anglo-american poetic relations

The Post-War Anglo-American Poetic Relations conference held at the University of London's Centre for English Studies July 9-11, 1998

by Keith Tuma

Thought I'd float a few reportage pixels concerning the Post-War Anglo-American Poetic Relations conference held at the University of London's Centre for English Studies July 9-11. Lots of good papers, though with so many good panels going on simultaneously it was impossible to catch all that I wanted to hear. There were readings by Bob Perelman and Jennifer Moxley as well, and to close out the conference James Tate and John Ashbery.

Good talks by list-folks Bob Archambeau (on Donald Davie at Stanford), Romana Huk (on Black British poetry), Alan Golding (Susan Howe and Ireland/England), and Marjorie Perloff (on signature and subjectivity in Silliman, Howe, Palmer, Scalapino, etc.). Peter Barry argued the need for a pedagogically-friendly anthology of experimental British poetry. Geoff Ward spoke on recent Ashbery; David Trotter read Olson beside Robert Smithson in an effort to rescue a "minimal" Olson. Robert Hampson followed the wanderings of cris cheek across artforms and nations; Rod Mengham spoke on Moxley's work with the poet in the room and offered his view of the wrestling with Keats etc. in JM's poetry. The word "cartoon," I think, was used as he thought about references to Greek myth in the poems, and this became an issue, though the paper was thoughtful and ultimately flattering. There was also a very useful, densely informing paper I heard given by Andrew Crozier on the virtually unknown 30s left poet Harry Roskolenko, called "(Fourth) International Modernism: The Case of Harry Rosolenko; or, Apocalyptic Transports of an Objectivist."

Frank O'Hara now has some very good British critics and scholars, including (especially) Kevin Nolan, Shari Sabeti, and Graham MacPhee; absurdly enough, these people were scheduled against a panel on the New York School. I showed up for Alison Mark, Carol Watts, and Drew Milne on Veronica Forrest-Thomson (and also C. Bernstein in Milne's case) but refused to sit in the hallway to hear it. (No huge crowd, just a small room). Did get the core of it later from Milne.

Fascinated to learn at a different panel that there is now a cult of O'Hara in Poland--the O'Hara-ists even. This information courtesy of Krystyna Mazur of the American Studies Center, Warsaw University, whose excellent paper included her translations of some of these poets. Here's the opening lines of her translation of "Why I'm not a Grave-digger" by Derek Foks:

I am not a grave digger, I am a carpenter.
Why? I think I would rather be
a grave digger, but I am a carpenter. I work

with grave diggers. I meet one:
he is beginning to dig. I look at his shovel.
"Sit down and have a drink" he says. I sit down
and drink. We drink. I look
at his shovel. "You have tons of mud on it."
"I knew there's too much of something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again.

And so on (and so on ). I will resist the temptation to comment on this phenomenon or the world-wide status of O'Hara and O'Hara-influence. Ists and isms also came up with the Scottish Informationists, briefly discussed by Robert Crawford as he took up the poet-in-the-academy question.

Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, the two papers I'll probably remember the best were ones that left me scratching and squirming. Edna Longley went on for an hour complaining that Ezra Pound and American Poundians (Kenner etc.) had effectively but unfairly written W B Yeats out of dominant versions of modernism. Lots of good old American-bashing there, which is always fun and probably even called for in some instances, but the sumo wrestling Longley was describing seemed a little dated or out of touch with the emerging and plural modernisms now alive in American literary history and criticism as well as in contemporary poetic practice here or anywhere. Asked a question by your reporter, she refused to take seriously the existence of traditions of Irish modernisms other than the Yeats line. ("These people are confused" is part of what she said in response to my question about Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, Catherine Walsh, Trevor Joyce, etc.)

And then there was Helen Vendler's talk, which immediately preceded the Tate-Ashbery reading (with no Q & A.). Vendler talked about Ashbery. She said she didn't like most of his followers because they have ideological or political or religious axes to grind.

However, it turns out that there now is an Ashbery-esque (if that's the word) poet Vendler can admire, though in the end he's more narrative than JA, more concerned with the body, etc. His name is Mark Ford, author of a book I haven't read and thus can't comment on (Landlocked, Chatto & Windus, 1992). Grateful if somebody would fill me in a little more.

But that's not all. Vendler also said that, before Mark Ford, England had had no good poet since World War II. Or so she has long thought, she said.


So much for Bunting or Prynne, Raworth or Roy Fisher, Allen Fisher or Denise Riley, Charles Tomlinson, Tom Leonard, Maggie O'Sullivan--even Philip Larkin or Geoffrey Hill or Lynette Roberts or Peter Redgrove or dozens and dozens of contenders. What a thing to say. Maybe it was honest. One wonders who or what she's read.

So much for Anglo-American poetic relations.

29 Jul 1998