Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Major Minor

Garrett Caples has just published - it's the very first "Wave Pamphlet" - a screed entitled Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English. It kicks off with Auden's admission that he couldn't enjoy one poem by Shelley yet was delighted by every line of William Barnes, even though he knew perfectly well that Shelley "is a major poet and Barnes a minor one." Caples takes this and runs with it, perhaps not allowing for Auden's propensity to say such things in passing, and for effect - Auden's pronouncements always have to be taken with a grain or more of salt. Caples, in any case, also prefers Barnes to Shelley (I bet a lot of folks do, actually; I prefer Clough and Beddoes to both, myself). And in this essay he intends to construct an argument about minor as opposed to major poets, which is a lot more than Auden was up to. And so Caples expresses a "disinclination to return to Dryden," prefers William Diaper to him, and says he's more likely to return to Nicholas Breton, Gentleman than to Shakespeare. Cables admits that preferences like these may be arbitrary; but counterbalancing every "major" poet with a "minor" one stretches the point rather dramatically. And what is that point? Caples says:

... I've built up quite a stable of minor poets, and I've often wondered why. It stems partly from a lifelong habit of pursuing the obscure rather than the readily at hand. This is not to say there aren't plenty of major poets I've read with profit - I even enjoyed chugging through Wordsworth's Prelude, in college - but rather that I grow bored with the available. As a poet, I feel the need to see what else has been done, besides what everyone already knows. For a poet, I think, finds much food for contemplation in the minor, imperfect, sometimes even the bad poet; you find things that have been attempted that have failed or turned out ridiculous, but that yet seem like intriguing possibilities for further exploration, that might yield great poetry if handled differently or even simply more competently... To write major poetry, the poet perhaps must resist the major, to find fault with what, at a given time, is held to be major poetry and propose another way, in order to not simply repeat the past, in order to "make it new."

The dichotomy may simply be false. Major poets do not, as Caples's own account of reading demonstrates, displace the minor; there's room enough for both on the reading list. It's true that "minor" poets - not the same thing, by the way, as non-canonical poets - aren't much taught in school, but as I imagine Caples would agree, school's not necessarily the best place to learn about poetry. (Digression and example: once upon a time, I did some adjunct teaching at a "major" university on the East Coast, where I shared an office with a bona fide Ph.D. student in the English Department. One fall afternoon, that grad student overheard me talking with a student about a poem I love, Fulke Greville's "Myra," -- "Mad girls may safely love as they may leave; / No man can print a kiss: lines may deceive" -- and scolded me later on: "You DO know that Fulke Greville is a minor poet, don't you?" I didn't know, and I didn't care.) At any rate, here's an important corollary point: there are "minor" works by "major" poets. So what might Caples think of Dryden's less-read, seldom-taught, and very odd verse plays? Or, say, the stranger long poems by Frank O'Hara that nobody teaches, discusses, anthologizes, or imitates? And who would argue that major poets aren't just as "imperfect" as minor ones - surely their imperfections are of interest. Looking for the overlooked - which all poets ought to do, just as Cables suggests - doesn't require dispensing babies with bathwater.

The problem is with the terms like "major" and "minor." If we reject them, gone will be our anxiety, and no upper or lower limits will narrow our curiosity. Simple, eh? Aren't we always free to read whatever the heck we please? That aside, I don't see why it's so bad to have to chug through, as Caples himself profitably did, the "majors." Another thing: why is boredom so terrible? I'll refrain from trotting out Berryman on the subject - but poets sure are bored these days! Why are people who are easily bored drawn to poetry, of all things? It's hard to think of another activity in which boredom counts for much: Athletics? The practice of medicine (would you want a surgeon who was bored in med school, or who is bored by major diseases?)? Piloting airplanes? Or is learning about poetry qualitatively a different endeavor? I won't press the point.

Alright, I've bloviated; but doing so is not a put-down of Caples or this pamphlet. I adore his prescription to read widely and even perversely; and his breezy style is engaging - despite the weighty title, the essay feels like some chunk of a great conversation you'd have over a couple of beers. And we need more poets weighing in on things the way he has here - and more publishers like Wave willing to publish extended one-off essays like this one. Kudos to both! And you'll notice I haven't even said anything about the other focus of the essay: the Symbolists. The influence of Symbolism in American literature is something hardly anybody else has paid attention to, and his account of searching it out is useful, as well as great fun.

For me, though, where Caples really gets going is at the very end of the booklet, with a terrific rant about "major poet" [though his status as such has been much and hotly disputed already] Hart Crane's plagiarizing the work of "minor poet" Samuel Greenberg, which Caples argues has interfered with the reception of the latter's work. Crane

... plagiarized the then-unknown and virtually unpublished "minor poet" [Greenberg, who died in 1917 at the age of 23], drawing on a typescript made from manuscripts in the possession of their mutual friend, William Murrell Fisher. As Marc Simon's [Samuel Greenberg, Hart Crane and the Lost Manuscripts] demonstrates, lines of Greenberg appear intermittently in poems Crane composed between 1924 and 1929; one of Crane's most famous poems, "Emblems of Conduct," is in fact entirely composed of Greenberg's lines, from the poem "Conduct" and others... This circumstance, first discovered in 1936, only four years after Crane's death, continues to embarass his admirers, who have attempted to rationalize the theft as "borrowing," "influence," "rewriting," or, in Simon's idiotic phrase, "the Greenberg pattern." Crane, we are told - even by [James] Laughlin [posthumous publisher of Greenberg's work!], who censures him to some extent - has made these lines "his own" by revision and incorporation into his poems. No one will call Crane a plagiarist, which he was; there's no other word for it. I will grant that Crane was mentally ill. And quite probably, had not Crane stolen from it, Greenberg's work would have disappeared into obscurity. Yet this hardly excuses Crane's actions. For this is not a case of literary allusion or postmodern citation - the way that, say, Ashbery's line "fleeing from us that sometimes did us seek," is a slightly altered quotation of Sir Thomas Wyatt - or of seeing the potential in a minor poet's unsuccessful projects.

Caples, when asked whether he thinks Greenberg is a better poet than Crane, says: "I suppose I do." (He finds Crane's work "boring and misguided" [boredom again!], even "conservative and academic.") Defending this preference, he notes that when Crane "lifts a line from Greenberg, it becomes inert, wooden. Torn from his context, it dies." And this strikes me as a very useful and interesting way - unlike the major/minor strategy - to look at what poets do with, or to, the work of others. (I urge anybody interested in this matter to read Christopher Ricks's fascinating Allusion to the Poets - especially the chapter on plagiarism.)

OK, the joke's on me! Caples abandons - on the very last page!! - the terms "major" and "minor," after all, and concludes: "There will always be greater, more significant, more influential poets than others, true. But given the extreme difficulty of achieving anything as a poet, why segregate poets according to the crude dualism of major and minor? If we must make a distinction, I would rather say there are poets, and there are non-poets. This is a far truer conception of the state of human affairs." Here he leaves us - with what would constitute a fine beginning to another essay, another controversy. I'm looking forward to more Wave pamphlets - and to more of Caples's thoughts about what he's reading. I wish he had a blog. Does he??


On the subject of what we're reading, I've also just plowed my way though Robin Blaser (New Star, 2010), an eponymous tribute which consists of an essay each by Stan Persky and Brian Fawcett. It's a poignant, rich, and lovely look at Blaser's work by two poets who knew him well. The book as a physical object is beautiful, and it includes a number of pictures of Blaser you won't have seen elsewhere. Above all, it's a fine introduction - especially Persky's illuminating essay - to Blaser's poetry. As a book about poetry, it's exemplary.

Here's something, by the way, Fawcett says which is pertinent to my complaint about boredom above: "Blaser brought with him, to everything he did, the exhilaration of intelligence - the promise that one can know one's world, and the conviction that the effort to understand without simplification is always worth the difficulty."

Fawcett digresses, by the way, (rather like Caples, as above) into a very interesting critique of the "New American Poetry," about which more shortly.
Pictured: The major and the minor


Steven Fama said...

Hi Don,

A very nice write-up, by which I mean not just well written, but well-thought and many-faceted. It's so good that it sort of makes me -- having written a bit about Caples' pamphlet,
though not nearly as well as you -- want to give up trying to put my thoughts down about this stuff. (Don't everybody say "Please do" at once!)

Anyway, about the Caples: I've four or five books bought in the last month or so, after reading Caples' pamphlet, and I've been re-reading Samuel Greenberg, whose work I'd had for years. Among the new ones, Crapsey's cinquains (or quintains) are the most intriguing. Her poems are mostly duds to me, but the form, the way it tails off to almost nothing with it's very short (two word) final line, seems to have possibilities. This, as you suggest, is part of Caples' point.

And anyway, about Caples himself: I've known him for about a decade, after we met via Philip Lamantia. Caples is not a blogger, alas. He does publish occasional articles for a SF alternative weekly, the Bay Guardian; those are almost always on hip-hop music. He also, as you probably know, edits poetry books for City Lights, and along with Andrew Joron and Nancy Peters is editing the Collected Lamantia that the University of California Press plans to publish in 2012. He also has, I am pretty sure, a "day job" too (though it may actually be at night and on the weekends, though I don't really know), involving I believe proof-reading and copy-editing. Of course, he writes his own poetry, and gets around a bit to poetry readings in Oakland and thereabouts, as evidenced in my first paragraph here .

Thanks gain for this post!

Bobby said...

I'm sure there are people in actual English departments who know better, but I'd guess your experience with the Greville-scorner gets right to the heart of the matter--meaning I think the major/minor distinction is an artifact of the academy. The major poets are the ones that any accredited teacher of English was expected to be able to talk about with at least the semblance of competence. Minor poets were fit for specializations and early-career scholarship. Your mentioning Greville probably freaked the other guy/gal out because s/he had only ever heard the name and wanted to keep the fence drawn tight around what s/he did know.

I think those canons have broken down in most universities now, which is all the more reason that, like you and Garrett, I can see no reason why any poet would treat the distinction as anything more than a suggestion for whom to read, and, possibly, whom not to dismiss too quickly out of hand.

(Funny as it now seems, the word "classic" scared me away from a lot of books when I was a hungry kid reader. When I finally read Moby Dick in my senior year of college, I went around muttering "how come nobody told me it was this good?" not realizing, of course, that they'd tried.)

Henry Gould said...

A rather harsh, crabbed (& 20-20 hindsight) judgment on Crane's borrowing from Greenberg. Can we claim to know Crane's motive(s)? His use of Greenberg's "spiritual gates" (in :Emblems of Conduct") can be read as a form of assent & praise. Nor would I agree that Crane's usages are inferior to the original.

Crane's unacknowledged theft cannot be fully justified. But I don't believe outright condemnation is justified either.

Jordan said...

Some of us razzle-dazzle maggots live for those stranger long poems, by the way.

Joseph said...

A great anthology of symbolists and others is Ed Foster's Decadents, Symbolists, and Aesthetes, published by Talisman House: