Back in March, I mentioned that I was reading Mark Scroggins’s new biography of Louis Zukofsky, The Poem of a Life. Mark and his family came over to our home for a dinner party a couple of months ago and he saw that I’d only gotten a couple hundred pages in. He said “that’s a respectable effort,” which of course meant that I had to finish the thing. And I’m really glad I did.
Some personal background on my own poetic knowledge first, though. I came to poetry in a serious way when I was an undergrad, but for me that meant in my late 20s. I went to an undergraduate university where creative writing was barely a blip on the map–there was one poet, and he taught technical writing as often as he taught poetry workshop. Good guy, good poet, but very traditional, as was the entire faculty. Criticism wasn’t big in the curriculum, but what we got was basically New Criticism. And when I went to Arkansas for my MFA, that really didn’t change. My reading lists didn’t even include Ginsburg, much less Oppen or Niedecker or Zukofsky. The whole tradition (and I think it’s fair to call it a tradition now) of Objectivist and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry didn’t even really exist as far as my education was concerned. I picked up a little in passing in my workshops with W.S. DiPiero when I was at Stanford, but that’s it.
So I came to Mark’s book fairly ignorant of this history and of the movement and poetry that Zukofsky helped build and create, and I not only found the book informative, I found it fascinating. I took a long time to read it because I was constantly having to digest new material and fit it in with what I didn’t know about 20th century poetry. It’s not only a fantastic biography, it’s a terrific history book in general, even if I don’t share the aesthetic of the subject of the book.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book to me was the lengthy discussion of Zukofsky’s formal considerations in his work. I’m not a formalist in the Tim Steele/Dana Gioia sense of the term, but I do tend to write in traditional meter and form, so I found it heartening to see that Zukofsky had that in mind when composing his poems, especially since he often made the forms he was working in more intricate, rather than finding ways to cheat. It has caused me to find ways to discipline my own writing in the weeks since I completed reading (this review has been in the works for a while now).
Which is not to say that I plan on following the poetic road Zukofsky blazed. It’s just not my thing. My preference, both in reading and writing poetry, is to avoid the hermetic image. I want a poem to communicate something more than music or a frame for an idea to me. I want an emotional connection with the meaning in the poem, and I didn’t find that in the selections that Mark quoted in this text. It’s just a matter of personal taste. There were lots of times when Mark was explaining what was going on in a particular section of “A” and I just didn’t see it, wasn’t moved by the language.
That’s not to say that I don’t think Zukofsky did great work–this biography convinces me that he did, and anyone who can influence the path of poetry for a generation certainly had something major going on. It’s just not my kind of poetry. Think of it as the clash between people who liked Swing and those who liked Be-bop. I appreciate both, but I prefer the latter. I appreciate Charles Olson, but I prefer James Merrill. The world of poetics is wide enough for all of us, I think.
Robert Lee Brewer asked around on Facebook for some advice on writing a bio for a poetry submission. I responded, and he included my comments here if you’re interested. My standard opening joke is included in there.
A couple of days ago at Sadly, No, Mister Leonard Pierce looked at some responses to the National Review Onine’s symposium on books. To the question “If there were only one book on conservatism you could recommend to a newcomer, what would it be and why?” Richard Brookheiser answered “The Complete Poetry of Robert Frost. Not very detailed at the policy level, but lots of reality.”
I have my doubts about the reality part, but I’m guessing Brookheiser is referring to poems like “The Gift Outright” when it comes to his approval of Frost’s poetry. After all, it’s a paean to the British-centric view of US history.
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
I can see why a conservative would like this poem. It simplifies the early history of the US down to a single people and ignores everyone else. Dutch, German, French, Spanish, even the slaves are disappeared from the narrative–“we were England’s,” according to this.
But that’s nothing compared what Frost does to the natives who were living here when the Europeans showed up.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Frost pulls off a nice double whammy here–without mentioning Native Americans directly, he has us give ourselves this land through “many deeds of war,” thus acknowledging that there were people there before us who had a claim (one could include Mexicans in with this group as well), but then refers to the land as basically useless before we got there to improve it: “unstoried, artless, unenhanced.” Of course conservatives like Brookheiser like this poem–it feeds into their sense of supremacy, of privilege, of the idea that until the white, English-speaking man came along, the land was crap, waiting for us to do something useful with it.
I think Brookheiser, at least with this poem, got it backwards. Plenty of policy–white, English supremacy, no mention of women or other ethnicities, genocidal policies toward native peoples, and revised history. Not much reality, though.