A Fortnightly Review
Edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John.
By Anthony Howell.
I AM GETTING into a rhythm on my retreat: doing hybrid art, Richter style, which is hyper-figurative and hyper-abstract. Engrossed, I complete eight-by-five water-colours of the animals on this New England farm: an emu, a Bactrian camel – grey lavender, as Jody says. But first, I cut out a rectangle to make a view-finder in my cartridge-paper palette – the same paper as I use for paintings, but a larger sheet. Having found the views, I paint them as accurately as I can, usually including an animal if I can find one that isn’t asleep or even if it is. The landscape is usually more realist than the animal because the landscape is a good model, which can’t be said for the Bactrian camel. Later I superimpose the frame-finder palette over another used-up palette of the same size. In a blatantly anti-Clement Greenburg way, I see a dog’s muzzle in the result, head down, eating. I call the double palette The Dog. I also super-impose a cutaway section from a palette I have turned into a view-finder onto another uncut palette. So the art pulls both ways at once, pretty much spontaneously, the figurative image requiring the abstract smearing in order to come into existence.
How does this apply to writing?
Turning again to my own experience, I’ve completed one manuscript called The Quarry. This is a collection of un-mined notes that I kept for three years, and I want to publish it ‘as is’. Usually the note-books which constitute my quarries get typed up, and then raided relentlessly for poems, essays, and fiction. The jottings that make up a quarry are as near an equivalent as I can find to the painter’s testing-ground as he proceeds, i.e. his palette. As with the palette, my note-taking is unselfconscious: it’s Picasso’s ‘green indigestion’. Powerful abstraction of the sort that may even lean towards surrealism respects the power of the unconscious as revealed through chance, so these palettes of mine have something ‘Cagein’ about them. But equally my staunchly amateur vignettes of animal life in Massachusetts are necessary for the palettes now turned into results. My little sketches follow an innocent narrative, each a cartoon, naïvely exploring the flight of swifts and the magic carpet way that shadows of clouds flow over forested hills.
While dabbling away, I am thinking about a newish poetic term – post-divisionism. This seeks to define a region beyond the rift between the realist poetry convention (as epitomized by Lowell, say) and modernist abstraction (as epitomized by Gertrude Stein). In the UK modernist poetry is still, incredible as it sounds, ‘out in the cold’. There is little public acknowledgement of the experiments of Douglas Oliver or any of the British innovators of the latter half of the twentieth century: J.H. Prynne, Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Veronica Forrest-Thompson, Ilyassa Sequin and others.
But whether the TLS or the London Review of Books finds it hard to stomach or not, we are all well beyond the point that we have difficulty reading either the story or the story-less. That was taken for granted long ago in visual art. Thank Fairfield Porter for that. You can be a modernist and figurative, for sure you can, just look at Vermeer!
I’M BROWSING THROUGH an anthology, American Hybrid, which came out in 2009. Edited by Cole Swensen and David St John, it sets out to be the first post-divisionist anthology. It focuses on a new genre of poem – the hybrid – a synthesis of traditional and experimental styles. Cole Swensen argues that the long-acknowledged ‘fundamental division’ between experimental and traditional is ‘disappearing in American poetry in favor of hybrid approaches that blend trends from accessible lyricism to linguistic exploration’.
In a well-informed and well-argued introduction, Swensen outlines the development and the progress of the ‘divisionist’ wars that distinguished the previous century and reminds us of Paul Auster’s observation that most American poets took their cue either from the British poetic tradition or from the French. Robinson and Frost could rework ‘traditional lyric forms that would require no break from nineteenth-century poetic convention, often reinvigorating the model‘.
…the second prominent line of poetic thinking stems from the urbane modernism of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire, and moved from there into an increasing emphasis on the materiality of the text as developed by the early twentieth century avant-garde, a lineage fuelled in part by the belief that meaningful change in the arts requires dramatic rupture.
Initially this was a battle to get into the real, eschewing some elevated moral advocacy. As Pound puts it in his essay on Vorticism:
Even Aristotle distinguishes between rhetoric, ‘which is persuasion,’ and the analytical examination of truth. As a ‘critical ‘ movement, the ‘Imagisme’ of 1912 to ’14 set out ‘to bring poetry up to the level of prose.’
In the aftermath of the First World War, ‘persuasion’ was associated with propaganda, while prose was valued over ‘mushy’ verse as being down-to-earth.
However, the cult of the real soon led to a poetry that fore-grounded the reality of words, just as the painters of that time were quick to acknowledge the primacy of colour, form and handling in their own field.
It was along these lines that the split widened, and as Cole Swensen points out:
This split is more than a stylistic one; it marks two concepts of meaning: one as transcendent, the other as immanent. Thus, twentieth-century American poetry offers both a model for the poem as a vehicle for conveying thoughts, images and ideas initiated elsewhere – a model that recognises language as an accurate roadmap or system of referring to situations and things in the real world – and a model of the poem as an event on the page, in which language, while inevitably retaining a referential capacity, is emphasised as a site of meaning in its own right, and poetry is recognised as uniquely capable of displaying that.
My initial take, leafing through the large Norton publication which is the anthology, is that Americans go on too long. Endless, separated, hardly ever rhyming couplets, for instance, or very long lines indeed, and plenty of them. Some of the poems here get to be as expansive as a Morris Lewis! And these Norton anthologies never skimp on pages, so, inevitably, there is lots of stuff I like, some using narrative, others more abstract. I appreciate the breezy chatty poems of Albert Goldbarth, and a poem called ‘Impossible Blue’ by Ann Lauterbach, whom I associate with the London art scene and New York. Mark Levine’s ‘Chimney Song’ uses rhyme deftly, and I enjoy ‘Fauve Harmonics’ by Mark McMorris, though his other titles seem wilfully obscure.
Susan Howe has a delicate touch, cunningly controlled in ‘Bed Hangings 11’, while ‘The Critique’ is a fine poem by Jennifer Moxley:
…how can it be preferable
to lean into a string of favors
and never speak your mind? To flatter dabblers
and hide all doubts?
This draws my attention to the fact that the majority of these poets have come out of creative writing workshops and are likely to be professors now of their subject, generating yet more creative writing professors. A blogger called Archambeau has referred to this phenomenon in American poetry on the Samizdat Blogspot.
When I attended the ALSCW conference in Boston this fall, Mark Halliday gave one of the best-attended talks, a lecture called ‘10,000 Poets,’ in which he addressed what we might call American poetry’s problem of the multitude. The term (mine, not Halliday’s) shouldn’t be taken to imply that it is a bad thing that so many poets are writing and finding their way to publication—only that this particular cultural situation, like all others, presents its own unique set of challenges and conundrums, along with its positive qualities… Halliday began his address to the crowd in a big, dark Boston University auditorium by noting that Alexander Pope’s England had some five million inhabitants, while the United States of our own day has some 300 million people, half of whom had MFAs in creative writing. He was joking, of course, but the point was made…
In such an environment, there is no room for schools, no room for followers. The poet has to be exceptionally exceptional, and that’s it.
Harryette Mullen is just that, fusing an element of rap with intense contemporary poetics:
slashing both your wrists
to look tough and glamorous
dead shot up in the art gallery
you can keep your shirt on already
while I slip into something more funkable
rub-a-dub with rusty man abrasions
was I hungry sleepy horny or sad
on that particular occasion
invisible incubus took up
with a cunning succubus
a couple of mucky-mucks
trying to make a buck
slandered and absurdly slurred
wife divorced her has-been
last man on earth hauls ass to the ash can
his penis flightier than his word.
Mary Ruefle’s work is compelling, and I like the work of Alice Notley, Donald Revell, Martha Ronk, Rod Smith, Dara Wier, Mary Jo Bang and several others, but perhaps the single most important discovery for me is the work of Reginald Shepherd, who died in 2008. His work epitomises the hybrid position, for he is adept at collage, and at shifting laterally, taking the reader to unexpected places, while maintaining a relationship to content. There is a wonderful poem of his here called ‘A Parking Lot Just Outside the Ruins of Babylon’ which seems to echo Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, or retell it for our time:
…Just outside, just outside, the hanging gardens
dangle from a frayed and double-knotted
nylon rope, twisting in a storm of chaff and shrapnel; smashed
clay tablets’ cuneiform enumerates the daily dead, body
bag winds score the bare ruined walls of Susa with no song.
As for the anthology as a whole, I feel that there are too many poems in series, too many projects, and too much commitment, too many still-lives in words as well as references to and descriptions of paintings. Ever since the New York School, we’re all supposed to be savvy about visual art. But visual art is dumb – allow it to speak through its dumbness alone.
ALL TOO OFTEN I experience myself negotiating those larger-than-it-is-quite-possible-to-step stones that are evidence of collage, while the subtle interweaving of post-modernist philosophy gives rise to a plethora of lyrically abstracted verbiage (so, so btdt!). I sicken on a surfeit of ‘word philosophy’. By that I mean the use of abstract nouns that sounds sort of ‘French’ and transfigured and metaphysical but is actually just a mush of syntax – a species of poetic rhetoric divorced from content or persuasion. Actually you could swap chunks of this elevated text around – from one poet to another – and no one would ever know. And all this poesie de la page blanche stuff. Arty gaps everywhere! A French intellectual once told me that Mallarmé was a fly-fucker! I think it did me good to think of him that way.
It could be argued that American Hybrid is another post-modern anthology rather than a truly hybrid anthology. John Ashbery is included, and I’ve found him in modernist and post-modernist anthologies. Ashbery once told me that there were three anthologies he would never be in: gay, women’s or black.
I don’t rate the term post-divisionist. Post-modernism has put paid to any further ‘posts’. Why not afterism – as in after-ism?
Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, the Waldrops and John Yau are all represented here, and many of these names I associate with the New York School or with Language poetry. Unlike the New York School, though, there is not much humour. The quality called ‘wit’, so vital to the Enlightenment, seems low on the agenda these days.
F. T. Prince once suggested to me that Americans aimed for poetry – that is, a philosophy of writing that charged all the work, whereas the Brits aimed for the poem, a more self-contained, less Foucault-based notion, epitomised by Larkin perhaps. This again recognises and refers to that initial split between the British and the French tradition.
While it can be detected that some poets fall more on one side of the divide than the other, American Hybrid is still, it seems to me, the product of exclusivity; honing its own field in order to be identified as distinct – this is especially true for the more ‘abstract’ poets in the selection. Exclusivity is nothing new, of course. The lyric poets of the American south banded together as “the Fugitives”, and Ian Hamilton, with The Review in the sixties and with The New Review later, established a narrow group that had a preference for tight, realist, highly economic poems expressive of a fusion of image and angst, with Larkin and Lowell as the models.
The New York School were not quite so narrow, but nevertheless it often seemed as if they were only interested in each other, frequently referring by name to other poets in the loop. Most, but not all, put the emphasis on immanence, as Cole Swensen defines it, or fashioned dislocated poems which celebrated the specificity of trade-names, actual places and actual meals, in a way that made a new poetic material out of logos, ingredients, proper nouns. Frank O’Hara’s statement on personism is relevant here, and quoted in the introduction to An Anthology of New York Poets (ed. Ron Padgett and David Shapiro, 1970). An anthology I recommend.
Personism is to Wallace Stevens what la poési pure was to Béranger. Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.
You know how, in a letter to an intimate friend, you make references that only your friend will understand? Written in a personist way, a poem may not make complete sense, yet it may evoke that intimacy that such a letter concerns.
HERE I AM, though, trying to do American Hybrid justice – but oh, it’s difficult! That is, it seems to promote a cult of difficulty. There is a tendency to structure the sentence internally yet keep it self-contained, isolated from the next, thus defeating narrative continuity at the same time as it is preserved within the ‘atomic’ sentence. We meet similar difficulty, albeit often in a denser formulation, with the shifts and compactions of the Cambridge poets who gathered around J H Prynne in the UK in the seventies and with the language poetry championed by Bruce Andrews in the States.
Difficulty is what makes the majority of the verse in this anthology post-modernist rather than hybrid. Post-modernism is modernism subverted to narrative ends. It is calibrated on modernism by nature of its nomenclature. What it refers to is determined by comparison with modernism, which acts as its standard, its reference.
Clark Coolidge is not represented, which I find astonishing! Why include Ashbery and not Coolidge? In the heyday of the New York School I had no difficulty in identifying this writer as the most radical among them. Yet he’s not here, and also, significantly, not a single book of his can be found in the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard’s village – a sign that he is still out in the cold. The same can be said for Ron Padgett, and also for noted beat poets, Corso and Ferlinghetti. Coolidge has always been able to write poems which have been hybrids, long before the term came to be invented: poems that fused play with the material plasticity of the language with neat perceptions about daily life, as in Connie’s Scared:
The wind came up, the radishes died and
the peelings continued. No one could be
more hostile than a species enclosed in
a chimney for a century or so they told me.
The lighter fluid on the other hand might warm
your nails. We deserve overtime
for dealing daily with these mistreated burdens.
The milkweed pods for no reason in the world
we could see ignited and the frog is loose.
The mail at last arrived but you had better
proceed to lick your envelopes more heartily
as they all came empty. No one exactly states
but everybody thinks the whole world level
has been lowered and continues. If the flame
goes out the food will spoil, remember?
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx – Own Face, Angel Hair Books 1978
And so I am struggling with the anthology, and often turning with relief to Jody’s poems in Infrequent Miracles (Alice James Books, 1991). Jody is Pamela Stewart, an American poet who has always combined abstraction with narrative. I met her at Paul Engle’s writers’ workshop, some forty years ago. have retreated to her farm high up in these hills.
AFTER-ISM, TO EXPAND on the term I have coined, simply denies a dichotomy between modernism and realism.
An epiphany for me came when, after many years of writing abstract poetry, I realised that the lyrical tradition was indeed resolutely persuasive (that is, it was meant to be about something significant) and this was perhaps what modernists objected to most. Italo Svevo, however, was a modernist novelist who pioneered the struggle against significance. He’s a quietist: a sort of Giorgio Morandi of literature. I found a similar removal of significance in the infinitely hushed poems of David Jacobs, and I began to write poetry that made sense. It was descriptive poetry, but with the significance removed (as far as it is possible to remove it). I wrote line-of-sight poems, just recording what was behind what (coincidentally, at this time, the artist Richard Long was working on line-of-sight nouns, writ large and exhibited in galleries). This allowed me back into writing narratively while maintaining my modernist credentials. It was a break-through!
I think once more of Fairfield Porter, an painter who could admire and support De Kooning while remaining rigorously, dynamically and ‘abstractly’ figurative. Or think of the work of Gerhard Richter – as an artist, he can swing both ways! Perhaps we all need to be able to swing both ways.
WHAT IS CRUCIAL now is the role of the reader. The reader has to first apprehend how to read the poem. We should expect to change hats! Nowadays, when visiting a gallery, haven’t we grown accustomed to altering the lens? The same is true when we read. Without making a fuss about it, we perceive the romantics with an aperture which is different to that we use to read Elizabethan sonneteers. We adapt to metaphysical conceits, rhetorical devices, hyperbole and inflated empathy when reading historical literature.
And okay, I’ll concede that Martial describing someone getting a wedgy as she stands up is as urbane and contemporary as they come (especially in James Michie’s translation). But even so, differing genres frequently do require adjustments, and because we are now canny about adapting, we can read narrative realism with a different take to that we use to read an abstract text. To dismiss abstract poetry is as ostrich-like as to dismiss Mondrian or Rothko. However, to my mind, one is also sticking one’s head in the sand if one only espouses Stein, Ashbery or Prynne.
I sense that material art (visual art, that is) and the art of words have different ends. Why do I sense this? Because, the art we find in galleries is made of stuff, so there is a sculptural quality – even to abstract painting. Visual art can be made of canvas, oil, copper, chicken-wire, steam. Even a text piece will have a ‘texture’. And we can read these things laterally: we abstract from them. The trouble is, language is already a code: it is already abstracted. One way or another we decode the letters into words. So playing abstraction with what is already a code seems a limited game, since it’s only one stuff. This is a further reason to be wary of ‘schools’ of abstract writing.
The point of conjunction for realism and abstraction is that the real is never real, since there is a shift into art or artifice. The ‘real’ described is not the actuality, it is what is described by words. The signifier is substituted for the real. Equally, however, the abstract is never abstract (a point made by Coolidge re Chomsky), since, however juxtaposed or scrambled, words do signify, thus the abstract cannot avoid the signified. So the real is never entirely real – except as a text. The abstract is never only a text.
The key issue for poetry today has to be originality, rather than belonging. By belonging, I mean to schools, pressure groups or political parties. The main fault for both realists and abstractionists is taking ‘the house style’ or the ‘school aesthetic’ too seriously!
Truly original works are vulnerable, because they have to abandon something that is supposed to be there. Rhyme, for instance. That used to be a bugbear for the anti-free-versers! Today it might be absence of meaning – a criticism aimed at the abstractionists by the lyrical realists. This need to abandon some accepted rule in order to make something new accounts for originality’s vulnerability, and is why Cummings, Sitwell and Vachel Lindsey are still distrusted by a myopic establishment. The abstractionists, for their part, have set up their own taboos – narrative and signification, for instance.
My (usually perverse) instinct tells me to look for the work that is marginalised by both camps (traditionalist and abstractionist) and by the post-modern post-divisionists in this anthology.
This is one part of a double review:
Genetically modified by Peter Riley.
Afterism by Anthony Howell.
Additional comments by Anthony Howell in F. T. Prince and other mavericks in the Fortnightly.
A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, Anthony Howell was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement, and he is a frequent contributor to The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.