To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, July 27, 2008

From The Medusa Interview: Anthologies, Modernism, & Postmodernism

[The interview, from which this short excerpt is taken, was conducted by Rodrigo Garcia Lopes for the Brazilian journal Medusa just as the last century was winding down. Translated & published in Portuguese, it hasn’t appeared in its original English version until now, but will be part of my forthcoming book of essays, Poetics & Polemics, scheduled for October publication in the University of Alabama Press’s Modern and Contemporary Poetics series. For which, see ]

In the last years, several anthologies of contemporary American poetry have appeared. "From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990"; "Postmodern Poetry: A Norton Anthology"; "The Heath Anthology of American Literature"; "American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators & Outsiders: An Anthology"; as well as yours (& Pierre Joris's) "Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry.” 1) Why is there this urge to anthologize at this end-of-century? 2) In a recent interview, Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos rejected the term "postmodern" as applied to poetry: "We are still in modernity", he says, "only if we accept that Mallarmé is already
post-modern in relation to Baudelaire". To critics such as Jameson, postmodernism points to an emerging & different cultural logic. Do you believe in a postmodernism in terms of poetry & poetics? 3) How would you place "Millennium" within the context of this debate?

There’s “this urge to anthologize,” as you put it, & then there’s my urge to anthologize, which has been going on for some time now. (Since the 1960s, to be exact.) And one can easily say that the end of a century – in this case a millennium as well – is always a retrospective occasion. But the three anthologies you mention in particular – Messerli’s, Hoover’s, & mine & Joris’s – also represent the public (re)appearance of a certain kind of work after a period of time in which that work was grossly under-represented. Earlier – in the 1960s & 1970s – there had been a blossoming of experimental & avant-garde gatherings – what I’ve spoken of elsewhere as manifesto-anthologies. The memorable ones from my perspective were Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, & the Fluxus-oriented Anthology edited by LaMonte Young with assistance from Jackson Mac Low. The success of the Allen book in particular encouraged larger publishers to open up to the new poetries – in my own case Doubleday & Random House, who were the publishers of Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, A Big Jewish Book, & America a Prophecy, all of them works within a single ten-year period. All of these books of course had a range outside the present, but the pasts that they represented were heavily colored by a sense of radical transformations of poetry & poetics, & were presented along with later & very experimental contemporary works. And in the 1980s – even as the larger publishers were pulling back from manifesto-anthologies – the so-called Language Poets were able to use the anthology as a means for manifesting & displaying their own new departures.

By the 1990s – against a backdrop of cautious instructional anthologies – an underground constituency had built up – a relatively large group of writers & readers in search of works to represent & to update the changes since the 1960s. While middle-ground poetry asserted itself, the take-over was far from complete, & many of us, who had come into some form of public place, found that we were able to act – Douglas Messerli through his own Sun & Moon Press, Paul Hoover through convincing the arch-middle stream publisher Norton that a big “postmodern” anthology was needed, & Pierre Joris & myself through an arrangement with a major university press. (To these I would also add Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry Since 1950, which appeared in both a North American & a Mexican [Spanish] edition.)

Let me say a little, then, about Poems for the Millennium before responding to your question on postmodernism.

Both Pierre & I had been living with a sense that what we valued most in the poetry of our time – what we shared with many others – had been almost systematically omitted from, or marginalized in, the anthologies & literary histories then current. This was true not only for the immediate present but for the near past – in shorthand terms, not only for “post”modernism but for the modernism that came before it. The great movements from the early part of the twentieth century, for example. While we cherished the work of individual, even solitary, poets, we wanted to bring the larger movements back into the picture: Dada & Surrealism, Futurism, African & Caribbean Negritude & the work of the North American “Objectivists.” These we felt were missing elsewhere, & with their absence, there was also missing a sense of poets engaged with their own self-definition as artists & as the makers of their own poetics. The mix of poetry & poetics was something we worked to bring out – & the sense of poetry being the center of a program, a proposition or a set of propositions working in the public sphere. And writing in the United States – now, at the turning of the century & the millennium – we also thought it vital to insist (again) on the global dimensions of modern & “post”modern poetry – following several decades of insistence on the centrality & hegemony of a presumed “American moment.”

In doing this we brought the distinction between “modernism” & “postmodernism” into the subtitle of our book. Here there was an advantage – chronologically – in distinguishing one half of the twentieth century from the other. But we made it clear – as I have always done, I think – that we saw a continuity between the two halves – sometimes oppositional, at other times developmental. My own first encounter with postmodernism (I will now leave out the quote marks around post) came in the mid-1970s – a written interview, much like this, with the critic & editor William Spanos. At that point, certainly, I felt myself to be a part of an ongoing poetic revolution – “post-nuttin” [post-nothing] as Jackson Mac Low once put it – & felt postmodernism to be a critic’s term & not a poet’s. (None of the poets I knew at that time spoke of themselves in any such way.) So I insisted – & would continue to insist – that postmodernism was an ill-defined term because it depended on a prior definition of modernism, & that such a prior definition was still up for grabs. Over the years – as postmodernism became a part of our time &, still undefined, a part of our vocabulary – I became more prone to use it & to use it as an extension in particular of one form of early modernism – the more experimental & overtly revolutionary – that was often in conflict with the institutionalized version still current then & now. And I came to believe that modernism & postmodernism were like some kind of twin birth – closely related & ready, always, to call each other’s birthright into question. For this I would frequently cite Tristan Tzara’s statement in the days of Dada: “You are mistaken if you take Dada for a modern school, or as a reaction against the schools of today. ... Dada is not at all modern. It is more in the nature of an almost Buddhist religion of indifference. ... The true Dadas are against Dada.”

That was postmodernism as I could use it, & that was postmodernism too in relation to your previous question. I believe that something like that was what De Campos had in mind when citing Mallarmé & Baudelaire; & I would want to extend it, say, to Tzara & Mallarmé, & then to the work of my own generation in relation to Tzara’s, & that of some further generation in relation to ours. Still, it would be better to do without those terms.