Saturday, June 19, 2010

Counter-Cultural Poetics: Ed Sanders and History

Salted cashews, and my personal relationship thereunto, probably provide the best analogy for my experience of reading Ed Sanders's poetry. I know there are more sophisticated culinary pleasures than a can of cashews, but I can spend the whole evening with the simple pleasures of cashews and not want anything else, except maybe a bottle of Fat Tire and an episode of Tremé (I thought Wendell Pierce had peaked when he played Bunk Moreland on The Wire, but I was wrong).

I know what keeps me coming back to cashews — the (un)holy combo of salt and fat. But what is it about Sanders? Some of the charm is certainly the aura of the guy: he's the original bridge figure between the Beat generation and the hippies. He's smart and learned, but wears it all very lightly and without pretension. He knew everybody, and has stories to tell. He ran the old Peace Eye bookstore, played in The Fugs, and published the best-named literary journal of its day, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts (its day, remember, was stuffier than ours, a time when the spirit of Robert Lowell presided over Serious Poetic Concerns). But that's really the Sanders of the short stories and semi-memoirs collected in Tales of Beatnik Glory, which I never quite managed to get through. The Sanders with the cashew-can allure is, for me, the poet. Just what is it that he has that I can't get enough of?

I think the quality in question has something to do with the combination of voice and subject in his books of poetry — a combination unusual enough in the main meteorological zones of our current poetic climate to be called counter-cultural.

One of Sanders' earlier books is called Investigative Poetry (also, if I remember correctly, the title of a course he taught at Naropa), and the title gives a pretty good sense of the main current of Sanders' poetry. He writes long poems that are investigations — into history, for the most part (as in his ongoing poetic history of America, with thick volumes named after different decades of the twentieth century, and a slimmer one devoted solely to the year 1968). Multi-volume projects involving the presentation of history in poetry are on the unusual side lately, and a full-scale biography written in poetry is even rarer (Sanders has written one about his longtime pal Allen Ginsberg called, appropriately enough, The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg: A Narrative Poem). But it's not just the subject that makes Sanders an unusual poet: it's the way he uses language and form when treating those subjects.

Sanders's use of language and form are unusual by both the standards of poetry and of history and biography. Consider the historian and his cousin the biographer. Generally (and of course there are exceptions), these are people who write with an emphasis on objectivity — that is, they rarely draw much attention to themselves in the text, where the focus is intended to be on the information they present. The prose sends off signals by its style, of course, but those signals tend to be of a very particular kind: footnotes, citations, a restricted use of the more informal range of diction, and a certain non-first-person-y style — all of these things signify professionalism, and the adherence to the codes of conduct suitable for writers of the kind of history and biography that wish to be taken seriously as matters of record.

Then there's Sanders. His work includes reference to plenty of archival documents, some of which he has obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, and he shows remarkable knowledge about some of his subjects. But his style is nothing like that of the professional historian. Everywhere, he signals a kind of casualness (abbreviations, neologisms and nonce-words, profanity, low-range diction, exclamation points, digressions, what have you) making it clear that, while this is history or biography, this isn't being written in the mode of the professional historian or biographer.

Line breaks play a big role here: the very fact of them indicates we are dealing with something other than a piece of professional history or biography. Sanders' system of lineation is variable: sometimes he likes a clever enjambment, but not often. Sometimes he does something that looks like the triads of William Carlos Williams, but without the iambic beat that so often comes into play in Williams. Sometimes he breaks with syntax. It's generally not particularly musical, or terribly subtle. Here's an example pulled at random:

The Sandanistas nationalized some industries
& right-wingers around the world rolled their eyes
                                    in Domino-Theory dread

This isn't the line break as a way of measuring out metrical beats, rhymes, anaphoric repetitions, or any other sound unit, really. Nor is it any kind of clever e.e. cummings page-trick. If there's any function to the line breaks, here, it's probably the same function the ampersand has: as a way of saying "this isn't written the way professional history is written." The figurative language, too, though nothing fancy, serves a similar function — That eye-roll comment isn't quite the thing you'd expect from a professional historian like, say, Robert Caro, even though it's true enough. It's just a bit too casual.

So what's Sanders' game? I think, at some level too deep to have been a deliberate choice, he's actually working in the tradition Wordsworth justified in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and for much the same reason. Here's the opening part of Wordsworth's famous definition of the poet from that preface:

Taking up the subject, then, upon general grounds, let me ask, what is meant by the word Poet? What is a Poet? to whom does he address himself? and what language is to be expected from him?—He is a man speaking to men...

When I teach Wordsworth, I like to show this bit to my students, and then, after we've established the "one of the guys" quality of the Wordsworthian poet, follow it up with the next part of the sentence: "He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind..." Woo! Hah! There's a 180-degree turn: the poet is one of the guys, but he's also, you know, better and special, and has a larger soul. There's the Romantic paradox, nor are we entirely free of it to this day. But the paradox of the Wordsworthian poet isn't what's interesting for a discussion of Sanders. What's important is that first part. Wordsworth is setting poets up as those-who-speak-as-whole-people, not those-who-speak-as-specialists. He doesn't want the poet to communicate the way people communicate when they write from their professional positions. A judge speaks of you in legal terms ("the defendant is guilty"); a physician speaks of you in medical terms ("you're going to have to reduce your intake of salted cashews, or your cholesterol will be elevated"); an accountant speaks of you in economic terms ("your deductions aren't high enough to justify an audit"), etc. etc. But the special role of the poet, in Wordsworth's view, is to speak not as, and not to, a specialist. He's a whole person speaking to a whole person.

This is actually a pretty common Romantic position, and it crops up in various permutations and combinations (Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man offer notes towards a program of cultivating the whole person, for example). But why, one wonders, would this emphasis on the whole person, on the man speaking to men, come about when and where it did?

It seems pretty clear that ideas like Wordsworth's came about as reactions to the move toward specialization in social roles (and therefore in communicative styles) in societies effected by the growth of capitalism. Specialization in economic function in England from the late eighteenth century on brought about enormous increases in productivity, but also brought about an anxiety about the effects of such specialization on individuals. Adam Smith, for example, worried about the effect of "a person's whole attention [being] bestowed on the 17th part of a pin, or the 80th part of a button."

The move to specialization was very real, and very rapid, and people (especially men) felt a real pressure to redefine themselves in terms of economic specialty. Here, for example, is what historians Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have to say about it in Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850:

Moves towards masculine identification with occupation... can be discerned in official documents such as trade directories, where gentry status continued to be designated by 'gentleman' and 'lady'.... By mid [19th] century, middle-class men were beginning to be marked out by an occupational title which grew more precise and sophisticated. The evolution of the census follows a similar pattern. The early census, from 1801 to 1821, roughly categorized families as agricultural or in 'trade manufacture.' By 1831, families were abandoned and adult males were divided into nine major occupational groups.

Things of a kind that have become so established as to feel natural to us now (filling out a section of a form titled 'occupation,' for example, or asking, over little glasses of bad wine at some dire gallery opening, "so, what do you do?") were new, then, and on the rise. Wordsworth was looking, with whatever degree of success or failure, to define some discursive space against the rising tide of specialization.

It's a pretty radical vision that Wordsworth presents, in that it is very much against the socio-economic currents of his time. It's also a vision shared by Karl Marx, who foresaw, in the imagined post-revolutionary end of alienated labor, an end to the artistic specialist. In the world he dreamed of, Marx said, there "won't be any painters, but at the most men who, among other things, also paint" (I don't have this with me in English, but you can get the German original in Michael Lifschitz's edition of Marx's essays on aesthetics and letters, Über Kunst und Literatur).

So in the combination of voice and subject, there's a sense — a sense deeper than simple affiliation with Beatniks and hippies — that Sanders is a counter-cultural figure. His writing is, in its very warp and woof, set against the communicative norms of its time.

Then there are the norms of poetry — looser, more rapidly changing set of norms than those of the professional historian or biographer. Sanders work sets itself against the dominant conventions of this little demimonde no less certainly than it sets itself against the norms of the historian.

We live, after all, at a historical moment when the poet is very much a kind of specialist (I've written about this before). While Wordsworth resisted the incipient logic of specialization, a great many poets now, especially in the U.S. are creatures of that logic. They're specialists — often academic specialists, with an official job title indicating that they are poets, with professional publication expectations in the specialized field of poetry. I don't mean to say this is good, bad, or indifferent — I just want to note the fact. As Ron Silliman once put it:

The primary institution of American poetry is the university. In addition to its own practices, it provides important mediation and legitimation functions for virtually every other social apparatus that relates to the poem....Regardless of what we may think of the situation, the university is the 500 pound gorilla at the party.

Every period has some kind of role for the poet, and inevitably that role conditions style. Think of how Tennyson's late work was shaped by the simple fact that poetry, for his generation, functioned as a market commodity (this led him to narrative, and to High Sentiment, be it nationalistic, moralistic, or what have you). Or think of how the end of poetry as a viable market commodity led poets to a very different place (aestheticism, and later modernism).

I don't think it's a coincidence that, since the movement of poets into the academy, there's been an increasing emphasis on drawing attention to language and form. When the first wave of poets hit the beaches of academe under the banner of the New Criticism, they were much concerned with the poem as a matter of language and style, as opposed to, say, its content, or ability to lift the spirits and instill morality or whatever. One could supply a million quotes here, but let's settle for a short one, from W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley who wrote, in “The Intentional Fallacy,” that “poetry is a feat of style." This is how the poet (and critic of poetry) could be a specialist: he wasn't just someone who put ideas that more properly belonged in the philosophy or sociology or history department into verse (or who talked about such ideas when they showed up in verse) — he was a bona fide specialist in his own right, because he had something (style in language) he could claim as belonging to his particular expertise.

I know there are people out there who think that contemporary poetic practice is somehow the opposite of what the New Critics believed in, and I'm prepared for them to throw a dented can of old Spaghetti-Os or two at my head — indeed, I'm armed against it! But more recent waves of poets entering the academy have also shown an emphasis on poetry as a special kind of language, distinct from prose. (This wasn't always the case — as Roland Barthes argues in Writing Degree Zero, there are long periods in history when the continuity of prosaic and poetic language is seen as much greater than any differences). I'm sure the rapid and enthusiastic uptake of Language Poetry into academe had a great deal to do with the emphasis in such poetry on language that breaks the norms of communicative prose. This was a language special to poetry, and therefore something with an affinity to institutions based on specialization. And elliptical poetry, certainly the dominant form of our time and place, is to a great extent characterized by its insistence on not following the syntactic rules of prose. This is not to say that poets sit down and say "well, we live in a time of the poet-as-specialist, so I'd better write something that draws attention to the way it is different from prose, thus proving I'm a specialist." I'd say the process is subtler, and that shifts in how one writes based on the institutional and cultural conditions of poetry come about much like the shifts in people's accents: there's a long, slow, generally unconscious change in response to prevailing conditions, and suddenly one finds one has lost one's Canadian vowels — so richly redolent of the Scottish settlement of Canada — and replaced them with the band-saw nasal whine of the American midwest.

Sanders, of course, has little in his poetry that is different from good, clever, casual prose (though a lot that sets it apart from the prose of professional historians). Other than line breaks, there's little that signals affinities for the dominant modes of poetry in our time. So, in his prosiness, his syntactical ordinariness, he operates at a remove from the poetic culture of our moment and its main mode. He's counter-cultural in an age of specialization. I like that — it might even be better than cashews, Fat Tire, and Tremé.


  1. I so identified with this chewy post (it sent me flying to Wikipedia to bone up on the cashew and that alone was rewarding) & enjoyed your appreciation of Ed Sanders while the guy's still alive and kicking rhetorical ass! His prophetic cross-species fondness for ring-tailed fruit bats expressed in 1968 (at the 38 second mark) and borne out by this 2009 scientific study
    should ensure him an enduring slot in the poetry pantheon, if there's any justice (long live The Fugs).

    Lately, I've been doin' the nasty with David's sunflower seeds. I don't spit the shells on the ground or anything and I do restrict myself to the smallest possible bag. I tell myself that portion control is all and that the effort in cracking them offsets some of the caloric damage, but it's just what I tell myself. I don't know if it's true, could be a false belief.

  2. As someone who is trying not to specialize, thanks! for this post.

  3. Thanks, Frances and Shelly!

    I had no idea about the ring-tailed fruit bats. No idea at all. Now I know!


  4. Poetry love, Bob--you know it don't come easy.