Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New Jersey and Poetry

A few days ago I took a trip to New Jersey, which sounds less interesting than the trip actually proved to be. I wonder if anyone has written an article or book about poetry and the Garden State? I suppose the study could begin with Camden, the last dwelling of Whitman and the location of his grandiose tomb. For the twentieth century, the overshadowing figure is Williams, and anyone enthusiastic about American Modernism has to make the pilgrimage to Paterson and maybe Rutherford as well, as I did many years ago. The choice of Paterson as the site for Williams’s American epic is odd, even allowing for the fact that the author wanted to write about his immediate environment. But he shows that the city has an interesting geology and historic past and that it is in some ways emblematic for American history in general. You also sense a certain anxiety, an anxiety of avoidance, call it, with respect to the megalopolis whose towers you see from the eastern part of the state. Note, too, that the poem ends with a vista of the great city on the Hudson. The poem startled everyone when it appeared because it included prose documents relevant to its subject. In so doing, Williams was taking Pound of The Cantos a step further, and Pound himself can be understood as working in a tradition established by Whitman, who wrote “documentary” poems like “Song of the Exposition” and other poems that include factual information about the United States in the second half of the 19th century. I used to have a quote from Octavio Paz (now mislaid)about this aspect of the American tradition. Our willingness to include hard fact in our poems sets us apart from the Continental European tradition and its Latin American inheritors, a tradition which always strives to move poetic subjects into the realm of timeless myth, dream, or psychological interiority. This is a bit less true for British poetry, which is nurtured in a strongly empirical philosophical tradition. (Two days ago was the 210th anniversary of the composition of Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour.” We know that because he dated the poem “July 13, 1798,” surely the first time a poem was assigned a date, but not the last.)

Paterson is also remarkable for its inclusion of letters from one of Williams’s woman readers, who outlines the dilemma of women in a social order that relegates them to a secondary position, merely on the basis of gender, not ability. Some of the letters accuse Williams directly, and it's hard to imagine any of Williams’s contemporaries making room in their poems for this sort of critique. We can view it as a form of masochism or else a commitment to justice. I don’t, for my part, see how it is possible to have such commitments without seeing oneself as, to a greater or lesser degree, in the wrong. It’s difficult or impossible always to do the right thing, and more characteristic of the American temperament to self-praise and blame others rather than to engage in “autocritique.” American as he was, Williams was able to take stock and find himself wanting—as did Whitman in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” Some poems of Lowell’s and Berryman’s acknowledge wrong-doing, but these are rare examples in our poetry.

Part of my Jersey excursion involved Atlantic City, which is hard to explain except as part of a decades-long project to see every large or notable city in America. I’ve been in all fifty states and visited all their cities except Las Vegas and Milwaukee. (Invitations welcome.) Anyway, an excursion to Atlantic City is like suddenly finding yourself in the “Monopoly” board game, because the street names are the same, big hotels are everywhere (often fused with the casinos), and the overwhelming motive for both topoi is greed. So Atlantic City is a little compendium of the United States, with a good percentage of these contributing a street name. The extreme contrasts of prodigal expenditure and desperate poverty are also very American. A common idiom in our version of English is the phrase, “You bet!” and staking everything on a single roll of the dice is as American as cherry pie. Uncle Sam has set up here a paradise for venture capitalism--at least, it used to be. And if we seem these days to be losing our shirts, maybe Fortune’s wheel will turn in our favor again a few years down the pike. Or maybe it won’t, and we’ll end up like Atlantic City’s street people, shirtless, penniless, homeless, and gazing out at dawn over the sea, a blaze of visionary stupor in our eyes.

My trip also took me down the shore route on the long sand bar that begins at Ocean City and continues down to Cape May—surely one of the largest aggregates of vacation houses in America (hundreds of them now up for sale). But the wetlands along the way provide a welcome relief from repetitive beach architecture, and, just south of Strathmere, you find the natural preserve of Corson’s Inlet State Park. I read Ammons’s poem of that name for years without ever bothering to determine where it was. It’s not in the Outer Banks of North Carolina as I assumed, but in the New Jersey equivalent. I’m guessing he discovered it during the years when he was employed in his father’s glass-making business, which was located in New Jersey. Imagine a maritime confluence of sand dunes, water, wetlands, and sea, all blending into each other as the poems describes. It’s the poem of Ammons’s I like best, along with “The City Limits.” But I confess to being not much interested in the bulk of Ammons’s poetry, certainly not his epic Sphere: The Form of a Motion. Something went wrong in Ammons’s career, and I don’t know enough about his life to say what. Fame? Teaching? Bad marriage? Alcohol? Maybe it's fair to say that constructing a career in poetry is comparable to a game of Monoploy or a night at Caesar's Palace.

Princeton is not so much local as national and international, the university poets in, but not of, New Jersey. In recent decades the best poems about the state were written by Robert Pinsky, a native son, and Stephen Dunn, who lives in Port Republic. On the return trip I made a detour to Robert’s home town, Long Branch, which was a resort in the 19th century, less so when Robert grew up, but now a notable one again, with huge, luxury vacation condominiums built along the seafront. Remnants of the small town pictured in Pinsky’s poetry are still to be seen, as well as the long concrete walk above the beach he speaks of. But I don’t know if he still has relatives that live there. As for the New Jersey poems by August Kleinzahler, I don’t see much in them. This is a poet that everyone else seems to adore, so it’s apparently a blind spot of mine. Fortune’s wheel: who can make it spin slower or faster? Faites vos jeux, messieurs. “Place your bets, gentlemen.”) And then, Rien ne va plus. (“No more bets.”) Some will end up with a hotel on Boardwalk or Park Place, and some will Go Directly to Jail, without passing Go or collecting $100. Albert Einstein of the Princeton Institute said he didn't believe God threw dice, but quantum physics suggests the opposite. Life in the aleatory universe, love it or leave it.


32poems.com said...

I enjoyed visiting Whitman's grave in Camden. The cemetery is wooded and quite the peaceful contrast to the neighborhood outside the gates.

Last week, I returned from the Jersey shore. It's surprising how beautiful the NJ landscape can be away from the highways.

Anonymous said...

I always wonder if Williams had read Muriel Rukeyser's Book of the Dead, which seems to be a "pioneer" long poem in its use of documentary material (court testimony and medical reports relating to the Gauley Bridge strip-miners with brown lung disease) annealed to the text with invented or partially invented (utilising testimony and interviews) dramatic monologues.

Did Williams get as much flak as Robert Lowell did for the inclusion of the woman's correspondence?

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks, Marilyn, for reminding us of Rukeyser's pioneering work. Though I don't recall WCW's making any mention of the poem, he is almost certain to have read it. The number of "serious" poets was much smaller in that era, and everyone read everyone else, even those poets they didn't feel much affinity with. I suppose another source might have been Dos Passos's fiction. But I'm not a Williams expert and all my comments about him are tentative.

Anonymous said...

Rukeyser is one of those "unacknowledged legislators" in the Modernist canon-- though the Book of the Dead was quite widely read in 1938 when it appeared (in the same collection as her Spanish Civil War poems). One would think that she and Ginsberg had a lot in common too, especially in the use of "Whitmanian" measures.