Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Grand Piano, Pt. 2

I've only in the last month or so gotten around to subscribing to the The Grand Piano project, & Mr or Ms USPS poked a big stack of the things – #2 thru #7 – into my mailbox Friday, just in time to derail me from any number of other things I should be reading. At least this way (belated as usual, that is), I won't have John Latta's close & compelling & sometimes snarky readings of the successive issues blurring my own responses.
The endnote to this second installment of the Language Poets' "experiment in collective autobiography" announces that the original plan of each writer's following whatever "prompt" the first-up batter of a given volume supplies has begun to fall by the wayside, as bits of the project are being written out of order. The 1st volume hewed pretty closely to Bob Perelman's keynote pages on "love," each writing taking some approach to that oldest of poetic topoi. In Part 2, Barrett Watten provides the keynote – "city," one might call it, or "San Francisco" as place, as site – and while most of the other 9 writers do indeed the address the city, there's also some discernable "drift."

What strikes me the most about this second volume of "collective" autobiography is how little sense of collectivity comes thru in this round of writing, despite Lyn Hejinian's rather impassioned insistence that the group was a polis. (How many uses of that word in alt-poetry can be traced to Olson's "polis is eyes"?) Figures cross paths, reappear from one poet's account to the next, couple & decouple, but this time around there's little sense of a shared aesthetic or political endeavour – only a shared milieu, a San Francisco that – unsurprisingly – looks radically different to different member of this gang of ten.

But The Grand Piano 2 contains some lovely writing – I think Kit Robinson's anaphoric "I remember" section takes the prize here – and some fascinating accounts of writers' formations: Bob Perelman's and Tom Mandel's are the standouts. What they amount to, however, is some dandily-written traditional autobiography (tho there's some interesting genre-jumping in Perelman's piece) of the individual sort. This polis is, after all, a bunch of I's. It'll take more than Watten's collectivist invocation to make this "collective" – at least so far. On to Part 3.
Y'know, these memoirs by writers between 15 & 20 years older than me, remembering the events of a historical moment when they were at least a decade younger than I am now, are (alas) an occasion for readerly melancholy, for my own sense (oh Jesus there he goes again) of impending age, of mortality, of missed opportunity.

The avant-garde – that is no country for old men.


kfd313 said...

what about "old women"? not to be snarky but right now i'm reading leonora carrington--The Hearing Trumpet--and so feeling sensitive about the age issue. she wrote what i think is her best work in her 60's and is still an active painter in her 90's (tho she might be dead now, i haven't checked the obits recently!)

age ain't nuthin' but a number.

Curtis Faville said...

There are at least two ways to process nostalgia that might make some sense:

1) You want to re-write your own history to fit your ambitious sense of who you'd like to have become, or you actively fantasize how it might have been if you had been as confident and prescient as you now have the luxury to be (in hindsight). A reflection.

2) You regret and disdain your own history, and wish to make amends, absolve and/or transcend your naivete, mistakes, false turns.

There's also truth-telling. Truth is hard enough; does comparing notes with three or more willing compatriots yield greater accuracy, or is it just a 30 year high school reunion?

Maybe I'm not taking it seriously enough. Did these folks sit down and consider this project before-hand, or did someone just posit the project in an e.mail or phone conversation one day? Now separated not just by years, but geographically, how does this "organize" itself? (I'm glad, Scrog, I'm not the only one to have noticed this.)

Imagine the Black Mountain crew doing something like this.

If that weren't strange enough, imagine the New York School--what comes through there, over and over, is an over-riding sense of mischief, leavened with ambition, jealousy, rancor, competitiveness, selfishness, and general hilarity and opportunism. Though the sources for that movement are haphazard, piecemeal and even deliberately irresponsible.

Maybe it doesn't want to be taken seriously. Does Grand Piano deserve to be regarded as high frolic, or just as casual rumination? It might be fun to see someone try a straight verse narrative, filled with name-dropping and fake-shock anecdotes.**

"Come on, be serious!"



**Over and over again, it's the truth we want. What DID happen, who WAS there, and what YOU thought it was about--if you can remember. Because the truth is worth more than reams of interpretation. It's what makes Pepys and Goncourt and Lees-Milne fascinating, and valuable. And worth a thousand thousand books of squandered time.