3.31.2009

The Voice that is Great Within Us

About the time Henry initiated the Plumbline School, Ron Silliman was drawing up lists, one of which indicated that Hayden Carruth "isn't much read" these days, a judgment I started out to dispute, then thought, "Oh, what the hell," and let it drop. Many of Carruth's books are in print -- there are both a Collected Longer Poems and a Collected Shorter Poems from Copper Canyon Press, along with several books of essays on poetry and jazz. Carruth was a second-generation American modernist, though, and it is that generation, that includes Lowell and Bishop and Roethke, that the currently ascendent schools of poetry must be at pains to dismiss; thus, I'd argue, Silliman's offhand remark.

But that's by way of prologue. Carruth has been very important to me in charting my own course down the center. So I was pleased to find Henry's post with the long quote from Carruth the other day. Here is another part of the case for Carruth being made an honorary member of the Plumbline School: His 1970 mass-market poetry anthology (also still in print), The Voice that is Great Within Us. I'm just getting ready to return to Vietnam. When I go there, I usually try to take a couple of American books to give to friends there, many of whom are English teachers and professional translators, and poets. In browsing around Amazon, I ran across the Carruth anthology, which I have given away to many students over the years, but which I hadn't looked at closely for a while. I ordered a copy, which arrived yesterday. In his introduction, Carruth talks about getting an envelope of poems from Wallace Stevens on day and another from E.E. Cummings the next when he was editor of Poetry magazine. He goes on to sketch out the capaciousness of American poetry and his anthology selections reveal a very wide taste; more than that, they reveal a time in American poetry before the Fall.

A look at the Table of Contents of The Voice that is Great Within Us provides evidence of a prelapsarian paradise where Jack Spicer and Conrad Aiken have converse, where Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fearing meet on friendly terms, and so on: Lorine Niedecker, Richard Eberhardt, Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Thomas McGrath, William Bronk, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Donald Justic, Richard Wilbur. . . Carruth's anthology suggests that American poets might have more in common than they realize. The recent divisions are largely political, I'd argue, rather than aesthetic. No, check that. I'd say that in the recent divisions into schools, a narrow politics drives aesthetics.

14 comments:

Henry Gould said...

Joseph, wish you a wonderful trip to Vietnam.

Your post sort of rhymes with vague thoughts I've been having all day... about all the over-intellectualized churning about poetry on the blog scene, from Harriet to Silliman. One the one hand, I suppose it's healthy, typically American agitation...

Nevertheless I've been thinking today about poetry as a kind of organic growth or flowering out of more general cultural soil... it can't be understood outside the context of artistic life in general (by this I mean a kind of ordinary, daily orientation toward art & beautiful things).

I suppose this sounds sort of silly. Where, for example, would you put a poet like Celan in that case? Well, Celan was gifted. In spite of his circumstances, he reached out & found the music-world of poetry.

Or where would you put Bob Dylan? Well, Dylan is another special case - a sort of gifted Napoleon of pop culture (ever noticed how many times he refers to Napoleon?).

But I think about someone like Montale. You read his poems & immediately you are suffused with the aura of an entire, unique social background & history - part literary, part artistic, part musical, part parochial coastal Liguria, part decaying small-town bougeoisie, part sophisticated, professional journalist...

Not sure exactly what I'm getting at here. But the medium of poetry (language) tends to emphasize a common denominator (common speech). Whereas poets themselves are always battling with this very aspect of their medium - trying to AVOID cliches, trying to say something PERSONAL. & the personal, it seems to me, emerges from very particular & variant backgrounds, personalities, milieus, fates. I admire poets (like Donald Justice, for example) who display a kind of reserve : because they want more than anything to bear witness to their OWN experience, not just formulate new slogans for what's been said before, what applies to everybody all the time.

Then again, of course, I also admire poets like Whitman & Shakespeare, who somehow give to the common experience their own inimitable subjective slant.

I guess what I'm saying is that this is an aspect of poetry that maybe gets downplayed in all the polemical re-inventions of the wheel ("what is poetry?") in schools & blogs & etc. Poetry has its own life-world, which is really set deep within the more settled & stable aspects of culture generally. It needs those cultural roots. Like chess, or any other complex thing, you can't just hop in & pretend you know all about it (though there will be geniuses who seem tog ive that impression). It exists in its distinctive world.

I'll probably disagree with myself on all these points tomorrow morning. Apologies for rambling. Thanks for more on Hayden Carruth.

Henry Gould said...

Maybe Rimbaud understood this better than anyone, & that's why he renounced it all at 21...

Henry Gould said...

p.s. this is a huge topic, actually, probably better left to endless coffeehouse or barroom discussions. How often have we heard poets talk about how their culture or times are INIMICAL to the nurturing of poetry?

Joseph Hutchison said...

Hayden Carruth was a master of the art and willing to borrow whatever techniques were floating around to meet his expressive needs—as opposed to stuffing his expression into the slick casing of a received aesthetic like so much sausage. I'm not sure what Silliman means by saying Carruth is not "much read"; even if it were true—and as you point out, it's not—Silliman routinely sneers at poets with lots of readers, like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser. I suspect what he really means is that Carruth is not much read by Silliman and his friends.

The one slight disagreement I might have with you is that Carruth's anthology "suggests that American poets might have more in common than they realize." They have their Americanness in common, and certain themes and angles of vision that change (it seems to me) on a generational basis; but if all those poets could physically sit in the same watering hole there'd be plenty of invective and flying fists, I imagine. I mean that the politics is built in to the commitment for most poets; maybe it's just a function of our marginal condition.

In any case, I always feel lucky to have grown up as a writer (you have? I hear my friends saying) with Carruth there as a tough-minded but generous poet and literary journalist. A brave and honest man. We could use more like him.

Joseph Duemer said...

Joseph, Carruth is one of my heroes. And when I wrote that about "having more in common" it didn't feel quiote right--not quite what I wanted to say. It's just that there was a time in American poetry culture when an anthology like Carruth's could exist. The closest thing I can think of in more recent years would be A. Poulin's more academic anthology of American poetry, but I don't think it is as inclusive as Carruth's (don't have it to hand).

Henry Gould said...

Carruth's anthology is still in print, available for $8.

Joseph Hutchison said...

I think—or hope—such an anthology could exist today, if we had someone like Carruth to assemble it; someone, I mean, who would be guided by the question, "What does the voice that is great within us sound like now," and have the necessary openness to help us hear it. Instead, as you point out, anthologies are too often weapons of literary politics, or worse, promotional brochures for certain writing programs. One of Carruth's strengths as an editor was his independence from "have to's"; he seems to have been genuinely guided by deep knowledge and a generous spirit. Surely there are people like him out there. But would the poetic-critical complex recognize them and give them the free rein they'd need?

Mairi said...

Why don't you start a list? By 'you' I mean all of you. Give people something else to sit around in coffee houses and come to fisticuffs over. It's the least you can do for National Poetry Month.

Joseph Hutchison said...

Interesting! Why not model selections on Carruth's procedure?

His anthology began with Robert Frost, born in 1875, and ended with Joel Sloman, born in 1943. That's a span of 68 years, and Sloman—the youngest poet in the book—was 27 at the time. A 27-year-old today would have been born in 1982, and a poet born 68 years earlier would have been born in 1914. Why not accept these terms as the limits of the selection?

More important, though, are Carruth's "principles of selection," which in his introduction he explains "are general rather than absolute":

1. To admit no poem merely because it is famous, but rather to reexamine the entire work of each poet and to choose the poems that seem now, in current taste and feeling, his strongest.
2. To exclude all translations, excerpts from long poems, and poems with extensive notes, epigraphs or other appendages.
3. To give primacy among all criteria to my own feeling, and to select no particular poem that does not seem to me genuine within its given modality, whatever that may be.

Looking over these principles it's remarkable how faithful Carruth was to them and how lucky we are that he trusted his "own feeling" and sense of what is genuine "within [a] given modality." It's an approach that might serve all of us well.

Joseph Duemer said...

So, if we were going to update Carruth's anthology, what would the Table of Contents look like? I'll try to find time to post a pdf of the TOC so we can have that conversation.

Henry Gould said...

Mairi, I'm guessing your British? Or living in England somewhere?

Will we need a Voice That Is Great Within Us Over the Water chapter? The Voice That Is Great Within Our Old Country Cousins?

& what about Switzerland, Andrew? This is getting very complicated!

Henry Gould said...

p.s. I'm all for it, however! Poetry is Complex!

Joseph Hutchison said...

I expanded on my comments here over at The Perpetual Bird, and while I didn't think about a TOC, I did make what might be a useful observation about the "reach" of Carruth's anthology. As noted above, "A 27-year-old today would have been born in 1982, and a poet born 68 years earlier would have been born in 1914." This is an interesting span—i.e., poets born between 1914 and 1982—because it would leave out over half of Carruth's poets, including all the High Modernists; everyone from Robert Frost to Karl Shapiro would be eliminated.

That's actually kind of sobering. I visited some poetry blog this morning (can't recall which) and was confronted by a photo of Eliot in all his primness and wondered to myself how long he would continue to haunt us. But the idea of doing an anthology that by its very design would cut his photo from the yearbook is ... well, interesting.

Mairi said...

I suppose you could include some over the water poets - there are a few decent ones - but they probably won't take up much space. No-one is going to dispute the primacy of the Americans in the period you're considering.
I think the 'no translations' rule is a good one.