Saturday, November 11, 2006

Is There a There There? The Idea of Chicago Poetry

So I'm back from Iceland, which I'm defining as "the country with the landscape that tries too hard" — as you drive around the countryside, you can almost here it calling out to you, saying "glaciers! glaciers here! get your glaciers! What? Not into glaciers? Not a problem. How about a geyser? Would a geyser be something you'd be interested in? No? How about if I throw in a waterfall? Make that two waterfalls! And a gorge! With steam coming out of it! And a lava field! How about some hot springs? Could I interest you in some hot springs, with maybe a bubbling mud field thrown in for free, eh? Eh?" Extrordinary, really.

Anyway. In a couple of hours I'm going to be giving a paper at the Midwest Modern Language Association, which is being held here in Chicago this year. I'm on a panel on Chicago poetry, run by the redoubtable Bill Allegrezza, and here's my paper in its current, slightly rough-around-the-edges state (I haven't proofed it, because I thought I'd only be delivering it out loud, but when someone suggested I throw it onto the blog, I couldn't think of any reason not to, so here it is, replete with whatever stylistic errors remain). It's called "Is There a There There? The Idea of Chicago Poetry." Some of you may recognize a few of the quotations from Paul Hoover, and a stray comment or two, from other posts on this blog. Auto-plagiarism is okay on the internet though, right?

A shout-out goes to Michael Anania for talking through some of this with me from Austin, and another shout-out to Dave Park for listening to me run all this by him while he was trying to eat a Monte Christo sandwhich.


It was 1937 when Gertrude Stein, ensconced in Paris, said of her native Oakland that “there is no there there.” It was her way of justifying a move from the provinces to the glittering literary metropolis. Since Chicago is paradoxically both province and metropolis, with all the anxieties and complexes appertaining thereunto, I suppose the question “is there a there there?” is pertinent to our city as a center of literary — and, more particularly, of poetic — production. Certainly there are poets in Chicago, of both innovative and conservative stripes, and there have been for generations. But is there something we could call Chicago poetry, and is it in some way innovative? Is there, poetically speaking, a there here?

The answer seems to be yes, according to the city’s poetic movers and shakers. But the yes is a very strange one, for this reason: at almost any point in Chicago’s literary history, you can find someone claiming that there was no distinctive, innovative Chicago poetic scene until that very moment. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the general point: over and over again, for just shy of a century we find people willing to say that the natives were without any authentic poetic culture until a great pioneer came along and made the heroic effort to civilize the wilderness.

What I’d like to do today is to root around a little in the documents of our city’s poetic history, with an eye to the way certain myths of origin crop up again and again. I’d like to focus on three in particular, which I’m calling the myth of the aboriginal as missionary; the myth of benevolent eclecticism; and the myth of a poetic freedom that resides in having nothing to lose. By myth here I don’t necessarily mean “falsehood” — although you have to be more postmodern than I am to believe that all of these origin stories (in which the tabula rasa of Chicago suddenly becomes a city with a distinct poetic life) can be true. I suppose I mean “myth” in something like an archetypal sense, as a story that different generations seem to come to again and again, consciously or (more likely) unconsciously imitating their predecessors.

  • The Myth of the Aboriginal as Missionary

    Before the twentieth century, Chicago’s image of itself as a poetic city was humble enough. To judge from these words of Chicago poet Eugene Field, taken from his 1887 collection of literary journalism, Culture’s Garland, Chicago was a culturally self-hating backwater, almost unworthy of the Missionaries of Culture and Poetry sent to its embarrassingly commercial streets from the east coast: “The presence of [the visiting Bostonian poet] Mr. James Russell Lowell,” writes Field,

    …Has given Chicago a tremendous boom as a literary center…. This impetus first became apparent last Saturday afternoon, when one of the distinguished members of the Chicago Literary Club — a manufacturer of linseed oil — happened to call at the office of another distinguished member of the club, a wholesale dealer in hides and pelts. “I see by the papers,” said the first litterateur, “that James Russell Lowell is going to be in town next week.” “Lowell? Lowell? Oh yes, I remember, the author of ‘The One-Hoss Shay’” “Yes, he’s going to read a poem in the Central Music Hall next Tuesday” explained the first litterateur and it occurred to me that we ought to elect him an honorary member of the club.” “Well,” said the second litterateur, “we’ll think about that…. Here, you, Jim, go up on the back roof, and drag in them calf-pelts out of the rain!”

    The eastern missionary comes among us and we are, it seems, not worthy, being mere hewers of wood and haulers of calf-pelts. But this nineteenth century poetic abjection all comes to an end in 1912, with Harriet Monroe’s founding of Poetry magazine. From this point on we Chicagoans won’t be mere aboriginals craving guidance from eastern missionaries. Now we will generate our own missionaries to ourselves, local literati able to spread up-to-date ideas about poetry to the locals. Monroe saw herself as bringing, to a poetic scene that could only with great charity be described as mediocre, indeed non-existent except in embarrassingly provincial form, a beacon of the innovative and modern. Where there was nothing, suddenly there was something not only substantial, but advanced, innovative, world-leading, right here in Chicago.

    But there’s curious combination, in Harriet Monroe’s writing, of two seemingly contradictory views of Chicago. On the one hand, it appears as a provincial place to which her magazine is bringing the innovative poetic light from the distant cities where Real Art happened. “We women of the staff and our visitors used to have lively discussions…and each new letter from Ezra Pound sharpened the edge of them,” she writes in her memoir A Poet’s Life, thinking of the glamour of “Ezra’s and Hueffer’s [that is, Ford Madox Ford’s] groups in London.” On the other hand, Chicago appears as a metropolitan place, creating a new poetry that is in some sense both distinctive and shockingly cutting-edge. We get a good sense of this from her account of publishing what was to become the signature poem of the city, Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”: “Alice [that’s Alice Corbin, a poet and also a reader of manuscripts for the magazine] had handed over to me a group of poems in very individual free verse, beginning with ‘Chicago’ as the ‘hog butcher of the world.’ This line was a shock at first, but I tool a long breath and swallowed it, and was laughed at scornfully by critics and columnists when we gave it the lead in March 1914.” So on the one hand Chicago is a mere backwater, a knitting circle awaiting letters from the spectacular elsewhere of London. On the other hand it is an advanced place, an envelope-pushing center of innovation happy to epater les litterateurs.

    It’s not just Monroe who feels this: the provincial/metropolitan tension (in which Chicago seems to be both an innovative leader with its own distinctive style and a provincial follower of developments in London and Paris) is epidemic in the Chicago poets of the period. Floyd Dell, for example, wrote of the early years of Poetry magazine as a time when Chicago fostered “a growing youthful body of [distinctly] American literary taste … nourished … upon the very best European literature and the civilized modern standards.” Which is it — an authentic, advanced Chicagoan American poetic, or the reflection of the real action taking place elsewhere? For him, it seems to be both at the same time.

    The persistence of the pattern of thinking we find in Monroe and her circle in the nineteen-teens is remarkably persistent. Again and again, we find Chicagoans describing themselves as coming of age in a city without a significant past in innovative poetry, then making their own innovative scene. And just as persistently, we find descriptions of that new scene to contain a strange tension between the idea that Chicago has some distinction of its own, some aboriginal virtue, and the idea that the poet in question is a kind of missionary bringing us up to date with New York or London or Paris of San Francisco. Such discussions aren’t exclusive to poetry, by the way: discussions of these kinds take place among prose writers like the Chicago realists and naturalists, from Dreiser through Algren – but these discussions take place perennially in poetry, notably in the 1960s with poets like Paul Carroll and Michael Anania.

    Perhaps the most notable recent instance of the pattern I’m describing came about in 2004, at the AWP convention held (if memory serves) at the Palmer Hilton. This is where Paul Hoover gave the talk “My Kind of Town: Local Literary Community,” later reprinted in the Chicago Review. Echoing Harriet Monroe some 92 years before him, he sees his city as having been something of a dire poetic backwater before his arrival. “For years,” he tells us, “Chicago was a fly-over city.”

    The real world of literature existed on the coasts. Chicago's main poetry event used to be Poetry Day, sponsored by Poetry. In 1972, at the suggestion of Paul Carroll, a few of us, including Lisel Mueller, Mark Perlberg, and Martha Friedberg founded the Poetry Center at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The idea was to bring poets to Chicago to read their work. For the same reason, to leap high enough to connect with what was not local, Maxine [Chernoff] and I published New American Writing, which sponsored a reading series at Links Hall, and served on the board of the Poetry Center. San Francisco comes ready-made. Someone else did the work of building (Kenneth Rexroth, the Duncan and Spicer circles, and so on). Chicago remained to be built.

    And that building, it seems, fell to Paul and his comrades in the art. His description of his own tasks comes across as somewhat Herculean, in a professorial kind of way:”I taught a double load in the fall semester of each year (five classes), ran a reading series with eight to ten annual events, took responsibility for two poetry magazines, and coordinated a growing undergraduate poetry program.”

    The result of all this building was, in Hoover’s narrative, a distinctly Chicago-inflected innovative poetry and a set of institutions to support it. “…In Chicago, my role as a teacher, editor, organizer of poetry readings, and poet was to encourage openness to the ‘new’,” he writes. And his efforts stand, in this version of the origin myth, behind the current framework for innovative poetry in Chicago, a network of institutions that prove that the city has finally become pure metropolis, leaving its provincial past behind. Here’s how Hoover puts it:

    I have a printout from the website It shows the incredible growth of experimental poetry in Chicago in recent years: The Discreet Series, the Danny’s Tavern Series, the Chicago Poetry Project, the Myopic Poetry Series, Chicago Review, and Conundrum. To that list I would add Flood Editions, edited by Devin Johnston and Michael O’Leary, Peter O’Leary’s magazine LVNG, Columbia Poetry Review as formerly constituted, Another Chicago Magazine at its most Beat, the recent arrivals of Margy Sloan and Bin Ramke, among others, and a new openness to such writing at the School of the Art Institute and the University of Chicago….One can now say “Lisa Jarnot is in town” or “Ron Silliman is reading at the Chicago Poetry Project.” In this respect, the city has finally grown up.

    So that’s that. No longer a wilderness of calf-pelt dragging rubes hypnotized by the coastal elites, we are a shining city on a hill — or at least on a stretch of lakeside prairie. But not so fast. Just like Monroe before him, Hoover seems haunted (even in these moments of local pride) by the sense that the real cutting edge is elsewhere. Some of the highest praise he can offer to the poetic city that he helped found is this: “there’s almost as much experimental activity in Chicago as in San Francisco!” If you want to judge where the real metropolis of innovation is, you’ve got to ask whether the New Yorkers or San Franciscans are making comparisons of themselves to us, here in the second city. One rather suspects not. Moreover, even in an essay in which he claims Chicago has “finally grown up,” we see that true poetic validation still comes from other (mostly coastal) places. When Hoover describes the ascent of Chicago-born innovative poets, for example, he does it by telling us the glamorous places to which they have escaped: “My students,” he says, “were being accepted into the country’s leading MFA programs: Brown, Bard, Columbia University, the University of Iowa [and] Bennington.” If his other students went on for further study in our own city, it was study of a sort to humbly local to mention.

  • The Myth of Benevolent Eclecticism

    So the persistent myth of origin — the recurring sense that we as Chicagoans have to establish something up-to-date in what we secretly fear is our backwater town — remains with us. But I’d like to turn now to another recurring theme of Chicago poetry: the idea that our true innovative nature lies in an aversion to orthodoxy, in a benevolent eclecticism of experiment. Here, as always, Harriet Monroe anticipates all who will follow. Describing the Poetry magazine circle’s discussions of poetics circa 1913, she tells us that “poetic technique was an open forum, in which everyone’s theories differed from everyone else’s, and the poems we accepted were a battleground for widely varying opinions.” Indeed, Monroe saw the milieu she was creating as “the scene and center of all controversial action in the art” and a haven for those rejecting the schools and orthodoxies found elsewhere.

    We find this idea of Chicago as a place gloriously free of restrictive aesthetic orthodoxy again and again. In the eighties, for example, Another Chicago Magazine editor Barry Silesky states that while the city of Chicago has a definite literary distinction, and has “an influence on individual writers, there is no school, no genre” and nothing constrictingly “unitary.” More than a decade later I myself repeated the myth, in my editorial for the inaugural issue of the journal Samizdat. Here, I tried to explain the heavily-Chicago oriented table of contents by claiming that it reflected the particularly fertile nature of our local soil for innovative writing, saying that the preponderance of locals was:

    ...reflective of the way that the cultural climate of Chicago has fostered poets without pressuring them to conform too closely to the establishment or the counter-establishment. It is in the interstices between orthodoxies that poetry finds innovation and life, and this is why Chicago has become one of the good places for poetry.

    Paul Hoover played this note too, offering himself as an example of the kind of innovative eclecticism that comes about when one emerges as a poet in a city without a dominant innovative traditon (“New York School,” say):

    The most important turn in my reading may have come when a classmate dropped Ron Padgett's Great Balls of Fire on a conference table in Adams Hall at UIC....I didn't plunge completely into the New York School, nor did I remain where I was. I'm thankfully still in passage, within and among a number of heavy planets: Deep Image, Surrealism, the English Metaphysicals as well as the American (Dickinson), Williams and Stevens, Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, Language Poetry, Ashbery and Schuyler, Lorine Niedecker, Thomas Trahearne, Robert Creeley, Zukofsky's "A-14," Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore's "The Fish," and Gwendolyn Brooks' amazing vocalizations and close rhymes...

    I’m sure all this is true, and in Hoover’s case the eclectic mix has certainly helped to make for an interesting body of work. I mean, had Paul started out in San Francisco, One wonders how different Hoover would be had he started out in, say, San Francisco. Perhaps his magazine New American Writing would have been a more narrowly Duncany-Spicery kind of journal. And what if Paul had first seen that Padgett book in New York? The powerful gravity of the New York School's levity could well have pulled him in, I think, and left the Trahearne and Brooks and Vallejo sides of his poetry less well developed.

    But if one takes an uncharitable view — not of Paul’s particular case, but of the persistent myth of a benevolent Chicago eclecticism in innovative poetry — one could wonder if we aren’t really just making a virtue of necessity. One could take the tack that we’re simply justifying our failure to create something truly distinctive by calling it a commitment to openness. It wouldn’t be the first time a myth transmuted failure into virtue.

  • The Myth of Freedom in Nothing to Lose

    Connected with this myth of benevolent eclecticism is another cherished myth of Chicago poetry, one dating back at least as far as the nineteen teens. Since I’ve babbled on too long already, I’ll keep my comments here brief, and cite just one source, although my sense of the anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that the view is still fairly widespread. It is the belief that the lack of any serious, tangible reward system allows Chicago poets a freedom not to be found in a place like New York. Out here by Lake Michigan, says this myth, we can’t get too worried about whether or not we’ll be invited to the Paris Review party, where we may well have met and inadvertently charmed one of those mysterious fellows who hands out the MacArthur “genius awards.” Unburdened by such worries, we are free to act and write as we will, without an eye to impressing the powers that be. I hear this view from time to time, and we can find it in print as far back as 1920, when H.L. Mencken (writing from Baltimore) wrote his essay on Chicago writers, called “The Literary Capital of the United States.” New York can’t be such a capital, despite appearances, says Mencken, because in New York there are “great rewards” but “also inviolable taboos.” The new poet arrived in New York senses the existing hierarchy, and sees that those who play by the rules may win the very tangible prizes, so that poet’s “ideas are deliberately flattened out. He learns to do things as they should be done.” “New York, when it lures such a recruit eastward, makes a plaint conformist of him, and so ruins him out of hand. But Chicago … leaves him irrevocably his own man.”

    Two questions spring to mind immediately: firstly, is this really just a “sour grapes” moment for Chicago poets? And secondly, can such a freedom-in-having-nothing-to-lose survive such a catastrophe as the hundred million dollar Lilly bequest to Poetry magazine?

    My best guess on this last question is that the answer is “yes,” given the decreasing importance of geography to culture in general. In the age of blogging and frequent flier miles no province is as provincial, and no metropolis as metropolitan, as it once was. If this means that the future of innovative poetry will take place in locations that are simultaneously kind of provincial and kind of metropolitan, then it means that the future of innovative poetry will look, in some sense, like Chicago. There will be a there there, and it will look like here.