Friday, February 29, 2008


Four years will elapse before I’ll be able to post anything on February 29 again, so let’s not miss the opportunity.

I was reading a blog recently where someone analyzed a contemporary poem and devalued it because some of the phrasing was “dated.” Being “dated” was clearly a cardinal sin. The way to fix things up was to adopt an undated way of putting things. I’m not concerned with the judgment where that particular poem was concerned but instead with the notion of works of art being “dated.” Obviously all works of art have a date of manufacture. So when that recedes into the past they can be seen to be “dated.” OK, so how long is the “shelf life” of a poem? When is it to old to qualify as good art? Ten years? Maybe there should be a volunteer committee that gathers on December 31 of every year to assemble a list of poems about to pass the ten-year mark; the list is announced, and the next morning these poems may no longer be read by self-respecting literary folk who want to belong to the sophisticated part of the reading audience.

Why is being “now” the single most important quality a work of art can have? And who decides what “nowness” is? How is applying the criterion of up-to-dateness in the arts different from the policy of planned obsolescence in car manufacture or fashion in clothes? Isn’t “the latest thing” one of capitalism’s most powerful resources in stimulating the desire to throw out perfectly usable goods and replace them with new and costly consumer items?

Back in the Sixties I remember apologists for the French nouveau roman criticizing other novelists who used standard narrative techniques on this basis: that their novels “could have been written in the 19th century.” This, despite the fact that these novels included items like cars, phones, TV, Fascism, and the Second World War. Never mind: I swallowed the argument, which to my twenty-something mind seemed undefeatable. Now I have no interest in the nouveau roman, not because it’s now “dated,” but simply because there isn’t enough in it to make me want to reread.

Moving forward a decade to the Seventies, I witnessed the inception of the “Language” Poetry faction, and of course the same kind of argument was advanced. One could no longer use the traditional techniques of poetry because they belonged to the past. Not only were narrative and autobiography old-fashioned but equally misguided were notions that language could represent or signify anything at all except language itself. And to cling to such outmoded props as meter and rhyme was tantamount to going out in the evening wearing a high collar, button shoes, and spats—to be absurdly out of fashion. Poets! Never forget that couture rules! Don't fall victim to planned obsolescence.

Well, thirty years later it’s fair to ask if Language Poetry and Postmodernism in general are “dated,” at least if contemporaneity is the single most important quality a work of art can have. Thirty years is a long tenure for an artistic movement. The funny thing is, the huge outpouring of “experimental” writing that began in the Seventies and that continues up to the present minute was “dated” even back then. If it is correct to sneer at current literary productions that resemble those in earlier periods, then Postmodernists should admit that theirs do also. Precedents for the methods of non-linear organization, pure verbality, and disjunctiveness are numerous, found in many earlier writers--everything from Pindar to Gòngora, from Mallarmé and Rimbaud to Spanish ultraísmo (ca. 1919), from Dada and Surrealism or Italian Futurism and Russian zaum, from Gertrude Stein to Vallejo’s Trilce, from the forgotten American poet Abraham Lincoln Gillespie to Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962), everything from Concrete Poetry and Oulipo of the 60s to French poets like Denis Roche and Anne-Marie Albiach of the 1970s. I grant that defenders of the Language Poets’ practice or Postmodernism can offer plausible justifications for what they do. But the main justification cannot be that this is all new. If every poetic method that has already been tried must be scrapped, so must Language Poetry be scrapped. If not, not.

Actually, I’m thinking that one of the qualities that draw us to works of art is precisely that they are “dated,” I mean that they can recall an earlier period—its special flavor, its difference from the nuts and bolts of our 2008 existences. Reading older works is like time travel, through a literary intermediary; and the arts in general are so far the only means we have to manage that trick. I enjoy reading Crane’s The Bridge not only for the feeling content in it and for general aesthetic reasons; but also because of its period flavor, the way it uses Dixieland jazz, the way it embodies the “Machine Aesthetic” that was big news in the 1920s, and other kinds of Twenties experimentalism. Also, for the optimism about American civilization, a stance we can no longer adopt without enormous reservations. When The Bridge was published it was absolument moderne, of course, but it was also a projection into the future. And what is so poignant as yesterday’s imaginative projection about the “art of the future”?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Publishing: An Industry?

There’s a funny cover (titled “Shelf Life”) on the cover of The New Yorker of this week. It shows a young woman working on a manuscript, then follows the progress of her book into production, publication, remaindering and then being burned in an oil drum by a street person trying to keep warm. I say funny, but nothing is ever funny unless it has a grain of seriousness. Here it comes: It’s time to talk about the publishing industry.

“Industry” is the right word, and I hope it isn’t necessary to point out that all the major trade-book houses are owned by conglomerates. These are for-profit businesses. The goal of fostering and supporting America’s literature comes in as a far second to the dollars-and-cents motive. Most of the acquisition editors at the major houses come up through the sales division. They have no special training that would enable them to understand what makes a classic. (And almost all editors now are acquisition editors; they are unable to work with an author to improve a manuscript.) Current publishing savvy has to do with what is likely to sell; and it doesn’t have to sell generation after generation, just long enough to log in a hefty profit. Over the past decades we’ve seen editor after editor eased out of a job because she or he showed a greater concern for quality than for sales. I’ll mention Ted Solotaroff and Amanda Vaill, and others may want to bring up examples they know about. Some of the serious editors remain—like Elisabeth Sifton, Jonathan Galassi, Daniel Halpern, and Jill Bialosky—but are their positions secure? Not unless the numbers crunch the way they better.

Obviously publishers have to make a profit in order to keep their doors open. But the bar has been set too high; the profit margin currently demanded in publishing can only be achieved by dispensing with books that have (in any one generation, that is) minority appeal. Granted that the audience for literature of high quality is small, why is that fact embarrassing? I’m willing to bet that, when Sidney’s poems appeared in 16th century England, he had less than a hundred readers. And we know that the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass sold about 500 copies. The literate have always been a minority in any single generation; over the centuries their numbers grow. Granting that the fully competent audience of readers is a minority, doesn’t that minority have rights?

Luckily, here in these United States, we don’t have to depend entirely on the big trade-book houses for new literature. We have the university presses and the small presses, both publishing poetry and fiction. And anyone who has the least grasp of what’s what realizes that these presses must be taken just as seriously (more seriously?) than the for-profit publishers. The process of expanding available first-order fiction and poetry can’t be entrusted to company men whose eyes are focused only on the bottom line.

Returning to the New Yorker cover, note that the aspiring author is young. The whole emphasis in publishing, especially where fiction is concerned, is on youth. Young people give nice jacket photo; they will look good in TV interviews, and what sells better than sex? Besides, American culture is gaga over youth, staggeringly more interested in What the Kids Are Doing than in the thoughts or actions of any other sector of society. What these adored young American Idols don’t realize is that, once they hit their thirties, except for a few flukes or lucky cases, they will be hustled out of the limelight, regarded as “so last decade.” The Industry will have moved on to still younger authors, the new kids on the block, who can be more successfully marketed. Where is Erich Siegel? Renata Adler? Thomas McGuane? Bobbie Ann Mason? Gloria Naylor? Frederick Barthelme? Tama Janowitz? Susan Minot? This same pattern can be found, in greater or lesser degree, in all of the arts, though, granted, its most blatant instance is pop music. If we turn to poetry, we see an enormous number of prizes for first books, some of them pegged to age, for example, the Yale Younger Poets’ Prize. There is one prize (the Lamont) for a second book; at which point the support stops.

Because I’ve been on the scene for more than thirty years, I’ve watched as so many hopefuls were introduced and cried up as the best thing since sliced bread; only to see them abandoned in favor of newer kids on the block as the decades rolled on. True, many of them weren’t all that great even in the beginning. Granted, we always need to encourage beginners, hoping that they will gain experience and improve, even if their abilities are limited when they first set out. But the scrap-heap pattern is noticeable enough to deserve reflection. When beginning poets ask for advice from the golden-oldie sage, I say this: Don’t accord 100% trust in all the adulation you are receiving now. The public loves novelty. When you are no longer a novelty, you will have to have something more solid to offer. Get busy and find out what that’s going to be. Also, recognize that in most cases, jobs and family duties tend to elbow aside the will and the opportunity to create. And maybe for some those things will prove to be more important than writing, which is fine. Still: think priorities.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Poets and Teaching

I’m just back from New York, where I was teaching this past week, filling in for Marilyn Hacker who was away. I haven’t taught regularly since the spring of 2003, when I decided to put the classroom aside and just write. But before that I taught almost uninterruptedly, beginning in 1977 with a poetry-writing course done in the college seminar program at Yale. In that class were Langdon Hammer, now chair of the English Department at Yale, author of a critical book on Crane and Tate, editor of the Crane letters, a brilliant reviewer of contemporary poetry, and now the editor of the new American Library edition of Crane’s writings. Another class member was Susan Schultz, poet, professor at the Univ. of Hawaii, and editor of =Tinfish=. A third member was Tony Sanders, author of two well-received books of poetry. So clearly I had a good launch and since that first class have taught at a lot of different places, though mainly in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia. I’m going to brag and say that it was at my suggestion that Henri Cole enroll in the Writing Division (though this was while I was still living in New Haven; he completed his degree the year before I began teaching there), and it has been exciting over the years to read poems he sent to me and see him make his way, in the process becoming one of the best known poets on the scene. And here are some other poets who were students in one or more classes at Columbia or other places I taught: Marie Howe, Sarah Arvio, Vijay Seshadri, Sophie Cabot-Black, Daniel Hall, Claudia Rankine, Ben Downing, David Yezzi, Gwynneth Lewis, Mary Jo Bang, John Foy, Dave King, Mary Stewart Hammond, John Barr, Elizabeth Frost, Erin Belieu, Julie Sheehan, Gaby Calvocoressi, Emily Fragos, Laurie Wagner-Buyer, Tim Bradford, and Anna Robinson. And there are other former students I’m in touch with who haven’t quite surfaced yet (like Doretta Wildes) but who no doubt soon will.

When I first began teaching, the reason I gave myself was that I had to earn my living, and I knew I’d be no good as an office worker or salesman. I didn’t know that it would be a new source of ideas and energy for me as a writer. Yes, it was time-consuming; yes, only a few of the students had what it takes (not only talent, but the willingness to persist); yes, it involved a lot of busy-work where Administration was concerned. But it was also part of the impact, an unanticipated reward. I probably gave up teaching too soon. But I'm aware that many poets--the majority, probably--regard teaching as a huge burden, a serious drain on creative energy. Clearly, it's not for everyone. If not by teaching, how are poets to support themselves? Everything from waiting tables to editing an important magazine to freelance journalism. But for me teaching was the answer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Poetry as scapegoat among the arts

Who can explain why the practice of poetry has become the object of so much satire and snide dismissal? Example: "Nobody reads poetry nowadays, or only other poets do." We're asked to take this on faith; the rules of evidence don't apply when it comes to smearing poetry. Even if having small audiences were a crime (which it isn't), why don't we hear either, "No one sees new works of choreography nowadays," or, "No one listens to new music nowadays." The audience for dance and contemporary non-entertainment music is smaller than poetry's. But it's more fun to scapegoat poetry. As for the poetry audience, I call on all published poets to confirm that their readers include people who don't themselves write poetry. Further evidence: When Robert Pinsky served as Laureate, he launched an initiative called The Favorite Poem Project. Participants didn't prove to be literary professionals--they were doctors, insurance agents, construction workers, what have you. If you doubt it, see the anthology that came out of the Project. Nor were participants' typical choices Edgar Guest, Robert Service, Rod McKuen, or Jewel. We got Keats, Borges, Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke, Whitman, Langston Hughes, Bishop. QED.

It's important to explode the canard about the unread state of poetry because, "Nobody reads poetry," soon leads to "We're not going to bother to review poetry," which leads to, "We're not going to advertise new books of poetry," which leads to poor sales and, "We're not going to publish poetry." Poets and readers of poetry, unite: Your lifeline is under attack.

If no one reads poetry nowadays, why are there so many journals that publish it? Why do those journals receive hundreds of unsolicited poems each week? Why do we have so many MFA programs in poetry writing? Why are there so many scheduled poetry readings every week in every major city in these fifty states?

Now let's turn to the scapegoating of poets: We're supposed to be career mad (or mentally ill), drunken, druggy, boorish, sex-addicted, ridiculously bohemian or else academically prim and proper, wind-up suicide dolls, silly little Chatterton-boxes. Granting that these terms describe some poets, why don't novelists, visual artists, composers, and indie filmmakers (or, for that matter, swinging suburbanites--remember The Ice Storm?) fall under the same gavel? Who knows? The scapegoat du jour is the poet.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

First posting

The idea for this weblog came to me in discussions with the publicity people at the University of Michigan Press, who told me it was a good way to make contact with interested readers when a new book was about to appear. The book they have scheduled for next October is Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007. It's part of their Poets' Prose series, now edited by Marilyn Hacker and Annie Finch. It's the second collection of literary essays I've published.

I'm new to the blog process and don't know what use I will make of it or what sort of response to expect. But at least I've suited up and made a beginning.