Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jonathan Williams

I was saddened to hear about Jonathan Williams, a friend I began to know in the late Seventies, when I was living in New Haven. Ted Wilentz, a great book man, was then the head of the Yale Co-op, and he gave a party at his place for Jonanthan and Tom Meyer when they visited. I remember, too, that the three princesses of American poetry were guests: Mary de Rachewiltz, daughter of Ezra Pound, Perdita Schaffner, daughter of H.D., and Holly Stevens, daughter of Wallace S. Everyone got along very well, and it was the beginning of a friendship with Jonathan and Tom. I recall visits both to Highlands, NC, where they had their principal residence, and to their cottage in Cumbria, an attraction in itself, quite apart from the Dales setting, which is one of England's beauty spots. To offset possible imputations of grandiosity, Jonathan had set up near the house entrance a cardboard effigy of Colonel Sanders, acquired from some KFC establishment or other, I guess. Besides being the eminent publisher of the Black Mountain School (and Basil Bunting), Jonathan was an aficionado of homegrown Americana, witness his huge collection of American photographers celebrated and otherwise--not to mention publishing ventures like The White Trash Cookbook, which a regular tradebook house picked up and made a success of after Jonathan first brought it out. He had a sense of humor it's too mild to describe as irreverent. One of his favorite snapshots showed a little storefront somewhere in the South with the sign ONAN'S AUTO SHOP. His poems often as not are raucously funny, though I think it's fair to say that Tom is the better poet. A great original: if I close my eyes I see him big as life, over six feet tall, puffing on a panatela. What a delight to have known him. I spoke to Tom, who is bearing up very well, surrounded by friends, no doubt pausing at their big picture window from time to time, perfect for contemplating the misty peaks of Appalachia that Jonathan loved so well.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Back from New York

Home again, home again. A wonderful couple of days in the city, seeing friends, art shows, and meeting the public at the Stella Adler Gallery.

The editor, poet and translator Jonathan Galassi joined Philip and me for a drink on Wednesday, a chance to catch up on what we’ve been doing. Jonathan tells me a new book of poems is nearing completion and also that he will be following up on his excellent translation of Montale with new collection of versions of Leopardi. Something to look forward to.

We stayed a night with friends Karen Clark and Jonathan Bernstein, kind and generous hosts. And had time to fit in a visit to the Whitney Biennial in the afternoon. Too many thoughts about that to record here, though I sensed that there was a slight preponderance of women artists and an unusually high percentage of artists now living in Los Angeles, which is something to think about, especially given the cool, enigmatic, decontextualized feel of the show as a whole. Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker summed it up as “Lessness," a Beckettian term that handily describes many of the works, which do their damnedest to avoid overstatement.

The reading with my former student Ravi Shankar last night got a good turnout and was well received. Marie Ponsot had generously consented to introduce my part of the evening and what she said was in itself sufficient reason to bestir and transport oneself down to W. 27th Street. She is one of my heroes, personally and artistically, a touchstone of artistic commitment. Several close friends attended the evening, so that it felt very much like a family gathering. I opened my part of the proceedings by mentioning my one meeting with Stella Adler many years ago, when I attended a birthday party for a friend I used to see a bit in those days, the poet Kenward Elmslie (accompanied by another wonderful friend, the painter and poet Joe Brainard) at her place just opposite the Metropolitan Museum. I remember I was seated next to Ann Lauterbach, one of the most refreshing dinner partners ever—beautiful, smart, ironic. Lots of lively discussion around the dinner table because it was clear that Stella Adler didn’t care for polite chat and wanted real debate, sharp differences of opinion stated forthrightly. Was there a sense of theater? Yes, there was a sense of theater, and even the rooms felt larger than life, partly because the walls were covered with smoked mirrors, and glittering chandeliers hung from the ceiling. We all had to be “on,” and exerted ourselves to oblige.

As for last night, Ravi did a bang-up job, a reading that included a hiphop piece based on Whitman that brought down the house. And people said my part went well. Something for the scrapbook, except that I don’t have one. Well, maybe this is it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New York

My partner and I drove down to New York today, putting up at the Penn Club on 44th St., where he is a member. As soon as we checked in I went up to the Met Museum to see the Courbet exhibition that has had such an enthusiastic reception. It's extraordinarily comprehensive, though, unfortunately, Courbet's two greatest paintings weren't allowed to participate. Luckily I've seen them both before--The Burial at Ornans and The Studio. Anyway, a brilliant series of canvases. He was always controversial, in fact, he said, "As soon as I cease to be controversial, I will cease to be important." Controversy centered around his choice of subject matter--portrayal of ordinary country people as though they counted as much as figures in history painting, portrayal of unidealized nudes (including a lesbian couple), and then his proto-Impressionist handling of paint, which clearly influenced Manet, Cezanne, and Van Gogh. Late in life he refused the order of the Legion of Honor, as few French artists have ever done. He was even imprisoned after the defeat of the Paris Commune. I was looking forward to this and the experience went beyond expectations.

I took a slow bus ride down from the Museum, enjoying the prospect of Central Park and surrounding city towers. I spent most of my adult life in New York, and I always say there's no such thing as an ex-New Yorker. I've spent time in all the world capitals except Tokyo and Moscow, but New York is in its own class, a staggering blend of high and low, beauty and the other thing. A homecoming!

Tomorrow evening I have my reading at the Stella Adler Studio.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Arts Center at Almassera Vella

People may or may not have heard about the arts center Almassera Vella in a mountain village called Relleu near Alicante in southern Spain. In this pastoral location, a farsighted and friendly man named Christopher North has set up an innovative colony for practitioners of several arts. Classes are being held throughout the spring and into the summer. The week-long course I’ll be teaching there begins in late May. See the website at:

Friday, March 21, 2008

No more sacrifices

A week from today marks the sixty-seventh anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death by suicide. Maxine Kumin has reported that the suicide rate among dentists is higher than it is among writers, but I don’t know the source of her figures. I do know that authors who take their own lives are the object of a special reverence, a reverence not based on the quality of their work alone; and I wonder why. The most recent instance is Sarah Hannah whose posthumous book Inflorescence was published last year. Literary historians tell us that, during the year after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, hundreds of young men killed themselves. Apparently there is something like a literarily inspired suicide. In the United States, at the height of what has been called the “Confessional “ period, there was almost an epidemic of these: Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell (probably), John Berryman, Ann Sexton. A bit later, Thomas James, and then more recently the horrifying death of Reetika Vazirani. And I gather that many poetry students during the late sixties and early seventies took their lives before giving themselves to time to find out what they could do.

Why this morbidity? I don’t know the answer. But it disturbs me, and I wish it weren’t so. I don’t find suicide glamorous. No doubt there are cases of terminal and extraordinarily painful illness where choosing to put an end to suffering is in the best interests of the sufferer. Otherwise, a different solution should be sought. One contribution we could all make is to stop regarding suicide as proof of some extraordinary commitment or passion. Suicidal impulses are the result of mental illness and deserve sympathy and support; but not reverence.

In the period when Woolf died, there were no effective medications and psychotherapy was only rudimentary. We can understand why someone with a history of sexual abuse and recurrent schizophrenic episodes might decide late in life that she could no longer bear to continue, especially when the country that she loved was subject to constant bombing. But the present-day medical and psychotherapeutic climate is not what hers was; we have options that Woolf did not have. Intense emotional pain is treatable, it is not a death sentence.

This blog began with a mention of a new book of critical essays to be published later in the year. One of the essays is about Woolf’s suicide (and I’d like to say the piece was published several years before Michael Cunningham’s The Hours). Here is the concluding paragraph:

“It’s as painful as useless to speculate what Woolf might have gone on to write if the psychological difficulties she struggled with had been better understood in her day so that she could have regained her health and lived. What we can do is at least respect her difficult choice, go with her on that last walk to the river, try to see some of the beauty that she surely saw even then in the landscape, a sky beginning to cloud over, the black silhouette of a bird in the distance. We return accompanied not by her, alas, but by the gritty determination she left for us to take up when she could carry it no longer—to defy, to offer witness. Since her death, new avenues of freedom and well-being have been opened and are readily available. If hers was a sacrifice, it has been made: we need no others.”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Purim and Women

Spring comes a day earlier in a Leap Year, even though the weather in upstate New York isn’t playing along so far.

Thought: one form of poesis not usually recognized as such is the development of holidays and rituals based on sacred writings. In the Judaic calendar for this year today (beginning at sunset) is Purim, a holiday constructed around the narrative told in the book of Esther. It’s the most playful of the Jewish holidays, but it has serious content, specifically, around the intrinsic power of women. Without political or military power, without unusual physical strength, Esther nevertheless saves her captive nation from destruction. The story reminds us that women have always had, even when deprived of institutional or civic appointments, an uncanny ability to sway opinion and shape events. It is a power based on moral intelligence, access to emotion, the ability conferred thereby to inspire emotion in others, and a keen gift for communication. Which helps explain women’s success in literary art. Also, a flair for sensory (and sensuous) experience. And let’s not forget beauty, of a variety and range that would include the appeal of stars like Rita Moreno, Cate Blanchett, or Selma Hayek as well as figures from the arts like Judith Jamison, Grace Paley, Louise Erdrich, Francine Prose, and Marie Ponsot.

Speaking of the brilliant poet Marie Ponsot, now in her eighties and soon to publish a new book, she will be introducing a reading I will be giving on March 27 at the Stella Adler Studio (31 West 27th Street, New York, at 6:30 or shortly thereafter). My fellow reader is Ravi Shankar, whom I’ve known since he was a student in the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia. He has published one book of poems, Instrumentality, and has edited an anthology of Asian poetry in translation, scheduled with Norton for next month. Also, he is an editor of the online magazine Drunken Boat, mentioned in yesterday’s entry.

To finish up, here’s a plug for a new collection of essays titled Poet’s Bookshelf II, edited by Peter Davis and Tom Koontz. It’s a follow-up to the earlier volume I, and the premise for both installments is that a wide range of poets should provide a list of books that shaped their writing. Pieces like those by Sandra Alcosser, Rane Arroyo, Dan Bourne, Forrest Gander, Sandra Gilbert, Grace Schulman, and Lloyd Schwartz more than justify the price of admission, sometimes leading you to books you might want to read, and at the very least giving a sense of who the essayist is.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Hinterland

A blog isn’t the place to go into problems of this scope, but for some reason today I find myself annoyed again by the almost universal practice of hinting—not saying things directly but instead suggesting them, communicating through “masks,” using allegorical techniques to “send a message,” to “veil” what the speaker wants to say about a topic, a person, a work of art or a body of work. The most idiotic and cowardly form of this is the timed phone call, where the caller hangs up. There have been a lot of those lately. (I know, I know, I could get caller ID, but why should I have to?) Anyone intrigued by this subject might check out an essay I published in the online magazine Drunken Boat. Here’s the link:

An earlier post took up the question of courage; and clearly the source of so much indirection is cowardice, the fear of standing out from the herd, of having negative things said about you, of not getting good treatment from the various dispensers of literary fame. But where’s the surprise in that, considering the quality of American life today? Practically no one nowadays ever risks doing or saying anything that might incur censure or even loss of a free lunch. We have a wimpy Congress that has taken the war in Iraq lying down, we have a public that quickly falls into step if anyone calls their objections to what is happening at the national and international level “un-American.” (Why should any citizen of a country that invented freedom of speech, and especially a presidential candidate, have to apologize for observing that our history is intimately entwined with racism--see the Constitution--and that the effects of that history are still with us?) We have religious denominations that actively foster hypocrisy about sexuality and a press that falls into line where the missionary position on so-called “family values” are concerned. The reality is a bit more complex, as New York Governor David Patterson’s recent disclosures demonstrate. I want America back. The nation of freedom fighters—Washington, John Paul Jones, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Whitman, Emma Goldman, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser—has been replaced by a swarm of company men and hinters. They have their reward, in the form of consumer goods and medals. But the palm goes to figures like Noam Chomsky, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison, Marilyn Hacker, and Gore Vidal.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Five-Year Anniversary


Five seconds of fame drag them down
the screen, ranks, names, faces, ages:
Staff Sergeant Hannah Nagel, 24.
Private Tom Abeel, 19.
Major Luís Moreno, 33.
Lance Corporal Rafiq Ibrahim, 20.
Captain Roger Kean, 31.
Candid American faces, unblinking,
unafraid, unvenal, snapped
a year, two years ago, not yet reviled
or revered, the newscast’s evening crop.

Images swallowed up, transfigured,
launched into an unlived future.


On the Oval Office desk,
dead center, one hot white spot
lights the briefing’s final page.
A chief executive is working late,
behind him, tall windows onto
a sky petroleum black,
strewn with trembling sparks.


In another hemisphere noon towers over
a desert city where his signature ignited
hair, skin, and eyes of the unknown civilian.
One by one, for how many terrorized
hundred-thousands the precedent was set,
roofs, walls, thundering down on their screams.


He reaches to snap out the lamp, ambles
to a door that closes on his steps.
Official darkness. Clockwise stellar bodies,
in their long-term impartiality, continue
rinsing the blackboard,
rinsing the blackboard—
which in a decade, or a century,
will free itself from any obligation
to save a chalked-up tally of the cost.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Practical criticism. Let's start small. One thing to watch for in beginning to make evaluations is courage.

Cowardice never made an admirable woman or man, never made an admirable friend, never made an admirable government, and never made an admirable work of art.

"Land of the free and home of the brave." Brave enough to admit having made a mistake? Brave enough to back down from an unjust war? Brave enough to call things by their real names? To get off the safe and comfortable track and convey what you actually feel? To risk unpopularity? If not, no land of the free. (Ta-ta-dum and other appropriate fanfare.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Three Fictional Lives



Who, glimpsing her crow silhouette
against a lamplit wall that night
of fog and mizzle, would ever know?
A damp trudge home with headcold sniffles,
which had been maddening to stifle
during the long hour while a famous
name recited to a packed house.

The mirror gives her a strange look
so she reopens his new book
and tries to read. It’s useless, though.
You’d almost prefer something uncouth.
If asked, she’d turn from the bookshelves
to say, We write of course for ourselves—
and no doubt blush for the half-truth.


The laureate he most admired wrote
back, just once. A world of finesse
in small black script! The other letters
went unanswered—which hurt, but then
it freed him from at least the guilt
that goes with stealing time from writers,
who need their hours at the desk.

Bless Dickinson! He told a friend
the story of her handmade booklets.
His own raw efforts cried and pled,
so at last he got them printed and bound
at the copier’s: one blue, one red,
one black. Felice, after he died,
would read them, once. And when she died….


Original but solemn, you didn’t
know a soul, no one who read much.
Sometimes perception stood and spoke,
and the ground buckled, planets wheeled—
but feeling alone’s no guarantee.
What to do with all these unsent
messages, put them in a bottle?
Plenty of empties lay around.
A page took down the pangs, line
upon line. And then? Then turned. Was gone.
At dusk, high treetops strained against
word and structure, each backlit leaf
rattling, shooting the dark rapids….
And day dawned with a perfect stillness.

(from Present, 1997)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Fame and How It Operates

What I hope to do over the next month or so is build toward a practical criticism, some guidelines about how to evaluate a poem, a book, a poet. There needs to be an antidote to today's anything-goes relativism, if only (as suggested in an earlier post) to address the problem of arbitrariness when decisions are made concerning support for artists. Which impinges on public policy, considering that not only the NEA but private foundations offering funds for the arts ultimately pass on part of the bill to the taxpayer. That’s the “hard” part of the question, and so may interest more people than the “soft” part—aesthetics itself, which is my real interest here.

The way to begin is by saying what is NOT a proof of lasting value. You’d think that every intelligent person would already be aware that fame per se proves nothing. But, judging by the evidence, I’m afraid the arguments have to be reconsidered. I don’t know if any psychologist has done research on the psychology of fandom. But even without it a few observations can be made. People like to herd together, they like to be bound up in a community (if only for a brief period) of participatory admiration. The most extreme current example of this is the rock concert, which borders on collective delirium. Elias Canetti, among others, wrote powerfully about the phenomenon of the crowd, a whole that is scarier than the sum of its parts. Fandom of any kind, at a milder level, can partake of this same community excitement and affirmative group admiration. Hence contemporary celebrity culture, which can seize on any individual, turn her or him into an “icon,” and guarantee a large fan base, irrespective of any outstanding qualities the “icon” may be discovered to possess or not. Apparently collective adoration of any given figure—from Princess Diana, to Tiger Woods, to Anna Nicole Smith—provides a deep sense of pleasure and security, intensely desired in a world where solid ground is hard to find. The single individual has trouble making decisions about which thing or person has real value; and relinquishes private judgment in favor of groupthink as a way of feeling safe. If you adore a star, you partake, in some small degree, of the radiance of that star, even one so insignificant as Paris Hilton.

And guess what: the process operates in the arts as well as media culture. The more famous you become, the more fans you acquire and the more famous you become. The herd instinct takes over. A given individual, encountering a new work by the reigning star might secretly find the work unsatisfactory—but then is afraid to admit to doubts in the face of the surrounding sea of approval. When there are no reliable standards of judgment, people rely on the shortcut of fame to decide which work and which artist to admire. After prominent figures in the arts achieve a certain level of fame, it becomes impermissible to question or even qualify their achievement—impermissible because “mean-spirited,” “ill-mannered,” “part of an agenda.” So much for J.S. Mill and the ideal of free debate.

How reliable a guide is fame? Not reliable at all. The most famous American novel of the 19th century wasn’t Moby-Dick, it was not The Scarlet Letter, not The Awakening, not Portrait of a Lady: It was Augusta Evans’s St. Elmo. Ever read it? Ever even heard of it? Probably not. Contemporary fame is a poor preservative. True, there are instances where great fame in an author’s lifetime continues on in subsequent centuries. But much more typical is the picture of neglect and even derogation. Dickinson’s poems were known to less than a dozen readers in her life, including a devoted fan named Helen Hunt Jackson, who was very famous as a poet in that day. When Melville died, he was out of print, utterly forgotten, or if remembered, remembered as a failure. Billy Budd survived in manuscript only. And so on.

How does individual fame begin and how does it increase? A huge question. To keep it manageable, let’s narrow it down to poetry and poets in the United States in the last several decades. First of all, reviews. No, back up. The editorial assigning of reviews. An editor cannot assign all books that come in and can’t possibly read all of them, either. A review assignment is based on either word of mouth (in short, connections) or publicity materials sent with a given book, including jacket comments (also a product of connections). Usable connections for a poet starting out can range from a professor in an MFA program, a mentor (however acquired), a family member who is already an established writer or editor, or a partner who is that. It was always rare for a poet with no connections of any kind to make her or his way; in the current scene, where there are thousands of contenders for any available niche, it is a practical impossibility.

Reviewers may or may not have the training that suggests they have the ability to make sound judgments about new books. Looking at the “credentials” for reviewers often featured in poetry publications now, I’m struck by how thin most of these are. You sense that they are often personal friends of the editor, and there would be nothing necessarily wrong with that if other solid qualifications could be found. Soon, very soon, a reviewer’s qualifications become that she or he has reviewed, and that seems nowadays to be enough, especially if reviews appear in spotlit magazines like The Sunday Times Book Review or Poetry.

No matter. Reviews are taken seriously. A rave in the Times almost unfailingly leads to a nomination for one or more of the three main book prizes, the NBCC, the NBA, or the Pulitzer. Sometimes the nominee wins; and such laurels are avenues to fame at the national and international level. If you look at the list of prizewinners, you will see that many of the names appear several times. Winning one prize increases the chance of winning another. Several authors have won all three. Meanwhile, prize committees are faced with the same problem of faction and disagreement about aesthetics. Forced to compromise, they often take the safe way out and pick someone who has already gone gold in previous competitions. Prizewinning, like fame in general, is a self-reinforcing process. The more you are perceived as a winner, the larger the number of your admirers--some of these reviewers who will reinforce the group evaluation. Each time a book is not awarded prize increases the probability the author will not receive a later one. A first-rate poet (like Robert Pinsky) can move through most of his career and never receive any of the three major prizes, even though there is ample evidence of his value elsewhere, including the Poet Laureateship.

I wish I were able to believe that prize committees made their choices without reference to what that choice would do for the committee itself. But, sadly, over the years, I've seldom discovered much that resembles impartiality (as, for example, the possibility that a prize might be given to someone belonging to a rival faction). Most often a book is selected not for what it actually is, but instead what it suggests. At least we are moving toward full disclosure in the matter of the awarding process. In the old days, Pulitzer composition of the judging committees was kept secret, a feature perhaps lending an extra mystique to the oldest and most lucrative American book prize. The decision could seem like a decision made by American poetry itself, and as such unchallengeable. Now we have disclosure; we know who the judges are and can adjust our sights accordingly, which is as it should be. But there are other holdouts, for example, the MacArthur and the Lambda Book Award.

Another avenue to fame is having a famous critic as your champion. Beginning in the Sixties, this was Harold Bloom, who greatly advanced the fame of poets like Ashbery, Ammons, and Merrill. In the mid-Seventies he began to review less and his own pre-eminence came under fire, so that an endorsement from him (say, in a jacket comment) counted for less. Since around 1976, the critic most listened to has been Helen Vendler, a monopoly based partly on her skills as a close reader of poetry, partly on her clear, easily readable prose, and partly on the fact that she wrote—and not just occasionally—for the Times, The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, and then for a while was the only reviewer of poetry at The New Yorker. When she joined the English faculty at Harvard, her prestige rose a bit further. She is a passionate and tireless advocate (and this speaks well for her) of the poets she admires—Ashbery, Heaney, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Milosz, Charles Wright—and a formidable opponent of those she doesn’t like. She has sometimes championed a poet and then later on changed her mind—two such examples being Dave Smith and Rita Dove. But during the period of her partisanship, any poet she writes about will prosper. Nor are reviews and critical essays the only way she exercises influence. She is famous for writing lengthy, enthusiastic letters of recommendation and for sitting on committees that determine which poets will be funded. She is a careful, sensitive critic when she writes about the classic poets, who do not need to be discovered—Shakespeare, Herbert, Keats, Stevens. And former students of hers tell me that she is a marvelous teacher. I share her liking for some members of her group of favored contemporary poets, but not all; and there are many poets of unmistakable value she has no use for. (Derek Walcott and Adrienne Rich, to name two.) She is only interested in lyric poetry, preferably lyrics of Stevensian difficulty. Any whiff of political content disqualifies a poem for her, including feminist content. She dislikes narrative poetry, dramatic monologues, comic poems. She saves her highest praise for grave, philosophical rumination, especially when abstruse. This might not matter; we’re all entitled to the taste that we can support with cogent, text-based argument. Unfortunately, what it has meant is that the poets she doesn’t like only in rare cases move into the glowing center of public recognition. This allegation has been made before now, and it is always denied. Professor Vendler says that she does not make reputations, that only poets can establish the reputation of other poets. But the evidence suggests a different view. Professor Vendler has earned the right to her opinion where contemporary poetry is concerned. It should not, however, be the only opinion that counts. American poetry is too large and varied to be contained within the Vendlerian aesthetic. And it’s time that less famous critics like Adam Kirsch, Langdon Hammer, Joan Retallack, Reginald Shepherd, and D.H. Tracy should be heard.

Once fame has been established by reviews and prizes, the famous poet becomes a new source of fame for others--through recommendations, jacket comments, the judging of prizes, and participation in hiring committees. And if you have patronage of any kind to dispense, your fame index is likely to rise, for obvious reasons. Finally, institutions like the Academy of Arts and Letters will step in to add the final endorsement. They remind me of the velvet rope put up outside smart restaurants and cool clubs: they stimulate the desire of those outside to get inside. And admission is never free. We know that membership in the Académie Française is secured by courtship; aspirants call on each existing member and try to establish a sense of solidarity. It’s like canvassing for votes. Nothing so blatant is required in the American equivalent, but, as said, membership isn't donated.

There is another way to become famous: Start an aesthetic movement. When you do that, you move literature out of the fiction-world and into the fact-world. Movements can be written about in non-fiction articles, which will interest readers probably even more than the fictive works themselves. (See the earlier post on autobiographical writing.) Experimental poetry has been around for a long time but it really got going once all the diverse experimental approaches could be lumped together under the heading of LANGUAGE poetry. Meter and rhyme was never not being used in English-language poetry, but no one made anything of that fact until the so-called “New Formalism” got started in the early Eighties. We now seem to be living in a period like the teens of the early 20th century, when almost every season heralded a new poetic movement—Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Imagism, Ultraism, Dada, Surrealism—and the hoax movement Spectrism. And why not? Movements can be written up in the media, they launch careers. Eventually any given movement dissolves, either because it no longer is news or because the diverse artists lumped together under the heading decide they have nothing much in common, now that they are famous. Aesthetic movements can be said to belong more to the history of publicity than of poetry itself; but never mind.

The question, “Is fame (or the lack of it) a reliable gauge for the value of a poet?” can be answered simply by listing. On one hand, Southey, Felicia Hemans, Edgar Guest; on the other, Blake, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins. We need a more reliable way of deciding what has lasting value.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

New Formalism: A Misnomer

There’s a review in the Sunday Times Book Review today of Mary Jo Salter’s new and selected poems (A Phone Call to the Future), written by James Longenbach. The review is titled “Formalities,” and Longenbach does what reviewers always do when dealing with this poet. Once again he brings up the tired issue of the so-called “New Formalism,” as somehow being the key issue where Salter’s poetry is concerned. It’s not a tack anyone takes when discussing the work, for example, of Paul Muldoon, who has used meter, rhyme, and verseform almost from the beginning of his career. Anyway, Salter was not one of the original group (Mark Jarman, Robert McDowell, Dana Gioia, Charles Martin, and R.S. Gwynn) who launched a campaign in the early 80s to revive the use of meter and rhyme in American poetry. Nor did the group call themselves the “New Formalists.” The term was devised by Ariel Dawson in an article unfavorable to the movement, published in 1984 in the AWP Newsletter. Anyone who now uses meter and rhyme, whether or not included in any anthologies put together by members of this movement, is likely to be called “a New Formalist” or at least a “formalist.”

The term is inaccurate on several counts. Begin with the “New.” The adjective suggests that no poet used meter and rhyme between the years 1922, say, when The Waste Land was published, and 1982,when the movement began. To believe that you have to ignore post-1922 Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, John Crowe Ransom, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan, Richard Wilbur, Weldon Kees, Gwendolyn Brooks, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Thom Gunn, John Hollander, James Merrill, Josephine Jacobsen, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Hayden Carruth, Jane Cooper, James Wright, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Marie Ponsot, Marilyn Hacker, and Grace Schulman. There was never a decade in the 20th century when meter and rhyme were not used and used well. So how can you call it “New”?

Now for “Formalism.” The term was first used by Roman Jakobson around 1915 to describe a critical method devised to apply to Russian poetry of the time. The method placed little or no emphasis on content; its main concern was form—sound, rhythm, diction, syntax, and tone. Literary language was viewed as having a purely literary purpose, not with communicating psychological, social or philosophical truth. So why use the term “Formalist” to describe some poets merely because their resources include meter and rhyme? I do not believe any 20th century American poet writing metrical poems was indifferent to content or used it merely as a convenience designed to achieve literariness. Look at the above list. Meanwhile, every poem has formal qualities; free verse poems have form, sometimes termed “organic form.” If you’re not interested in form, you write prose. And even prose has a species of form. Why does no one refer to poets writing in organic form as “formalist”? It’s superfluous, since all poetry has form. Nor do I hear anyone call Keats or Dickinson “formalists,” and they always used meter. The only reason to call a poet or poem “formalist” is to summon pejorative connotations. “Formal” quickly bleeds into “formality” (see the title of the Salter review above). It suggests “formal dress”—black tie, floor-length gowns, polite discourse, etiquette, pomp and circumstance. (Not that all these things don’t exert a powerful draw on a large segment of the population. I once watched the Country Music Awards show, and what were the participants all wearing? Black tie, formal gowns, jewels. Also, more and more weddings nowadays are formal affairs, held at night, where the groom even wears tails and the bride—well, you know.)

All of which suggests elitism and conservatism. But there’s no intrinsic connection (as is sometimes claimed) between traditional prosody and right-wing politics, witness Bertolt Brecht, Auden, Rukeyser, Brooks, Lowell, Walcott, Heaney, Hacker, Rafael Campo, and Reginald Shepherd. It was Pound, the free verse promoter, who was Fascist. As for elitism, go to the Ford Motor factory during coffee-break and read the assembly-line people a rhymed poem by Frost; then read them a poem by, say, Ron Silliman. Ask them which one they like better. It’s going to be Frost every time. Meter and rhyme are what the salt of the earth prefer. Pop music has it, rap artists have it, comic poetry has it. It ain’t elitist. To appreciate all the current experimental poetries, you need quite a fancy education. Which doesn’t make them invalid, it just narrows their readership to an elite, one that ought to be acknowledged as such. Face facts: prosody doesn’t belong to any particular demographic, it cuts across all classes.

Using it, though, is no guarantee of artistic success. Some of the poets associated with so-called New Formalism are howlingly bad. But then so are hundreds and hundreds of free verse poets. Maybe it’s a little easier to tell when a poem using traditional prosody is a dud. Any poet who lacks extraordinary verbal, rhythmic, and syntactic skills should completely avoid meter and rhyme. It’s easier to hide behind free verse; failure will be less cruelly exposed.

In discussing artworks, I’m a great proponent of the continuum approach, the “sliding scale.” As one person who left a comment on an earlier post pointed out, all texts, including memoirs, are “fictions.” Yes, in a sense. But some are more fictional than others. If I say, in a memoir or poem, that I was born in Sarajevo in 1914, I’m being wildly fictional—too fictional to be trusted, in fact. If I say I drove across the United States in the summer of 1969, the statement is, to a degree, fiction: I actually took the bus. There’s a sliding scale of measurement. In the same way, some poems are more traditionally prosodic than others. Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” though shaped by standard prosodic practice, doesn’t follow the rules strictly. It’s on a continuum between strictness and ad hoc decision-making about line and rhyme. And it certainly has edgy progressive and psychological content. Lowell is only one of many who use a degree of traditional prosody in the composition of their poems. Salter is another.

(Full disclosure: Probably about half of the poems I’ve published use meter, and maybe ten percent rhyme. I’ve also published a study of prosody, The Poem’s Heartbeat. It has gone out of print, and, if you try to get a used copy on Amazon, the price may spike to $75 or $100. But a new edition of the book will be available again in October, published by Copper Canyon Press.)

Those who do use prosody should be praised as risk-takers, considering how chancy success in this mode is. The apprenticeship is long and arduous. Oh, your bumper sticker says, “I’d Rather Be Sailing”? Maybe you should be. Come to think of it, though, the art of sailing isn’t, itself, so easy to master. Or running the marathon. Or performing the tango. Or ski-jumping. Or scat singing. Or mountain-climbing. Or playing the guitar. The fascination with what’s difficult is one of the things that makes us human.

Friday, March 7, 2008


I heard an interesting word from Chris Anderson (of Wired magazine) last night while Charlie Rose was interviewing him: “granularity.” In Webspeak it refers to the smallness of social groups formed by Internet interaction. The universality of the Web allows people with esoteric interests to meet (electronically) and club together, even if the club contains only five members. Those five members might be, for example, people who are crazy about the "Siuru" movement in Estonian poetry just after the First World War. This is "granularity."

Another vogue word applied to the U.S. poetry subculture is “balkanization.” It’s a way of describing the process of subdividing poets and poetry readers into ever-smaller factions—and, alas, warring factions. I’m not sure at what point the Poetics people started using a plural for “poetry” and began referring to “poetries.” That was one way of dealing with the evident fact that practitioners of experimental poetry weren’t trying to do the same kind of thing, and, moreover, regarded other approaches to poesis as failures in theoretical correctness. The debate was no longer about what was “pc” but instead what was “tc.”

Meanwhile, mainstream poetry also began to split up, in accordance with geography, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, politics, and technical approaches (for example, “formalism,” “free verse” and “spoken word.”) Of course the grids could sometimes be plural and superimposed, a phenom that tended to divide rather than unite, resulting in further “granularity.”

A good thing or a bad thing? Both. What is the point of proclaiming freedom of expression if it doesn’t actually apply? People should make the art they want to make, and that art will find whatever audience it finds. If you happen to like pistachio-raspberry ice cream with Oreo crumbles, who has the right to tell you you shouldn’t like it? The Declaration of Independence says we should be guaranteed "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; and happiness is as we define it. Cultural analysts of modern, Western-style democracies speak of “the desiring subject,” a citizen whose desires are supported by government and commerce. In effect, this is the individual consumer, accorded a choice of fifty brands of cereal, cars, bars, movie stars, and, nowadays, aesthetic theories. We know that in contemporary visual art all approaches are now permissible, everything from James Currin’s revival of Old Master painting techniques (though used for edgy subject matter) to installation, Conceptual work, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, digital photography, video—anything you can name. Contemporary music, even within the Pop-rock genre differs wildly in technique and scope, and serious music is now being written in traditional tonality along with every other conceivable approach. In short, pluralism reigns everywhere and the old motto E pluribus unum has been turned inside out: Out of one, many. That is freedom: Desire is the final arbiter.

Now for the disadvantages. “Granularity” means that no single practitioner among all these competing poetries can have an audience large enough to support her or him. Rival factions devalue what other granular groups are doing and discourage crossover. Back in the day, T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas could fill a stadium for their readings. No poet can now do that, though I suppose John Ashbery would come closest to bringing it off; and even then some of the audience would be there to heckle. No, we’re really lucky if 150 people show up. (Robert Frost: “Hell is a half-empty auditorium.) I’m told that in the Mormon faith, good Mormons are rewarded in the afterlife by getting their own little planet, where they reign supreme. The contemporary poetry scene is like Mormon Heaven.

Another problem is the question of evaluation. How do we screen out good poems from bad, when there’s no agreement whatsoever about standards? The critical method of saying, “Every poem composed according to my tc is good, and every poem not composed in accordance with it is bad” isn’t going to fly. So then should we just dispense with any systematic process of critical evaluation? Well, maybe. But if we do, if we say, “I like what I like, and that’s all that matters,” where do we end up? Those who teach poetry workshops will have no ground to stand on when their critical comments get the answer, "Well, that's just your aesthetic, it's not mine. I wanted the poem to be vague." Also, reviewing becomes an exercise in pure subjectivity. Choosing books for prizes becomes impossible—or else it is understood as being nothing more than an expression of personal taste, not impinging on anyone else’s taste. It’s a stance that removes all substantive content from the process of focusing positive attention on some works at the expense of others. And awarding grants to some poets becomes equally meaningless or, again, simply a “political” instead of an aesthetic action.

The economic side of things is worth considering, too. Gone are the days when a poet necessarily had to live in what I.B. Singer called “the holiness of poverty.” A “poet in residence” at a major university can expect a salary of six figures. The MacArthur grant offers between a half million and three-quarters of a million to its recipients. The Wallace Stevens Prize is (I believe) $150,000, and the Lilly (I think) $100,000. And so on with Lannans and Whitings and Guggenheims and NEAs. Reading fees for the famous are often $5000 and in some cases $20,000. I know of at least three millionaire poets, I mean, poets who didn’t inherit their bank accounts. If your temperament isn’t bothered by the aesthetic side of the debate about demonstrable value, possibly it will be when discussion turns to the economic issues involved in deciding who deserves support.

Presumably, those whose arguments for a particular aesthetic (developed in conjunction with a practical criticism, with clearly defined measures for success or failure) should carry the day over their less persuasive rivals. But have we seen that happen? I don’t think so. Over the past years the prose section of Poetry magazine has staged a series of debates on what standards should be applied in evaluating poems, and apparently no one is the wiser—that is, no progress has been made toward consensus. Things just seem to become more and more granular all the time.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Truth and Consequences

This week’s publishing scandal is about Margaret B. Jones’s fabricated memoir Love and Consequences, an account of her youth as a drug runner in a Los Angeles gang, which turns out to be pure fiction. Think of it as James Frey, Chapter Two. (James Frey’s purported memoir A Million Little Pieces, a down-and-out tale of drugs and woe was discovered to be mostly fiction last year, prompting a debate that no doubt helped make Frey much more famous than he otherwise would have been.) Old Latin motto: Sive bonum sive malum, fama est. (Whether good or bad, it’s still fame. Or, in media-speak, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”)

Appropriate standards of verifiablity are a hot topic in discussions of memoir writing these days, but it’s not my subject here. Instead, I want to look at the readership’s preference for fact over fiction, and how this bears on presumably autobiographical writing in poetry.

Everyone in contemporary publishing knows that non-fiction books far outsell fiction. Why does fiction interest readers less? A couple of theories: In a competitive society, fact is an equivalent to money; it is “hard” and negotiable, and may help you acquire the real thing. Fiction is seen as “soft,” little more than somebody’s dream world—an entertainment, perhaps, but not especially helpful as you struggle to outdistance your fellow citizens. Or: Modern science has raised the prestige of proven fact by turning scientific discoveries into a pragmatic technology that can improve our health and our living standard. What comparable thing can fiction do for us?

Several years ago I published a novel titled Part of His Story, written in the first-person by a male narrator roughly my age, who had lived in New York and London. He, too, was a writer, but a playwright, and theater is the one form I’ve never worked in. Resemblance between author and narrator pretty much stopped there, and his name was different from mine. In the months after publication, when I gave bookstore readings, time and again people would come up after and ask me, "Is it an autobiographical novel?" When I said it wasn’t, I could always see they were disappointed. Fiction isn’t as highly prized as fact. The ability to invent, imagine, and make events seem real doesn’t make a strong impression. Only what has actually happened interests the broad public.

Beginning around 1959, many American poets began emphasizing the autobiographical aspect of their art, tapping into a long tradition of autobiographical writing that includes Ovid, Dante, Villon, Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Pope, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Dickinson, Hardy, Frost, Crane, Auden, Rukeyser, and others. More specifically, authors like W.D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, Ann Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Adrienne Rich began writing about taboo subjects—sex, divorce, drunkenness, pills, insanity, suicide, what have you. The critic M.L. Rosenthal named this trend the “Confessional School,” even though it really had nothing to do with Christianity or the sacrament of confession. It was hailed as bringing a new honesty and authenticity onto the scene, taking poetry out of the mythological groves of academe and putting it squarely in the center of American life as actually lived. Eliot’s ideal of “impersonality” was scrapped. The period coincides with the rise of public interest in non-fiction, as opposed to fiction. And clearly some of the appeal of the “Confessional School” resides in the perceived notion that the authors are telling the truth, the real dirt about their experience. This was stuff that readers could use as they tried to negotiate their way through the labyrinth of American life in an era of turbulent change.

At least one of these poets (Lowell) admitted in interviews that his so-called confessions were partly made up. The extent to which other purportedly truth-telling poets were inventing is moot. And the problem is still with us. I can think of an instance of a well-known contemporary poet (Sharon Olds) who has written many poems about being abused by an alcoholic father. In an interview she was asked to give the actual details and declined to do so in order to “protect the poems,” as she said. Which is a way of indicating that some of the accounts are at least partly fictional. Why not just say that? I speculate that she realized most readers experienced the poems as being factual; and that their participation in the poems, their identification, would be marred if they knew what they were reading was fiction. When we read texts portraying the sufferings of an author, we almost automatically feel sympathy for what they have undergone. The more piercing their agony, the more we want to alleviate it, and praise is one way to do that. Which remains true even when the presentation of agony is deficient in artistic quality. Actually, we can view clumsiness as one more sign of authenticity, as though the author were in so much pain she or he couldn’t be bothered with niceties like economy, taut syntax, vivid metaphor, freshness of expression, or rhythmically alert lines.

Poets who make it all up may not be aware that they can find justification in the tradition if they look for it. Consider Sidney’s “But the poet...nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writeth.” (The Defense of Poetry). And so it was for centuries, where fiction interested readers as much or more than fact. But of course the situation has now changed.

I took an informal survey among my poet friends in this topic, and found that they all reserved the right to invent; and I don’t mean invent poems in dramatic voice, where a character with a name not the author's tells a story that differs from that author's biography. All my poet friends felt authorized to invent lyric narratives and present them in the first-person singular, in the present day, and composed of situations that sounded generally plausible. Myself, I don’t feel comfortable casting fictions in the first-person singular unless they’re presented as belonging to a character designated as someone not myself. In this, I’m a small minority; the only other poet I know of who shares this view (or so I’ve read) is Ted Kooser.

Maybe this anecdote will explain the scruple. I attended a poetry reading once where the featured poet read a poem about the death of his little girl. People came up afterwards, and I happened to be in earshot when a middle-aged woman with a tragic expression spoke to the poet and said, “I was so moved by your poem about your daughter dying. You see, I’m in the same situation.” He looked at her and shook his head. “I never had a daughter. That was a poem. Poems are fictions.” She turned away and I could see that she was furious, that she felt betrayed. That seemed justified to me.

If we’re living in an age where memoir writers are being criticized for passing off fiction as truth, maybe it’s time to examine purportedly autobiographical poetry as well. How close is it to what actually happened? I can think of another instance where a poet involved in a messy divorce wrote nasty poems about the estranged partner—poems that were highly fictionalized. They weren’t Confessional poems, really, because they didn’t stick to the facts; or you could say that to the extent they were Confessional poems, they confessed the sins of someone else. Sympathy based on these inventions was forthcoming, in fact, it resulted in career advancement for the fictional poet. Is this an abuse? I think so. And I recall something Dr. Johnson said (the citation may not be perfect) in his comments on Lycidas: “He who has the leisure for fiction feels no true grief.” All right, he doesn't have to. But let's not feel so sorry for him then.