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 ? True, Weinberger refers to the "open-ended rather than closed forms" of his "innovators" and talks of their "simultaneity" and "musicality" 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 , 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 s, 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 , 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. 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. 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 , for a new new poetry. And here I turn to the big anthologies of , Hoover's and Messerli's. 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 pages and poets, From the Other Side of the Century includes somewhat fewer poets 84 but runs to 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 pages could cover thirty-eight New American Poets? 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 but here approximately 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. Hoover covers almost as many language poets as does Messerli but in significantly shorter selections ; and his anthology includes the communities of St. 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. 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. 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:.
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.
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 But because he had already produced one anthology of Language poetries in , 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.
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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. 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. In both cases, lineation coupled with repetition brings out latent meanings, as in line 4 of "fog. 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.
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. Which of these poems is "establishment," which "counterculture"? Ammons and comes from Corson's Inlet 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 she was taken to meet Williams, who had already had a serious stroke. 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. Williams himself, as James E. Breslin points out was somewhat patronizing to this attractive young woman poet: in a 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.go to link
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JEBB But whatever Williams's own reservations, Levertov was now taken up by Rexroth and Creeley and, most important, by James Laughlin. In , Levertov had what she herself calls "the happiness and honor of becoming. Indeed, her contract is such that Laughlin will publish any poetry or poetics manuscript she cares to bring out. 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:.
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 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. 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.
Norton, Alfred A.