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The Chicago School, Imagism, and early poetry of Melvin Tolson

Kathy Lou Schultz at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
Kathy Lou Schultz at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

Critical reengagement with Melvin B. Tolson’s writing from the 1930s and ’40s makes clear that his later Afro-Modernist epics, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) and Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965), are neither anomalies out of sync with the developments of modernism, nor distanced from African American schools of writing. Rather, Tolson’s engagement with the contemporary poetic practices of his time results in a traceable trajectory from modern free verse, influenced by Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg of the Chicago School; to experimental modernist practice in the 1940s, drawing from T. S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s methods; and finally to the development of Afro-Modernist innovation in Libretto and Harlem Gallery, as he realizes his own vision for the Afro-Modernist epic. As he becomes more fluent in his own particular modernist practice, Tolson’s task of decolonizing what Aldon Nielsen describes as “the colonized master text of modernism,”[1] results in a “rearticulation of modernism [that] led him eventually to assert African progenitors in the realm of technique” (247). Tolson’s Afro-Modernism is marked by a diasporic worldview in which multiple lineages, including those from Africa, Europe, and Asia, are incorporated into his work. This diasporic imagination, which is inherently transnational, is present in the Afro-Modernist epics of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka as well. Each of these poets turned to the epic form to include large swaths of diasporic history in their retellings of African American genealogies.

In his poems of the thirties, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, Tolson first utilizes a modern free verse line. It is in the 1940s, however, in Rendezvous with America that we see Tolson moving toward experimental modernist forms. Clearly his work from the forties serves as a bridge to his later Afro-Modernist epics. Although both of his early collections are deserving of close attention, the foundational stages of Tolson’s development as a poet have been obscured for several reasons, including Tolson’s publishing history; periods of scholarly disinterest, neglect, even outright hostility; and little recent attention to Tolson’s work prior to the 1950s. Ironically, when Michael Bérubé published his major work on Tolson, Marginal Forces / Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon in 1992, Portraits was the only collection of Tolson’s still in print. In staging the reemergence of Tolson into modern literary criticism, Bérubé’s work focuses on unpacking the complexities of Tolson’s last work Harlem Gallery and its relationship to modernist studies. Bérubé, whose book mentions Portraits almost exclusively in footnotes, seems, in part, to have drawn his assessment of the earlier work, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, from Tolson himself who claims at one point to have stashed that manuscript in a trunk for twenty years. Bérubé also asserts that Tolson “brackets off” Portraits as “premodernist” in his representation of it in later works.[2] In addition, Raymond Nelson’s important edited volume that helped to create a new generation of Tolson readers, “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (1999), contains, as Nelson explains, only “the three books [Tolson] published in his lifetime”[3] and does not make mention of Portraits at all.

Tolson spent most of his life in small towns in the Midwest and Southwest far from major urban center. Thus, a significant turning point in his poetics occurred during his stay in New York in 1931–32, where he studied for a master’s degree in comparative literature at Columbia University. During this time, Tolson began composing his Portraits, encouraged by a fellow student at Columbia to write a “Negro epic.” In this early part of his career, Tolson is working through his initial introduction to modern poetry, a process in which he is more an emulator than innovator. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits was modeled after The Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters, who in turn had used J. W. Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology as a model. Masters’s populism appealed to Tolson. As critics have noted of Spoon River: “Here for the first time in America was the whole of a society which people recognized — not only that part of it reflected in writers of the genteel tradition.”[4] Ernest Earnest writes: “Spoon River is a community, a microcosm, not a collection of individuals” (63). Tolson sought to do the same for the community of Harlem. What distinguishes Tolson’s modern free verse from that of Masters, however, is his inclusion of black vernacular forms, including the blues. For example, the first stanza of “Diamond Canady” quotes from a familiar African American boast:

I plays any game
Dat you kin name

For any amount
Dat you kin count.
[5] 

Tolson was conscious of using his poems as written repositories for such oral forms as the boast and spoken African proverbs; his later works utilize vernacular forms as a compositional structure, displaying entire scenes following the protocol of the dozens.

According to Tolson, he discovered Masters along with Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Edward Arlington Robinson in 1932. Tolson writes that his “German American friend” who encouraged him to begin the epic that became A Gallery of Harlem Portraits told him: “You’re like the professors. You think the only good poet is a dead one. Why don’t you read Sandburg, Masters, Frost, Robinson?”[6] These writers were not part of his academic training at Lincoln University and Tolson frequently recounted his disappointment that “his English professor at Lincoln reacted with discouraging disdain when [he] excitedly discovered Sandburg’s ‘Chicago.’”[7] As John Timberman Newcomb points out, Sandburg was one of Harriet Monroe’s “important early discoveries.”[8] She “sought the maximum avant-garde impact by leading off [an] issue [of Poetry] with ‘Chicago Poems,’ placing Sandburg’s rough-edged, soon-to-be-famous portrait of the city, ‘Chicago,’ on the first page, where it became a self-defining editorial statement for this proudly Chicagoan magazine” (15).

Displaying a specific understanding of the place of the Harlem Renaissance within the broader context of modernist literature, Tolson asserts in his master’s thesis that what he calls the Harlem Group of Negro Writers is an active component of “the larger culture of the new literature” represented by Poetry Magazine:

The literature that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, which has been the focal point of this thesis, affected and was affected by the larger culture of the new literature that began with the publication of the first issue of Poetry by Harriet Monroe in 1912. Many thought that the Harlem Renaissance was just a fad. In this they were mistaken. It has been followed by a proletarian literature of Negro life, wider in scope, deeper in significance, and better in stylistic methods.[9]

Tolson’s understanding of the contours of modernism is prescient on a number of levels, including his awareness of the importance of Monroe’s journal. Newcomb writes:

The magnitude of Poetry’s importance to modernism has never been fully appreciated. More than any literary endeavor of its times, Monroe’s magazine challenged the prevailing notion that poetry had no business in urban-industrial modernity, and theorized the continued value of verse at a time when to many, the genre seemed about to end its days as a refuge for spineless dilettantes. (7)

Poetry magazine was an especially important touchstone for Tolson with its “uninhibited inclination for conflict with self-appointed defenders of tradition” (11). Furthermore, Tolson notes that as precursors to proletarian literature, Harlem Renaissance writers laid the groundwork for a literature of Negro life with improved formal methods and a wider range of content, reflecting his appreciation of the formal and thematic possibilities opened up by modernist method. Tolson’s analysis remains an unusual view of American literary history. More often, modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, and proletarian writing are understood as three separate strands, rather than part of the same thread. Moreover, Tolson recognizes the cross-racial affiliations among American modernists in his observation that New Negro writers both affected and were affected by the new literature represented in Poetry Magazine.

Scholars are still defining the historical features of the Chicago Renaissance. For example, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

the term ‘Chicago Renaissance,’ as it is usually used, applies more precisely to the second wave of Chicago writing. It describes a gathering of writers, a flowering of institutions that supported and guided them … between about 1910 and the mid-1920s. Major figures include novelists [Theodore] Dreiser (whose career extended well into this period), Sherwood Anderson, and Floyd Dell; poets Carl Sandburg, Harriet Monroe, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay; reporters Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner; and editors and critics Monroe, Dell, Margaret Anderson, and Henry Justin Smith. [10]

Other sources such as the Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance date the movement more broadly: from 1900 to 1930.[11]

In addition, a Chicago Renaissance occurred among African American writers and artists, which a Chicago Public Library project dates from 1932 to 1950.

In 1979, Chicago Renaissance artist Eldzier Cortor recalled that among those whose “burgeoning talents shaped a kind of Thirties/Forties Renaissance in Chicago were the dancers Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty; writers Richard Wright and Frank Yerby, Margaret Walker, Willard Motley and John H. Johnson (now publisher of Ebony); sociologist writers St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton (who later coauthored Black Metropolis); entertainers Nat King Cole, Ray Nance and Oscar Brown, Jr.; photographer Gordon Parks; poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and the artists Elizabeth Catlett and Hughie Lee Smith.”[12]

The African American Renaissance in Chicago contributed significantly to Tolson’s career as a poet. At the American Negro Exposition held in Chicago in 1940, he won the national poetry contest for his poem “Dark Symphony,” which was subsequently published in Atlantic Monthly in September 1941. Tolson biographer Robert Farnsworth finds that the critical and popular success of Tolson’s collection, Rendezvous With America, published in 1944, which includes the award-winning poem “Dark Symphony,” played a major role in Tolson being named Poet Laureate of Liberia. Following on the serial poems “Dark Symphony” and the title poem of the collection “Rendezvous With America,” Tolson writes his first major Afro-Modernist epic at the bequest of the Liberian Centennial Commission: Libretto for the Republic of Liberia.

Tolson’s chosen poetic affiliations throughout his career have been a puzzle to some critics; however, his interest in Masters, Sandburg, and Monroe of the Chicago Renaissance in his early career as a poet is not unusual among African American writers. Moreover, recognition of the Chicago writers illustrates the need to understand the “New Negro Renaissance” more broadly — instead of relying only on Harlem-centric accounts. Notably, among the many influences on Harlem Renaissance writers George Hutchinson lists in The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White is the “Chicago Renaissance authors’ experiments in vernacular poetry and regionalist fiction.”[13] In fact, for Midwesterners Hughes and Tolson, the Chicago Renaissance was of special interest. More specifically, “[a]ccording to [Langston] Hughes’s biographer, Faith Berry, Hughes’s high school English teacher (at Central High in Cleveland), ‘introduced her class to the Chicago school of poets: Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and — the poet Hughes admired most, and eventually his greatest influence in the matter of form — Carl Sandburg.’”[14]

In the 1930s Tolson had yet to extol the genius of T. S. Eliot. He is writing more out of a Chicago Renaissance influence: a Whitman-inspired, free verse poetics. By Tolson’s later account, his introduction to modern free verse served as a springboard toward his eventual discovery of formally experimental modernism. Tolson links the emphasis on vernacular, or “common speech,” in free verse to the Imagists: “The first finished manuscript of the Harlem Gallery [A Gallery of Harlem Portraits] was written in free verse. That was the fashion introduced by the imagists.”[15] Though Tolson’s accounting of the connections between free verse and imagism is historically inexact, this quote is particularly interesting in that Tolson seems to be attempting retrospectively to mark his first manuscript as exhibiting modernist influences, which may be an attempt to recoup it for history. (At other points he seemingly disavows the manuscript of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits.) In the later work Harlem Gallery, which Tolson casts here as a rewriting of the earlier Portraits, we see Tolson’s move from modern free verse to the aesthetics of experimental modernism.

In the March 1913 number of Poetry, F. S. Flint’s article “Imagisme” lists the three “rules” of “Imagisme” as follows:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.[16]

In the “Preface” to Some Imagist Poets (1915) there are six rules, sometimes referred to as the Imagist “Manifesto.”[17] One of the basic tenets is “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.”[18] The list also emphasizes “absolute freedom in the choice of subject” (vii) and the “individuality of a poet,” (vi) concepts that for Tolson may have also brought to mind the democratizing influence of the Whitmanian free verse line. Drawing evidence from the Tolson papers housed at the Library of Congress, Nielsen shows that: “What Tolson came to attempt was a decolonizing of American letters, a task which he saw as linking him to Whitman” (244). “I had deserted the great Romantics and Victorians,” Tolson states in an interview in 1965, “Walt Whitman’s exuberance was in the marrow of my bones.”[19] Pound’s view, however, is much less democratic than that of Whitman. In “A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste” which followed Flint’s article in the same issue of Poetry, Pound writes: “To begin with, consider the three rules recorded by Mr. Flint, not as dogma — never consider anything as dogma — but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.”[20] It is difficult to imagine, however, anything more dogmatic than an article assailing one with “Don’ts.”

Significantly, Chicago was an important ground on which the battle for the kind of free verse that would reign in American modernism was fought. The two sides that emerged were Midwesterners placed in the lineage of Whitman and the Imagist group made up of writers recognizable now as members of what used to be called the “high modernist” canon. The battles took place in the pages of Poetry and The Little Review. As Mark Morrisson explains, “These two trends in the contents of the Little Review reveal two competing visions of an American modern poetry canon developing during the pre–First World War period. The first was epitomized by Lindsay, Masters, and to some extent Sandburg, and it represents a continuation of the Whitman-inspired canon.”[21] Both Poetry and the Little Review published works from this group. “Yet even as many contributors and readers of the Little Review sang the praises of Lindsay and Masters and Whitmanian poetics,” Morrisson describes, “another American poetry quickly rivaled this aesthetic Imagism” (22). The Little Review eventually becomes an advocate of Imagism, awarding its 1917 “Vers Libre Prize” to Imagist writers (23). Ultimately, “[t]he free verse revolution in American poetry had come, in the pages of The Little Review, to be an Imagist revolution (23).

Morrisson describes Imagism as “a canonization strategy, designed to give a coherent focus to the otherwise disparate work of poets ranging from Pound, H.D., and Aldington to D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce” (22). Current examination of the modernist canon reveals this strategy to have been a successful one, and though we know — as Tolson certainly must have known — that Whitman introduced the American revolution in free verse in the century before Pound, Tolson’s move late in his life to associate himself with Imagism may have been one of his own canonization strategies. Certainly the two types of free verse discussed here are very formally dissimilar. The influence of free verse by Illinois poets Sandburg and Masters is dominant in Tolson’s work from the thirties, exhibiting phrasally-based enjambment based on prose rhythms as opposed to the sculptural exactness called for by Imagism.

Tolson’s poems from this period suffer from the same pitfalls as other free verse works of the thirties, such as Sandburg’s Marxist-influenced The People, Yes (1936) that Brian M. Reed links to the aesthetics of the Popular Front. Of the 107 parts of The People, Yes, Reeds writes: “There is little or no rhyme, meter, or other organized patterning of sound. The poetry depends instead on syntactical parallelism — especially in the form of lists, catalogs, and repeated phrases — to give his verse coherence and force.”[22] Tolson’s method is similar to Sandburg’s in several respects. For example, Reed describes rather arbitrarily lineated prose quotations throughout Sandburg’s work and “patches of the book that consist of nothing but reams of what Sandburg calls ‘proverbs’” (195). So, too, does Tolson’s early work display these traits. Tolson’s Portraits rely almost entirely on narrative techniques, lacking the crisp images and pared down lines associated with Imagism. Tolson’s narratives about violence and tragic deaths such as “Diamond Canady,” also mirror the content of Spoon River Anthology:

“Love ’em and leave ’em.”
Said Diamond Canady …
But when he got ready to cast Little Eva Winn aside
She left him in bed one morning
With a thin knife sticking in his heart. (7)

Without the introduction to Sandburg and Masters, however, Tolson’s later experimentally modernist epics would not have been put into motion. Moreover, the examples of their content and scope influenced the development of Tolson’s later populist Afro-Modernist aesthetic. By considering the entire scope of Tolson’s poetry and prose (as well as that of Langston Hughes) a more complex picture of the so-called schools of the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, modernism, and proletarian literature emerges. What may be most useful is a reconsideration of the works labeled as “Harlem Renaissance” and a reassessment of the common timeline of twentieth century African American literature that highlights the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, but little else. Recent work on the Chicago School and the Chicago Renaissance among African Americans may help to fill in this history.

 


 

1. Aldon L. Nielsen, “Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism,” African American Review 26, no. 2 (1992): 241.

2. Michael Bérubé, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 109.

3. Raymond Nelson, “Editorial Statement,” in “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), xxvii.

4. Ernest Earnest, “Spoon River Revisited,” Western Humanities Review 21 (1967): 63.

5. Melvin B. Tolson, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, ed. Robert M. Farnsworth (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979), 7.

6. Tolson, “The Odyssey of a Manuscript,” New Letters 48, no. 1 (1981): 8–9.

7. Robert M. Farnsworth, Melvin B. Tolson, 1898–1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984), 24.

8. John Timberman Newcomb, “Poetry’s Opening Door: Harriet Monroe and American Modernism,” American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15, no. 1 (2005): 15.

9. Edward J. Mullen, ed., The Harlem Group of Negro Writers (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 135.

10. Carlo Rotella, “Chicago Literary Renaissance” Encyclopedia of Chicago, ed. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman (Chicago History Museum, The Newberry Library, and Northwestern University, 2005).

11. Jan Pinkerton and Randolph H. Hudson, Encyclopedia of the Chicago Literary Renaissance (New York: Facts on File, 2004).

12. Michael Flug, introduction to Chicago Renaissance 1932–1950: A Flowering of Afro-American Culture, Images and Documents from the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection (Chicago Public Library).

13. George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995), 30.

14. Yusef Komunyakaa, “Langston Hughes + Poetry = the Blues,” Callaloo 25, no. 4 (2002): 1143.

15. Tolson, “Interview with M. W. King: A Poet’s Odyssey,” in Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States, ed. Herbert Hill (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 194.

16. F. S. Flint, “Imagisme,” Poetry 1, no. 6 (1913): 199.

17. Later, in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), Amy Lowell lists the six rules as part of a larger essay.

18. Preface to Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), vi.

19. Tolson, “Interview with M. W. King,” 195.

20. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” Poetry 1, no. 6 (1913): 201.

21. Mark Morrisson, “Nationalism and the Modern American Canon” in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, ed. Walter Kalaidjian (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 21.

22. Brian M. Reed. “Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes, Thirties Modernism, and the Problem of Bad Political Poetry,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46, no. 2 (2004): 191.

Zombie poetry

Table at Kelly Writers House

I want to feel what I feel. —[1] Toni Morrison, The Guardian (2012)

Let us consider a poetry of the apostrophe. That is to say, an exclamatory poetry, a poetry addressed to no one in particular, a poetry of broken and abstracted personification, of possession and emotion in the extreme. To put it another way, a poetry of a sign used “to indicate the omission of one or more letters in a word … to indicate the possessive case … to indicate plurals of abbreviations and symbols.”[2] In other words, “O death, where is thy sting? O graue, where is thy victorie?”[3]

I have been accused of, and voluntarily confessed to, killing poetry. If the problem of prior murders was what to do with the body, the problem of the moment is the corpse will not stay dead. Or rather, it will stay dead, but will not shut up. It rots and rises, and opens its maw to state the obvious: “I am dead.” Now Derrida said to say “I am dead” is “the condition for the true act of language.” “True” because the sentence follows the rules of pure grammaticality — it signifies despite its lack of significant object. Because it is obviously false and yet intelligible, “I am dead” is “the very condition for the living person to speak.”[4] It is the matter of fact of the doubling of the je, which was not, for Derrida as for Barthes, a matter of distinction between énonciateur and énonciation, the latter being the Barthean point of discursive origin,[5] but which was latent in temporalization itself. There is no “pure present,” for “historical time is already implied in the discursive time of the énonciation.” Furthermore, for Derrida, “I am dead” is possible because “I am always already absent from my language,” from my singularity, which is reanimated each time, for the first time, when I say “I.”[6] This, to me, is a given of what has constituted poetry, an énonciation of je that is a matter of form over matter, mass over mind. Like the “I” that “likes” on Facebook. To my mind, some of the newest forms of conceptual poetry enact various forms of communion between the I that was poetry and the I that is the state of post-conceptual poetics. In which post is less a temporal or historical marker than a matter of assignment, such that “to post” is derived from the Latin pōnere, “to place.” It is not for nothing that I am where I am placed, the site/non-site specificity of avant-garde poetry.

In Robert Smithson’s provisional theory of the site, abstract logical representation represents an actual, that is to say, literal site. The space between the aestheticized and the real is the “space of metaphoric significance,”[7] which is the space where Bourdieu locates the field of cultural production, and where I would place allegory as a purely prepositional matter. And as I am cognizant of my occasional role as poetic arbiter, “arbiter,” which does not appear to derive from the German arbeiten, but should, especially in this context, especially as the latter implicates expansion and shrinkage, especially when applied to wood. This specialized cognition should not get in the way of a more specialized cognition, which is the coincident of my function and my desire to confirm the undead of poetry, to serve, in a word, our disinterred poetic interests. Such as manifest in the following three exhibits, each of which exhibits a particular desire to animate conceptualism, that is to say, to give it an animus — historically, psychoanalytically, paternally, communally, literally.

I confess as well that I find a certain a mezzanine quality to all this, a notable backstitch, in which the pleasures of animation coexist (perhaps forcibly) with the pitch of thing-ness, one not sacrificed for another, save in the (libidinal) manner of the Eucharist. That is to say, the saving grace of the promise of life after life, of Zombie poetries. In which, for example, the quite historical formal dictates of a historical group such as the Oulipo may be considered the considered equivalent to the idiosyncratic, ahistorical peregrinations of “n/oulipo,” a set of no one’s design but the claimant’s — in this case, critic Katie Price.[8] And I would argue that this kind of maneuver is a magic trick, that the real work being done in such new criticism has nothing to do with the work being considered, which is the hand that moves, but the work right in front of you, the steady hand of the critic. For Katie Price’s essay equating choate and inchoate coteries[9] is above all a piece of conceptualist criticism, akin to Marjorie Perloff’s essay on Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project in Unoriginal Genius, in which Perloff pretends not only that there is something entitled The Arcades Project (or Passagenwerk) that was a book by Walter Benjamin, but that such a book is a book of literature, a harbinger of conceptual writing.[10] A similar move enables Price to consider n/oulipo as a form of constraint-based or procedural writing akin to its antecedent. One that exists in no one’s mind but the critic’s. Though that is more than good enough. Because the stake at stake in any (and every) community is that of the cartoon creature who builds the footbridge across the chasm one step ahead of its crossing the footbridge across the chasm.

An effort more directly evidenced in broader genre-establishing maneuvers, such as those of Russian videopoetry. As described by poet/critic Natalia Fedorova, Russian videopoetry defines itself as “a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of images with text and sound. In the measured blending of these three elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience,”[11] and the mark of poetry evidenced in the genre-constraint that “the text of the poem should be displayed on screen or voiced.” According to Fedorova, Russian videopoetry explicitly “legitimizes itself through creating a number of expertise institutions like “festivals,” and, one would assume, university conferences and occasional essays such as this. Or, better still, definitional rules.[12] And to go even further towards what passes for my point, there is the self-proclaimed narcissism of second-generation American conceptualists, who rail against their chosen parents, as is inevitable, by embracing their grandparents. A new New York School about which Trisha Low, for one, girlishly cracks wise, casts heterophilic asides, names the names of her contemporaries several times,[13] and altogether admirably performs the function of those whom Bourdieu terms the “youngest,” who must, again according to Bourdieu, “assert their difference, get it known and recognized, get themselves known and recognized (‘make a name for themselves’), by endeavoring to impose new modes of thought and expression … bound to disconcert the orthodox by their ‘obscurity’ and ‘pointlessness.’”[14] So far, so good.

I should note parenthetically that I am of course opposed to the very idea of community, particularly an aesthetic community, which may or may not be something different than being opposed to its concept. This is a structural position, related to the Kantian notion of community, which has to do with a presumptive schema of cause and effect, or the reciprocity of action and reaction, that is to say, succession subjected to a general rule. Logic being one such rule. And one of the rules of logic is that a thing cannot both be and not be. A rule belied by Hamlet, who is and is not mad, and here, where I can say confidently that I am dead. Not as proof of my humanity, but as proof of a scandal.

I say that to say “I am dead” is a scandal as it reveals the impossibilities of the structure: true and not true, as language is neither site-specific nor non-site-specific, but is rather site-contingent. Geography, as we all now know, being history and vice versa. Or rather, not: simultaneity being the new atemporal temporality. The good news is that ahistoricity is upon us; the bad news (depending on one’s desires) is that it is purely immanent. Much in the way that the law can only proscribe evil and not prescribe good, in the Wittgensteinian sense of not speaking about that which one cannot know, I can only accurately speak of my death in the present tense. To say “I was dead” is incorrect, to say “I will be dead” is hopeful, but inaccurate. Derrida’s “I am dead” was predicated on the ever-rejuvenating je, which itself was based on an I that was the I of the master: I know that I am not-I, therefore, as I announce my I, I belie I. Contrapuntally, my I is that of the slave: I echo I. For inasmuch as I am is to be an I, that is to say an extant cause on account of which there is an articulable effect, I am dead. Stopped and not in my self-perpetuating tracks.[15] The thing that masks the thing itself.[16] Similarly, to say that poetry is dead in the context of poetics is a scandal because it lays too-bare the game at hand, which I should like to bare further, in true community spirit.

What I am getting at is the difference between acting for the purpose of something and acting with the purpose of something, the difference between the efficient cause (the latter) and the final cause (the former). Going back to my three examples, each acts with the efficient avant-garde cause, operating as an avant-garde category, serving the final avant-garde cause, operating topographically and categorically, that is to say, as aesthetics itself, and as aesthetics itself operates. Thus, conceptualist criticism engages with chance, second generation conceptualism with joke, Russian videopoetry with situation. To be even more reductive, chance as it operates as a traumatic shift within the work, chance as described by Bataille as naked, “definitive” — “obscene and disgusting, in short, divine.”[17] Joke as a way of affirmatively asserting affect into conceptualism, born of an institutional/cultural fear and refusal of affectlessness on the one hand and desire for “secondary failure” (failure as avant goal) on the other.[18] Situation as that which has become site, as site has become procedural, and therefore, allegorical.[19] For Hegel, as described by Žižek, the passage from tragedy to comedy was the move from the individual to the universal;[20] if this is so, then the radical move of conceptualism is the passage from the universal to the radically, the irredeemably, particular.[21] First as farce, then as tragedy.[22] There is no textual bid even for immanence. Not that it matters. Because the case for the apostrophe is being made, will be made, what does not exist taken as omission, or, more properly, as elision. For Rosalind Krauss, video was the medium of narcissism because video could not be about its own materiality or formalism, could not be reflection, but only reflexive.[23] Thus, we return as zombies, to the possessive case, to an I for an I. The hand that turns the tables, or reinscribes poetics as the signification of text, as the I witness, as the unrelenting humanity of cruelty and chance.

“The sting of death is sinne, and the strength of sinne is the law.”[24] It should be noted that the law we all follow is the law of the institution, and here we all are. Like the law, at least in the United States, this is an adversarial proceeding. For my part, I have two choices, two roles to play. I can either approve these new avant-gardes, solidifying my position as elder, their position as heir, our position as a forum, always communal, in which such positions not only may be taken, but must be taken. As I have taken myself. Or I can disapprove this particular trinity or parts thereof, and perform the exact same function. It should be noted that my position, as theirs, as yours, is site-contingent. When my hotel is paid for, I am elder. When my hotel is not paid for, I play the part of upstart. When my hotel is paid for as a residency, that makes me a worker. When my hotel is paid for as a matter of course and convenience, that makes me master. Within, it does not need to be said, a certain discourse, primarily that of the university. As I wait, as we all wait, to be archived, collected, confused. For it should not be forgotten that the I who is dead is the I that eats, that “likes” the I of which it may grammatically be said, “What does I provide?” Which is another way of saying, “Are you being served?”

As an aside, there are two Lazaruses in the New Testament: the first is the subject of one of Jesus’s miracles, as reported in the Gospel of John. For those unfamiliar, Lazarus is a follower of Jesus; when word reaches Jesus that Lazarus is ill, Jesus waits two days before departing, arriving in Bethany to find Lazarus dead, four days in the grave. Pithily, “Jesus wept.” Jesus then goes graveside, is assured of belief by the assembled believers, calls to Lazarus, and Lazarus rises, wrapped in his grave clothes. The second is a leper, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Full of sores, Lazarus the beggar died at the gate of a rich man, who also died, and who saw, from the pits of Hades, Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. Abraham rejects the rich man’s pleas for mercy, and refuses to send the leper to warn the rich man’s kin about the heretocome, noting that if they do not hear Moses and the prophets, they will not hear, “though one rose from the dead.” The name “Lazarus” is an English derivation from the Latin, derived from the Greek, taken from the Aramaic, adapted from the Hebrew, meaning, “God has helped.” The take-away point, the point of con-fusion, is that compound past tense, for the object of the resurrection is not Lazarus but God, who has helped Himself to Lazarus, subjecting him to a miracle, to the will, that is to say, of God, of one greater than oneself, that is to say, has forcibly subjected Lazarus to what can only be described as God’s erection. And yet, there is impotence. The speech act of the resurrection is predicated on belief, belief before transfiguration.[25] Put another way, the repressed can only return. Just as conceptualism is dead insofar as poetry is sans heartbeat, and as much as I would very much like to kill poetry, it rises because of our belief, because, in a word, I am, we are, this is, paid. And so we are left with our Zombie poetries and the fitted happiness of our revival poetics. My institutional critique being perhaps, in the end, less of a critique of institutions — for without them, where would we be — and more a critique of the desire animating the animating desire. The animus here being the vestigial I, the language of the unsubjected self, the linguistic thing that is, in the end, the singular fundament of any community.[26] And, as indicated above, the thing that I want to do without.

Here is a joke, circa 3 or 4 BCE: a Roman meets another Roman in the street. First Roman: Hang on, I thought you were dead. Second Roman: Well, as you can see, I’m very much alive. First Roman: Ah, but the person who told me you were dead is more reliable than you. Thus, my question: am I reliable enough for you?

Put another way: There is no ‘I’ in team. But there is a ‘me,’ bitches.

 


 

1. Emma Brockes, “Toni Morrison: ‘I want to feel what I feel. Even if it’s not happiness,” The Guardian, April 13, 2012. The word “feel” is used eighteen times in the article, fifteen of which appear in quotes by Morrison.

2. “Apostrophe,” dictionary.com.

3. 1 Corinthians 15:55, King James Bible.

4. Jacques Derrida, “Barthes-Todorov Discussion,” in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 155–156.

5. Roland Barthes, “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?,” in The Structuralist Controversy, 136–139, 143–144.

6. Derrida, “Barthes-Todorov Discussion,” 155.

7. Robert Smithson, “A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites.”

8. Katie Price, “The Clinimatic Poetics of the Noulipo,” unpublished. In the piece, Price argues the “n/oulipo,” which was, insofar as such things ontologically “are,” a 2005 conference at CalArts which considered the effect of the Oulipo on non-Oulipian constraint- or procedure- based writing, and The /n/oulipian Analects, the anthology based on the conference, which includes work by Oulipians such as Paul Fournel and Ian Monk alongside “n/oulipians” like Christian Bök and Harryette Mullen: The /n/oulipian Analects, ed. Christine Wertheim and Matias Viegener (Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2007).

9. Borrowing from an idea presented at the “Emergent Communities in Contemporary Experimental Writing” conference held at the University of California, Santa Cruz (May 4–5, 2012) by poet and critic Wendy Walters, there may be an argument to be made that conferences and anthologies produce a “durational community,” a temporal or project-bound association, a community both affined and finite.

10. Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 76–98.

11. Fedorova here quotes from poet Tom Konyves’s “Videopoetry: A Manifesto,” September 6, 2011.

12. To which I would add my own thesis, which may or may not be contra the genre-self-definition of Russian video-poetics, that all poetry is that which operates as poetry within the institution of poetry.

13. Trisha Low, “4 REAL: On authenticity, influence and post-conceptual narcissism,” unpublished.

14. Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 58.

15. Consider here the four Aristotelian causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. It is a mark of aestheticism that cause moves from final to material rather than the usual way.

16. My analysis here is based on the discourse of the slave and consideration of the operation of “I am dead” within that schema. “I am” being apostrophized “I’m.” Or as unwittingly put in an April 27, 2012, Guardian article on the response to another article asking why Arab men hate Arab women: “‘I agree with most of what she said but I think that the one thing that she might be reluctant to admit is that it’s not about men hating women, it’s about monotheistic religions hating women,’ says Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese author and journalist”: Martin Chulov, Eileen Byrne, and Abdel-Rahman Hussein, “After the Arab Spring, the Sexual Revolution?,” The Guardian, April 27, 2012.

17. Georges Bataille, “Chance,” in Chance, ed. Margaret Iversen (Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2010), 30.

18. Alex Farquharson, “ Sean Landers: Art and Language,” in The Artist’s Joke, ed. Jennifer Higgie (Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2007), 194. In this, New York second generation conceptualists follow second generation Conceptualists such as Mike Kelley and Martin Kippenberger, who also constructed “mocking and self-depreciating” personas. In his essay, Farquharson argues that the question of identity posited by these personas had “more to do with ambivalent and nuanced relations between the self and society, than issues of visibility and representation” (194–195). I would argue that the matter of identity in New York second generation conceptualism is more concerned with self and institutional relations, though there is a shared sense of latent sincerity, or what Rob Fitterman called, in a recent conversation, sentimentality.

19. James Meyer, “The Functional Site, or The Transformation of Site Specificity,” in Situation, ed. Claire Doherty (Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2009). Site as process and/or operation “occurring between sites, a mapping of institutional and textual filiations and the bodies that move between them” (38).

20. Slavoj Žižek, “The Christian-Hegelian Comedy,” Cabinet 17 (Spring 2005). The individual described therein being the individual as personae, not the individual as subject.

21. From what I recall of a 2012 talk given by Steve Zultanski at the Poetry Project, he critiqued this position as being “too Real.” Whether my recollection is accurate or not, this stance also inheres in his statement that “the role of the avant-garde is not to present the brute materiality of the world but to take an aesthetic position that can then be negated,” qtd. in Low. It is perhaps this perfunctory institutional performance I would like to, in turn, naively negate. Put another way, Zultanski’s position is the same as that of a recent Facebook meme-post: “Art is a way to say fuck you to reality.” My own institutional interest lies in reversing the paradigm within, of course, the institution. (An interest crystallized in a February 2012 discussion with Renee Gladman, who noted about my poem, What what nigger, “It hurts.”)

22. A brilliant example of this was the video-poem presented by Anna Tolkacheva Fedorova’s Freedom, in which a small mouse runs inside a wheel upon which the words “Freedom” and “Is” are fixed, the mouse’s movements creating the poem: “Freedom Is Freedom …” Again, I = I.

23. Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October 1 (Spring 1976): 50–64. According to Krauss, “Reflection, when it is a case of mirroring, is a move toward an external symmetry …. the agency of reflection is a mode of appropriation, of illuionistically erasing the difference between subject and object” (56–57). Within the medium of video, the object is “merely an appurtenance” as the real medium is “a psychological situation, the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object — an Other — and invest it in the Self” (57). The question here is whether poetry has ever been a medium of anything else, at least since Romanticism and excepting (though I could argue both sides) conceptualism.

24. 1 Corinthians 15:56, King James Bible.

25. “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever believeth in me shall never die.” This should be set alongside Freud’s aside that “every individual is, in virtual terms, an enemy of culture” and his attendant warning that “Culture, in other words, needs to be defended against the individual …” Sigmund Freud, “The Future of an Illusion,” in Mass Psychology and Other Writings (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 110. Put another way, we may soon want to choose which to exhume, culture or individual. There is an interesting side question concerning the relationship between the individual as proposition and the individual as subjectivity, the former substance, the latter accident, which may be nothing more than a pure copula, such that I = I. Culture should rightly fear both.

26. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

Exile and nomadicism

Communi[]t[] manifesto

I

According to Charles Bernstein, it is necessary to forge “a community of […] poets that allows for active intense exchange … not based on location or prior friendship or like-mindedness, but on the qualities and quiddities of the work as it unfolds in time and space, on earth and in the heavens of our ‘image nations.’”[1]

But, like genres or overcommitted notions of race, ethnicity and gender, the once-upon-a-time concept of community, though significant for defining an aesthetics or a group of texts, is also hugely problematic, confining and reductive. Not only must we keep in mind (and I quote the esteemed Johanna Drucker) “the cycle of fashion trends of poetics in which one style of school is [continuously] replaced by another in a bid for top billing,”[2] but the work risks getting trapped, held captive in some cushy framing. Though at best it provides easy access into the aesthetics of said community, it’s also hugely reductive for potential readers who then receive that work through a specific and oft restrictive lens.

But before I go any further, it’s important to foreground that these “communities” we’re talking about are no longer geo-located but orbital: dot.COMmunities, technomediatic and web based. And as i text my youtubed tumbl twitters while facebooking my foursquare hopstoppin’ i-clouded techniverse, my community is growing 140 characters per nanosecond, panoptically re-creating its own borders, orders, limits, laws, flaws / forging its own auto-correcting tribalism. Low-lying and high-def,

my “community” lives
on iPods, Pads smart phones.

All webbed up and buttoned down,
intratextual and hyperlinked

It IS an intra-galactic lexical plexus
of screening media

a misc-en-sceney panacea
cannibalizing itself through its own lateral feed nodes,

all blogoscopic and sucking on its own
saucy posturing  

living on the edge[3]

of micro-civilizations, micro-communities from which we adapt our ever-shifting conceptual systems; through intra-lingual migrations, aggregations, and translations, constructing an ever widening community.[4]


II

As we know from Derrida, the mark of circumcision is both a cutting off and into.

So as much as we may “belong” to any given social or aesthetic community, there is a non-belonging, a simultaneous exclusion and inclusion.

Given this, perhaps it’s more productive to focus on the breaks in the homogenous discourse of specific communities and the cracks in its authority —

How do you even belong to a community?

This is particularly true for me as an expat Canadian, Russian Jewish poet, academic, writer, and performer inscribed with a very lived-in sense of nomadicism and exile with a deep-rooted fear of commitment. I was born into the second wave of Tisch poets on the edge of L=A=N=G=U=G=E via the Kootenay school, on the edge of Canadian and European Sound Poetry, the Four Horseman, those days reverberating with Owen Sound, ReSounding, the downtown-Metis shamanistic chanting and (across the border) Tjanting in the wake of the Black Mountain. And each aesthetic community defined itself with a fervent Olsonic sense of polis. Framing itself hard between lyric and language, the oral and the written, between performance and anti-performance, between the communities of small press and big voices, I took to the margins. And now even here in New York, on the margins of Flarf, of Conceptualism, on the margins of being a femme, Jew, Canadian writer, performer, pop parody poeoke videopoem-maker, a “use-your-hands-too-much” Kabbalistic alchemist, Pattern Variant OuLiPian collaborator, you have to ask — where do the aesthetics begin and the friendships end? How do you read a text and not traverse it so deeply that it becomes a part of your own process? How do you continuously (contiguously) belong without belonging in an ever-widening circle of language, production, filiation, power and desire? What I am describing here is not only a “double bind,” but straddles a multitude of problems, praxes, questions and constructs.

And in an age of aggregate authorship, socially-based, procedurally-executed work — work that mines, sorts and restates, reorders, repurposes, work that is massively participatory and has got collectivity in at its heart — one cannot separate one’s community from the shared language that expresses it.

In “an-ever widening scope of where letters reside,”

i belaunge (without belonging)

to an artifice (an edifice) which is informal, polystructural ana-historical ideological and collaborative.

belangue —

To not a community but A COMMA[5] UNITY


per coal et commata, she tears
about on the hillside of
language; endlessly sorting &

constructed and reconstructed in the course of its stutters, stop gaps, hesitations, intrusions.

For, according to French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, commas are tiny rods, mistresses of language that create potholes in the subject. They act as a separator. A troublemaker. Creating havoc in public spaces. They belong without belonging.

So I say bring on not the community but the comma unity — a community that thrives on rhetorical strategies of hybridity, deformation, masking, and inversion, and produces an absent presence inscribed on an intra-cultural trajectory of difference —

an ever-shifting, indefinable community of linguistic innovation and transgression, contamination, infiltration, hybridization
an intra-textual and redoubled community.


III

How is it possible to claim membership to or lineage

when according to Derrida, “the lineage of a progenitor […] no longer resembles it.”[6] With continuous proliferation, mutation and contamination, “one can no longer count its offspring or interests, its supplements or surplus values.”[7]

So, how do you BELONG to a community, when the community itself is not an autonomous locatable topos but a spectrogenic process, indebted to all the precursors
Proprietous riotous radical grafts traces of all who are or have ever been
embedded in that “community.”

And how do you FUNCTION in a community when you are always between multiple cultures and traditions, re-codings,
variously described as ‘migrant,’ ‘diasporic,’ and ‘transnational,’ located between languages, praxes, aesthetics, shifting modes of discourse drawn from discrete polysystems.

When you are “on the edge” of community.

in NOT a community or even a comma , unity

but a comme unity. If you think about it, in French (or in Dante’s Italian),
“co(m)me” (meaning “as,” “as if”)
So, linguistically, the very moniker “community” embodies within itself the pretense, THE FANTASTY of unity, of oneness.

Where is the unity when everything is fluid, shifting, (in)finitely divisible, translatable, mutatable? Where is subjectivity when it slips between difference, appliance, appearance, and (like text itself) does not possess some portable and universal context, but functions with transgression, invasion, contradiction, ambiguity as di-/efferentially embedded figural traces orbiting through the anxiety of power relations?

So bring on the “comma , unity” the “comme unity” which thrives on rhetorical strategies of contamination, deformation, hybridity and desire

Thrives like a Bernsteinian “constellation” with the links always open
spiraling outward centrifugally

a community always in excess of itself.

Take Charles — a builder of community. A “ripple agitator,” “cultural deranger,” constantly challenging himself in term of his Radical Leftist Jewy Langpo aesthetics, politics, shifting ideologies, praxes. “Occypying” communities within communities that exceed spatiality, temporality, locatability. An ever widening network that includes the Marxes and the Steins. Guthrie lovin’, Jacket2 wearin’, Shadowtime Conceptualists, Plastique constructivists and Blind Witnesses, distinguished academics, scholars, poets, painters and essayists, communities of com-/opposers and librettists, oh whiskey swillin’ jewy girly man theorist rock prof, I have never known anyone to belong to so very many communities.

Same with Jerome Rothenberg. On the edge. A renegade ethnopoetic technician of the sacred gone rogue. Part of sixty decades of communities, from chanting beat poet, to Polish, Russian Talmudic Kabbalist; mystic, thief, madman, burning babe of the millennium; a dada Navajo-lovin’ pumpkin shakin’ polemicist, embodying the braided armpits and camphor smells of the wedded collectives of the sound poet, critic, anthropologist, editor, anthologist, performer, teacher, translator. Unbridled, he’s so on the edge.

Or take Steve McCaffery. To what community does he belong? As a Carnival creatin’ Horseman, expat Brit Canadian, now SUNY Buffalo Poetics Chair holder, Sound ’n’ Concrete poet, analyst, cultural and political theorist; cheating words and paying debt to sediment. Always knowing “knowledge” never known. I have watched him over three decades of bordering communities. Kootenay, L=A=N=G=A=U=G=E, Toronto, Buffalo, Tenerife, Manchester, all performative-antiperformative, protosemantic? and parodic waving his anti-consumerist Muffins and shifting Waifs, his Panoptical Distortions all over the globe. On the edge of many communities.

Each of these outliers engages with their own linguistic hybridity by explicitly thematizing negotiation between differing linguistic praxes, exploring new identities by constructing dialogic spaces that at once foreground, perform, and problematize the act of being both a part of and apart from and insofar never get subsumed in any one community.

Engaging instead in a poetics of resistance — a resistance to the confines of a particular aesthetic (or the “elite practitioners” of said aesthetic) — and celebrating strategic, linguistic or communicative slippage.


IV

Inevitably, talk of “community” is one of labels, restrictions and their inherent parameters. Take for instance Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Heidegger and “the jews.”[8] His celebratory attempt to define a community becomes a sick and twisted reductive grouping, glossing over all difference without reverence for the intricacies of Jewish thought and history, reminiscent of perhaps a nineteenth-century universalist model, without questioning the ideology behind such a definition. And I only raise this here as once categorized, any text risks being compartmentalized, muffled, bound and ball-gagged.

So say yes to not the community but the comma unity / and you too can navigate between multiple language and semiotic systems and their associated contexts, in the very act of poesis, question the inherent border of any one community, embrace all dislocated, marginalized, or insurgent subjects, negotiate in the antagonisms,
agonisms
of aesthetics, of difference.

*

But, the question remains — how then can a community be a community when it is marked by deterritorialization, dissemination, displacement, rupture?

Perhaps it is to embrace a spectral dissymmetry where each law is a series of borders, orders, mirrors, screens. Comprising not a pure community, but a puréed, ever-widening community. Not marked by nationalities or gender or locus but by multiple dislocations, translations, serrations and embodying all the lingual confusions, frustrations and ecstasies as they merge into cultural palimpsests, creating intricate relational models between “possible” communities.

And live in the interstices, the aporias in a superfluity of loci, foci, folds
flying through multiplicitous systems of social and cultural signification.

Deterritorialized.

like a campy colossus scrolling its

 beaux faux info-flecked flurry

 of siphoned hyphenates

 foppishly flaunting its pixie fricassee flambée

 ((of flustered clusters))


because community can never resort to what Homi Bhabha calls “a rememoration,” a living memorial of what has been excluded, excised, evicted — the unheimlich space for the negotiation of identity and history.

I want a community that will carve out a new dwelling place, a hybridized syncretic space between cultures and idioms, that doesn’t close down but builds a dialogue to create an equal interchange between communities.

And i ask —

 Who ARE the people in my neighborhood?

 Who IS under my umbrella — when that umbrella

 is always being blown away

 leaving its roots dangling in the thunderstorm.

 Between the conflicting layers of affiliation and identity.


Take Maria Damon, who also is a prime example of someone who is ambiguously located between cultures. As a flarfy poet theorist critic feminist écriture meshword avant gardist, cataloguer, etymological collaborator, risk takin & Iggy lovin’ weaving her jewy bloggalicious bagel shop jazz in intertextilic files of textual exile. In every word, she embodies that sense of interlinguistic expatriation, actively participating in the destination of culture. Between communities.

All to say, we are all always already “out of place” with respect to whatever tradition. Because traditions are always changing, the borders are fluid, in flux, fleeting. Performance is celebrated. Performance is outlawed. Too ego-centered, not theatrical enough, overshadowing the writing. The language is too personal, has too many repetitions, doesn’t have enough emotion. Is too complex. Has no subject. Is dirty, disjunctive full of foreign elements. Whatever it is, it is always located “between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages.”[9]

And i say bring it on. Give me

 a community that celebrates its otherness.

 And all that is dirty and disheveled. Impure.

 All that has been excised;

 Silenced. Left out. All that has been deemed unworthy,

 unartful or politically problematic.

Give me a community that

 offers the latest in decapitalized ultra-portable pimped up conceptualism

And celebrates all that is bloggy and viscous

 in the badonkadonk junk trunk

celebrates a mother-plucker

of spatially contagious parsed pulse plais plays,

 laced with socio-political-cultural shards, fractures of history

HIGHLIGHTING how nothing is pure,

 but contaminated

 with palimpsestic resonance —

 riffs of re-presentation, illumination

 dissemination

And is forever,

 Drawing on the Kindness of Strangers

 

 


 

1. Charles Bernstein, “Community and the Individual Talent,” WITZ: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry vol. 3, no. 1 (Winter 1994).

2. Johanna Drucker, “Beyond Conceptualisms: Poetics after Critique and the End of the Individual Voice,” The Poetry Project Newsletter 231 (April/May 2012).

3. Lady Gaga, “On the Edge of Glory,” Born This Way, 2011, compact disc.

4. And produces a conflictual economy, a graphematic synchrony that simultaneously inhabits multiple and conflicting positions. Foregrounds the hybridity of culture: a forbidden transparency and impossible univocity, which defies any notion of “belonging to.” Or taking this to its extreme — with an unspeaking, a not naming, dis-identifying could open up possibilities for other narrative gestures of cultural signification. Producing a contingent and liminal space, a multi-accentual politics of desire, which confounds the ordering of a cultural hegemony and provides a narrative strategy for a hybrid site of cultural negotiation.

5. According to Hélène Cixous, commas are “those tiny rods, mistresses of his innumerable amphibologies and anacoluthons, hence of such ambiguities as poke holes in the subject, in the literal meaning of things.” Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (New York: Columbia University Press), 34.

6. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Working of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 152.

Which brings to mind the recent groundbreaking anthology Radical Poetics: Secular Jewish Thought, ed. Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009), which did not attempt to define secular Jewish writing but erupted as the locus of multiple dislocations, translations, border crossings of aesthetic praxes. But even so, how is it even possible to locate oneself within a Jewish community of writers if, according to Jabés, “being Jewish means exiling yourself in the word.” Where the word: law looks, overlooks or locks in an interlocutive locus. And if the law of the book is the law of the infinite (which incidentally for both Cixous and Derrida is the time of borders crossed), the beyond of the book is still the book. So, when there is nothing outside of text [ne pas de hors text], no core text, a vortext of contingency and incommensurabilites, translated, the community veils itself in the community, is always in recognition of the community, in ambush for the community and belongs to (belangues) to a textual practice of passages, signatures, indices.

I belong to a mode of writing which not only draws upon my ever-shifting geo-linguist-socio-economic cultural idiom but one which mirrors a Kabbalistic hermeneutics, a heteroglossic / palimpsestic enunciative process where potential meanings are never fixed, never exhausted, where language acts as a productive economy of intersequential subterfuge.

Belong to a secret which secrets, a s’ecrit: a diasporic discourse inscribed in iteration and renegotiation, becoming and effacement. Where my home [logis] in logos, in language. In a langue, a tongue (that swallows itself and eats itself, is silent, tongue-tied, dies or vomits) but cannot assimilate.

Belong without belonging to a comma unity, a comme unity comprised not of an autonomous locatable topoi but a spectrogenic process, a “ligneous-non ligneous” space of “invisible visibility” which remains inappropriate, propre impropre proprietous riotous, in(excess)able, fallible and open.

7. Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 138.

8. Jean-Francois Lyotard, Heidegger and “The Jews” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990).

9. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 332–3.

Trespass and presumption

Susan Howe and Muriel Rukeyser

Sarah Dowling and Stefania Heim at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.
Sarah Dowling and Stefania Heim at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

Muriel Rukeyser and Susan Howe tell the same anecdote about nineteenth-century mathematician, philosopher, and American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. In it, Peirce has been tasked with defining — among many specialized terms of logic, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy — the word “university” for the Century Dictionary. He calls it “an institution for purposes of study.” They correct him: a university is “an institution for instruction.” Peirce, a profound polemicist, responds, “any such notion was grievously mistaken, that a university had not, never had had, anything to do with instruction.”[1] In Peirce’s understanding of the university, knowledge is to be sought, not imparted or dictated. It remains an institution, but one rooted in shared pursuit, not in hierarchical transmission.

The anecdote appears in Muriel Rukeyser’s 1942 biography of nineteenth-century physical chemist Willard Gibbs and in Pierce-Arrow, Susan Howe’s 1999 hybrid poem engaged with the life and work of Charles Sanders Peirce. Neither Rukeyser nor Howe comments on the story; we are left to determine its significance and interpreting the poets’ reasons for including it. In Rukeyser’s retelling, it follows the lines: “How deeply these adventurers were cut away from each other! And, so divided, how far away they were kept from their own selves!” (378). In Howe’s: “Peer/se pronounced Purr/se blamed most of his problems on his own left-handedness” (7). In both of these versions, Peirce’s renegade act of definition is framed by alienation, otherness.

This reverberating anecdote provides concrete evidence for my intuition that something important can be gained by linking the scholarly projects of the expansive matriarch, Rukeyser, and the stark experimenter, Howe. Despite their travels along non-overlapping taxonomic paths, they share both concerns and methods. The reappearance of the Peirce anecdote is an evocative coincidence, but it is not mere coincidence. As subject matter, it underscores both poets’ trenchant questioning of the systems and institutions by which our histories, our knowledge, our writings, and our lives are organized. As anecdote, it exemplifies the way in which they conduct that questioning on a human plane — through the documents and detritus of actual, embodied, historical lives. Finally, in privileging study over instruction, they — like Peirce — seek out the independent, the antinomian, the forgotten.

Susan Howe’s work is difficult to classify beyond catchall monikers like “experimental” and “innovative.” Visually fractured and syntactically challenging, her books feature diagonal, upside-down, and curved lines of language, often rendered illegible through palimpsest. They contain facsimiles of archival treasures, including Peirce’s notes, diagrams, and drawings. Her poetry collections include personal and historical explorations written in prose, and her works of scholarship are broken into lyrical fragments featuring figurative language and quick leaps. Howe revels in what she calls the antinomian strain of American culture — Anne Hutchinson, Emily Dickinson, Peirce — and peoples’ historical silences, positing the real-life identity of Bartleby the Scrivener, and giving voice to Jonathan Swift’s tragic mistress, Stella. In her own words, she “tenderly lift[s] from the dark side of history voices that are anonymous, slighted — inarticulate.”[2] Howe, the researcher, the “library cormorant,”[3] is always a visible part of the investigative process and resulting text.

Muriel Rukeyser is not often considered a poetic experimenter, though her work is as difficult to classify. With a publishing history spanning from 1935 — with Theory of Flight, her Yale Younger Poets Prize-winning first book of poems — to her death in 1980, she is perhaps the only poet as often invoked in studies of the 1930’s Popular Front as in anthologies of second-wave feminism. Lately, her 1938 poem sequence, “Book of the Dead,” which incorporates both documentary material and dramatic monologue in its examination of the Gauley Bridge industrial disaster, is regularly cited as a seminal work of documentary poetics. In fact, Stephen Burt’s assertion in The Nation this January that U.S. 1 (the book that contains “Book of the Dead”) is “now undeniably influential”[4] on a particular strain of contemporary experimental investigative work — with his “now” and “undeniably” gently indicating prior dismissal — show how her reception has changed. Rukeyser is no longer just the “mother of us all,”[5] where “us all” suggests a particular strain of American feminist. However, works like Willard Gibbs, her musical about Harry Houdini, and her “story and song”[6] about Wendell Willkie — the strangest in terms both of structure and scope — are currently uncategorized and largely unstudied. It is in these texts that I see harbingers of Howe — the violent and slighted voice, the formal stutters to which they are listening and to which they respond. Each takes that which doesn’t fit and makes a form to tell it.

The book Willard Gibbs — and in this way its fate echoes that of the man — was never really understood. As The Kenyon Review summarized, by the spring of 1943, it had earned Rukeyser “a number of slaps on the wrist — and even, from a particularly malicious reviewer, one in the face.”[7] Writing in The Nation in January 1943, Joseph Wood Krutch (the best candidate I have located for that “malicious reviewer”) insults Rukeyser’s style, dismisses her method, undermines her achievement, and condemns her very undertaking, writing: “I am still not certain either that [Gibbs] deserves a popular biography or that, if he does, Miss Rukeyser was the person to write it.”[8] It’s true: Willard Gibbs is a strange book. It is a popular biography of a famously uninteresting individual. It is a narrative culled despite, or more precisely, out of, serious omissions in the archival record. It is completely unauthorized, even opposed, by the subject’s heirs. And perhaps most essentially, it is a book about a chemist whose writings were, and still are, difficult for other scientists to understand, written by a poet with no particular scientific training or background — a book about a forgotten man, with an enthusiast as its author.

“On Presumption” is how Rukeyser titles her introduction. And not only does she presume to write about a figure about which she — as a poet — has no claim to obvious authority, but she also claims to be writing the text because she is a poet. She declares:

It is by a long road of presumption that I come to Willard Gibbs. When one is a woman, when one is writing poems, when one is drawn through a passion to know people today and the web in which they, suffering, find themselves, to learn the people, to dissect the web, one deals with the processes themselves … To look for the sources of energy, sources that will enable us to find the strength for the leaps that must be made. (12)

“The leaps that must be made.” Compare Howe: “Poetry unsettles our scrawled defense.”[9] I take the thesis of Rukeyser’s audacious book to be about the leaps in which poetry traffics, leaps she carries over into prose, to her mode of doing history, and, more urgently, to her project of living. In her controversial chapter, “Three Masters: Melville, Whitman, Gibbs,” she links the three nineteenth-century Americans, not just because they were insufficiently recognized geniuses, but also because of the scope and impulse of their disparate work. She writes, “The symbols and myths of poetry and painting had their parallels in the symbols of science; the analogies are dangerous, but they are most dangerous when they are most usable” (365).

Rukeyser’s great insight — essential to Willard Gibbs, but found throughout her work — is that analogy is “a form of life” (403). It is necessary, perilous, precious, requiring of constant movement and vigilance. This argument is what the book is about: Josiah Gibbs’s intuition about the living structure of grammar refigured in his son’s assertion that “Mathematics is a language” (280); Willard Gibbs’s discovery about the transformation of matter, refigured and reverberated in the operations and theories of linguistics, poetry, and psychology; and Gibbs’s “Phase Rule,” applied by Henry Adams to “The Tendencies of History.” It is also what makes the book possible, the wager on which it is staked. Rukeyser is dismissed as frivolous for asserting these connections in her prose, making such leaps outside of the sphere of poetry, where it is acceptable, expected, and easy to dismiss.

Analogy, dangerous and usable, is also what drives Howe’s Pierce-Arrow, whose title — alluding to the common mispronunciation of Peirce’s name while also calling forth violence, passion, secrecy, and the Buffalo-based car manufacturer — is itself an accretive instance of the practice.[10] On a prefatory page of prose accompanying her list of the book’s numerous illustrations, Howe writes, “Putting thought in motion to define art in a way that includes science, these graphs, charts, prayers, and tables are free to be drawings, even poems”(ix). Thus, she is not only making her poetry out of Peirce, but she is also turning Peirce himself into a poet, just as Rukeyser earlier crowned Gibbs’s “poet’s head” (292). Howe could be Rukeyser, concluding, “There always was and always will be a secret affinity between symbolic logic and poetry” (ix).

Secret affinities are birthed in the logic of analogy: What does it tell us about the systems underlying our thought? What does analogy make possible besides beauty? What is the use of beauty? What is the use of poetry? These questions are Rukeyser’s and Howe’s, as they have been many others’. They are also at stake in my critical act of analogy, joining these two poets. The act of imagination that puts disparate things together, that plays the believing game to join them across rupture, is a profoundly ethical act. What kind of world does it show us? What kind of world does it build? Howe writes, “In poetry all things seem to touch so they are;”[11] Rukeyser, “The world of the poet is the scientist’s world.”[12]

Where Rukeyser presumes, Howe trespasses. Like Rukeyser’s intrepid wandering, Howe’s is figurative (her lines on the page, her slicing of photocopies of other people’s words); it is professional (“I have trespassed into the disciplines of American Studies and Textual Criticism,” she asserts, “through my need to fathom what wildness and absolute freedom is the nature of expression”[13]); and it is physical. In her books, Howe stands in the stacks of Widener Library, sits in the bowls of Sterling Library, enters the neo-Georgian Houghton Library, and worries, in the face of their architecture and power structures, about her appearance, her clothing, her credentials, her briefcase, her name. In trespass, there is the woman’s unsanctioned, undisciplined body. But in the act of trespass, there is power too. Howe writes in The Midnight, “Here — every researcher can be a perpetrator”;[14] in her introduction to The Birth-mark, “The stacks […] of all great libraries in the world are still wild to me […] I go to libraries because they are the ocean” (18).

There is another stunning reverberation between the work of these two women, in which Rukeyser also writes her act of research (her trespass) into her archival project. She is in England, trying to gain access to the papers of Renaissance explorer Thomas Hariot. She writes in the book that emerges:

The game goes like this: you are admitted to the room in which you have hoped to be, to start your hunt. You declare yourself, saying what you hope, what you want. The person on the other side of the desk slumps down a bit — one vertebra, say — and answers, ‘No.’ Many writers … scholars … Americans … turn raspberry-color then, all their hopes blasted; or go very hostile; or go to the National Portrait Gallery and cry.[15]

When Rukeyser has success as a researching scholar, it is as a poet and as a woman. And it is explained as a relationship: “a link between two people […] however gypsy, however she-poet you appear to him” (308). Howe, the perpetrator. Rukeyser, the gypsy.

This is the seemingly basic insight that keeps rising up for me, linking the two poets: no structure is autogenetic, but imbricated in the life of the mind that articulates it. Further, that mind is always embodied by an individual who lives particular days and walks particular streets. This is true of Peirce in Cambridge, Gibbs in New Haven, Howe in Guilford, and Rukeyser in New York. This is why I find so many of the categories governing the reception of these two poets — categories that pit the description of personal experience against both scholarship and invention — to be insufficient, even dangerous. The things that keep Howe and Rukeyser separate — ideas about the place of the political in poetry, what constitutes experimentation, what constitutes scholarship, and the anger of women — seem to me to be the same things that make it hard to assess their real achievements, to interpret how and why and when they describe, question, tear down, and create systems.

In some ways it’s easier to start asking these questions with Rukeyser because books like Willard Gibbs have been put into categories with which they have obvious frisson. We don’t ask “what is this book” so much with Howe’s works. We are happy to call them hybrid, to call them “violent collisions.”[16] And they are. But perhaps we should ask more. That is what Rukeyser and Howe do in their texts; they ask again and again: What is this document? What is this book? What is this sentence? What was this life? Who decides?[17]

Howe writes in her essay “Incloser,” which appears in The Birth-mark:

The selection of particular examples from a large group is always a social act. By choosing to install certain narratives somewhere between history, mystic speech, and poetry, I have enclosed them in an organization, although I know there are places no classificatory procedure can reach, where connections between words and things we thought existed break off. (45)

I said earlier that the act of connection across rupture, the linking of disparate things, is a profoundly ethical act, but also a dangerous one. It is ethically and even physically dangerous to elide the differences between, say, innovative writing and the atomic bomb, a moving narrative and antibiotics, surface connection and profoundly unequal access to justice. Neither Rukeyser nor Howe evades this truth. “Analogy is dangerous,” begins Rukeyser in that earlier quotation, and Howe here: “there are places no classificatory procedure can reach.” We must also make room for this breaking off. It is the violence within Howe’s and Rukeyser’s projects. Theirs is not easy, ameliorative work. But in risk, in diligence, in scholarship, in careful attendance, the model represented by the joining of the work of these two poets might bring us, in Rukeyser’s words, “violence, and daring, and the promise of new freedoms” (9).

 


 

1. These quotations appear in identical form in Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1942), 378, and Susan Howe, Pierce-Arrow (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1999), 7. Rukeyser cites Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers, ed. Chas. Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935).

2. Susan Howe, “There are not leaves enough to crown to cover to crown to cover” in The Europe of Trusts (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1990), 14.

3. “Library-cormorant” is a phrase that Howe borrows from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She explores and extends its resonance in “Submarginalia” in The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), 26–42. For Coleridge’s original usage, Howe cites The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 12, Marginalia I, ed. George Whalley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

4. Stephen Burt, “Anxious and Paralyzed,” The Nation, January 23, 2012, 27–32.

5. Anne Sexton called Rukeyser “mother of everyone” in a November 1, 1967 letter to her, collected in Anne Sexton: a self-portrait in letters, ed. Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1992), 322. Erica Jong refers to Rukeyser as the strikingly similar “mother of us all” in an interview with Karen Alkalay-Gut that first appeared in Jerusalem Review II in 1997. Both phrasings are frequently referred to in writings about Rukeyser, sometimes interchangeably.

6. In her Foreword to One Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), Rukeyser writes: “With part of the book written, I began to speak of it to friends. ‘What kind of book would you say it is?’ they would ask. That is still a hard question for me to answer. I don’t think it is a biography, although the life of a man is surely one of its chief concerns. Nor a poem, although there are poems here. The other categories: Fiction? Non-fiction? It is a book: a story, and a song” (xiii).

7. P.B.R., “Gibbs and the Age of Power,” The Kenyon Review 5, no. 2 (Spring 1943): 310.

8. Joseph Wood Krutch, “Deep Waters,” The Nation, January 16, 1943, 97.

9. Howe, The Birth-mark, 2.

10. Enormous thanks to Kathy Lou Schultz for pointing out that a Pierce-Arrow was also Rukeyser’s childhood family car — another wonderful echo. See Jan Heller Levi, “Muriel Rukeyser,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, e-reference edition, ed. Jay Parini (2004, 2005).

11. Howe, Pierce-Arrow, 13.

12. Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs, 11.

">13. Howe, The Birth-mark, 2.

14. Howe, The Midnight (New York: New Directions, 2003), 121.

15. Rukeyser, The Traces of Thomas Hariot (New York: Random House, 1970), 308.

16. Brian Lennon, “Review of Pierce-Arrow by Susan Howe,” The Boston Review, October/November 1999.

17. This is literally true in Willard Gibbs, where Rukeyser writes, “What was this man? What impact? What restrictions? What gift?,” (13), and a few pages earlier, “What was his work and life? What kind of love produced them? What was his impact on the world?, (11).

'A naked singularity'

James Merrill and identity politics

Stefania Heim, Hannah Baker Saltmarsh, and Piotr Gwiazda at Kelly Writers House,
Stefania Heim, Hannah Baker Saltmarsh, and Piotr Gwiazda at Kelly Writers House, April 2013.

In Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, James McCourt describes James Merrill as a poet who inhabited a universe of his own creation, situated outside the public realm and its urgent social agendas. Unlike James Schuyler, the other “Jim” in McCourt’s Queer Street chapter, Merrill was a poet of remarkable verbal fluency and visionary panache, for whom the attitude of otherworldly detachment served perhaps as the most effective shield against the pervasive homophobia of the postwar United States. As McCourt puts it, he “seemed to see in daily living merely an exciting connection with a remote element when there is only a hint of what is going on. … A naked singularity.”[1] Merrill’s boundless capacity for self-absorption apparently precluded him from any possibility of direct identification with the gay and lesbian community during, in Leo Bersani’s phrase, “the glorious pre-AIDS years of the late 1970s,”[2] as well as in the period that followed. Merrill’s decision not to make his HIV-positive status public suggests that even in the last decade of his life he insisted on, if not his right to privacy, then at least his right to secrecy. Although he indirectly broached the subject of AIDS in some of his last decade’s work, he himself refused to become a token figure of AIDS martyrdom. As McCourt harshly concludes, “the last ten or eleven years of his life was spent in a secret open coffin.”[3]

I begin with McCourt’s comments because they represent the challenge that accompanies any discussion of Merrill’s poetry in the context of identity politics. They give us a picture of Merrill as a poet with little or no sense of social belonging, not quite in touch with the political and cultural transformations of his era, and not quite in sync with the ethos of an unrepressed, uncloseted gay or lesbian poet that we associate with, say, Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich. It is not that Merrill shunned the portrayal of personal experience in his poetry. Anyone even superficially familiar with it knows that the opposite is true: Merrill was a particularly gifted poet of childhood, of everyday life, and of romantic life. And yet he never seems to have gotten over the stigma attached to homosexuality by the scientific orthodoxy of the post-World War II period, which would be brought to the center of public debate at the time of a devastating health crisis in the 1980s. A self-described “enemy of history,”[4] Merrill never participated in street demonstrations for gay and lesbian rights and never wrote what we might call a proper “protest” poem. Instead, he seemed to write the kind of poetry that, according to a 1973 New York Times editorial, was merely “literary, private, traditional.”[5]

As I show in my book, James Merrill and W. H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence,[6] the truth is more complicated. While Merrill’s poetry as a whole suggests the limits of group identification and representation, it also participates in the sexual politics of his time, most earnestly, but also idiosyncratically, in The Changing Light at Sandover, a verse trilogy composed with the help of a Ouija board. In this essay I offer a few thoughts about McCourt’s notion of “naked singularity” because I believe this notion might help us better understand Merrill’s position vis-à-vis identity politics — the rhetoric of difference (whether ethnic, gender, or sexual) that emerged from the liberation struggles of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. It is safe to say that after three decades of writing poems that were “literary, private, traditional,” Merrill would be skeptical of what Todd Gitlin dismissively has called “the cant of identity.”[7] And yet he certainly understood the social and political implications of the gay and lesbian rights movement and appreciated its community-building energy. As his honors accumulated and his fame soared, he knew that, whether he wanted it or not, many readers would view him predominantly as a gay poet and look for signs of commonality in his poetry. As critics and reviewers continued to express polarized opinions about his work, this intensely private poet became (to the extent it is possible for a poet in America to do so) a public figure.

Although widely considered a member of the American “poetry establishment” (most recently by Rita Dove in her introduction to The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry)[8] Merrill had an uneasy relationship with the American poetry establishment. For one thing, it appears that he almost made it his priority to distance himself from those networks of affiliation (whether geographically or institutionally constituted) that make poetry communities possible in the first place. This insider/outsider position was largely the result of Merrill’s itinerant lifestyle; he and his partner David Jackson spent summers in Stonington, Connecticut, and the rest of the year in Athens, Greece, where for two decades they owned a house. As he once disclosed in an interview, “I feel American in Europe and exotic at home.”[9] While he always kept an apartment in New York City, he also spent considerable amounts of time in the American Southwest and later in Florida, after Jackson had purchased a house in Key West in 1979. In Familiar Spirits, Alison Lurie records her impressions of Merrill as a detached figure in terms that echo those found in McCourt’s book, at one point describing him as “a kind of Martian.”[10] (So apparently Merrill also owned a house on Mars.) The point is that while Merrill certainly published his work with the kinds of journals (Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Yale Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books) and presses (Atheneum, later Knopf) that generally stood for the idea of “poetry establishment,” he himself, at least in the way he structured his personal and social relations, was only a part-time member of that establishment. (In this respect he can be compared to Gore Vidal, though he did not share Vidal’s passion for American politics.) It is also worth pointing out that, at the time when the New York Times editorial was essentially calling his work irrelevant, the terms “poetry establishment” and even “formal” and “traditional” poetry were about to undergo considerable changes in meaning. Ten years later Robert von Hallberg suggested in his book American Poetry and Culture 19451980 that Merrill was a representative of — in fact, that he had forged — the “Cosmopolitan Style” of poetry writing in the United States.[11] But the label didn’t stick. Labels, in general, never seemed to stick to Merrill for very long.

Was Merrill really such a detached, remote, solitary figure as McCourt and Lurie make him out to be? What do we know about his literary associations, his friendships with other poets and writers? Langdon Hammer’s biography, when it is published, will reveal that Merrill certainly enjoyed many close relationships with his peers — especially Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Mona Van Duyn, Richard Howard, John Hollander, and W. D. Snodgrass. But as Hammer himself notes, evidence suggests that these relationships “tended to be distant, or usually diverted to friendship and gossip; his more substantial literary exchanges were with protégés” — Stephen Yenser, J. D. McClatchy, Judith Moffett, and many others.[12] We should recall that between 1984 and 1990 Merrill served as the judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, and in this capacity he indeed became a fashioner of at least one kind of poetic community, as well as a potential mentor. My own research showed that Merrill saw himself as a resource to many younger poets; this also included financial support he would provide to some of them through the Ingram Merrill Foundation. While letters to his contemporaries, like Bishop, abound with details about their mutual friends, the latest opera performance, or an upcoming trip to Istanbul, his correspondence with younger poets offers practical advice and even bits of poetic theory. It is those letters, I believe, that ultimately will be useful to poets and scholars in the same way Keats’s letters are, or Hart Crane’s. So even this glimpse at Merrill’s literary relationships reveals what the concept of poetry community might have meant to him. It was not, first of all, centered on one particular geographical location or institutional setting; it certainly crossed national borders and transcended the solidarity of gender and sexual identity. Most importantly, it tended to be intergenerational rather than marked by alliances with contemporary schools and movements.

Merrill’s cultivation of this insider/outsider status also shaped the general reception of his work in the United States. Over the course of his fifty-year career, he was able to sustain a dedicated, influential, and some would say, elite, readership. His reputation grew with every volume he published, but this reputation depended on his readers’ strengthening loyalty as much as on their expanding number. Some of Merrill’s admirers praised his ability to reveal the minutest aspects of personal experience in a way that makes them applicable to a larger audience. Here is Helen Vendler’s often-cited remark from her review of Merrill’s 1972 volume Braving the Elements: “The time eventually comes, in a good poet’s career, when readers actively wait for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life — under whatever terms of difference — makes you long for news … He has become one of our indispensable poets.”[13] Merrill, a “good” poet in Vendler’s opinion, is an alert and thoughtful chronicler of the second half of the twentieth century. By describing the vicissitudes of his own life, he at the same time portrays our common amusements and anxieties. According to Vendler, his poems have the uncanny ability to speak directly to the reader — as long as they can reach “one perfect reader” (in Merrill’s own phrase)[14] or as long as that one perfect reader can reach them.

We can contrast Vendler’s encomium with reviews that fault Merrill for his apparent failure to communicate with a larger audience. Writing for Parnassus in 1991, Mary Karr called his poems “mere amusements, rather than paths to or from human experience.”[15] What did Karr mean by “human experience”? The fact is that Merrill grew up surrounded by governesses, frequently traveled abroad, and never had to work for a living. Clearly, his poems can only portray the kind of experience that is unfamiliar to most readers. His oeuvre may be a goldmine of subjects — life and mortality, fact and fiction, love and loss — but his poems still seem limited in their scope, written by an individual with a specific social background, leading a specific lifestyle, and holding a set of specific attitudes about the world. They portray the experiences of a person leading a life of comfort and privilege; they are intended for a particular kind of reader who happens to share the author’s personal characteristics and social status. Underneath their brilliant colors and dazzling surfaces, Merrill’s poems describe, as Anatole Broyard remarked in 1983, “liberties that most of us never know.”[16] At all times the poet is aware of his social position — and so are his readers.

What’s interesting about these statements by Vendler and Broyard, and to some extent by Karr, is that each critic, regardless of their estimation of Merrill’s work, speaks in a kind of code. Vendler’s image of Merrill as a poet who writes down the century “under whatever terms of difference” is just another way of emphasizing his “naked singularity.” For whom does the poet write? Vendler’s evocation of the common reader impatiently awaiting “news” from Merrill’s poetry is hard to reconcile with Merrill’s declaration, in one of his most representative poems, “I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote.”[17] It seems more likely that Merrill’s audience would consist of readers that are intellectually and temperamentally similar to him, perhaps similar to the Harvard critic herself, but not to the mass readership her words envision. Broyard, in his not entirely unsympathetic review, says bluntly that Merrill’s access to wealth “sets him apart in certain ways.”[18] To further emphasize Merrill’s detachment he deploys the Narcissus trope — his review is entitled “The Mirror of Poetry” — to the effect that Merrill now emerges as a self-involved, self-referential, indeed very much dispensable poet. Commenting on the visionary aspirations of Merrill’s Ouija board trilogy, Broyard says: “For all their brilliant lines, the three long poems strike me as a grand and perhaps necessary digression, a fling with that infinite so foreign to poetry. It’s the sort of experience, I think, from which one generally returns chastened, surfeited, wise and reconciled once more to the exquisite convenience of the concrete.”[19] In their wildly exaggerated opinions of Merrill’s centrality (Vendler) and marginality (Broyard) to American poetry and its readership, both critics underscore his singularity; he is a poet out of reach, if not out of touch. In each review Merrill’s homosexuality is barely alluded to, and yet undoubtedly registered.

Merrill’s foray into the occult, his 600-page “digression,” is a haunting and haunted poem, featuring deceased family members and friends, celebrated artists and writers, and a host of fantastic, nonhuman creatures. It begins as Merrill and his partner’s personal exploration of the afterlife, but quickly becomes a kind of all-encompassing investigation of history (including literary history), metaphysics, theology, science, culture, etc. A few years ago Emily Apter proposed to read Merrill’s trilogy on terms borrowed from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” as (in her words) “an extreme case of translation without an original; an example of translation as language code transmitted from the beyond”; the idea is that Merrill’s derivative technique in the poem, his apparent transcription of messages from the dead (including dead poets), “devalues the original.”[20] More to the point of poetry communities, Sandover is also a fascinating example of how one can construct an alternative poetic community, even an alternative poetic canon, under one’s own “terms of difference.” The poem contains, as Robert Polito has noted, many “literalizations” of Eliot’s theories about poetic maturity, the idea of the poet as a medium, “the historical sense,” etc. laid out in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”[21] The composition of The Changing Light at Sandover also coincided with the publication of Harold Bloom’s series of books about poetic influence. That Merrill was deeply interested in what Bloom, in his latest volume on the subject, calls “literary love, tempered by defense”[22] is evident in his 1972 interview with David Kalstone, where he discusses protest poetry in recognizably Bloomian terms: “they aren’t poems first of all,” he says, “so much as bits of honorable oratory. A protest poem would be one written against a poem of a different kind, one that reflected a different tradition. Wordsworth against Pope, Byron against Wordsworth.”[23]

Many scholars have shown how that “literary love, tempered by defense” operates in Merrill’s trilogy vis-à-vis the legacy of earlier poets, including twentieth-century ones like Yeats, Stevens, and Eliot. Its cultural ambitions aside, The Changing Light at Sandover demonstrates that the most significant literary relationships are also the most personal ones — those that transcend the temporal boundary, those that are made possible through the solitary acts of reading. In his intertextual engagements with his predecessors Merrill also goes to great lengths to protest against the masculinist and heterosexist biases that are often implicit in their constructions of poetic authority; taking a cue from Apter, we could say he “devalues” his “originals” in this way. As he examines scientific theories, religious concepts, ideas about “human nature,” and the Western canon itself from a markedly queer perspective, Merrill participates — more vigorously than is usually acknowledged — in the identity politics of the 1970s and 1980s. However, this participation is still defined by the position of “naked singularity” — the inimitability of composed voice and of created vision. Ultimately singularity may be as elusive and imprecise a term as community, but it seems quite fitting to our considerations of this mercurial, unclassifiable poet. As we look at varieties, models, and definitions of poetry and/in community, the example of James Merrill gives us a chance to talk about the possibilities of resistance to community, or at least about transtemporal versions of it.

 


 

1. James McCourt, Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947–1985 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 416.

2. Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 79.

3. McCourt, 422.

4. James Merrill, Collected Prose, ed. J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser (New York: Knopf, 2004), 51.

5. “There is a World West of Yale,” New York Times, January 16, 1973, A38. Written in response to the awarding of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry to Merrill in 1973, the editorial faults the administrator of the prize, the Yale University Library, for neglecting poetry that is “raucous in character or that has an abrasive public sound,” including “poetry in the Whitman tradition,” “poetry that is experimental,” and “the poetry of black writers.”

6. Piotr K. Gwiazda, James Merrill and W. H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

7. Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995), 126.

8. Rita Dove, introduction to The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, ed. Rita Dove (New York: Penguin, 2011), xliii.

9. Merrill, Collected Prose, 88.

10. Alison Lurie, Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson (New York: Viking, 2001), 9.

11. Robert von Hallberg, American Poetry and Culture 1945–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 18.

12. Langdon Hammer, email to the author, October 12, 2008.

13. Helen Vendler, review of Braving the Elements, in Modern Critical Views: James Merrill, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1985), 69. This passage was also reprinted on the jacket flap of Merrill’s Collected Poems.

14. Merrill, Collected Prose, 83.

15. Mary Karr, “Against Decoration,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 16, no. 2 (1991): 285.

16. Anatole Broyard, “The Mirror of Poetry,” New York Times, January 29, 1983, A12.

17. Merrill, Collected Poems, ed. J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser (New York: Knopf, 2001), 199.

18. Broyard, “The Mirror of Poetry.” A12.

19. Ibid.

20. Emily Apter, “Translation with No Original: Scandals of Textual Reproduction,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, ed. Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005): 170–171.

21. Robert Polito, “Tradition and an Individual Talent,” in A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, ed. Robert Polito (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 246.

22. Harold Bloom, Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 8.

23. Merrill, Collected Prose, 83.