Minor Poets, Major Works
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.