Thursday, October 20, 2005

Oh, That Again: Exogamous Reading

Jonathan Mayhew, a bit over a week ago, put up a handy-dandy quiz (in response to a perfectly reasonable request by Laurel Snyder) that, much like that quiz-thingies you can post to fill up dead space on your blog (“Which Medieval Saint Are YOU?”), can tell you instantly whether you’re School Of Quietude or Post-Avant. It’s pretty simple: Do you prefer
Norman Dubie, C.K. Williams, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Sandra Gilbert, James Dickey, Howard Moss, Robert Pinsky, Norman Finkelstein, Charles Wright, Charles Simic...


Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, Tony Towle, Bernadette Mayer, Ronald Johnson, Jess Mynes, Nada Gordon, Lisa Jarnot...

Would you rather inherit a complete set of Sulfur or Ploughshares ?

(My friend Norman Finkelstein, champion of the Olson-Duncan-Johnson line, would have a cow… or maybe Jonathan meant the other Norman F?) By this quiz, I guess I fall into the “post-avant” crowd; but I can see tweaking the first list ever so slightly (how about James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Harvey Shapiro, Allen Grossman, Jackie Kay, Amy Gerstler, etc.) so that I’d become a full-fledged “eclectic.”

Now, it’s easy enough to poke holes in Jonathan’s quiz – lots of his commentators did, & he himself seems to have had some 2nd thoughts. & I have a lot of sympathy with Kevin André Elliott’s sharp little comment in “Trying to Build a Poetics,” where he puts “The School of Quietude vs. the Avant-Garde (as well as all of the various permutations of this dichotomy--it's so tired)” numero uno among the things he’d like to see vanish from poetry and poetics discussions.

But the dichotomy keeps coming back in one form or another, and not just on Ron Silliman’s consistently anti-quietudinous blog. It’s the latest form of the hoary old “avant-garde / mainstream” distinction that kept Poe, Pound, Williams etc. fuelled with creative energy and self-righteousness. And of course its real genealogy goes all the way back to John Calvin (and Romans), with the whole notion of the “elect” and the “reprobate” who may be sitting together in the same kirk today, but whom the Lord will separate once and for all come the Day of Judgement.

For a moment, let’s set aside both literary politics, the whole business of prizes and publishing series and university appointments and so forth; and let’s also set aside the very real aesthetic differences among poets. I take it as axiomatic that Mina Loy ≠ Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louis Zukofsky ≠ Stanley Kunitz, Brad Leithauser ≠ Charles Bernstein, etc., and that those not-equal-signs are significant. But even if they weren’t, I suspect one factor working within the dichotomizing of the field within our reading is the sheer volume of poetry out there, even within a single aesthetic stance. Whether you say, “I’ll only read formally regular, readily comprehensible verse that appeals to a middle-class, fairly well educated but complacent sensibility” or “I’ll only read absolutely opaque work that mounts implicit critiques against late capitalism” or “I’ll only read poems that include images of water,” you still have more poems and collections of poems being published every year than can possibly be read (by one person, holding a job – much less with a family etc.). So divisions like SoQ/PA are enormously useful for the rather commonplace reason that they reduce the time one needs to spend shopping – er, reading – in order to “keep up.”

For my own part I try to read at least one, sometimes two or more, newish books of poetry every week, but in no way do I feel that I’m managing to keep my finger on the pulse of contemporary writing, especially given the pace at which new work emerges.* (I won’t dwell on the economics of this, save to say that given the absolute lack of decent library facilities down here, if I weren’t a really shameless consumer I wouldn’t be able to do nearly as much as I do – when’s that “gift economy” going to kick in?) And that’s only considering writing in modes that I find most immediately congenial. In a note Eliot Weinberger published in Sulfur back in 1981 (collected in a book which turns out to be, of course, inevitably, stacked under a dozen other books and about 40 CDs), he laments “the elimination of exogamous reading. It has become so hectic in one’s own longhouse that one rarely has the time or stamina for visits to the other clans.” Amen. I suspect most of my comrades in the alt-poetry world couldn’t tell James Wright from Franz Wright, Stanley Moss from Stanley Kunitz, Louise Glück from Louis Simpson.

But like Weinberger, I think it’s important that one devote some moiety of one’s reading time to poets one doesn’t find immediately congenial: not so much to “know the enemy” or to embody some kind of rare “eclecticism,” as to remain open to pleasures that one might not otherwise suspect. I know no-one writing in the various P-A modes today who can graph ethical and spiritual ambiguity as accurately as Geoffrey Hill, and however tiresome the heirs of Celan and Oppen might find her chattiness (I know I do very often), there’s occasionally something wonderfully bracing and refreshing about Jacqueline Osherow’s conjuncture of formal traditionalism and casual banter. Try them; maybe something will click with you as well.

*Some wonderful reflections on this by both Steve Evans and Nathaniel Tarn, recounted by Evans in The Poker 6, recently (gratefully) received.


Norman Finkelstein said...

Jesus H. Christ. I'm trying to stay cool calm and collected, but since when have I ever, I mean ever been associated with any of those poets!? Have a cow?! How about a fuckin' herd of 'em?!

But seriously, I've got to write to this guy. Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe I'm going to learn something new and revealing about myself and my long years of work in the trenches. Or maybe I should just swear off reading poetry blogs for a while and stick to my well-worn copy of The Figured Wheel. Be still, my heart. Everybody else, stay tuned.

E. M. Selinger said...

He likes Jackie Osherow? (*SIGH*) My work on this earthly plane would be done, methinks, if I didn't have more souls to save and readers to ruin. Or is it the other way around?

In any case, Norman--I don't know what you're doing among the reprobate, but then, I don't know what Ronald Johnson is doing in Clark Coolidge's elusive company, either. ARK ain't no Crystal Text, although it may well be party, disco, and foolin' around, to boot.

Pleased to be pret'rite,

Mark Scroggins said...

"Occasionally," Eric, only "occasionally." If'n you've got two wee gels, it's hard not to get a lump of sentimentality over "On My 3rd Daughter's 1st Night Home"; but then I wash that lump away with a stern dose of Bruce Andrews, and feel all good & pure again.

E. M. Selinger said...

I note that Norman's name has now been excised, and replaced by Irving Feldman in the Jewish slot.

"Goldberg, Iceberg--what's the difference," eh?

By the way, sir, I have you to thank for a silly little ditty that's been running through my mind for the last few days: (IN A NEIL YOUNG WHINE): "The King is gone, but he's not forgotten; / This is the story of Barrett Watten..."

Rusting away,