Monday, October 31, 2005

Back from a great weekend in NYC—especially yesterday, when the weather was transcendentally mild and lovely. Emily and I did the town: we saw Doubt on Friday night, which is as good as you've heard, and a terrifically funny and entertaining musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Wonderful meals here and there, and on Sunday we followed a trip to St. Mark's (where I wrote down the titles of about a dozen books to order for The Bookery) with a splendid stroll in Soho. I'm running out of superlatives so I'll stop there.

David Letftwich wrote me a long e-mail about my Friday post on Dan Chiasson and Brandon Downing inquiring about my use of the word "mainstream," as in "mainstream poetry"—pointing out that there's no sense in which Dan's book would be considered an "event" by ordinary publishing standards. It provoked the following reply:
It's true that no poetry book is an event the way a Dan Brown or Harry Potter book is, or even something more literary by a major author like J.M. Coetzee. But Dan Chiasson's book is out in hardcover from a major press and has a fair chance of attracting _some_ mainstream attention (perhaps a short review in the NYTBR or The New Yorker). In the attenuated terms of the po-biz, I'd call that an event. The word "mainstream" shifts around a little when I use it. I would argue that most broadly conceived, mainstream American culture is utterly post-literate: you can acquire plenty of cultural capital simply by keeping up with the latest trends in movies, music, and TV without ever picking up a book. Then there's mainstream literary culture as represented in venues that generally have some variation of "New York" in them—where fiction, particularly realist fiction, is king, and once again no knowledge of contemporary poetry is required to be a cultural capitalist (though you're expected to recognize quotes from the great anglophilic dead like Yeats and Auden and Lowell). Narrow down considerably and you have the poetry world, where I take "mainstream" to mean the poetry published by major houses or the bigger universit presses by poets who win awards and teach at places like Breadloaf. On the fringes of this world are the various regional and/or aesthetic coteries—NY School, Language, Bay Area poetry, avant-queer, etc., etc.—where most but not all of the most exciting writing is going on, and where I believe the most passionate and devoted readers can be found.

I have a lot of sympathy for the aesthetic tendencies you describe as being most to your own taste—that's a very worthy list of poets you came up with [Ikkyu, Tu Fu, Sydney, Dickinson, Hopkins, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Mandelstam, Trakl, Neruda, Paz, Celan, James Wright, Creeley, Oppen, Fanny Howe, Jean Valentine, Inger Christensen right up to such poets as Foust, Ales Debeljak, and Cole Swensen] and I admire or want to know more about them all. But I've come to feel that simple taste doesn't provide me with adequate knowledge of the field of available poetries—or rather, that my taste wants education (on the bus down to New York I was reading The Education of Henry Adams—I could see the appeal of his dry, ironic, at times rebarbative prose to the likes of Pound and Zukofsky immediately). So I'm always looking for new axes of force or theory to help educate my desire and introduce me to new possibilities in poetry, while perhaps helping me recognize what veins of ore have been played out. So I have come to think that the means of poetic production matter—that where and with whom a poet publishes is important information, if only because I can come to discover new poets because I've found a particular editor or press to have tastes consonant with my own. At the same time, a post like Friday's goes to show that an overly dogmatic conception of the effect a situation of production has on poetry will cause me to miss or misinterpret a great deal. End result: I can read and enjoy a patently post-avant poet like Downing and a patently mainstream poet like Chiasson. So like you I might describe my taste in poetry as "eclectic." I've taken a long and eccentric road to that quasi-destination (starting as a fan of Richard Hugo and James Wright, passing through the Language poets and Marxian interpretation, and now emerging into more multicolored fields of poesy), but probably no longer or more eccentric than anyone else's road.

Of course what grabbed my attention about the two books was a certain similarity in their concerns: I think they're both struggling with our postmodern moment, particularly regarding the self (as appropriate for lyric poetry), but not simply resting in that moment and fooling around with it as had seemed adequate for a few minutes in the late nineties. I think they're both grappling with our ever-more-fragmented, ever-mediated experience and the degraded language on offer for expressing experience, and though Dan might, for example, revert to classical models like Pliny and Horace (as you refer to late modernists like Coltrane and Camus), his poetry feels as exciting and relevant as Brandon Downing's because both poets' forms smack of the 21st century, using sampling and hypertext and half-dismantled personae to try and formulate human tactics (android tactics?) in the face of a mediated/mediating capitalism that is working very hard to turn us all into weak citizens and pliable consumers. The latest form, if you prefer the long view, of the domination that poets have resisted or made bitter accommodation with since Plato tried to throw us out of the Republic.
Some of this makes more sense with Leftwich's original message behind it: if he gives me permission to post it, or if he posts it himself, I'll adjust accordingly.

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