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Poetic Fashion and Unfashion: On Literary Outliers
I recently participated, along with Annie Finch, Cate Marvin, and Kristen Prevallet, in a panel at Harvard called, “Poetic Fashion and Unfashion: On Literary Outliers.” The idea, which Woodberry Poetry Room Curator Christina Davis came up with, was to have us discuss “outlier poets whose work presents a counterpoint to our current literary climate and its (implicit or explicit) prohibitions, preferences, and constraints.” Quite a subject!
Kristen spoke about Helen Adam (folks with longish memories will recall that I picked Kristen’s edition of The Helen Adam Reader as my book of the year some time ago) and Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book; Cate discussed Rodney Jack and Kevin Honold; and I talked about Basil Bunting and Tom Pickard. What’s interesting about these poets is that some are more outlying than others; a few have become really fashionable, and others never (yet?) have. In the end, we made our points more through juxtaposition than by laying out succinct observations, but each poet’s story was revealing in the retelling. Helen Adam was a child poet, born in Glasgow in 1909; Harriet Monroe reviewed her first book in Poetry in 1924. You’d never have guessed that Adam would become known decades later alongside Allen Ginsberg, Jack Spicer, and Duncan, as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance – and one of only a handful of poets whose work appeared in the landmark anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Rodney Jack was published in a number of well-known magazines including Poetry, which awarded him its Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize in 1999, but he committed suicide not long ago; he erased the hard drive on his computer that contained most of his work, though the poems were apparently recovered by his partner Wayne Johns. Kevin Honold, like Jack, served in the military; a Gulf War veteran, he’s now in Mongolia for the Peace Corps. Cate says he writes about the military, military history, homelessness, blue collar jobs, and the Bible, and a first book, Men as Trees Walking, recently appeared. Bunting and Pickard are far better known, though it’s hard to think of either as being fashionable. Bunting was perhaps the most impoverished of Modernist poets and Pickard has led a rather precarious existence for decades.
For me, fashion is a matter of taste or taste-making, along with the fickle – or at least ever-changing – taste of readers at any given time. But being an outlier is a function of a poet’s luck, choices, and inclinations. Here are a few hasty examples of what I mean. Emily Dickinson was an outlier; it seems ridiculous to think of her in terms of being in or out of fashion. Bunting was not really an outlier (friend of Pound, dozens of poems published in Poetry, etc.), but he has gone in and out of fashion. Helen Adam was and is an outlier, and has never been in fashion. Annie extends this by pointing out that once a poet is dead and their acolytes die out, a new kind of possibility comes into play, one that has nothing to do with whether the poet was an outlier in life or not. Pope, Longfellow, Swinburne, Tennyson, Margaret Walker, Millay were all in-liers when they were alive, but their stock has fluctuated, and that has nothing to do with whether or not they were innies or outies while they were around. So one way to look at the overall picture, she says, could be to recognize that their status changes depending on their relationship to literary power. On a more immediate – and ephemeral, but not insignificant – level, each reader has his or her own personal, and probably changing, list of innies and outties.
Cate points out that Jack and Honold had what she calls a distinct aversion to po-biz; in a sense they are “anti-social.” Kristen, responding to my thinking about Helen Adam, said that “fashion is a weird word to use to talk about poets – I can’t separate fashion from the literal definition ‘face, appearance; construction, pattern, design; thing done; beauty; manner, characteristic feature.” Our subject, she felt, was about “the other definition of fashion having something to do with a group of people all acting together.” And, she adds, “although Helen Adam certainly beat to her own drummer in her social milieu, she was incredibly preoccupied with fashion, beauty, feminineness, and manners. So in that sense she was much more ‘in fashion than others in her scene. Where as certain other poets (Bunting perhaps?) probably couldn’t care a hog’s ass about any of those things.” Kristen made me smile when she corrected me for saying that Adam would never be fashionable: “She was the epitome of fashion.” Here’s a late video of her so you can decide for yourself.
And here’s a poem by Rodney Jack from our pages; it may have seemed pithy enough at the time of its publication, but it feels positively visionary now.
After the Diagnosis
They entered a chainlink fence around
Peachtree Mortgage & Loan,
the building I once climbed
by way of a drainpipe and a tree-of-heaven
to the hot tar top, closer to a box maple’s
topmost bejewelled branches – laden with samaras.
Stomping through a plush rug
of creeper and fallen sourwood flowers, I know
that I’m alive – as Darwin described it:
greedily hungry, fit to survive –
not the least bit concerned with fences.
I scale the chainlink, then the building,
sit on the roof dreaming
of my future house: vaulted ceilings,
walls mostly windows looking out to a yard
lush with royal paulownia, black locust,
angelhair also known as mimosa –
those trees like weeds that grow where they can,
beside a dumpster, gutter, punched through
a sidewalk crack, whose numbers
are legion and whose flowers are proud,
like the sourwood lilies I tread on my way home.
So many haunting things here; for me, the most arresting is the embedding of the word “own” in “paulownnia” – in a poem about surviving without owning anything.
In an outlier poem like this one, things are not what they appear to be. It’s not lyrical, and it’s not experimental – it’s a poem from the other side of the fence, aware of the way things look, but not quite willing to engage with anything remotely “fashionable.” And so it seems to me that Kristen hit upon the real crux in our discussion of “outliers” when she observed that for someone’s poetry to “be in fashion” means that it’s somehow more about “keeping up with appearances.”