Sunday, January 26, 2003

Josh Corey knows my friend Eric, I think. Josh is a Ph D. student at Cornell, and it’s too early to tell what his site will be like. I read his manuscript once and I didn’t find it nearly as experimental as his tastes would indicate, for whatever that’s worth. I know very little about him other than that. He was a Stegner Fellow.

Who the heck is Eric? The above is quoted from The Skeptic, the blog of John Erhardt, who has chosen to specialize in the close reading of various modern poets. When I first became aware of the blog "scene" (to use a problematic word—I continue to be interested in and provoked by the blog of Heriberto Yepez, which I'll probably talk about later) he was working on Spicer; now he's moved on to James Schuyler, who's a poet I appreciate a good deal (though I'm really only familiar with later Schuyler; it was a minor revelation for me to read on John's blog about the very O'Hara-esque "Freely Espousing." Schuyler's urban (and not so urban) pastoral has interested me with its curiously gentle intensity. The title of his blog would seem to refer to his skepticism toward the avant-garde pieties that are sometimes unreflectively repeated in places like the Buffalo List; at the same time, it's clear that he doesn't feel he can dismiss the "experimental" out of hand, or could be described in any way as a New Formalist or other reactionary, though his deepest instincts may be conservative. Here's another paragraph from the blog worth quoting in full:
This is perhaps why I’m so uncomfortable with a lot of “innovative” poetry. Because when I read Michael Palmer, I don’t see someone who is a credible artist with a familiarity with the poetic past; I see someone who writes this envelope-pushing stuff. I notice it most directly in the classroom. When I bring in Palmer, or Susan Howe, or Scalapino, or even Jorie Graham (her poems with all the ______’s), I invariably get a few students who take that as an opportunity to start writing flat-out lazy poetry, with a complete disregard for everything that has happened up until ten minutes ago. They justify it by dropping buzzwords like “signifier” and “syntax,” but that doesn’t really excuse it. DeTocqueville once wrote that Democracy has no place in the arts, because it comes very close to being chaotic. I believe him. I think discovering DeKooning’s aptitude with the sketchbook made me drop my “hey, man, stop oppressing my art – who are you to judge?” conception of him. I’m not sure what it’ll take in poetry – every time I feel I’ve made some progress with an experimental writer, a guy like Bernstein will come along and write an incredibly stupid long poem with random capital letters strewn about. Jonathan Mayhew recently wrote how he likes more language in his language poetry – I guess I like less Poetry in my poetry.
I'm very sympathetic to this, up to a point—what I don't understand is how Languagey poetry necessarily induces any more "flat-out lazy" writing in students than the kind of writing they're more typically influenced by: the Confessional poets (why do so many young poets choose Anne Sexton, that pale and envious imitation of Plath, as their favorite poet?), the Deep Imagists, and the ubiquitous Billy Collins? Perhaps what Erhardt longs for is a contemporary poetry with a perceptible formal rigor—I gather from his example about DeKooning that he'd be happier reading Palmer if Palmer published a notebook full of sestinas. We're back to the "At least s/he can really draw" question.

My taste in reading these days definitely runs toward the experimental, but I'm also a big fan of Berryman and Plath and early Lowell; and the poets I consider experimental don't always get hagiographed on the Buffalo List (Allen Grossman is increasingly important to me and I think he's experimental as hell). As for my own work you, gentle Reader, are the best judge. If I can ever get my manuscipt Fourier Series published then people will probably start lumping me in with the Clark Coolidge crowd, but of course Selah is coming out first and I regard it as a thoroughly mainstream book. Of course one poet's mainstream is another's avant-garde: I was interested in Erhardt's inclusion of Jorie Graham, whose intellectual curiosity has led me to class her as having much more in common with Susan Howe or Ann Lauterbach than Louise Glück or Linda Gregerson. Curiosity --> Experiment: that's the most valid reason I can think of for terming any poem "experimental": if it's intended to discover something. Which leads me to the shibboleth "all good poems are experimental poems," which leads me to want to think about something else for a while.

Speaking of the mainstream, check out this funny "poem" (the scare quotes put me a bit closer to Erhardt, perhaps) on the subject at Kasey Mohammed's always excellent blog, lime tree.

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