Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Monastic Modernisms

Bob Archambeau fantasizes that my life in South Florida consists of long sessions of "jamming out like a crazed sasquatch on obscure stringed instruments " – would that it were so! – and reproduces a droll photo of me from of all places my wedding reception, when I sat in with the band ("The Big Shillelaghs") on Irish bouzouki for a couple of numbers.

It's nice to be able to look back on one's wedding with warm memories. It took place in a site down in North Miami called the Ancient Spanish Monastery, a set of actual 12th-century cloisters that William Randolph Hearst had imported from Spain to serve as a pool surround or some damn thing for San Simeon. The cloisters – disassembled into individual stones and bits of statuary & packed in crates with straw padding – got held up when they arrived in New York due to an outbreak of foot & mouth disease in Segovia (the customs people destroyed all the straw packing, & with it the assembly instructions!), Hearst fell into financial troubles and sold the lot, & the whole thing languished in a Brooklyn warehouse for a quarter-century until somebody bought it with the bright idea of putting it together as a tourist attraction in Miami.

Really quite a magical place, like The Cloisters in NYC transported into the midst of Mowgli's jungle (vines, creepers, big tropical trees), & a perfect place for a (rather heterodox) Jewish wedding. Serves the Inquistion right, if you ask me.
Turns out I misspelled Michael Horovitz's name (that's Horovitz with a "v," not Horowitz) when I cited his 1969 Penguin anthology Children of Albion. Tho I wasn't trying to be exhaustive, I ought to have mentioned Adrian Clarke & Robert Sheppard's excellent Floating Capital: New Poets from London (Potes & Poets, 1991), something of a "London" counterpoint to the "Cambridge" A Various Art. Helpful readers Alex Davis and Edmund Hardy point me to Nicholas Johnson's anthology Foil: Defining Poetry 1985-2000 (Etruscan, 2000) and, for those who want some pointers in contemporary Irish writing, Alex's article "The Irish Modernists and Their Legacy" in Matthew Campbell's Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry.

I can't help mulling over the differences between contemporary British/Irish & American alt-poetry, however much my mulling serves simply to expose my ignorance. One thing that strikes me is how often one finds contemporary British poets/anthologists/critics referring to such work as "modernist" – for example in the title of Rod Mengham & John Kinsella's anthology, Vanishing Points: New Modernist Poems (Salt, 2004), a collection that includes John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, Peter Gizzi, Susan Howe, Marjorie Welish, & a bunch of other people that most American critics would be labelling "post-" at the drop of a hat. (I'll confess that I haven't seen the anthology, either, so I don't know how much – if any – time Mengham & Kinsella spend justifying that adjective "modernist.") Or in Anthony Mellors's Late Modernist Poetics: From Pound to Prynne (Manchester UP, 2005), which treats not merely Prynne but Charles Olson himself, Mister Post-Modernism.

On the one hand, I suspect what's going on is a variation of the argument Marjorie Perloff makes in Twenty-First Century Modernisms, that there is a deep stylistic and conceptual continuity between early 20th-century modernisms & contemporary alt-poetry (an argument with which I have a great deal of sympathy – why not leave the "postmodernist" tag to the social theorists, the philosophers, & the popular pundits, since it's such a squishy signifier anyway?).

But on the other hand – and here I'm speculating – I wonder if there isn't a difference between the literary experiences of Britain/Ireland & of the US that leads poets of the former lands to put rather more stock in "modernist" as a term: That is, perhaps the suppression of modernism that took place over the 1940s & 50s – the Movement, the lemming-like following of the late, tame TS Eliot – was rather more successful either than similar tendencies in US poetry, leading innovative British/Irish poets of the 1970s on to spend rather more energy asserting their continuity with the ruptures of early 20th-c. modernism: As opposed to the successive waves of American experimentalists, from the "groups" in Donald Allen's New American Poetry to the Language Poets, each of which sought in various ways to distance themselves from aspects of a modernist heritage which, while it may have been in disrepute in New Yorker circles, still seemed very much alive and dangerously alluring to younger poets. Maybe. I really do have to read Robert Sheppard's The Poetry of Saying, and a buttload of new things coming out from Salt and Manchester. Too effing many books out there.

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