Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ron Silliman on the History of Poetry

While education tends to stress the great works, Ron Silliman feels that the real history of poetry is in the unpolished, not-perfect works.

I know I’m repeating myself, but this seems to be a point that a lot of people get stuck on. Plus this is my 2,000th post to the blog, and I’m feeling feisty. The history of poetry, like the history of any art form, is not a procession of its “best works.” Indeed, the well-wrought urn is, if anything, the deservedly forgotten one. Having codified and smoothed out the rough edges of any given tendency in poetry, such works are monuments to triviality and soon ignored.

In the 1960s, there were dozens of young poets who wrote “just like” Robert Creeley or any of a number of other, first-generation Projectivists. John Sinclair was a terrific approximation of Charles Olson transplanted to Detroit. Ross Feld had Jack Spicer down cold. More than a few poets during that same period “did” John Ashbery almost better than Ashbery himself. And there quite a few Allen Ginsbergs & Gary Snyders as well. Where are they now? Those that persevered – many did not – have changed, sometimes quite radically. There were a hundred Ted Berrigans, but it is worth noting that Alice Notley has not been one of them. Last I heard, John Sinclair was a DJ down in New Orleans – his great magazine Work has had its title appropriated by some folks out in Oakland – I wonder if they even know the literary heritage of that name.

In The New American Poetry, Ron Loewinsohn – just 23 when the book was first published – demonstrated an uncanny ability to channel the style of William Carlos Williams. A look at his professor emeritus page at UC Berkeley shows no publication of new poetry since 1976, no new writing of any kind in over twenty years. Yet Against the Silences to Come, Loewinsohn’s 1965 chapbook from Four Seasons Foundation, arguably is the best work ever written “in the Williams mode” of stepped free verse. Who (but me) celebrates that?

That’s the phenomenon in micro- form. It has a macro- variation as well. Articulating the possibilities of the prose poem, say, or dramatic monologue, or free verse – the three great formal innovations of the 19th century – has meant dramatically transforming what those genre mean. Charles Olson’s Maximus is possibly the only innovation in dramatic monolog in the 20th century even worth discussing. But look at how Pessoa’s heteronyms carry the underlying dynamics of dissociating author from speaker in a completely different direction. Now, a few decades hence, heteronyms are a dime a dozen as well.

The history of poetry is the history of change in poetry, an account not of best works, but of shifts in direction, new devices, new forms, as Williams once put it, “as additions to nature.” The cruder writing & rougher edges of the first to do X, whatever it might be, invariably are preferable. Better Spicer than Ross Feld. Better Howl than _________ – you can fill in that blank yourself.

There are of course poets and readers who hate change, sometimes hate it intensely. There are, for example, those who claim that Pound’s “good” writing stops basically at “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” avant The Cantos. Pound in those years was something of a stylistic gigolo, plagiarizing all that was interesting in Victorian poetics. Had he stopped there, he would have been the Ron Loewinsohn of his generation. And you would never have read him.

This may be why, actually, the School of Quietude generally does such a poor job of celebrating, preserving and carrying forward the work of its own stalwarts. Does anyone think you could fill up an auditorium at Columbia for a weekend, for example, to celebrate the centenary of Yvor Winters, Allen Tate, Robert Francis or Richard Eberhart, the SoQ poets closest in age to Louis Zukofsky? Why is it that the London Review of Books still thinks it necessary to order a hit piece of Zukofsky when all these contemporaries of his have long since disappeared from view? Or that Charlie Simic does the same to Robert Creeley (or William Logan ditto to Frank O’Hara)? It’s not that the SoQ poets, then and now, were bad writers – I think you can demonstrate that it’s objectively not the case. But they didn’t create change for poetry in their poetry (and, indeed, the most interesting of that earlier quartet are the two who helped to create institutional change in the academy through their critical writing, tho they did so precisely to thwart a modernism that was already threatening our shores). The assaults on Zukofsky, Creeley & O’Hara are little more than tantrums on the part of writers who understand that they’re the Robert Francises & Richard Eberharts of today, and are doomed to be just as widely read. They’d love to be able to curb the influence Zukofsky et al are having and will continue to have on younger writers, but they know already that this is impossible. Their pain is real.

Each art form has its own dynamic around issues such as form and change.

Go read the rest of the article -- and if you have some thoughts, please come back and share them here.

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