Why is this?

In light of Ron Silliman and friends’ conference in Philly on Dec. 6 “Poetry in 1960: A Symposium,” which will no doubt celebrate Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology, Scarriet would like to ponder this question.

What hath Donald Allen (1912-2004), a nice man, an editor for awhile at the cool, pretentious, smutty Evergreen Review, wrought?

Our loyal readers should have noticed two passages in Scarriet printed recently, authored by two greats, Plato and Leopardi, taking on this issue directly and honestly.  They both said that poetry, by its very nature, is an old-and-courting-the-old, art.  Of course, a great hue and cry goes up when this simple truth (in terms of two small items: all history and any measure of popularity) is broached: “Fascist!” is the shrill charge from the Pound-lovers.

It’s a truism, though, isn’t it?  How can anyone but an oaf be seriously against the new?  Have you lost it, Brady?

I’ll put Plato and Leopardi up against Pound (who confessed he never read the “Rooshins,” and worked for their extinction (and others) in the war, and then had the audacity to call the United States an “insane asylum”) any day, but I still owe my readers an argument here.

First:  The merely new is not the same thing as meritoriously novel.  They, in fact, are quite different.   But apparently, often confused, whether by ignorance or hoodwink.  The mere fact of novelty in any area is no prescription for progress, or interest, of any kind, at all.

Second: We must consider what is being changed.  Poetry exists, like the air, most intensely in our lungs, not abstractly on a blackboard.  There is nothing wrong with things written on a blackboard, with abstract fervor, with speculation and dreams.  But the air is heavy.   As light and dreamy and windy as it may seem, the atmosphere itself cannot be changed radically—its very existence has a certain amount of pressure, in pounds per square inch, throughout the sublunary realm, where all of us are universally and singularly subject to it. 

Poetry, like the air, pushes back when we try to move or change it.  Poetry, like the air, may seem insubstantial and easily moved in its local existence, but there is more substance and bulk to it than is dreamed of in the pedants’ philosophies.

Poetry, like air, acts on us, perhaps routinely and mundanely, but still so, far more than we, as individuals, in front of a blackboard (even with lots of chalk), can hope to act on it.

If we altered only slightly the chemistry of the atmosphere, life that breathes that atmosphere would radically change; even die.  Poetry is that ubiquitious, and that correspondent with us.  It matters not whether life that breathes air or air itself first emerged in the planetary process; life and air, life and poetry are one, and cannot be separated theoretically, on a blackboard, or anywhere else.

Third: We can alter paint and stone and words, and this is what painters and sculptors and poets by definition do; but this is not the same as altering painting and sculpture and poetry, which none, by definition do, and to make the claim that human volition does do this, insults every individual painter, sculptor and poet, worthy of the name.  The alteration belongs to the poet, which the theory-mad pedant would claim for his own; the pedant’s claim collpases, however, under what he (the pedant) claims (gesticulating near his blackboard) to stand on.

Fourth:  Demolishing the cult of ‘the new’ in general terms, as we have just done, is relatively easy, but the pedants can still crawl beneath the radar of such reasoning in the dirt and mud of their pluralism; they will connect ‘the new’ poetry of 1960 to “modern jazz” and “abstract painting.”  These American art forms of the 20th century, jazz and abstract painting, do not exist “on a blackboard;” nor does Charles Olson’s typewriter, which allowed him to print his poems “on a field,” exist “only a blackboard.”   The breaking of line, stanza, metre, sentiment, narrative, signifier, signified, word, intent, unity and elitism, is also not a theory “on a blackboard,” the ‘make it new’ pedants will cry.

“Love is not love when it alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.”   The alteration of poetry, the removing of “line, stanza, metre, sentiment, narrative, signifier, signified, word, intent, and unity” (none of these items are “elitist” any more than their removal is) does alter when it alteration finds, and thus love (poetry) is not love (poetry).

If you take away the components of love, if you take away the components of poetry, you are left with one thing: the blackboard.

Jazz is music and abstract painting, painting, only so far as they exist in those recognizable modes; this is a truism.  The removal of traits and traces in, and of, the mode is merely narrowing in a purely aesthetic way, an aesthetic strategy within the workings of those modes, themselves.   The new-fangled destruction of an art is cogent only when the mode, or the art, survives; after the line is crossed, it is simply that: removal by the remover: destruction.

Fifth:  Charles Olson can spatter words upon his two-dimensional “field,” but this urges the poem towards the pictorial, and one cannot gesture in that direction without conjuring the painters, who present spatial effects on a two-dimensional space, and most of them in a far more riveting fashion than  Olson, impotently imprisoned by his paltry, unexamined, and limited theoretics, on his “page.”   There is no escape for Olson.  He can’t have his cake and eat it.  He cannot invoke “field” without settling the account of all that “field” means in a wider sense, both physically, theoretically and historically, making him a new failure in an old medium.  Olson childishly demonstrated why poetry could not, and cannot, exist in the way he wanted it to, much less thrive in the way he wanted it to.   The impotence, of course, does not belong to Olson; he didn’t invent spurious spacing; anyway, how can there be an inventor of a nullity?   There is nothing but superfluity to be won here, of course; any engagement of the particulars (if they could be called that) of Olson’s delusional pontifications would aid only the aspirations of the followers and pedants themselves.

Sixth:  The pedants will always be able to find correlations; jazz and abstract painting were mentioned—but even Marjorie Perloff, an avant-garde poetry advocate if there ever was one, in her 1997 essay, “Whose New American Poetry?” scorned the idea (put forth by Allen in his  feeble introduction) that Mr. Allen’s new poetry was like “jazz or abstract painting.”  How so?  Even Perloff knows that dog won’t hunt.

The attempt at finding correlation to other ‘new’ modes fails; what works, apparently, according to Perloff, is the correlation to older “new” poetry, the original Modernists, who had done it already, so OK, Allen’s new poets can attach themselves to Pound and Williams (born in the 19th century).  Perloff also points out that many key players in the so-called “third wave” of Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology were the same age (older, in the case of Olson) as the “second wave” of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.  Perloff also rains on the Allen parade by pointing out two more issues: the lack of women in the “new” poets and also how quickly the old distinctions faded; by the 80s, even by the 1970s, “raw v. cooked,” and “marginal v. mainstream” were gone.

What’s left, now, but nostalgia for 1960 itself?   1960 was a great year, though not for poetry

But, hey, Philly’s got great cheese steaks…


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