American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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Paying Major Heed to Minor Poets

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Or not minor, no, definitely not, just underappreciated. Or better: insufficiently understood …

A few days ago Ron Silliman linked to a recent post of mine, Paying Little Mind to Major Poets. Today he has a response (link here). It’s a thoughtful note, and I’m thankful to Ron for working through my remarks so carefully, even if he does focus on the effect (my insistence on the importance of Marianne Moore — and dislike of others — and the rewriting of history that proposes), ignoring what I said about the cause (reading’s affective resistances and attractions, themselves historicizable, and the potentially distorting effects they have on understanding). The short answer, though, is that Ron is right: I am, at bottom, hallucinating a world — a future world from which the past looks very different than it does today.

The issue for me is when such hallucinations, which is to say errors, become legitimate revisions of understanding. Is the dividing line purely subjective? Or is it a matter of polemical interpretation? Or something susceptible of verification? If the last, what else could this verification be, if not the work done as a result? For instance, if Language Poetry is a reading of the New York School in which Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer are, counter-intuitively, more central than Berrigan, Berkson, and Padgett, what might the test of that reading be, if not Language Poetry itself? (And if you think, as I do, that the first three names are as significant as the last three, then Language Poetry has gone far toward passing the test, even if you don’t think you like it.) [1]

But beyond the issue of error vs. understanding, there is a subsidiary issue of how. How is it that the line gets crossed? How does it happen that an eccentric personal preference becomes the eccentric preference for a whole subculture, and then, under certain circumstances, the central preference for culture at large? The most famous example of this unlikely trajectory is Eliot’s reevaluation of the metaphysical poets, which became a modernist preference, and then, by way of New Criticism, part of a new hegemonic theory of poetry. Was that hegemony a distortion, or a legitimate revision of understanding? Or can we have it both ways?

Those last questions are deeply interesting to me. They go to the very heart of my present interest in nineteenth-century American poetry. How could they not when I speak of that century as “The Age of Whitman and Dickinson,” even as I try to map a lost landscape in which Whitman was marginal and Dickinson invisible?

Can one accept the present’s view of the past and still inquire into the past’s own view of itself? Or to put this another way: Can one eat the fruits of distortion, and then — fortified — go out and chop down the tree? And still have fruit the next season? Probably not …

Or maybe so! If we throw away the core, letting the seeds take root …

Anyway, go read Ron’s response, if you haven’t already. (I love his analogy to birdwatching.)


Regarding Moore herself: I’ve written before about her importance; the essay in which I did so (which incorporates, btw, a brief statement by Ron!) was published in Critics and Poets on Marianne Moore: “A Right Good Salvo of Barks,” edited by Linda Leavell, Cristanne Miller, and Robin G. Schulze. Much of the essay is available through Google Books (but not, alas, the pages with Ron’s statement; link here).

As an addendum to Ron’s note, though, let me add that the modernism I see with Moore at the center has nothing to do with her social relationships. I see her as the first American poet to make “the linguistic turn” (as it came to be known), and one who did so without ever reducing language to words and grammar. Rhetoric, she understood, is as intrinsic to language as any of the more material elements (such as letters and sounds); and though she did on occasion succumb to rhetoric — conceiving of readers in the old-fashioned way, as an audience to be swayed — her best work, composed with found language, demands a new kind of reader. In this sense, the difficulty of her work supports an entirely different pedagogical mission than that of Eliot or Pound.


1 [Back to text] I am thinking here of Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree (1986), which includes Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer but not Berrigan, Berkson, or Padgett. That reading of the New York School was specific to a certain historical moment, though perhaps it would still hold true for Silliman and others who might have shared it. In any case, it is this notion of centrality (and others like it from my early education as a poet: Duncan’s insistence on H.D., Creeley’s insistence on Zukofsky, the Language Poets’ insistence on Stein) that I had in mind when I made my claim for Moore.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 28, 2009 at 7:30 am

Emerson’s Blight

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The new issue of Ecopoetics includes two interviews with Gary Snyder, one conducted by the editor, Jonathan Skinner, the other by Kyhl Lyndgaard. One portion in particular caught my eye from the former:

JS — You said at one point — in one of those interviews in The Real Work — that you never write of an animal or a plant that you haven’t seen.

GS — Not usually, no. Unless I dreamed it.

JS — Could you say a bit about the importance of that experience?

GS — I take animals seriously. They’re real beings. It’s exploitative to just try to play with them like counters. They don’t like it.

JS — Plants too?

GS — Yeah. You have to take into account …

JS — What about rocks?

GS — Anything. The world is solid. And spiritual. It’s just not something that you move around ny way you like. You have to give respect to it. Just like what Dick Nelson says about Koyukon, Athapaskan Indians in Alaska, in the Yukon area. He says they are so sensitive … to the etiquette of nature, that a mother will say, “Don’t point at the mountain, it’s rude.”

JS — I think there is a baseline rule for “ecopoetics,” in some respects, that it has to go beyond book-learning, beyond poems put together with the dictionary or encyclopedia.

GS — Koyukon are really something about that. Nelson talks about a guy trying to get his outboard started on the river there, and he’s getting kind of pissed off at it. And his friend says, “Don’t get mad at the outboard, it’s got feelings you know.”

The language philosophy underlying this exchange is a charming mixture of pragmatism and magical thinking. Pragmatism, because the emphasis falls on how words influence human action. For Snyder, the self-imposed discipline of writing about animals he has seen (or dreamt about!) and no others is a means of fostering respect — respect for animals and also for nature as a whole. It’s a constraint, but unlike the constraints of Oulipo and its progeny, Snyder’s constraint treats writing as part of the moral life of the writer. The magical aspect of Snyder’s practice lies in his further belief that words have an effect on the world, not just because they influence human action, but directly, as directly as any other tool. Even as guns, axes, traps, and engines alter the shape and character of the solid world, so too do words alter the shape and character of the spiritual. The exploitation of animals begins in the indiscriminate use of their names. Read the rest of this entry »

Great Companions

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The following is excerpted from a note I wrote a week or so after Robin Blaser’s death.

Blaser-sundayRobin Blaser was a lover of quotation, of echoing words staged as conversation; his beautiful, learned writing was a testament to the resounding otherness that constitutes experience. “We are articulated into labor, life and language, the three great modes of the Other,” he once declared, adding, “Yes, I’m talking about a mystery, and yes, I’m talking about the absolute invasion and the peculiar task of poetry to perform in public the Otherness of these huge realms.”

Blaser’s name will forever be linked with those of his friends Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, poets to whom he paid continual tribute, and yet Blaser’s own writing took shape most marvelously after he took his distance from Duncan, leaving their shared San Francisco for good, and after Spicer’s death. A lesson in detachment whose script was written most forcefully by Walt Whitman, in “Song of the Open Road”:

Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days that must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

We can guess that Blaser read these lines, and took them to heart, because he took a title — and task — from the one that comes right after:

Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!

Walt Whitman in New Orleans, 1848

Walt Whitman in New Orleans, 1848

The “Great Companions” in Blaser’s collected poems, The Holy Forest, are Pindar, Dante, and Duncan, but Blaser’s interest in companionship hardly stops there; friendship is one of the pillars of his poetics. One poem begins: “Aristotle said, ‘all men by nature desire / to know’ / Dante added, ‘every man by nature is a / friend to every other man’ // I believe both worlds / and dream their necessity.” And elsewhere, in a statement of methodology, “I have chosen a poetic practice of entangling discourses, including the running about of my lyric voice. A companionship of seeing through ‘the lack of meaning in our time and the lack of a world at the centre of meanings we try to impose.’”

To be after the great companions is to work in the absence of what life finds most necessary, and yet make a livelihood out of the search. It can feel at times like a mournful half-existence, and yet it makes one attentive to all that remains, so that even the rumbling of a stomach (“borborygmus”) can be instruction from the gods, as in Blaser’s “Demi-Tasse,” an elegy that begins:

the silence surrounds me   political silence    where
the words were deeds once upon a time and space
social silence    where a fragile good composes    bankruptcies
of ideas run through two centuries    my centuries, watching
the poets sit on the shelves

Later in the poem he writes, “yet here among gathering bankruptcies, we touch / and part … according / to our lights.” And also:

after is never a condition of beyond, but of comparison, even
of companionship

He will be missed, sorely.

Read Stan Persky’s obituary for Blaser at Dooney’s Cafe. Persky also has a more extended essay about Blaser at the same site.

Robin Blaser’s author pages at the Electronic Poetry Center and PennSound.

Written by Ben Friedlander

July 8, 2009 at 12:14 am

Inquisitor of Sprats and Compost!

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Rachel Loden

Rachel Loden

On a recent train ride down through New England and New York to Washington I read Rachel Loden’s marvelous new book Dick of the Dead. I chose Loden”s book for the last leg in particular: the Dick of her title is Nixon; I thought him a good talisman to carry into the nation’s capital. A kind of rabbit’s foot, something like the leg of Brezhnev broken off white marble in the book’s third poem, “In the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments.” What I did not expect is that the book brought New York to mind more insistently than D.C.; but not the New York of my own experience, the decaying urban shell of the 1970s; nor the gentrified metropolis of today. Rather, Loden’s poems reminded me of the city mocked and celebrated and preserved for a dubious posterity in the Croaker poems of Fitz-Greene Halleck and Joseph Rodman Drake, written for the New York Evening Post in 1819 and published under the names Croaker (Drake), Croaker, Jr. (Halleck), and Croaker & Co. (Drake and Halleck together).

What do the Croaker poems and Dick of the Dead have in common? Two things: first, a tone — by which I mean a certain attitude about their subjects; and then, a luxuriation in fact, in the whimsical properties of data.

The tone is easier to describe with the Croaker poems, but reading Loden in light of them makes it easier to hear the equivalent quality in hers: the sprightly, even agitated sound of language that comes from mocking a thing and loving it at the same time. You can hear this sound in one of the Croaker poems written by Drake; a fierce bit of nonsense addressed to the surgeon general of the State of New York, sprinkled with as many exclamation marks as a poem by Frank O’Hara:

Joseph Rodman Drake

Joseph Rodman Drake

Oh! Mitchill, lord of granite flints,
Doctus, in law — and wholesome dishes;
Protector of the patent splints,
The foe of whales — the friend of fishes;
“Tom-Codus” — “Septon” — “Phlogobombos!”
What title shall we find to fit ye?
Inquisitor of sprats and compost!
Or Surgeon General of Militia!

We hail thee! — mammoth of the state!
Steam frigate! on the waves of physic —
Equal in practice or debate,
To cure the nation or the phthisic:
The amateur of Tartar dogs!
Wheat-flies, and maggots that create “em!
Of mummies! and of mummy-chogs!
Of brick-bats — lotteries — and pomatum!

The sentiments are just as wonderfully unbalanced in Loden’s work; one never feels that she has seized on Nixon out of disdain, or disdain alone. And the same is true when she writes about other monsters: Cheney, Dubya, George Costanza. “Must not let on that my feelings are increasingly inappropriate,” she writes in “My Subject,” a poem that figures the writer as some kind of researcher. In a lunatic asylum? Perhaps so. But the inappropriate feelings are essential, more so than the research: the latter merely situates Loden’s language; the former gives it an audible character. Consider the sprightliness of “Nineveh Fallen”: Read the rest of this entry »

Worthy to be forgot / Is my renown

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Whitman read his contemporaries with intermittent enthusiasm, granting them their virtues while insisting on his difference. He had no doubt that his work, not theirs, would belong to the forward drift of time, and this belief, as much as any content, marks Leaves of Grass as an avant-garde project (the very first in American poetry). He conceived of his posterity as a confirmation, and since we do confirm him, it is easy to share in his literary judgments, to read his contemporaries with intermittent enthusiasm, feeling ourselves broad-minded when we grant them their virtues.

Dickinson’s futurity was of another order. Though she had an imagination of posthumous fame, it was not a matter of confirmation for her, of being on the right side of history. Time passed for Dickinson, it did not progress. She was no avant-gardist; she conceived of posterity as a kind of memory, as liable to be forgot as remembered.  Her future was a figure for alterity, not a sequence of triumphs (of “glories strung like beads,” as Whitman had it), and her only anticipation of its actions was a willingness to meet them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

January 13, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Dickinson, poetics, Whitman

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