1. This is not a how-to guide
It isn’t quite a how-not-to guide either, but I suppose that’s closer.
2. “What you should be doing,” or: the limits of disinterest
A few years ago, when the Conceptualist poet Kenneth Goldsmith was making big waves in the little demitasse cup of the American poetry world, I wrote an essay that tried to explain what his work had to offer and what it didn’t. The email I received in response was gratifying in quantity, if bewildering in content. I’d tried merely to describe Goldsmith’s work, but I found I was condemned for having praised him, praised for having condemned him, praised for having praised him, and condemned for having condemned him—all in roughly equal measure. The uniform distribution of responses on the chart of praise and blame gave me some reassurance that my attempt at mere description hadn’t unintentionally become a clear act of advocacy or disapproval, but it also confirmed my suspicion that people were not particularly inclined to view as innocent an essay that did its best to remain neutral: an agenda, the thinking went, must lurk just below the surface. I am not so naïve as to believe that truly disinterested inquiry is possible, but the notion that we may approach disinterest asymptotically—like a curving line that comes ever closer to another line without ever touching it—was clearly alien to a literary audience that had been through several decades of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Only M, a critic from whom I had learned a great deal over the years, and who had always been kind to me, saw the essay for what it was, or tried to be—and she didn’t like it. “What you should be doing,” she told me, “is making a strong case for the poetry you believe in, and against the poetry you don’t.” She’d been doing exactly that for decades, and I knew people who revered her for it. I also knew people people who all but spat when they said her name.
3. “That never works,” or: pluralism and failure
It wasn’t the first time I’d been told something like that. Back in the final decade of the last century, when I was starting up a little magazine devoted to poetry, I received much helpful advice from K, a poet and critic who, like M, had long championed the more experimental wing of poetry. I was young and dewy-eyed, and had the usual delusions about what a little magazine might accomplish. “What I really want to do,” I said, over coffee in some dingy university café, “is make a space for different kinds of poets to come together and talk to one another.” “Yeah,” said K, my senior by a decade and a grizzled veteran of the long march of experimental poetry from the wilderness into the academy, “that never works.”
Years later, long after the fate of my magazine had proved K right, I was in touch with him again, this time after the early death of another poet, a tremendously charming American who’d moved to London and written formal verse in traditional rhyme and meter. He and K had been friends in their grad school days—“dope smoking buddies, mostly,” as K put it—but had, despite a few joyous reunions when all arguments were put aside, fallen out over poetry. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and the news of the poet’s death hit K hard. “I always thought there’d come a time when all these poetry wars would be behind us, and we’d be friends again,” he told me. I didn’t know what to say.
4. “I find your paper irritating,” or: looking at the back of your own head
I don’t remember what I said, and that’s not what’s important anyway: what’s important is the aftermath. I was standing rather smugly before an audience at an academic conference where I’d just delivered a paper on a poet of some repute, fielding questions along with the other panelists, when I saw the formidable white mane of C rise above the crowd. A scholar whose elegant suits and forceful manner gave him an aura closer to that of a Mafioso than one would have thought possible for a professor of literature, C did not look happy, and he was looking at me. “I find your paper irritating,” he said. “Don’t misunderstand: I liked the other papers more, but didn’t find them interesting enough to be irritating. Come to think of it, I didn’t find your paper interesting either—it’s the nature of my irritation with it that’s interesting.”
In the well-crafted spoken paragraphs that followed, C took my paper apart, but he did much more than that: he also disassembled his own reaction to my paper, pulled out the assumptions behind that reaction, held them up to the sunlight and saw what was beautiful and meaningful in those assumptions, and what was narrow and even cruel. It was magnificent. With the possible exception of the time an esteemed English editor took a cricket bat to some of my prose and beat it into a wet pulp from which he then formed a proper essay, C’s takedown of my paper remains my favorite literary chastening. It also showed me something one could do with a text that wasn’t advocacy (it was about as far from advocacy of what I’d said as one could get) and wasn’t simply condemnation either. Nor was it disinterested or neutral explanation, of the sort I’d tried to supply in my essay on Goldsmith, and it certainly wasn’t any sort of pluralistic live-and-let-live move, either. In the encounter with an irritating text, C had taken a step back and seen not only the irksome text in front of him, but seen himself looking at it. It was as if he stood behind himself, looking at the back of his own head. Ekstasis, the ancient Greeks called it—standing outside oneself. It was C’s interpretive ecstasy, and we watched in wonder.
5. “That fucking Merwin,” or: the back of Creeley’s head
I know a lot of people who loved Robert Creeley, who saw the old sage of Black Mountain and Buffalo as a generous mentor and friend, and he certainly was that. He may turn out to have meant more to more younger poets than any other figure of his generation. But if you read his letters, you see that he had as large a capacity for hatred as he had for paternal or avuncular love. He despises Theodore Roethke and Louis Simpson, hurls abuse at Helen Vendler, spews bile in the direction of Louise Glück and Charles Wright, dismisses Kenneth Koch as a lightweight, and talks about cutting Frank O’Hara (the editors of the letters work hard, in a footnote, to explain this away as metaphorical, and may be right). “Fuck him,” he says of Kenneth Patchen, and he tells us how “that fucking Merwin” is a “a symbol of rot.” He clearly sees battle lines drawn between a kind of poetry he admires and the kinds he does not, and he takes exception when the people who should be on his side appear to cross the line and embrace the enemy. “I will never forget this,” he writes to Kenneth Rexroth, when the older poet treasonously supported Roethke; and when William Carlos Williams spoke approvingly of W. H. Auden, Creeley demanded to know whether someone had held a gun to Williams’ back. Academics have a special place in Creeley’s inferno—even after so many of them had come to accept his views about who the important poets were. In 1985, he tells us that academics wouldn’t deign to write about Williams or Olson—and does so with such vehemence that I wouldn’t want to have been the one to tell him of the half dozen prominent academic articles on Olson that year alone, or the three dozen on Williams, or of the professor who’d just edited the sixth volume of Creeley’s correspondence with Olson. Resentment outlives its occasion, and those who harbor it don’t want to be reminded of the fact.
When I’ve mentioned this vituperative side of Creeley to his old friends and allies, they’ve been quick to point out that Creeley and the poets he supported were for a long time—and in some quarters are even now—the subject of a disdain every bit as strong as that which we find in Creeley’s letters. They’re not wrong, these friends of Creeley. You won’t find as much invective about Creeley and his peers in the letters of those about whom he snarled, except perhaps in recent years, but that’s simply because silence is the snarling of the powerful.
What, I wonder, would Creeley have seen if he’d looked, not at those he despised, but at himself looking at them? What if, like C, he had seen himself from outside himself? I suppose he’d have seen a man in something like the condition Pierre Bourdieu describes when he discusses what happens to an art when it is no longer playing for stakes beyond art itself in any meaningful way—when there are few significant financial, political, or ecclesiastical rewards at stake, when it operates at the margins of money and power. Under these conditions, it is the practitioners of the art itself who hand out the rewards, and while those rewards may be in some minimal sense matters of money or power or hierarchical position, they are primarily matters of recognition. No one’s been made a lord for poetry since Tennyson, and no one hoping for riches nowadays would present a poem to a head of state, as Edmund Spenser did—successfully—to Elizabeth I. Bourdieu tells us that when the practitioners of an art become the primary decision makers about who gets the (largely symbolic) rewards, we see a phenomenon called “the social aging of art.” This is a process in which one group—generally marginal, young, or both—seeks to discredit those who practice the art differently. One doesn’t compete for money in a commercial market, but for prestige in a symbolic market, and the way to do that isn’t to woo customers, but to discredit the other guys. It’s no accident that the proliferation of manifestos and aesthetic dogmas came about at the moment when complex developments in mass education, publishing, and communications rendered poetry unviable as a market commodity. Freed from external demands—another way of saying “left to fend for themselves”—the poets proliferated styles and frequently looked with disdain at those whose work took a different path than their own. “That fucking Merwin,” one might utter of another.
6. Conquistadors and anthropologists
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski once wrote with apparent sympathy of a group of people who believed fervently in their own ideals and disdained those of others, saying:
A few years ago I visited the pre-Columbian monuments in Mexico and was lucky enough, while there, to find myself in the company of a well known Mexican writer, thoroughly versed in the history of the Indian peoples of the region. Often in the course of explaining to me the significance of many things I would not have understood without him, he stressed the barbarity of the Spanish soldiers who had ground the Aztec statues into dust and melted down the exquisite gold figurines to strike with the image of the Emperor. I said to him, “you think these people were barbarians; but were they not, perhaps, true Europeans, indeed the last true Europeans? They took their Christian and Latin civilization seriously; and it is because they took it seriously that they saw no reason to safeguard pagan idols; or to bring the curiosity and aesthetic detachment of archeologists into their consideration of things imbued with a different, and therefore hostile religious significance. If we are outraged at their behavior it is because we are indifferent, both to their civilization, and to our own.”
Kołakowski was, however, playing devil’s advocate—since, for him, the better angels of European civilization were not the conquistadors, but the anthropologists. “The anthropologist,” Kołakowski writes,
must suspend his own norms, his judgments, his mental, moral, and aesthetic habits in order to penetrate as far as possible into the viewpoint of another and assimilate his way of perceiving the world. And even though no one, perhaps, would claim to have achieved total success in this effort, even though total success would presuppose an epistemological impossibility—to enter entirely into the mind of the object of inquiry while maintaining the distance and objectivity of the scientist—the effort is not in vain. We cannot completely achieve the position of an observer seeing himself from the outside, but we may do so partially.
Like the scholar C after he heard my irritating paper at the conference years ago, when confronted with that which is alien to our sensibilities we may make the attempt to stand outside ourselves, and in doing so see something other than an object of disdain. Indeed, we may get a kind of doubled or even tripled vision: we’ll know the thing we’re looking at—a poem, say—on something like its own terms, as well as on ours. Moreover, we might discover something about our own assumptions—our assumptions and, one hopes, ourselves.
7. The potter’s wheel and the back of my own head
When I wrote “one hopes” in the previous sentence, I suppose what I really meant was “I hope.” But why hope for this kind of approach to poetry, as opposed to the naked partisanship of M or of K? Perhaps the explanation is generational: both M and K are older than I am, and I’m deeper into middle age than I care to admit. The names I recognized among those who wrote to praise or blame me for my article on Goldsmith belonged to an older set, too.
Perhaps as the memory of the exclusion of one sort of poet from the privileged world of academe becomes less a living thing, and more a matter of history, the rhetoric of partisanship will fade. Creeley could still feel marginal even after he was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a leading figure in the best-funded poetry program in the country, but that was because his formative experiences were those of a truly marginalized outcast. Nowadays, when I read screeds against the Poetry Foundation by full professors at top MFA programs, I suspect what I’m seeing are the last embers of the old fires of outsider resentment. The revolution of the young against the old and the new against the outmoded described by Pierre Bourdieu—the revolution that launched a thousand manifestoes and set anthologists at one another’s throats—was the product of a climate of resource scarcity. When there were virtually no external rewards for poets, or when the few rewards (steady teaching jobs, say) were monopolized by a single group (let’s call them the poets associated with the New Criticism), partisanship could rage, resentments flare, and those who wrote poetry different from one’s own could very easily be cursed as lightweights and symbols of rot. But when academe has long since made room for poets as diverse as Rae Armantrout, Billy Collins, Claudia Rankine, and Kenneth Goldsmith, it’s harder to rage convincingly against a monolithic establishment. At least it is for the moment: perhaps the crumbling of the academic humanities will give us a renewed outbreak of heartfelt resentment.
Maybe, though, it’s not generational: maybe it’s just me. When I ask myself why I resist M’s injunction to fight for the kind of poetry I find appealing, and against those kinds to which I am not immediately drawn, the first thing I think of is not my generation, or those coming after me. The first thing I think of is my father, bent over his potter’s wheel. Dad is a ceramic artist, and I spent my pre-teen years as an art-school brat of the 1970s—or, to be more precise, as a provincial art-school brat of the 1970s, dad being a professor at the deeply rusticated University of Manitoba. What this means is simple: I saw a lot of abstract painters, earthwork sculptors, conceptual artists, installation artists, photorealists and post-minimalists jockeying around for fame and position, hoping like hell to get themselves off the Canadian prairies and back to the American east coast or at the very least to L.A., the kind of cultural centers from whence they’d come. My father had made the opposite move, leaving the faculty of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design for the boondocks, in part because, like all ceramic artists (and unlike those post-minimalists and conceptualists), he harbored no illusions about becoming any kind of art star. Outside of Japan and a few other Asian cultures, there’s simply no prestige to pottery, and no amount of raging or resentment will change that. Creeley could go from the outside in, railing at his enemies all the way, but there’s a notable lack of revolutionary rhetoric among ceramicists, who experience the climate of non-recognition as a permanent condition, not as an injustice to be combatted. Most of our attitudes are absorbed from our environment without much conscious reflection on our part, and I imagine my distaste for battles about aesthetic recognition and campaigns against forms of art different from one’s own comes less from all those grad school hours reading Bourdieu and Adorno than from seeing my dad roll his eyes at the rhetoric and ambitious yearnings of his colleagues.
Whether the resistance to partisan polemic is a matter of generational and institutional change, or simply a matter of my own peculiar formation, I don’t know. I do know that my own resistance to polemic is strong enough that I don’t even want this essay to be an advocacy of one approach to poetry over another, although at some level I suppose it inevitably is. What I want this essay to be is less a program than an examination—an attempt to look directly (and impossibly) at the back of my own head.