As Reviewed By: James Rother
Ductile, Tractile, and Uncompromisingly Plastic Constructs
A Controversy of Poets. Edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly. Doubleday & Co. Anchor Paperback, 1965. (Original price: $2.45.)
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Public literary culture in America: a buffalo carcass: around which buzz hundreds of fat flies. Then comes the larger carrion-feeders. From a distance it looks like a great festive occasion. All that activity. All that excited, titillating buzzing. All that ripe rich color.
W. S. Di Piero, Memory and Enthusiasm (1989)
Scanning the table of contents of Paris Leary’s and Robert Kelly’s 1965 anthology A Controversy of Poets, it’s hard to tell whether its heart is more in saying farewell to the low-ball ‘50s or signaling “Come on down” to those already queued up and waiting for the high-rolling ‘60s to begin. Probably we should ignore the title’s advertisement for itself, and concentrate on the not so hidden agendas behind the Janus-faced postscripts supplied by its two co-editors. A Controversy of Poets reveals no outsized ambition to jump the Zeitgeist ’s bones or leapfrog its contributors to a gleaming antithesis of a dusty death. Though Leary and Kelly might have dreamt of establishing some sort of truce between formalist “Tweeds” and informalist “Sandals” (to redeem from mothballs Donald Hall’s epithets from 1957), the anthology survives as a measure taken, an attempt to stanch the hemorrhaging of well-wishers from a poetry scene preoccupied for years with petty squabbling and careerist one-upmanship, not to create a big splash that would risk making even themselves look all wet. Hall’s squib, unintended as a maligning of either side, was in reality an equal opportunity cattle prod, meant to discomfit both sides into at least thinking about a grudging reconciliation. For relations between the clean- and un-shaven tents of the American poetry circus poetry scene were, by the onset of the ‘60s, no longer just sour but heading due south. Always a Hatfield vs. McCoy-style contretemps, it had reached that age where features, once diverting, cave unsightly in and begin to take on, to put not too fine a point on it, a crumbly and decaying look. Flare-ups had been pretty common all during the ‘50s, but the most explosive of any had been occasioned by the sudden—or sodden, depending on where one was standing in relation to the event—skyrocketing to fame of the Beat Generation with the almost simultaneous publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Jack Kerouac’s low-riding memoir of Gatsbyan obsession, On the Road (1957).
It is not too much to say that these back-to-back eruptions fell upon the previous literary decade’s status quo like the practical joke of a Roman candle sprung upon the stoned. Not only did the Tweeds find the notion of reviving Whitman —again— unspeakable, but their endless jabbering about “democratic vistas” had forced the postponing of the long planned consignment of the entire Objectivist movement to a toxic dump somewhere in New Jersey. This project, precious to Wilburites and Moss-covered poets of the age of Auden generally, received a further setback when Donald M. Allen’s anti-formalist anthology The New American Poetry (1960) shortcircuited plans to have the old entryway to the English Department at Rutgers replaced by a less than full-sized Arc de Triomphe. But not only the media were bowled over by the publicity juggernaut of the Beats. Despite the often not-so-Good Gray Poetry turned out by the “holy barbarians” (who not infrequently seemed less the apotheosis of Walt than a rising up of the prosaic in defense of pseudo-mystical rant), an ever-burgeoning complement of college, and even high school, students had begun to ape, as earlier generations had Werther and Jake Barnes, their speech and dress. All of which ended up being treated as big news in the Luce constellation of opinion shapers. Not since the ‘20s had a bohemian element in the culture elicited such rapt regard from a sleepy press corps, and particularly that part of it wielding cameras for such major news magazines as Time and Life. What was it about the juggling of Marxian personae by a pouting Kerouac, a whiner-turned-howler Ginsberg, or a snake-eyed Corso that made imagining Chico and Karl at a firemen’s ball dressed as twin Grundrisses seem not all that bizarre? We will of course never know, not having the editors of Newsweek or of its Luce-ite partner-in-slime to poll, using survey methods currently in vogue at Guantanamo and Abu Gharib. But distinctions are never clear cut where schools of poetry are concerned, and there remain more than a few commentators who fail to see that much critical space yawning between informalist practice and formalist make-perfect. To cite but one white-out among the many correctives to popular unwisdom applied at the time, Leslie A. Fiedler’s Waiting for the End (1964) reminded both the entranced and the disenchanted that only a gross oversimplification permitted the lumping in of Whitman with the sans-culottes. That poet’s profligacy of personality in fact bestrode colossi of rank and disorder (as the backdoor kudos conferred by such as T. S. Eliot more than substantiated); nor were his leaves of grass necessarily synonymous with the kind compulsively toked by Greenwich Village barflies and other drinkers in of the tea ceremony:
. . [The] re-emergence of Whitman [in the 1950’s] as a living force is
an academic event, already prepared for in the university itself by such
teacher-critics as Randall Jarrell and Richard Chase and I, who had for
more than a decade before the appearance of [Allen Ginsberg’s] Howl,
been attempting to rescue Whitman from the pious clichés of his liberal-Philistine admirers, and to reveal him again as
a poet profoundly comic and tragic, as well as truly what his earliest
detractors had called him, “the dirtiest beast of the age.” Karl
Shapiro, himself a professor . . . and a poet of considerable talent, has
pressed hardest the new case for Whitman, hailing him as “the First
White Aboriginal” and crying out that, “Because Whitman is beyond the
law of literature, he is condemned to extinction from generation to
No, for Fiedler and his fellow upstarts against a New Critical stranglehold that seemed unbreakable—at least within academic circles during the early ‘60s—the Whitman to whom both Tweeds and Sandals paid ultimate homage was, all too clearly, Ezra Pound’s. Citing codicils from “Tract” by William Carlos Williams, set down in 1925—
For heaven’s sake though see to the driver!
—Fiedler lays out its roots in an ecstasy of arboreal autopsy revealing almost as great a fear of being treed as that revealed by the “I” in Williams’s poem:
all there: the hortatory voice, the mild profanity, the schoolgirl
punctuation compounded of dashes and exclamation points, the true
Whitmanian style; but the injunction, “Bring him down!” is out of
Pound; and, indeed, Williams’s Whitman—the Whitman of us all
today—is Pound’s. Pound, unhonored still by the Nobel Committee and
once more in exile, is, then, not once only, but twice over the father of
our verse. One line, which touches him from the Provençal poets and Medieval Italians, runs via Eliot to Richard
Wilbur; but another strain passes through him from Whitman and descends
via Williams to Allen Ginsberg. No wonder Ginsberg began by honoring
Pound: inscribing on walls “Ez for Prez” and even anti-Jewish slogans
out of the Cantos, though in the
end his affiliation is indirect only; and he is less at home with the boy
from Hailey, Idaho, who ended in Rapallo than with his more immediate
neighbors: Whitman who moved from Long Island to Brooklyn to Camden, and
William Carlos Williams who settled in Paterson, New Jersey. Ginsberg
himself was born in nearby Newark and brought up in Paterson, taking the
road west that Whitman had only dreamed and ending in California. But they
are bounded by a small circle, Whitman and Williams and Ginsberg, their
imaginations made in the world defined by the shadow which New York City
casts one way toward New Jersey, the other toward Long Island.
Such speculation may have been front-page news when Donald M. Allen’s collection was making the rounds, but by 1962, the year in which Robert Pack and Donald Hall issued their updated supplement to The New Poets of England and America (1957) to reviews as mixed as the first volume had met with, it had long been relegated to the back pages of the national consciousness, where gossip about Jack Kerouac and obituaries of modern jazz grazed cheek by jowl. The postscripts appended by Leary and Kelly to A Controversy of Poets reveal two editors hopelessly at odds with each other over where American poetry was headed and whether it should be allowed to get there without some orchestrated civil disobedience against that era’s bush leaguers. With what appears to have been protest from Paris Leary, the choice of writers and selections making up A Controversy of Poets marginalizes its more academic contributors by making the once scorned Black Mountaineers, Beats and New York School abstractionists look enough like an entrenched establishment that the persistence in print of such as Vassar Miller and Laurence Lieberman, with his neo-Herbert-esque hourglass poems, seem the remnant of an embarrassingly dated elite.
Rather more formalist than libertarian in his sympathies, Leary charges the acolytes of Olson and Creeley, the so-called “projectivists,” with having exhibited the by then almost involuntary twitches and tics—i.e., “learnedly arcane, frequent references to mythology and non-Western philosophies, to other literary productions, esoterica of one sort or another”—as had for years been laid at the door of the school of Eliot and Ransom in American poetry. Co-editor Kelly, on the other hand, demurring from any and all affiliation with the canapé-and-Montrachet crowd, attacks the “poetry-as-usual”-ers for embracing a safe, stillborn—and here let’s call a spade a spade and not (with little finger elegantly crooked) an entrenching tool, a New Yorker—way of doing verse. For those who might not know what that encompasses, imagine a delicately inclined stylistic plane on which whimsicality elbows decorum aside whenever an ambivalence (and there is always at least one in hand wherever The New Yorker sets its coaster down) in a particular poem require lugging from place to place, or more accurately perhaps, from topos to topos. The projectivists were, in Leary’s view, hardly facing up to their own elitist roots. For example, the archly modernist practices of the Maximus poems’ towering relict, Charles Olson, were those of a stylist whose epic ambitions veered far closer to The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound or “A” by Louis Zukofsky than to, say, Paterson by W. C. Williams, which explored avenues of postmodernism, even if no one knew it at the time. These poets’ affectation of simplicimus, worried, as it is in so many Robert Creeley poems, to the point of neuresthenic macramé, is somehow mandarinized so as to wring from its rosary of quatrains a complexity that for sheer metaphysical heft makes Emily Dickinson’s burrowings to the gist of pith seem not so much lapidary as culled from a stoner’s Gradus ad Parnassum. His bill of particulars-cum-indictment is worth quoting at length:
the roles are somewhat reversed in contemporary American poetry. The
reader will notice that the really academic—the learnedly arcane,
frequent references to mythology amid non-western philosophies, to other
literary productions, esoterica of one sort or another—occurs most
frequently among those poets usually thought of as antitraditionalist or
antiformalist. Who is more restricted by his own chosen form—Robert
Creeley or Kenneth Pitchford? Whose poetry smells more of the
lamp—Charles Olson’s or Robert Pack’s, Robert Duncan’s or Laurence
Lieberman’s? An investigation of the literary magazines inhabited by
those poets popularly supposed to be in revolt evinces an almost
overwhelming preoccupation with style, with diction, with admissible or
inadmissible ways of composing poetry in twentieth-century America, and in
nearly every case, a rigid dogmatism about what may and may not be
allowed. Not that the answers to the questions just posed make any kind of
critical judgment—except upon those who think they do.
There’s no derailing a man convinced he’s on a roll, and Leary, in concluding “Postscript I,” sounds like he’s already imaginatively mounting the ears and tail he was sure to be awarded for having spoken an unpopular truth with no punches pulled:
it is a fascinating phenomenon for speculation: a poetic collection (they
[the traditionalists, the formalists—fill in the blank] are scarcely a
group or movement) whose so-called “Establishment” are, by and large,
in their poems politically engagé, and in whose
works the passions of men, their follies and achievements, are treated
with sympathy and commitment, but most of all, with concern, to whom content is as important as form; and a
“bohemian” underground [the Beats, the Projectivists—this blank
fills itself in], which earns its living frequently by teaching in the
university next door, which is as obsessed and preoccupied with matters of
style as any Neo-Classicists, and whose doctrinaire rejection of the
musical substance of their own language drives its members deeper and
deeper into the library stacks in search of epigraphs, tags, and allusive
subject-matter. It is as if a Keats were Editor of The
Edinburgh Review and an Alexander Pope a doctor from Hampstead
(Paterson). It is bizarre, and reflects, I suppose, the common madness and
wonder of modern America.
The equations are plain, if not actually down and dirty: formalists and traditionalists stood for sympathy, commitment, concern; while Beats and projectivists were too busy calling the kettle black to see how their obsession with pot and the Harlemization of Mailerian white Negroes might have tilted their judgment. Thus, despite its professed ecumenicalism, A Controversy of Poets merely extends the freeze-frame Hamilton versus Burr feud that earlier anthologies had opened their pages to. By 1965 the situation had not so much improved as faded in the clinches. Both sides had simply settled into that rut of abusive familiarity by which long-cherished antagonisms become like the sacred vessels broken by the panther in Kafka’s famous parable. Each faction had assumed its place in a ceremony whose sole purpose was to keep the keeping on of both antagonists enshrined as the other’s indispensable Black Mass. In confirmation of this, the no less over-rehearsed counter-argument to Leary’s (offered by Kelly in “Postscript II”) crystallizes with a single-mindedness equally Nader-esque just why “live and let live” was just not in the cards:
. . Literally perverse to me is the presumption of fatuity of some poets
who choose to hum in the measures of Donne or Herbert about important
human issues to a generation that has experienced Auschwitz, Nagasaki,
Algeria, and the Congo. That is pure escapism, and can catch only the
saturated ears of an audience attuned to the reviews and the world of
little magazine infighting. Nor is the perversion or betrayal simply a
lack of cogent responsibility to the social and political world of the
poet. More deeply, it is a betrayal too of the very achievement of the
masters they follow, those masters who, whatever else their businesses,
sang in their own voices in their own time.
Had University of Chicago critic Wayne C. Booth voiced his cry for pluralism during the formalist-antiformalist battles of the ‘50s and ‘60s it would as surely have fallen on deaf ears as did his later appeal for sanity in the “theory wars” of the ‘80s. Yet, without taking sides in what is a whetherless no-man’s-land between two fronts, the antiformalist rationale espoused by Kelly seems much less irrational than its opposite number. Kelly sounds like someone fighting for something rather than merely trying to rouse discernibly flagging troops to combat something. Again, there’s a need to reproduce an important segment of his argument nearly in full:
the past hundred years . . . there has been a better possibility: to
sustain life by the creation of new forms, genuine new verbal structures
arising out of our condition to sing to us of all times. The work of
Whitman or Rimbaud in the nineteenth century—with awful slowness—has
at last alerted us to the possibility of a poem that means something. I
mean a poem that is not like a tune we can choose to hear or to neglect,
something for the sake of something else, like a print tacked up on the
wall to hide the wall. I mean a poem that means something because it is no
longer about something but is
something: but, and this is all-important, a poem that, as a thing, does
not come to exist aesthetically and in remoteness, as a thing would be in
a museum, unthinged, but as a thing would exist, and possess meaning, in a
world of living men. As a chair possesses meaning. Not as furniture, but
as a place to sit down.
In his zeal to pursue what looks for all the world like a Gebrauschsmusik approach to literature, Kelly seems to have forgotten that though Chippendales are reckoned in terms of auction catalog days and ways, they remain receptive to butt ends of a strictly posterior analytic. Still, his enthusiastic embrace of the sort of poet who through the use of ex cathedra powers seeks to put the ars (with unpronounced “e”) back into poetica, rather than playing bumboy to an androgynous muse, as any number of formalists were content to do, was refreshing but hardly a realistic posture for an avant-gardist of the mid-‘60s. Though making the traditionalist camp look vulnerable by characterizing it as sanctioning something approximating a Hindemithian poetics might then have seemed a sharp move, it was blindsided by a failure to anticipate a time when the afflatus of a Galway Kinnell and a Robert Kelly, would be difficult to distinguish critically from that of a Bob Dylan, a Jim Morrison or a Leonard Cohen. But Kelly will simply not surrender his chair:
poetry of which I speak, the poetry that concerns me and that I have tried
to display in this anthology, is a poetry that makes extreme demands upon
the reader. It is not content to be background music—taken as background
music it is, like all else in that category, aesthetically trivial. On the
contrary: it demands everything the reader has; it demands that the reader
bring himself to the place of the poem. That sounds like the maxim of an
older aesthetic; it is not. He who would sit down must present himself to
the chair, bring himself to the place of the chair. Then the sensuous
impress of the poem begins.
Clearly, in the presence of such highwayman verse it is the reader rather than the poet who must “stand and deliver.” Which introduces an interesting synchronicity: Kelly, having immersed himself in the world according to that moment in American verse’s regnant Garp, Robert Creeley (who by the early ‘60s had inherited the mantle of Black Mountain guru-dom from a by then faltering Charles Olson and a Joel Oppenheimer who had moved on to playwriting)—this same Creeley had managed to arrive where the Projectivists had been pointing all along. All this talk of the poem as a place, indeed a habitus where sensuous relations with the world’s molecular immediacies become realizable in wordspace, is surely a Creeleyesque confabulation—albeit one with New York school legs. The gospel according to John Ashbery would later hypostasize that place as a mind tinctured with the hues of alternately rose- and darker-colored glasses. Lightened by surrealist jocularity—and emotion recollected in urban jonquility (or Narcissus, as this perennial is referred to in the south of Europe and Algeria)—the effusions of this mind cannot help but reflect the conditionals of its erotic modality, the accidentals of its major and minor keys. Hardly surprising is it, then, that the two lengthiest and most avant-garde single works in A Controversy of Poets are by the two most creative within that troika of movers and shakers that largely held sway over the New York school—the third being Kenneth Koch—Ashbery (“Europe”) and Frank O’Hara (“Biotherm”).
But the most truly exceptional (in both senses of the word) contributor to A Controversy of Poets—especially for those readers who had never seen any of his writings—is Louis Zukofsky, who contributed nine poems (including the magnificent “Poem Beginning ‘The’”), each of which is in its own way brilliant and unforgettable. Even the parts of poems are magically detachable from their moorings, their loveliness soaring over mere flights of thematic fancy:
Ah, my craft, it is as Homer says:
Seldom has syntax been so expeditiously cut to consideration’s jib as in “. . . once I saw something like you, / a young palm sprung at Apollo’s altar, / I’ve been even that far— . . .” without immediately faltering into stumblebum sentimentalities or Corso-esque rimshots off an ostentatiously padded basket. Who but Zukofsky would risk attaching an unhaltered near-haiku like the following (from the same poem, “Chloride of Lime and Charcoal”)—
—to the tail of a kite as forlornly over-understated as “Death (is?) the common share / Of the loved,” letting all injunctions against the (nec)romancing of clichés go hang? This gentle giant of a poet, the pride as well as the anguish of his mentor Pound, towers over the relative striplings massed in Leary and Kelly’s galère like Modigliani over a loftful of canvass primers. “Poem Beginning ‘The’” may be a masterpiece but its 330 individually numbered lines wear their laurels lightly, even insouciantly, as befits the airy colossus they collectively conjure. More than one pretender to désordre’s sacred order (no names mentioned) has his tie flipped by its flagrant avant garde-isms which communicate by the very flagrancy of their assertiveness the temerity of certain unflasked Apollinairean djinns:
34 And on the cobblestones, bang, bang, bang,
The day of such verse may have adorned its dawning with all due resplendent spectacle but for reasons too supernumerary to acknowledge in any way other than en masse, never managed to attain high noon. Rather, it petered out in a threnody of albas too recondite to pleasure the contemporary ear, too enamored of crepuscular inflammation, or alternately, descendant shade for it to register as anything beyond chromatics given the run of the spectrum for whatever fires the process might itself stoke. Unable to overtop his hero, paeanist of Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine the Great, Christopher Marlowe, Zukofsky, himself a Jew of Malta untimely spat out by a Wellsian contraption onto a world stage of coloratura Tony Sopranos (he was born in 1904), put all he had as poet into birthing that astounding melismatic epic titled simply “A”; while as critic midwiving (with splendor to spare) a parturitionist’s view of Shakespeare (for anyone willing to have theirs upgraded) from the ass-forward, Bottom-elevated position. (A sad note in passing: Unpleasant as it is to have to admit, the readers of this author’s best works in poetry or prose unlikely exceed in number the stick-on stars to be found in a typical elementary schoolroom’s wall-sized firmament. Faute de mieux for mediocrities everywhere in need of their regular fix of whatever passes in that holistic shebang calling itself contemporary poetry for American Idol’s best hung.)
The latter poem is by far the more engaging of the two. “Europe” was, as even friendly critics have hastened to point out, a last elaborate shovelful of hommage for the French surrealist who, after a half century of unrelenting harassment by souvenir hawkers camp-following the Manhattan Armory Show, had undergone an extreme makeover and begun affecting palatial hauteur as befitted a “Duchamp d’Elysée.” Having lived in Paris throughout the latter part of the Beat ascendancy (really its downward trajectory) in American writing, Ashbery, before returning permanently to American shores, offered up in “Europe” a tribute to a city whose celebrated lights had largely been punched out. Partially extinguished by a succession of vagues not nearly as nouvelles as had been the films of Truffaut and Goddard, they were further dimmed by a glut of romans insufficiently nouveau to extend the bank-holiday that million-sellers by Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet had grossed out to the length of a long lost weekend. In a cultural interim scarcely notable for risk-taking, N’importe qui had devolved all too noisomely into Tel Quel; and before long the dernier cri of tout Paris would be what was being glimpsed though the looking glass held up not by artists or filmmakers, but by the eminences grises of the new post-structuraliste sophistry. Among such Oiuja-boarders of the Zeitgeist a quaternary of seers stood out: Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. All four responded to the spectacle of the death of metaphysics with sore thumbs up, each oracle being so gifted at tricking the structuralist strumpet out with glittering duds that impressionable youth during those years, sophisticated about all but sophistication’s lust for patterned recognitions, and eager to lose its virginity to a whore of price, were easily cozened by a number of fantasies. One, that the thousand and one nights of the Encyclopedists were relivable; another, that the Loreleis of instrumental reason were wholesome wenches; and a third, that the Paris in which Rousseau, Diderot, Helvétius, d’Alembert and Condillac had shaken the world to its foundations, might again see the de facto bed down with the de jure in passionate congress that would make voyeurs of the gods. And all this was to be accomplished by a few French academics who mostly wouldn’t converse with one another, except for an occasional exchange in the press which often rivaled in output of venom a lengthy run of Antony and Cleopatra by Shakepeare.
“Europe,” then, was Ashbery’s collageiste homage to the specter of Dada still haunting Paris after decades of moribund surrealism capped by Jean Cocteau’s ritual burial of the avant garde in a series of cinematic interments on Orphic themes. It was mostly written on the continent adverted to in its title, though the poem’s revisionary excesses (in the other sense) are as typical of New York’s in the late ‘50s as of Paris’s some few years later. Which, one is obliged to admit, is another way of suggesting that this beached whale of a jeu d’esprit—and even the most fanatical defenders of the early Ashbery must agree—is rather more tomb-like than tombeau-esque. And that, despite its implicit homage to the new spirit of malldom arising out the anchluss of De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic with a truncated Germany of magic and (Adenauerian) miracle which made even the cries of the Holocaust dissolve in the glare of prosperity subtended by a convenient, bland-leading-the-blond absent-mindedness. In choosing to return home when he did, Ashbery rediscovered America just when that Paris, within whose blowsy arondissements he blew a decade of his life preening amid the sterile cuckoos du Degré Zéro, was busy exchanging the being and nothingness of Old Sartrean psychoanalyse for the nothingness of being of New Sartrean Mao-Maoisme. To add zest to this transition, Frenchmen had concluded (having bought the history dispensed in German oubliettes) that “Vichy” no longer eponymized a dilution, cravenly accepted, of liberté, égalité and fraternité, but rather denoted (as it had before the war which nearly wrote finis to la belle France demoted it) a site of bottling rather than bottling up the effervescence of things Gallic, specifically that eau minérale, whose only side-effect was rollicking good health and whose superiority in watering down un-French spirits was as solid and unchanging as—well, the nouveau franc.
John Shoptaw’s critical study of Ashbery, On the Outside Looking Out (1994), informs us that Ashbery “constructed ‘Europe’ in the fall of 1958 at the Paris home of Harry Mathews, experimental novelist, publisher and editor of Locus Solus, and in 1960 one of the founding members of the French experimental writing group, Oulipo. Like “Idaho” (another of this poet’s campy sendups of the sort of potboiler that one could imagine having launched the “spaghetti eastern”), “’Europe’ “was scaffolded on a forgotten novel by William Le Queux,” which Ashbery later described as “a child’s story for girls about a mysterious aviatrix in World War I called Beryl of the By-plane,” adventitiously discovered on the Paris quais. The name of the game in this “Europe” is not evolving communication (à la Jurgen Habermas) but “misrepresentative torsion”— the phrase is Shoptaw’s—with the aim of dislocating reader from writer in a way no less definitive (if less world-shaking) than the divorce of spatiality from absolute space effected in such revelatory—and revolutionary—paintings as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In keeping with the “homotextualist” approach to Ashbery’s poetry pursued in On the Outside Looking Out, Shoptaw plays up the poet’s own downsizing of the influence of French surrealism on poems like “Europe” and zeroes in on their internal patterns of resistance:
are indications that “Europe” resists not only the forays of
traditional sequential reading but also the xenophobic paranoia of Le
Queux. Early on [in the poem], we witness a homosexual panic regarding an
“absolute unthinking / menace to our way of life.” The undercover
heroine Beryl suspects that “He is probably one of the gang,” a
suspicion which leads to renunciation: “The son is not ours.” Then, in
the middle of Ashbery’s fragmented stanzas, we arrive at a resonantly
lucid, Audenesque sonnet, in which an exact embrace cannot cancel the
geopolitical grip. . . Auden’s influence on “Europe” is not confined
to [a few] couplets. The embattled, watchful, homophobic atmosphere of
“Europe” resembles the climate of Auden’s boldest experiment in
collaged verse and prose, “The Orators.” . . .
Sexual legerdemain to the contrary notwithstanding, “Europe” would hardly have shocked a Parisian audience pursuing an already burgeoning affaire du coeur with Wimpy bars, homegrown Bogart imitators, and le—increasingly popular—rock-and-roll. The plot-as-anagram preciousness on which this poem’s ersatz frisson depends is depressingly of a piece with the rest of The Tennis Court Oath (1962), the duplicitously titled volume in which it first appeared. The faux avant-garde “gems” filling out this collection are equally dependent for this effect on seeing everything within their reach reduced to a smirky puddle of vicariousness in keeping, one supposes, with that taste which Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” identifies as one able to turn artifacts utterly lacking in artistic value into objects of unabashed delight not by ignoring their awfulness, but by treating that awfulness as though it were akin to aestheticism’s Holy of Holies. Camp, according to Sontag, doesn’t merely dote on the “so bad it’s good” variety of tastelessness, it reverses the polarities by which artistic “good” and “bad” are assigned functions of attraction and repulsion within the moral macrocosm. Through an inversion of orthopedics, the self-loathing of some homosexuals and their sense of inferiority vis à vis mainstream culture could be transformed with few tail-feathers being ruffled. The trick was to convert to default setting a critique of heterosexuality—Shoptaw’s notion of “homotextuality” comes home to roost precisely in this—whereby whatever had been warped into a parody of asexuality by the Hays Office—vampire “teasers” with Bela Lugosi or B-movie dreadfuls featuring divas of disaster like Maria Montez—morphed back into being either an assertion of homosexual desire or a deformed expression of gayness hilariously made straight. Either way, the gay sensibility triumphed. In vanquishing heterosexual windmills it preserved a grandee’s illusion of invincibility; and by turning the Dulcinea of sexual longing into a drag queen it marginalized, if not rendering effectively moot, the power of “trouser roles”—like that of Sancho Panza—within the bailiwick of inversions under Camp’s allegorical jurisdiction.
Other forces were at work as well in “Europe” and the other poems making up The Tennis Court Oath, forces which had their origin in the post-Surréaliste vacuum that enveloped Paris in the wake of the passing of modernism and the moribund state of the avant-garde anywhere in Europe but—and who could account for this—the samizhdat countries of the Soviet bloc. For one thing, any foreigner trying in the ‘50s to soak up, or even just take in, the Parisian poetic scene could not have failed to note the sheer bulk of thanatophilia weighing down much of the verse being written by figures such as Pierre Reverdy, Francis Carco, René Daumal, Robert Desnos, Francis Jammes, and O. V. de Lubicz-Milosz. In 1955 American readers were offered a brief taste of some of these poets via some translations done by Kenneth Rexroth for the International Issue (#15) of New Directions’s anthology of new writing (reformatted as a quality paperback at the inexpensive sale price of $1.35 and commissioned as an alternate flagship to both “pocket book” series like New American Library’s New World Writing and Grove Press’s bimonthly fever chart of Greenwich Village frissons, The Evergreen Review). Their effect must have been startling, to say the least, inducing, one ventures to guess, that odd mixture of boredom and unease a shade feels in sauntering past a mirror or when a fully sentient soul has his grave stepped on. In poem after poem death and its commensurate suspensions abound, seizing everything but enervation by the throat in a throttling of life and song as though to prevent each from securing (pardon the mixed metaphor) a foothold on line or limb. The end of Francis Carco’s significantly titled “The Shadow” trails off with duly enwhimpered bang:
And the round of shadows and of the light of houses
while René Daumal’s “Nymphe Liminaire” plays pop-up with the full spread of waxworks that is Poeania in excelsis:
I don’t want to remember but it is always there
Robert Desnos’s “Epitaph” speaks from the well upholstered grave of its own posthumousness:
I lived in those times. For a thousand years
O. V. de Lubicz-Milosz casts his “Vacant Lots” like an aspersion aimed at all downplayers of war’s theatrics:
How did you come to me, o you so humble, so sad? I no longer know,
Pierre Reverdy, though more winsome, more Raoul Dufyesque than the run of his contemporaries, seems every bit as stuck as they in that surrealist half-world which would be of Stevensian making (think “Disillusionment of Ten O’clock”), were it not weighed down by Cartesian angst and a sang-froid almost Schillerian in its unflappability:
The empty bell
The death obsession so plainly visible in these poems might conceivably have its origin in a morbid streak that is more Rexroth’s own than attributable to the poets he has rendered into English, but it’s doubtful. Transitioning as they did from surrealistic tell-all to a-realistic Tel Quel, the generation of French poets that in Ashbery’s Paris years set his pulse to fluttering aspired, rather portentously, to create poems to die for and ended up autopsying the élan vital. No wonder his “Europe” evades meaning with every resource. The poem mainly emulated the chief showplaces of its postwar namesake by busily keeping its center vacant and its extremities in balletic turmoil. The reader kept guessing about which dancers cut in and out of his peripheral vision is a reader who can’t tell where the pas de deux leave off and the instances of two-timing begin.
On a rather distant other hand, Frank O’Hara’s lengthy swerve into abstract expressionism, “Biotherm” provides an instructive counterweight to Ashbery’s opaque and self-consciously postmodern essay in Camp hystorics, “Europe.” Written in 1961, following a European jaunt in the company of the poem’s dedicatee and unyielding (so all reports have it) Platonic lover, Bill Berkson, it encompasses pudeurs of candor not seen in love poetry since the Rimbaud-induced effusions of “Parsifal” by Paul Verlaine. Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara, City Poet (1993), identifies “Biotherm” as referring (in the poet’s own words) to “a marvelous sunburn preparation full of attar of roses, lanolin and plankton ($12 a tube) which Bill’s [that is, Berkson’s] mother fortunately left around and it hurts terribly when gotten into one’s eyes. Plankton it says on it is [sic] practically the most health-giving substance ever rubbed into one’s skin.” He further reveals that “biotherm” appears in the poem as a sort of elixir, in a parody of a passage from William Carlos Williams’s Paterson V:
“measure schmeasure know shknew
Like “Europe,” O’Hara’s confessio occasionally manages inspired bursts of libido-displacing code but at other times falls back on tiresome eruptions of the “instamatic” verse he could click off by the roll when the mood was upon him. Rarely, when he was in that mood, were erections things one could make out of words rather than try to hide under a folded raincoat in public. As with most protracted in-jokes of this sort, a good deal of the humor drowns like a fly in the head of a pint of beer, while sailing blithely over every human one likely to come in contact with it other than Berkson’s own, and even he as subject (and not so indirect object) of O’Hara’s poem seems miscast as my-protégé-the-taxi the love-sick Meistersinger can neither catch the eye of nor flag down sexually. A handful of O’Hara’s lines compete in their articulately naked truth with some of the more eloquent passages in that marvelous pastoral elegy appearing in Journey to Love Williams managed to compose in his last years when a series of strokes (and the gift of an electric typewriter) made variable feet indentable at last. Like almost all of Williams’s poems, short or long, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” is about sexual passion excruciatingly lived and triumphantly risen from. In his seventies, when this poem was written, his lien on the erotic was mostly encumbered; but if its reserves seemed scarcely fungible, their afterglow proved bankable as ever, even if accounts amounting to a spousal circle needing to be squared with Elsie, his wife of some fifty years, necessitated the calling in of some long thought to be expired debts. O’Hara’s “Biotherm,” too, has its afterglows, engendered not by the banking of sexual fires but by the togetherness of trips undertaken, a letch for romantic piano concertos effusively shared, this a propos of that internalized as feelings jointly dismembered (later) into love:
September 15 (supine, unshaven, hungover, passive, softspoken) I was
Here, the crux is the incomprehension voiced by O’Hara’s (mostly gay) friends over the ”going nowhere fast” nature of his friendship, and Rimbaldian collaboration, with a very much younger (and likely more ambitious) boy of letters. Their relationship, never to anyone’s knowledge fully consummated, was endlessly rekindled erotically by a kind of sexual suicide pact they had established with one another. O’Hara would relentlessly push Berkson toward things physical and Berkson would draw back in a manner so coyly open-ended as to provoke the older poet into redoubling his efforts to seduce him, ad (feigned) nauseam and (blue-balled) infinitum. This would go on until exhaustion intervened, leaving them panting from the exertions laid upon them by never getting laid (at least by one another), and contemplating the familiar unsheathed sword placed as ever between them, bespeaking that tug of subject rhyme which in such situations yokes scabbards that are not there to hors-de-jeu foreskins that are with painful inextricability. Indeed, so wan after many months of “song but no dance” had O’Hara’s prospects become—“a year and a half of trying to make him”—that by a perverse calculation he had come round to believing—and “Biotherm”’s clubby “his-terics” confirm this—that abstinence not only made the heart beat faster, but unrelieved sexual tension could stoke the fires lit by the muses to something approaching white heat:
I am always thinking of you
Not since the rhyme-clotted stammers of Amour courtois has pent-up eroticism been so aggressively uncloseted. The use he found for the prize turned up by Hart Crane in one of those Cracker Jack box ransackings of the dictionary in search of the mot juste as opposed to merely justament, the word “spindrift” (“The seal’s spindrift gaze toward paradise”) brought out the balletomane in him, not to mention heavily underscoring the Tchaikovskian longing lying on and not under the surface of his passionate contretemps with Berkson, himself a sentimentalist, albeit of straiter ways and lesser means. Gooch seems a tad addicted to schadenfreude in dwelling so painstakingly on the self-squelching acidities of O’Hara’s lemon squeezing where matters of love are concerned. No doubt there’s some justice in labeling “Biotherm” a “work of complex courtship,” but its allusion to “claustrophobia”—
We have our usual contest about claustrophobia
—cuts at least two ways, and on a bias at that. From one restricted angle it points to the offputting braking action applied to the relationship by Bill Berkson; while from another it throws up the insupportability of separation felt as much by the object of desire as by its subject. Though unengaged sexually, they were nonetheless able, as has been said, to sustain the equivalent of a working marriage through a community of interests in which the physical side of things was largely sublimated.
The devoting of so much space to three eccentric works but loosely representative of two groups of poets—the New York school and Louis Zukofsky, a school unto himself—can be justified only by weighing that eccentricity against the more conventional radicalisms that adorn the trellis of A Controversy of Poets. The writers who would later be identified with the label of this school flourished while their particular form of moonshine waxed wane-proof, which anni mirabilorum proceeded mostly via the ostensible retraction with both hands what the left and right hand of literary opportunity but gingerly proferred. Ashbery’s capsule biography accompanying his submission of “Europe” to the editors of A Controversy of Poets illustrates this tendency almost too graphically to be taken as anything other than a thinly disguised practical joke. To support this reading one need only cite the following from the self-portrait in a convex mirror filed at the back of the Leary and Kelly omnibus (under “Biographies and Bibliography”):
originally wanted to be a painter, and did paint until I was eighteen
years old, but I feel I could express myself best in music. What I like
about music is its ability of being convincing, of carrying an argument
through successfully to the finish, though the terms of this argument
remain unknown quantities. What remains is the structure, the architecture
of the argument, scene or story. I would like to do this in poetry. I
would also like to reproduce the power dreams have of persuading you that
a certain event has a meaning not logically connected with it, or that
there is a hidden relation among disparate objects. But actually this is
only a part of what I want to do, and I am not sure I want to do it. I
often change my mind about my poetry: I do not, for instance, think it has
much relation to painting, though I have said I did in previous statements
of this kind. I would prefer not to think I have any special aims in mind,
as I might then be forced into a program for myself—statements such as I
have just made can any way only be made after the poetry has been written
and are therefore not of much use to the writer, and, by extension, to the
Thus may “aesthetical” feelings (in the sense stripmined in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience), be lost up their own vent, victims of imperfect exhumation and downdraft loosed by the spin of their airing. The question begged on such toots of coming clean is why the reliquaries of long-defunct Dada should so sway a poet hardly old enough to generalize, much less require (à la W. B. Yeats) jumpstarting with nonsense cables riveting accounts about inspiration grabbing one by the doughties or letting one hang fireless for months, even years at a time. That hardly any inspiration with bona fides can be detected in the robotic flailings in a poem like “Europe” confirms that much more strongly the wisdom behind Ashbery’s decision to leave behind the things of youth in Paris where they belonged and to return to his roots, which, after the bildungsromanesque periods spent in Rochester, New York and at Harvard, lay clearly and unmistakably in Manhattan and environs. For the American/New York scene was getting interesting again, with the dispersion of Black Mountaineers to the fringes of the Beat phenomenon, thus putting paid to the resurgence—to certain true believers, a second Vortex—of Poundian poetics in the wake of the scandal over the Bollingen Prize awarded the disgraced poet’s Pisan Cantos in 1948. Further obscured by static generated concurrently by war in the Korean peninsula, McCarthyite witchhunts, and a rebirth of neo-Victorian conservatism, in poetry as well as in the culture at large, was the emergence of a new and subtle deviation from Objectivist vers libre which amounted to nothing less than a tectonic shift in the mantle of formalism itself. While Charles Olson, megaphone-in-chief for Black Mountain poetics and the cultural morphology that would find gnomic expression in the welter of Maximus, was diverting the rubes with one unintelligible manifesto after another, some not-so-secret sharers in the holding company then known as Projectivism—Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, Joel Oppenheimer, Denise Levertov and John Wieners, to name a few—were fomenting their own quiet revolution circa 1957, in which Ezra Pound (newly sprung from St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington, D. C.) was to figure prominently, along with the gifted architect and conservationist R. Buckminster Fuller, known, among other things, for having invented the dymaxion cube and designed the geodesic dome. (Though it is not widely known, Fuller was also for a time an adjunct faculty member of the financially strapped Black Mountain College. Having tried to talk conservationist sense to the anything but fiscally responsible revolutionaries who were his colleagues, he was basted at every turn like Cassandra at her own barbeque. True, only a quirk of fate could have cast him to play the ineffectual Trotsky opposite Olson’s flagrantly oblivious Lenin, given the likelihood of his being whipsawingly upstaged by the gangly logorrhetic in the melodrama that made the plight of the experimental campus as unrightable as the leanings of the first Politburo drunk on White Russians.)
Leary and Kelly seem to have planned the rest of their anthology to fall in around these three Jovean satellites flung, like a teeming, if somewhat skim, Milky Way, into outerness by disintegrating modernism. They must have realized that to banish them to the margin (as one might exponents of “tie-die” poetry or spaced-out, full-speed-ahead-to-the-past “anxious objecting,” to paraphrase Harold Rosenberg) would have sent entirely the wrong message to poets still reeling from a decade’s worth of nights of a thousand nicks. Not that Ashbery’s or O’Hara’s forays into achronicity weren’t taken for the hand-me-down Calder mobiles they so patently tried to avoid being. While shunning formalist congruence with the known and habitual, they remained curiously in sync with the “cut-ups” of a certain William Burroughs (soon to be of Naked Lunch fame), not to mention the flood of anticipatory snippets of “reality TV” now routinely filed (circularly, despite recent posthumous excavations of “spiritual journalism” like Jack Kerouac’s Some of the Dharma) under “day mongering.”
At the anthology’s other extremity—Black Mountain alumni excluded—may be seen remnants of a once proud and procreant avant-garde scurrying, night-blinded, into little self-conscious heaps. These babbling anachronisms, reduced to source-begging from writers even an Eliot wouldn’t have plagiarized, must have suffered agonies of the damned not to have made it with their youth intact to the mid-to-late ‘60s, when short lines of no non-proscribable use could at least be snorted. For whether swaggering with audacity copped from the Beats, or just wallowing in smugness reminiscent of innumerable New Yorker send-ups of that time and of that place (though of nothing else in particular), word-spinning versifiers such as Larry Eigner, Gray Burr, Robin Blaser, Theodore Enslin, Daniel Hoffman, Laurence Lieberman, Robert Pack, Ralph Pomeroy, Stephen Sandy, Nancy Sullivan, Robert Sward, Theodore Weiss and Jonathan Wood—all thought “poetically controversial” by Leary and Kelly—appear now to not only have been marked by time but to have been doing little more than marking it themselves.
But a single swallow, no matter how exquisite, does not a summer, or a vintage nectar make. Zukofsky might tower over all but a handful of the 50-odd contributors to A Controversy of Poets—so much so in fact that to have included him in the anthology seems almost insulting to the others—none the less, a poetry sampler is supposed to plot trends, extol the notable and familiar, and nod expectantly toward the crop of up-and-coming young Turks. It is simply not good editorial policy to advert, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to what in a seraglio distinguishes the pasha from his eunuchs. Sure, the presence—for the time—of Robert Creeley, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, or even, heaven help us, Allen Ginsberg prevented Leary and Kelly from keeping company with those Louis Untermeyers and Oscar Williamses who repeatedly turned a buck by recycling—endlessly and shamelessly—new ways to pay old debts. If a haze of the valedictory seems to hover over the proceedings conducted by Leary and Kelly, as though they thought it enough to declare over (if not entirely resolved) the hostilities between the hold-out sonneteers holding court down at Maury’s or other such places and the Great Unwashed of beatniks and haiku merchants to be found lounging around Grand Central Station or some sleepy Greyhound bus terminal out in the boondocks, that is not being entirely fair to A Controversy of Poets’s two editors. Their encapsulation of contrary tendencies in American verse circa 1965 bespeaks a slickness of containment suggestive, yes; of doors closing, certainly; but on an expensive Mercedes or BMW, not on a Geo or Hyundai. Its almost 600 pages thread a heady interlacing of confessionalists with post-confessionalists, postmodernists with neo-modernists, New York Schoolers with greying Beats. Fortunately for all concerned, the order of inclusion was alphabetical or there might have been more than just eyebrows raised over, say, a Richard Wilbur’s being sandwiched between a John Wieners and a Jonathan Williams.
In fact, it would be hard, mutatis mutandis, to name another anthology of the period that provides as comprehensive a survey of as many different types of verse as the compilers of A Controversy of Poets can claim to have gathered between covers. Some of the better poems appear to the uninitiated to decant estate bottled wine into familiar but still serviceable containers, as in “The House,” a brief poem (dedicated to Louis Zukofsky) by Black Mountain poet and co-signer of the Projectivist Manifesto, Robert Creeley:
But that eye would merely be retinizing and not recognizing what is so factively and so splendidly there. To say this poem’s dynamic works like a charm might overstate its roots in medieval necromancy, but the rounding off of corners on such moribund joists as the four-line stanza and the homily calls forth a magic of summonage all its own. In Creeley’s world, the perseverations attendant upon form are never far afield from the juggling of struts, pinions and aerations that make seeing a poem through to completion recall what William Faulkner once said about keeping a novel within bounds. Like trying to hammer together a henhouse in a hurricane, he told an interviewer. In poems like “The House,” antinomies meet and exchange blessings: a miniaturist with a jeweler’s eye suggestive of a Hugh Selwyn Mauberley invites schizoanalysis as a wielder of ripe conjugalities next to which even a Gypsy Rose Lee’s might seem raffish and remote. But this poet’s most astringent originality is not so easily reduced to its ingredients. It is perhaps best seen to advantage in those conic projections of beauty Creeley’s birdseye view of the actual is able—on a good day—to coax from the pulpy masses of “happenstantial reality”—which is to say, from the dentine of life’s toothsomeness beyond which lies only the protective casing of ideas. These reality substitutes, like the sensory depreciations they are, can but connote force. They cannot give force an edge able to overcome the fact of reality’s shrinkage when tumble-dried with words. (Has any poet before Creeley ever thought to comment—even paranomastically—upon the inherent and not in any way fortuitous connection between tropes and “tropical” in the geographic sense?) A poem, by Creeley’s lights, traces the flights of human errancy on the suggestive but always insecure basis of where its defining words have been. All the best poems must necessarily stop at haruspicating the emotional life of the species. They fix upon the entrails of contrails and work back from the cumulosities observed to the first globules of felt life condensed by the fog of language.
But not atypical Creeley runes like “The House” break down anything that might otherwise pass for “poetic language” into radiant neutralities which are then reassembled on some far shore of Acheron where forms emboldened by shape congregate and simulacra multiply unbidden like cerebrations of the Hydra. The poem’s four “stanzas” are streamlined to the point of illucidity; indeed, they occupy the page like a column of hieroglyphs in triumphal march towards constellatory immortality. No doubt a poetry like Creeley’s is inescapably a poetry of surfaces; but it is also a poetry of the surface, not unlike that which T. S. Eliot invoked to characterize the verse of Ben Jonson in The Sacred Wood. In his essay devoted to this much slighted contemporary of Shakespeare, Eliot said of such verse that it was not graspable without assiduous study. “[For] to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it,” he wrote, “is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand.”
But to understand what? “Mud” (if we begin at the beginning) is capable of dragging any associative carcass out of the mind’s depths, from earth mixed with water to the very ooze of primordiality itself. It’s not so much a thing or a concept as it is an element reduced (or expanded)—to dance on the skull of Kant’s third Critique—to the absolute molecularity of substantiveness without substance. Mud is the sort of stuff that roils the vineyards of poetic suggestion without ever once turning up a worm of sinuous particularity. Creeley’s diminutive “stanzas” might labor mightily to diagram how archnesses built into the human desire to communicate with others distribute their stresses in unpredictable ways, and perhaps less tangibly, how quarks (rather than whole atoms) of punctuation pass unhindered through walls of meaning erected to keep clarity’s pellet-like lucubrations from scattering like buckshot. (One could, for example, devote a small treatise to the specters of exactitude that cleave to the comma following the word cave in line six like barnacles to a sunken hull.)
Not to excessively hammer home the point, the close study of Creeley’s verse reveals a broaching of formalist exigency at work which cries out from virtually all vantage points as radically new. If they’re to sup on the meat of them, readers should try to banish from their minds all matters not bearing on the particularities wafted by the words to their presence of mind. This includes everything from Williamsesque tinkerings with imagism, objectivism, the “variable foot,” and other red herrings distortive of a reasonable view of modern American poetry to all the breathing exercises masquerading as prophetic verse for which self-conscious (and self-important) “bards” like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti provide the template. What in Creeley’s work most commands our attention is the “dymaxion cubism” of its uniquely ductile, tractile, and uncompromisingly plastic constructs. Poetry like his doesn’t sit on the page awaiting the celebrity that might someday enjoin readers to fall asleep over it. It agitates a field of words whose percussions occur unexpectedly over time in that infinitude of parallel universes which its readers inhabit solely as a consequence of their having been where the agents of a Creeley poem could abduct them.
It will require a further installment of this retrospective to lay such matters out, one which focuses specifically on the contribution to the newly emergent formalism made by Donald M. Allen’s Grove Press anthology of 1960. In the meantime, it’s perhaps best to close with an allusion to certain developments in American poetry, which, for better or worse, having consolidated themselves by 1965 (and viewed by both editors of A Controversy of Poets as a fait accompli, irrespective of what they might otherwise have disagreed about), were ringing changes upon the theme and variation pattern of verse as usual. Some of these bear upon what W. C. Williams had identified decades earlier as the task confronting American poets in the wake of both Whitman’s and Pound’s failures to wholly liberate American idiom from the classics. As Leslie Fiedler declared (in the book of his cited earlier): “It is clear from Williams’ critical writings that he considers neither Whitman nor Pound to have succeeded in inventing a new kind of verse that, in abandoning all homage to the ‘classics,’ would have fought its way through vers libre to a hitherto unimagined order of form “ (italics mine).
But the most comprehensive of these developments reached beyond issues of mere prosody or whether form was an extension of content or the other way around and by the ‘70s would prove central to the argument over where American poetry was headed. (Though the detour taken in the ‘60s and ‘70s by Christopher Ricks’s newly canonized “hero with a thousand schticks,” Bob Dylan, into Villonesque culs-de-sac would significantly complicate matters for some time.) Traditional modernism had by then been so thoroughly paved over by post-modernism that hardly anyone had bothered to credit Timothy Leary with the rewrite—dashed off with a nod to Eliot’s The Waste Land—of Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, bearing the nifty title “Desolation Row.” However, some of the best, and a lot of the worst, was still to come.
Still, life is reasonably absorbing
Before advancing to the next segment of this retrospective, a brief recap of the American poetry scene as a visitor from another planet might have encountered it, circa 1965, might be a good idea. First, the habitus environing the nation’s poetry and poets had in those years suffered a sea-change. In the time separating the satyr play of the Beat Generation from the Bunyanesque mummery with bells and hookah that succeeded it and which lasted well into the ‘70s, a quiet reorganization (accompanied by an equivalently beneath-the-radar process of re-energization) took place, the orienting background for which needs some additional commentary of its own.
Though by 1960, the year of JFK’s accession to the presidency of the United States by a slim majority of dead people voting randomly in Cook County, Illinois (and, as legend has it, in perfect alphabetical order in the south Texas stronghold of Vice-Presidential nominee Lyndon B. Johnson), the forward momentum of the Beat movement had slowed noticeably, hostilities between formalists and anti-formalists remained, at least on paper, in a state of high edginess. Though such angel hair noodling was more conducive to rational behavior than the edgy and high intramurals that took the better part of the ‘60s and ‘70s to run their course, the rockiness of the relationship keeping them apart, and the hard place it had wedged itself into, bespoke a betweenness whose separational anxieties hardly required a trained eye to read as “irreconcilable differences.” In addition to certain long festering sore points (whose history had become as obscure as what originally set Hatfield against McCoy), disagreements over how best to manage the new cultural order that had come in with the Kennedys had surfaced in the early ‘60s had made things more disagreeable still. Interlocked terms of sour-faced Trumans and dowdy Eisenhowers had rendered the nation’s cultural tone so flaccid that even slight adjustments made to its diet hit its metabolism like a 200 proof sundae. Unlike their predecessors, the Kennedys were not only rich but youthful, witty, and in love with everything French. Within a very short time, the country wheeled from old New Deal to something careening wildly between a Boston revival of The Merry Widow by Lehár and a Comédie de Paris production of The Importance of Being Ernest. The debate over the fate of the arts in America had attained an urgency—not to mention a cogency—not seen since the great “death of the novel” kvetch emitted by the Partisan Review crowd on or about the middle of some decade or other. This time, all the usual suspects had rounded themselves up—and with very little prompting, too—not to put the difficult question of what had been done for them lately, but to brainstorm what was in fact the most pressing conundrum of the time, namely whose boat, among the elite eligible to share in the munificence certain to spring from the new administration’s—and especially its First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy’s—penchant for la gloire, were likeliest to be lifted when the rising tide of cash overflowed its banks and a torrent of money swamped the arts? The end of World War II had seen an upspringing of hope that a renaissance mighty enough to loosen the grip of all-powerful modernism might soon make itself felt. Vistas had opened up, draped with bright promise: as bright indeed as the dreams G.I.’s returning to civilian life dreamt as they worked through the hassles of an often snail-paced demobilization. Sobering reality had its own two cents to add to this postwar euphoria, however. While the upper reaches of the culture were gaining and losing hopefulness by turns, thoughts of the unthinkable in the shape of nuclear war put paid to any fantasy of a Virgilian age somehow materializing out of the Augustanism-on-a-shoestring then being essayed by regional arts councils throughout America.
Meanwhile, the showdown long promised by the Pinocchios of the poetry magazine circuit, the one shaping up to be little short of Armageddon that would pit the representatives of the true cross, from Homer to Eliot, against the Projectivist/Beat defenders of those fallen from grace with Rimbaud’s and Lautréamont’s defeat in heaven, had notable failed to materialized. Each side, rather, had drifted into a holding pattern in which feeling utterly polarized did not prevent it from drawing satisfaction from what it perceived to be the other’s inability to profit from the failures of its enemy. Altered realities on the ground might have allowed dust to settle over this casus belli or that, but the scope of the contrariety dividing the two camps, such as that over which means best justified poetry’s no longer agreed upon ends, refused either to be shrunk or to be cut, printed, and wrapped in recognition of changed times. For a number of poets, arguments favoring the pursuit of an ideological role for poetry, a notion long thought moribund since political infighting had whipsawed the ‘30s into viewing leftist writers not communized enough as stripped for inaction rather than action, had quite unpredictably been galvanized back into life by the Cold War and the rise of “Ban the Bomb” movements in America and elsewhere. However, as with the mess created by Dr. Frankenstein, all such restoration of consciousness produced was a slew of unsettling shocks and twitches which refused to ebb with the withdrawing of energizing electrodes. For a time, it was thought that shocks administered to parts of the body politic accustomed to outsourcing their élan vital to external stimuli such as poetry and painting would be no more intense or destabilizing than a few electrostatic nips and tucks. Apparently, this point of view was more than just short-sighted: it was wrong. The voltage which the House and Senate Un-American Activities Committees and the John Birch Society had sent coursing through houses of liberal worship, and from their organ lofts to the nihilist rank and file everywhere in the ‘50s, was discernibly raised a notch, as even more sinister surges were thought to be engorging the power lines usurped by the right. No doubt events associated with a popular president’s assassination, along with signs that Vietnam, at first no more than a blip on the foreign policy radar screen, was morphing into a conflict potentially more deadly than the original rationale for American involvement, put out in 1955 by an Eisenhower administration determined not to leave a power vacuum created by the French defeat at Dienbienphu unfilled, had led American taxpayers to suspect. Vietnam was, it was argued, a strategic Western outpost, a vital source of tungsten, and in the back yard of the most populous pariah nation in the world, Mao-Tse-Tung’s People’s Republic of China. But what was initially a dispatching of “a few military advisors” became in the Kennedy administration a “police action” committing sizeable quantities of American troops to fight in the jungles and rice paddies of at best, a strip of alien land where not only the geographical climate was proving inhospitable, and at worst, in the words of one disgruntled grunt, “a zit on the ass of no place.”
Thunderclouds were gathering, too, over the American literary scene in those years in which Depression was succeeded by manic-depression. If poetry circles following World War II had noted the retreat of many younger poets into those straitjackets of conformity and orthodoxy some referred to as “neo-Victorian,” the discovery of security in austerities promised by form (duly basted with oozings from the roasting pan of Eliotic spirituality) resulted in verse that for those not on that particular train, seemed as lacking in content as affecting of blandness in demeanor. By turns Audenesque and poker-facedly moralistic (a quality Auden’s own verse almost never projected), this sort of poetry often parodied—quite unintentionally—the “tiny Alices” of the New Critical religious screed and, it hardly need be added, the support system of Southern aristocratic toryism then fashionable in university English departments to which would-be soldier-poets, eligible for the G.I. Bill, flocked in droves. In a milieu as sycophantic as this, crossovers to political activism were as awkwardly brought off as they were infrequently attempted; and when they were essayed, psychological instability was often a key motivating factor in initiating them. But even in the outbacks given over to such extremities, the passive-aggressive Berrymans and Plaths tended to box the pacifist Lowells to a standstill. As for the championing of poets taking the offensive against totalitarianism, as modeled, say, by Bertolt Brecht in his “Bad Time for Poetry” (1939)—
Inside me contend
Delight at the apple tree in blossom
And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.
But only the second
Drives me to my desk.
---the stance was in bald terms hardly difficult to defend, given some of the incredible revelations of recent history. Not a great deal of footage depicting those outages of morality for which Auschwitz and Hiroshima had become bywords was needed to back up demands by radical poets that some spine be shown by their more complacent brethren and technological/free market capitalism be combated wherever it bared its hideous face. (Of course, only the “house painter” was singled out for censure when Brecht set about justifying broad-brush poetic satire in the year of Europe’s caving in. He had a talent for remaining oblivious to the excesses of socialism lacking the qualifier “national” in places somewhat to the east of the wall swabber’s Reich.)
Certainly, questions booted up by the Cold War regularly appeared as prompts on the monitor screen of current events, and some of these broached the proper role of poets and poetry on the rim of Armageddon. “Might a controlled return to politically committed poetry, rather than that merely “engaged” existentially, offset the universal dullness threatening to bury all that modernism worked so hard to bring about?”, was one such poser, and “Was the path of a Garcia Lorca, a Pablo Neruda (or, perish the thought, a Czeslaw Milosz!), forever closed to poets concerned with more than just putting the self through its paces on a fitness machine the functional commitment to form of which extended no further than reps and the increasing of resistance?”, another. In the early ‘60s, these and conundrums like them loomed with more than just an academic lightness of being, though their unbearable unaswerability was insufficient to keep them on the front burner and on a long hot simmer, despite the frequent worrying of them in verse by Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and their clones. Still, the cold spell that had descended on American letters with the waning of the Beat summer at long last appeared to be lifting, leaving weather at once exhilarating and disturbing to gather itself just far enough out to sea to make the telling of storm clouds from the shadows cast by them on the horizon difficult in the extreme. This being before the Cuban missile crisis shattered many lingering complacencies, spirits were, on the whole, quite high. Whatever was coming might prove difficult to live through, was the feeling of many, but there was little doubt that whatever it was would make a difference, no matter how painful the experience.
And yet, and yet . . . things somehow gave the impression of being stalled on the technical front. After so much dead-end experimentalism and attempted liftoffs from heavily trafficked airstrips like W. C. Williams’s and Charles Olson’s runways of free verse. Developments on both coasts had given rise to bizarre aberrations of form of the sort reveled in by such as Michael McClure and Philip Whalen: primal screams in block capitals, punctuated by massed exclamation points, proved no genuine extension of content, no matter what rationales were scared up for them in lion cages or playlets by Edward Albee mismatching bio-s with zoo-s. In McClure poem after McClure poem, the less than meets the eye opts for the unsightly, as though mirages of the ugly had their own point to make over and beyond confirming the factitious to be a useful in providing poets having nothing in particular to say with a cover.
All that said, the kindling capable of fueling a revolution in poetic technique was, if one looked in places other than those sanctified by Their Holinesses, the princes of the New Critical church, as thick on the ground as ever it had been in the years just before the Vorticist insurrection of 1915-16 in which Pound and Eliot had played such a prominent role. The springs of innovation that bubbled to the surface at Black Mountain College under the tutelage of its rector, Charles Olson, had clearly augured a new beginning. However, despite many favorable signs, efforts to consolidate its victories had caused to surface nothing more promising than a diaspora of brooders who were content to concitate demons of reversibility instead of looking forward to the glistening palisades where their vision of open form might have led them. Regrets over direction lost became the sole focus of much of their verse (again imitating their guru, the Pound of The Pisan Cantos) and the projectivist revolution had paid a price for their navel gazing and lint sorting. By the early ‘60s, the projectivist marathon had for all intents and purposes become indistinguishable from the broken field running of a Ginsberg, a Corso and a Kerouac, all of whom were demonstrating in their own way that the different fish they had to fry could be made as unpalatable as any prepared by the “open field” poets to whom they owed so much. For those who had had high hopes for the projectivist movement, who thought that alternative formalism provided the only legitimate opportunity to rob “conformalists” of their hollow triumph, the best and the brightest of those years were floundering in the wilderness like ball carriers out of touch with their quarterback. Their once magical lode star, Olson, was himself languishing on the bench somewhere, pouring what remained of his energies into Maximus, his Poundian epic that, like its model The Cantos, had made a virtual Ithaca of interstellar silence and unintelligibility.
With Olson the caller of plays effectively down, the game that had been projectivism was, just as effectively, up, which meant that no further support, moral or otherwise, could be expected from a quarter that numerous poets, with receivers tuned in to the free verse network W. C. Williams and others had sweated to wire up, had once relied on for inspiration. All that survived of the original “counter-culture,” which had seemed so promising when its house organ, Cid Corman’s Origin, boomed with the cathedral heft of Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST, was the publicity machine of the Beats, and by 1965 it was running on empty (or on high-octane Ginsbergian ego, already revving up in anticipation of the Hippie revolution). The most famous of the Beats’ foundering fathers, Jack Kerouac, having spent years plying the road to paranoia and meltdown, had gone more or less gently into that goodnight facing all alcoholic adolescents over forty who need weaning from the boob tube as well as the boob too long on offer from an over-indulgent Mamère. No were things a whole lot better or more clear-sighted on the other side of the equation where the so-called formalists hung out. In fact, so tenuous had the status quo between traditionalists and “independents” by that point become that if the cherishing of idées fixes were alone the distinguishing criterion, telling the Laurence Liebermans from the Lawrence Ferlinghettis was no easier than sorting llamas from alpacas. These two poets’ first names might have different spellings, but as critics of the American scene they agreed with one another as much as with Albert Camus that the most potent threat facing both the developed and the undeveloped world was the demon of technology and the hydra-headed imperialisms it succored. “Plague” stood head and shoulders above other contending metaphors for this demon because it not only encapsulated the role of industrialized science in what was afflicting the West, but also conveyed how quickly and invisibly the fact of toxicity on the ground could spread terror as an immanent power with its circumference everywhere and its center nowhere. Each of the three selections by Ferlinghetti included in A Controversy of Poets—“Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower,” “Underwear,” and “One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro”—indicts, as indeed does Lieberman’s lengthy “Orange County Plague: scenes,” American capitalist imperialism for having loosed upon the world a fascism different from the one only just beaten back in Europe and Asia merely to the extent that a “staging area” concentration camp like the one at Theriesenstadt differed from, say, the one-stop Nazi shambles of a Buchenwald or an Auschwitz. Any distinction drawn between them would be a matter of degree, not of kind, and despite the home base of one of its distinguishers being a college campus, it would be anything but academic.
What was new circa 1965 was how much the formalist and antiformalist camps had diversified into a realtor’s palette of gated communities, each with its hallmark ethos and rite de passage. What is most notable about this anthology—and discernible on most, if not all, of its nearly 600 pages—is how little its contributors seem aware of the realignment of vectors of force that had taken place in the world of American poetry, and their redistribution into smaller pockets of “articulate energy.” Something akin to a monumental gathering of tribes, each denominatable by a totem simultaneously self-distinguishing and inner-directed (to use a term brought into the language by the sociologist David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd ), had been under way ever since the publication of Donald M. Allen’s projectivist-cum-Beat prospectus for a clean sweep of the cobwebs encumbering a return to Whitman’s counter-Europeanism, The New American Poetry (1960), had marked the end of an era rather than, as its preface suggests, the beginning of a new one. Allen’s division of the poetry scene into five somewhat amorphous “sites of belonging”—The Black Mountain Review, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beat Generation, the New York Poets, and “younger poets who have been associated with [. . .] and influenced by the leading writers of the preceding groups, but who have evolved their own original styles and new conceptions of poetry”—is clearly more backward than forward looking in its assignment of those vectors. Descriptives such as “post-projectivist,” “post-confessionalist,” and “post-abstract expressionist,” not yet current in 1960, were beginning to create their own fog of intentionality in interviews, publicity blurbs and book reviews, sometimes to the point of suggesting a more extensive fragmentation into -isms than even the break-up of the European avant-garde after Dada had put into circulation.
Furthermore, postmodernism, a movement voraciously addicted to the taste of its own tail, had already learned how to generate media attention by documenting in print media attention already attracted to its largely self-regarding enterprises. (Michael Moore, of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 fame, is a late-blooming product of this school of media massage with martial artfulness.) As the circus tent of postmodernism grew to house ever more acts licensed by an ever-burgeoning “creative writing” industry inspired by the University of Iowa model, its true character was something only glimpsible through a dark glassily. But by the ‘80s, two facts had dawned on poetry critics with the sense to look past the maze-and-game arcade that encouraged youthful readers to confuse elaborate in-jokes like Giles Goat-Boy and LETTERS with genuine literature and to recognize their clouds of type masked with a smirk for the Jeckyl-and-formaldehyde wasteland they opened out onto. The first fact was that postmodernism was a dog-and-pony show for prose writers only. (There was no “postmodern” verse as such; there was only neo-modernist verse fathered largely by Pound’s Pisan—and later—Cantos that poets like Olson, Creeley and Duncan called “projectivist” and the recycled Eliotics and Audenisms of the “formalist” school that drew moral supported from the New Critical oligarchy centered in London and New York.) The second of the two facts mightily underscored the first: it was that the only thing ever to get “lost” in the postmodern “funhouse” that Jack (Barth) built was art itself.
The explanation for why this should have taken so long to sink in is not far to seek. Seduced by the ease with which academia seemed to take the Beat revival to its bosom, less newsworthy but still “serious” literary expression—as always, in need of artificial respiration—was similarly beguiled, on the promise of full life-support, into the iron lungs owned and operated by the Creative Writing establishment of the nation’s major universities. The system of co-dependency thus established soon sucked all the natural oxygen from the bloodstream of serious American writing, leaving nothing unmarred by the silliest kind of pseudo-critical self-consciousness but the work of unqualified hacks and con-artists. Then, as if to assure that matters would be made still worse, half-baked notions put abroad by fashionable French “theorists”—Michel Foucault and the terrible-twin Jacques, Lacan and Derrida, to name but three---were hauled in and further befouled a pot already rancid with flavor enhancers guaranteed to turn any underdone cut of chuck into a pot-au-feu to quicken even the most jaded taste in things well stewed. Once—briefly—the toast of tout Paris, these mostly-for-export philosophes had entranced American academics by mating “left” to “bank” with a determination not seen since Grant mounted Richmond. Indeed, so corrupt and corrupting were these connoisseurs of chaos that to behold them at their work of “writing the end of writing” was, to quote Lenny Bruce on the mobster allure of Chicago, “beyond thrilling.” Yet, for all that they disvaluingly sent up, the postmodernists did little more than provide cover for some extra-literary parochialisms—radical feminism, reverse racialism, and subsidy-driven ethnic posturing—all which would likely have had their Warholian allotment of minutes even without such unlikely allies. Nevertheless, it was not long before these fiefdoms were up and running, creating factories of canned thought from which an endless stream of yard goods emerged that though marketed as “literature,” the new pseudo-ironists referred to as merely “texts.” Had such pooling of resources not been available to it, what we know as postmodernism would in all likelihood have had the shelf life of a fortnight, give or take, as the English torque it, a high tea.
Only the embrace of trendy authors by glitzy English departments of richly endowed (but second-tier) universities like Johns Hopkins and Duke that assured the longevity, not to mention the cachet, of this “art movement” in scare quotes. The enormous sales figures racked up by such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, John Hawkes, and Kurt Vonnegut were almost entirely due to their novels having been assigned reading in hundreds of Contemporary American Fiction courses; nary a one would’ve survived Beatlemania and Ken Kesey’s magic bus without that captive market of students, which unfortunately did not carry over to “Contemporary American Poetry” classes. For all the phalanxes of junior faculty, backed by legions of teaching assistants and part-time instructors, involved in the teaching of English nationwide, only the “electronic” poets of rock lived high off the hog during this interregnum. The ascendancy of an Allen Ginsberg continued its orbital trajectory, but his was no doubt a special case, uniquely adaptable to a time when drugs, politics and AC/DC sexuality all came together as an instance of poetry-on-the-make sublimely well suited to adolescence on-the-make.
True, events in the broad band had elevated this circus from a rowdy tent show to a wall-of-sound extravaganza slamming from one coast to the other, and unraveled, at often alarming speed, loyalties once treasured as dog-eared and reliable, all of which added, as one might expect, a destabilizing zest to the confabulations rendering more roseate redskin as well as paleface, to borrow a phrase from that census taker of vanishing Americans, Leslie Fiedler. Occasionally, a long-standing allegiance would dissolve because a poet underwent a transformation in outlook, or it might arise through some miscalculation in the bad-mouthing a friend coming home to roost. More frequently than was normally admitted, however, only the most paper-thin of inhibitions separated a relationship of many years’ standing from a betrayal which, though nearly always accompanied by protests of “irreconcilable differences,” was fronted by a rationale that fooled precisely no one. Scarcely believable enough to cover the malefactor’s tracks, such apologias were not in fact intended to fool anyone; they were issued to put the literary community on notice that alliances were in flux, allegiances fluid, and contracts open for negotiation. Hence, the merest glint of an opportunity to be seized or an advancement of prospects glimpsed was enough to send even a David and a Jonathan into a tailspin of apostasy. Imagine a fading light flickering in a walk of stars and you will begin to get the idea. As for the dwellers in caverns of concupiscence where bottom lines ruled supreme, all those thin-tied Niebelungs were dreaming their own dreams of Rhinegold having as little to do with beauty contests as with the beer that sponsored them. In the demi-world of second-order publishing, for example, darkness was being made visible at a rate which even Milton, whose powers in bringing pandemonium to book are well documented, could not have matched. As the Popping of Art became more intense, fault lines began appearing where solid lines were thought to have been firmly drawn. Suddenly, nothing but the good office of opinion distinguished prince from pretender, Doge from pasteboard gondolier, where art was concerned.
And poetry was after all an art, or so its apologists from Sidney and Shelley to the lowliest imitator of William Carlos Williams vociferously insisted. By the early ‘60s, the parrot fever responsible in the ‘50s for having made one out of every three poets in the English-speaking world squander his youth on the Dylan Thomas sound-alike circuit had morphed into a virus filling the airwaves with thousands of adolescent minstrels, all programming Polly with the same cracker (this time from Minnesota). For another Dylan was loose in the ricks of American youth culture, a self-confessed knockoff of the first, and things would never be quite the same again. Increasingly relegated to the background (unusually muted even for poets with “serious” claims on one another’s attention, if on almost no one else’s) was the drone of coteries hawking relics freshly minted and with the imprimatur of haute couture’s college of cardinals. No longer were the traditional organs of opinion like Time, The Saturday Review, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Book Review and The Nation, once so influential, viewed as arbiters of first resort. For the first time, academic apologists were beginning to play a major role in moulding the nation’s taste and in voicing its distaste for anything that might seen as aiding and abetting American capitalism in its war with international socialism. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Eliotic wing of Anglo-American modernism (extended after the war to include W. H. Auden as a major influence) had the New Critics to shill for them. The learned press comprised of little magazines (and littler book markets subsidized by the major university presses) was so much loose change jiggling in the pocket of the fiefdom controlled by a handful of what amounted to a clerisy of literary dictators led by Eliot, Auden, and the editors of a few select academic journals such as the Sewanee, Southern and Hudson Review. When the New Criticism (and the anti-romantic bias which it long championed) imploded around the mid-‘60s, entrepreneurial opportunities abounded among “rage for pecking order” critics who, needing a “school” of criticism to launch their reputations, fastened upon particular poets able to give their approach authority and prestige. Having been forced to endure expulsion from the Eden of Black Mountain College, projectivists like Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov had to accept resettlement in less creatively opulent collegiate surroundings just to assure their own financial well being. Small colleges—often like the University of Buffalo, in the “sticks”—offered to a living wage to promising poets in exchange for undergraduate teaching, but four- and five-course loads cut deeply into time otherwise spent at the typewriter writing verse. Career collegiate types like Harold Bloom, however, could make their way in the world merely by running in place faster than the competition. With barely a pause for breath, Bloom progressed from extreme makeovers of English Romantic poets to the systematic removal of warts from Emerson’s literary reputation. This journey to Emmaus culminated in the posthumous elevation of Wallace Stevens to his own supreme fiction of Emperor of Ice-Cream, which is to say his verse persona was kicked upstairs into the corner office once occupied by Walt Whitman that now overlooked the de-Eliotized pantheon of American poets newly enlaureled by Bloom himself. The purpose behind this shift was not difficult to fathom if even minimal attention had been paid to the type of criticism Bloom confected after delivering himself of that magnificent mille feuille, The Visionary Company, in 1961. Shorn of side issues, it aimed to implant (by dint of nothing more solid, if truth be told, than an ipse dixit of his own ex-cathedration) an alternative orthodoxy that, when trotted out in earlier Transcendentalist-leaning tomes like Wallace Stevens’s The Necessary Angel (1951), had made almost no headway against the anti-Romantic thinking that put the New Critics in the catbird seat. Stevens, only recently deceased (in 1955), was to be exhumed to serve as exorcist-in-chief of the host of insurgent demons acting in the name of the newly resurgent Ezra Pound, who had already returned to Italy, having been released from St. Elizabeths in Washington, D.C. in the custody of his wife, and was busy taking up where his “long poem containing history,” The Cantos, had drifted off after the war.
Also about this time, at least five major affiliations of producing poets were attracting separate attention as “a herd of independent minds,” to snatch a phrase from Harold Rosenberg. Primus inter pares in this party of five, in terms of both numbers and influence, were those neo-traditionalist poets roughly designatable as “the (Richard) Wilbur & (Howard) Moss stable.” Sired by Eliot (with Auden as reluctant dam), this line of poets had not only been the first out of the starting gate when World War II ended, but had also managed to control, until the mid-‘50s anyway, much of the publishing activity in and around where American bookmaking was most densely carried on: New York City. Though anything but selective and discriminating—Auden as “dam” takes on another sense here— this school fancied itself as the supreme embodiment of both qualities, if only in that narrow, New Yorkerish kind of way, insisting on its self-appointed role as arbiter of the nation’s taste, in rigid accordance with laws laid down for verse excellence in Brooks and Warren’s college guidebook-for-the-never-perplexed, Understanding Poetry. And to those underwritten by Book Clubs-not-of-the-Month, such as Reader’s Subscription and Mid-Century (the former having been co-founded by Auden who served, along with Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, on the editorial boards of both for several years), as The Criterion Book of Modern American Verse, edited by him, would seem to suggest. The thinking on such boards was that if quality translations of Baudelaire, Seferis, or other “safe” poets could be sold off in quantity at bargain prices, it would eventually swell the long depressed market for volumes of new verse. For was not “standard issue” formalist verse as approved by the custodial class installed at the Sewanee, Hudson and Southern Reviews composed along just such lines? Didn’t the vast majority of its anthology pieces read like a litanies of long expired pieties expressed in an idiom as remote from real speech—real American speech—as the alexandrines luxuriating in hothouses of verse like Baudelaire’s? The problem with trying to impose French taste on American letters—Bourbon without the loosening effect of branch water, as it were—is perhaps best encapsulated in one of Barzun’s characteristic pronunciamentos in praise of the patrician mind: “The signs of an aristocrat are directness and concreteness. They come from concentrated energy and rapid perception.” French and Chinese taste might be more accurate, for has ever the unwobbling pivot of Pound been better shown not spinning out of socket?
Paris Leary, a warrior for the elder formalism to be sure, hams up this futility in “September 1, 1965” (itself a parody of Auden), and then with fretful scrupulosity dots it with enough cloves to almost cure the toothache it sent shooting into its gums and beyond:
It won’t wash now, the clever dissonance,
The second band of half-brothers (and –sisters)—one hesitates to call so loose a confraternity a school—includes poets who by this time had already made the descriptive “post-confessionalist” their own, presumably out of frustration over seeming indistinguishable from the Lowells, Sextons, Snodgrasses, and other “confessionalists” whose ‘40s-ish personal confessions largely coincided with the age group of the poets in question. These “verse memoirs” had change-of-life written all over them, and varying with the sex of the post-confessionalist, they ranged in neurotic focus from detox separation anxiety (Lowell) to a backed-up hot flashes triggering equally “hot” flashbacks of the “Good grief, it’s Daddy!” variety (Plath and Sexton). Because post-confessionalists—to square the numerical circle—overwhelmingly match up with birthdates in the ‘40s, it’s not hard to square their manic self-absorption and obsession with tortured childhoods with the circles they appeared to run madly around in during the greater part of their careers. For Americans, even more than for Europeans, the ‘40s were quintessentially years of anxiety about war, both hot and cold; of atomic stalemate giving rise to airlifts in aid of mortal enemies twice removed; of Depression’s end and repression’s beginning. Protracted adolescence that peaked expectantly in the heavy-lidded ‘50s (only to be followed by anxious flatlining—and more ubiquitous lids—in the ‘60s) made for terrors suitable for shrink wrapping and emotions as spindly and dry as shredded wheat. The work of younger poets like Charles Simic, James Tate, Mark Strand (and others so angstfully in sync with one another as to prompt suspicion of a cloned muse stalking the unversed and doing lines of a much different sort), was as yet unaligned with a horizon discernible only to poetasters steeped in a surrealism reclaimed from tar pits in France and containing, among the relics of its unnatural history, the un-urned hubris of Jean Cocteau.
It may have been, as the cliché would have it, a period of transition. But it was one informed by the offputting wackiness whereby traffic signals set up to keep different parts of the culture from bumping into one another no longer worked to spec; and amber warning lights, society’s buffer between the prudent and the overbearing, were everywhere shifting to green rather than to red. Apart from turning intersections into free-fire zones not all that tellable from freeways minutes before a missile attack, the effect of such mixed signals on the nation at large was not unlike the panic experienced by victims of anal rape on discovering that their shouts to desist are leading only to a hardening of resolve on the part of the perp to continue what he’s doing, only more so. If “no” is routinely taken to mean “yes” in such situations, unshared delights of the Freudian hinterland beckon with an insouciance that will give comfort only to the rapist.
And so it was that a whole new permissiveness took hold in the ‘60s, ushered in by the Beats and conducted to its place of honor in the investiture now lorded over by one-time Teddy Boys from across the Pond, like the none too sympathetic Devil, Mick Jagger. It took hold, having seized the Petri dish in which the American longing for roots had long languished, and made grow in it, from end to shallow end, a youth culture of synthetic mien, rhizomatic wanderlust, and a surprising tolerance for self-delusion and unheard of decibel levels generically known as “rock.” and was best expressed in. (Having not exactly gone straight, Jagger, a Mod-and-Rocker hybrid, could appear convincingly bi-amped when the occasion demanded and so have everyone guessing about what was real and what was Memorex. Not surprisingly, he could also bridge the age gap by reducing the long in the tooth to throbbing pulp as effortlessly as he could send frissons coursing through the ingénues. It’s no secret that about this time more than a few dowagers still in shock over Liberace’s desertion of TV for Las Vegas, and hardly able to tell one rocker from another, would in a New York minute have traded the oak anachronism adorning their porch for anything woody reminding them of the Mick.)
A third and particularly meritorious group of poets is that which coalesced around Black Mountain experimentalism in the very early ‘50s and came to be known later as Projectivist through the efforts—and they were indeed tireless—of the band’s “big brothers,” Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. For now, it’s sufficient to point out that the influence of this movement has proved more potent and long-lasting over the last half century than even the surrealist revival associated with the New York school headed by John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Edward Field, Kenneth Koch, and (in its earliest stages) Frank O’Hara. Black Mountain alums, with their not always coordinated agendas of social protest (à la Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti) and getting high (also à la Ginsberg, though less programmatically in the case of Ferlinghetti), tend to fade into the Beat woodwork, which in turn causes them, at least in some people’s minds, to disappear in the general haze of the Pop-acculturated ‘60s.
Still another group of poets came out in the ‘60s as the “New York school,” and its poetics remains the one most closely associated—“identified” being too forward-leaning a word—with hard-core postmodernism of the “deconstructive” type. Widely disseminated (and imitated) since then under Ashbery’s informally assumed leadership (him being its most notable exponent since the death of its nominal founder, O’Hara, in 1966), its practices have remained perhaps the most intact of any that emerged from the poetic schools blossoming during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Until recently, the dearth of intelligible theorizing about the poetics of the New York school has been pockmarked with the frequent but rather desultory interviews granted poetry magazines by its gnomic guru. Zen master Ashbery’s strategy in these encounters seems routinely to have been “Give no quarterly an even break, and take prisoners only when surrender looms as the only viable option.” With a somewhat distancing semblance of reason Ashbery has insisted for years he was only speaking for himself and not for any “movement,” however programmatically defined. Still, the face of the smirking absurdist that Ashbery and other practitioners associated with this school—Kenneth Koch, Jackson MacLow, Edward Field, Kenneth Pitchford, and Bill Berkson, to cite the best known— have presented over the years has also remained more or less constant, despite a further slackening of formal constraints on an already loose style since its more cohesive days in the mid-‘60s. Poetic lines, especially in Ashbery’s verse, have gradually lengthened to the point where they seem at times as immaterial and elastic as one of the old comic book hero, Plastic Man’s extremities. Unlike the formal structures embraced by erstwhile Black Mountaineers like Robert Creeley, John Wieners and Denise Levertov, which, despite critical battering, continue to dominate basic parameters of American verse (and who I will soon be discussing in a retrospective like the present one on Donald M. Allen’s Grove Press anthology of 1960, The New American Poetry), the Ashberys and Koches had no desire to colonize. They went about their largely madcap business, soaking up whatever notional drainage had managed to seep into poetry from painting during the ‘40s and ’50s (the boom and bust years of abstract expressionism), and coaxing what frissons of Dufy’s and Bonnefoy’s Paris they could shake from their moorings in the Quartier Latin to cross the Atlantic and effect transplantation in the wilds of lower Manhattan. The rest might, as is often said, be history, but whatever it is, it’s far from ancient history. Ashbery, now in his late seventies, still crows happily from the top of a pile of presumptives who sound enough like the Cock-of-the-Walk to almost be him, albeit on a day on the dungheap when he’s not at his best.
As to the bona fides of my fifth and final group, one need only point out that its membership, in being made up of virtually everybody else not connected with the four groups already identified (apart from a handful of standouts whose indispensability is impossible to classify, like A. R. Ammons) includes a passel of poets whose work one returns to without, it must be said, much delight. For such folk, the common funnel, neither compendious nor short-shanked, to poetic oblivion is a conduit shaped like an hourglass, whose opening (only slightly restricted) releases into the nether compartments of the TLS, New Times Book Review, or like kingdom of the dead committed to filling its back pages with verse written by mediocrities best dispensed with (like Lenin in his shrine of eternal posthumousness, which the Bolsheviks, notorious for their confusions, equated with exceptionality) a gesture the finality of which duly acknowledges, with some measure of style, the service rendered by the unending trickle of eclectic nobodies whose slow passing from the scene is marked by their very appearance in the pages mentioned—such constellating of literary excelsior gathers, as in a Doomsday Book, all the other names which together literary im-memoriality: fame’s “Yellow Pages,” as it were. Poetasters with the courage of neither their own nor anyone else’s convictions (or with access to enough of that other courage—the Dutch kind—to have their swagger appear more buff than bluff) must, in the order of things, have a someplace to repair to where their shoulders can rub up against those of other anthropopagi also in need of a rubdown for their self-esteem. The mostly interchangeable utterances of this contingent—pace Adrienne Rich—have little purpose other than providing packing material for anthologists needing to keep the contributions of the real poets from running, like hundred-metre dashers unable to stay in their lanes, into one another.
All five of these groups of poets are generously represented in A Controversy of Poets, and to the credit of Leary and Kelly, contend with one another on more or less equal terms within a melting pot of reasonably distinct poetic demeanors and stylistic agendas. How best to keep the floor of the market for both vers libéré and vers délibéré from collapsing was all too clearly uppermost in their minds, though as was shown in Part One of this retrospective, this involved entering shoals not easily navigated, even for hands as practiced as these two collaborators in caesarian section. The key problem (though hardly anyone recognized it at the time) was to keep judgments pertinent to an expiring formalism—that of the latterday Audenians—from infecting those appropriate to a distinctly American pro-formalism just finding its legs, namely that of the reconstituted Black Mountaineers mentioned earlier who had avoided being taken over by Olson’s overprojected enthusiasms in the realm of poetry. These poets, and Robert Creeley most of all, had managed to sail out well beyond the Hebrides of Imagism, Objectivism, and ex-libris verse-all-over-the-page to reach the sort of music-out-of-sorts that Pound anticipated in his Pisan Cantos, Rock Drill, and Thrones, and by Louis Zukofsky in his book-length poem “A.” They had for the most part forsaken the wilder shores of epic for the slimmer, even claustrophobic confines of a form of verse that critics, hardly aware of William Carlos Williams as a force majeure in post-Modernist (as opposed to postmodernist) verse, just couldn’t grasp. Over and over, the degree of obtuseness shown by so-called establishment authorities did double duty as rank stupidity, not to mention the lack of an ear for the sea-surge carrying something other than the wrack of Auden-by-the-yard’s predictable currencies. What was it about Dr. Williams that these critics couldn’t grasp? Perhaps those terrible twins spawned by the Beat movement and joined at the pocketbook, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, put it best in a blurb dreamed up for a June 1986 Esquire retrospective on The American Man: 1946-1986: “Respectable pediatrician by trade, by vocation an outlaw from an Academy that didn’t understand his Einsteinian invention of a ‘relative measure’ as a new law of verse form to articulate living talk on the poetic page. Proposed that American poets write American; after Robert Lowell had a nervous breakdown, most did. Following generations still hear Dr. Williams speaking to them kindly from the grave.” A thumbnail sketch worth the labored strivings of numerous hands, such as Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler, to epitomize this groundbreaker’s unique legacy.
One of the landmark achievements in the “new formalism,” Creeley’s For Love: Poems (1960), was quick to prompt the opposite of kudos from critics unable to keep the venom out of their voice when holding verse of this new kind up to scrutiny. Vitriol drips such as this from the “acerbic” John Simon—“There are two things to be said about Robert Creeley’s poems: they are short; they are not short enough”—appeared frequently enough to suggest that a trend was settling in whose rationale could be summarized as follows: If a poet looks like a Beat, talks like a Beat, and writes like a Beat, open season could be declared on him (or her), following which he might as well have had a target painted on his back. Superficially, it was true that, physically at least, quite a few ex-Black Mountaineers did resemble, and occasionally consort publicly with, poets of the Beat persuasion. But to lump them all together was to do violence to more than just a categorial nicety. Reactionaries friendly to Eliot’s version of modernism, but hostile to W. C. Williams’s, were determined to see the latter wholly extirpated and gone from American poetics, no matter how long it took or how problematic the Soviet-style removal of him from the pantheon might prove to be. For them, much depended upon leaving that famous red wheelbarrow long enough out in the rain to guarantee its peeling to whatever blankness of white as would leave it, and the silly cluckers surrounding it, so devoid of foreground that nothing could depend upon it. Affecting omniscience, John Simon and his kind lacked the prescience to sense the legs which the “desert music” playing about Creeley’s burrowings to the hard won formalism of such Williams poems as Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” achieved, like Pictures from Brueghel in its entirety, with variable feet flying. These, for all that their warty squashes and woody asparagus tips suggested Marvellian “vegetable love,” were no longer dismissible in the old way by (Cleanth) Brooks & (Robert Penn) Warren, not to mention the other nutrigrowers of perennials content to trade on lost authority, as though that were a paradise regainable only via redemption by Dickinsonian paradox or Robinsonian irony. A hotpocket of rumination and tension, shorn of maidenly paradox but with its quadrivalent linearities left intact, was pretty much how these paragons viewed the quatrain or stanza, for them not just a bulwark but God’s fortress sure against any onslaught of anarchy launched by the nihilists of vers libre. Even New Critics for whom finding a green room for Creeley somewhere in their Book of Kells remained a low if still pressing priority came up snake eyes when trying to explain their moment of apostasy. Yes, the slitted light of Dickinsonian cat’s-eye shines through the onyx dark of a poem like Creeley’s “The Rhythm”; but while those still in detention in John Crowe Ransom’s school of wit might argue that
It is all a rhythm,
---resembles nothing so much as the Golliwog’s Cakewalk dyslexically transformed into a Dance of the Hours as a certain spinster from Amherst, Massachusetts might have heel and toe-ed it—
The feet mechanical
---well, that bit of trumpery, with or without portfolio, just does not hold up. Open the credenza of preternaturalisms that is Dickinson’s “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes,” and the contents tumble out, quite miraculously, as a neat pile of aperçus. The Creeley poem, much less the obliging hutch than the mordant piece of cabinetry just sampled from Dickinson’s storeroom, disgorges few innards even to the eye aided by C.A.T. Scan. As with many of the proprioceptive Skinner boxes he sets out as poems, it’s hard to know reading them line by line whether the “superstition” in question is in the pigeon or of the pigeon. Nor does it help matters any to reserve to oneself, or to the poet himself, the option of saying that, so far as the pigeon is concerned, it all depends on what “is” is. Creeley, it might be said, opts for a more explicitly plagiotropic interpretation of “roots and branches” than that held to by his one-time Black Mountain colleague, Robert Duncan. For despite his limitations as a poet of broadened faculties, Creeley has fastidiously devoted himself to the long overdue remapping of genes making up the body of poetic genres. As part of that process, he has brought a number of those genres across a great divide of haptic apperception and translated them into allotropic states of human mindfulness. How he manages to do this in poem after poem is an amazing enough achievement in itself; that he should be able to do it successfully, within an ever-shrinking repertoire of stylistic gestures, is not simply amazing, it is nothing short of miraculous.
One further thought about another lapidary miracle of Creeleyan disclosure, that signature quatrain or stanza of his that owes as much to Coleridge as it does to Dickinson. This poet’s minimalist approach to line organization suggests the pas assez (as opposed to the de trop) only if the point of their fixational punctuality (in the literal sense of stage-managing the stops, starts, pauses and transitionings of the apperceptivel apparatus in a high state of arousal) is wholly ignored. Creeley’s dogged insistence on astigmatism as its default setting makes for a more occlusive syntax, yes. But it compensates for that by assuring a reserve of energy and evocative power whenever the elevation of the mind’s sights needs resetting to make the poet’s bead on its quarry a truer one. In keeping with the more “with it” of the self-revisioning Romantics, Creeley sees the function of poetry as the performing of skin grafts on the unconscious, or if the plumbings of Freud are not one’s latte-mit-schlag, on that epidermis of un(be)knowing we call intuition.
But more of that later. The remainder of this retrospective will devote itself to demonstrating how Leary and Kelly went to bat—against the better judgment of each—for a American poetic praxis friendly to all comers, notwithstanding the intramural rancor of more than two decades. Went to bat for it, but without a lot of success in winning over hearts and minds on either side. Which is why agendas of resentment still curdle away in large parts of A Controversy of Poets. And yet, for all its combative energy, much of that resentment remained more masturbatory than interventional. In “Onan,” one of Leary’s own poems that found its way into the anthology, an admonitory finger is pointed at factors contributing to self-abuse in American culture during the early ‘60s. Walking us through these, the poet seems to resist the pull of the imitative fallacy to “make like the fireman” (as the French would say) and beat off Kerouac’s Myrmidons, using a big shtick:
Whether Two-Backed Beast or Many-Splendoured Thing
“There are things more important than their bloody affairs,” Leary continues, and though the poem goes on for another 17 lines, there is really no need for it to hone its only too obvious point.
With rather less blatancy, two more poems with hot-button names from biblical and classical lore for titles, Anthony Hecht’s “Jason” and “Adam,” direct attention not to Leary’s pet bêtes noirs of bad breath and worse diction, but to the frothy enthusements afforded by myths set free to roam in the right tide pools. If preliminary impressions suggest the first of these poems to be casting a cold eye on golden fleecing as a entrepreneurial lapse having become an American institution, preliminary impressions can lie with a face as straight as—well, Jason’s. No Neo-con go-getters out to make the best of a bad New Deal need apply for this remake of Medea’s prequel:
The room is full of gold,
No, not hardly; for in our own scarcely less swinging Magna Graecia, the kid with his eye on the prize isn’t the one who dreams of being president, it’s the one who dreams of being Jason always in quest of the rainbow whose pot of gold he can rip off. It’s no accident the Christopher Marlowe’s tag-line, “And from America the golden fleece,” rises over this poem like a semaphore of allurement. The moral of Hecht’s Argonautical exemplum is that while any boy can dream, it isn’t every boy who dreams a life of dreaming the stuff from which dreams are woven, the thirst to pursue maya after maya and Grail after Grail, to endure failure upon catastrophe and still remain the Wunderkind of myth. Jason the Jargonaut ends up mastless and at the mercy of Sirens, beckoning him to retirement on the rocks, or worse, the eternity of tenure in the Humanities. (The reader may ponder, to whatever extent leisure permits, the difference between these two fates.) But not Hecht’s Henry Ford in the making. He wields his improvised talismans in preparation for becoming the first Massachusetts fortune hunter drafted into the entrepreneurial Hall of Fame—America’s answer to Bullfinch’s Mythology—before he’s 25. Not only could such an action hero make hash of the boredom afflicting even the least trumpable Massachusetts lad having to make do, unlike William Gaddis’s fictional character, J.R., without a boardroom, but he would also have the wherewithal to vanquish the hashdoms of media folly that leaves lesser souls hopelessly addicted to the Tube. Today’s Jason, “a little boy alone / With a wooden sword and the top of a garbage can,” is free to imagine “triumphs in gardens full of marigold” (italics mine, though the play on aurealianisms is the poet’s). Though few avail themselves of it, the wealth of inherited culture that young American dreamers are heir to is virtually unlimited. But Hecht may be more sanguine about his Jason’s opportunities than the facts allow. Today’s New World argonauts show less resemblance to the two terrible Andrews, Carnegie and Mellon, than to the womanizing CEO’s of the tabloids cast in the mould of William Randolph Hearst. Ulyssean mainly in the deviousness they exhibit in going after emoluments in the form of grants, their stints as traffickers in realms of talespun gold are not likely to fuel chronicles of mastery and consummation. These latter are not tempered by reveries in which
. . . there deepens over lakes of air
Equivalently, Hecht’s Adam is a son so treasured by his own father that “Our Father [who art] in heaven” can barely offer the like in fabular regard.
“Adam, my child, my son,
The poet-father, like the arch-poetic Father spawned by poets to be the ultimate Guest at all banquets, able majestically to Lord it over hosts and legions of lesser visitants, has love to squander on the eldest of his own hopes. The trouble is, the hope nearest to hand for him is one hard to prognosticate a profitable return on: the limitless love of a son for his father:
When you are crouched away
Hecht, not the most laggard in tendency of the old-style formalists that Leary (one is sure, not Kelly) brought to the table of A Controversy of Poets, could on occasion come on less frilly and well suppositoried than Herbert Philbrick remembering the highs of Communist-baiting for the F.B.I.. He offered evidence of awareness that every now and then humanity requires poems in which the bite of recognition enters into uneasy commerce with what underwrites its shock. This has nothing to do with a need for satire or what passes in today’s abattoirs of taste and judgment (severally known as the University) for “social consciousness.” Rather, it has everything to do with downplaying the Wiegenlieder-esque impulse to cradle-rock the reader to those drowsy Keatsian “realms of gold” alluded to earlier. In a poem like “Upon the Death of George Santayana,” Hecht as much takes on the ghost of Santayana’s first elegist, Wallace Stevens—a gentle mental giant who let the cup pass from him unnoticed in the hushed incensory of a remote Roman convent. I say takes on because, pace all kneejerk dissenters from Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” that is what writers do when they sit down to cogitate poetically: they boot up their predecessors as surely as they boot up their word processors. T. S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” made Bloom’s point almost a half-century before Bloom retooled it as a personal stroke of genius, though Eliot in his version failed to underscore the combative dimension of strong vs. weak poetic relationships in an “anxiety of influence.” For Bloom was right about one thing: it matters a lot to poets how other poets die. Their future work assumed under the sponsorship of spirits either untimely wrenched from this world or sacramentally wafted to its reward on a barque as oarless as an angel’s breath—be it the one or the other, trust that it matters, in ways that are gross as much as subtle, which way it, they, went.
Hecht launches his elegy with a distinct refusal to sentimentalize Santayana’s crossing of the bar in terms which either embrace or bar the cross:
Down every passage of the cloister hung
This is reined in verse whose corseting lifts and separates, but does not bind or throttle. It’s at ease with its own discriminations and dispenses them neither from the catbird seat of an ace in the hole or a bluffer’s funk masquerading as supreme self-confidence. This isn’t easy when one’s hero is politicking to make Limbo the seat of a symposial eternity shared, among others, with the cream of the Greek philosophic pantheon. It’s a little like asking God (just this side of Extreme Unction) to hold off on the paradisial bonus coupons pending imminent and sublime union with the Five Foot Shelf. Stevens’s “old philosopher in Rome”—on account perhaps of his having studied with Santayana at Harvard circa 1900—seems less (and this is perfectly in keeping with Stevens’s odd blending of materialistic and immaterialistic tendencies) a resident ghost of moral heroism than an enthusiastic sponsor of imaginative fancies. Never having seen Europe other than via postcard-verso, Stevens’s Rome is neither the Eternal City of colosseum and forum nor the all-too-Lutheran roost for depraved Cocks-‘o’-the-walk. It persists rather than exists as both foyer and recompense, a truly Stevensian debenture drawn on the property diminishments of the Beyond itself:
On the threshold of heaven, the figures in the street
Of course, one difference—one major difference—between the supreme poet and the knockout second-stringer is the inherent right exercised by the former to turn everything to the uses of his or her Great Wheel, that theme of themes from which all blessings and, if the caveats of Randall Jarrell mean anything, all curses flow. Hecht’s dying Santayana is no Enron of shrinking perspectives, horizons, parallels and thresholds. He is a man dissolving into a wish that he become whatever will give his life resonance beyond the image of his own eternal thoughtfulness. The eternally ruminative quiet that he perpetually sought in ideas, where the quality of beauty is something sensible as well as something sensed, was part and parcel with an “Age of Adventure” that was one’s own venturesome era not so much writ small as not reducible to a windmill tilting with science by a cloudbank of quixotic religions. Not for this Panzaic soul the office insisted upon by a Nicholas of Cusa or a Giordano Bruno eager to test the highness of scriptural stakes. The question was not, “What was needed to make the modern heavens ring?” but how best to facilitate the return to Homeric standing of the very poets Plato banned from his Republic, more out of self-suspicion than self-loathing. As he argued in the pages of the Introduction to his own Age of Adventure (1956), a compendium of Renaissance philosophic prose edited under his unaltered name, Giorgio de Santillana, it might have been the highrolling dreamers who kindled the Great Reawakening, but it was the all-hazarding poets who set it ablaze:
Bruno’s cosmic religion is merely closer to the spirit of contemplative
science. But Bruno’s noble vision and his incandescent monism end up in
a dream; it is in philosophical inconsequence, out of greatness of soul,
that he faces the stake. It is Marlowe, not Bruno, not Descartes, who has
been able to indicate what modern “natural magic” was really going to
Why make even more of this muchness? Because casting this younger poet, born in the year Stevens’s Harmonium was published (1923), in the shadow of the last to blossom of the modernists who, up until the mid-‘50s, kept busy contriving his own version of the Dutch tulip bubble in verse, having woven endless garlands, sprays and chaplets of blooms which from one angle appeared like little more than word-aisles of florets hollandaise, but from another comprised a Jacob’s ladder of fever-flowers only an American Góngora could have put in place, throws light on the variability, beyond mere stylistic accidentals, of the formalisms, not formalism, that followers of Auden, like Hecht, pursued. “Upon the Death of George Santayana” is determined to make a statement about choices and their consequences, about following one’s inclinations wherever their degree of lean or bias might tend. After pleading to spend eternity in Limbo to be with the likes of Socrates, the demise of Hecht’s Santayana concludes in this way:
And so it was. The river, as foretold,
Santayana’s victory, it would appear, is wholly congruent to Socrates’s. The inheritors of light must leave to the pit the debris of love not perfectible through refinement of things attendant to the body but not wholly of it. His Alcibiades was the Beauty he sensed in sensing beauty, apprehended, felt, re-viscerated in the flesh of thought. Did Hecht perceive a moral in the death of this gentle Samson, a model one could seize upon, and like the jawbone of a whole singing school of asses, use it to lay waste the pretentions of a whole new order of philistines? Or is that too wilful a concitation of the backward devils, one whose magic is insufficiently black to effectively decolor a world having become considerably grimmer in the decade or more separating the death of the Spanish philosopher in 1952 from the selection of this poem for this particular anthology? Certainly, the massing of blackness, accompanied by the trampling of those very intellectual values Santayana thought made life not just worth living but a living worth the Cistercian life of the mind needed to sustain them was more than a casual impression entertained by a handful of malcontents in 1965. But then, the wherewithal to slant the significance of Hecht’s “Upon the Death of George Santayana” so as to make it implicate the poetry wars of the ‘50s would have lain with the editors of A Controversy of Poets, not with Hecht himself.
Not all the traditional formalists in the collection raise this issue of thematic promiscuity so cogently as does this Hecht poem. Are so-called formalistic poems inherently more susceptible to this sort of abuse than non-formalistic poems? How possible would it be to so hijack, say, one of Joel Oppenheimer’s contributions to the anthology, “The Numbers,” which I must quote in its skeletal entirety to ensure its being bounded by the mind?
1 the circlet
There’s admittedly not an earth-shattering point at issue here, but the possibility of hijacking something like this thematically does, for whatever it’s worth, remain about nil. For the game around which poetry like this revolves centers not at all on locating its theme, but rather on construing a place-time when poetic themes were as hors de concert as tuning forks in the hiphop of today. And the poetry it revolves around is to be found in the discontinuous relationships between pointillist fragments comprising the relief map of those signal elements controlling the erotic disponibility of the poem’s voluptuous points of light. As in an extended work such as Pound’s Cantos or W. C. Williams’s Paterson, the content lies as much in what is elided as in what is actually said: blanks in literal statement (if not “meaning”) must have continuity provided for them through active readerly participation. Thus one could read the final quaternary of “numbers” as follows:
10 with it all, the true colors
Now, while it’s perfectly reasonable to question why this sort of thing should in and of itself be more deserving of the honorific “poetry” than, say, some neatly turned villanelle by Richard Wilbur or James Merrill, it is no less unreasonable to deny it that honorific solely on the basis of its failure to capture within a pre-existent mould human experience not amenable to such arbitrary corralling. Oppenheimer’s “The Numbers” doesn’t merely want us to rethink poetic meaning until we see it as something “only achievable by great labor,” to quote the crown prince of formalist homily, T. S. Eliot. It, as well as other “new formalist” works given rise to by the second “Vortex” of Black Mountain, a Richter scale event of the first magnitude occluded first by Beat narcissism and then made to bob even more lopsidedly on that bong-tormented sea ‘60s infantilism remembered fondly by radicals everywhere as the ultimate Booming of Baby. This new version of the poetic not only sought to reconstitute a verse language many thought had become moribund, but also to dismantle and rebuild the post hoc monstrosity that had not only betrayed the revolution in American idiomatics wrought by Walt Whitman—without whose interventions the 20th Century the risorgimento represented by the varieties of modernism, from Pound’s cubist triremes to the catamarans-in-bottles modularized by the Objectivists, would never have achieved lift-off—but had also drained America’s living verse tradition of much of its élan vital and joie de vivre.. Poetry, these enterprising descendants of Lewis and Clark came to feel, could not survive another century of the sort of Europe-worshiping elitism that had mindlessly driven the modernist agenda into the ground. It wasn’t that poetry had become too complex to perdure, it was that the complexity it had too long embraced was connected to nothing an American audience for poetry beyond the walls of the university could get its heart and soul around, let alone its mind. A lot of the older-style poetry lagged behind even the most moderate notions of what universals the American language, stretched between the nullities of establishmentarian scientistic jargon and youthcult argot-mongering, could aspire to give voice to. Its rigors asserted that the vessels of expression preceded the eruptions intended to fill them. Moreover, contrary to the views of architects like Mario Pei, form does not follow function, and to think so leads one to pose the question with more than a dollop of impropriety. Form should rather be seen as function’s inseparable a priori and thus the means by which it manifests itself in the world as an a posteriori construct suitably equipped with incontestable raison d’être and teleological rationale.
Ultimately, then, it is of little use to pretend, as does Theodore Enslin in “Tansy for August”—an attempt very different from Oppenheimer’s to rhapsodize about the mutancies of cast, as opposed to inner, light—that the verbal translucencies of earlier mystical poets (in case of “Tansy,” the 17th Century English poet, Thomas Traherne) are somehow interchangeable with 20th Century ones, having long ago been transplanted to the New World by other poets and quite dissimilar means. Heading his poem with a quote from Traherne—“’Tis not the Object but the Light / That maketh Hev’n”—even Enslin’s breathlessness seems faultily focused, the product of adulteration that has itself fallen short of genuine transformativeness:
And this July --- its nakedness burned out ---
“Tansy” is a flower of the aster genus, which took its name from the Greek word anasthasia, or “immortality,” and known for its bitter aroma and tonic properties. “The quick star tansy,” Enslin writes,
burns itself --- sears --- pulses
The trappings of mysticism here are ingenuously marshalled, to say the least. The virtue of tansy is akin to that which Pound noted in the root sassafras, which he called “rock-drill” for its property of stone splitting determination to cut through anything standing in the way of its growth. Traherne’s “light of hev’n” might shine favorably upon “tansy’s bitter buttons” for their hardy ability to hold up under heat—it is “their character” to do so—but the shock and awe of the poem’s presentation does not jibe with the prosaic fallout of its concluding lines. Could some ulterior suggestiveness be at play here? Tansy—and I admit I might be allegorizing what is no more than Enslin’s arguably mawkish (and most un-Traherne-esque) “highlighting” of herbaceous fortitude—might stand in the poet’s mind for the sort of robust and tough perdurability formalists see in conventional poetic structures as opposed to vers libre’s free-floating rhizomes.