The Rewards of the Obdurate

In June 3rd's TLS Christopher Reid presents the entirety of Ian Hamilton's "Untranslatable" and offers a short account of it, in the context of a discussion about how much 'human detail' to put into or leave out of a poem, and how that decision might affect what we here have referred to as the transparency of the work. He gives a perhaps convincing account of the rewards to be found even in poems you don't 'get'. The relevant paragraphs follow, for the benefit of anyone who missed the review.

"Some of [Hamilton's] very shortest poems have, in the interest of concentration, had circumstantial detail so efficiently purged from them, they all but resist penetration. At their best – “Memorial”, for instance, or “Home”, or “Awakening” – they can deliver espresso-sized shocks of intimate revelation; otherwise, when they are reduced too far and the human detail has been more or less obscured, reading them can be as frustrating an activity as unpicking tight knots in damp string. In Lowell, it was the high-handed squandering of human detail, the careless, even callous, spilling of beans about those who had loved and trusted him, that Hamilton rightly deprecated; but in seeking not to commit the same sin, he sometimes forfeited the very quality that would have allowed a poem to live and speak.

He was too sharp an operator not to have known the dangers. Nonetheless, there is a poem thought to be from the 1970s or 80s, “Untranslatable”, which Alan Jenkins has included in a short section of “Unpublished and Uncollected Poems”, and which suggests a diehard attitude to the whole business. Its obvious difference from most of Hamilton’s work is that it is outwardly addressed, almost a public pronouncement – which may, paradoxically, be why he withheld it – but it has its own obliqueness of attack and is defiantly terse. In its totality, it reads:

There are certain lines – whole poems even:
I have no idea what they mean;
It’s what I can’t grasp that draws me back to them.”
Yours used to be like that, and so did his.

The speaker of the first three lines, to which the fourth is, I take it, the poet’s reply, or rebuke, in propria persona, could be expressing any friendly reader’s misgivings – as well as his or her undiminished fascination. Because the rewards are there in even the most obdurate poems. They exist in isolated subtleties of versification, deftly placed line-breaks, choiceness of phrasing, fleeting plangencies, beauties that seldom depart from the range of the ordinary speaking voice, never advertise themselves loudly, and yet suggest that the “platonic” poem is indeed within the writer’s grasp."

Clive James in Poetry (July '09)

Fine, wide-ranging essay by Clive James in upcoming July issue of Poetry (should be online soon). Among various interesting topics (James Merrill, free/formal verse, US/British crossovers, what makes poems last, "command", etc.), he writes about Michael Donaghy, American/British poet/critic/musician who died in 2004 - & Donaghy's book of essays & interviews, The Shape of the Dance. I don't always agree with James (his snipe at Whitman in a previous essay bothered me), but I enjoyed this one...


A Modest Book Proposal: The Norton Anthology of Prime Time Poetry

It seems to me that Norton has put out three anthologies featuring various types of poetry that aim at difficulty, following up on the work of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and other modernists who championed difficulty in poetry. In previous posts I basically positioned the two-volume _Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_ as their right wing book, their _Postmodern American Poetry_ as their left wing book, and their new _American Hybrid_ as their decidedly left-leaning bipartisan effort. What I’d like to propose is a comprehensive anthology of the third party poetries that are left out. The poets I have in mind flow from what Richard Gray refers to as “Whitman and American Populism: Sandburg, Lindsay, Masters.” I would add Don Marquis as another forbearer of the kind of poetry I have in mind, also proletariat poets such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Fearing, and Charles Bukowski. Looking to French masters, I would say that the poets I want to champion take their cues more from Jacques Prevert than from Stephen Mallarme. I thought about calling this proposed book The Norton Anthology of Populist Poetry or The Norton Anthology of People’s Poetry, but those terms have political implications that I’m not interested in pursuing here. I also thought about The Norton Anthology of Accessible Poetry, but the cover would have to have a wheelchair ramp on it, and that would look stupid.

Remember when there were only three TV networks and all the shows with mass appeal came on at 7pm, 8pm, 9pm? That was called prime time. Does TV Guide still refer to that time slot as prime time? I don’t know. I think there are several strands of contemporary poetry that could fall under the umbrella term of prime time poetry, poems that are “written in the language actually used by men” (Wordsworth), poems that attempt to clearly address the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people, rather than disdaining poetry’s potential audience and being happy to write for a pocket audience, poems that are written for the whole family (David Kirby, for one, says he writes with an intelligent sixth-grader in mind).

What follows is a very rough table of contents. Michael Theune has pointed out that Stephen Burt and Ron Silliman don’t always like the poets that they champion. This has made me feel like I have permission to propose an anthology that includes some poets that I don’t necessarily enjoy. (I’m not saying which.) Why would I do that? The best explanation I know of is a statement of Forest Gander’s that actually appears in _American Hybrid_: “Like species, poems are not invented, but develop out of a kind of discourse, each poet tensed against another’s poetics, in conversations, like casts of wormtrails in sandstone.” The following are some types of poetic discourse communities that I would like to link together and champion as prime time poetries.

Stand Up: Charles Harper Webb, Ron Koertge, Lisa Glatt, Gerald Locklin, Denise Duhamel (who shows in Michael Theune’s _Structure and Surprise_ how she has written poems using the structure of a standup comedy routine, Edward Field (the term “Standup” comes from his book _Stand Up Friend With Me_, prose by Webb, who has edited two fine anthologies devoted to this type of poetry

Ultratalk: David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, Mark Halliday, Jason Bredle, Nin Andrews, Thomas Lux, Stephen Dunn, Robert Wrigley, Kim Addonizio, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, Bob Hicok, Lawrence Raab, David Clewell, Martha Silano, essays by Kirby/Hamby, Halliday, and David Graham

Expansive Poets: Molly Peacock, Marilyn Nelson, Greg Williamson, A.E. Stallings, Kelly Cherry, Catherine Trufariello, Chelsea Rathburn, Timothy Steele, excerpts from Kevin Walzer’s prose book _The Ghost of Tradition_, Dana Gioia’s essay “Notes on the New Formalism,” and Mark Jarman’s essay “Robinson, Frost, and Jeffers and the New Narrative Poetry”

Slam Poetry: Taylor Mali, Saul Williams, Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, Karyna McGlynn, Robert Bonair-Agard, Grace Bruenderman, Marc Smith, Buddy Wakefield, Jack McCarthy’s essay “Note From The Poetry Underground,” and Susan B.A. Somers-Willet’s essay “Can Slam Poetry Matter?”

Performance Poetry (poets who regularly read their work aloud at places like Seattle’s Red Sky Poetry Theatre, Portland’s Cafe Lena’s, San Francisco’s Cafe Babar, and New York’s Bowery Poetry Club): Hal Sirowitz, Bob Holman, Leanne Grable, Marion Kimes, Alan Kaufman, A.D. Winans, Antler, Chocolate Waters, June King

Laureates (just the ones who have taken seriously their roles as representatives of the poetry community): US Laureates Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky, a few state laureates (Jack Myers, David Bottoms, Kevin Stein, Greg Pape, Fleda Brown); San Francisco Poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti (his “Populist Manifesto”), former Seattle Populist Poet Bart Baxter

Singer/Songwriters: Leonard Cohen (he's already in one Norton Anthology), Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Regina Spektor, Eminem, Coner Oberost

Cowboy Poetry: J.V. Brummels, Red Shuttleworth, Lisa Lewis, Jennifer Malesich, Paul Zarzyski, and Rod Miller’s essay “A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, Or Who’s the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?”


Plumbline to Kenosis

I sketched out a very personal (& probably very local) take on poetic "impersonality" over at my blog this evening... perhaps one way to conceptualize an escape hatch from the American (in particular) cul-de-sac of competing styles...


Tom C. Hunley’s second blog post: American Hybrid (Part II)

Norton now has three Contemporary American Poetry anthologies in print. First, there’s their mainstream anthology (as if any American poetry were mainstream, as if we weren’t all living in exile within our own culture, some more gleefully than others), which is now the second volume of _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_. This anthology, according to its introduction, is “characterized by its pluralism, by its welter and crosscurrents,” including both “the raw and the cooked” (Robert Lowell’s phrase), Black Mountain poets, Beats, New York School poets, deep imagists, confessional poets, poets associated with the Black Arts Movement, and some poets from across the pond. One thing that binds these disparate poets, according to the book’s introduction, is the shadow of the big Modernist poets Pound, Eliot, Yeats, etc., which “loomed like a massive edifice over postwar poets, who sometimes worried that all routes to innovation had already been explored and exhausted.”

Next, there’s Norton’s anthology of experimental poetry (as if all serious poems weren’t experiments) _Postmodern American Poetry_, which actually appeared nine years before the revised _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_. The Beats are again represented, as are the New York School poets (two generations’ worth, as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett enter the Norton canon here); Deep Image poetry factors into this one too, in more breadth; there’s the Language poetry of Jackson Mac Low, Michael Palmer, and others; and there’s a nod to performance poets, represented by David Antin, John Giorno, Wanda Coleman, and others.

Though the rhetoric may have led readers to think that _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_ represented a kind of mainstream canon while _Postmodern American Poetry_ anthologized otherstream poets mounting a bold challenge, we can see that there’s a lot of overlap. Both anthologies start with Charles Olson, for one. John Ashbery made both books, as did Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, and quite a few others. It seems to me that all of those poets who are represented in both anthologies are “raw,” according to Lowell’s formulation. While the editors of Norton’s “mainstream” anthology made pains to include “experimental” poetry, the editors of _Postmodern American Poetry_ aren’t about to go anywhere near John Hollander, James Dickey, Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell himself, or anything that would have been on the Hall/Pack side of the 1960s anthology wars, rather than on Donald Allen’s side.

But a new release would reconcile the division “between the experimental and the conventional,” we were promised, and this year Norton released its hybrid (as if all serious poems didn’t arise from a mixture of styles and influences) anthology. I was excited about this at first, thinking the editors were sincere about pursuing their thesis. Unfortunately, reading the book was like listening to a compilation album that promised to fuse the best of mainstream and alternative music but that quickly revealed its mercenary purposes: the mainstream artists needed indie cred and the alternative artists wanted a larger audience. I didn’t get as much pleasure from reading the poetry as I had hoped, and I don’t believe it fulfilled its middle child promise of reconciling differences.

Like _Postmodern American Poetry_, this anthology seems to be skewed in favor of the “raw.” Okay, Robert Haas has made the trek from the mainstream anthology to this one; he’s married to Brenda Hillman, so he’s accepted into post-avant circles by association. Norman Dubie is also granted both mainstream and hybrid status, as are Charles Wright, Amiri Baraka, and Jorie Graham (a surprising omission from the pomo anthology). That’s five who appear only in the mainstream anthology and the hybrid anthology. The following poets appear both in _Postmodern American Poetry_ and _American Hybrid_ and not in Norton’s mainstream anthology: Rae Armantrout, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Paul Hoover, Ann Lauterbach, Nathanial Mackey, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, and John Yau. That’s twelve. Also, the younger poets in _American Hybrid_ seem to uniformly proceed more directly out of “raw” poets such as Michael Palmer and Gertrude Stein, say, than out of “cooked” poets such as Theodore Roethke and Louise Bogan. It seems to me that the very people who commandeered the word “experimental,” which belongs to all serious poets, have now also commandeered the word “hybrid,” which properly describes all serious poets.

Don’t think that I’m writing this to prop up “mainstream” or “cooked” poetry; I, too, dislike (much of) it. I think what we have here is something distinctly American: two parties (out of many) declaring themselves THE two parties, and then coming together in a mercenary bipartisan spirit of mutual backscratching, reinforcing their own power bases and leaving everyone else out. In my next post, I will write a modest book proposal for the anthology I would like to see Norton do next, one that defies these false binaries and the false compromise of their hybrid anthology.


Pith and Gist

I'm afraid Joseph H's discussion of his personal poetics is in danger of being overlooked in the comment section so - in case anyone missed it, which they don't want to do - it's over at Perpetual Bird.

Confused Valentine

Modernism is clinical depression
post-modernism is deranged depression
a normal reaction to an unfortunately
now normal variation on plangent
themes of madness

in my family everybody fought
with everybody so escape
got confused with peace
and rape with theft
but I refuse to be intimidated

by the present moment anymore
my goal in life
is to eliminate the egotism
of writing a poem
in the very act of writing it.


Relevant, accessible and coming to a television station near you.

Maybe we’ve been taking the wrong tone in our discussions. The inimitable A.A. Gill commented in yesterday’s Times on the Oxford poetry scandal – don’t you love the idea of being able to work up enough interest in poetry to create a scandal? For those of you who missed it I offer the following excerpt from ‘ Poetry’s turn for the verse.’ It introduced a discussion of the BBC’s verse off to find the best poet in the land ever (Contenders are Donne, Milton and the author of Beowolf), and the question of whether poetry belongs on television. The answer is no, at least according to Gill, but it’s his contribution to the problem of accessibility I wanted to draw to your attention.
“ It has been rhyme-and-reason week. You go 100 years without ever thinking about a poet, then all of a sudden they are everywhere. The scandal at Oxford managed briefly to elbow venal MPs off the news. There was something hopelessly, Wodehouseianly English about these stories. The greatest crisis in democracy since the Reform Act brought about by duck houses, tampons and moat cleaning, and then Oxford dons reaching for the smelling salts with one hand and a stiletto with the other, all over predatory libidos, and bluestocking innuendo. You wonder, would they ever have managed to elect Byron? Precocious, strong on classics, popular verse, shags everything in a corset, including his sister. Or Dylan Thomas? Or Catullus? The poet Michael Horowitz was on the Today programme with a voice that sounded like a wax cylinder tiptoeing out of a brass speaking tube. He explained that poetry had caught an infection from the rest of the ghastly, pustular, commercial world. Poets, he readily said, should be solitary, distanced, and possibly consumptive and sexually ambivalent. The BBC has been doing its best to bring poets and poetry kicking and screaming, or perhaps mincing and weeping, into the nation’s green room; to turn them into the culture’s footballers. Which means poetry has to be played out under the arc lights of the Tristams’ favourite culture words, which are – all together now – “relevant” and “accessible”. What rhymes with relevant and accessible? Patronising and explanatory and simplified and unenthusiastic? Can you all go away now and make a poem out of those wonderful words? Use your coloured crayons. Relevant and accessible actually means mediated by a friendly, classless autodidact who can josh and cajole you through the tricky business of pentameter and sonnet form and make sure you don’t feel culturally embarrassed or aesthetically humiliated. . . I’ve always vouched that there was no human activity that was above, below, or beside the box, but after this week I’m beginning to think maybe poetry is the exception. Television is a show and tell medium, and so, in a completely different sense, is poetry. The BBC has been confronted with the quandary of what you actually show when the poetry is showing itself. The visons collide, and what you get is the equivalent of old masters printed on T shirts. Bad art and bad fashion. Poetry won’t be filleted into sound bites. The words remain, but the poetry evaporates. Poetry is hard. It exists at the ceiling of comprehension and feeling, and when when you come down with the sense of it, it’s miraculous as anything man has conceived. Having it delivered like pizza by Fiona Shaw isn’t quite the same thing. It’s not television’s job to tease and trick reluctant folk to open poetry books, just as it isn’t poetry’s business to make people watch television. We get to poetry by our own circuitous routes, and the enjoyment and awe are greater for it. Finally though, poetry doesn’t belong on television because it isn’t a mass medium.”