Commentaries - November 2007

to the barricades

I'm reading an essay-roundup of then-current poetry in the September 1960 issue of the Atlantic. Peter Davison, Harvard '49 and editor at Harvard University Press, wrote the piece. He covers several new books and begins with four paragraps about Donald Allen's New American Poetry. Davison disdains the new Americans and suggests that the term "recent" would be apter than "new."

Words Davison uses about NAP: "subcommanders," "exclusive" (as in intolerant), "confusing," "verbose," "perverse," "inability," "marchers."

"Subcommanders"? Davison doesn't hide his trope: these inarticulate new Americans are an army of partisans--ideologists. Although other poetry under review took up social and political themes, it was Allen's strange collection of young poets of whom the reviewer had never heard that were "sociological." NAP of course marked a return to poetics from the thematic emphasis of mainstream verse of the 50s but here: "I am afraid that this collection as a whole has more sociological than poetic interest about it."

And "marchers"? This dismissal has about it the usual worry about rude political force. Funny how in 1960 still, so late into the anti-ideological era, rebukes of the avant-garde use a political rhetoric. "Coterie" = subversive cell. Yet what was it that mainstream critics were commending if not a different coterie, and was not this critical gesture itself "exclusive" in its willful avoidance of Pound-Williams poetics (Davison identifies it as such) as an aesthetic?

Photo above right: Peter Davison. B. 1928. Served in various editorial capacities at Atlantic for 50 years. Son of English poet Edward Davison. His first book of poems was published in 1963.

absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

Below and at right: Albert Maignan's "Green Muse" (1895) shows a poet succumbing to the green fairy.

Edward Rothstein of course writes on art for the Times. Today's column is unusual - a seemingly real essayistic venture, and the topic is absinthe. Art that's been made under the influence of absinthe. And the green magic has long been associated with bohemianism and the avant-garde.

There are only two things that recommend this piece in particular.

First, a great line from Oscar Wilde quoted here: "After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world."

Before we get to the second reason for my interest, let me quote the opening of the piece so you have a sense of its approach:

"Dear reader! Should this column impress you as being more than usually lyrical, recalling perhaps the imagery and elegance of poetry by Baudelaire or Verlaine; should it seem a bit decadent, redolent of Oscar Wilde’s withering hauteur; should it have a touch of madness or perversity, combining, say, the tastes of Toulouse-Lautrec with the passions of van Gogh; should it simply sound direct and forceful and knowing like one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters; should it do any or all of that, let me credit something that each of these figures fervently paid tribute to: the green fairy, the green goddess, the green muse, the glaucous witch, the queen of poisons."

Okay, then, second: Rothstein's listy, flowy style itself. It's a bit of a dare, this piece--although just a bit (and that's my point). He admits that "[t]his column was conceived under the influence of a green-colored high-proof herbal liquor that was illegal in the United States for more than 95 years." Note: conceived; not written. Indeed, I wish the piece had actually been written under the influence, or in an unconducive-to-newspaper-sense mood engendered by other means; as it is, though, its waywardness and parallelisms ("the green fairy, the green goddess, the green muse, the glaucous witch, the queen of poisons") are fake drunken-loose writing. Recollection of flow after the fact. The list has green, green, green, glaucous (I like that substitution) and then queen. Green/queen rights the metrical rhyming ship of that otherwise teetering sentence. Too easy. Let it really get off the rails, and then Edward Rothstein would have been doing something new in the Times Arts page.

The piece set itself up for a fall with its indication of experimentalist standards: for the fact is its writing doesn't "recall[...] the imagery and elegance of poetry by Baudelaire or Verlaine." The opening paragraph is just an irony, even an (unintended) mock at writers who really go off.

Oh, why can't journalistic writing ever even once really do in its form what it does in content? Why must its excitement always be in the meaning of the sentences' sense and never in itself the means by which the piece is written? I'm asking a silly question, of course, for this is the paper of record....but here (blog) is a space where like others I tilt at stylebook windmills, messing with media of which I truly

which way to go?

Eric Umansky - my former student, a pal, and a fine writer and investigative journalist - is spending some months in Damascus. I recommend the blog for his lucid impressions "on the ground" (as the phrase goes these days) - touring, working, writing. And also his musings, mostly political, in general.

poet in need

Jerry Rothenberg, among others, recently read at a benefit for Will Alexander, whom the organization "Poets in Need" is helping. MORE...

GIRLdrive arrives at Marjorie

I've been following GIRLdrive, a road-trip blog written by Emma and Nona. They drive around the country looking to meet and talk with women their age and also various eminent feminists.

"We are interviewing and photographing young women across the country," they write, "asking them what they think and feel about feminism. We are talking to both self-proclaimed feminists and the 'I’m not a feminist but' contingent. We're also publishing a book upon our return, which will include photos, essays, interviews, and diary entries. The road trip, a staple of American culture that has always represented discovery and change, is our way of getting to know our peers. We also plan to chat with some influential feminists of our mothers’ generation and beyond.Both of our mothers were deeply involved in Second Wave feminism, so we are closely connected to the movement’s history. But our roadtrip seeks to discover how other women our age grapple with this history of freedom, equality, joy, ambition, sex, and love."

One of their southern Cal entries is titled "Los Angeles: MARJORIE," and this Marjorie turns out to be Marjorie Perloff. Marjorie and the two young travelers seem to disagree, and then there's "a true moment of generational exchange." Nona wrote this entry and here it is.