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Andrew Feld & Pimone Triplett: Journal, Day One
March, 2003, Oregon, which means there’s another two months left of rain, and I’m driving Jack Gilbert in my Saturn from his room at the Mountain Writers Center in Portland, where I work running a reading series, to a noon reading at Mount Hood Community College. The doors on my car leak and any good downpour works its way in as a trickle on both the driver’s and the passenger’s outside shoulders. Jack Gilbert, who is as thin as a bird’s skeleton and is wearing a worn grey-green sport coat doesn’t mention the steady drops on his right side, and I think this isn’t so much a matter of discretion or good manners (although his manners are good: he carries himself with an old-fashioned mixture of solicitude and reticence that could be called courtly if you use that word without any aristocratic connotations) so much as a symptom of the intensity of his concentration on our conversation. He is leaning back in his seat and trying to puzzle out the mystery of the image. The subject came out of a discussion of The Cantos and Pound, who Gilbert visited at Schloss Brunnenburg. From what source does the poetic image get its power, he wants to know—seriously wants to know, and so we run through some of the standard explanations, discussing the haiku, Pound, Ginsberg, and cognitive development. I feel I am flunking a test I want to pass, but I feel better when it turns out that, after however many decades of serious consideration, Jack Gilbert also has no explanation. For him fidelity to the image is as much a moral as it is an aesthetic imperative. His life spent outside the country, his poverty and lack of any kind of an income-providing career and his total distaste for any kind of rhetoric or verbal extravagance in poetry (“metaphor is the basement of poetry,” he says, “the bottom. Decoration. Ornament”) are all different aspects of the same thing, his priest-like dedication to his art.
After a few miles the topic changes to what it was like for him to live in San Francisco in the late ‘50’s and early 60’s. He talks about the energy in the air, all the writers, liveliness and excitement of the literary community and I say something suitably awe-struck about the richness of that place at that time, of being in San Francisco with Creeley, Duncan, Ginsberg, Rexroth and Spicer, etc. Do you read them? He asks me and when I start talking about some favorite Duncan poems he cuts me off: nobody reads Duncan anymore he says, nobody reads any of them. None of them will last, he says with complete finality. The other only poet of the San Francisco/Berkeley Renaissance who Gilbert believes possessed true talent is Allen Ginsberg, who he says knowingly and deliberately betrayed his gift for popular adulation (there’s poem about this betrayal, “Halloween,” in Gilbert’s most recent book, Refusing Heaven).
That Jack Gilbert was wrong—who doesn’t read Creeley, Duncan and Ginsberg now? And when Wesleyan releases the Collected Spicer, I’m sure they’ll stock it in the Kenosha Barnes and Noble—doesn’t make his claim less interesting for me: if anything, the opposite. In a time when the idea of poetic movements has been largely replaced by literary communities so united that discussions of the relative quality of texts or authors within that community can be rejected as leading down the slippery slope of elitism, Jack Gilbert would seem to be a Romantic anomaly, a lone hold-out of the masculine “solitary genius” myth. And yet as with most extremes, these two positions blur into each other: if you combine Jack Gilbert’s “I” with the contemporary “we” into a hybrid “I/we” you find in both aesthetics an equally moral and rigidly exclusive component in their poetics.
This is of particular, pertinent interest to me because last Summer I was appointed Editor-in-Chief of The Seattle Review, the literary journal published by the University of Washington English Department, and my goal, immediately, was to put together a journal which would not represent any one particular community, but which would be welcoming to vibrant, exciting work from all aesthetics. The Seattle Review, I hoped, would be a place where young formalists bumped against old experimentalists, and the well-wrought narrative would be placed next to the jagged, new-fangled difficult poem. Since as a reader I don’t have to choose between Oppen and Merrill, there seemed to be no reason why as an editor I shouldn’t be able to publish (ideally) Lyn Hejinian next to Gjertrude Schnackenberg next to Phil Levine. In practice, however, the difficulty is: how much democracy can a journal contain before it dissolves into chaos? If you give up the vibrancy and drive that a journal derives from being the public forum of a lively community, how do you give your journal a sense of vital energy? How can you make the journal cohere?
In my next post I’ll discuss my editorial models and ambitions for The Seattle Review, and how I hope to resolve these issues or how to profitably not resolve them. I would love to hear how other journal editors address these problems, and how readers feel these issues shape the journals they read.
An end note: along with poetry, The Seattle Review publishes fiction and non-fiction, but I won’t be discussing my editorial concerns for these genres here, since this is, after all, Poetry Foundation.org.