At the suggestion of my editor Emily, I attended the Academy of American Poets’ Poets Forum at Marymount College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. With no traffic, it’s an hour’s drive from my hamlet to the most expensive neighborhood on the globe. In a moment of inattention, I nearly tripped over a teacup-something leashed by a mannequin-like creature dressed to the nines at ten a.m. of a Saturday.

The crowd filling the auditorium contained many students with notebooks. The panel assembled before us was dressed largely in black: Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic (in gray, breaking with tradition), Susan Stewart, Lyn Hejinian and moderator Tree Swenson.
I haven’t been to many events like this; I have never once attended a meeting at the AWP or MLA. Most of the names that dominate the field are still only that—names—though it’s been twenty years since I first heard of Sharon Olds or Galway Kinnell.
As it turns out, the forum was more improvisatory than prepared, more story than argument: it was poets sharing. Which was perfectly lovely, as things got said that should be said, often, to the students that packed the venue. In fact, I sorely wished some Harriet commenters had been at this event, during which I felt vindicated at points (Kinnell quoting Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul Selects Her Own Society;” Pinsky’s “if there’s nothing besides entertainment industry and academic industry” in poetry, we’re lost; Stewart’s admonition not to be in a hurry about having a career.)
Panel 1: Unlikely Influences
1. Lyn Hejinian began by playing Carl Stalling’s “To Itch His Own,” an expressive composition for animated cartoons, on a tiny boombox. Hejinian used it to dramatize the concepts of rupture and linkage, since the transitions between riffs and phrases in the Stalling piece were abrupt and comical.
2. Robert Pinsky cited an early science fiction story by James Blish , “Surface Tension.” This story in which a stranded colony of space travelers use their genetic material to create tiny puppet colonies of people who live in water was, for Pinsky, “the birth of thought.”
3. Charles Simic told the story of playing truant when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, simply ceasing to go to school and wandering the city of Belgrade during school hours to deflect suspicion. At one point his own mother passed him in the street, giving him a momentary heart attack; but she failed to see him. The experience of deception, he admits, was simultaneously a guilty pleasure and a defiant “Fuck you” to the world.
4. Susan Stewart recalled the church hymns and Sunday School Milton excerpts from her childhood, the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside. Minding the etymological root of the word in fluid and flow, she offered a swirl of influences from childhood to adulthood, friendships with visual artists who taught her about process, street noise that filters into her study where she writes, her children’s favorite music, and also one negative influence: the women poets “who destroyed themselves” in the generation before hers.
All of the poets—save, perhaps, Simic—spoke with the ease and eloquence of those who have spent years in the classroom; at points one did feel oneself in the presence of teachers, but mostly the tone was personal, autobiographical, untheatrical. I exempt Simic from this only because of all the poets who spoke that day, he seemed to be the most distrustful of talk, of advice. His story about the ecstasy of deceit seemed to be an intervention, implying our best intentions to tell the “truth” possibly paved the way to somewhere else entirely.
The notion that American culture is a joyful “mish-mash,” that the many poetries that exist now constitute the equivalent of “biodiversity,” was mostly a cause for celebration, with only Hejinian’s caveat that a simplistic embrace of everything may amount to flattening it—that different poets really do have enormously different projects. She left it at that, alas.
There were political tremors: Stewart said she thought of us as almost a “suicide species” by this point, and reiterated her claim from Poetry and the Fate of the Senses that she wanted poetry to be an “alternate time experience” reclaimed from late capitalism’s hegemony over our lives. Leisure time is being stolen from us, language is degraded and commercialized in facile ways, and anything made for “serious human ends” is rendered irrelevant. Pinsky admitted to being enslaved by The New York Times, “the daily anger and frustration.” Stewart countered that it’s our responsibility to refuse the imperative of newspapers: read five pages of good poetry or prose each day and write a page on it. Call a friend and read it to them. Keep a commonplace book of your favorite sentences.
When I came home that evening, I was ready to drape myself, stupified, in front of the television with a glass of something good and strong. There was the red Netflix envelope; but first, a go-round of the cable channels. So I fell to watching The Birds on AMC, because my eyes demanded it. I don’t pretend to understand how he creates such impeccable frames, but I’m hooked from the first glimpse of a costume, a coif, a posture of Hitchcock.
Knowing that Silent Spring was published in 1962 makes The Birds—which contains quips about nature’s revenge on our befouling species—not as prescient as it first appears. Ideas of environmental destruction were already in the air. But in the scene where a man oblivious to the river of gasoline at his feet lights a cigar and immediately self-immolates—where cars burst into flame—where Melanie Daniels in a phone booth looks like a couture mannequin in a vitrine caught in the Apocalypse—where the sign CAPITOL OIL CO. looms in the background of the conflagration—these details add up to far more than a few lines of dialog about despoliation. An artist’s ability to see the future, to capture truth, is not a function of political thinking. Where else but his subconscious could Hitchcock have dredged such oily looking crows? Likewise something tells me those silly commercials I’m seeing of the latest horror movie are subliminally muttering empire for vampire.
To be continued.

Originally Published: October 22nd, 2007

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

  1. October 22, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    It's terrific to hear some big names (how did Lyn Heijinian and Robert Pinsky sit down together -- sounds like Yalta) affirm "biodiversity". The standard "state of the art" criticism is to say that there is too much poetry, not enough wheat-from-chaffing, that sort of thing -- as if poets have a duty to be quiet for their betters.
    I don't think it's possible to be too strongly in favor of "people writing". Blogs -- I mean, should this not be an English teacher's wet dream? People voluntarily writing Themes for English B? Of course much of it is horrific, but then, they learn quite quickly that the way to get more readers is to write better: better prose, better themes. It seems like a virtuous circle to me, and I can't see a downside. Even the academy should be in favor -- these massive archives will keep their students' students in business for years.
    I was thinking recently about "movements" -- this is one thing that really does seem to be dead to contemporary poetry. Lyn and the langauge team seem to have been the last group to really have been able to assert some kind of hegemony over our thoughts. My own feeling is that the explosive growth and sophistication of the marketing industry has drained the life out of the phenomenon -- things like flarf existed in a grey zone, half serious and half (the more important half) mockery and comment on the naming moment itself.
    The world going to hell -- from my point of view, right after graduation, rendering all my political science classes irrelevant (we were taught the "next big thing" was a cold war with China.) It really has been driven to the forefront, and it's impossible to ignore. Even Helen Vendler (who once proclaimed she never voted) is angry. But then, it's important to realize that the world has been hell for most people well before 9/11 -- neither the attacks nor Bush came out of nowhere. It's "blowback" and while Clinton was much easier to love (apparently his favourite poet is Walt Whitman? God I miss the 90s) from the outside there's not enough difference to account for the rupture the intellectuals like us feel.
    The writerly response to the war has been quite heartening, actually. Some institutions (Harpers, the New Yorker) really stood up; others (The Atlantic Monthly) have not. In terms of poetry, we will never go back to Carolyn Forché, but the "avant garde" has proved surprisingly adaptive. We will wait, perhaps in vain, for the great "war poetry" of the invasions -- in part because our armies are no longer representative of our nation.

  2. October 22, 2007

    "from the outside there's not enough difference to account for the rupture the intellectuals like us feel."
    Simon -- at least hypocrites (yeah, I miss the 90's too) feel the distance between their actions and their ideals. The current realpolitiks has no ideals -- it's just about power.
    It's really no surprise that Pinsky and Hejinian appeared more alike than different on the panel. He quoted Corso's "Marriage" and compared it to Dexter Gordon; she played Stalling and dropped names like Eisenstein and Shlovsky. I'm not sure what would have stood out in this context: Lobachevsky? Erasmus Darwin? Frege? Aleister Crowley? It's hard to assert one's alterity as one of the black-clad chancellors of the Academy.
    And I'm not making fun of them. But being in a social setting will tend to emphasize the social features, right? And we're basically alike: it's what they call a demographic.
    On the page though, we're pretty indelibly idiosyncratic.
    So I am not a fan of conferences, readings, etc. But I am totally a fan of that page. I agree with you: let's all read and write, in that order.

  3. October 23, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Thanks, Ange, for summing and summoning the panel. Perhaps the social nature of a panel does damp down the differences and the times relegate our idiosyncracies, and our social differences and social actions to reading and writing. I've been re-reading Denise Levertov (her 84th birthday would have been this Wednesday) and her poems that would now be termed documentary poems--poems that use snippets from media and government testimony to create affect--seem almost one last frustrated attempt on her part to say something that will snag the attention of the apparatus behind the words she quotes. Other poems of her, though, could only have been written because she took action with others:
    The choice: to speak
    or not to speak.
    Those of whom we spoke
    had not that choice.
    (from "Protestors")
    Through the midnight streets of Babylon
    between the steel towers of their arsenals,
    between the torture castles with no windows,
    we race by barefoot, holding tight
    our candles,
    (from "Candles in Babylon")
    I wonder if the flattening of difference is due not to their similar demographic but to the seeming futility these days of such action, or of having very few poets represent the point of view--as Levertov did to Duncan--that some great art results from engagement, not detachment, with the world.

  4. October 23, 2007

    But there are poets of engagement. I don't know -- Brian Turner. Siedel. Mark Nowak. Baraka. They don't seem to have any more purchase on the collective imagination than Ashbery or Merwin or Creeley. Then what?

  5. October 24, 2007

    I met my wife at a sit-in. Engagement with the world -- it's the only source of hope. But I don't recommend doing it for art or for documentary purposes. Do it for life if your life calls you to. If you don't feel called, give it a try and see.
    And one bit of advice: If you go in wearing your aesthetic hat, you will find much to object to. Unattractive chants at rallies. ("All we are saying is give chants some peace.") Unappetizing rhetoric all around. Yadda yadda -- lots of yadda yadda. If you must be aesthetic about it, I recommend Coleridge's closing encomium in his poem to Charles Lamb: "No sound is dissonant which tells of life."

  6. October 24, 2007
     Drew Gardner

    I also caught The Birds on AMC that night.
    There's another aspect of that gas staion scene I noticed -- Hitchcock's obvious delight in the destructive chaos he's creating. When the horse and cart come around the corner in the height of the destruction it's almost gleeful. The social reality depicted in the movie is one of repression and artificiality to the point where one almost wishes for it to go up in flames. The prescience here is real in part because the audience's own desire to see the maddening and oblivious human world destroyed comes out in that sequence -- or at least the neoncon-ish image of the oblivious pudgy smoker/driver/consumer in that scene. There's also a strong subcurrent in The Birds of either an excess or a deficit of maternal love in the two main characters which resonates weirdly with altranately attacking and not attacking birds, which are not subject to rational explanations of their behavior or expositions of ther history.