Friday, October 3, 2008

On the loss of Reginald Shepherd

The recent death of poet Reginald Shepherd to cancer at the age of 45 affected me personally, although I never met him. We had corresponded a fair bit by e-mail and I recently donated the funds to bring him to speak and read at the University of Oregon—that cannot happen now, but arrangements are underway to use those funds and additional donations to establish a student poetry prize in his memory at Oregon.

Those of us who are working on the Reginald Shepherd Prize are starting to ask the questions that inevitably arise: what does it mean to honor a poet, and how can that unique gift, poetic voice, be properly set forth for purposes of establishing criteria for a student prize?

It is easy enough to honor an historian with a prize celebrating new work in that field, or a particle physicist by establishing the Quark Jockey of the Year or some similar clearly related award. But how should we set the criteria for a prize honoring the life and work of a poet? Unless that poet writes about one thing or only in a single form, the life, the work and the “voice” are all quite varied. We’re moving words around to come up with something like “poetry that honors the classical and modern traditions with precision and beauty.” It’s still a work in progress.

Reginald’s work—though we never met he always signed with his first name—was certainly borne aloft on the great wings of candor, so we can’t have any winners who waffle, fudge or hide the toys. Nor can we have mere diction-divers who, upon surfacing, scatter words here and there to see what happens—one of Reginald’s mentors, the great science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, would eat us alive if we honored something sloppy. Yet if we offered the prize to a student poet whose work displayed, say, "infrared fire burning through visible passion," who is to say what the winner’s work looks like?

I once described Reginald’s work in a review as having “intense volcanic roiling,” but I’m not sure that helps guide a student writer. There are similarities between describing poetry and describing wine: “the poems displayed a rich essence of marinated cedar overlaid with fresh Wensleydale, with thistles of filbert and turpentine sparkling through a haze of windblown borax.”

Should we honor his breadth of emotion, which in turn reflected the life of a black gay man growing up in the Bronx and eventually passing through Bennington, Brown, the University of Iowa and Cornell? Sure, but emotion is a genus, not a species. We all see and feel diferently. Poetic emotion can appear in the urbane scrollwork of J. D. McClatchy, the high church pointillism of Carl Phillips, the mythic immersions of Cameron La Follette, the whisper-forest of W. S. Merwin.

It is sometimes easier to describe what a poet didn’t do and didn’t like rather than to classify his work into a poetic taxonomy. There were no pallid stones in his work, he never attempted to leap chasms on melting wings of assumption, he had no time for the poetry of pathological personalism, he recognized that after a certain point economy of expression becomes chastity of imagination, he had no allergy to facts and he wasn’t about to geld any lilies merely because critics preferred parsnips—let the lilies show their stuff.

Reginald was a remarkable correspondent. He is the only person with whom I intentionally saved an entire e-correspondence (will there be collections of letters published, ever again?). Perhaps that was a premonition that it would end too soon. One example of how many subjects could gracefully occupy a small space in his writing is:

“If I ever find out what “emo” means, I will let you know. I did a reading at Columbia University week before last and asked some of the students there, but didn't get a clear answer. I think it's music by “sensitive” but definitely straight boys who play guitar and may or may not wear eyeliner. Fall Out Boy seems to have something to do with it.

I too came across Aqualung by accident, having seen "Pressure Suit" (from his second U.S. album) on TV and then backtracked to his first U.S. album (which is a compilation of two UK albums, which I might try to track down). I adore "Strange and Beautiful" and also "Falling Out of Love," as well as "Good Times Gonna Come" and "Another Little Hole."

That's a good point about my colonization being the problem to begin with. Damned imperialist cancer! And now I'm partially decolonized. Does that mean I'm a dominion or a commonwealth or something, like Puerto Rico?”

Ultimately, his published work demonstrated with sometimes painful clarity the great canyon between those who play the instrument and those who play the music. Reginald Shepherd played the music as well as anyone, and that’s what we’d like our prize winners to do as well.

Reginald has now gone on what Theodore Roethke called “the long and terrible way,” and we who remain can honor him best by never forgetting what he really stood for: no halfway house for the intellect, no auto-referential academic priapism. The best, always, or why bother? In Orpheus in the Bronx he noted that there is a mainstream of American poetry, “broad, sluggish and muddy” that offered “convenient epiphanies in prosaic anecdotes not interesting or shapely enough to be short stories.”

His own work, issued to date in five collections, is never sluggish or muddy, and we will expressly forbid glutinous turbidity when the prize is first awarded in 2009. Instead we will require purity, light, joy and truth of the kind that he displayed in one of his masterpieces, You, Therefore, included in his 2007 collection Fata Morgana (Pittsburgh) and dedicated to his partner, Robert Philen, which begins:

You are like me, you will die, too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine…

and ends:

… home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name.

Let us recall Elliott Coues’s definition of genius as “that union of passion and patience which bears fruit unknown to passion alone; to patience alone impossible.” Reginald’s passionate genius outraced his patience as his illness progressed, and we are fortunate in that at least one posthumous collection will appear.

In the final essay in Orpheus in the Bronx, he answered the question “Why I Write” by saying “I write because I want to live forever.” The blooms of his genius are exsanguinated, but we can honor their living colors forever with as many Reginald Shepherd Prizes and other joys as those of us who knew him can imagine. Reginald once sent me an e-mail addressed to “Sunshine” and concluded with “Goodnight, sweet prince,” but even that one ended with his unique good-bye, so with his words I must say my good-bye: “peace and poetry” forever, my unmet friend.

NOTE: a slightly different version of this essay appeared October 16, 2008 in Inside Higher Education.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A vision of youth

"At sixteen, we would have been able to wander over the roads together, we would have had the sea at our right, the lonely East at our left, and before us, at a great distance, some venturesome inn in which to try our luck at satisfying all those hungers.

"At night we would have pressed our faces to the windows, to see families preparing for happiness; and we would have gone down the chimney into rooms that otherwise were too calm, and we would have frightened the people who were about to fall asleep.

"In the morning, before dawn, we would have had a swim and we would not have had headaches."

André Gide to Paul Valéry, December 15, 1895.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Reginald Shepherd's Orpheus

I am pleased to recommend the following:

Orpheus in the Bronx Reginald Shepherd
Essays on Identity, Politics and the Freedom of Poetry

This is Shepherd's first full-length collection of essays related to poetry and the creative arts, and it brings his usual brilliance and clarity to bear on a wide variety of issues:

"A poem has never oppressed anyone, though I was once on a panel at a gay writers' conference with a black lesbian performance poet who implied that literacy was oppressive to black people, which certainly would have been news to the slave-owners who tried to keep their property from learning to read."

This is the kind of blow-off-the-cultural-cobwebs-with-a-jet-turbine writing that is rare in most books and common in Orpheus. Shepherd, whose identity is made the old-fashioned way, with original work, has a great deal to say about identity poetry based on collective defense perimeters rather than true individuality. He also discusses the nature of the urban experience and its connection to poetry, why he has chosen to write and other topics of interest to anyone who writes or reads poetry.

The book also contains exceptionally perceptive commentary on the work of Alvin Feinman, Genet, Wallace Stevens, Linda Gregg, Samuel R. Delany, Aaron Shurin, Donald Britton, Tim Dlugos, D. A. Powell and Jorie Graham. Graham is a poet whose work I have always had trouble appreciating: thanks to Shepherd, I can approach her work from a new angle that may shed more light than the old ones.

Shepherd also provides a useful mirror to what really happens in today's writing, for example:

"...much mainstream American poetry (and there is indeed a mainstream, broad, sluggish and muddy) seems never to have heard of modernism (or even, in too many cases, of Keats), retailing equally aimless examples of therapeutic self-exploration or convenient epiphanies in prosaic anecdotes not interesting or shapely enough to be short stories: what has been called the 'I look out the window and I am important (or sensitive)' school."

Buy it. Read it.



In light’s final hour
I went for a walk
In primeval forest today,
A stroll I had made many times
Watching for mythical wings

I saw phantom deer
Glance quick overhead
At shadowy forms they know
Ghostbirds in ebony train
Flying the gantlet of fate

For three seconds near dusk
In a glade found in time
I saw into the umbra
Where life breathes anew, and
Thought I saw Lincoln pass by.

A definition

What can’t be wrong can’t be science.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Civilized and Uncivilized Societies

It has been unfashionable for some decades now for observers of human political relations to talk about what it means to be a civilized nation. Such discussions tend to slide sideways into an argument, or in most cases a chorus, regarding the wicked nature of empires and the evils of cultural imperialism, to say nothing of the escaping hiss of racism. However, on that terrible morning of September 11, 2001, the boundaries of allowable discourse changed. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in one of his finest moments, looked upon the ruins of the World Trade Center towers and said “This is not an attack on the United States, this is an attack on civilization.”

He was right, but political observers caught up in the more horrible aspects of that day and the fumbling wars that it spawned have forgotten or ignored the important cultural statement in Blair’s few words. We have been distracted by the often clumsy response of the Bush administration and the apparent incapacity of the world in general to recognize the nature of the situation. Blair’s statement remains relevant today, and it is time to speak while this window of permitted discussion remains slightly open.

Blair properly acknowledged, in a situation that made his point starkly clear, that there is a meaningful, legitimate, recognizable difference between civilized and uncivilized societies. Our world contains both, some in the form of nations, and they are not morally equal, whatever their legal status may be. In effect, he said that our world contains barbarians who act against civilization. Civilization is on one side of a symbolic gate and barbarians on the other.

This may seem so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning—Samuel Huntington discussed the issue somewhat in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, and others have talked about it as well—but it raises important fundamental points about how societies interact and the nature of their relationships with one another. The norms of the post-World War II era have erected a spindly superstructure, rooted in the concept of the United Nations and indirectly in our own Declaration of Independence, that declares with breathtaking sweep that all of the world’s peoples are citizens of sovereign nation-states and that these states have, at least formally, identical rights and privileges in the world political community, such rights being universally acknowledged by all other such states. This admirable act of hope blithely looks past, or at best minimizes, extraordinary differences in culture, economic capacity and leadership norms, leaving us today with a set of expectations that rest on sands of dubious stability.

American commentators of the political right have approached this package of issues by focusing on international law. Their view, boiled loose from its protective layers, is that the U.S. can and should do whatever it wants and needs to, and to hell with anyone else. Conservatives such as Robert Bork would filter international relations through a lens of morality, while Charles Krauthammer would simply toss the idea of international law. Huntington acknowledges the origin of the term “civilization” as the opposite of barbarism. However, he focused in his book on the ways in which different kinds of civilizations will interact with each other, without spending a great deal of time examining the consequences of renewed barbarism for our conception of the nation-state and, for lack of a better concept, the rules under which such states are allowed to exist.

All of these writers were too cautious, or perhaps they felt too constrained by the norms of American public discourse. That may seem like an odd statement for a cultural liberal like me to make about a clutch of people clearly far to the right of center, but I think it is time to have a frank discussion of just what it is that requires us to treat other people as having institutional rights roughly equal to our own.

Civilized societies owe only limited acknowledgement of equality and legitimacy to uncivilized, that is, barbaric, societies. This is the truth that can’t be, but must be spoken aloud in today’s political arena. In short form, societies that have, and use, peaceful means of resolving problems owe no duty of mutual acceptance to societies that are fundamentally based on, or widely accepting of, the use of violence in settling differences. If we do not recognize this, and if we continue to pretend that we owe all of the courtesies of the parlor to people who would happily cut our heads off, then we will see many more heads of our people and the people of other civilized nations cut off. The sword cannot indefinitely be held off by the pen, however artfully wielded that pen may be.

Our own nation has been sometimes eager, sometimes reluctant, to use the sword and anything else that came to hand, including nuclear weapons, both with and without coalition partners. We have, during our less respectable periods, been perfectly willing to harbor and support anyone who would oppose a communist, real or imagined. A fair chunk of south Florida culture is a living memorial to our ridiculous obsession with the “threat” of Fidel Castro, whose treatment of his own people is a bad thing in itself but hardly a threat to the U.S., except to the extent that it affects the Florida electoral vote.

Yet with rare exceptions, the U.S. has not tried to destroy nations or peoples that stayed home and respected their neighbors. For the most part, American power has been exercised against people who emerged from their own sovereign space to harm others. That threat of harm still exists. The notion that a civilized nation owes a duty to an uncivilized nation to respect the latter’s borders and policies no matter what lurks within them is a common and very dangerous presumption in today’s very dangerous world. An assumption that such a duty exists means that civilized nations are always waiting to be attacked, and will be attacked.

In the days of muskets, civilization could afford this very lofty moral seat. We could easily survive the consequences, which were limited to a fairly small number of people directly, and to the larger population mainly in subtle, longer-term ways. That is not true today. The basic concept of no first strikes (applied to conventional warfare and anti-terrorist actions) presupposes that we can easily allow a few arrows to fall upon our leather shields. That approach has no answer to the placement of a nuclear weapon in one of our cities, the release of major biological agents or the willingness of suicide flyers to dive into a nuclear power plant or dam.

What limits exist to the right of self-governance? The answer cannot be that there are no limits. We have seen too many wars and exceptional acts of destruction by governments against their own people in the past 75 years for such an argument to have much credence. Once we leave behind the absolute right of nation-states to do what they will within their geographic boundaries, we enter a very misty arena where political theory tangles with cultural imperialism, the less obvious subspecies of racism, notions of self and the rights of individuals, and of course the basic right not to be killed.

At what point does my right to walk down a street outweigh your right to kill me in the name of a culture? Upon what basis may I take steps to ensure that you are incapable of killing me or that your chances of doing so are greatly reduced? Must I obtain a partner, and if so, what kind and how many? What steps are effective, and of these, which are appropriate and reasonable? Note that we must look at effectiveness first, for without it, reasonableness produces no result.

The fact that George W. Bush has made a unique, historically massive and truly extraordinary mess out of U.S. foreign policy in much of the world, a mess that may take a generation of sound leadership to correct, cannot be allowed to blind us to one thing that he has always understood: the United States has no choice but to take action against our enemies elsewhere if we want to avoid seeing them here again. This has nothing to do with Iraq, a war begun behind a curtain of falsehood, fought and won with some effectiveness and followed by an ill-planned occupation maintained at great cost toward unclear ends to help a people who, in significant part, want us to go away. It has to do with people who do want to kill us, wherever they may be. I think Senators Obama, McCain and Clinton all understand this, which is to the good.

There remains the very significant problem of definitions, categories and subtleties. The United States already recognizes that there is such a thing as state-sponsored terrorism (in which we never mention our role in Nicaragua), and we maintain a short list of nations that in effect have a scarlet “T” supplied by us hanging around their necks. Is that enough? No. The U.S. needs to make clear that it does not recognize the right of any nation to shelter or arm terrorists, and reserves the right to take punitive action against terrorists inside any nation that does so. That policy, not the idiocy of an occupation of Iraq, is what we need to have in place in the coming years.

We need not adopt the hyperventilated anti-Muslim rasping of the late Oriana Fallaci, but we would be well advised to attend when she opens windows of such clarity as this, from her final book The Force of Reason:

“We fight this war to free Iraq, Bush and Blair had said. We fight to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq as at the time of Hitler and Mussolini we fought to bring democracy and freedom to Europe and Japan. … I objected: you’re wrong. Freedom and democracy are not two pieces of chocolate to give as a gift to those who don’t know them and don’t want to know them. In Europe the operation succeeded because in Europe the two pieces of chocolate were a food we knew well, a heritage we had built and lost, thus we wanted them back … . In Japan it succeeded because Japan had already begun the march toward progress in the second half of the 19th century. … Freedom and democracy have to be wanted. And in order to want them you have to know what they are.”

She goes on to argue that many Muslims don’t understand or want freedom or democracy because those concepts are contrary to “theocratic totalitarianism.” Thomas Friedman commented in the New York Times in January, 2007 that the Muslim community rises up in anger about cartoons in foreign newspapers but remains silent with “no moral voice” when it comes to constant mass slaying of Muslims by fellow Muslims. He concludes that “if Sunnis and Shiites can never form a social contract to rule themselves—and will always require an iron-fisted dictator—decent government will forever elude them.”

Muslims from the more anti-western nations are an easy (and sometimes appropriate) target, but the concept of barbarism vs. civilization has no particular connection to any religion. As an atheist I treat no religious view as correct, and I support no crusades. The world contains many barbarians; I offer no brief to rank bullets by whether they are stamped with a cross or crescent.

We need a new terminology that more accurately describes what clashes we really face. We face a clash between civilization and barbarism. Barbarism sometimes wears a mask, and sneers that because of our nature, we must bow before the mask while the barbarian strikes us down. It is possible to determine the difference between these two broad classifications of humanity in many cases, some of which involve distinctions between nation-states. We must not fear to strike off the mask and call the barbarian by his true name.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his 1990 book On the Law of Nations, noted the political right’s view with some alarm, concerned that “There is a risk that we will jettison the whole idea of international law where the unilateral use of force is concerned.” International law has always allowed any nation to defend itself against attack. Our defense can’t treat all nations as having an equal right to respect, the traditional view of international law, because some are unable or unwilling to cease their barbarism.

Martha Finnemore, in her 2003 book The Purpose of Intervention, provides an exceptionally clear overview of how norms regarding international intervention have changed. She notes that among the modern trail of justifications for intervention are such relatively recent ideas as protection of human rights, but that changing social norms also establish an expectation that nations not act unilaterally even in pursuit of such obviously “good” goals. Multilateralism seems to have acquired a mantle of presumed good will sufficient that many states capable of acting on their own now seek at least nominal partners.

Beyond the realm of actively barbaric states, many nations are simply not capable of meaningful sustained self-governance more complex than the loose organization of bribery and quasi-military thuggery. The notion that modern, civilized nations should pretend that such countries are due the respect owed functional governments is problematic. In my work I routinely encounter the systematic fraud machine that is called a government in many nations of Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific islands and locally in central and southern Asia. I have the legal authority to reject such frauds and that is what I do. A government is due respect only insofar as such respect is earned by conduct.

The noted national security writer David Isenberg reminds me that international law treats all nations as sovereign, but that sovereign does not mean the same thing as equal. What is an appropriate meaning for sovereign today? Does it mean absolute autonomy to take any action whatsoever regarding its own citizens? Noncitizens? Does it mean that a nation may allow itself to become an international safe house for murderers?

And what does the word “equal” mean when filtered across linguistic and cultural membranes? Equality among nations is recognized pro forma in the U.N. and in the international custom of treating the ambassador of St. Kitts with courtesies nominally identical to those of the ambassador of France. Does equal mean the same thing to the people of North Korea, the U.S., Iran, China, France and Sweden? Clearly not in the rights and responsibilities of their peoples in the political and economic arenas.

I do not argue for a return of empires, through which the strong subjugate the weak. Their day is rightly done. We must, however, recognize that some peoples are unfit to govern themselves within acknowledged boundaries as fully independent nations. They are unfit because they are barbaric, not civilized, or because they have demonstrated unfitness through sustained incompetence in the basics of government. The world needs a mechanism through which such peoples can participate in the family of nations without also having the right to prepare and execute harm against others.

Some kind of protectorate, restriction or supervision system is needed for nations that become mere Petri dishes for the breeding of horror, but the current international political climate, rooted in the fiction that all peoples are sovereign by right, does not allow for such an arrangement. The right to self-determination has become a right to be allowed wanton destruction. Owing in significant part to the unprecedented sacrifice of national credibility by the Bush administration, the United States must re-earn the political trust necessary to participate in any such system of international relations.

However, public policy in the United States and elsewhere in the civilized world can and should change to recognize the difference between peoples that are civilized and those that are not, and our formal relations with different kinds of entities, and those few on the margins, should allow for these fundamental differences. If we do not do this, great harm lies ahead for our own people and for the cultures they represent.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Timeless wisdom

"Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people's anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble--yes, gamble--with a whole part of their life and their so-called 'vital interests'."

Albert Camus, 1937

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Donoghue's "On Eloquence" and the boutique book market

Among the slurry of small boutique books that seem to be the current rage in publishing, Denis Donoghue's On Eloquence (Yale, 2008) is one of the more interesting offerings. Donoghue thinks of eloquence as "the dancing of speech," and a value in itself, not a mechanism to pursue other goals. Although I am not familar with all of the sources that Donoghue uses, as a general-interest reader I can find nuggets in this kind of mini-book. The book is a mixture of personal reminiscence and commentary on the effect of words in a wide variety of settings, social, political and personal.

This reminds me of James Merrill's comment that he enjoyed the English language in its billiard-ball sense, of setting words spinning off each other. Merrill is sometimes criticized as being a poet of surfaces, yet much of what we are aware of in life consists of surfaces, and we consider beauty a virtue. In fact, another of the recent boutique offerings, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (Harper Collins, 2004) by the late John O'Donohue is dedicated entirely to this subject.

Eloquence for its own sake. Beauty for its own sake. These are examples of a whole string of short books that seem to have come about owing to the author's personal interest in a subject that at first glance appears obscure and unlikely to attract readers. Yet they do.

The prime example from recent years is Dava Sobel's Longitude (Walker, 1995), a short, tiny book about the invention of an accurate maritime measuring device that is no longer in use. What could be more obscure and less likely to find an audience? Yet it found millions.

This seems to be the archetype that led to such books as Eloquence, Beauty, Eric Wilson's Against Happiness (FSG 2008) a fascinating but brief offering about people's unfortunate desire for a life of dubious smiles, Alan Lightman's A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (Pantheon, 2005), Carl Honore's more substantial but heavily anecdotal In Praise of Slowness (Harper, 2004) and such richer offerings as Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style (Harper, 2003) and Robert Grudin's American Vulgar: the Politics of Manipulation versus the Culture of Awareness (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006).

There are variants of the personal short-book that don't fall easily into categories. Among these are Gordon Smith's Remembering Garrett, (Carroll & Graf, 2006), a brief story of a young person's suicide that is a remarkably personal sharing-session by a sitting U.S. Senator about his late son, and how that loss affected his family and the way he worked in the political arena. Kendall Hailey's splendid The Day I Became an Autodidact (Dell, 1988), written when she was a teenager, about ways of learning and the odd expectations of young people by society, is longer than some but an almost purely personal story.

Even such offerings as W. H. Auden's 1976 The Prolific and the Devourer (Ecco), essentially a much shorter, more organized set of comments similar to his A Certain World (Viking, 1970), fall into the category of boutique bookettes on topics of personal interest. The market has always been there; many of John Jay Chapman's wonderful essays of a hundred years ago first appeared as very small books and Victor Gollancz issued his commentary Our Threatened Values (Gollancz, 1946) in such a format. Moving from eloquence for its own sake to rhetoric for the purpose of persuasion, we can look to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and even the Federalist papers for more examples.

Even as society bemoans the shrinkage of commercial publishing and writers claw their desks at the latest rejection, it is clear that for those whose passion can be set forth in a readable way, the market really does exist, and we the readers can expect to see a continuing flow of small books focused on all manner of topics.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The moated castles of today's poetry

Recent commentaries by Reginald Shepherd, Ann Lauterbach, Adam Kirsch and Christian Wiman all include a concern about the tendency of modern poets, at least American ones, to write from an excessively personal viewpoint and to form hives that buzz in a similar way, heads in and stingers out, serving mainly each other.

Shepherd, author of the just-out literary commentary Orpheus in the Bronx (Michigan, 2008) is one of the nation’s best poets and literary critics. He comments on his blog ( on a book and essays by Ann Lauterbach, whose enthusiasm for modern writing is tempered by a growing concern that poets are clumping into identity-castles to the detriment of poetry as a whole, and especially the poetic audience. These clusters tend to write as though they are only poets of a group, not poets as individuals. Thus we have womenpoets, gaypoets, longshorepoets and other double-jointed po-beesten. As Shepherd points out,

“Such fixations on labels and side-taking seem more prevalent in the online poetry world (certainly in the world of poetry blogs) than in the print poetry world, where things are much more fluid and flexible, though such compulsive territorializing and fence-building is far from absent there either.”

Lauterbach’s book The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience (Viking, 2005) discusses, among other things, the concern that literary movements such as “Language poetry” or other identifiable trends can end up driving the poets, rather than the poets driving the movement. If poets move along in a huddled cluster behind a predetermined literary shield and don’t go outside its penumbra as they write, are the poets really writing from what they have to say, or are they forming a series of moated guilds for the purpose of mutual support and protection? This kind of branding or commodification is part of what Shepherd discusses on his blog.

Lauterbach writes of this problem in one of her essays (from the journal Diacritics) with uncommon clarity and a calm dedication to what words really mean that has become rare in poetic circles of late:

“The aspiring young poet begins to write in such a way as to invite a certain critical attention, to ‘fit’ her work into one or another critical category. This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. ‘New York School’ or ‘Language Poetry’ are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group. Those not so identified are left out, often understandably embittered or confused, as the idea of an individual iconoclastic poet gives way to collaborative and tribal identities. Thus the marginalized world of poetry begins to imitate other identity formulations which increasingly govern contemporary academic, cultural, and political life. Frightened by exclusionary clubs, the poet ceases to identify herself with the essential margin from which a vital critique must come.”

There is so much of importance packed into this lens-hard paragraph that I hardly know where to begin talking about it. First, there is the understandable desire of a poet (or any creative person) to attract attention to their work. This, in today’s world of poetry, also necessarily means links to employability, publishability and whatever level of fame a poet can expect within the literary world (not much).

There is also the general problem of narrowness that grouping inevitably creates. I write poetry about the natural world, and many of my friends have come to think of me as a nature poet. There are some very fine poets who can fairly be classified thus (Pattiann Rogers and Mary Oliver come to mind), but I don’t think of myself that way. The looks from my reader-of-nature-poets friends may get a little wide-eyed when they turn a page in my next collection and find a long poem about a 1944 naval battle off the Philippines next to a haiku about a college reunion and a dark reminiscence of my jury service in a child molestation case. I’m afraid my market placement as a nature poet is slipping.

Adam Kirsch touches on the problem of excessive narrowness in his recent collection of reviews The Modern Element (Norton 2008):

“Today, the poetics of authenticity is securely established. … Yet it should be clear by now that this poetics has thoroughly failed. … The sound of the critical madhouse is a thousand utterly authentic voices, all talking at once.”

What does it matter if you speak with an authentic voice if no one is listening, or perhaps worse, if they hear what you say but either can’t understand it or, having understood it, wonder that you bothered to write it. Poetry needs to be more than just unplanned bleating: we can all make noises, but if the only purpose of your sound is to make yourself feel good or call attention to yourself, please spare us the distraction.

Finally, there is the matter of the “essential margin” and the idea of the critique. Movement-clusters in the world of writing almost by definition cannot abide critique except to the extent that another member may suggest better ways to carry the group’s water to its literary destination. This brings us to the fundamental problem of the moats, what lies within them and why it lies there. Do these moats protect a convent or a harem? It doesn’t matter. In both cases the virgins are all serving the same master. It is not the nature of the group’s master that matters, it is the existence of a master. A “school” of poetry is a master. A poet worthy of the name can have no master.

Shepherd’s blog and Lauterbach’s book discuss whether literary movements can become in effect a commodity. A literary movement can become a commodity, or at least a brand, to the extent that what its members produce is purchased by a definable group of people. In the case of poetry production, that group may well be each other, within or hovering on the fringes of that movement, head in and stinger out.

What a horrible idea, "poetry production." In today’s literary climate being a successful poet means being employed primarily because one is a poet—that is, paid to be a college-based poet instead of having an ordinary life and writing from that experience. In this unfortunate context it’s a natural term.

 There are rare exceptions but this is the normal, the common, definition of success.

Writing from a group identity rather than an individual identity generates a certain level of safety, protection, and an uncompromising commitment to adequacy. This is hivewriting: the hum is constant and the result a good nap. 

What it never does is produce excellence. However, in that it matches American society. We live in an age that is threatened by excellence, resists it (especially in education) and thinks any kind of clear statement of position contrary to the direction the bull is running is socially damaging (to the speaker) and unprofessional.

Poets by the hundreds have started building their careers by humping along familiar lexical tracks trodden deep with dust by the herds. It is sad to watch. They all want jobs as protected college-poets. They want their extra-large photo in American Poetry Review, which would be hilarious if it were not such a peculiarly American way of establishing virtue-by-celebrity. Imagine where we would be if we had spent our literary column inches gazing upon photos of, say, Auden, Spender and Bishop, recorded for history by Isherwood, that ultimate pre-digital recorder.

Many modern poets become part of artificial moated cloisters constructed so that poets can run around inside them squeaking to each other like rodents turning a wheel. To what end? Although I understand and respect James Merrill’s statement that he’d rather have one perfect reader than write for the great mass of people, surely poetry written as a group member for the group is too incestuous to serve any but the crudest needs. The fact that the phrase “career in poetry” exists as a meaningful concept in academe is cause for humor tinged with revulsion. But that is how poetry works in the U.S. today, in groups and with the same kinds of networks and cliques as appear in other employment clusters.

Christian Wiman, the current editor of Poetry magazine, in his recent essay collection Ambition and Survival (Copper Canyon, 2007) offers a clear view of what has to change:

I have long believed, though, that to be truly ambitious is to be alone. Wordsworth says that a poet must eventually forswear all aid and criticism of his work or his ability to discern what’s real there, what is most and only himself, will become too debilitated to function. Aligning oneself with a group is not the same thing as seeking criticism, but there is a way in which such identification dulls this blade of solitude, makes it easier to believe in what you’re doing, and thus easier to become complacent.

The net result of this self-congratulatory clustering is that far more people think that they are good poets than is actually the case. The fact that they do not have—and can never have—a readership outside their guild doesn’t seem to affect their understanding of their fundamental status. They are chimeras flitting in the forest of their own imagining.

An astonishing number in poetry's legions are parading about unclothed but for their self-woven corona graminea. In their pride of cult they have forgotten that the grass crown of the legions cannot be self-awarded. Even the consuls could not award it. It comes in its own time, from the people who have seen with their own eyes the supreme acts which earn the honor. When we see writers crowned in chaff, let us say so. Let us award our grass crowns to poets of all schools (or none) based on their work.

Monday, January 21, 2008

McCain/Obama in '08

Why not?

If Senator Clinton wins the Democratic primary (and let's remember that it is she who is running, not Bill, Release 3.1), why would Obama run with her? It would ruin him. She would never allow him to play a meaningful role in her government, and he'd be slowly filled with the special poisons that seem to be dripped into people who spend an extended period in Washington.

If Senator McCain wins the Republican primary (I think Romney is the more likely winner), why would he want any of the third-stringers, vacuum-brains or bean-counters as a running mate? He has nothing to lose by picking up the phone and calling Obama.

Given that everyone would expect McCain to be a one-termer, thousands of independents and maybe 5-10 percent of Ds would defect. I think McCain/Obama would run above 55 percent in a general election.

Even better, that kind of ticket would not have much effect on House or Senate races, except to encourage the extraction of time-serving nitwits of both parties.

I'd rather see Obama as the Democratic nominee and McCain as the Republican, which would be good for the country and pretty much ensure a serious hosing-out of Washington. But if we can't have that race, let's see them team up.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Parasites or Symbiotes?

For some years now I have lived in the flatlands of southern Eugene, Oregon, a community that goes out of its way to attract and retain a wide variety of people who are unable to support themselves through conventional means. Among these are a collection of more-or-less amiable drunks and urb-edge ne'er-do-wells who seem to make a significant part of their income from the collection of cans and bottles from the 12-block-long zone between the University of Oregon campus and the Albertson's supermarket, which has an automated can and bottle sorter that produces chits refundable for cash at the store.

I have always felt a faint revulsion as these draggletropes stagger past my house on their daily systolic rounds with big santa-sacks of cans and shopping carts of bottles. I have wondered why so many people in this neighborhood allow, even encourage, the collectors. At the same time, I have always grumbled to myself about the necessity of taking cans and bottles in for refunds myself. The refunds - at most a couple of dollars for a large paper bag of cans - are hardly worth the energy of taking them back.

I have started to wonder whether in fact the collectors are both a natural phenomenon, no more to be despised than politicians, and useful social symbiotes for we yuppies. Last week I decided to test myself. I took a large sack of cans that I didn't feel like dealing with out to the curb by my driveway and parked them in an obvious semi-public place where no one could fail to detect my intent to be rid of them. A few hours later they were gone !

I should have been outraged, as usual, that someone would live this way, on the frosty edge of theft, but I found myself all but giddy at the prospect of not having to deal with those cans. They were gone and could be removed from my list of things to do. The relative value of time and money has changed as I grow older, and the parasites of five years ago have become the symbiotes of today. In exchange for about $1.50, an inconvenience was painlessly removed from my life. The price is right.

Monday, January 7, 2008


(for Howard Shore)

Songwind born in stars,
endless golden spiral
from ancient furnace deeps
relentless, burning, choral.

Notes incised through dusk,
each edged in frozen flames
chipped rainbows from the sky,
reforging them as names.

Blazing iris flowered,
unsheathed its primal glow,
unknown scintillations,
spectra heretofore unknown.

A rushing breath of silence
frosted the cold Ring,
exhaling ghastly riders
astride foul leathern wings.

Brazen portals glimmered,
unleashed their lance of song,
aureolan escort
for a tempered iron throng.

Bold blustering of horns
burst on the sanguine stone,
brought argent riders steeled
down the edge of crumbled hope.

Scything bows of chaos
resolve in measured joy
throw back the noontide dusk
as misty swords deploy.

Except in dreams no sound
to equal scarlet thunder,
except in dreams no firewand
to crack black stone asunder.

How to paint this soundstorm,
How to classify the dawn?
It is enough that I lived through it;
It is enough that I lived on.

(On the occasion of hearing the Seattle Symphony and Chorus perform the Lord of the Rings Symphony under the direction of composer Howard Shore, July 17, 2004)