Friday, July 2, 2010

The PLOTUS and Us

I was wondering what Ron Silliman would say about the appointment of W.S. Merwin as PLOTUS, and today you can read it on his blog. He makes some really good points, as you'd expect, viz -

"... if the appointment of the PLOTUS is not about the range of what’s possible in American verse, it still serves a function, the creation of a public advocate for poetry. In this regard, one would have to say that Kay Ryan has been a superb Poet Laureate, perhaps not as great in the role as was Robert Hass, but quite conceivably second only to him. Hass proved an advocate for the environment as well as for poetry and left behind a column in the Washington Post, the most visible public occasion for poetry in a generation, which has only recently disappeared. Since she was yanked out of the relative obscurity of the College of Marin, Ryan has seemed to be everywhere, and has constantly spoken up for poetry without any particular agenda as to what kind. That strikes me as exactly what the laureate should be doing. Kay Ryan got it right."

(Digression: Ron doesn't pretend to care for Merwin's work, and uses Lowell as a bludgeon against it. But blaming Lowell for the SoQ is, in principle, like blaming WCW or Whitman for bad free verse; more importantly, it makes no sense because it assumes resemblances between Lowell's and Merwin's work, which are few. Nor was Merwin in any sense a student of Lowell's. Rather, at the age of 18 he sought out Ezra Pound (as Lowell did, too, as a teenager!), and it was Pound who gave him the first advice about poetry that he took; he studied with John Berryman, who doesn't strike me as SoQ (or is he?). And though I get the knock on formalism, Merwin's a lot less formalistic than, say, Richard Wilbur - and come on, even Lowell famously gave up his line-endings very early on. But that's just my pet peeve... Incidentally, Merwin's committment to the ecological arguably equals or exceeds Hass's.)

Ron's larger point about the aesthetics that govern the choices made for the post seems to me undeniable. As he points out, poets "who have never been named to the post include the late George Oppen, John Ashbery, Gary Snyder..." And he asks us to "imagine, if you will, what this same post might look like in the hands of Juliana Spahr, Linh Dinh, or Charles Bernstein, Bob Holman, Stacy Szymaszek, Rodrigo Toscano, Geof Huth or Camille Dungy. Or if the post was shared, say, by Kevin Killian & Dodie Bellamy. Or if the laureate had a name like Prageet Sharma, Mytili Jagannathan or K. Silem Mohammad." But would poets such as these even want or accept a ceremonial post?

I really like how Ron contrasts Merwin's translation of The Poem of the Cid against Paul Blackburn’s of the same poem "as evidence as to why & how Blackburn was a great writer." I absolutely agree about Blackburn (actually, the body of his work altogether is better evidence than just the Cid), but the fact that it's impossible to imagine him having been a PLOTUS means something... What?

I've often been struck by the incredible difference between the two poetry best seller lists on the Poetry Foundation website. The "contemporary" list, which consists mostly of trade books, has seldom lacked the names of poets such as Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, Robert Hass, Kay Ryan, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, and yes... W.S. Merwin! Obviously, a lotta people are reading these poets. The other list, though - the "small press" list - looks more familiar to folks who write, read, edit, and blather about poetry day to day. And it's also more diverse, more changing, and less predictable: some names on it just now are John Murillo, Bhanu Kapil, John Beer, Ayane Kawata, Alice Notley (though she's a small press list perennial), Graham Foust, and Elizabeth Arnold. Clearly, there are distinct worlds of American poetry that just don't get through to each other: different audiences, differing ways of thinking about how poetry ought to be written.

(Another digression: I already know what Bill Knott will say about all this - here's an example from the old Harriet:

"... even among the damned there are divisions . . . there are even (and it’s almost unbelievable that they can exist) some poets who want to succeed! who want their poetry to be read! who actually try to write poetry that is accessible and can reach an audience!—

what traitors these are to their class—(jeez, if they didn’t want to be failures, why did they become poets!)—

no wonder all the normal (i.e. unsuccessful) poets hate the Judas Billy Collins and the quisling Mary Oliver . . ."

But for me that's a plate of red herrings, because...)

There are all kinds of poems and all kinds of readers, and nobody's gonna convince me that this is a bad thing. Nor do I think we need to hybridize poetry. Yet maybe we can hybridize readers. When Ron says: "What a distance we still have to travel," I think, in my Pollyanna way, that the distance to travel is for each of us to move in the direction of the other. (And I'm not capitalizing "other," 'cos when you capitalize the other, as Jean Shepherd once pointed out, bad things happen.) I've read work by everybody named in Ron's post and in this one, and it hasn't hurt me one little bit. So maybe a good thing would be for each PLOTUS to use the pulpit to get the word out about the diversity of American poetry, which includes Ron's own substantial body of work. How cool it would be for the PLOTUS at any given moment to turn folks onto the likes of Eigner, Blackburn, Oppen, Armantrout, and Notley as well as, yes, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop? Ron is right and generous to note that Merwin isn't, thankfully, a bully - but maybe we need a PLOTUS to avail him- or herself of the bully pulpit on behalf of the varieties of American poetry. I always get a kick in the pants for espousing the eclectic, but if appreciating and nurturing the many conflicting textures of our poetry isn't consistent with the best dreams we can have for this country overall, then what is?

Pictured: A female American plotus.


Via rob mclennan's blog:

Sarah Manguso: "Abstract arguments about genre are boring—and what’s more, those arguments reek of eugenics and fear. No pure forms exist. And I wish everyone would stop telling me about the 'new' 'hybrid' writing. Everything is already a hybrid. In any case, I think books belong to their authors, not to genres. Many writers get marketed in more than one genre, but readers just think, Look, here is another book by so-and-so, don’t they?"

(“David Shields in conversation with Sarah Manguso,” The Believer, June 2010)


Joseph Hutchison said...

The problem for me about Ron's position is that he views the PLOTUS as a marketing position. And because he cares only for marketing his tribe, he fantasizes about Juliana Spahr (really?) or Lihn Dihn (what a ferocious PLOTUS he'd make!) or Charles Bernstein (who would be good for stand-up comics, at least). What matters to Ron is the marketing of his tribe's brand. And the question for him re: Merwin is what competing brand his selection is meant to market. I hold with your view, Don, that the whole point of the PLOTUS is to appreciate and nurture "the many conflicting textures of our poetry." The mirroring you describe must happen one PLOTUS at a time, of course, so the tribalist response will always be unavoidable. This is why the most useful part of Silliman's screed is this: "Merwin is the 47th person named to the post since it was created in 1937 as the Library of Congress’ Consultant in Poetry. 38 have been men, 9 women. 45 have been white." It's time to begin expanding the circle.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

I'm surprised Ron thinks Kay Ryan "has seemed to be everywhere;" certainly she has done an admirable job, but she hasn't been omnipresent and I don't know that she has instituted programs which will last. Maybe I just haven't been keeping track though?

And, SoQ is a clearly defined aesthetic grouping! It's everyone Ron Silliman doesn't like. Him picking on Robert Lowell is like Donovan Ruddock making fun of Muhammad Ali. Psh.

Don Share said...

Thanks for your comments, guys. I'd like to take this opportunity to mention an interesting dialogue between Joseph and Dale Smith shaping up over on Possum Ego; it addresses the effects of "exhausted liberalism," which seems very much to the point here; you can read it here.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

Don, your comment seems to suggest that you're equating the Joseph H. who comments above with the Joseph H. on Dale's blog, but they're actually two different people....

By the way, just for the record, I would accept the post, but only if it came with a fancy uniform and a weekly show on network TV.

Don Share said...

Oh, good heavens, you're right: thank you, Kasey. And my apologies to both Josephs, each of whom I quite admire.

I dunno about the uniform, but you could surely get a spot on the NewsHour were you to accept the position!!!


Henry Gould said...

Kasey, might it be feasible for you & Kenneth G. to apply some hi-tek ConFlarftual apps, & come up with a hydra-headed PLOTUS, who could represent ALL the American poet-fauna, under one & a half wingspams?

Camille said...

Don, you ask, in relationship to Silliman's list of poets who might hypothetically fill the post of PLOTUS: "But would poets such as these even want or accept a ceremonial post?"

I'd like to know what you mean by "poets such as these"? What, in your mind, do Juliana Spahr, Linh Dinh, Charles Bernstein, Bob Holman, Stacy Szymaszek, Prageet Sharma, Mytili Jagannathan, Rodrigo Toscano, Geof Huth, Kevin Killian & Dodie Bellamy, or I have in common that we might all, of accord, turn down the opportunity to serve as PLOTUS?

Is it because several of us reside in the West? No, but Hass, Ryan, and even Merwin all make their homes in Western states?

Is it because several of us are writers of color that we would or should poo poo the post? I'd argue that Rita Dove was one of the best and most visible PLs we've had.

Is it because many of the poets listed write with alternative aesthetics? I'm not sure I'd count myself in this number since my first book is a collection of rogue sonnets not likely to be considered experimental poetics by that, as one of your followers called it "tribe."

I'm just curious what you mean when you ask, "But would poets such as these even want or accept a ceremonial post?" It sounds a lot like saying "I'd invite him to the party, but I don't think he'd want to come. I mean, not many people like him have ever been to such a party before." And that strikes me as a dangerous way to decide who to invite to the party.

Extend the invitation. The worst that could happen is perceptions might have to change.

Don Share said...


By "poets such as these" I mean poets such as Ron has listed; I presume that HE takes them to have alternative poetics. It's his list, not mine; but yours is a good question, so we should probably ask him to define it.

You're making my own point - and Ron's too, it seems to me - better than either of us has, which is to say more explicitly, for which I thank you.

But to be clear: I'm not the one poo-poohing the post; I don't decide who gets it; and I am arguing *for* inclusiveness in every sense.


Camille said...

Okay Don. But it was you who asked, "But would poets such as these even want or accept a ceremonial post?" and it was that question I was interrogating.

Who knows. Perhaps one day we'll have on opportunity to discover the answer.

Don Share said...

I ask because I wonder whether someone who feels that their poetics works explicitly outside the mainstream, or even against it - who works as an experimentalist - would take on a mainstream role. I specifically used the example of Paul Blackburn. But I feel that you're reading something else into my question, which was not about racial or ethnic diversity. On that count, there's far, far, far more to be done. But Ron's post, to which I was directly responding, addresses this only glancingly. That kind of diversity is long overdue.

Steven Fama said...

Hi Don --

Numbers are allusive, descriptive generalizers )e.g., "a lotta") even more so, but I don't think that many read even teh top titles on the Poetry best-seller list.

I posted a comment somewhere a couple weeks ago, pointing out that at that time, Anne Carson's new collection was the top poetry-seller on Amazon, and yet overall it was number 700 and something on that site's list of all books. Hoagland's was the second most popular current seller, and its number was in the thousands. (Currently, a Merwin title is the top 20th century poetry seller, and yet it's but around # 900 overall.)

Even under the broadest definition of "we," we poetry readers who actually buy books ain't many, sad and sorry to say.