Wind from all Compass Points


Not long ago in an issue of the politically liberal New York Review of Books, the poet/reviewer Charles Simic praised as a major achievement a poem by the then Poet Laureate Billy Collins which basically expressed Collin's "sensitive" surprise that cows actually moo. In a separate article, Simic dismissed Robert Duncan's inspired confrontation of the American destruction of Vietnam in 1967 in his poem "Uprising" as "worthless." This downgrading of Duncan's imaginative engagement with power, and the extoling of Collin's work, which is hardly even sophisticated entertainment, sadly exemplifies much of what is supported these days by editors, reviewers, and judges as endorsable American poetry.

Some years ago, in Sulfur #10, Charles Bernstein defined the officially sanctioned verse of our time as characterized by "a restricted vocabulary, neutral and univocal tone in the guise of voice or persona, grammar-book syntax, received conceits, static and unitary form." This definition is still good today, some twenty years later. In the academic writing programs, the post-Confessional and Language poetries of the 1970s have fused to produce, in the main, a poetry that is an abstract display of self-sensitivity, the new "official verse." Such programs produce hundreds of young writers each year eager to be accepted, get jobs, and win prizes (virtually the only way a poet can get a first book published today is by winning a contest judged in most cases by a well-known conventional writer; poetry editors who actually edit hardly exist any longer, especially in the service of first books). To my knowledge, few writing programs back a genuinely international viewpoint, exposing novices, for example, to the range of materials one finds in the two volumes of Poems for the Millennium (ed. by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris). More commonly, student-poets are taught material by the same names that reappear with deadly regularity as featured writers at summer retreats, as judges, as grant recipients and as those invited to festivals as key-note speakers.

The extent that Harold Bloom's pronouncements have had a direct effect on contemporary American poetry is hard to determine, but given the extent that poetry readership is oriented to critical admonition, a case can be made that Bloom's and Helen Vendler's failure to back the innovative push at the end of World War II--I mainly have in mind here such poets as Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Muriel Rukeyser, George Oppen, and Jackson Mac Low--has skewed readership to several generations of basically conventional writers. While Bloom has brought his considerable erudition to bear on Blake and Shakespeare, his role in the evaluation of several decades of American poetry can be summed up in a statement he made on the poetry of Jay Wright: "His most characteristic art returns always to that commodius lyricism I associate with American poetry at its most celebratory, in Whitman, in Stevens, in Crane, in Ashbery."

Bloom's primary position is that we are at the tail end of a great English tradition, with Wallace Stevens as the last major Romantic figure, trailed by John Ashbery as his radiant ghost. The implication of Bloom's position is that English language poetry has culminated and that what is occurring now, or has been for the past one hundred years, with the above-cited exceptions, is a belated and fractured caricature of it. Such thinking is Koranic, as far as I am concerned, in as much as it treats a great complete tradition (five hundred years of English poetry) as the Koran is treated by its disciples: as a sacred incomparable text. The upshot of such a position is to tell the young poet that he would be better off doing something else, that all his language tits are dry. There is a powerfully-repressed Urizenic poet in Bloom that must account for some of the respect given to his pontifications. Of course if the young poet can be defeated by the likes of Harold Bloom, he would clearly be better off doing something other than writing poetry

Ever since I discovered the poetry of César Vallejo in the late 1950s, I have intuited that poetry is at a very early stage in its potential unfolding. The depth of "I" has only been superficially explored. Ego consciousness is inadequate to write innovative poetry. Rather than the Freudian hierarchical model, a kind of totem pole consisting of super-ego, ego, and unconscious, I would propose the antiphonal swing of the bicameral mind which in a contemporary way relates to shamanism, the most archaic mental travel. While the idea of poetry as a spiral flow, with simultaneous interpenetrations of what we call perception, intuition, feeling, and imagination, is too demanding for most writers, I think it may be one key in enabling a poet to write a poetry that is responsible for all of his experience.

Most poetries prized in any particular decade perform conventional pieties and thus unwittingly bolster the position of someone like Bloom. Given what the American government has been doing throughout the world from the end of World War II on, the American subconscious, into which news spatters daily, is now, more than ever, a roily swamp, at once chaotic and irrationally organized. The fate of American Indians and African-Americans is at the base of this complex. There is a whole new poetry to be written by Americans that pits our present-day national and international situation against these poisoned historical cores.

There are, in 2006, a significant number of poets doing inventive work in their mature years and young poets who look as if they are capable of contributing a fresh body of work. The first names who come to mind in this regard are Adrienne Rich, Robin Blaser, Gary Snyder, Jerome Rothenberg, Jayne Cortez, Robert Kelly, Rachel Blau du Plessis, Ron Silliman, Ron Padgett, Paul Hoover, Nathaniel Mackey, Michael Palmer, Lindsay Hill, John Olson, Pierre Joris, Andrew Joron, Forrest Gander, Will Alexander, Wang Ping, Christine Hume, Linh Dinh, Jeff Clark, Cathy Wagner, Susan Briante, Kristin Prevallet, and Ariana Reines.

I should also mention the poetry of the late Tory Dent and Gustaf Sobin, and the extraordinary English poet, Peter Redgrove, who died at 71 in June, 2003, whose writing is hardly known here. In France, the poet Michel Deguy continues to expound a multifaceted, philosophical poetics (a recent translation of a major Deguy work, Recumbents, by Wilson Baldridge, received the 2006 PEN Poetry Translation Award). Recently, I discovered the writing of the Spanish transplant, Gerardo Deniz, who has lived in Mexico City for many years (in Monica de la Torres' fine translation, poemas / poems). Also recently Joannes Göransson sent me his translation of a young Swedish poet, Aase Berg (Remainland), some of whose linguistic deftness evokes the late poetry of Paul Celan.

Civil poetry in the 20th century is associated with the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini. In his Foreword to a selection of Pasolini poems translated by Norman MacAfee (Vintage, 1982), Enzo Siciliano writes: "Civil poetry is poetry in which abstract subject matter--'moral' and 'religious' in Dante's case, and as we know, these can also instantly turn 'political'--becomes fused with an entirely personal sensibility, which absorbs every detail, every shading of inspiration into itself and into the transformation of its content into poetic language."

Without the qualifying clause, Siciliano's statement could refer to Stevens or Ashbery as well as to the Pasolini of "Gramsci's Ashes" (recently retranslated by Michelle Cliff in NO: A Journal of the Arts #4). As I see it, the "fusion" involves the figure of the writer against the ground of society. Or the figure of the writer as a kind of moving target in relentless evasion of those forces society uses to disarticulate him: self-censorship as well as editorial censorship, the shying away from materials that disturb a predictable and aesthetically-acceptable response.

For example, I wanted, in my poem "The Assault," to get the possible government conspiracy on 9/11 into the poetic record. Beyond that, I seek to build an atmosphere of political awareness into much of what I write--to write a civil poetry as a citizen-writer, something I have done for several decades. I want a sense of my own time, on a national/international register, to permeate my language. One way that the American poem can remain human, in a social sense, as our government expands its imperialist domination in the world (and space) is for the poet to assimilate and imagine the monstrous interventionist framework within which, as a tiny and impotent god, he mixes his "potions" and proceeds. Siciliano's "fusion" also involves, in my sense of it, not only a porous mixing of perceived and imagined materials, but keeping an experimental poetics intact when addressing civil concerns. The European poetry of César Vallejo reverberates with a social awareness contoured and spiked with associationally arresting metaphors.

In the fall of 2004, I spent a month at the Rockefeller Study Center on Lake Como, Italy, studying a large reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," the most challenging painting I have studied. My 60 page improvisations on the triptych, in prose and poetry, tip it, at points, into the 21st century so that, for example, the American assault on Fallujah is there as a disaster of Bosch's Apocalypse. In a section called "Fantasia off the Force of Bosch," I sense the presence of Bush and Rumsfeld in the apocalyptic mayhem to be found in the triptych's right-hand panel:

                  The intoxications of immortality
                  light up the switchboards when
                  another is killed, for the furnaces of “immortality”
                  are fed with the bodies of people who look a little different than us.
                  How does this work, Donald Rumsfeld?
                  Does your Reaper retreat an inch
                  for each sixteen-year-old Iraqi boy snipered
                  while out looking for food?
                  Men in power are living pyramids of slaughtered others.
                  Bush is a grinning mountain of carnage.
                  The discrepancy between literal suit and
                  psychic veracity is nasty to contemplate.
                  Imagine a flea with a howitzer shadow
                  or a worm whose shade is an entire city ablaze.

Reading these lines today, I realize that "living pyramids of slaughtered others" evokes the tortured body piles of Abu Ghraib.

Being caught up in an agenda can be as undermining to imagination as self-censorship. Traditionally, so-called "political poetry" tends to express a formed, and thus predictable, viewpoint that the writer locks in place as a poem. Such in effect displaces an imaginative openness to spontaneity and notions, images, associations that come up during writing. If I am going to use George Bush in a poem I have to figure out ways to imagine him and to absorb him into my sensibility. This is close to thinking of him as a text that must be translated. Bush creates his own reality (at odds with what we might call real reality) which millions of Americans induct at the same time its repercussions undermine their lives. Bush's "language" is the collision between what he proposes to be and what he actually legitimizes.

Or let me put the problem this way: how get Colin Powell's language odor into the poem? How layer the lies, the distorted research, the sighs and implications, the black uncle in a My Lai stained uniform, his heil-thin integrity, his good duped intentions, the extent to which slavery is still in his saliva--how ladle all of this, not into proclamation, but into the poem's very climate, into its feelers, its tonalities?

Visually, Botero's recent bringing of tortured Iraqis in the Abu-Ghraib prison into his invented pantheon of the obese (which is starting to look like "real reality" in America) strikes me as a valid example of such translation. And of course, for several decades, until his death in 2004, Leon Golub had been envisioning American power as the dirty work carried out by mercenaries and "white squads" in Central America.

Another of the responsibilities of the poet is to believe that writing remains significant, that significance is not the enemy. The enemy is the eternal game of sticking our heads in the sand and pretending not to know what is going on. In an essay in American Letters and Commentary, Ann Lauterbach stated that her response to 9/11 was to stop watching television--a doubly curious statement, since mainstream television has stopped watching life as we know it to be. 9/11 opened up not merely a can of worms but a silo of hydras, and the event itself should drive every artist crazy with curiosity not only about the "official" account of the destruction of the World Trade Center but about what has been done in our name to make them, apparently, assault us. I think these are the initial commands. One then might ask: why do we now have people in our government who would sacrifice thousands of American and Afghan and Iraqi lives for greedy, global ambitions the repercussions of which they themselves do not understand? I think that one has to face such commands and to risk being overwhelmed by what one finds out during one's investigations. Then one must assimilate them, and, as Vallejo writes, "see if they fit in one's own size.

It is wrong to believe that an event like 9/11 provides justification for a poetry that avoids meaning, or to believe that 9/11 changed the world just because it happened to us. Of course those directly impacted by the assault on the WTC and the Pentagon must grieve and work through their grief, but the rest of us should not feel sorry for ourselves. If anything 9/11 should make us investigate our foreign policy of the past 50 years. Relevant to the Middle East: over the past 20 years, we have shot down Libyan and Iranian planes, bombed Beirut, created a Vietnam situation for the Russians in Afghanistan, aided both Iran and Iraq during their war in the 1980s so as to maximize the damage each side could inflict on the other, bombed Iraq, imposed grueling sanctions upon its population, blown up a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan (that as I understand it provided half of that impoverished nation's medicine), established a hi-tech military presence in Islam's holiest land, Saudi Arabia, and given 10 million dollars a day to Israel. The quality of life in Palestine has been so ruined that it is no wonder that many of the humiliated and the abject young there, as well as the educated, can only think of themselves as ammunition.

9/11 aside (if that is possible, at this time), responsibility has to involve responsible innovation, a poetry that pushes into the known and the unknown, making not non-sequitur nonsense but uncommon sense. Wyndham Lewis's view of the basis of art is still true: that of clearing new ground in consciousness. Blake's "Without contraries there is no progression" likewise still holds. Unless poets stave off and admit at the same time, keeping open to the beauty and the horror of the world while remaining available to what their perceptivity and subconscious provide them with, one is pretty much left with an unending "official verse culture." Here I think of a statement by Paul Tillich: "A life process is the more powerful, the more non-being it can include in its self-affirmation, without being destroyed by it." Affirmation is only viable when it survives repeated immersions in negation. At the point one says "I am an American artist" one finds oneself facing the daily news in which what is true and what is untrue, what is necessary and what is human, blur into an almost imponderable palimpsest. Such is outer negation with its acidic rivulets of guilt. Inner negation, far more complex, plays the abyss off against one's own hedged gestation and decay.

Poets do not lack an audience because what they write is difficult and demanding--they lack an audience because the poetry that is published and reviewed in mass media publications is often superficial and seldom innovative. People who read The New Yorker for its terrific investigative reports, its witty movie reviews, and its often excellent fiction, must find much of the poetry in its pages boring, rococo entertainment. My notion here is that very few readers of complex fiction and commentary seek out poetry because they have a limited view of what it can be, based on examples or reviews of it in publications like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, or The Nation--which often publish sophisticated and pertinent material in other areas they address but not poetry.

In response to my complaint about the pathetic poetry reviewing policy of The New York Review of Books, a young poet friend wrote to me: "But who reads it for poetry reviews?"

Indeed, since there is so little real news there, as far as poetry goes. This raises the question, however, of what to read for news of or incisive commentary on complex collections of contemporary poetry. First-rate poetry magazines today, like New American Writing and No: A Journal of the Arts, do not publish reviews. The American Poetry Review, with its huge circulation, publishes some commentary on books and authors, but no reviews. Ron Silliman's blog and John Trantor's on line Jacket magazine (based in Australia) review a range of books, including contemporary poetry. Silliman's Argus-eyed daily also includes whatever dance, music, and films the editor is attending to, and his daily bulletins and commentaries remind me more of an arts newspaper than a journal. While I find things to gripe about in the way that Silliman categorizes, extols and dismisses (he tends to peck about the edges of contemporary poetry, sniffing out small issues to dispute or affirm, rather than offering in-depth perspectives on accomplished and demanding works) his blog is the best vehicle we have at this point for news on what is new. And he is a more engaged editor than John Trantor. While I appreciate the international range of Jacket, the magazine lacks an argued vision of poetry as well as a core group of savvy reviewers. Saying this I recall the excitement with which I would open new issues of Kulchur in the 1960s, eager to see what Gilbert Sorrentino or Leroi Jones had to say in their pungent reviews, which included bristling polemic as well as praise.

Earlier I spoke of the increased irrational turmoil in all of our minds. There is palpable guilt everywhere, and we poets must make ourselves conscious of it. If we feel that we must express it, we should work such out in our poetry and not thoughtlessly take it out on others in vicious literary commentary. Not too long ago, Peter Campion, in Poetry magazine, ended a trashing of Jeff Clark's book, Music and Suicide, with the following: "Clark writes and publishes these poems for the same reason that Kim Jong Il shoots missiles over Japan: simply because he can." It is of course outrageous that Poetry would publish such crap, in which a writer with whom the critic disagrees is compared to a Stalinist dictator. Of course, who knows, Mr. Campion might say the same thing under any circumstances. But the times are ripe for a lot of projected, misplaced bile...

We might ask with Nietzsche: "Are we forced to be conquerors because we no longer have a country we want to remain in?"

Writing on Henri Michaux's art in 1977, Octavio Paz stated: "His paintings are not so much windows that allow us to see another reality as they are holes and openings made by powers on the other side." At 70 now, I continue to work on accessing one kind of the language I hear in dreams, a kind of magnificent nonsense, non-English English which, in the dream, makes perfect uncommon sense! Such language is super-egoless, and potentially the presence of that "other side" that Michaux seems to have visualized. I believe this language relates to the language-twisting of shamans, and that it is still writhing, in our subconscious, on the ground floor of poetry. However, like all dreams, it does not transfer directly, effectively, into writing. The dream mind is a rapt spectator which does not reflect on the meaning of what it is beholding or hearing. The same can probably be said about shamanic trance. Thus, if in trance, the poet has to keep a shit-detector active, a bird's-eye critical view, that injects invention with responsibility.

When not dreaming these days, the American artist is confronted by a plethora of new information daily on the misdeeds of the Bush administration at home and abroad. Unlike the Vietnam era, there are no artistic mobilization units like "Angry Arts." One is on one's own. To really follow the news as the writers Eliot Weinberger and Mark Crispin Miller have done is a fulltime job. Aesthetically, one of the most vexing aspects of the present administration is that an artist is forced to give up a lot of traditionally creative time just to keep up on new revelations about the war, torture, renditions, the Patriot Act and the 2004 national election (with probable voting irregularities in 2008 now on the horizon), or to disregard this political nightmare completely, and subsequently live as an artist in one's own little bubble. And if one does not go the bubble route, the more roguery one uncovers or tunes in to, the more one may confront extreme emotions of rage, despair, and bafflement. The news has become an unfollowable roadmap of facts crisscrossing
opinions. I realize that one reason that I have written poems about art and artists over the past decade is that, complex as Bosch, Caravaggio and Golub may be, one is at least on firm ground facing their imaginative elaborations.

It would now seem that with the 20th century re-discovery of the Ice Age painted caves in Europe, we have made contact with what could be thought of as the back wall of image-making which, especially in its hybrid aspects, evokes mental travel and thus the roots of poetry. While it is possible that there are even older imaginative materials in Africa and Australia, the chances are that researchers will not uncover on these continents the ancient creative range and quality to be found in such caves as Lascaux and Chauvet. While it is thrilling to know where one is ultimately based as an artist, it is equally horrifying to realize that one may also be witnessing the ecological destruction of the fundament that made art possible in the first place. As these massive vectors shift into place and cross, a disturbance in my mind challenges the convictions that I held as a young man: that the most meaningful way I knew of to deal with myself and with the world was to explore poetry and to write it. This is not a back-handed way of suggesting that poetry or art at large is dead, but a recognition that I may be of the first generation to be witness to one of the recuperations of the roots of culture and to the devastations that may make culture as we know it today a thing of the past. Rather than resonating with the magnificent aurochses of Lascaux, the abyss that opens before us today declares itself through the potential extinction of frogs and honey bees, and the accompanying sensations of the empty and lifeless space that humankind has always suspected fueled depth and its analogues of loss.


An earlier version of this essay appeared at AlligatorZine.