Americus, Book 1, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. New Directions, 2004. 91 pages, $21.95.
The Unsubscriber, by Bill Knott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. 122 pages, $20.00.
danger on peaks, by Gary Snyder. Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004. 112 pages, $22.00.
As Reviewed By: Marc Pietrzykowski
The idea that poetic conventions inevitably ossify and inhibit creative expression is a commonplace usually invoked by poets attempting to challenge these conventions, from Leigh Hunt announcing that Keats and a “new school” of poets had come “to restore the same love of Nature, and of thinking instead of talking, which formerly rendered us real poets, and not merely versifying wits, and bead rollers of couplets” to Ezra Pound proclaiming how the Imagists “will bloom into a great garden, to be again conventionalized to a pleasance of stone statues and mathematical parterres awaiting a new change which shall displace it.” Thus did the Beat poets of the 50’s and early 60’s rail—by their example more than through explicit “argument”—against academic poets and the post-war bourgeoisie via self-published works, public readings and, eventually, from the pages of The New York Times magazine.
In trying to make space for their particular brand of free-wheeling, Whitman-and-Williams inspired hipster poetics, the Beats invoked once more the trope of revitalization, pitting a poetics that claimed to value direct access to emotional states against one that valued craft and the manipulation of a received tradition. How honestly this trope was applied is difficult to discern; did Beat poets want to change the world or just have their place in the canon, beside the Wilburs and the Nemerovs? Isn’t rehashing the Romantic version of the trope of revitalization essentially a highly reactionary poetic move gussied up with syncopated rhythms and pokes at conventional morality? These questions yield no simple answers when we consult the most recent works by original Beats Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The master question to which the others are subsumed—is beat poetry ethical?—is addressed, albeit in a queerly adolescent manner, in Bill Knott’s The Unsubscriber, the third book under consideration here.[private]
Discussing the ethics of style is something of a taboo, of course; many poets like to think that the stylistic choices made in their work exempt from ethical questions, and perhaps they are right. Most of us would prefer to think in terms of value—of what sort of poetics best serves beauty, or challenges the audience, or serves the audience, or illustrates some theoretical position—but then value is dependent on ethics, and determining which poetry is valuable involves a set of ethical presumptions, no matter how unconsciously applied. When considering the ethics of Beat poetry, the temptation to rely on the simplified polarities of the revitalization model (establishment vs. rebellion) is strong: if you favor tradition and rhyme, institutional certification and careful craft, then you most likely think Beat poetry worthless, whereas if you prefer spontaneity and an outlaw attitude—challenges to orthodoxy and free-wheeling prosody—then you may well believe the Beats were engaged in an important rebellion against authority.
A more interesting ethical quandary, the one revealed by Snyder and Ferlinghetti’s continued mining of this particular poetic vein (despite the fact that their revolution is now a museum piece), lies in their somewhat passive acceptance of the simple rebel/establishment dichotomy. The ossification and revitalization model itself has ossified into orthodoxy, and so the wild-eyed rebels have their own institutions, their own carefully built canon, and their own methods of certification, all of which work in concert with, rather than against, the “establishment.” As such, perhaps Snyder and Ferlinghetti’s willingness to stick with a certain poetics can be read as a moral statement, a refusal to bow to the institutionalization of poetic rebellion. Or, from a more cynical point of view, they are simply writing the way they have learned to write, and hustling their work the way they have learned to hustle. In any case, both sides of the rebel/establishment coin seems to agree that a poetic style is ethical when it adds to the greatness of poetry, and is unethical when it fails to do so; so too for the poet as a public figure.
Ferlinghetti’s Americus I arrived on this reviewer’s desk accompanied by not one but two letters from the publisher pleading for attention, as “Ferlinghetti’s poetry is rarely reviewed”—although, in the past year, he has won a Frost Medal and a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also founded the City Lights Bookstore, and his most lasting achievement may be the aid and comfort he has lent the poetic community as a public figure: as a publisher, promoter, and proprietor of his famous bookstore. Such a commitment to the greater good of the literature is certainly ethical, even if his poetry largely fails to merit such consideration, and so it is possible to be a bad poet who is good for poetry, as Ferlinghetti seems, unfortunately, to have become.
Typically, anthologists will lop off a chunk of one of Ferlinghetti’s long poems—most often “Coney Island of the Mind”—for presentation in their volumes, and this is still the best way to read his work. Americus I makes for a painful experience if one begins with the first page and then reads the poems in sequence because they are barely-held-together pastiches of whatever comes to the author’s mind or crosses his desk. When coupled with parodic jargon, pages full of invented headlines, and a dogged attempt to trace some elusive historical arc from the early 20th century through the death of JFK, the pastiche method defeats itself: the narrative arc begs a straight reading, the headlines beg historical specificity, and the jargon colors all it touches with unintentional satire. A pastiche is best enjoyed randomly, with the reader flipping open the book and hoping for something inspired, and so it has no force as satire, less as effective history, and still less as narrative; readers trying to follow the section on JFK’s death and funeral, for example, will find themselves bogged down in pseudo-prophetic rambling:
and so it goes, for another two pages. This sort of grocery-store shamanism might have seemed revolutionary during the 1950s and 60s, but it no longer rails against anything, and without anything to rail against, it has no more power than a recitation of the minutes of a garden club meeting.
Perhaps Americus I is Ferlinghetti’s attempt at fusing his Whitmanic Beat angle with the popular notion, fueled by the sudden ubiquity of the Internet, that pastiche and “non-linear” idioms of writing are somehow more true, more authentic to the way our minds work. The point itself is solipsistic—our minds are neither linear nor non-linear, and thinking does not make it so—but even if it were valid, mimesis of cognitive function is not a sufficient end-result for poetry. It may be an interesting starting-point, but we read to take ourselves out of the pitter-patter of little thoughts scurrying through our work-a-day heads:
Then again, this slapping together of headlines and goofy riffing may have nothing to do with trying to reflect contemporary tropes about the way the mind works, and I suppose that I seek evidence for this very tenuous reading because I want to value Ferlinghetti’s work more than I do. Unfortunately, Americus I is all breadth and no depth, a sprawl of half-finished themes and gestures left over from a revolution long since gone by. Other books by Ferlinghetti contribute much more to poetry—Coney Island of the Mind, Pictures of the Gone World—and they are the ones we should remember to read.
Gary Snyder is, on the surface, a very different kind of poet from Ferlinghetti: rather than yawping in endless almanacs, he ranges from jangling, first-person exposition to a cartographer’s sotto voce, fusing the revolutionary intent of Beat poetics with classical Japanese forms and tones. He always seems to be standing in the shadow of a mountain, whether he is actually writing about mountain-climbing or about helping a neighbor saw a fallen tree, and the humility necessitated by such geography helps his best work from collapsing into narcissistic monody. And while danger on peaks is not his best work, it isn’t awful; I assume that its precise functionality, this careful restating of the author’s poetics, is the reason it was nominated for a National Book Award—an ethical nomination, one meant to remind readers of a body of work well worth investigating and that has added significant value to American poetry. This motive for honoring Snyder might seem unethical if one believes such awards are granted largely on the basis of merit, but I think it high time to rid ourselves of that fantasy once and for all. This is Snyder’s first collection of new poems in 20 years, which may be another reason for its nomination, and the fact that his poetics have changed little, if at all, over the same period is yet another, allowing danger on peaks to serve as a surrogate for his best work: a greatest hits package reworked until all the thorniness has been removed:
Bonzai masters crush and strip the bark from a tree branch and then carve it to look rotted or bleach it to look old. The same sort of artifice has long been at play in Snyder’s poetry: plain language and truncated syntax help give his nature imagery a starkness and, when at its best, a profundity that no amount of rhapsodizing could hope to approximate. Maintaining such a minimal style over the course of a career is difficult, as one’s artifice becomes habitual, and the habit of writing in a certain way narrows one’s vision into a set of quite small, as opposed to expansive, gestures, leaving the poet with a choice: change styles, or try to refurbish one’s stock gestures with new subjects, new points of view. Snyder has broached contemporary subjects in danger on peaks, but his style remains essentially unchanged throughout:
Elsewhere, Snyder mixes prose and verse in the haibun style, composes lengthy paeans to mountains and hikes through them, strings together broken-off lines in prose-ordered clumps, and, in the best section, writes haiku that blur nature proper with man-made objects. The reason the haiku section succeeds where “In the Santa Clarita Valley” and other dull arguments fail has to do with the author’s failure to refurbish his style adequately. It is a style that, reduced to a set of gestures, works best when the gesture is simplest; when he tries to extend his vision to longer poems or to prose, these same gestures become stilted affectations. Far better versions of the same kind of poems are available in earlier works, or in the Gary Snyder Reader and, again, I urge the interested reader to look there.
If the nomination of danger on peaks for a National Book Award is ethical, is the book itself an ethical gesture? That is, what does it offer poetry, how does it make the art better—who benefits from the poems Snyder has offered us? Well, obviously, Snyder has benefited, as have readers content with his freeze-dried style; a better line of inquiry might return to original question: is Beat poetry ethical? Not was it ethical, but is it good now, for the continued health of English-language poetry, to continue writing books in a style that has gone from challenging the status quo to assimilation by the status quo and, further, to being a living artifact? Neither Snyder’s nor Ferlinghetti’s books serve notice that the Beat movement is alive and well; instead, they illustrate how quickly yesterday’s revolutionaries become today’s bureaucrats, and how young poets can hustle their own poetry by invoking the same model—how else might we explain the revolutionary presumption of language poetry, which, for any virtues it might possess, chooses to wage its battle against a degraded linguistic world using the weapon of nonsense verse? I find it difficult to blame Ferlinghetti or Snyder for continuing to hustle the same poetics that found them early fame, as it seems easier to blame the model of poetic succession they participated in—and yet they have participated in it, and yes, poetry is better for it, but not much more can be written in that particular chapter, I fear, and what once was an ethical proposition now seems far more self-serving.
The decision to examine, however perfunctorily, the question of poetic ethics was inspired by reading the third book under consideration here, The Unsubscriber, by Bill Knott. To the uninitiated, Knott seems an extremely weird poet; to the initiated also, he seems extremely weird, but in a rather charming way. His imagery is personal to the point of obscurity; he favors terse meters, loose rhymes, and endless variations on the sonnet form, and he has a streak of black humor wide enough to steer a catamaran through. He is, in a word, idiosyncratic and so the usual metaphors—a poet’s poet, one-of-a-kind—tend to roost on his book jackets and publicity letters. Much like Snyder and Ferlinghetti, however, his idiosyncrasy has grown formulaic, his obscure poems more obscure, his terse observations so terse they scoot by without leaving much of a dent in the reader, as in “Shower” :
I tie my handkerchief
to a kite
to try and dry
the cries of
the clouds up there.
oh, if only
I hadn’t loaned
to that submarine!
What triggered my interest in poetic ethics was not the fact that the three poets reviewed here all seem to have found themselves treading water, but rather that I found a poem in Knott’s collection that takes umbrage with the Beats, and with Jack Kerouac in particular, for driving automobiles. Earlier in The Unsubscriber, Knott takes Henry Ford to task for making automobiles ubiquitous, and follows the poem with a lengthy prose footnote that warns, vaguely but with great snarl, against cars and American consumerism in general, concluding: “What matter if we continue to satisfy this mania which polluted not just our air but our poems as well. We will pay any price to maintain our selfish addiction to the first-person voice.” Such censure sounds a bit odd coming from a poet so selfishly addicted to his own idiosyncrasy, but it also comes off as quite reasonable in contrast to Knott’s Kerouac poem:
Join Jack and his pals
in the endless adventure
of spilling fossil fuels
into the atmosphere.
Step on the gas and zoom
from sea to oily sea
why be a stay at home
Beat means holy Beat means free.
Jump in the car and drive
anywhere though west is best
burn that octane burn to live
don’t question this quest.
Go man you gotta go
you too must take that ride
faster faster never slow
on the road to ecocide.
Huh. Indeed, our reliance on fossil fuels is supremely destructive to the environment, and we had better find some alternative to car culture soon, but why on earth has Knott chosen this situation as a platform for slamming the Beats? There is a petulance at work in the poem that I either had not noticed in Knott’s work before, or had previously considered humorous, perhaps; further evidence that his style has grown long in the tooth. Sticking with an idiosyncratic style in the face of changing poetic fashions may be an ethical choice, certainly (at least until the style becomes restrictive), but using a directly ethical point—fossil fuels harm the environment—to rant about the stupidity of hipsters is not ethical. In fact, it is unethical, as no other poems under consideration in this review have managed to be; many have failed to contribute anything of worth to poetry, but none have sought, as Knott’s poem does, to denigrate a poetic style by yoking it to a far more important social issue. Of course, Knott’s book arrived at my door aboard a UPS van . . . .[/private]