“YOUR AVANT-GARDE IS NOT AVANT-GARDE” MAZER, ARCHAMBEAU, AND BURT AT THE GROLIER

“In  speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound.” —Edgar Poe

Last Friday evening at the Grolier poetry bookshop, Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, and Ben Mazer each read a paper on ‘Poetry: What’s Next?’ Wise man Henry Gould, up from RI, was in the audience, as was Philip Nikolayev, extraordinary poet and translator. Scarriet, fortunate the Grolier is in our own backyard, attended out of mere curiosity and a certain low motive pertaining to literary friendship.

Archambeau, Burt, and Mazer are powerhouses of Letters: they are scholars and authors we need to know about.

Mazer is a scowler; Archambeau, a smiler; and Burt simply harangues, mouth perpetually open. But do not be fooled by these superficial observations, which we make with affection; all three, when one moves into their personal orbit, are as sweet as can be, civilized by poetry in that conspiracy which outsiders must feel is the purpose of poetry: to strive to make manners and politeness supreme. Those educated by Letters are nice. The poet with low morals belongs to another era, and something tells us the lacking morals part was always a myth. With poets, a handshake is never a handshake; or it may be one, or less of one, or more of one, and one never knows this, and that is the whole point, and the joy, or the despair, of the poet and their poetry. But they do, finally, shake hands like everyone else, even the most philosophical of them.

But to the presentation itself: the three papers stuck to poetry, and thus were not about poetry.

To properly discuss a thing, one must discuss its parts. The parts, however, because they are parts, do not resemble the thing, and discussing parts is to stray from the thing, like being in the ocean away from the island (it can be scary), and none of the speakers, as witty as they were, had the intellectual courage to do this. They were all very much aware that they were to speak on poetry—poetry as it is always generally discussed by their contemporaries, and this is what they did.

Or at least Mazer and Burt did so.

Archambeau pointed out the post-modern marketing phenomenon of naming an electronic device a Blackberry, saying this was an act of Symbolist Poetry, and here this author and critic, a brilliant man of substance with a shy smile, was, in his cleverness, feeling his way towards the principle.

But alas, the tendency to discuss actual parts, so we might better familiarize ourselves with the actual thing comes up against that which most hinders it: poetry—in this case, Symbolist Poetry, one of many self-contained stars in a modernist firmament with astronomers obsessed with “what’s next?” and leaving “what is it?” to the old-fashioned, like Aristotle, Plato, and Shelley, who knew that “what’s next” cannot be discussed if we don’t wonder “what is it?” and that we should never take the latter for granted.

We are always discussing newly “what is it?”

“What’s next?” belongs only to Modernism’s sleight-of-hand.

But back to Blackberry. Archambeau gave us the wonderful counter-example, “Murphy’s Oil,” the old way of naming before Mallarme’s allusiveness fired up the imagination of the market; yet weren’t they calling baseball teams Giants back in the 19th century?

Archambeau also claimed that in the near future poets were going to rhyme like they had never rhymed before. A rhyme would become like a dare-devil “stunt,” Archambeau happily assured us, quoting some Jay-Z, and as we were swept up in this prophecy of euphoria, we still managed to wonder: where were the edifying examples? What makes a good rhyme and a bad rhyme? For to ask, “what is it?” implies the good: What is good poetry? What is good rhyme? We don’t want the bad, whether it’s behind us or before us.

The three gentlemen unconsciously pursued this course, as well: it was assumed all that was coming was good. Mazer, perhaps, escaped this, for he spoke on what poetry should be, in general; his was more an ought than a prophecy: Burt and Archambeau hewed to ‘this is a particular thing that is actually going to happen if it is not sort of happening already,’ predictions without much daring, saying only: we will see more of this already fully developed type of poetry.

None seemed conscious of it, but all three, we were rather pleased to hear, struck a concerted blow against the “what’s next?” trope.

Mazer fought the good fight with his scornful, “your avant-garde is not avant-garde.”

Burt, blurting “if I see one more book on Conceptualism or Flarf, I will…refuse to read it!” was another sign that there is a rebellion brewing against the whole blind, played-out, modernist, “what’s next?” syndrome, and a desire to get off the ‘what’s new’ treadmill for a moment.

But what did they say was coming?

We already mentioned that Archambeau sees a revival of rhyme, together with a counter movement of Symbolist “nuance,” and spent the rest of his twenty minutes naming familiar poetries in recent history: the Fireside Poets, featuring Longfellow, and their poetry of “middle class values” (and thus deserving, we assume, oblivion), Gertrude Stein foregrounding language for its own sake, with a ‘poetry only’ sub-culture of magazines and bookstores growing in the wake of poetry detaching itself from middle class values, giving rise to Vanessa Place and Conceptualism, as poetry against middle class values (and capitalism) replaces poetry for middle class values. And then we come full circle as Archambeau reminds us the modernist Frost is a poet of middle class values and really, so are the current poets of the Ethnic, Gender, Racial, Regional, Disability, micro-communities.

Archambeau ended with the epigrammatic observation that ‘what’s next’ is a revival of the past and it is “hard to predict the past.”

It is even harder to say what the past is, and what poetry is. This we did not get. “Rhyme” and “middle class values” satisfy a superficial hunger; the salted popcorn we eat forever without getting close to what poetry is, exactly.

Burt came next, and Burt, who has read more than anyone else, seemed determined to give us not only the forest and the trees, but a command to protect both: the big thing on the horizon for Burt is a big thing: poems of “area study,” which are “reported facts of a place,” grounding the poet in geographical reality, and one has to admire the ambition and the practicality, not to mention the many neo-classical, Romantic, and Modernist precedents. Williams’ Patterson and Olson’s Gloucester, as Burt quickly concedes, may fail in the “elegance and concision” departments, but what better way to talk about Climate Change?

Burt, a Harvard professor, pays homage, consciously, or not, to his institution’s illustrious poetic tradition: Emerson through Jorie Graham (her recent acute concern for the planet is her expansive-lyric trump card) champion America’s and the World’s Wilderness; this was explicit in Burt’s talk: “Area Study” poetry ought not to be “a cultural center,” Burt warned, like “Brooklyn or San Francisco;” a poet like Ammons should record planetary destruction where the public might not notice.

The other vital development for Burt will be poetry that, unlike “Area Study,” does embrace “ornament,” in poetry that is “uselessly beautiful.” And again, Stephen Burt makes sure his political sensitivity is on display: women are doing this kind of poetry, he tells us.

Burt is mad for the Eternal Feminine, embracing the earth in Area Study and, in his counter trend, women’s work that is “elaborate without worrying about the past,” and “not efficient or war-like.” This is the passive, receptive Muse of Shelley; this is Archambeau’s New Rhyme movement, but Burt is completely female, and so no dead white male “revivalist” interest is allowed; he mentions Angie Estes, “not a New Formalist of the 80s” and quotes her in perhaps the best example offered in an evening with few examples: “scent of a sentence which is ready to speak.” Note the absence of rhyme’s muscle, and instead the liquid alliteration.

Burt is ready for the pastoral and the pretty, the rustic and the raw. Burt is the female sprawl to Archambeau’s male all. Burt cannot abide the gallery and its Conceptual, urbane cleverness and really seems to want to leave the past behind; the closest he comes to cultural centrality is a nod to what he sees as a “smarter performance poetry” on the horizon, a “de-centered, tweetable, slam poetry, far from the literary past.” The poets Burt cites in this third movement are women, too: Ariana Reines, Patricia Lockwood, and Daniella Pafunda.

Mazer followed, and he was the rock rising above the fire and the water, rather glum compared to the first two, arguing for abiding truths like “empathic imagination” and “divine oracularity,” quoting early 20th century figures not to signal revolutionary beginnings, but to eulogize trends fizzling out in the “de-radicalization” and ahistorical “creative writing boon” and “awards” obsessed present. Mazer was playing the real poet in the room, intoning a dark warning to the glib critics. He did not mention any contemporary poets. Archambeau pointed to the fire in the sky, Burt showed us the chuckling streams hidden around the mountain. Mazer, by implication, was the mountain.

No one spoke on the anthology; and what possible role that would play in the future of poetry.

There were a few questions from the audience afterwards: Henry Gould wondered about the Balkanization of poetry; obsessed with movements and trends, aren’t we watering down what should be a poetry of the best combination of all possible parts?

Gould is right, of course. If Burt, for instance, is unwilling to clear a space where even Global Warming Deniers can participate, then, rightly or wrongly, the whole thing is finally about Global Warming, not poetry.

Poetry should have one, and only one, political rule: inclusivity.  The inclusivity should be radical; that is, we should all be included right now; a participatory government may say: your candidate lost—work, work, work, and come back in four years; poetry is more inclusive, still.  No subject gets special treatment in poetry. Will certain political beliefs lend themselves better to the poetic enterprisePerhaps. But we need to find out only when the example is before us, and cooly examined.

We have a feeling only Mazer, standing aloof from contemporary clamor, would really judge a new poem solely on its poetic merit. Brilliant Burt and artful Archambeau, immersed as they are in pluralistic poetics, would pigeon-hole first, and then judge. This we feel, even as we confess to being more entertained by Burt and Archambeau’s presentations.

A WORDY BORDER

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus looms over the Modernist School

A poem is a philosophical song.

The poem’s hub may be mad hilarity or too grim, or secretive, for words, but a poem’s circumferance will always be a wordy border, patrolled by pedants indifferent to its passionate origins, scratching their graying heads, asking, “Is this poem great?  Is it culturally relevant?”

In the year 2000, David Lehman, poet and editor of  the annual Best American Poetry series (1988—present) graciously asked all of his previous guest editors up until that point (13 and all prestigious American poets) to name their top 15 poems of the 20th century—a pretty simple request, and, we think all would agree, an interesting assignment.  The results were published in the back of The Best American Poetry 2000 volume.

Two of the Best American Poetry Guest editors—Louise Gluck and Adrienne Rich—refused to play.

One—Richard Howard—didn’t follow the rule, and listed books instead of poems.

Three—Howard, Mark Strand and Donald Hall—limited themselves to dead poets.

David Lehman added his list as well—so a total of 12 important American poets participated.

We are not here to impugn the results—only to analyze them.  We might as well get this out of the way first: the VIDA score of “The Best American Poetry of the Twentieth Century” (as Lehman titled the section) was abysmal: 16% of the choices were by women, although 30% of the editors originally asked by Lehman were female.  It didn’t help the women that two women editors refused to participate.  And, if you remove Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore from the choices of the best poems of the 20th century by this distinguished panel, the VIDA score drops to 5%  Not one poem by Edna Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Amy Lowell, Mary Oliver, or Sharon Olds was chosen.

The Best American Poetry editors all seemed to run in fear of the popular poem.  The quality of the choices can be disputed, but there was a glaring sameness about the choices, a definite lock-step approach by the group.  Not only did the individuals within the group select the same authors and the same poems with great frequency, but poems with the same themes. 

According to the nearly 200 poems selected by the group in the category: Best Poem of the 20th Century, the easy winner was: Elizabeth Bishop writing about an animal.  Only Frost got more votes than Bishop.

Compiling all the votes, here’s how the Top 15 Greatest Poems of the 20th Century, according to John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Jorie Graham, Mark Strand, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck (Didn’t play), A.R. Ammons, Richard Howard, Adrienne Rich (Didn’t play), James Tate, John Hollander, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, and David Lehman:

1.    The Waste Land -TS Eliot 1922
2.   The Bridge -Hart Crane 1930
3.    In Praise of Limestone -W.H. Auden 1948
4.    Little Gidding  -TS Eliot 1941
5.    Book of Ephraim  -James Merrill 1976
6.    Voyages  -Hart Crane 1926
7.    Asphodel, That Greeny Flower  -WC Williams 1962
8.    77 Dream Songs  -John Berryman  1964
9.    After Apple Picking  -Robert Frost  1914
10.    Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening  -Robert Frost  1923
11.     At The Fishhouses  -Elizabeth Bishop  1955
12.    The Comedian As The Letter C  -Wallace Stevens  1923
13.    Spring and All  -WC Williams  1923
14.    The Auroras of Autumn  -Wallace Stevens  1950
15.    Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror  -John Ashbery  1974

The selections are all permeated by a similar theme and approach: turgid language; a restlessness of philosophical meditation; a singular, yet ever-shifting landscape; rhetoric far more descriptive than emotive; given to lyrical flights of prose, broadly metaphorical, using more frequently the ideas of Heraclitus, famous for his, “no man ever steps in the same river twice—it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same man.”

Number eleven on the list, “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, is pure Heraclitus.  Her poem ends:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

Auden’s poem, at number three, “In Praise of Limestone,” as you can see from the opening lines, is remarkably similar:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish

“The Comedian As The Letter C” by Wallace Stevens, at no. 12, is self-consciously Heraclitean in its prose-poetry:

gaudy, gusty panoply…

That prose should wear a poem’s guise at last…

Shebang. Exeunt omnes. Here was prose
More exquisite than any tumbling verse…

The bombast of Hart Crane was extremely popular with the voters:

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

They say the wind is sucked, not blown.  Most poets and critics, even as they wear the gowns of culture and history, are pulled along by group-think, sucked into judgement without will, trapped by the tuggings of trends and fashions.

All of these choices seem to be driven by the same post-World War I, European Modernist sensibility.  Gloomy meditations on the two world wars belong to T.S. Eliot’s English point of view in “The Waste Land” and “Little Gidding.”   Since Auden was included as an American, it seems poets like Louis Simpson, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Stephen Spender should have been included, especially since the Modernism these Best American Poets so admire is very European.

The last quarter of the 20th century was almost completely neglected.  Poets such as Billy Collins, Donald Justice, Robert Pinsky, and Jack Spicer got no votes at all.  Ginsberg got only one vote—for “Howl” by Rita Dove.

Were the voters seeking to silence their contemporary rivals by focusing on the first half of the twentieth century?

Other poets getting more than one vote for their poems were Pound, Roethke, Robinson, O’Hara, Lowell, Creeley, Schuyler, Wilbur, Warren, Jarrell, and Ammons.

BATE AND SWITCH: THE INFLUENCE OF ANXIETY

W. Jackson Bate: published a more cogent and comprehensive thesis with the term ‘anxiety of influence’ several years before Harold Bloom did.

Who remembers the specifics of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” argument?

Anyone remember the six types of influence which comprise the central chapters of Bloom’s original book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” published in 1973?

No?

Clinamen (swerving), Tessera (completing), Kenosis (breaking), Daemonization (transcending), Askesis (purging), Apophrades (reversing) don’t ring any bells?

Didn’t think so.

The idea of literary “influence” was certainly not original in 1973.

The actual writing of Bloom’s famous work, “The Anxiety of Influence,” no longer resonates, if it ever did.

Looking back at the last 100 years of American Letters:

Pound set off a series of anarchist bombs, working the little magazine circuit, and things were unsettled for about 20 years.

T.S. Eliot ruled over the ruins for aproximately 40 years.

The critical torch was passed to Harold Bloom about 40 years ago.

The transition to Bloom occured when the New Criticism, famous exactly when Eliot was famous, faded before the twin triumph of the Beats, who survive today in Slam poetry readings, and the ‘new’ poetry—whose post-modernism lives in various academic niches and on Silliman’s blog.

Bloom, difficult and dull, even more so than Eliot—who was at least a poet as well as a critic—is the survivor of the moment, and Bloom is an uncanny best-seller (perhaps because Bloom’s assigned in school a lot).

In a nutshell, then, the critical domain has been divided between Eliot (then) and Bloom (now).

What do Eliot and Bloom have in common, besides the fact they both published virulent attacks on Poe?

The late John Hollander, Bloom’s former colleague at Yale, in his favorable review of The Anxiety of Influence in the New York Times, March 4, 1973, places importance on Bloom, the Romantic, breaking with Eliot, the Modernist:

T.S. Eliot’s conjuror’s patter about the literary tradition that lay behind his–and all of truly modern–poetry invoked the Middle Ages, Dante, 17th-century English literature exclusive of Milton and French symbolism. It diverted his readers’ eyes from the confederate power of Tennyson’s ghost, unacknowledged, assisting him behind a screen. (Eliot’s contemporary, Ezra Pound, was more open about his own stage assistant, Browning’s spirit, as was Yeats about Shelley’s and Blake’s.) In his essay of 1919, Eliot declared that a poet must “develop or procure” a consciousness of the past, maintaining that if we moderns do indeed know more than dead writers, it is precisely they–the dead writers–who constitute what we know.

Harold Bloom of Yale, an interpretive scholar of English and American romanticism, has for years been propounding a view of literary history and its relation to creative originality quite antithetical to the allied formulations of Eliot and Pound. Along with his own teachers, Northrop Frye and Meyer H. Abrams, but in very different ways, Bloom has helped to make the study of Romantic poetry as intellectually and spiritually challenging a branch of literary studies as one may find. The recent study of the romantic tradition has corrected the modernist dogmas about romanticism–the very word evoked the imprecise, the vague, the rhetorical–and argued for the centrality of the major English poetic line which modernism rejected. Eliot hankered after the Christian orthodoxy, classicism and royalty; the tradition he turned away from, the line running from Spenser, to Milton through the romantic poets to Browning, Tennyson and Yeats, was protestant, visionary and, save at its terminus, revolutionary.

–John Hollander, NY Times, 1973

Harold Bloom, then, was a part of a revolt against Modernism and its “dogmas about romanticism,” according to Hollander.

Bloom has said he deeply resented the dominance in Letters of T.S. Eliot, so it makes sense that Bloom’s first major study was on Eliot’s nemesis, Shelley (it is often debated who Eliot reviled more: Poe or Shelley).

Bloom’s chief analogy in The Anxiety of Influence draws on the work of another writer Eliot swerved away from: Milton.

But how does it help a writer to think of himself as Milton’s Satan, and a precursor who may happen to haunt him, Milton’s God?

The entire “Anxiety” agon, as articulated by Bloom in his book, and elsewhere, is merely Bloom’s private vision, peopled with Bloom’s own abstract and scholarly connections.  Hollander hints as much, when he calls Bloom’s book, “maddening,” “dense,” “strange,” and “outrageous.”

Bloom’s idea of “misreading” as a major aspect of “influence” is a truism, for “influence” is never a straight line—if it were, it would be copying.  Bate also covered the exact same ground– in clearer prose.

So if Bloom’s most famous agon has no originality, what, we may ask, was ‘the torch’ that was passed from Eliot to Bloom, in the most general terms?

We already stated both Eliot and Bloom abused Poe, even though Eliot abused Shelley, and Bloom helped save Shelley and the Romantics from abuse by the Modernists.

Since Poe was a major figure abused by the Modernists, it is odd that Bloom would have such hatred for Poe (and we do mean hatred, writing-him-out-of-the-canon hatred) for never mind hating such a giant as Poe in the first place, but how could one have the sensibility to reach out a hand to Shelley, after the Romantic poet’s long abuse at the hands of the Moderns/New Critics, while at the same, joining the Moderns/New Critics in kicking Poe off the cliff?  It doesn’t make sense.

But then we remember Emerson.  Bloom glories in Emerson, a writer who perfectly fits Bloom’s aphorism: “all criticism is prose poetry.”  It is precisely because there is a writer like Emerson that Bloom can secretly believe that he (Bloom) can wear the poet’s crown. Like Bloom, Emerson didn’t like to write reviews, wrote no fiction, didn’t care for science, and is most remembered for lofty, secular, religiously-tinged sermons.

Emerson, in a nasty moment, called Poe’s mastery in all those areas which Emerson came up miserably short, a “jingle,” which, ironically, in the little “influence” game we are playing now, is the same word T.S. Eliot used to deride Shelley.

Another irony, no doubt lost on Bloom, is that Emerson’s New England roots are intertwined with Eliot’s, through Eliot’s highly influential Unitarian grandfather—who married the sister of a Transcendentalist, the group who Poe mocked in his war on the New England of Emerson.

None of this should matter to Bloom, who never brings biography or history into his Criticism, and is essentially like his mentor, Northrup Frye, another Emersonian of over-arching rhetoric.

How can you talk of “influence” without reviewing books and poems, and without talking about history and actual human beings and their actual lives and works?

You can’t.

So Bloom, with his cold-blooded, detached, academic, self-involved, dense, digressive, mythologizing and his Emerson-worship, is not a triumphant return of the Humanist Romantics, but simply the priestly return of T.S. Eliot and the New Critics in a clumsy disguise.  Bloom’s book on Shelley, (published in the 50s) was diversionary, a puff of anti-Eliot smoke.

As Hollander mentioned, Bloom’s other mentor, beside Frye, was M.H. Abrams, the Norton Anthology of Literature founder—that would be someone to know!  Abrams was a deep admirer of Pound and Eliot and a good friend of A.R. Ammons, of whom Bloom just happened to be a great champion, even in his work, The Anxiety of InfluenceIf I’m going to fancy a contemporary, it might as well be Archie Ammons, a good friend of my profoundly influential teacher, Mike Abrams.  Influence, indeed!

Hollander’s scene of Bloom with flag of Romanticism waving is mere hyperbole.  Influence is wet-lipped and real, not merely abstract and mythopoeic.

Thirty years after The Anxiety of Influence, Foetry.com discovered that “influence” is much more local and current than many realize.

Scarriet has gone on to discover that if you study poetry going back a half-a-dozen generations, or further, you keep running into the same dozen or so names: Emerson, William James, I.A. Richards, etc.

The following was taken from an obituary of Pulitzer Prize winning Keats biographer, W. Jackson Bate:

Late in life he worried about increasing academic specialisations. “The humanities,” he remarked to John Paul Russo in a 1986 interview,

are always digressing and they can be used . . . for any purpose. But what is misused in the sciences is the result, whereas the approach in the humanities can be infinitely diverse, and wayward, perverse as well as diverse, foolish, trivial, as the result of airy opinion, impulse, caprice, and can be twisted by . . . envy, rivalry, prejudices of all kinds. [Samuel] Johnson says the first step in greatness is to be honest. If there can be simply a facing up to the essentials of common experience, the humanities can almost in a moment shake themselves into sanity.”

–James Engell, Bate obituary, 1999

It might be interesting to take a glance at Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet  (1970) which Hollander cannot help but mention early in his review of Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973).  Hollander must have known, with Bloom, the author, and everyone else involved in the writing and publishing of The Anxiety of Influence, that Bloom was merely following fast behind Bate, who, in turn, was repeating a very old thesis. To read both works (Bate and Bloom) is to be struck by how the work which came first (Bate’s) is far more readable, insightful, and much better researched.  The “influence of anxiety” is here: Bloom robbing from Bate. (Bate’s book even gives cursory thanks to Bloom.) Here is Bate from the first page of his prize-winning book—actually a collection of lectures delivered at the University of Toronto in 1969:

I have often wondered whether we could find any more comprehensive way of taking up the whole of English poetry during the last three centuries—or for that matter the modern history of the arts in general—than by exploring the effects of this accumulating anxiety and the question it so directly presents to the poet or artist: What is there left to do? To say this has always been a problem, and that the arts have still managed to survive, does not undercut the fact that it has become far more pressing in the modern world. Of course the situation is an old one. We need not even start with Rome or Alexandria, those examplars of what it can mean to the artist to stand in competition with an admired past. We could go back to an almost forgotten Egyptian scribe of 2000 B.C. (Khakheperresenb), who inherited in his literary legacy no Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, or Dickens—no formidable variety of literary genres available in thousands of libraries—yet who still left the poignant epigram: “Would I had phrases that were not known, utterances that are strange, in new language that has not been used, free from repetition, not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.” But a problem can more acute under some conditions than others. And, whatever other generalizations can be made about the arts since the Renaissance, a fact with which we can hardly quarrel—though we instinctively resist some of the implicaitons—is that the means of preserving and distributing the literature (and more recently the other arts) of the past have immeasurably increased, and to such a point that we now have confronting the artist—or have in potentia—a vast array of varied achievement, existing and constantly multiplying in an “eternal present.”

We could, in fact, argue that the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness, before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past, has become the greatest single problem that modern art (art, that is to say, since the later seventeenth century) has had to face, and that it will become increasingly so in the future.

–W. Jackson Bate

Compared to Bloom, Bate, the more comprehensive scholar, made the case for “anxiety of influence” before Bloom did, and in a far more clear, urgent, historical, and practical manner, without Bloom’s torturous, mytho-poeic rhetoric—but this is not the place to wonder why Bloom got all the attention.  The influence of Bloom’s mentor, M.H. Abrams, founder of the Norton Anthology, who in turn had been mentored by I.A. Richards, may have had something to do with it, or the fact that Bloom jumped on the Ashbery (and Ammons) bandwagon, which at that moment was where contemporary poetry was heading, but these considerations require more research, even if they are, in a sly way, relevant to the theme of “influence.”

The question is, should there be “anxiety” because of “influence,” and what sort of “influence” are we talking about, anyway?  All poets know that who you know helps you to become famous, and that not knowing the right people will much sooner deny you fame than having easy access to the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Harold Bloom.

As much as we respect W. Jackson Bate, and whether or not you laugh at the pomposity of Bloom, we believe the thesis (as articulated by the old Egyptian scribe, or Bate or Bloom) is bunk.

Literary influence should not cause anxiety, unless by influence you mean: plagiarism, theft, foetry, and other kinds of fakery.

The general question of “anxiety of influence” must have arisen as scholars in the middle of the last century grew uneasy as they noticed how easily and quickly the past had been cut off by the Modernist anarchists.

The crude, anxious, guppie-tank view was expressed by T.S. Eliot (quoted by Bate is his book):

Not only every great poet, but every genuine, though lesser poet, fulfills once for all some possibility of the language, and so leaves one possibility less for his successors.

–T.S. Eliot

When Bloom anxiously took the Critical Crown from an anxious Eliot, it was not a break.

It was a continuation.

NATURE’S GAME: AMMONS V. LAUX

 

About a quarter of the participants in the 2011 APR March Madness run by Scarriet also vied for the Best American Poetry title in Scarriet’s 2010 tourney. 

Billy Collins won the BAP championship in 2010, but he’s nowhere to be seen in the 25% APR overlap in 2011

The highest finisher in the 2010 BAP tournament who is also in APR is William Kulik. (Take note, future anthologists.)

Our next contestants, 6th seed A.R. “Archie” Ammons and 11th seed Dorianne “D-low” Laux, were both in the 2010 BAP March Madness.

Dorianne Laux’s “The Shipfitter’s Wife” was in last year’s BAP March Madness and that poem alone is sure to guarantee her immortality. Laux belongs to the Sharon Olds school of unabashed love and sexuality.

The Lovers

She is about to come. This time,
they are sitting up, joined below the belly,
feet cupped like sleek hands praying
at the base of each other’s spines.
And when something lifts within her
toward a light she’s sure, once again,
she can’t bear, she opens her eyes
and sees his face is turned away,
one arm behind him, hands splayed
palm down on the mattress, to brace himself
so he can lever his hips, touch
with the bright tip the innermost spot.
And she finds she can’t bear it—
not his beautiful neck, stretched and corded,
not his hair fallen to one side like beach grass,
not the curved wing of his ear, washed thin
with daylight, deep pink of the inner body—
what she can’t bear is that she can’t see his face,
not that she thinks this exactly—she is rocking
and breathing—it’s more her body’s though,
opening, as it is, into its own sheer truth.
So that when her hand lifts of its own violation
and slaps him, twice on the chest,
on that pad of muscled flesh just above the nipple,
slaps him twice, fast, like a nursing child
trying to get a mother’s attention,
she’s startled by the sound,
though when he turns his face to hers—
which is what her body wants, his eyes
pulled open, as if she had bitten—
she does reach out and bite him, on the shoulder,
not hard, but with the power infants have
over those who have borne them, tied as they are
to the body, and so, tied to the pleasure,
the exquisite pain of this world.
And when she lifts her face he sees
where she’s gone, knows she can’t speak,
is traveling toward something essential,
toward the core of her need, so he simply
watches, steadily, with an animal calm
as she arches and screams, watches the face that,
if she could see it, she would never let him see.

–Dorianne Laux

MARLA MUSE: Wow.

Ammons, on the other handis our modern Wordsworth.

Widespread Implications

How sweetly now like a boy I dawdle by ditches,
broken rocky brooks that clear streams through

the golden leaves: the light so bright from
the leaves still up, scarlet screaming vines

lining old growths high or rounding domes of
sumac: how like a sail set out from harbor

hitting the winds I flounder this way and that
for the steady dealing in the variable time:

old boys are young boys again, peeing arcs
the pleasantest use of their innocence, up

against trees or into boles, rock hollows or
into already running water! returned from

the differentiation of manhood almost back to
the woman: attached but hinge-loose, flappy,

uncalled for and uncalled, the careless way
off into nothingness: where, though, but in

nothingness can the brilliance more brightly
abide, the ripple in a brook-warp as gorgeously

blank as a galaxy: I dropped the mouse,
elegantly supersmall, from the trap out by the

back sage bush, and all day his precious little
tooth shone white, his nose barely dipped in

blood:  he lay belly up snow white in the
golden October morn, but this morning, the

next, whatever prowls the night has taken him
away, a dear morsel that meant to winter

here with us

Here is the classic battle, Marla, humans v. nature.

MARLA MUSE: I prefer humans. Because there you get nature, too.

But you automatically get the human in any poem about nature…

MARLA MUSE: Tut, tut. No you don’t.

Let’s stop philosophizing; we have millions of simple—I mean, TV viewers…

MARLA MUSE: Millions who are turning away in embarrassment from Laux’s poem…

But the human…

MARLA MUSE: Ammons has made the mouse human, which is far more charming than Laux’s rather blatant camera-work…

But isn’t Ammons being sentimental with that mouse—

MARLA MUSE: Dead mouse…

And I don’t quite see how we get from the boys peeing in the first part of the Ammons poem to the mouse in the latter part of the Ammons poem, although it is a beautiful poem…

MARLA MUSE: “The Lovers” has more unity, true, though I find it trying too hard to be profound. Anyway, that’s not how I make love…

It’s not your opinion that decides, Marla…it’s the game…the game…

Look…the sweat coming off the players…

Laux 84, Ammons 80!    Dorianne Laux advances!

MORE ‘READING THIS POET IS LIKE…’

John Berryman

You are 54.  It’s the dead of winter.  You’re at a dinner, drunk, you are trembling with desire, you self-consciously intone Shakespeare to yourself in the restroom, hoping no one enters, then glance at yourself, glasses, beard, and stop.  Wash your hands, under the fingernails.

Robert Creeley

You are 21.  It’s early spring, ice still on the walks.  You are scratching the tiny beard of your perfect heart-shaped face, precise nose, you are proud of your chiseled face, you are making a decision to caress it everywhere.

Robert Hass

You are 38.  It’s late spring, and blooming.  You just had sex with a woman and you’re thinking of geese flying over the San Fernando Valley and how rain comes to us from a million miles and then you reach for a newspaper and say to the poem working itself out in your head, ‘hold on.’

Louise Gluck

You are 46.  It’s winter, roughly.    You just took a shower.  You are sitting on a white couch in a beautiful apartment with a tall plant, and muted reds on the walls; with a nice pen you strike the personal, allowing philosophy to inform a dare you wish you had made.

A.R. Ammons

You’re 40.  It’s hot, glorious summer.  You are tramping through underbrush, the burrs are sticking to your trousers, your torn Mr. Rogers sweater, your glorious brown shoes…

Donald Justice

You’re 30.   It’s September.  You’re sitting around on a long afternoon, drinking Buds and playing poker with friends: three musicians and a rocket scientist.  You’re very relaxed, having a good time, when suddenly, a melancholy fit descends.



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