The Voice that is Great Within Us

About the time Henry initiated the Plumbline School, Ron Silliman was drawing up lists, one of which indicated that Hayden Carruth “isn’t much read” these days, a judgment I started out to dispute, then thought, “Oh, what the hell,” and let it drop. Many of Carruth’s books are in fact in print — there are both a Collected Longer Poems and a Collected Shorter Poems from Copper Canyon Press, along with several books of essays on poetry and jazz. Carruth was a second-generation American modernist, though, and it is that generation, that includes Lowell and Bishop and Roethke, that the currently ascendent schools of poetry must be at pains to dismiss; thus, I’d argue, Silliman’s offhand remark.

But that’s by way of prologue. Carruth has been very important to me in charting my own course down the center. So I was pleased to find Henry’s post with the long quote from Carruth the other day. Here is another part of the case for Carruth being made an honorary member of the Plumbline School: His 1970 mass-market poetry anthology (also still in print), The Voice that is Great Within Us. I’m just getting ready to return to Vietnam. When I go there, I usually try to take a couple of American books to give to friends there, many of whom are English teachers and professional translators, and poets. In browsing around Amazon, I ran across the Carruth anthology, which I have given away to many students over the years, but which I hadn’t looked at closely for a while. I ordered a copy, which arrived yesterday. In his introduction, Carruth talks about getting an envelope of poems from Wallace Stevens on day and another from E.E. Cummings the next when he was editor of Poetry magazine. He goes on to sketch out the capaciousness of American poetry and his anthology selections reveal a very wide taste; more than that, they reveal a time in American poetry before the Fall.

A look at the Table of Contents of The Voice that is Great Within Us provides evidence of a prelapsarian paradise where Jack Spicer and Conrad Aiken have converse, where Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fearing meet on friendly terms, and so on: Lorine Niedecker, Richard Eberhardt, Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Thomas McGrath, William Bronk, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Donald Justic, Richard Wilbur. . . Carruth’s anthology suggests that American poets might have more in common than they realize. The recent divisions are largely political, I’d argue, rather than aesthetic. No, check that. I’d say that in the recent divisions into schools, a narrow politics drives aesthetics.

Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.

Twanging the Plumbline

As noted in a couple of previous posts, I have been participating in a discussion of poetics initiated by Henry Gould at a new blog, The Plumbline School, cross-posting a few of my comments here as well when they seemed detachable from their Plumbline context. There are, at last count, four participants in the project, which has generated a good deal of useful discussion in a short time, I think, though necessarily much of the talk at this point is range-finding and terminological in nature. The original idea, which has been undergoing a few modifications, was to initiate a discussion that would seek to find a new kind of center for poetic practice, and for the poem in this historical moment. (Or perhaps the intention was / is to rediscover an old center now obscured.)

The Plumbline was pulled out of the old tool box, frankly, in reaction to a number of current trends that seem out of kilter, so there is an element of the polemical in our discussions, though they are secondary to our main purposes. Henry has explicitly named Flarf as one thing he’s reacting against; my own frustration with current practice stems from the cultural configuration that sponsors an all-or-nothing divide between the so called “School of Quietude” and the so called “Post Avant.”  I’m already on record as preferring something like Seth Abramson’s ecology as a starting point. On of the things that attracts me to this effort, as I’ve said, is that the polemical intent is subordinated to an exploratory, tentative approach to poetic practice and theorizing about poetry – our own as well as that of others. Speaking for myself, I am more interested in charting my own practice, which has grown stale, than in convincing others to join a movement.

Thus, the Plumbline: An attempt to chart what is actually going on in current poetry and to develop a terminology more descriptive than the one we have got with which to discuss the cultural landscape and the poetic practice located in that landscape. And, yes, an attempt to promote a particular sort of poetry, or poetry based on a particular set of (broadly defined) principles that orbit around the idea of the middle voice. A still point, an unwobbling pivot, amidst the static and random noises of current American literary culture. Or that’s how I read — and continue to read — the intentions of the Plumbline. If there are poets out there who would like to join the conversation, email me or follow the How to Join link at the Plumbline blog.

Hippies, Fascists, and a State of Play

Years ago, walking across a beautiful wooded college campus in the Northwest, I had a conversation with a friend about Yeats’ notions of will and imagination. My friend suggested that imagination was a middle term and that will represented one extreme, which left us missing a term. (This was long enough ago that one might make structuralist arguments, not post-structuralist ones!) We came up with a sort of jokey formulation: will we represented in our system as a “fascist” for whom control was paramount and the opposite of will as a “hippie,” for whom any control was anathema. In the middle, we decided, there was playfulness–what Yeats called “imagination.”

The plumbline, even when it is perfectly still, only does its job because it is free to move; conversely, it is constrained by the laws of physics to come to rest over a point of equilibrium, drawing a line straight through the center of the earth. In a physical or mechanical system, we say there is “play” if there is a bit of slack or looseness, enough to allow some unpredictable motion without becoming completely random; if there is no play in the system, it locks up. So this is just one more metaphor for the middle way, but a useful one for me. At my best, such an approach governs my approach to daily life, as well as to poetry. The state of play is akin to what a Buddhist might simply call being awake.

Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School. Please comment there.

The Plumbline School

Henry Gould has started a new discussion blog about contemporary poetic practice. If you’re a working poet, check it out & if you think it’s interesting drop Henry a line to see about becoming a contributor. Here is the text of my first post:

I’ll begin by thanking Henry for inviting me to participate in this discussion. I hope we can attract others to the conversations as well. Especially those who, for whatever reasons, have found the currently available maps and charts of poetic practice inadequate to their needs. (There are also those pure souls who find no need of maps.)

Henry has chosen the metaphor of the plumb line around which to organize this discussion. I have also been reading poet / blogger Seth Abramson’s discussions of poetic taxonomies recently. In passing, Abramson uses the metaphor of the baseline in one of his discussions (thus the picture of the spirit level above), which seem to me the most lucid map-making I have encountered. (Abramson also offers an admirable model of reasonable discourse around a cluster of contentious issues.) What I have found salutary about Abramson’s proposed taxonomy is that it avoids the binary division of Ron Silliman’s School of Quietude versus Post-Avant boxing match, which is my its nature polemical rather than descriptive. (In any binary pair, one term will have a positive valence, the other a negative, though these can reverse depending upon context / perspective.)

Silliman’s division of the poetic landscape has long troubled me at the level of personal practice. It is embarrassing to admit, but I have longed to be able to fit into a known aesthetic type & in addition my strong personal preference generally has been to identify with the most progressive trends in politics & arts. But I haven’t been able, in my practice as a poet, to find much use for the Language poets & their progeny. I own a shelf full of books & it is not for lack of trying; rather, of trying & being rebuffed. There have been times over the last decade when I have simply not been able to find my way as a poet, long periods of silence. It would be absurd, obviously, to blame the SoQ / Post-Avant division. I am of course responsible for my own practice, but this particular binary division has made it difficult for me to find an aesthetic location, to chart my position on the map. I’ve accepted Henry’s invitation to post here at least in part because I hope to be able to find common ground across the territorial boundaries of contemporary American poetry.

Note: Comments are disabled on this post: If you want to respond, go to The Plumbline School.