Wednesday, March 30, 2011



"The Hero and the Gunslinger: Did Robert Creeley and Ed Dorn lose their way in middle age?" by Aram Saroyan
(The Poetry Foundation, April 28, 2009)

Major and minor bullshit in the new (old) literary discourse

Given all the pressures toward success in the market of today’s neo-liberal cultural grotesqueries, it probably should not come as a surprise to find those old staid measures of literary excellence, major and minor, resurfacing. This, after all, is a time when the president of something called The Poetry Foundation can publicly declare that “the mind is a marketplace” and not be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail by raging poets. On the contrary, they line up in front of him with their hands out. It is a bit surprising, though, to find them popping up and circulating in the writing of poets who claim some historical relation to those poetries which sprang up in the 50’s and 60’s precisely as alternatives to the elegant formal constructions then dominating the academic imagination of what poetry’s limits were.

That was a time of astonishing creativity and bold gestures, whatever its historical limits and determinations—a time of immense potentialities arising out of a combat with the formal perfections and traditional concerns of the ruling academic verse. Chief among the targets in the temples of literary propriety was the notion of “the literary” itself and all the tight ass little distinctions used to buttress its walls against the threats of “inferior” and “minor” poetry. That would include concepts of “literary excellence,” for instance, and the categories that were mobilized to determine it. It would also include those old saws, “major” and “minor.”

Yet here they are once again popping up in the most surprising places. A recent addition to Facebook, for instance, calling itself “Tendencies: Poetics and Practice,” advertises itself as “a series of talks by major poets.” The title itself is interesting in the way it gives pride of place to something called “poetics” and relegates poetry to some vague generalization called “practice.” At least I assume that’s where the poetry is hiding. They never say. “Poetics” it seems, is the new sexy commodity in the intellectual market place of the English Department of the Soul, as Jack Spicer called it. Recently we were treated to news of a gathering called “Rethinking Poetics.” Once again, no mention of poetry, which seems to have gained a reputation as somehow being soft on spirit or something of that order. Soft, anyway. Not theoretical enough where theory (which is what is meant by “poetics”) provides a hard, material measure that can produce a practice—as well as occasions to have many conferences.

Practice, rather than poetry, comes up once again in the description of the series of talks by the major poets who will explore “the relationship between contemporary poetic manifesto, practice, queer theory, and pedagogy.” This rhetoric seems to want to appeal in some oblique way to the technological: manifestos, practice, theory, pedagogy, all this is part of the commensurable, the technical. Poetry, which is none of that, once again gets buried under the rubric of this thing called “practice,” a verbal gesture that links the mess of concepts here to some distant Marxist, New Left discourse about “theory” and “practice,” (or “praxis” for the really hard core) and so announces itself as suitably “political” in currently acceptable terms.

The fact that only “major” poets are to be allowed to address these tendencies is telling. Presumably “minor” poets, because of the minorness of their practice could not possibly be as profound as poets whose practice is deemed major. Or perhaps only major poets have the technical skills to adequately address the technical complexities of “practice.” One thing that the addition of “major” does in this context is introduce the specter (the specter haunting practice?) of aesthetics into the measure of the value of poetry. You can’t mobilize categories like major and a minor without some implicit method of aesthetic qualification that allows “impartial” (Kant called it “disinterested”) judgments of art.

In the case of Tendencies, the rhetoric is really minor bullshit. Their major poets are really just their friends, and, although the thoughtlessness of the rhetoric is annoying, it doesn’t seem to be much more than uncritical slogan mongering, another left over New Left practice from the 60’s and 70’s. In other examples of the renewal of this aesthetic rhetoric, the bullshit is more major as in last year’s dismissal of the work of Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn by Aram Saroyan for the Poetry Foundation in an echo of Richard Tillinghast’s 1983 claim in the Nation that “Creeley is not a major poet.”

After noting the deaths of all the poets he held dear as a youth in the 60’s—Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn—Saroyan proceeds to announce that now that we can see the shape of their careers, as he calls it, it is time to acknowledge that while Olson and Duncan are “major American poets,” Creeley and Dorn are not. “Career” is another word like “practice” that seems to be spreading like a cancer through the current discourses about poetry. Everyone is now assumed to have a “career,” to be making some progress through remunerative work toward a climax identified as success (or not). And then, presumably, retirement. A career. The problem with this “career” is that even as it attempts to “denaturalize” the choices writers make in the course of their writing lives, it locates itself as a “natural” and inevitable category of those lives. In the case of writers this would involve making choices and undertaking activities that would favorably position them in relation to success in the literary market place in the same way that a career in business leads to positioning for financial success in the economic market place. Many writers have such careers, no doubt Saroyan among them. Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn did not.

A lot of other words might be used to describe the relationship to poetry: calling, vocation, work, or even mission come to mind. Compared with career, these words tend to emphasize a different relationship to the process, one that is grounded not in some externally validated measure of success, but one that arises out of an inner necessity. It was Hegel, invoking an original relationship to art, who first pointed out that “art no longer provides for the satisfaction of those spiritual and intellectual needs that earlier peoples and times found in art and in art alone.” He was indicating the loss of art’s power to originate and shape the meaning of whole cultures, an interest that drove Charles Olson’s attention to the Mayans.

Olson also moves from a sense of art in relation to a kind of originality. This is not originality that has to do with something called novelty which plays to a market. Rather it has to do with reentering a relation to the process that locates some imaginary 0° of creative engagement, a creative engagement that is formative. The difference is that whereas Hegel was grieving a loss, Olson was celebrating a possibility arising out of the ruins. Art as career has to do with the imaginary boundaries of a common world limited to metaphorical extensions of the relations determined by the idea of business. The art that Hegel mourns—and after him, Heidegger, Arendt, Warburg, Agamben, Nancy, Cavell, and any other number of thinkers, including Creeley and Dorn—is actually obliterated by a world grounded in such thinking. For them, what we call art begins precisely at the point where this literary business ends, where it is destroyed.

It began there for Creeley as well as for Olson, as the ten volumes of their correspondence testify to over and over. Creeley had no interest in a literary life as it was understood when he was looking for a way forward with his work. “The light moves, so to speak,” he wrote in an essay called “Why Bother?”, “and those who see it have secured an ‘originality’ quite beyond that qualified by terms of personality or intent. . . . One can be famous in many magazines, but not in those given to the definition of what a poem right now, can be.” What a poem right now, can be, was his concern, and what a poem right now, can be is a real measure of the world, this common and fractured world of our tenuous experience. “What uses me is what I use and in that complex measure is the issue.”

Creeley was never after more than that. Not that he wasn’t delighted by the occasional prize, more so than, say, Olson or Dorn would have been. But he never aspired to some notion of literary excellence that constitutes the fundamental value of a culture of professional literature, a culture of men and women of good taste. He never compromised his understanding of what writing should do in order to make it more acceptable to the arbiters of literary excellence. He saw himself as part of a group of international writers who had moved writing into a new zone, and he felt that recognition was due for that work. Interestingly, Saroyan dates Creeley’s descent into the world of “minor” poetry with the publication of Pieces in 1969. This was Creeley’s third large collection (his fourth Scribner’s poetry book), and it is the site precisely where he set about destroying Literature fully for the first time. Saroyan represents the writing as “very short notations arranged down the pages with a kind of blithe insouciance, as if to say, I’m a poet and therefore this is poetry.” But in fact Creeley’s approach to the line in Pieces is no different than in his previous books, and some of the “pieces” in the book, such as “The Finger,” are as substantial, if not more so, than anything he had written to that time.

What differed was the blurring of the distinction of what was suitable for admission into the work and how that material was to be handled. In Pieces Creeley moved for the first time decisively beyond the limiting idea of “literary material,” what Tillinghast called “the large human issues that are traditionally associated with major poetry,” and Saroyan, drawing on Henry James (of all people), identifies as “felt life.” Pieces was revolutionary because it included a range of language—quotations, impressions, poems, prose, correspondence, dreams—that constituted the tissue of whatever that elusive thing is we call the real, pushing writing toward what a poem right now, can be. Dedicated to Louis Zukofsky and driven by a radical Emersonian commitment to the common, the music of Creeley’s writing is exquisitely composed out of the ordinary sounds that make up our lives, lives that are far more full of small issues (pieces) than of large ones, or that are unable to distinguish between them.

The destruction of art was central to what Olson and Creeley were pissing at, as Olson put it in a September 7, 1951 letter to Creeley. Dorn came at the problem from a different angle, but with a similar spirit. All of Dorn’s mature work, from Gunslinger on, located itself in relation to the possibilities of satire as an expression of his deep commitment against all forms of moralism, especially as they manifested themselves in the idiocies of American cultural and political life. He had no interest whatsoever in either “large human issues” or “the felt life,” which themselves were just moralistic standards of literary excellence hearkening back to the Fugitives and their frantic defense of Christian culture. But then, neither had Rimbaud or Artaud. Or for that matter, Pope or Dryden.

As Saroyan attempted to slip in “the felt life” as an a priori condition of literary excellence in relation to Creeley, he also attempted to slip in the “musical complexity and felicity of the Elizabethans” as the a priori condition in judging Dorn. The obvious absurdity here is that if anyone could lay claim to the musicality of the Elizabethans, it was Creeley, although he always approached that music through what he had learned from Zukofsky and Miles Davis, and always with a sense of playfulness and humour. Dorn was closer to Pope than to John Clare. What’s even more absurd is that in the process, Saroyan slips in a little Nancy Reagan just-say-no-to-drugs moralism as a way of “explaining” why Dorn “lost his music.” Absurd is probably not the right word in this case—sleazy opportunism is probably more accurate, but I’ll let it go.

The point is that Dorn also sought the destruction of art. “You see,” he told Barry Alpert in an interview, “I don’t want the poem to be susceptible or dependent on textual considerations which are external to it.” He was speaking of Gunslinger, and specifically of the appearance of Heidegger in the poem. This is the same Heidegger who, in conversation with Hegel, proposed that art as “truth telling” had been replaced by art as “aesthetic experience” and that in order to recover art as truth, art as aesthetic experience had to be destroyed. “I think the function of the poet in present-day America,” Dorn told Stephen Fredman, “. . . would be to stay as far as possible from all permanent relations to power. . . . [W]ho cares about the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize? Those are not by anyone’s reckoning important, one way or another.” Saroyan suggests this leads to a “hipster’s cutting, sarcastic instrument, often so elliptical as to be incomprehensible.” This is another way of noting that Dorn’s heretical embrace of satire was always antithetical to the given modes of versification, and so will always be alien to men of good taste like Saroyan. Saroyan writes from within the magisterial palaces of aesthetics while Dorn was never more than a high plains drifter.

This is not meant as some defense of Creeley and Dorn against the major bullshit of the new aestheticians. Their work stands for itself and will continue to be a source of energy and ideas for other writers looking for ways to rethink the possibilities of poetry outside the boundaries of literary power. What is of interest here is the way that old forms of hierarchical power armed with moralistic aesthetic categories have remounted their patrols at the boundaries of literature, and the way those categories, casually slip into the vocabularies of people who should know better. The openings that Olson, Creeley, Duncan, Dorn and so many others fought for have nothing to do with literature and everything to do with reclaiming the world. Creeley especially has suffered from the criticism that his work never engaged the political issues of his day, but in fact there is nothing more political in this day and age than reclaiming the world from the cultural banalities, political moralisms, and aesthetic idiocies that expunge experience in some universal lock-down of the imagination. Major and minor have nothing to do with it. It has everything to do with the “obligation to the divine,” as Dorn called it: “The obligation would be self-evident. It’s divining like science is divining.”


Works Cited
Creeley, Robert. Pieces. NY: Scribners, 1969.
–. “Why bother.” In The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkley: U of California P, 1989. Pp. 484-85.
Dorn, Edward. “An interview with Barry Alpert.” In Interviews. Ed. Donald Allen. Writing 38. Bolinas: Four Seasons Foundation, 1980. Pp. 7-35.
–. Road Testing the Language: an interview with Edward Dorn. {By Stephen Fredman]. Documents for New Poetry 1. San Diego: Archive for the New Poetry, University of California at San Diego, 1978.
Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts. Tr. T.M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Olson, Charles and Robert Creeley. The Complete Correspondence. Vol. 8. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1987.
Saroyan, Aram. “The Hero and the Gunslinger: Did Robert Creeley and Ed Dorn lose their way in middle age?” Poetry Foundation, April 28, 2009.
Tillinghast, Richard. “Yesterday’s Avant-garde.” The Nation, 19 November 1983: 501.


Michael Boughn is the author of numerous books including Iterations of the Diagonal, Dislocations in Crystal, One's own Mind (#4 in A Curriculum of the Soul), 22 Skidoo / SubTractions, and most recently from Book Thug in 2010, Cosmographia—a post-Lucretian faux micro-epic. With Victor Coleman, he edited Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book which was just published by the University of California Press. His first mystery novel, Business as Usual, is scheduled for publication in October. He lives in Toronto.


TC said...

Is this one of those blogs where nobody is supposed to say anything? One hopes not, because one would wish to note the evidence of Loyalty, rarely seen anywhere anymore much less in this "arena", and such a beautifully abiding form of Love, with much of Constancy in it, and as such completely out of date, of course.

As to who is major, and who is minor, or minor major, or major minor, or -- gods forbid! -- Major Major -- isn't there somewhere we were meant to look these things up? Some, like... list? Was it, what, 75 who were major in 84, or was it 84 in 75?

Who can or could or will or would ever wish to keep up. I esk you.

Is anybody out there?

poetowen said...

Most days I consider myself Major. You too, TC. I hereby assign you to the Majors. Welcome to the show!

TC said...

Thank you, O. And what a relief to know there is intelligent life in the universe, after all.

Was it Carl Sagan or Fran├žoise Sagan who first discovered that? I've forgotten. But then we've all forgotten. Almost everything.

But those dear departed dwindling Majors... it's good to feel them twinkling down upon us, from the deep night sky, reminding us that whatever they did to get into so much trouble, they did it all for love.

Owen, the last time RC and ED were in each other's living company was one night down at the Pub on Solano (yet). Perhaps knowing it would be the last time...

The evening was curiously tense, a waitress dropped a whole tray of tall glasses and in the shattering, a future was almost audible.

The depths of the majors must be protected, as privacies. I looked away, up into the irradiated night skies above the Street of the Futons.