Friday, February 11, 2011


A couple of quotes

Among the sea of books and literary magazines and other reading matter at the AWP bookfair, American Poetry Review was selling an assortment of copies of back issues of the magazine, for a dollar apiece. Most were from ca. 1980 or later, though there were a few from earlier; I came away with the September-October 1973 issue, Vol. 2 No. 5, featuring poet Yannis Ritsos on the cover page.

The issue was unusually full with poetry and other writing (essays, columns, book reviews, etc.) that offer an inkling to anyone (like myself) who doesn't remember, or wasn't aware, that there was a time, early on, when APR was at least somewhat politically and aesthetically relevant. The issue includes poems by Etheridge Knight; a translation of Yannis Ritsos's long poem "Romiosyne" (with a critical essay on the poem by William V. Spanos), and translations of several other poems by Ritsos; a three-page essay, published first thing in the issue, by Robert Coles, titled "Watergate Lightning," reflecting on the political scandal that was unfolding daily in the news media at the time; regular columns by Adrienne Rich (apparently, in this issue, the last installment of hers), Robert Bly, Diane Wakoski, Joyce Carol Oates, Clarence Major.

Not everything in the issue held my interest; I didn't spend much time with Richard Howard's essay/review about poet John Logan, or a long review (by Jerome Mazzaro) of Robert Lowell's Imitations.

In September 1973, roughly when the issue would have come out, the Vietnam War was still the ongoing event most affecting society and culture and politics in the United States, although the "mainstream" news media coverage of the war, and of the anti-war movement, had started to go to sleep. Earlier in 1973, members and supporters of the American Indian Movement had physically taken over and occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices at at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, as an act of protest and action against brutal and repressive U.S. government policies and practices in dealing with Native American people; police and F.B.I (and whoever else the government could find to send there) laid siege to the site, and a standoff ensued that lasted for weeks. Sometime during that year the Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who had once characterized anti-war protesters as "an effete corps of impudent snobs," resigned from office, and sometime after that pleaded "no contest" in Maryland to bribery and related charges, growing out of the time when he had been governor of the state.

And on September 11, 1973, the "other" 9/11, the U.S. military engaged in a series of terrorist acts, in collaboration with the military and political right-wing in Chile, to overthrow the elected government there; events of that day included the bombing of the Chilean presidential residence by planes supplied by the U.S., resulting in the death of President Salvador Allende. Poet Pablo Neruda, seriously ill with a brain tumor, died days later, at least in part from intentional medical neglect under the new military government. In the months and then years the followed, untold thousands of other people in Chile were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, because they opposed the government there, or because for whatever anomalous reason they posed an inconvenience for the government.

This for a little bit of context.

Here are excerpts from a couple of the essay columns in the APR issue.

First, from Adrienne Rich's column, titled "Caryatid;" Rich discusses several topics in the article, among them three recent books of poems by Robert Lowell: History (containing reworked poems from the second edition of Lowell's earlier book Notebook), For Lizzie and Harriet (containing a group of poems, previously published in Notebook, concerning Lowell's second marriage and his daughter), and The Dolphin (dealing with Lowell's love affair with his wife, his divorce, and remarriage); the above descriptions are roughly how Rich characterizes the books. Rich continues:

"I don't know why Lowell felt he wanted to go on revising and publishing old poems; why not let them stand and proceed on, since life itself goes on? Perhaps, as he says, "the composition was jumbled" in Notebook; but he chose, as a mature poet, to publish that jumbled composition, and it represents his poetic and human choices of that time. What does it mean to revise a poem? For every poet the process must be different; but it is surely closer to pruning a tree than retouching a photograph. However, the intention behind History is clearly to produce a major literary document encompassing the élite Western sensibility of which Lowell is a late representative; a work to stand in comparison with the great long poems of the past.

"The lesson of Notebook/History is that brilliant language, powerful images, are not enough, and that they can become unbelievably boring in the service of an encapsulated ego. I remember Notebook as a book whose language sometimes dazzled even though it often seemed intentionally to blur and evade meaning, even though Lowell's own rather pedantic notion of surrealism led to a kind of image-making out of the intellect rather than the unconscious. I remember saying to a friend that in poem after poem, at the moment when you thought Lowell was about to cut to the bone, he veered off, lost the thread, abandoned the poem he'd begun in a kind of verbal coitus interruptus. In History it strikes me that this is poetry constructed in phrases, each hacked-out, hewn, tooled, glazed or burnished with immense expertise...but one gets tired of these phrases, they hammer on after awhile with a fearful and draining monotony. It becomes a performance, a method, language divorced from its breathing, vibrating sources to become, as Lowell himself says, a marble figure. [...]

"[...] There's a kind of aggrandized and merciless masculinity at work in these books, particularly the third, symptomatic of the dead-end destructiveness that masculine privilege has built for itself into all institutions, including poetry. I sense that the mind behind these poems knows -- being omnivorously well-read -- that 'someone has suffered' -- the Jews, Achilles, Sylvia Plath, his own wife -- but is incapable of a true identification with the sufferers which might illuminate their condition for us. The poet's need to dominate and objectify the characters in his poems leaves him in an appalling way invulnerable. And the poetry, for all its verbal talent and skill, remains emotionally shallow."

And, from Robert Bly's column, titled "The War Between Memory and Imagination":

"For about fifteen years, American poetry has been marvellously free from coercion by academic critics. Students have not been so fortunate. We have all known how evil the influence of the professional academic living in Ulro consciousness can be on students of literature. The graduate schools are full of living wrecks, unable to see anything personal in The Wasteland [sic], harboring lifelong rages against their teachers, living daily with a distrust of their own body perceptions, incapable of talking to an animal, unable to write prose except in the codified phrases of memory, feeling their spirit has been stripped as a tree of its bark, determined to get revenge, or sink into listlessness and sneers, and spend their lives in Kansas complaining of the poor quality of undergraduates.

"It seems to me that after years of freedom from it, poetry is about to come under that sort of pressure again. I believe Blake is right that there is a mental war going on always between the two principles of 'memory' and 'imagination.' Strangely, only those who put their lives on the side of imagination think there is a war. The academics, or those on the side of memory, are always saying that they see no conflict between their ideas and the ideas of the poets -- why must the poets be so rude, etc.? Why can't all of us who love poetry just live together and be kind to one another? I sympathize with their longing to see less rudeness, yet it is clear also that the professional academic is parasitical, and the eternal cry of the parasite of all nations and vegetable states is for less conflict so they can go on eating. [...]

"[...] Under the pressure of this longing, the gap between memory and imagination, between recording experience and experience itself, grows wider. The tape recorder appears in all fields. The earlier New Critical restraint on imaginative life -- ruling out political poetry, for example -- ended when the poets now about 45 refused, in the late Fifties, to follow the restraints any longer. Williams had hated it for years before that, and hated the critics' refusal to answer for their opinions. One of Blake's most firmly stated ideas that there are 'hirelings in the camp, the court, and the university' whose soul delight in life is to decrease intellectual war: "who would, if they could, forever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war." But 'Without contraries there is no progression.'

"The danger we face is that the academics in the U.S. will try to affect the flow of poetry itself, much as people who handle logs at a harbor eventually try to buy the forests. Academic critics for centuries have tried to affect the course of poetry, to buy up the forest, by overpraising poets of 'memory.' These poets are usually relatively tame and decorous. In the last decade, which were the American academics who triumphed Vallejo? The New Yorker, edited by an academic critic, Howard Moss, prints Borges, not Vallejo. The New York Review of Books triumphs Auden, the prototype of Blake's 'state poet,' or 'angel of mediocrity.' Blake insists there is an eternal war, more important than any of our personalities, between the state poet and the prophet, between the passive imagination and the active imagination, between memory and imagination, between the academic critic and the imaginative critic."


I've selected excerpts here that are fairly blunt in tone and substance, because I think it's important to remember that poetry, and writing about poetry, doesn't necessarily have to be polite or obedient; we're not required to fill out the proper forms and wait for approval before we say what we want to say. There are, certainly, places in the world where it may not be safe to say what you want to say, where there might be reprisals; this though is because of the political and economic conditions of the world, and not something embedded in the innate nature of poetry. I read both of the articles while I was at AWP in Washington, and I found it valuable to read things that prodded me, a little, to remember what poetry is, and what it's not, and why I (and so many others of us) keep writing it, and reading it. I like, most of all, that what Rich and Bly say here remains alive and relevant and timely, even now nearly forty years after the articles were written.

I loved your blog. I am a poet who has been writing for the last 25 years mainly in scatchy notebooks and using computers as word processors. Decided that I needed to be dragged into the techno age, and after venturing into the world of poetry by blog despaired of all the self indulgent crap that is out there. Then I found A Burning Patience and I thought Wow why haven't I got into this before, so insightful, full of information and wonderful poetry. I can't imagine having the time to include such wonderful learned observations (still work 3 jobs) but you have given me enourmous insipration. Thankyou
Karen, thanks for your comment. I still write in paper notetbooks. Once I've got poems as ready as they're likely to get I type them -- for many years I used a poortable manual typewriter, though a few years ago I started typing them with my computer.

I know what you mean about the self-indulgent crap out there, though I've also found a lot of great writing -- it does take time and digging. I certainly understand the struggle to find time. Even working just one full-time job, it's a challenge, let alone three jobs.

Thanks for coming by.
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