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Journal, Day Three
Unfinished business. Something I left out of the essay on the “Best Of” anthologies (elsewhere on this site) significant to the argument about canon formation: that when it comes to contemporary poetry, what looks like a pure exercise of taste and historical perception is often contingent upon rights and permissions. The publisher gives the editor a budget for the republishing rights; sometimes a poem the editor wishes to include exceeds the capacity of the given budget. The picture of an historical moment then changes subtly, as poems are dropped and replaced for material reasons. . . .
Likewise, sometimes a poet declines to be included. A good editor discloses such difficulties in an introduction or preface, in order to make transparent some of the behind-the-scenes complications of arriving at a table of contents, of constructing an image. I write that the “Best Of” anthology is merely a kind of image of an ideal; perhaps even that is an overstatement: the anthology is always a flawed icon.
Picking up on the dissatisfaction Belieu expresses in her blog (on this site) regarding the recent exchange in Poetry magazine (January) on the idea of “women’s poetry”; more precisely, why wasn’t a man included in the exchange (between Meghan O’ Rourke, J. Allyn Rosser, Eleanor Wilner). So, I’ll include myself here, and respond. It seems obvious that gender is one aspect of being that determines experience; it’s not obvious, however, that such a social and biological influence constitutes a sub-genre of poetry, nor that it should. The interesting thing about gender, it seems to me, is that we all belong on the same sexual continuum, although each of us occupies a different position there. My sex soup puts me further down on the male side; but the fact that I’m male doesn’t convey anything about the nature of my masculinity, which might conceivably place me further towards the center. (Sex : Gender :: Meter : Rhythm). Eleanor Wilner’s quotation of a remark by Katharine Anne Porter therefore hits it on the head: “I think women and men have their feet nailed to the same deck.” The Aizenberg/Belieu anthology, that collects poems by women “without privileging any particular theme or . . . agenda,” seems to express the critical moment: the imperative to gather exemplary poems by women without arguing for something called “women’s poetry.” An aspect of the imperative to do so, it seems, is to establish a tradition of poetry by women, if not a tradition of “women’s poetry.” Why? Because the establishment of such a tradition is still underway. Such a tradition benefits men as well as women, much as men have benefited elsewhere in their lives by virtue of several waves of feminism. We are back to Blake, albeit outside the universe of his argument, “Without Contraries is no progression.”
Translations I’m presently taken with or beginning to read: Mallarme’s Tomb for Anatole (trans. Paul Auster); Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell & Illuminations (Wyatt Mason); Virgil’s Georgics (David Ferry); Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Ed Snow); Trakl’s Poems & Prose (Alexander Stillmark); Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadors (Pound, Snodgrass, & Robert Kehew); Jean Follain’s Transparence of the World (Merwin); Ca Dao Viet Nam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry (John Balaban); Agi Mishol’s Look There: Selected (Lisa Katz); Ko Un’s Ten Thousand Faces (Brother Anthony Taizé, et al).
Went to one of my favorite bookstores in D.C. tonight after dinner, to hear Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine (I’m the poetry editor there, with Carolyn Forché). He was talking about his new book, The Left Hand of God, which argues that one of the problems of the Left is in how it has allowed the Right to dominate the conversation about spiritual life in the U.S.; that the Left still neglects this important aspect of people’s lives in part because such neglect is folded into the history of the Left itself—its intellectual commitment to demystify forces in society it perceives as pernicious because manipulative, etc.; that the only way for the Left to combat the Right on this matter is to reinvent itself; and that the way to reinvent itself in relation to this problem is to establish a new “bottom line,” one that includes not only material gain but communal value, spiritual value—that companies, for example, should be rewarded not only for how much they contribute to a GNP, but to how successfully they foster the health & welfare of their workers, how mindful they are about the environment, etc. It sounds radical on the one hand, but on the other, it’s already proven to make good sense. The government, however, needs to establish greater incentives; but such incentives, obviously, will never come from this administration. It’s committed to working in the opposite direction.
Listening to Michael Lerner address the packed bookstore I couldn’t help thinking that he was preaching to the converted; his point, however, was that those of like minds need to convert their consensus into political action; but first they need to collect themselves. As an editor of the magazine, I’m well acquainted with the editorial platform and the agenda; so I found myself distractedly loitering by the rack of journals. There was the March/April issue of American Poetry Review, a journal that consistently dismays & bewilders me, calling my attention with its blue print on a gold field, and a painting I recognized, Robert La Vigne’s Allen Ginsberg with Cocked Ear, 1954. I picked up the tabloid and opened it to find Ginsberg’s “Howl,” fifty years after it first hit the streets for 75 cents, now accompanied by commentary by the likes of Vivian Gornick, Mark Doty, and Amiri Baraka. Others too, in a book just released from Farrar Straus Giroux, The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later, edited by Jason Shinder. And here we are, in 2006, trying to acknowledge Moloch, and take a stand.
A year after Ginsberg’s death in 1997, I had organized a memorial reading in Provincetown, where I was living year-round, a reading of “Howl.” Norman Mailer and Carl Phillips read with a high school student, someone from a community outreach program, local actors, some who knew Ginsberg, and others, each reading a passage before an audience sweating in the heavy air of the Provincetown Art Association & Museum. Grace Paley had wanted to read, but in the end, said she couldn’t do it, she couldn’t put all those obscenities in her mouth—it was not a question of decorum, but of gender, the words belonged in a man’s mouth. I understood what she meant; I wasn’t sure I could put the words my mouth, either, and I had the opening lines, which no one else could bring themselves to take on. It seemed somehow impossible, how did Ginsburg do it? I found a tape of him reading the poem in San Francisco, in 1957, and listened to his performance: at the start, his voice is low-key, conversational—“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”—almost explanatory, ruminative. Slowly, only slowly, it builds to an aria. I’d follow his lead. That night, it was challenging but powerful to say the lines in public. Some time later, I walked out of the museum in a state of excitement, I felt stirred up, by something inexplicable inside me. The air was electrically charged, it was about to storm, and the sky was a bruised dark purple, as if a bunch of ripe grapes had been crushed on a cotton sheet. I felt agitated, ecstatic, and in connection with something huge. I could see lightning in the distance, and by the first sound of thunder I had made it home, and sat down on the porch to listen to the rain. What was it I felt? What did it have to do with poetry, if anything? How could I learn from Ginsberg’s great poem, what were its lessons—about language, form, one’s relation to other people, to larger structures in society?
Turning over the issue of APR in the bookstore, I found Robert Hass’ poem, “Bush’s War.” Had Hass figured something out? I was struck by the symmetry of front and back covers, made my way to the register and purchased the issue, along with a novel for my ten-year-old, Sword Song, by Rosemary Sutcliff, about a young Viking boy.