Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Last night’s bout of tongue-biting insomnia sent me back to another FSG freebie I’d forgotten I had until it slipped off the shelf into my hand as a potentially ideal sleeplessness-cure: James Fenton’s An Introduction to English Poetry. Says Katherine A. Powers (of the Boston Sunday Globe) on the cover:
I have never come across a book quite like this one: so unfraught, so uncontentious, so lucid and gentlemanly. I cannot imagine that even the most wised-up spouter of poetry would not find it irresistible.
Hmm, and hmm again. Well, if one takes a few things in hand – Fenton is a dyed-in-the-wool old-style formalist (Rbt. Frost style, that is, free verse as tennis w/out the net etc.), he doesn’t have an ounce of sympathy with modernism, much less our own post/late-modernism, he thinks concrete poetry is generally for the birds (pigeons)) – one almost agrees. Reader, I thought I would hate this book, or that at the least it’d put me to sleep. But it’s actually alright. Few of the formal-explainers (Hollander, Fussell, Attridge) do as neat a job as Fenton does showing precisely how the classic meters work; he scans the opening of “Tithonus” in a way that ought to make most alt-poets (who don’t know an amphibrach from a hole in the ground) embarassed. And his take on the workshop-ethos is right on:
In the writing of poetry we never know anything for sure. We will never know if we have ‘trained’ or ‘practiced enough. We will never be able to say that we have reached Grade Eight, or that we have left the grades behind and are now embarked on advanced training. We cannot hoop on a train to Paris, or a flight to New York, and go and show our works to an acknowledged master, and ask to be taken on as a student.

There are courses in creative writing, and it may well suit some temperaments to sign on for the tuition. But to pretend that such teachers are the equivalent of, say, voice coaches would be foolish. It would be very surprising to find a serious opera singer who had not been coached. It would be very surprising to find a poet of whom one could say: she was coached by X, in the way that Callas was coached by Tullio Serafin.
Over unnumbered beers and half a botter of single malt the other night with a pair of colleagues more recently emerged from the MFA-mill than I, found myself marvelling at how things have changed in the X number of years since I was in those corridors: mostly a matter of professionalism, of professionalizing. Of following the prizes, the contests, the paper-chits of publishing here or publishing there. Or maybe I was just out of it, too busy reading Limited Inc. & Geography of the Imagination to subscribe to APR.
The not-always-dyspeptic John Latta has a dandy set of musings on the shift from eclecticism to doctrinarity in small press publishing, and remembers the salad days of Baxter Hathaway’s Ithaca House Press. When I was in Ithaca you could still find the little books almost paving the streets between the used bookstores, & together they formed about as eclectic a snapshot of late-70s early-80s American poetry as one could ask for. They spot my shelves – Ray DiPalma, Bob Perelman, David Melnick (Eclogs, still one of my fave books of all time), CS Giscome, JL himself, and the first effort by one Ronald Silliman (Crow, that is).

But isn’t eclecticism a function of eclectic editing? Where did I hear that Ithaca House’s alt-poetry bent was due largely to David MacAleavy, working then on an Oppen dissertation, later to be encountered in the halls of whatever skyscraper George Washington U’s English department was housed in? And where are the paeans to that wild man Jack Shoemaker (Sand Dollar, North Point, Counterpoint, etc.), publishing Ron Johnson, Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino, and – at the same damned time – Wendell Berry? As for Burning Deck and the ageless Waldrops, any press who’s doing Pam Rehm and Gale Nelson covers about as broad a chunk of contemporary “verse” as anyone alive.
Pippa (aet. 5) lost her first tooth today. And lost it, somewhere in the sands of the playground. Twinkle the Tooth Fairy (that’s Toothe Faerie to you goths) will have to settle for an apologetic note.


John said...


Absolutely right about David McAleavey, who return'd after a sojourn at Berkeley with Silliman (who likely had Melnick in tow). Perelman a little later, I think he even spent part of a summer in Ithaca working on printing Braille. I was nineteen and had a lot of other things to preoccupy me.

Shoemaker's a good case for eclecticism. And glad to know Burning Deck continues it. I get annoy'd by the narrative of the unbridgeable abyss, the two lineages incompatible. My metaphor-making buddies here are caught between a stirring call for "one sap and one root" and "commerce between us," and something about "the beast with two backs." Ouch.

I have to be dyspeptic. My middle name is "Eeyore."


Amy said...

Twinkle has the skills... she can find it. A hand-drawn map to the playground under the pillow, and her tooth-sense will pick it up from there.

MFAs may be more professional these days, but I think they can still do a better job - and I think it is from the other arts we can learn: drills, still lifes, scales all have analogs in writing...