Sunday, March 29, 2009


So Elisa totally got to this first, and how could she not? It’s might fine literary gossip. Everyone loves to see those creative types behaving badly.

[Small interpolation: I had to read an epithalamion by Georges Perec in a wedding recently, and was so fatigued by all the French words that I inadvertently substituted “pointy-headed philosophers” for “pointy-hatted philosophers,” so I guess I’m no better than anyone else in this regard.]

But I’m totally going to hitch my wagon to this gravy train (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor), since I drafted this before Ms. Gabbert’s excellent post. As previously linked by her, on Exoskeleton, Johannes Göransson has posted a debriefing on what he learned at Iowa (via Lime Tree). It’s kind of funny and kind of depressing at the same time:

Lots of people bantered around the phrase "post-language poet"--as I am a... This means that they--like Jorie--used some of the textures of langpo to recreate high modernism, elegance, high learning--as opposed to Marvin Bell's old-guard poetics of authenticity. [...] I remember a debate I got in because someone called something (not mine) "pornographic" because it wasn't complex; I said "but I like pornos."

[This reminded me of my introduction to grad school. The very first week I was there, I got a writing conference scholarship, which involved a reading. After I gave my reading, one of the third years in my program (whom I had never met before) came up to me and said, “Don’t you think it’s a little weird for you to be writing about a teenage girl?” A rhetorical question if I’ve ever heard one.]

In my view, Göransson is extraordinarily open and even-handed in his “bullet points.” He names names and isn’t coy at all about the class politics--the least favorite and most uncomfortable subject even for most of the “revolutionaries” among us. But in the end, the conclusion he comes to is that whether or not he respected, liked, or despised his colleagues, people there thought about poetry all the time, and it was clear that they felt it was the most important thing. I would say that my graduate school experience was no less full of camps, palace coups, thefts, intrigues, betrayals, ideological attacks, and absurdities, but that this pervasive “pathological excitement” about verse made it all worth it.

I think writers would be comforted by the thought of a world in which poetry is a matter of dire public concern, and the question of whether or not Milton could have written Shakespeare’s plays is as scandalous as Lindsay Lohan’s choice of companions.

And now… because I’m not a total dittohead... some Whitman.

I confess that I’ve always had a hard time with his bellowing to the cheap seats, making sure that everybody knew who he was and that he was everybody. To quote Lynn Emanuel’s “Walt, I Salute You!”:

...inside, like you, I am in my hydroelectric mode.
The infinite and abstract current of my description
launches itself at the weakling grass. Walt, everything I see I am!

...Walt! You have me by the throat!
Everywhere I turn you rise up insurmountable and near.

He generally kind of makes me feel like a sock puppet, with his oratory and his wish to deposit many many podlings inside of us. I don’t think there’s ever been a more presumptuous use of the plural “I” in literature. Sure, his long lines and his train engine stamina for stanzas was and is impressive, and my undergrad poetry professor once spent half an hour demonstrating a brilliant metrical inversion in one of his lines, but I tend to bristle around poets who are anxious about community and solve this by appropriating every sentiment (or scrap of power) in sight.

That being said, I must admit that Richard Tayson’s piece in The Virginia Quarterly Review made me appreciate the kind of, er, speakerhood problems he was facing as a gay poet (NPR podcast here ).

I guess it never occurred to me to think of Whitman’s communal invocation/necromancy as a sort of cousin of camp. Instead of taking gender and distorting it by magnifying its traits, one could argue that Whitman’s mystical megaphone stole public speech in much the same manner. As Tayson points out, he did censor himself by muting less coy references to his love for men, but even the flourishes that remain can be viewed as a clever example of seizing the means of production, as it were, in order to insert one’s own emendations. And you’d have to go all the way in order to provide enough cover for one’s, uh, lyrical proclivities. Even constructing a towering messianic consciousness in verse wasn’t enough to protect him from the criticism, as Tayson points out:

His work was called “a mass of stupid filth” (New York Criterion, November 10, 1855); “indecent” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Atlantic Monthly, September 1890); “uncouth,” “grotesque,” and “reckless” (Charles A. Dana, Tribune 1894); “intolerable” and “disgusting” (critic Charles Eliot Norton, 1913); and “trashy, profane, and obscene” (J. P. Lesley, a geologist who apparently liked poetry). “It’s as if the beasts spoke,” Thoreau famously quipped. Emily Dickinson, also famously, indicated that though she’d never read his book and of course had never met him, she “was told he was disgraceful,” a phrase that would resonate with Willa Cather’s stance that Whitman was a “dirty old man.” Booksellers withdrew Whitman’s vanity-published 1855 Leaves from their stocks, and libraries, most famously Harvard, kept the book under lock and key, even unto Whitman’s death.

It always pleases me to find an extra facet of subversion hidden here and there in poems and writers.

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