Thursday, May 19, 2011

Poetics of Displacement

"If poetics, the term in general, has any meaning, it's attempting to find a form that's adequate to its historical moment" — Joshua Clover

I realized, as I looked at the scuffed-up paint on the walls of my dining room, that I'd been living in my current house longer than I've ever lived anywhere: about nine years.  In my generation, that's still a pretty short version of long-term residency: many of us grew up in the same house our parents lived in when we were born, and didn't leave until education or a job took us away.  Now, though, people seem to have become more peripatetic, at least in the United States: the rule of thumb among realtors is that people who own the places in which they live move every six or seven years, while renters do the same every four years or so.

This dislocated way of living — I'm sure a more sociological thinker than I could link it to the state of capital/labor relations in the globalized economy in a couple of bar-graph laden Powerpoint slides — can't help but have an effect on poetry.  In fact, a quick look at a couple of poems by two people whose work I admire, Calvin Forbes and John Matthias, combined with a glance at one of my own efforts, shows that all three of us have reacted to the same great whirlwind of displacement, but done it differently, adapting the poetic resources at hand to the problem of home-yearning in a world that constantly uproots us.

Calvin Forbes' poem "Homing," from his 2001 collection The Shine Poems, begins with a desire to get back home, a desire tied to that most visceral, Proustian of senses, taste:

The water's wonderful there
And the women aren't bad
Neither when you look at them
Twice, but the blame

Lies in that glass from the tap
For making me want to go back.

It sounds like we're in for a poem about the unshakable, rootedness of our experiences in our original homes: there's a particular sweet water taste the speaker remembers in his bones, a taste that calls him back.  But in the middle of the second quatrain things shift, and we start to encounter impediments to our return to a yearned-for home.  I think it's significant, too, that the speaker turns out to be in motion, on a highway: the highway a sign of our mobile, displaced condition, and pretty iconically American:

I went looking for where they get
It from but I got a ticket

For speeding; and when I said
I'm Mister Shine, a black ghost,
Cop said that's too bad.
Glow I was lost.

"Mister Shine" is a character from African-American folklore, a figure who appears in various songs, toasts, and stories.  Some say he's based on an actual historical figure, others say he's a kind of African-American Everyman, with his last name being a reference to the old racist use of the word "shine" to refer to black people (it occurs in this sense in a Louis Armstrong song).  Here, and throughout the last section of The Shine Poems he's a kind of ghost, as he sometimes is in the oral tradition.  Forbes has elaborated on the folkloric figure, giving him a girlfriend named "Glow" and a son named "Shade."  Some of this will be important later in the poem, but at this point Forbes chooses to treat the mention of the speaker's identity as a digression, and gets back to the topic of water:

But my sermon is about the water,
How it's precious like family
When you wanting something familiar.
It made me happy —

It taste like baby's breath,
Like dew.  I never knew sweeter water.

Family, simple happiness, the mention of babies and religion: we're in some pretty primal home-territory here, redolent of childhood and stability, all evoked by the taste of the water of a specific locality.  Surely we're on our way back to the source, the first home, the roots.  Or maybe not.  The poem continues with another sudden turn:

But I'm a spook's spook; I stole
This story from a dead man's mouth.

"A spook's spook" can mean a couple of different things: it could mean "an African-American's ghost," or it could mean something like what "a poet's poet" means: here, an African-American's African-American.  In the first case, it's a kind of a statement of essence — the speaker is literally the spirit of a black man.  In the second case, it's a statement of cultural authenticity.  So whatever comes next will be, as far as the poem is concerned, a statement coming close to the core of African-American experience.  And the thing that comes next is a statement of displacement: of saying that one's story — here, a story about one's deepest longings for home — is "stole[n]," is somehow an adaptation.  What does this mean?  Well, the poems next, and final, stanza elaborates on just that, by telling us about the man whose story about sweet water and home Mister Shine has stolen:

He was a preacher from Virginia
Who before he expired said:
Somewhere there's a well of sweet water.
Somewhere in Ohio or maybe Carolina.

The story Mister Shine tells is a about home represents a displacement of sorts, coming as it does from another man.  And when we look at that other man's story, we find it, too, contains a kind of displacement: the sweet water of home for which he yearns comes from a place he can't even name with any certainty: "Ohio, or maybe Carolina."  This is powerful stuff, because it opens up a kind of long-term, maybe infinite, deferral of home or origins.  The mobile, displaced Mister Shine yearns for home and has to steal another man's story about it.  And the preacher from whom he stole the story was, himself, telling a story about a place he doesn't really remember, and may never have known.  The prospect of an infinite, unending yearning for home opens out to us.  In the yearning for sweet water we can taste a bit of that African-American yearning for lost origins, for the unknowable Africa from which their ancestors were stolen, and to which there is no real returning.  An African-American colleague of mine once pointed out something that should have been obvious to me, but wasn't: I can trace at least some of my ancestry back to specific villages in France's Dordogne and even, thanks to DNA testing, back to certain regions in prehistoric times — but odds are she'll never know where her people came from, except at the vague level of the continent of Africa.  The way she said it showed me that it hurt to be in that condition.  Forbes' poem takes up the idea of displacement and the yearning for home, and, by filtering through the folkloric poetics of Mister Shine, ties it to an enormous historic experience of racial displacement.  The poem can't take him home to the place of sweet water, but it can tie him to the collective experience of an entire people (if my imagined sociologist were to continue his Powerpoint demonstration of the effects of globalized capital on people's sense of home, I'd hope he'd have a slide dealing with the slave trade, cotton plantations, and the textile industry as the one of the first great displacements of labor in the name of capital).

So that's Calvin Forbes' "Homing." Back in the early 1970s another American poet, John Matthias, wrote a piece with a remarkably similar title, "Homing Poem," which first appeared in the collection Turns.  This poem, too, comes out of feelings of displacement and homelessness, but the treatment of the theme is different.  Instead of a folkloric poetics, we get a kind of Poundian modernism.  Matthias, who had been involved in the radical politics of the time, and who'd had a rather traumatizing experience of the police riot at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968, was relocating to England, hoping for a peace of mind that had evaded him in the American upheaval of the 60s and early 70s (our sociologist wants us to look at some Powerpoint slides having to do with Vietnam, neo-colonialist capitalism and civil unrest, but he seems to be having trouble with his laptop).  The poem — slighter than most of Matthias' work, but exactly right for our purposes — begins like this:

An acre, a rod,
and eleven
perches of land

The stone walls
The thirteen towers

And all tithes
& corn & hemp & flax

Unornamented, free of adjectives, all concretion unmixed with abstraction, devoid of the narrative or essayistic: these trim little lines are clearly the product of a poet who has put himself to school at Pound's Ezuversity (distance education branch).  But the Poundianism isn't just a matter of form: there's a kind of ethos at work here that Pound would recognize, a kind of deeply American yearning for Europe as a rooted place, a place where every inch of soil felt as a link to the past.  God knows most Europeans get through the day without feeling the Medieval ruins beneath their feet, or thinking about the continuity of culture from Socrates to Sarkozy.  But the Pound/Eliot wing of American expat modernism is all about experiencing Europe as the living past, or at least as a society with roots and a steadying historical ballast.  And the imagery in these lines, along with their language — with the archaic means of measurement like rods and perches and old-school terms for financial arrangements like tithes — indicates that the landscape the speaker contemplates is deeply redolent of the past.  It's a rooted place this self-exiled American has come to, or so he believes.  But is it — can it be — his place?  The next three stanzas gives us a clue:

An acre, a rod,
and eleven
perches of land

The stone walls
The thirteen towers

And all tithes
& corn & hemp & flax

Inept though I may be with computers, that is not a cut & paste error: the final three stanzas of Matthias' "Homing Poem" are an exact repetition of the first three.  But why?  I mean, it's not like he's getting paid by the word.  The answer, I think, is this: the repetition indicates a kind of willfulness, an insistence that this place that the speaker surveys (and it does read like a survey, with all those rods and perches and crop listings) is somehow his place.  This insistence, of course, indicates that the place is only imperfectly his.  Someone who really belongs somewhere doesn't have to insistently will a sense of belonging or ownership.  The privilege of belonging somewhere is that you don't have to think about that belonging, you just embody it unselfconsciously.  Here we see someone not at home, but 'homing' — seeking to attach himself to a place.  We don't know if he'll ever achieve the sense of belonging and being-at-home that he wants: we just catch him in the act of trying to incant that sense of belonging into existence.

"Home and Variations" — the title poem of a book I wrote that (ahem) makes a fine gift for all occasions and can be ordered from the Salt Publishing web site — takes up the same kind of theme we've seen in Forbes and Matthias.  I'm not quite sure how to explain the poetics of the piece, except perhaps to begin by noting that much of it was a deliberate attempt to cut myself off from the Poundian modernism — imagist strictures, history — that had been so important to me as an undergraduate, and later, in graduate school, when I was Matthias' student.  So I wanted to be as abstract as possible, and to find a kind of music in the sound of abstraction as it repeated.  I think, somewhere in the back of my mind, was the sound I'd heard once, as I sat studying late at night in a library.  Nearby, a guy who clearly thought he was alone, was studying for what must have been a text on analytic philosophy, and he kept repeating to himself little bits of propositional language that I now recognize as coming from Wittgenstein.  Anyway, the poem begins like this:

Some stay in one place.
Others move. Still others move
from place to place, staying
for a while. But some
stay in one. And if they think of this,
they call it “home.” Stop.

I also liked the idea of "stop" as a kind of telegram-sounding out of punctuation.  And I wanted the rhythm of a thinking, obsessing mind to have some sort of break to it.  (Now that I look back, I realize that I took a whole lot of cues from the poetry of Randolph Healy, especially the wonderful "Colonies of Belief").  But maybe that's all neither here nor there.  Maybe we should get back to the poem, which eventually arrives at a statement of displacement:

And if those who stay in one place
and know it are at home, others, moving, or
moving place to place to stay
and move, are not.
And if they know it, know
they’re not at home. Stop.
And if they stayed in one place and moved on
and if they know it, then they know that
when they hadn’t moved, they were at home.
Whether they knew it. Whether they not.
And if they left and know they left
they feel a lack.

So there it is, the sense of lack you feel if you've moved.  But even if you don't move, you're likely to feel this kind of lack: it's a Heraclitan universe out there, and all things flow.  Even if you stay in the old neighborhood, the old neighborhood won't stay as it was just for you:

And others stay in one place. And if
they stay and the place won’t stay as
the place they knew was the place that’s “home” they feel
a lack. Stop. And this tells.

What to do, then, in this world that changes even when we stay put? (One may imagine our sociologist's Powerpoint demonstration continuing with a few maps indicating gentrification, urban decay, white flight, the growth of the interstate highway system, and perhaps a few charts about capital flows and the movement of jobs out of the urban core).

And some who feel a lack will fill
the lack they feel. Stop. And my father
played the phonograph. Played sea chanteys,
played Hank Snow. Played them till my mother,
or went and played them till they stopped. Stop.

All that's true, by the way.  I can still, when plied with enough gin, give a fair rendition of a lot of old chanteys, most of which seem to include the refrain "around that cape we all must go!"  But what do these songs have to do with displacement and the yearning for home?

Played at being with the sailors, played at being
with Hank Snow. Played at doing what
they did, which wasn’t play. Stop. If work
was what men did with hands and tools
on farm and sea and if my father’s father worked
with hands and tools but didn’t sing. Would the
singing of the sailors would the singing of Hank Snow
be singing so my father he could play at
being home. Stop.

The songs, I suppose, were a way of invoking my expatriate American father's lost, working class home in Ohio, a world of glass blowers and bricklayers and shop stewards that he left behind at sixteen, for the Marines, then for beatnik ramblings, then for art school and academe.  It was a path of personal fulfillment, but also of cutting himself off from his roots, by upward mobility, by education, and by many hundreds of miles of geography.  If you're not too bored to look at another Powerpoint slide, you could glance over at the one showing now, which is all about gemeinschaft and gesselschaft, and includes some kind of statement about how, in the era of capitalism, all that seemed solid about social relationships melts into air.  Maybe the idea to write in a kind of bloodless, disorientingly abstract language, with just a trace of specific personal detail was a way of trying to convey, at the level of form, something about this modern, abstract, rootless way of life — I mean, most of us are more familiar with tax forms than folk tales, nowadays.  But speaking of personal detail: the poem ends with the presence of the poet, me, impersonally, in the third person:

                                    And if his son who moved, and
moved from place to place. Whether he wanted.
Whether he not. If he thought of father thinking father
thinking work and farm and home would
the thinking take him farther would the thinking take him home.

Here we're sort of back in the place we were in at the ending of Forbes' poem: looking to someone else's yearning for home, and yearning through it for an ever-more-distant version of lost belonging.  I'm not sure why I didn't want to end with a question mark: perhaps it was a desire to keep the poem kind of flat and declarative.  If Forbes invokes a whole collective experience of displacement, I wanted to invoke something much less community-oriented.  I suppose I wanted to give a sense of the soulless, modern, bureaucratic world, the Weberian "iron cage" of modernity.  And to give a sense of the yearning, within that cultural condition, for an older, more rooted way of being.  It's all very young suburban white boy angsty, really.

Anyway: one widely felt element of the moment we live in — let's call it "late capitalism," and let's date it from, say, 1945 — is surely a sense of displacement.  But (to echo Joshua Clover) what are the poetics adequate for this moment?  I suppose my answer would be that they are plural: folkloric in Forbes' case, Poundian for Matthias, and, in my own case, whatever kind of odd mash-up of impulses we find behind "Home and Variations."  While Kenneth Goldsmith recently claimed that the kind of poetry he cares about is "the most contemporary" kind of poetry, I just can't buy it.  We're all contemporary, and face a shared historical condition — but we find our own ways of doing it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Where Are All the Afro-Caribbean Surrealist Women Poets When You Need Them?

You're probably wondering where all the Afro-Caribbean francophone surrealist women poets of the mid-twentieth century are when you need them.  Well, at least one of them, Lucie Thésée, appears in the pages of the June issue of Poetry, in my translation.  She's a bit of an enigma, but what we do know about her is fascinating, and the poems are very strong in the original French.  I only hope I've done justice to her.

Here's part of a brief note I wrote about her, which is included along with the poems:

In 1941, his writings banned by the Vichy government and looking for any safe harbor, André Breton found himself in Martinique.  Fine weather notwithstanding, he might almost have been at home in Paris: the place was buzzing with Surrealist activity. Aimé Césaire and his circle were just launching Tropiques, a literary review dedicated to Surrealism, Négritude, and anti-colonialism.  Martiniquean Surrealism was primarily a game for men, despite Suzanne Césaire's theoretical contributions to the journal. But the poetry of an almost completely unknown schoolteacher, Lucie Thésée, appeared in many issues of Tropiques, and eventually made its way into the larger Francophone world.

Despite the anthologizing of her work in various collections devoted to writing from the French colonies, and praise from the critic Léon Damas, we still know surprisingly little about Thésée. Certainly this has nothing to do with any shrinking-violet quality on her part: Thésée was a courageous woman, even to the point of recklessness. With Martinique under Vichy rule, Tropiques was singled out for persecution. The military government accused the journal of being "racial and sectarian," a vehicle of hatred and division. A letter was sent back to the military officials, saying:

"Racists," "sectarians," "revolutionaries," "ingrates and traitors to the country," "poisoners of souls," none of these epithets really repulses us. "Poisoners of Souls," like Racine…"Ingrates and traitors to our good Country," like Zola... "Revolutionaries," like the Hugo of "Chatiments." "Sectarians," passionately, like Rimbaud and Lautreamont. Racists, yes. Of the racism of Toussaint Louverture, of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes against that of Drumont and Hitler. As to the rest of it, don't expect for us to plead our case, nor make recriminations, nor hold discussion. We do not speak the same language.

Lucie Thésée's name appears beneath these courageous phrases, near Aimé Césaire's.


In other news, there's a new review of The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing (a book I co-edited with Steve Tomasula and Davis Schneiderman) in the American Book Review.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Laureates, Poetry Aversion Therapy, and a Note on Progress vs. Pluralism

A couple of evenings ago I found myself hanging around the big modernist caverns of the Arts Club of Chicago, munching on scallops wrapped in bacon, eyeballing the Kandinskys and Motherwells, and jawing with some of the local literati — Calvin Forbes, Simone Muench, Mike Puican, Chicu Reddy, Suzanne Buffam, Fred Sasaki, and others, including my colleague Josh Corey.  We’d been summoned down to see Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Awards, a ceremonial giving-out of glory and cash in the form of the Children’s Poet Laureateship and the Ruth Lilly Award.  For me, the big attraction was getting to hear David Ferry (the Ruth Lilly winner) read.  Well, that and the hors d’oeuvres: the Arts Club food is always credible. 

Having inflicted a book called Laureates and Heretics on the world, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about the meaning of laureateships than anybody should, and I certainly have my share of preconceptions about what such laurels mean.  The roots of laureateships lie in societies quite different from our own, and the idea of such an award certainly sits more easily in times and places that are more formally hierarchical and less culturally diverse than the United States in the early 21st century.  In England, the poet laureate used to have to swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch, since his words were in some sense the official verse of the nation — John Dryden, the only English laureate ever to be kicked out of office, was so booted because of his refusal to take an oath to the protestant William of Orange (Dryden had converted to Catholicism some years earlier).  But the notion of the laureate as the official literary spokesman of the realm was already wobbling in the Romantic era, when the winds of democratic reform and social leveling were blowing across the Channel from France: Byron was clearly joking when he wrote that the laureate Robert Southey was “representative of all the race.”  In our own time, the laureateship of the U.K. has seen a reduction in status, with the former life appointment done away with in favor of ten-year terms.  Britain may still knight people for life, but the laureateship now rotates, albeit slowly, so as to accommodate a greater variety of aesthetic and social constituencies: a typically British moderate adaptation of old institutions to newer, more diverse and democratic times.

But what about the laureateship in the United States?  It's sort of like a Palladian villa in the hills above Los Angeles: it pretends to be older than it is, and fools nobody.  That is, we’ve only really had American poets laureate for 25 years, after Ronald Reagan signed off on a law changing the older position of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, which has been around since the 1930s, into a laureateship.  Some poets bemoaned the development (the poet Michael Anania told me his first thought was “well, now no one interesting will ever get the job").  Others gnashed their teeth at the idea of hierarchy and official culture.  Many more began polishing their resumes, hoping for a shot at the illusory immortality one gains from being enshrined in a footnote to literary history. 

Right from the start the position was a sort of weird mish-mash of various American impulses.  There was, of course, a dash of England-envy, a desire for the sexy otherness of titles, pomp, and an archaic past.  It was, after all, the 80s, and all the wannabe princesses of America still turned their yearning eyes to Charles and Diana.  But that was really just a veneer behind which lay both a populism — at odds with the yearning for titles and pomp — and a strong dose of Rotarian style boosterism, or even hucksterism.  When the American laureateship came into being, the Brits were still appointing laureates for life.  But in the U.S., the job was conceived of as a one-year gig, so that it would rotate among representatives of different social and aesthetic groups, a principle observed more in the breach than in actual practice.  Additionally, the laureate was given a charge to promote poetry — a kind of glorified sales job, really.  Some poets ignored that part of the role, or went at it impractically: Joseph Brodsky, for example, would issue demands that anthologies of poetry be placed in all hotel rooms, like Gideon Bibles, but do so without any follow-up in terms of fund-raising, editing, or schmoozing with hotel tycoons.  Others took to the role as if they’d been born for it.  Robert Pinsky spent three terms barnstorming the country, delivering speeches and readings and launching the “favorite poem” project, which sought to promote the poetry that non-poets knew and loved.

You’d think the biggest problem with an American laureateship would be the inherent contradiction between an office with a title that links it to hierarchy and official culture, on the one hand, and a non-hierarchical country without a unified cultural tradition, on the other (of course we have all kinds of hierarchies in America, but officially we don’t — and when you leave the world of the super-rich, who know where they stand in relation to the populace, and the world of the righteously irate intellectual, where you and I live, damn near everyone insists that they are middle class).  But the complaints I hear about the institution tend to echo that of Anania: that the poets selected for the job aren’t aesthetically interesting or challenging.  Maybe that speaks about the crowd with whom I hang.  I think, though, that it says something about the way the populist demands of the position — that it be given to someone willing to promote poetry to a large public — are at odds with the socio-cultural position of most American poets.  Most poets, now, produce for other producers: they live in a world of academic specialization, and write for other specialists.  I don’t think of this as a good or a bad thing: it’s simply something that has come to pass, for reasons larger than the whims of any poet, critic, or any single cultural institution (my short version of how and why this came about is in an essay called “The Discursive Situation of Poetry” in Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher’s book The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics; I’m still working on the long version, a book called Power and Poetics).  Anyway: it’s hardly surprising that an office that comes with a populist mandate would end up disappointing a group of people whose tastes are formed by non-populist principles.

My own sense of laureateships, for what it’s worth, has been not to take them particularly seriously, except as cultural phenomenon that can reveal a bit about the social position of poetry, in all its contradictions and complexities.  At a gut level, I’ve generally been kind of against the things, in part because of my general Jacobinism: I don’t like titles or hierarchies of any kind.  I even wince when my colleagues call themselves “doctor” or put bumper stickers indicating attendance at prestige universities on their cars.  I mean, it’s just a short step from that to wearing little lapel ribbons indicating membership in the legion d’honneur.  And I’ve also thought that laureateships encourage poets in the direction of the wrong kind of ambition: the desire for prominence and recognition.  Isn’t that kind of ego-gluttony exactly the sort of thing that the best parts of every religious tradition from Catholicism to Buddhism, and every philosophy from Stoicism to (pre-Nietzschean) German Idealism tells us will make us into unhappy, envious wretches? 

So those were my preconceptions when I walked into the Arts Club.  But a funny thing happened midway through the speech by J. Patrick Lewis, the newly-anointed Children’s Laureate.  Lewis, who seemed a very sincere man, and was quite clearly a guy who would appeal to children, talked about how much he enjoyed the many visits he’d made to schools to read from his books and talk about poetry.  “Children,” he said, “approach poetry as they approach people: with no preconceptions whatsoever.”  Fair enough, I thought, from my seat in the back row of the auditorium, where the local poets had clustered.  And it was a point to which I could relate, not only as the father of a two-year-old daughter, but as a person with no knowledge, let alone preconceptions, about children’s poetry.  I’ve got plenty of opinions about poetry for adults — sometimes those opinions are even strong enough and weird enough and wrong enough to get people angry with me.  But I couldn’t name a half dozen contemporary poets writing primarily for children.  And here’s where the value of an institution like a laureateship — even a foundation-sponsored, non-federal laureateship like the one bestowed upon Lewis — dawned on me.  I mean, think of it: it won’t be long before I’ll want to get some children’s poetry into my daughter’s hands, and I really don’t know where to begin at all.  Now, at least, I know a name: J. Patrick Lewis.  I may not know his work, I may not know exactly how strong or interesting it is in comparison to the work of his peers, but I do know that some people who care about children’s poetry thought he was worthwhile.  It’s not exactly a divine guarantee of absolute and timeless awesomeness, but it’s not nothing either.  It’s sort of like the kind of movie criticism Siskel and Ebert used to do back in the 80s, when they’d get together and give thumbs-up or thumbs-down to movies: it’s hardly the be all and end all of film criticism, but for an otherwise uninformed audience, it’s something, a place to start.  In a sense, the official United States laureateship has a similar value: not for poetry professionals, but for people in the wider world.  For all of my general griping about laureateships, I can recognize that.


Several of Chris Wiman’s remarks, as he introduced David Ferry, touched on the condition of the poetry professional.  Chris mentioned that he and Don Share have been editing an anthology of poems drawn from the last century of Poetry magazine, which meant he’d recently read some 300,000 poems, a task, he told us, that might just make him start banging his head against his podium like a woodpecker at any moment.  I sympathize: if Chris and Don split that number of poems up, each taking on half of the reading, and spent, say, five minutes with each poem, that would still mean more than 200 hours each of reading: five solid work weeks each, nine to five, assuming they kept the pace up all day and skipped lunch — all this on top of regular jobs consisting, in large measure, of… reading large numbers of poems.  This, I thought, would be a good way to learn to despise poetry, at least temporarily: the process resembles nothing so much as the kind of aversion therapy parents used to practice on children caught smoking, when they’d make the child smoke cigarette after cigarette until the poor kids turned green and couldn’t stand to anywhere near tobacco smoke anymore.  Chris seems, somehow, not to have succumbed to his particular round of poetry-aversion therapy, but his patience with the most common kind of poetry written by younger poets — which he described as “willed eccentricity, even willed grotesqueness” — seems to have become a bit strained, his attitude seeming to have become, at least for the moment, a version of “not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of thing, but…”


The evening closed with David Ferry reading from his works, including, much to my delight, his translations, which I’m not alone in seeing as his best work — though history may disagree with me: as Chris Wiman pointed out, “for many years Ezra Pound was best known as a translator.”  When it was over, Calvin Forbes and I agreed that, if either of us give a reading like Ferry’s when we’re pushing 90, we’ll be damned proud of ourselves.  We also both noted that everything, even the translations (which featured a fine version of the journey to the underworld in The Iliad), was about death.  “When I heard Archibald MacLeish read as an old man,” said Calvin, “it was all about looking at pretty girls.”  So often poetry at old age seems to get down to sex and death: Yeats’ “Politics” or his "Cuchulain Comforted.”  You know, the fundamentals.


In other Poetry-related news, Marjorie Perloff and I have been in touch regarding my review of her study Unoriginal Genius.  I stand by what I wrote — especially what I said about Perloff being the best and most prominent spokesperson for a whole range of poetries — but after we’d corresponded a little, I asked if I might reproduce this note, since it allows Perloff to clarify her sense of things:

Dear Robert:

I wanted to thank you for your long detailed review and say that I think you’re right that there’s no ‘progress’ in poetry; if I gave that impression, I’m surely wrong. The fact is, I don't believe in a progress model but that poetry, like furniture or clothing, cannot ignore its own time.  "A
mythology reflects its region."  Not that poetry gets better —far from it — it just gets different.  My own preference as you must sense is for the Moderns, no one can beat Yeats or Eliot or Pound in my lexicon!  And by the way, I start with Eliot and his citations so where did you get the idea that I ignore TSE and EP?

But I should have made my own view of literary history clearer and as a result of criticisms of Unoriginal Genius, I am doing that in various new things I¹ve been writing‹specifically a long essay ‘corrective’ on Duchamp that I hope you¹ll see some time.

You make many salient points and I hope we can discuss them some day before too long.  I'm a big admirer of your writing!

Thanks, Robert and all the very best,