In the two-year span 1993-1994, no less than three major poetry anthologies appeared that featured the poetry of what has been called "the other tradition"--the tradition inaugurated thirty-five years ago by Donald M. Allen's New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (New York: Grove Press, 1960). These three anthologies are, in the order of publication, Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry since 1950: Innovators & Outsiders (New York: Marsilio, 1993), Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry (New York: Norton, 1994), and Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century. A New American Poetry 1960-1990 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1994). (1) In 1994, moreover, there were two other large anthologies of alternate poetries by "younger" poets, (2) these two in the tradition of Ron Silliman's In The American Tree: Language, Poetry, Realism (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986) and Douglas Messerli's earlier 'Language' Poetries: An Anthology (New York: New Directions, 1987). They are Peter Gizzi, Connell McGrath, and Juliana Spahr's two-volume anthology called Writing from the New Coast (Stockbridge, MA: Oblek editions, 1994), (3) and Dennis Barone and Peter Ganick's The Art of Practice. 45 Contemporary Poets (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1994).
Five volumes, then, of the "new" alternate poetries. And a sixth--this time a real blockbuster--is in progress from the University of California Press: Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's two-volume Poems for the Millenium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry, which differs from all of the above by covering poetry and poetics of the entire twentieth century and from around the world. The first volume of Poems for the Millenium, From Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude (1995), takes us from such "forerunners" of Modernism as Blake, Hölderlin, Dickinson and Rimbaud through the Futurisms, Dada, Surrealism, and Objectivism, along with complex "galleries" of individual poets, while the second--and sure to be more controversial-- volume (1997) brings us up to the global present.
A new avant-garde thus seems to be in the making--indeed, oxymoronic as it may sound, a new avant-garde consensus. Yet the counter-canonizing of the recent anthologies is not without its own aporias. What these are is my subject here.
The Modest Opposition
My starting point is that of the avant-garde anthologists themselves: Donald Allen's New American Poetry of 1960. From the vantage point of 1995, the most startling thing about the Allen anthology--still acknowledged by all later anthologists as the fountainhead of radical American poetics-- is its modesty. The New American Poetry runs to 454 pages, including Statements of Poetics, Biographical Notes, and a Short Bibliography; it contains forty-four poets, all of them having come to prominence in the period between 1945 (the end of World War II) and 1960 (the date of publication). The four-page preface opens as follows:
In the years since the war American poetry has entered upon a singularly rich period. It is a period that has seen published many of the finest achievements of the older generation: William Carlos Williams' Paterson, The Desert Music and Other Poems, and Journey to Love; Ezra Pound's The Pisan Cantos, Section: Rock-Drill, and Thrones; H.D.'s later work culminating in her long poem Helen in Egypt; and the recent verse of E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and the late Wallace Stevens. A wide variety of poets of the second generation, who emerged in the thirties and forties, have achieved their maturity in this period: Elizabeth Bishop, Edwin Denby, Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth, and Louis Zukofsky, to name only a few very diverse talents. And we can now see that a strong third generation, long awaited but only slowly recognized, has at last emerged. (p. xi).
Note that Allen introduces the "new" American poetry, not as an "alternative" to anything else but as the successor of two preceding generations. He does not quarrel about the Moderns: if Eliot isn't included in the above list, it is because he had stopped writing lyric poetry after Four Quartets and had turned to the theatre. The cited second generation, moreover, is more "diverse" (Allen's word) here than it will ever be again in the anthologies: Bishop and Denby, Lowell and Rexroth and Zukofsky. And the third generation, presumably following in the footsteps of the first and second, is now said to be emerging.
Here Allen indulges in a mild sleight-of-hand. Charles Olson, the chef d'école of The New American Poetry, was born in 1910, seven year before Robert Lowell. Other members of this generation included by Allen are Robert Duncan (b. 1919), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919), Barbara Guest (b. 1920), Jack Kerouac (b. 1922), and Denise Levertov (b. 1923). Allen is surely aware of these discrepancies but he evidently wants to present his "new poets" as successors rather than rivals so as to strengthen his hand. And there is another reason that "thirdness" is emphasized:
These new younger poets have written a large body of work, but most of what has been published so far has appeared only in a few little magazines, as broadsheets, pamphlets, and limited editions, or circulated in manuscript; a large amount of it has reached its growing audience through poetry readings. (DA xi)
Here is the raison d'être of Allen's anthology: he is introducing to the larger poetry public, which would notice Grove (Evergreen) Press Books in the bookshops, (4) a group of poets who have not yet been published, except in small-press editions, broadsides (then much less common than now), and the little magazines. Whereas Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle (1947) had been published by Harcourt, Brace and Life Studies (1959) by Farrar, Strauss, Olson's In Cold Hell in Thicket had been brought out by Cid Corman's esoteric little magazine, Origin (1953) and The Maximus Poems 1-10 by Jonathan Williams's equally esoteric Jargon Press in North Carolina (1953). The need to get the word out thus seemed urgent: "third generation," ostensibly a chronological term, meant something more like "third world"--the neglected Other.
Accordingly, Allen felt little compunction (or inclination) to theorize as to the nature of the New American Poetry. He tersely said:
. . . this poetry] has shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse. Following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, it has built on their achievements and gone on to evolve new conceptions of the poem. These poets have already created their own tradition, their own press, and their public. They are our avant-garde, the true continuers of the modern movement in American poetry. Through their work many are closely allied to modern jazz and abstract expressionist painting, today recognized throughout the world to be America's greatest achievements in contemporary culture. This anthology makes the same claim for the new American poetry. (DA xi-xii)
Note the paucity of explanation: the New American Poets "reject all those qualities typical of academic verse," and many are "closely allied" to jazz or abstract expressionist painting. Period. The reader can expect poems written in free verse and an "open" typography rather than in meter and stanza forms, and there may well be jazz rhythms (however those are transferred to poetry) and/or verbal equivalents to "abstract expressionist" painting.
Pound's "Make it New!" thus becomes Allen's "Keep it Brief!" Avoid theoretical and ideological battles because your reader is bound to find exceptions. And indeed Allen is guided by two simple principles of selection: non-publication in the major venues, and, as the editor now goes on to explain, group identity or what we might call community. There are five such groups in the anthology. The first comprises "poets identified with the two important magazines of the period, Origin and Black Mountain Review" : Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, Jonathan Williams, Paul Blackburn, Paul Carroll, Larry Eigner, and Denise Levertov. Note that of these ten, only one (Levertov) is a woman--a fact which will become important in alternate canon-making later. And note further that Olson, Duncan, and Creeley constitute a kind of triumvirate, the other male poets being somewhat secondary, even for Allen, as they will be for later anthologists. Indeed, one, Paul Carroll, has disappeared from just about everyone's list.
The second group is designated as the San Francisco Renaissance, Duncan emerging as the leading poet of this group even as he also belongs to Black Mountain. These poets, who largely became known through oral performance in the Bay Area, include the following thirteen: Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, Madeline Gleason, Helen Adam, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bruce Boyd, Kirby Doyle, Richard Duerden, Philip Lamantia, Ebbe Borregaard, and Lew Welch.
The San Francisco Renaissance is closely allied to the third group, "The Beat Generation," the main difference being that the latter was originally associated with New York. It includes Allen Ginsberg, his young friend Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso--only four poets, all of whom, incidentally, came into contact with the second group at readings in San Francisco.
The fourth group is that of the New York Poets: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O'Hara, who met at Harvard and migrated to Manhattan, where they in turn met Edward Field, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler. This is of course the group allied with Abstract Expressionism. And finally, Allen isolates a fifth group of somewhat younger poets that "has no geographical definition." Snyder and Whalen, allied to the Beats, are more properly placed here, as are Stuart Perkoff, Michael McClure, Ron Loewinsohn, Ray Bremser, David Meltzer, John Wieners, Edward Marshall, Gilbert Sorrentino, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Again, there are overlaps: Baraka was a close friend of O'Hara's in New York and edited Yugen; McClure was linked to the San Francisco Renaissance, and so on. As Allen says, his groups are "for the most part more historical than actual" and "can be justified finally only as a means to give the reader some sense of milieu" (xiii).
Why should the publication of this relatively small anthology, comprised of forty-four then largely unknown poets, located primarily in New York, San Francisco, or, so to speak, "On the Road," become such an historical event? First, because in the early sixties, there really was a dominant poetic discourse--a discourse, incidentally, that, from our vantage point in the nineties, was by no means that of the Modernism of the early century. In 1960, the Age Demanded that a poem be self-contained, coherent, and unified: that it present, indirectly to be sure, a paradox, oblique truth or special insight, utilizing the devices of irony, concrete imagery, symbolism, and structural economy. The paradigmatic poem was John Crowe Ransom's "The Equilibrists," or perhaps his "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter." The speaker was "dramatized"--a persona, whose relation to the poem's author was "hidden"; the norm was show not tell, as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren repeatedly pointed out in their Understanding Poetry.
In this context, it must have been wholly exhilerating to pick up The New America Poetry and read, in its opening pages, a poem by Charles Olson called "The Kingfishers" that began "What does not change / is the will to change," and then shifted to the narrative of "He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He / remembered only one thing, the birds. . . ," where the line break comes after "He." Again, it must have been exhilerating to read a poem called "Why I am not a Painter," that begins inconsequentially with the "stanza,"
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well. . . (DA 243)
And of course Allen included Parts I and II of "Howl," known in 1960 only to those who had heard Ginsberg's impassioned readings in San Francisco or New York and to those who got hold of the little City Lights book from Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
I shall not rehearse yet again this familiar material. I only want to remind you of how many now-classic poems first became known through Don Allen's anthology, as did such pivotal poetic statements as Olson's "Projective Verse" with its call for "COMPOSITION BY FIELD" and its definition of the poem as an "energy construct" or "energy discharge," a projectile, in which "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT" and "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION." Never mind, that most of these prescriptions had been formulated much earlier by Pound and Williams (whom Olson now dismissed as the "inferior predecessors" (5)); in 1960 they helped clear the air with the force of Olson's own "get on with it, keep moving. . . USE USE USE THE PROCESS AT ALL POINTS" (p. 388).
The New American Poetry Revised: Familiar Outsiders
So popular was The New American Poetry that by the late seventies, Don Allen was being urged on all sides to revise it and bring it up to date.
Many of his "New American Poets," after all, had not especially panned out: especially such San Francisco poet-friends of Allen's as Ebbe Borregaard, Bruce Boyd, Ray Bremser, and James Broughton, to take only four. Others like Jack Kerouac and Lew Welch had died prematurely. And there was, by this time, a demand for more women. The result was The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised (New York: Grove Press, 1982), edited by Allen with the help of the late Olson scholar, editor, and poet, George F. Butterick. As against the modest Preface of the earlier volume, The Postmoderns has a much more serious introduction (evidently written largely by Butterick (6)), and more comprehensive biographical and bibliographical materials. Of the forty-four original poets, fifteen were dropped, less on the grounds of absolute merit than because of their lack of ongoing production or, as in the case of Gilbert Sorrentino, a shift to writing fiction rather than lyric. (7) Nine poets were added: in alphabetical order, Diane di Prima, Anselm Hollo, Robert Kelly, James Koller, Joanne Kyger, Jackson Mac Low, Jerome Rothenberg, Ed Sanders, and Ann Waldman. And the geographical groupings were eliminated in favor of a chronological arrangement.
With all this tinkering, the punch of the original New American Poetry was largely lost. Here Butterick's new Preface is revealing. Opposition to "academic verse" and "formalism" is no longer enough: rather the new "experimental" poetry, so the editors claim, is squarely in "the mainstream of Emerson and Whitman, Pound and Williams" (GB 9). And we read:
For some, imagism has been a chief source of inspiration, for others-- notably O'Hara and Ashbery--the dissociations of post-symbolist French poetry. They respond to the limits of industrialism and high technology often by a marked spiritual advance or deference, an embracing of the primal energies of a tribal or communal spirit, side by side with the most stubborn sort of American individualism.. . . . There are revolutionaries among them, as well as quiet (but no less deliberate) practitioners. Their most common bond is a spontaneous utilization of subject and technique, a prevailing "instantism" that nevertheless does not preclude discursive ponderings and large-canvased reflections. . . . They are most of them forward-looking at a time when concepts such as entropy and global village have entered daily life. (GB 9)
The difficulty here, of course, is that each of the characteristics listed could apply equally well to an entirely different set of poets. Imagism as "inspiration": well, yes, that certainly covers the case of Mark Strand or Galway Kinnell, Louise Gluck and Charles Wright. The "dissociations of post-symbolist French poetry," otherwise known as Surrealism are notable in James Wright, Charles Simic, and Sylvia Plath. As for the "spiritual" response to the "limits of industrialism," think of Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich, Richard Hugo and William Stafford, "Tribal and communal energies" (Butterick is evidently referring to the ethnopoetics of Jerome Rothenberg) were turning up in the new black poetry--for example, Audre Lorde's and Michael Harper's, which is not included in The Postmoderns. As for the "prevailing 'instantism'," cited as the postmoderns' "most common bond," surely Robert Bly could lay claim to this trait as might W.S. Merwin.
"The passage of twenty years," claim the editors, "has brought confirmation of the achievements of the poets represented" (GB 11). So it had, but as they themselves recognize, "confirmation" goes hand in hand with mainstreaming. "There are countless articles and scholarly dissertations," we read, "devoted to [the poets'] work, translations of their writings into foreign languages, biographies, bibliographies (a recent comprehensive bibliography of Frank O'Hara's writings runs to well over three hundred pages), published interviews, editions of their correspondence and secondary writings" (GB 11). Indeed, by 1982, those unknown broadside and "little mag" poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, had become nothing if not "respectable." And although some of the "Postmoderns" (say, the difficult Jackson Mac Low and the challenging Jerome Rothenberg) continued to be excluded from the mainstream anthologies and the Norton Anthologies of Poetry, others, notably John Ashbery, were winning all the Establishment prizes.
Indeed, by 1982, there was no longer a clear line of demarcation between the raw and the cooked, the oppositional and the established, the "experimental" and the "safe." Metrics-as-such was no longer a differentium because everyone was writing free verse. Keep-It-Moving projectivism had lost some of its edge because poetasters all over the U.S. were "keeping it moving" in dozens of little magazines and American Poetry Review. Then, too, latter-day New York or San Francisco Renaissance poetry, as in the case of Ann Waldman, Ed Sanders, and Joanne Kyger, no longer seemed especially revolutionary. Language Poetry, after all, had already reared its head--the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E began to appear in 1978, and Ron Silliman reminds us in his Preface to In the American Tree that it was in the first issue of This (1971) that Robert Grenier, who co-founded the magazine with Barrett Watten, announced "I HATE SPEECH," a battle-cry that, however much we now take it with a grain of salt, "announced a breach--and a new moment in American writing." (8)
If the The Postmoderns thus has something of a retro air, the problem is that the "radical" tradition of "Projective Verse," which was its point of departure, and which was by this time some thirty years old, was accepted by its adherents as normative without the further debate which might have thickened the plot. Perhaps this happened because the Olsonites were still embattled, seeing that, in the larger world, "composition by field" had never quite caught on. The same belatedness, in any case, characterizes Weinberger's American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders.
Weinberger's prefatory note begins with the (by now) familiar division into "two camps." "On the one side is a ruling party that insists there is no ruling party . . . yet it is a party that clearly exists in the minds of those outside it, who have derided it with adjectives like conventional, establishment, official, academic, and have pitched their own poetics as alternatives to the prevailing humdrum. On the other side is an opposition still intensely aware of its outsider status, yet now increasingly dissatisfied with the banners under which it once rallied: avant-garde, experimental, non-academic, radical" (EW xi). Yet, even if these "banners" no longer work, even if "the distinction between the two parties has always been blurred," Weinberger is nevertheless convinced that "inequities . . . have indeed existed. Today, in the current population explosion of poets, they are greater than ever" (EW xi).
But Weinberger's thirty-five chosen "innovators and outsiders," all of them from the U.S. (as in the two Allen anthologies, no poets from other English-speaking countries are included) are an odd lot. His two principles of inclusion are (1) only poems first published in book form since 1950 and (2) no poets born after World War II. The resulting chronological list is as follows: William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D., Charles Reznikoff, Langston Hughes, Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, George Oppen, Charles Olson, William Everson, John Cage, Muriel Rukeyser, William Bronk, Robert Duncan, Jackson Mac Low, Denise Levertov, Jack Spicer, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Nathaniel Tarn, Gary Snyder, Jerome Rothenberg, David Antin, Amiri Baraka, Clayton Eshleman, Ronald Johnson, Robert Kelly, Gustaf Sobin, Susan Howe, Clark Coolidge, and Michael Palmer.
In a now notorious essay for American Poetry Review (9) (23, no. 2 [March / April 1994]), John Yau argues that Weinberger has too readily taken over the aesthetic of Ezra Pound, an aesthetic, in Yau's words, "which promotes assimilationism and imperialism" (APR 45). Thus Pound's Cathay, with its appropriation of China as some sort of exotic Other, is hardly the ideal yardstick by which to measure the current work of the "innovators and outsiders," some of whom happen to be Chinese, who are producing poetry in the U.S. today. Indeed, Yau insists, the Pound-Williams-H.D. "tradition" is used by Weinberger as license to create a genealogy of what are almost exclusive white male poets, especially those whose work displays "an acceptable confluence of mythology, geography, history, and the exoticizing view of the Other" (APR 48). Had Weinberger begun with Gertrude Stein rather than the Pound-H.D.-Williams tradition, Yau argues, he might have appreciated the value of Barbara Guest, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Lyn Hejinian. And Yau now goes on to play the "Where is?" game, castigating Weinberger for his omission of women and minorities, of homeless poets and poets who have AIDS, and so on.
This "where is?" game strikes me as something of a cheap shot. Omission of one sort or another is, of course, a defining feature of all anthologies: someone is always going to be left out and someone else is going to be indignant about it. But although Yau plays the minority card rather too piously, and although his critique of Pound's representation of China largely ignores the context in which Cathay was actually produced and disseminated, Yau is on to something important: namely, the peculiar belatedness of Weinberger's narrative. (10) Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, after all, was just that--New. It covered the years 1945-60. The preface paid homage to Pound and Williams, but certainly didn't include their work. In Weinberger's anthology, on the other hand, the "new" in Allen's sense includes exactly four of the thirty-five poets: Sobin, Howe, Coolidge, and Palmer. The book begins with four Modernist masters (Pound, Williams, H. D., Hughes), goes on to include four Objectivists (Niedecker, Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Oppen), fourteen poets from The New American Poetry, and three more from The Postmoderns. That leaves seven poets who are what we might call Donald Allen should-have-beens, in that they were excluded from the second gathering largely by fluke, belonging by rights to the congeries already represented. These seven are David Antin, William Bronk, John Cage, Clayton Eshleman, Ronald Johnson, Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser, and Nathaniel Tarn.
Innovators and outsiders? Almost all of the above (Coolidge is an exception) have published with respected presses: New Directions, Black Sparrow, North Point, and, in Rukeyser's case, Norton. And eight of the thirty-five--Niedecker, Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Ginsberg, Levertov, O'Hara, and Ashbery-- are included in volume 2 of the most recent Norton Anthology of American Literature. (11) Indeed, Weinberger's anthology is best understood as a "New American Poetry-Plus," the line being extended backward to Pound and Williams and forward to Susan Howe.
There is nothing wrong with this selection as such, given that Weinberger originally published it in Spanish for Mexican and Latin American consumption. On the contrary, it is wonderful that an anthology of such high calibre (and evidently largely unknown in Spanish) work will be read by a new Latin American audience. For the U.S. reader, however, the selection does pose serious problems. Why, to begin with, the belatedness and buttressing, the need to begin an anthology of contemporary poetry with the work of the great Modernists? And a related problem: by what criteria are the lesser poets in Weinberger's anthology--say, Nathaniel Tarn and Ronald Johnson-- superior to the mainstream--Berryman, Lowell, Jarrell, Bishop-- whom Weinberger dismisses as purveyors of the "American image of the poet as an overgrown disturbed child prodigy" (EW 397)? True, Weinberger refers to the "open-ended rather than closed forms" of his "innovators" and talks of their "simultaneity" and "musicality" (399). But when he concludes that "in the end, what united these poets was, in opposition to the prevailing canon, Pound's exhortation to 'Make it new,'" (EW 399), he is applying the very standard Donald Allen used thirty-five years earlier.
When a critic as sophisticated as Eliot Weinberger falls into this trap--and we will witness the same phenomenon again and again in the anthologies of our decade-- there must be a valid reason. My own sense is that we are suffering, in the poetically rich and perhaps excessively diverse 1990s, from what I should like to call the malaise of the mid-century. When Donald Allen (or, for that matter, his conservative antagonists) produced their anthologies in 1960, there was little doubt as to the position of the Great Modernist Precursors. True, one could quarrel as to the relative merits of Robert Frost or of e. e. cummings, true such forgotten women poets as Mina Loy and Laura Riding Jackson had not yet been rediscovered. But whose list did not include Eliot and Pound, Stevens and Williams, Moore and H.D., Gertrude Stein and Hart Crane? Add to these the English poet Auden, the French Valéry and Reverdy, Apollinaire and Cendrars, the German Rilke, Trakl, and Brecht, the Spanish Lorca, and Argentinian Neruda, and you have a pretty fixed notion of what Modernism-in-Poetry would look like.
But there has never been this agreement about the midcentury. We are now as far away from Charles Olson as Donald Allen was from Williams and Pound, and yet Olson's status as "major poet" is hotly contested. (12) Louis Zukofsky and his fellow Objectivists, whose early poetry is now a good sixty years in the past, are still not included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Critics who have no quarrel over Pound or Williams, cannot agree on the hypothetical place of John Berryman or Elizabeth Bishop in the canon. And what about Allen Ginsberg? A great poet whose million dollar archive was well worth the purchase made by Stanford University? The author, in John Hollander's view, of that "execrable little book" Howl? Or a poet whose importance rests on the earlier work, now turned rock musician?
Those on both sides of these arguments continue to be defensive, even though they are battling, not over who has "made it New" but over the always-already tried and true and commodified. Hence the difficulty of waging the good fight, as did les jeunes of 1914, for a new new poetry. And here I turn to the big anthologies of 1994, Hoover's and Messerli's.
Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry and Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century are designed largely for classroom use. Hoover's Norton anthology is meant to complement (and be used in tandem with), the "regular' or "mainstream" Norton; it even has a teachers' manual. Messerli's aim is to put between two covers the very best of the movement to which he himself belongs, Language Poetry, even as he wants to buttress and contextualize that poetry by relating it to its sources and analogues. Postmodern American Poetry has 701 pages and 103 poets, From the Other Side of the Century includes somewhat fewer poets (84) but runs to 1135 pages, which means that its selections are much more comprehensive than what we usually find in anthologies. Is there, then, really so much more important poetry being written in America than there was in Donald Allen's day when a modest 454 pages could cover thirty-eight New American Poets?
Or does size depend again on what we might call B & B, belatedness and buttressing? Hoover's anthology covers forty years; it begins with Charles Olson and John Cage, and its first three-hundred pages are devoted to poetry familiar from the Allen anthology; Messerli's span is ten years shorter (1960-90) but here approximately 400 pages (one-third of the book) are given over to Donald Allen poets. A New American Poetry (Messerli's subtitle) is thus not-so-new. Still, this hyper-inclusion is not without its rationale. Hoover's anthology, to begin with, is designed to give us everything the other Nortons do not. True, there is some overlap--of which more, later--but where Norton A (The Norton Anthology of American Literature and the Richard Ellmann-Robert O'Clair Modern Poems, A Norton Introduction) (13) goes from Robert Lowell, William Stafford, and Gwendolyn Brooks to Howard Nemerov and Amy Clampitt, Anthony Hecht and James Dickey, Richard Hugo and Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, Philip Levine, and Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and June Jordan, Norton B includes a wide variety of "others" from Marjorie Welish and Ann Lauterbach, Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe, Rae Armantrout and Carla Harryman, Alice Notley and Eileen Myles, to mention only some of the women poets included. Hoover covers almost as many language poets as does Messerli (but in significantly shorter selections); and his anthology includes the communities of St. Mark's in the Bowery in New York, New Langton Street and Intersection in San Francisco, and a wide variety of performative poetics and work by minority poets.
As such, this anthology, with its useful biographical headnotes, statements of poetics, and bibliography fills a large gap: it is astonishing and encouraging that Norton felt called upon to do it at all. At the same time, Hoover's rationale is less than clear. The adjective postmodern, he explains in his Introduction, refers to "the historical period following World War II." But since his anthology by no means includes all the prominent poets from that period, he specifies as follows:
[Postmodern] also suggests an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the narcissism, sentimentality, and self-expressiveness of its life in writing. Postmodernist poetry is the avant-garde poetry of our time.. . . This anthology shows that avant-garde poetry endures in its resistance to mainstream ideology; it is the avant-garde that renews poetry as a whole through new, but initially shocking, artistic strategies. . . .
Despite their differences, experimentalists in the postwar period have valued writing-as-process over writing-as-product . . . . Postmodernism decenters authority and embraces pluralism. (PH, xxv-xxvii).
Shades of Allen and Butterick's The Postmoderns, shades of Weinberger's Innovators and Outsiders. The trouble with all this talk of oppositionality to "mainstream ideology" is that it doesn't get down to cases. Is Adrienne Rich's poetry, certainly not included here, "mainstream" in its ideology? Does it believe in a "centered" authority? Her admirers would certainly say no. On the other side, how "initially shocking" are the "artistic strategies" of, say, Andrei Codrescu's "Paper on Humor," which begins:
Everything sounds funny in a funny magazine.
For years now I have published my poems in funny magazines
so that nobody would notice
how sad they were. (PH 482)
Whatever the reason for the inclusion of this poem--and I will come back to this issue --it can hardly be the shock of the new. The same holds true for Messerli's poets. His "four major gatherings" divide up 'innovative" American poetry into those groups that emphasize (1) "cultural issues--overlapping ideas about myth, politics, history, place, and religion; (2) self, social group, urban landscape, the visual arts, (3) language, and (4) performance, voice, genre, personae." (DM 32-33). But Messerli is the first to admit that there is no hard-and-fast distinction between these gatherings and that, indeed, his own anthology is based on "specific aesthetic choices--eclectic as those might be" (DM 31-32).
What is this aesthetic, an aesthetic that admits Marjorie Welish but not Ann Lauterbach, Diane Ward but not Kathleen Fraser, John Godfrey but not John Yau? Judging from Messerli's own poetry and critical prose as well as from the books he has published over the years for his Sun & Moon Press (and before he founded the press, for his journals Sun & Moon and Là Bas), Messerli's "aesthetic" is essentially that of the manifestos and statements of poetics collected in Bruce Andrews's and Charles Bernstein's L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book of 1984. But because he had already produced one anthology of Language poetries in 1987, and because he evidently felt, as did Hoover and Weinberger in their different ways, that he had to buttress the case for this "new American poetry" as the heir to Donald Allen's, he includes the Objectivists, a good portion of Black Mountain and San Francisco poets, as well as the New York poets of the O'Hara-Ashbery generation and a careful selection of their followers. This is, in other words, a thesis-anthology: Messerli is in essence saying: "Take another look at language poetry, this time in much fuller measure than in my earlier anthology, where space constraints were imposed on me by the publisher (New Directions). It really is the important poetry today: witness its derivation from Zukofsky and Oppen, O'Hara and Ashbery, and so on."
Yet for a complex set of reasons (the decline of poetry publishing by the main commercial houses, the precarious place of "poetry" in the academic curriculum, the refusal of most critics to engage language poetries in any serious way even as, paradoxically, some of the poets--Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Bob Perelman, Michael Palmer-- have been quite successful), Messerli is reluctant to say these things. And so, like both Weinberger and Hoover in their different ways, Messerli has produced an "avant-garde" anthology that includes any number of poems--say those of John Ashbery--that are not only readily available from mainstream publishers like Viking or Alfred A. Knopf, but are also anthologized in such "enemy" anthologies as Helen Vendler's Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry. "These Lacustrine Cities," to take just one example, appears in both.
One might conclude from such overlaps that the "great" poets of the period will eventually be seen to be those like Ashbery and O'Hara, Olson and Duncan, Creeley and Ginsberg, Levertov and Snyder, who so to speak, transcend the "them versus us" ideology initiated by Allen's New American Poetry, poets, let us say, who have made it into the Norton Anthology of American Literature. But it is not clear that this is the case, given the blatant omission of the Objectivists in the Norton or of Robert Creeley in Vendler's Harvard Book. At the same time, the perpetuation of the counter-canon-- where "counter" is too often a marker derived from the sixties rather than strenuously reconstructed-- seems to be perpetuating a less than happy situation. Let me explain.
Consider two poems, both of them written and published in the mid-sixties, five years or so after the "revolution" of The New American Poetry.
1. The Breathing
up to their knees in
fog. The fog
cobwebs, the grass
leaning where deer
having looked for apples.
from brook to where
the top of the hills looks
over the fog, send up
not one bird.
So absolute, it is
no other than
happiness itself, a breathing
too quiet to hear.
A bird fills up the
with wasteful song,
mill run, and superhighway
lost in the green
the noon sun casts
on the stream's amber
and nothing at all gets,
caught at all.
Each of these poems has twenty very short lines of free verse; in each, line-breaks seem to be determined by the process of voicing and breath unit outlined by Olson in "Projective Verse," breaking up grammatical units, as in "Trees stand / up" in #1 "and "green / bush green / answering bush" in #2. In both cases, lineation coupled with repetition brings out latent meanings, as in line 4 of #1--"fog. The fog"-- and lines 18-20 of #2: "and nothing at all gets, / nothing gets / caught at all."
In both "The Breathing" and "Center," the perspective is that of the poet, who is never specified or even identified as "I"; the impetus, in both cases, is to record a particular moment when something in nature stands out and triggers an internal reaction, a kind of epiphany. "The Breathing" tracks the process whereby the poet's immersion in a momentary thick white fog produces a sense of almost mystical quietude. It begins with "An absolute / patience," as the poet stops and is forced to take in the metamorphosis of nature the fog produces. The trees take on a life of their own; they "stand up to their knees in /fog," which in turn becomes a river "slowly flow[ing] uphill," and the "grass" is transformed into a network of "white cobwebs." The process that anthropomorphizes nature paradoxically dehumanizes living creatures: the "deer" [who] have looked for apples" are gone, and "not one bird" appears on the hill that rises just above the fogline. "So absolute" is the silence that the poet experiences a momentary lightness of being, "no other than / happiness itself, a breathing" that is, in this epiphany, too quiet to hear.
"Center" embodies a similar paradox. The song of the bird that "fills up the /streamside bush" is "wasteful" because it can't be heard above the roar of the waterfall. The latter is seen as "capsized" because the eye, tracking the bird's movement from stream to bush to the sky above, sees it as moving in reverse, and blending with mill run and / superhighway" so as to decline from the "song's improvident / center" up in the sky. Or rather, there is no center: the bird is lost in the green / bush green / answering bush"; it disappears and the wind changes. As for the stream, "the noon sun" now "casts / mesh refractions" on its amber bottom, but this net of sunrays can capture nothing in its web: the bird song is gone. At the "center," the poet suggests, there is an enormous absence.
Both poems, then, use close observation of natural phenomena and the quick changes these undergo to express the inner self: in "The Breathing," a momentary sense of quietude and peace within the white blanket of fog, in "Center" a recognition of difference, of the moment-to-moment metamorphoses of nature as birdsong vanishes above the sunny stream, without leaving a trace. In their positioning of the poet's eye and ear in a specific transitory natural setting, both poems are squarely in the Romantic tradition: the observer reads meanings into the landscape which in turn constructs the poet's identity in a momentary union of subject and object. The images, spare and carefully chosen, are allowed to do the work; in neither instance does the poet moralize or generalize as to how one can capture the radiance of the visible. And the diction in both cases is hushed and understated, assonance and consonance (e.g., "The fog / slowly flow" in #1; "casts," "refractions," "gets" in #2) replacing more over rhetorical effects.
Which of these poems is "establishment," which "counterculture"? "The Breathing" is by Denise Levertov and dates from her 1964 collection O Taste and See!. "Center" is by A. R. Ammons and comes from Corson's Inlet (1965). Levertov, as we have seen, is included in every anthology I have discussed so far except Messerli's: that is, The New American Poetry, The Postmoderns (1982), American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993), Postmodern American Poetry (1994), and the forthcoming Rothenberg-Joris Poems for the Millenium. (14) Ammons appears in none of the above (nor in Messerli's), but he has, over the years, appeared in all the major "mainstream" anthologies, including Helen Vendler's Harvard Book. And both Ammons and Levertov are accorded almost exactly the same space (12 pages) in the Norton Anthology of American Literature and in the Norton Modern Poems (6 pages each).
How do we explain the discrepancy between two poets, whose work, judging from these representative poems, is by no means all that dissimilar? Is Levertov's form more "open" than Ammons's? Is hers a "processive" mode, his a "productive"? Hers decentered, his centered and unitary? I would suggest that we could go through any number of Ammons and Levertov poems and although there are obvious differences, especially with respect to gender definition and politics, one is hard put to find one more "oppositional" than the other. The difference--and this happens in canon-making (even counter-canon making) all the time, has to do with particular literary and cultural affiliations.
Denise Levertov, let us recall, first came into prominence as a disciple of William Carlos Williams. Born and brought up in England, she had only recently come to New York with her then-husband Mitchell Goodman, when in 1951 she was taken to meet Williams, who had already had a serious stroke. "I have never forgot," Williams wrote to her in 1957, "how you came to me out of the formalism of English verse. At first as must have been inevitable although I welcomed you I was not completely convinced, after all I wasn't completely convinced of my own position, I wanted YOU to convince ME." (15) Levertov was evidently quite willing to play this role: the poems in her first American book, Here and Now (1957) out-Williams Williams: "The Innocent," for example, begins:
The cat has his sport
and the mouse suffers
but the cat
having no image of pain in him (16)
where lineation, language, and tone are markedly Williamseque.
Williams himself, as James E. B. Breslin points out was somewhat patronizing to this attractive young woman poet: in a 1954 letter he advises her:
You need a book of your closely chosen work. I think, if you thought out and selected your choice very carefully, it would be one of the most worthwhile books of the generation. It would have to be a small book squeezed up to get the gists alone of what you have to say. Perhaps you will never be able to say what you want to say. In that case you make me feel that the loss will be great. (JEBB 32)
But whatever Williams's own reservations, Levertov was now taken up by Rexroth and Creeley and, most important, by James Laughlin. In 1959, Levertov had what she herself calls "the happiness and honor of becoming . . . a New Directions author," and she has been one ever since. Indeed, her contract is such that Laughlin will publish any poetry (or poetics) manuscript she cares to bring out. (17)
Donald Allen's New American Poetry appeared a year after Levertov had become a New Directions author, and quite naturally she was now included as a member of the Black Mountain group, along with Creeley and Duncan. And there she has, so to speak, remained, her position being especially strong because she is one of the very few women associated with Allen's original groupings. Thus, when Weinberger and Hoover produced their anthologies, Levertov became the emblematic poet of sixties oppositionality (as opposed, say, to Adrienne Rich or Sylvia Plath), a position she has retained over the years, even though her work has increasingly moved toward a linear (and rhetorically conservative) political protest poetry, toward confessionalism, and, most recently, toward Christian devotional poetry.
Meanwhile, what of Ammons, who was also a great admirer of Williams? By the late fifties, Ammons too was writing poems like "Jersey Cedars," whose opening adapts Williams's three-step line:
The wind inclines the cedars and lets snow riding in bow them swaying weepers on the hedgerows of open fields (18)
And Corsons Inlet (1965) has a poem called "WCW" that goes like this:
I turned in
by the bayshore,
hitting me hard
side the head,
the bay scrappy
what a way to read
a woman came
her red dog loose
the dead horseshoe
crabs. (ARA 147)
But Ammons, a Southerner perhaps never quite at home in the urban Northeast, was not a member of the Williams or, later, the Olson-Creeley circle. While Levertov and others were making the pilgrimage from Manhattan to Rutherford in the fifties, Ammons was an executive vice-president for a pharmaceutical company called Friedrich and Dimmock, located, in what now seems like a delicious irony, in Millville, New Jersey, not far from William's own terrain. In these years, the two poets did meet once or twice, but in 1962 Ammons moved to Ithaca to teach at Cornell, where he has remained to this day. And at Cornell, he met Harold Bloom, who was to become one of his most passionate advocates and to place him firmly in the "visionary company" of Emerson, Whitman, and Stevens, a visionary company that excluded Williams, as it excluded Pound and Eliot. (19) The rest, as they say, is history.
The Fate of Anthologizing
What lessons, if any, can we derive from this little narrative? First, that it is no longer possible, as it was for Donald Allen, to present readers with an anthology of the or even a definitive New American Poetry. In 1960, the scene was much less complicated than it is today: there really was an East Coast extablishment, consisting of New England and New York poets (mostly white men) and their publishers--the big houses like Harcourt Brace, Harper & Row, W. W. Norton, Alfred A. Knopf, and Farrar, Strauss. In this context, publication by New Directions or the Grove Press was in itself an anti-establishment marker, and Don Allen, who had worked at New Directions before he went to Grove and from there to freelancing in San Francisco, could readily introduce his poets as the countercurrent.
But by the early eighties, when Allen and Butterick produced The Postmoderns, all this had changed. For one thing, the communities of poets (raw or cooked, academic or anti-academic, formalist or "open form") had vastly proliferated and the old dichotomies eroded. Creative Writing programs were now de rigueur at every college or university in the land, and fellowships, NEA or otherwise, were available. Poets of the counterculture like Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley now held university chairs and were selling their papers to university libraries for good prices. Then, too, the more conventional poets were beginning to experiment with fragmentation, typographic innovation, and varieties of free verse.
More important: the eighties witnessed the coming of the minority communities: first women and African-Americans, then Chicano and Asian-American and Native American poets, gay and lesbian poets, and so on. In their inception, many of these poetries were, ironically, quite conservative so far as form, rhetoric, and the ontology of the poem were concerned. But counterculture poets and critics couldn't --and still can't--say this out loud because they would have immediately been labelled racist or sexist. And thus the picture has become increasingly clouded. Add to this the increasingly vexing question of U.S. hegemony, and the problems are compounded. Why should an anthology of cutting-edge poetry in English omit Australian and New Zealand poetry? Why Canadian, as was the case in Silliman's In the American Tree, and which continues to be the case in Hoover's and Weinberger's anthologies, though happily not in Messerli's. (20) Why not poetry in English written in Africa and India? And notice that I haven't even mentioned the United Kingdom.
How should avant-garde anthologists respond to this situation? Here I am of two minds. On the one hand, I am personally delighted that in the past two years alone, there have been so many anthologies of alternate poetries, that the readers "out there" have finally been forced to recognize the existence of Rosmarie Waldrop and Rae Armantrout, Bruce Andrews and Bob Perelman, Steve McCaffery and Nathaniel Mackey. I am gratified that we now have an anthology of post-language poets (from Oblek) and that Dennis Barone and Peter Ganick have anthologized forty-five younger or marginalized poets who were excluded from Ron Silliman's In the American Tree and Messerli's 'Language' Poetries-- poets who include Joan Retallack, Leslie Scalapino, Kathleen Fraser, Hank Lazer, John Taggart, as well as such younger Canadian avant-garde poets as Karen Mac Cormack and Jeff Derksen. And I am eagerly looking forward to the monumental Poems of the Millenium, published, after all, not by an impoverished small press but by the University of California.
At the same time, I wish the anthologies I have been discussing had been less extravagant in their claims to represent the important or the cutting-edge poetry of the day. For in making such claims, the editors open themselves up to the sort of critique we have already witnessed in the case of John Yau's response to Eliot Weinberger. How "radical," someone is sure to ask, is the ecological lyric of Gary Snyder really? Is he one of "us" while, say, Charles Simic is one of "them," and if so, on what grounds? Or again, why is Ed Dorn, whose Slinger was something of an underground classic for the radical young of the seventies, left out by both Weinberger and Messerli? If "aesthetic" considerations govern these choices, the reader has a right to know what these are. And not just in generalities about authority and hegemony versus experimentation and innovation.
Perhaps the best solution in the poetically overpopulated, hyped-up nineties is to lower the volume and to admit to a degree of provisionality. Consider, for example, Peter Gizzi's Exact Change Yearbook No. 1: 1995. (21) In appearance, this deluxe 414-page book is not exactly modest: its elegant and extravant layout was executed by a team of production assistants and printed on glossy paper in Hong Kong, and it includes a CD of readings by twelve poets from Michael Palmer to Ted Berrigan. (22) But despite its stylish (detractors will say commodified) coffee-table book appearance (Michael Palmer, the featured poet, is glamorously pictured on the book's orange, black and blue hard cover), the Exact Change Yearbook represents what is to my mind a breakthrough in the anthologizing of poetry. Let me explain.
In their prefatory "Publisher's Note,", Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang (who doubles as the book's designer) write that they wanted to replace the now defunct New Directions annual by presenting "a large miscellany of avant-garde work, both contemporary and historical, chosen less to represent a particular 'school,' and more in the spirit of learning what's out there." To this end, the publishers asked Peter Gizzi "to help us find a range of contemporary work that draws on the tradition we publish in our books of Surrealist and other early twentieth-century experimentation. . . . To what came back we added work by Exact Change authors [Stein, Cage, de Chirico, Aragon], as well as a few other discoveries we were eager to share" (EC 7).
The obvious advantage a yearbook has over an anthology is that it doesn't have to provide "coverage." The situation is fluid: if someone's not "in" --well, maybe he or she will be in Exact Change #2. The downside, of course, is that, as a yearbook, the volume can't claim to be "definitive" in any sense and is therefore unlikely to be a candidate for classroom adoption or even for the sort of large-scale reviewing the Norton, Marsilio, and Sun & Moon anthologies have been receiving. But on balance, this may not be such a bad thing. The very notion of the Norton Anthology of X or Y or the view "from the other side of the century" would seem to go against our postmodern wish to avoid what John Cage called a "polar situation." Why not, for that matter, given the rapidity with which textbooks now go in and out of print, "adopt" one textbook for 1996, and another the year after?
Exact Change Yearbook No. 1, in any case, differs from all the "New American Poetries" I have been discussing in that it discards the exclusively national label without, on the other hand, becoming some sort of vapid World Reader. The book juxtaposes avant-garde poets and artists from the U.S. (ranging chronologically from the Imaginary Elegies of the late Jack Spicer, and Fanny Howe's presentation of extracts from John Wiener's very moving journal 707 Scott Street, to a "Gallery" of younger largely unknown poets like Paul Beatty, Tory Dent, and Jennifer Moxley), with their counterparts abroad--specifically, in Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia--and, closer to home, the Caribbean and Canada. And as if these juxtapositions weren't enough, we can also read Clark Coolidge's prose poem "Mary or Marie" (a "writing through" of Jean-Luc Godard's film Hail Mary) or Susan Howe's 25-part sequence "Chanting at the Crystal Sea"(first published in 1975) against Gertrude Stein's Before the Flowers of Friendship faded Friendship Faded, which is printed for the first time (as Juliana Spahr explains in an excellent headnote), together with Stein's source text, Georges Hugnet's Enfance, exactly in the form they were originally published in the journal Pagany (1930). Or again, we can read Barbara Guest's lecture "Poetry the True Fiction" against Hugo Ball's "Grand Hotel Metaphysics," the "Radio Happenings" of John Cage and Morton Feldman against Erik Satie's "Dried Embryos," or Michael Palmer's "Circular Gates" and his "Site of the Poem (An Impromptu for [Octavio] Paz)" against Louis Aragon's "Peasant's Dream" or the "Fragments" of De Chirico.
Such collaging is not to be confused with what I have called the "buttressing and belatedness" of the new blockbuster anthologies. For the effect of reading the contemporary works in the Yearbook against particular Dada and Surrealist counterparts is to emphasize difference at least as much as similarity. The editor is not establishing a tradition or line of poets. At the same time, the geographical range of the new work presented gives, at least me, a sense of--forgive the taboo word--transcendence. For instead of the usual anthology wars (who's in, who's out, which editor is sufficiently multicultural?) the Exact Change Yearbook offers the most convincing evidence I've seen to date that our own radical poetries are not some kind of local aberration, spawned by a bunch of theory-crazed, left-wing poets in New York and San Francisco, and perpetrated by les jeunes at Buffalo and other out-of-the way stations--poetries, so the mainstream would have it, to be ignored as thoroughly as possible by the various prize-giving foundations as well as most of the elite universities including my own. Indeed, what Gizzi's juxtapositions of U.S. and foreign portfolios suggest is that the attention to the materiality of language, to syntactic disjunction and visual constellation, so central to the language poetries in Messerli and Hoover's anthologies, and especially the attention to the reconfiguration of lyric as speaking, once again, not only for the "sensitive" and "authentic" individual ("Here's what I, Mary Smith, realized yesterday, as I was weeding the garden") but for the larger cultural and philosophical moment--that all these are now characteristic of poetries produced around the globe.
Take Jeff Twitchell's portfolio of the "Original Chinese Language Group." As Twitchell explains, "Original, not in the sense of unique, but because of their interest in the earlier meanings and associations that can be read in the Chinese written character. . . .So, too, the recuperation of the original impetus of poetry as the play in language" (EC 20). The "Original Poets," Twitchell explains, go beyond their predecessors, the so-called "Misty" (because branded "obscure" by the official critics) poets of the late 1970s, of whom the best known in the U.S. is Bei Dao. The 1988 "Original" Manifesto, reproduced here, comes out strongly against the localism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism that bedevilled Communist China until quite recently. The aim is to make contact with "modern Western art," and the vehicle for such contact, the manifesto declares, is the written character, which, compared to spoken language, is "less polluted and pre-judged" "We do not avoid," they declare, "the phrase 'word games' which already has aroused great misunderstanding. We even like it. "Game" [yóuxi] is a word, connoting the profound, eerie spirit of art and philosophy" (EC 36). And the text gives way to the visual image of a large black cross which represents the intersection of "swim" [yóu]--to get in touch with reality-- and "play" [xì].
Twichell's portfolio is taken from the selection that appeared in the British journal Parataxis (#7, 1994) . edited by the poet Drew Milne. In translation, the poems themselves--by Che Quian-Zi, Zhou Ya-Ping, Yi Cun, Huang Gan, Xian Meng, and Hong Liu (the one woman in this group)--don't quite live up to that manifesto. (23) "Word games," in the sense of Steve McCaffery's or Joan Retallack's paragrammatic play, are less common than neo-Surrealist imagery and the casting of a sharp eye on the "direct treatment of the thing," in the Poundian Imagist sense. Just as Pound's fabled "invention of China" turns out to have little to do with the classical Chinese models which were his source, so the Original Poets's version of "language poetry" is more graphic and precisionist than, say, Charles Bernstein's or Bob Perelman's. Here, for example, is Part III of Zhou Ya-Ping's "Vulgar Beauty":
An afterbirth is unfolded, taking the shape of an umbrella.
The ridges of an umbrella along yellow lines.
A fetus like a coal cinder has long been reared in it,
Lit by me, it will give off light.
A white crane, unexpectedly covered by a black string-net
A snake, bound with a copper wire, body
Like a tightening spring, soft parts flashing. (EC 25)
We must remember that in the Chinese, as J. H.Prynne notes in an Afterword that is itself a kind of prose poem, the "iconic deployment [of the language] by stroke play and contexture makes a traffic with the eye worked by a different ground-plan" (EC 39). At one point, the translators planned to include some of the Chinese text so as to show how the tactile element works, but the Originals themselves countered this idea because, as Prynne puts it, "it would suggest exoticism or extraneous willow-pattern ornament; to them, we are the exotics, with our credit-card view of the speech act" (EC 39).
The Russian portfolio, edited by Edward Foster and drawn from the conference called "The New Freedom," which Foster organized at the Stevens Institute of Technology in April, 1994, raises similar issues. Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, even in the brilliantly austere translations of Lyn Hejinian, is, like Alexei Parshchikov and Aleksandr Eremenko, given to hyperbole and extravagant conceit, to manic, gargantuan, highly sensuous catalogues of images rather than to the abstraction and citation we find in its U.S. counterparts. At the same time, as locutions like "false, foil-like grounds of gender" suggest, Dragomoschenko has obviously learned a lot from his translator's own brand of verbal play:
I like to provoke the sensation of the thin, undependable, somehow false, foil-like grounds of gender, bearing within itself a sleepy illusion of the laws of gravity, as if governed by my movements in the unconfining limits of gravitations and diversions of space. And when, in a radiant eclipse at the inevitable reunion with earth, at the increasing of masses and the sweetest, strawberry creamlike terror of children, consciousness takes on the transparency of compressed time, the theory of free fall blossoms with fresh oxides on the lips, past which the wind carries us. . . (Phosphor, EC 145).
But perhaps the most surprising of the portfolios--surprising, that is, for a U.S. audience accustomed to the British anthologies put out by Oxford or Penguin or even Bloodaxe, is Tom Raworth's "Anglo-Irish Alternative." So used are we to the "gentility" of the contemporary British verse we read in Grand Street or PN Review, that the opening of the first poem in Raworth's portfolio, Denise Riley's "Burnt"--
And then my ears get full of someone's teeth again
As someone's tongue
as brown and flexible as a young giraffe's
rasps all round someone else's story-- (EC 317)
is startling in its refusal to pretty things up, to get the erotic scene that follows exactly "right." In the headnote, Raworth remarks that what unites his fourteen poets--among them, Catherine Walsh, D. S. Marriott, , Iliassa Sequin, Ken Edwards, Maurice Scully, Lee Harwood, Wendy Mulford, Ulli Freer, Anthony Mellors, and Raworth himself (Prynne being included with the entire "Bands Around the Throat" in the "Three Chapbooks" section, along with Beverly Dahlen and Susan Howe)-- is a "common distaste for what is still passed off as British poetry . . . the Hughes, Heaney, Harrison axis--the "New Generation" poets marketed like sportswear . . . the terrible drabness of Larkin (whom I imagine wrote 'They tuck you up / your mum and dad' and then rode the wave of a typo)" (EC 315-16). Here, as in Prynne's satiric demolition of the "credit-card view of the speech act," one has the sense that, after years of Drab Age verse, fun is once again part of the British poetry scene. And that sense is confirmed by Lee Harwood's superb rendition of Joseph Cornell's box-making in the set of fifty fragments called "Days and Nights: Accidental Sightings" (EC 331-33).
"Vortex," the bard said, "is energy!" We are, as the Yearbook makes abundantly clear, living in a great and varied moment for poetry. Rosmarie Waldrop's "Berlin(plus) Portfolio," for example, is absolutely startling in its presentation of East and West German poets, poets not always amicably related, but writing an explosive, daring, and sardonic lyric that gives our own language poetics a purposely nasty spin, rather like putting a George Grosz cartoon on top of a Jasper Johns drawing. The "Canadian Emergency" section, edited by Steve Evans and "From the Anglophone Caribbean" (edited by Mark McMorris) deserve an essay of their own: the relations of McMorris's poets to a Francophone Caribbean poet like Aimé Césaire, for example (or, for that matter, to the U.S. poet Clayton Eshleman) deserve to be studied. But space forbids me to do so here, even as I can't dwell on Cole Swensen's "Ecriture française," a fine selection from the work, somewhat better known to U.S. readers than the other poetries discussed here, of Anne-Marie Albiach, Emmanuel Hocquard, Claude Royet-Journoud, Dominique Fourcade, and a number of others-- poets closely associated with Michael Palmer and Michael Davidson.
Exact Change Yearbook No. 1: 1995 has no mission statement, no textbook introduction of what postmodern poetry is or isn't. But the juxtapositions I have been describing--the kinds of Berlin or Beijing poems that are placed side by side with the Michael Palmer feature and the three chapbooks of Jeremy Prynne, Beverly Dahlen, and Susan Howe, say it all obliquely. Like the Weinberger, Hoover, and Messerli anthologies, which intersect with Exact Change in so many fruitful ways, Gizzi's anthology implies that, whatever the local and topical importance of such celebrated U.S. poets as Adrienne Rich and W. S. Merwin, Robert Hass and Edward Hirsch, the real action today is elsewhere. Many readers, of course, will disagree, but the whole conception of the Yearbook makes it difficult for them to play the "where is X?" game or to express indignation that those included are not after all the significant postmoderns.
Does this make the Exact Change Yearbook the heir of Donald Allen's New American Poetry? Not at all, and that's precisely the point. An "Anthology beginning 'The,'" to paraphrase Zukofsky's lovely title, no longer seems to be what we need. And that, paradoxically makes the project of producing an anthology all the more challenging.