Thursday, August 12, 2010
A revaluation of the New American Poetry
My previous blog post mentioned the terrific new book, Robin Blaser, by Stan Persky and Brian Fawcett, and as promised... here's a look at Fawcett's interesting reassessment of "The New American Poetry." Not since the late Reginald Shepherd wrote on Harriet about its legacy (see here, here, and here) has there been such a detailed - and near-blasphemous! - critique of this enormously influential anthology.
In a section entitled "The New American Poetry and Us," Fawcett writes:
As influences go, the New American Poetry anthology and its principal poets [...] were compelling but not always sanguine. When I stopped publishing verse in 1983 and stopped calling myself a poet and stopped thinking of myself as one, I did so with a sense of having been hustled by The New American Poetry, if not quite betrayed. [...] It was a judgment I came to gradually and reluctantly, and almost without noticing. Yet by the mid-1980s, I'd come to distrust my artistic roots because they and the materials they deployed to construct meaning were unable to defend the particular and local - the very things they proposed to protect - against the new totality of the post-1960 era: the marketplace, corporatism and the cognitive prostheses those forces created to achieve their aims.
Fawcett goes on to conduct a lengthy "autopsy" of the NAP, starting with deep look at its roots in and indebtedness to Olson's "Projective Verse." (I won't comment on that part of Fawcett's essay, but it's fascinating: must reading for anyone who loves or is interested in Olson's work, as well as its influence: it's a great piece of criticism in its own right.) And what he has to say isn't merely a takedown. "Nothing I've argued," he makes clear, "undermines the fact that the New American Poetry in 1960, with its singularity of focus though Olson and its broad range of expressive dissidence, was a uniquely accurate response to the political/cultural tyrannies of the first half of the twentieth century..." He calls the poets of the NAP "a marvelous choir of dissidents singing wildly different songs in different keys," and says that anyone who reads their work alongside the "straight" work of the period "will discover how many good poets were part of it, and how much better their poetry" is. And he outlines at some length - in thirteen sections - what the influence of the NAP and Olson did accomplish, and why it remains compelling.
But his reservations are interesting. It is, he says, very hard
... not to assign a measure of opprobrium to the New American Poetry for the things it missed and for the contemptuous attitudes toward readers it more or less openly encouraged. By itself, that contempt has to bear some responsibility for the intellectual and cultural catastrophe that has reduced literature to the status of cultural craft activity - not that every other genre and movement can't be tarred with the same brush.
He claims that their revolution, when it materialized, was misunderstood by those poets who were on the leading edge of the NAP:
The deep thinkers of the New American Poetry thought that the enterprise of postmodernism was about the extension of private consciousness and thus an occasion for writing about poetry. In the real world, postmodernism has been about the superimposition of economic and fiscal models upon all human activities and the substitution of commodity consumption for meaning and for human solidarity. In this error, the bright lights of the New American Poetry were monumentally self-serving, and their errors seeded my generation with a self-absorption and arrogance that runs so deep only a tiny minority of us to this day recognizes the humiliation of what has transpired in the shift over the last thirty years from political and cultural models based on democracy and equality of opportunity to an oligarchy of Darwinian entrepreneurs modeling all human activities on the marketplace.
The NAP and Projective Verse (the latter grounded in the idea that collective understandings are the basis of democratic politics), Fawcett says, "have become cages and shackles not much better or worse than the cage and shackles they set out to free poets from." Strong words! But there's more. He connects the NAP to the "ostentatious failure" of totalitarian ideologies and their entrepreneurs; and accuses the successors of the NAP of being silent on, or "stupidly partisan" about the imposition of the marketplace "as the sole arbiter of culture and politics." Strikingly, he says that "a less recognized mistake of the New American Poetry is that it didn't recognize that the technical genius of one generation is automatically built into the next generation's operating system." Emphasis, as they say, mine.
Of his NAP mentors, Fawcett says that "their technical fist-pounding was no substitute for competent global politics, or for having a working sense of how and why different eras constructed verse, or learning to practice an open-minded phenomenology in the heart of a projective poem, something that was dead easy for Olson... [...] In the end, the New American Poetry foundered on its ill-conceived prejudice for spontaneity, which is what, when attentions lag, you get when you jettison the Aristotelian toolbox."
All this strikes me as quite a bombshell, embedded as it is, in the context of Robin Blaser's own life and work, which stand out from that of his NAP colleagues and friends Duncan and Spicer, et al. As Fawcett points out, the great thing about Blaser was that his pedagogy was open.
Now look, don't flame me for writing up what Fawcett has to say: I haven't made up my mind about all of this, and I'm not endorsing it, just reporting it. Nor have I done justice to what Fawcett says for, let alone against, the NAP - if I kept quoting all the things I'd like to, I'd be a copyright violator! I certainly cut quite a few teeth, like so many others, on the NAP anthology, and love much of it to this day. There is no more worn book on my bookshelves. Yet it's healthy and right to critique what we love... and the world is very different now than it was in 1960. Fawcett is right, whatever one thinks, to raise the question of how much substance and structure must underpin writing. And he's certainly right to question - as a Canadian - "the political and cultural physics" of the New American Poetry's "dissident American epic concerns" and its impositions on poets around the globe.
Losing Robin Blaser occasioned Fawcett's revaluation of the NAP. I'm sure Blaser would have endorsed this kind of serious soul-searching.
Addendum: Read comments for a response by Brian Fawcett
Pictured: New American painting; the term "revaluation" was put on the litcrit map by F.R. Leavis