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From Poetry Magazine

Who’s the Man?

By Robert Archambeau

Robert Archambeau

Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde, by Peter Quartermain. University of Alabama Press. $39.95.

Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry, edited by Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin. University of Iowa Press. $42.00.

“Who,” I used to ask, after banging on a colleague’s office door, “who exactly is the man?” It was one of a number of cringe-worthy behaviors I exhibited when I started out as a professor, and was always occasioned by some small literary success—an editor accepting an essay, a poem finding its way to publication, a hint of a prize nomination, that sort of thing. The answer I sought, and that my long-suffering colleague provided with a nearly inaudible sigh, was “you.” I imagine what I wanted out of these little encounters was some small acknowledgment of my status as a budding poet and critic, some local recognition as an authority in matters literary. My sense of authority was entirely academic and institutional: I counted as a poet and critic if I could load my vita with publications, and get my local colleagues to notice. I was not what you’d call subtle about trying to get noticed, nor was I in any way conscious about the overtly gendered nature of the idiom through which I tried to assert authority. I wonder, now, if a book like Peter Quartermain’s Stubborn Poetries or Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin’s edited collection Among Friends would have helped me be a little less insufferable, or at least a little more self-aware. Both books take a long, hard look at how poets claim authority, and offer insights into how those claims get tangled up with gender—masculinity in particular.

A collection of essays written over nearly 20 years, Stubborn Poetries has no overarching argument, but it does have recurring themes, poetic authority chief among them. Perhaps inevitably for a critic of his generation—he attended university in the 1950s—Quartermain looks on T.S. Eliot as the archetype of the oppressive authoritative figure. Reading the pages of Stubborn Poetry one gets a rather dark sense of Eliot as a particularly prominent gargoyle on the cathedral of literature, grimacing down dismissively at the poets (Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, the Objectivists) closest to Quartermain’s heart. That this is not entirely fair is probably beside the point, since what Quartermain is really interested in aren’t the particulars of Eliot’s opinions, but the characteristic gestures by which poets establish their importance. He finds Eliot’s way of claiming authority particularly bullying and narrow.

Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is, as Quartermain reads it, something of a power grab, in which Eliot drubs readers with his erudition, intimidating them before offering them a place in his club if only they’ll accept his notion that poetic authority derives from claiming kinship with canonical texts—texts Eliot has mastered, and which he has made central to his own poetry. Authority, before the age of the poetry professor, wasn’t to be found in vita-padding so much as in affiliation with a certain version of the literary past. There was a circle to be joined if we were to be worthwhile poets, and to strike out on one’s own was to wander into the dry wastes of insignificance and poetic immaturity. “The scales are loaded in favor of the group,” says Quartermain of this model of authority, “in favor of the community, in favor of shared knowledge, in favor of connectedness, in favor of the social.”

Words like “community,” “connectedness,” and “the social” may strike many people’s ears as positive things, but for Quartermain they make a grating noise. To understand this, we need go no further than Quartermain’s description of his education at the University of Nottingham, where, as he tells the tale in the introduction to the book, he was taught by disciples of I.A. Richards and New Critics for whom Eliot’s allusiveness, indirection, and irony provided the only legitimate model for poetry—for whom Eliot was decidedly the man. Poems that, like The Waste Land, drew attention to their connection to the canon and formed the basis of the little interpretive communities in the classrooms where students would painstakingly work out meanings and separate valid from invalid interpretations. If a poet gained his authority through connecting with the great works of the past, the reader gained authority through recognizing the allusions, decoding the ironies, and arriving at an interpretive consensus shared with fellow readers. But what if you, like Quartermain, fell in love with another kind of poem—with William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” say, or H.D.’s “The Pool”? Poems like these remain “stubbornly opaque” to interpretation, and lack Eliot’s clear connection to the canonical tradition. Such poems fared poorly in the classrooms where Quartermain learned the critic’s trade, and he is excited by any notion that undermines the Eliotic idea of poetic authority that failed to accommodate them.

Quartermain gleefully traces the ways that Louis Zukofsky’s strange little book Thanks to the Dictionary undermines Eliot’s idea of tradition as the source of the poet’s authority. The book slices-and-dices the Biblical story of King David by introducing aleatory procedures like casting dice to determine a page of the dictionary and then interlacing the words defined on that page into the narrative. Biblical allusion would seem to fit neatly into the poetic playbook that is Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” but what to make of the random ransacking of the dictionary? For Quartermain, the stakes are high: “the dictionary … becomes a means by which to position the writer outside the culture, outside the tradition.” The systematic application of randomness frees us from the past.

Quartermain is excited about this, and just as excited by another way of breaking with Eliot’s establishment of poetic authority in tradition, something we might call the appeal to immediacy. George Oppen is one of Quartermain’s heroes here because he insisted that any authority he may have had as a poet came only from his immediate observations of an object or person right there in front of him, present to his senses. While Oppen could be quite dogmatic in insisting on this as the one right and true way to write, it was a kind of anti-dogma dogmatism, a rejecting of the grand historical and social schemes of poets like Eliot, Yeats, and Pound. Quartermain suggests that the emphasis on the immediate may lie behind Oppen’s attentiveness to the works of women poets in the 1960s, when they often struggled to be taken seriously by men of his generation. Oppen was quite capable of sexism, suggesting, for example, that women had little affinity for philosophy. But though he accepted the traditional sense of abstraction as masculine and the world of the immediate and everyday as feminine, he valued the terms of that dichotomy differently than most male intellectuals, finding in the unmediated world of experience a more authoritative source for poetry than the putatively male world of grand theories could offer.

The other great hero of immediacy in Stubborn Poetries is William Carlos Williams. In Quartermain’s thinking, Williams’s poems were based on a keen perception of the world beyond poetry, and challenged Eliot’s “values of high culture” with “the values of the street.” Quartermain seems at times to rig the fight between Williams and Eliot: when the poets take strong stances, Quartermain praises Williams for partisan combativeness, but condemns Eliot for dogmatic bullying. When Eliot cites other writers, Quartermain looks at it as a matter of “snob appeal,” but when Williams names names, Quartermain tells us he does so to “make readers feel they belong.” Eliot becomes such a human piñata in Stubborn Poetries that one starts to see Quartermain’s establishment of his own critical authority as a matter of Oedipal rebellion, of self-assertion against the resented old man. This is a very old and gendered paradigm indeed, and its intermittent appearance is the only irksome thing about a keen and subtle book.

Casting old authority figures out is a sadly customary form of exclusion. Another—sadder still, and just as familiar—is the exclusion of women from various forms of boys’ clubs, except perhaps as tokens or mascots. The essays gathered in Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin’s Among Friends present several instances of the “no girls allowed” narrative, but they do something else, too: they analyze instances of individual friendship that offer alternatives to the little gangs of poets that, too often, relegate women to the sidelines. Linda Russo’s contribution, for example, delves into Joanne Kyger’s difficult relationship with the group of poets who started to gather around Jack Spicer in San Francisco in the late 1950s. Spicer’s circle was many things—including a necessary community for gay men in a homophobic society—but it was hardly a welcoming place for women. Competitive, territorial, and combative, the group would argue long into the night in North Beach hangouts, police the in-group/out-group boundary ferociously, and post its lampoons and manifestoes on the walls of men’s restrooms in favored bars. A poet’s authority depended on status gained or lost in the cut-and-thrust of barroom combat. Kyger, who craved poetic community and feared what she called “grouplessness,” grew as a poet during her association with the Spicer crowd, but it was perfectly clear that she would never fully belong. “We were champions of the boys’ team in poetry,” said Robert Duncan, “Joanne Kyger could play on the team—but she was a girl.” At times Kyger was left feeling she wasn’t really welcome in any capacities other than that of “the dumb blonde” or as someone who could approach those wounded in the verbal fray in order to “pat them on the back and bring them messages.” When Kyger left the San Francisco scene behind to marry Gary Snyder and live with him in Kyoto, she faced different kinds of exclusion: a language barrier, a husband whose spiritual studies kept him from her, and a temple resistant to her attempts to engage in the same level of spiritual practice as the male devotees.

Casting about for some sense herself as a poet, Kyger entered a long, fruitful correspondence with the Buddhist poet Philip Whalen back in the United States. The letters reveal the damage done to Kyger by her literary associates, and her internalization of masculinist notions of poetry: “I feel now you can only be a good poet if you[‘ve] got a good controlled strong honest mind,” she writes, “women’s writing and minds tend to be more elusive, sloppy and vague than men’s—more trying to articulate an emotional life…. It’s not very interesting reading is it?” Whalen—older than Kyger and temperamentally unlike the North Beach argufiers—nudges Kyger away from these self-deprecating attitudes. Russo’s essay guides us through a correspondence that provides a kind of private counter-scene to Spicer circle, a poetic friendship that gives Kyger the space to discover her own authority as a poet, and her own terms of self-definition.

Kyger’s story is in some ways representative of the change in women’s status in the second half of the twentieth century, in that it shows a woman rejecting masculine norms in order to claim her own voice and identity. Daniel Kane’s contribution to Among Friends takes on a case fascinatingly atypical: Patti Smith’s engagement with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village of the early 1970s. Community-oriented, fond of collaborative authorship and performance, the Poetry Project was deeply critical of the notion of the poet as a lone visionary genius, isolated from everyone but his muse. Frank O’Hara’s comment on Dylan Thomas’s stage (and, for that matter, barroom) persona catches the nature of the critique: “I can’t stand all that Welsh spit.” But when Patti Smith gave her first performance at St. Mark’s in February of 1971, embodied the role of the privileged poet-seer. While most poets began their readings at St. Mark’s by thanking the organizers and the community, Smith began with a grand invocation of a whole lineage of outlaw heroes, from James Dean and Mayakovski to Blaise Cendrars and Sam Shephard—and went on to add boxing, crime, and the electric guitar to her list of dedicatees. Her authority as a poet wasn’t going to come from joining a community of poets in the East Village: it was going to come through an affiliation with an imagined bloodline of rebels, from Blake to Rimbaud to Gregory Corso. That this was a very masculine pantheon was no coincidence: what Smith yearned for was status of the kind accorded to Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison. “I like people who’re bigger than me,” she claimed in an interview, “I’m not interested in meeting poets or a bunch of writers who I don’t think are bigger than life.” And being bigger than life meant claiming for herself the solitary swaggering mojo of a certain kind of masculine figure. A Village Voice reviewer from the early 1970s got it right when he wrote, “Patti Smith is the poet as macho woman.” Smith herself could be quite explicit about wanting to appropriate, rather than challenge, masculine forms of identity and authority—consider these lines from her poem “female”:

I ran around with a pack of wolves. I puked on every
pinafore. Growing breasts was a nightmare. In anger
I cut off all my hair and knelt glassy eyed before
God. I begged him to place me in my own barbaric race.
The male race. The race of my choice.

Daniel Kane is deeply ambivalent about all this. He admires Smith’s album Horses as much as the rest of us, but clearly prefers the sociability and collaborative ethos of the Poetry Project to the hyper-masculine outlaw rock-god mode Smith cultivates. However one may feel about it, though, Smith’s particular form of lone outlaw mystique makes one thing perfectly clear: Patti Smith is the man, far more than any vita-building, tenured poet-critic will ever be.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 by Robert Archambeau.