.23.05. I post it here because it's a pretty good summary of his approach, which I've been criticizin' for years now:

"I come along at the end of August 2002 and start posting to my weblog, reviewing maybe four books a week at the most, but often enough approaching the issues active in poetry from other perspectives – such as looking at Seth’s self-described “rant” on his weblog. Over the course of a year, it’s conceivable that I might actually discuss – at best – ten percent of a given year’s books of poetry. I’m not at all systematic, but I am informed, at least to this degree: as a poet, as a writer, as a reader, I come out of an identifiable tradition that stretches back pretty much unbroken at least to Blake & Wordsworth & Coleridge, and in the U.S. to Whitman, Dickinson, Melville & Poe. It’s not a random list, tho there are gaps that often strike me as yawning chasms of my own ignorance. My interest in Houseman, my interest in E.A. Robinson, my interest in Ted Kooser, my interest in Glynn Maxwell is pretty darn minimal. I read the Pound-Williams tradition, for example, as leading directly back to that quartet of 19th century Americans, whereas the School of Quietude (SoQ) leads instead to Robinson, Houseman, Kipling, Tennyson. But neither heritage is simple or unbroken – Gertrude Stein is a disruptive presence in the Pound-Williams tradition, for example, as is Joyce. The disappearance of the Objectivists in the 1940s – the first major modernist generation to virtually vanish, if only for a time – represents a crisis in modernism that I think we have yet to fully understand. I sometimes suspect that the shift from an avant-garde model, ushered in by the Preface to Lyrical Ballads in English & by Baudelaire’s prose poems in French (hijacking Bertrand more than following him), which ultimately is a military model, toward what I’ve termed the post-avant, which is more community focused and not inherently allergic to fessing up to its own sense of heritage, was triggered precisely by the absence of the Objectivists at the moment when the New Americans came along. Language poetry, my own generation of the 1970s, came along as a break within the New American vein in the name of that generation’s own higher values – it basically ditched the fetishized “I” and looked at the materials of writing with some of the same cold analytical eye that the abstract expressionists had used with a canvas & Jimi Hendrix used on a guitar. Somewhat inadvertently, it also exposed an inherent conservativism even within the New American tradition. Since then, we have seen a tremendous expansion of American poetry, fueled by an influx of women and people of color and different backgrounds. There are more poets now, and more good ones, than ever before. And the scene doesn’t look even remotely like what it did just 20 years ago when In the American Tree was about to be published.

I have been, I hope, reasonably out front about my own predilections, my likes & dislikes. I’ve insisted on a concept like School of Quietude because there is, and has been for over 150 years, a disequilibrium of power in American letters predicated on control of the publishing lists of the trade presses – the Gang of Eight I referred to in my note on the New York Times last week – and, at least once upon a time, around jobs within the academy. The most destructive and oppressive thing an elite group can do in our society is to pretend that it is the unmarked case, as if Robert Pinsky and John Hollander wrote poetry, but Kasey Mohammad wrote post-modern or New Brutalist poetry, Geof Huth wrote vispo, Erica Hunt & Harryette Mullen wrote langpo. That allows the unmarked set the opportunity of acting as if its monopoly of such traditional institutions as the trade presses and the awards conferred by the publishing industry – there’s that Gang of Eight again – were “normal” & anything outside of that were “exceptional.” In fact, the SoQ is one interest group among many, privileged more by history than by the bad acts of its current practitioners, but real nonetheless. It’s a little like white males coming to own their own whiteness & their gender. It really will be good for the SoQ to own their own heritage – they have more disappeared poets to recover than almost anyone."

I'm going to think about this a little today, in between work-work, and write a little response, I hope.


I began HG Poetics 3 years ago today. How time blogs!

Lately it seems like a substitute for thinking, studying and writing. An escape, via digital gab.

Others don't have this problem; but I feel scattered, unproductive.

In fact I must get back to work right now. Perhaps I'll think of something to blog about, one of these days.

[I mean I gotta get back to My Own Private Quietude.]