Essay

Minor Poets, Major Works

Why do obscure artists make such lasting impressions?

by Ed Park
Minor PoetsImage by Paul Killebrew


I.

“Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English,” by the California poet Garret Caples, is the first in Wave Books’ pamphlet series, and the format perfectly suits the subject. Its very appearance is minor. The cream pages, stapled twice at the spine, sit in the hand like the program for a lengthy wedding. There’s no jacket copy, no information about Caples or Wave’s new series. It doesn’t even say how much it costs! Touch the uncoated cover after reading the sports section, and the smudge is there for good. This feels like a document made to be passed on, in secret, to a fellow traveler.

Though I am no scholar of Symbolism in any language, and indeed wasn’t familiar with nearly all of the forgotten figures whom Caples resurrects, I found myself responding so strongly to the spirit of his project that I wondered if the whole thing had been executed entirely for my benefit. (Caples loosely defines Symbolism here as “a broad poetic tendency of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” consonant with work dubbed “decadent” or “fin de siècle.”) I read it in three gulps and kept peppering the margins with check marks of delight. With a supply of thumbnail biographies that read like the most improbable fiction, and a leisurely but learned style, Caples makes the minor seem major.

I’m not a poet, but like Caples I’m drawn to minor writers, particularly fiction writers, and to minor works by major authors, often over their more famous achievements. I’m attracted to minor forms as well: the book I happened to be reading alongside “Quintessence of the Minor” was Wonders in the Sky, subtitled Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times. I don’t want to go overboard—I devoured Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, as major a book this year has produced in terms of quality, sales, and public recognition—but whole months of my reading life can go by in which I pick up only the out of print and out of favor. The challenge can be in the idiosyncratic language, or in the unusual structure, or in just getting a copy of the thing: a major book from, say, the mid-’70s (Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary) becomes the minor book of today.

II.

“Quintessence of the Minor” begins with a quote from W.H. Auden’s introduction to Nineteenth Century British Minor Poets (1966): “I cannot enjoy one poem by Shelley and am delighted by every line of William Barnes, but I know perfectly well that Shelley is a major poet and Barnes a minor one.” Caples goes this far only in the conclusion, where he states that he prefers the oeuvre of the short-lived Samuel Greenberg (“He can only be considered a phenomenon”) to that of Hart Crane.

Throughout, though, he is generous with his praise, even as he points out the inadequacies of many of the authors considered. Two lines in a poem by Trumbull Stickney, dead at 30 and a near contemporary of Wallace Stevens at Harvard, provoke Caples to declare them of “a simplicity, clarity, and directness that look forward to Pound’s efforts to clear American poetry of rhetorical debris.” Francis Saltus Saltus (what a name!), whom Caples calls the first American Symbolist, wrote a blood-soaked “protosurrealist” work, “Landscape of Flesh,” that displays “both a level and a type of imagination seldom met with in nineteenth century American poetry.”

Other figures are important because they put their more famous coevals in context or, in the case of the aforementioned Greenberg, complicate the reception of a major poet and make us question the minor/major distinction altogether. Lines from Greenberg appear, without attribution, in Hart Crane’s work, a theft that Caples deems inexcusable. At first glance, the lines from Greenberg quoted in “Quintessence” are tough going, and gnomic even to Caples. (“Why, of all things, is science ‘the smithy of the sea’?” he asks. “Indeed, what could ‘smithy of the sea’ itself mean?”) Punctuation can be baffling, and “spelling is highly idiosyncratic, occasionally yielding a word of uncertain meaning.” (“What Greenberg meant by ‘woob’ is anyone’s guess,” Caples writes.) But Caples considers Greenberg, who died at the absurdly young age of 23, a master of “sonorousness”: “For all the editorial fussing over his technical and grammatical imperfections, Greenberg never lays a bad line; his poems are sheer song, little musical constructions that resist outside interference.”

Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves (1922-27) has “some of the most sententious sex scenes in the history of the written word,” Caples writes, but “his literary portraiture is excellent.” It’s a talent Caples shares, and indeed “Quintessence of the Minor” is rewarding as sheer entertainment, a parade of the colorful, the brilliant, and the tragic, captured with precision and gentle irony. In a Gotham bar called Pfaff’s, Caples finds “two precursors of symbolism who furthered the Poe tradition, in the persons of two writers named Fitz: Fitz James O’Brien and Fitz Hugh Ludlow.” The first wrote Poe-like stories and succumbed, at 33, to a gunshot wound while fighting in the Civil War; the other penned a memoir called The Hasheesh Eater. (Caples suavely notes, in one of his delicious parentheticals, “I don’t think you can be physically addicted to [hashish], though you can definitely develop a psychological dependence.”)

It’s hard to resist sharing more. We learn that Ernest Dowson was almost major: he’s name-checked in the film Laura, and he coined not just “days of wine and roses” but “gone with the wind.” Caples presents the San Francisco Symbolist scene in just over a page, and the brisk execution is exciting: Ambrose Bierce served as a mentor to the highly regarded but dreary George Sterling, who in turn was mentor to both Nora May French (whose “dullness is relieved by a subdued eroticism and the occasional striking line”) and Clark Ashton Smith, one of the godfathers of science fiction, a Weird Tales contributor who published his first book of poems at 19. “Sterling’s symbolist influence is evident in Smith’s predilection for the rare word,” Caples writes, “words like, ‘rutilance,’ a variant on the already archaic ‘rutilant’ which I’ve been unable to locate in any dictionary.”

One of the few women under consideration (a troubling lack that Caples addresses) is Adelaide Crapsey, inventor of the cinquain, devout Christian, and author of the “extremely dull” Study in English Metrics and the more tantalizing collection Verse. The 22-syllable “Triad” has the “flat non-guidance of a haiku”—it reads as though all of the atmosphere from a wintry, possibly Scandinavian mystery novel has been compressed into a single pillow-book entry. As her early death (from tuberculosis) approached, she composed “To the Dead in the Graveyard Underneath My Window,” a poem “Written in a Moment of Exasperation.”

III.

Symbolism’s chief innovation, Caples maintains, “was the poet as prose writer, and when all is said and done, the prose of these poets is vastly superior to the verse.” Caples dedicates “Quintessence” to John Ashbery, a major poet whose appetite for the minor, explored in numerous essays, informs and haunts these pages. “[A]s has been so often the case,” Caples writes about his deepening interest in Greenberg, “one arrives only to find John Ashbery already there.”

In a lecture/essay on John Clare published in Other Traditions (2000), Ashbery also quotes Auden’s preference for William Barnes over Shelley, and includes Auden’s rule of thumb for distinguishing between minor and major: “One is sometimes tempted to think it nothing but a matter of academic fashion: a poet is major if, in the curriculum of the average college English department, there is a course devoted solely to the study of his work, and a minor if there is not.”

“As I look back on the writers I have learned from,” Ashbery writes, “it seems that the majority, for reasons I am not quite sure of, are what the world calls minor ones.”

Is it inherent sympathy for the underdog, which one so often feels oneself to be when one embarks on the risky business of writing? Is it desire for one-upmanship, the urge to parade one’s esoteric discoveries before others? Or is there something inherently stimulating in the poetry called ‘minor,’ something it can do for us when major poetry can merely wring its hands?

As much as what we write, what we read is an index to our artistic values and our worldviews. To seek out the obscure is to declare oneself apart from the flock—not only from those snatching up the latest best seller, but also from those whose reading diet is restricted to the classics.

To habitually champion the minor over the major can sound snobbish and irrational. But perhaps other processes are at work. The minor can do things that the major (wringing its hands) avoids, or doesn’t even dream of. Caples wonders whether “[t]o write major poetry,” as Ashbery has, “the poet perhaps must resist the major, to find fault with what, at a given time, is held to be major poetry and propose another way, in order to not simply repeat the past, in order to ‘make it new.’”

I like this line of argument, though I often wonder whether my own devotion to writers such as Harry Mathews and Charles Portis (to name but two) stems from the fact that I found a secondhand title by each, for very little money, and liked what I bought. Did the entry of these authors into my reading life come about merely because a title interrupted my sight line at a particular moment when I was slinking around a used bookstore and had a tiny amount of cash to burn?

Thought: Maybe it’s the remainder tables that secretly move the culture forward. Up-and-coming writers, strapped for cash and dismissive of the books that are being published and getting noticed, gravitate toward these steam tables of overlooked lit, these shallow arks of the minor. I used to work in an office near St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York, and would drop in at least once a week. Cheaper than the new releases, even than most of the literary journals, were the remainders on the table in the back, which is where I first discovered John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies.

The two poets began their collaborative novel in 1952, alternating sentences at first; the book wasn’t published until 1969, and this long gestation surely contributes to its subtly unreal texture. Nest’s delightful odd humor stems from its heightened mundanity (food and furniture receive lavish attention) and conversational non sequiturs. The story, such as it is, moves forward on the mad precision of its phrasing and the brazenly unanticipated scene changes that find its characters transplanted en masse from the upstate New York town of Kelton to Florida, France, and Italy.

Yet Nest’s lack of plot, continuity, and other hallmarks of the well-behaved novel is precisely its virtue. What is it? In places it works as satire, of the happily toothless variety; reading it today, I can’t help but think of it as a hilarious corrective to Mad Men, with its intense portrayal of lust and rage beneath the façade of early-’60s conformity. Though they are “sometimes bitchy,” W.H. Auden wrote in his Times review, the suburbanites here actually seem to like each other. They travel, go to movies, eat, get married, open restaurants. The most radical thing about this book written by two friends is that it’s about friendship.

But there are secret energies flowing throughout. Very late in the book, Nadia and Victor, who are opening an antiques business in Paris, pay a visit to Kelton and scope out the authentic American knickknacks of Victor’s old neighbor Marshall.

He yanked aside a cretonne curtain, revealing in a recess a scale model of Sullivan's masterpiece, the Transportation Building of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, rendered in a substance closely resembling fingernail parings.

"Oh, Marshall!" Nadia cried. "You must let us have it—it's not fair, keeping it hidden away in this—in this lumber room."

"Never," Marshall said. "Cousin Bessie gave the best years of her life to its creation. I couldn't ever figure out why, but Alice says it was the outlet for her two big frustrations: they wouldn't let her go see the Columbian Exposition or realize her ambition to be a modern architect."

“What’s it made out of?” Victor asked tentatively.

 “Toothbrush handles, steamed and sliced.”

No previous mention has been made of Cousin Bessie, who first appears on page 163 of 191. A few pages later, we’re treated to another of this eccentric woman’s creations:

The young marrieds gaped at what seemed to be a large cube of cordovan leather, with strange grooves and striations. “Cousin Bessie did this one after she was a bit around the bend,” Alice explained, none too charitably. “It’s a replica of the Carson Pirie Scott Company—exact in every detail. The poor dear never saw it, though. She never got farther west than Binghamton.”

Cousin Bessie is like an outsider artist avant la lettre; her pieces are amusing and haunting, with the strangeness that comes only from products quarried out of one’s deepest personality. They have a gravity to them (one character sees the cube’s designs as “full of occult meaning”), like certain objects drawn by Ashbery’s friend Edward Gorey, himself a connoisseur of the minor. They also evoke the mind-scrambling tableaux prosecuted by the French writer Raymond Roussel, whom Ashbery virtually introduced to the English-speaking world.

A paradoxically “minor classic” (as Auden called Nest) by two major poets has lurking within it a fictional minor artist. (That the book is a work of collaborative comic fiction means it begins with two charges of “minor” against it.) Given only a few paragraphs, Cousin Bessie’s telegraphed life is as memorable as that of all the “ninnies” filling the book; her art, long a source of family puzzlement, now stands to be redeemed. To the reader, she recalls Roussel and foretells Ashbery’s interest in the outsider artist Henry Darger, janitor-muralist-novelist muse for Girls on the Run.

Ashbery, of course, is celebrated for his poetry; but as an intrepid scholar of recondite literary productions, from Giorgio de Chirico’s sole novel to E.V. Lucas and George Morrow’s catalog-drawing whimsy What a Life!, he will hopefully not mind if I call A Nest of Ninnies, that quintessence of the minor, my favorite book of his by some length.

Originally Published: November 17, 2010

COMMENTS (14)

On November 17, 2010 at 4:25pm Arugula wrote:
When you write "Yet Nest’s lack of plot, continuity, and other hallmarks of the well-behaved novel is precisely its virtue," do you mean "Yet neither Nest’s lack of plot, continuity, and other hallmarks of the well-behaved novel is precisely its virtue"?

It appears a word is missing here.

On November 21, 2010 at 3:38pm Reader wrote:
The sentence is correct as originally
written.

On November 22, 2010 at 10:39pm Bingo wrote:
Great piece! I think what it is with minor works is that you have to seek them out, and in finding them it feels as if you had a hand in making them. You complete the picture. It's sort of like Music Minus One. Major works, on the other hand, are given to you--they're received ideas. You can accept or refuse them, but even if you spurn them that is still a preselected option.

On November 23, 2010 at 1:35pm Reader X wrote:
Great piece.

On November 23, 2010 at 4:46pm Paris Flammonde wrote:
Although it is doubtful English (the language) has had a truly great poet
since WBY, it has not had a major one since Cummings, Eliot, Stevens, Thomas.
and Auden. America has never produced a truly major figure in the field save, the improperly disregarded EAP, although numerous interesting ones: Whitman, Robinson, Frost, Roetke,, Millay, Raley, Jeffers, and a few others.

On November 23, 2010 at 11:26pm Professor R.K.Singh wrote:
I find this interesting and am forwarding it to my research scholars doing MPhil or PhD dissertations on Indian English poets.
R K

On November 30, 2010 at 1:30pm Lawrence wrote:
Reading one of my mother's college English texts introduced to a minor poet from whom I now take major pleasure, wisdom, and sustenance: George Barker. Poetry is not a meritocracy, and everyone owes it to himself or herself to be inspired wherever they find the life-giving breath.

On December 1, 2010 at 8:33pm quixoticle wrote:

Well, for one thing, major poets are major and minor poets are minor because the former tend to be good poets with strong and idiosyncratic read: original) poetics and the latter bad ones, too derivative or embroiled in the stylistic claims of their era. This idea of the minor poet as the underdog, that the only thing that separates him or her from the major poet is that they don't have an entire class devoted to them at some English department, is a symptom of this rather wrongheaded attempt in American Academia to democratize the study of art, and even its praxis, for that matter, when it comes to the MFA's (that is, to comfort all the kiddies who want to learn how to be poets). Plus, how your describe your encounters with "minor literature," and how you say that it "maybe it’s the remainder tables that secretly move the culture forward" - this all troubles me and gives me pause. Are we to reduce everything to questions of monetary cost, or the false dichotomies of major and minor, looking everywhere else but to the texts themselves, what makes them good or bad, and what makes them unique or derivative? If anything, this occulting and even fetishizing of the minor has everything to do with the increasingly endemic hipster-driven desire to see and be seen, to be off-beat and different just for the sake of doing so, and not particularly because one arrives at these texts through reading and studying, but browsing through cool bookstores. It's bad enough that MFA students only write to meet workshop deadlines, but the trend of shunning "major" writing for "minor" writing has been less a genuine reaction to either but a superficial and entirely fashionable attempt at individuating oneself as a writer and reader: "look, I have interesting tastes." Though I realize this last aspect is not everything, it seems to be what is lurking behind this reviewer's conception of a "minor" literature. I'd say, if I had to differentiate at all within the sphere of literature, I'd do so only on an individual basis, that is, as to whether an individual writer inaugurated a whole new school of writing (like Whitman, or Pound and transatlantic Modernism, or Ginsberg and the Beats, etc) or if he or she was just a dilettante, which is all one seems to be encountering these days. Simply put, I just find these categorizations entirely problematic, and that they come to bear on our conception of literature far too harshly as to even act as blinders, in a sense. If you like it, read it, regardless of how much it costs or where you bought it. Poetry is not a commodity.

On December 3, 2010 at 1:01pm Eli wrote:

"Plus, how your describe your encounters with 'minor literature,' and how you say that it 'maybe it’s the remainder tables that secretly move the culture forward' - this all troubles me and gives me pause." Really? Troubles you? You need to go read the news, friend, if this statement actually moves you to worry and lenghty comment. No one is going to take Wallace Stevens out of the new Norton because of Mr. Park's musings. And yes, major poets are often "major" because they're good. And sometimes because (and always *also* because) they're lucky. And there are some very good poets who are overlooked. (Check out Mina Loy, who was all but forgotten for years.) I don't think the hipsters touting out-of-print poets are really much of a threat to the culture as a whole, in any case.

On December 6, 2010 at 1:10am quixoticle wrote:
Well, what is wrong with my own
commentary (drawing general conclusions
from a particular source) as a tendency is
equally present in the above article. For
Mr. Park to ruminate on his own
encounters with minor works is totally
acceptable, but I am troubled by his
drawing larger conclusions from his own
bargain-bin-hunting approach to literature,
and that this is where the emphasis lies
and the encounter itself takes place.

On December 10, 2010 at 9:50pm Scott wrote:
Major poets are those I enjoy reading. Minor poets are those I do not. Actually, since few people read poetry these days, it seems that all poets are minor. Apparently the terminology leaves a great deal to be desired.

On December 30, 2010 at 2:49am Paris Flammonde wrote:

Happened upon this column (site?) again, inadvertently, and was somewhat pleased to find some actual poetry and poets--although this diction is clearly allowed some liberty--being discussed, although, save for the first sixteen lines of Howl (typographically speaking) most of the Beaten (read:pummeling) was (colloquially) so before it started. However,as most of the afore-encountered spoke of others (sometimes little better than the foregone) were capable of lines worth reading. Yet, (I fear I repeat myself), English language, except for every occasional exceptions never produced the ultimate creations after William Butler Yeats, and only the rarest of that which might be judged "good" following Auden, Cummings, Eliot, and Thomas, although the previously noted Robinson, Roetke, Millay, Frost, Raley Jeffers, and a few others may certainly claim the attribution without hesitancy. Even in Britain, Plath, Hughes, etc. all make one long for even slightly earlier figures. Still, congratulation on carrying the torch forward into the night, even if not enough appear to keep it high, and in the off-spring country, hardly at all, if it is not now lying in the scrabbled mud.

On January 14, 2011 at 3:21am quixoticle wrote:

To "Paris Flammonde" - I'm afraid that even the gist of what (I think) you mean, which I had to somewhat painstakingly decipher from out of your extremely incoherent and typo-ridden prose, is thin and unsupported and flat- out wrong. The claim that the English language has not produced (what a preposterous thought!) a "truly great" poet since Yeats, and that Cummings or Millay count in your book as possibly "major," is just plain ignorant, and bespeaks a general lack of reading than it does an actual opinion. Your claims, like the claims of so many (perhaps even myself), are emboldened by their very ignorance and exclusiveness. This was the very thing I was questioning in the first place, to really question the overdetermined and thoroughly fetishized categories of the "minor" and the "major," and to conceive of whatever "genius" on a case by case basis, as it were - the only criterion being trueness to one's own poetic vision and a unique command of the language. By these standards there are many, many great poets, who might not have aspired to such great projects as the arch-modernists you invoke, but still honed and hone their voice, quietly, one poem at a time, betraying their origins as they move deeper into their own field. Recently I've been reading the relatively unread (at least to my knowledge) poets Robin Robertson and Devin Johnston, who are both situatable within the tradition (you may read here: Yeats), and yet make the language and the poem timely, that is, their own. Merely name-dropping, as you do, however wrong-headed and misinformed (you'd say highminded), is THE problem. Go read some more. And also, to "Eli" - while Mina Loy is an important figure for those who insist on the division between male and female poets (read: feminism), I find her poetry thoroughly unreadable. Pure dilettantism, the early-mid century salon version of a Tao Lin. Seances, pantheism, psychoanalysis - it's all very fashionable. If you want an amazing poet who needs to be rehabilitated, look into Jean Gerrigue, an amazing poet(tess, if you insist) you, while people like Loy were being feted, was suffering the direness of her vision. (Actually, she was recently featured in Harold Bloom's new anthology of last poems, if you ever see that around.)

On January 26, 2011 at 1:07am Gus wrote:

I enjoyed this article immensely. It made me eager for the next time I find a great forgotten treasure in a bookstore or a library. Just a week ago I picked up a short novel by a French writer named Monique Lange at a used book store. I had never heard about her. The book is called "Les Cabines de Bain" (literally, The Bathhouses). Very seductive and pleasurable read. Now, I don't know how minor she was (after all, she was published by Gallimard in France), but it really made a difference that I just picked it up out of my own volition and found a great treasure. These may not be the books "that secretly move the culture forward", but they are for sure the kind that keep readers coming.

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Biography

Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days (Random House, 2008) and a founding editor of The Believer. His work most recently appears in Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book (Da Capo). He blogs at The Dizzies.

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