To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
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

Monday, June 29, 2009

Poetry in the 1950s As a Global Awakening: A Recollection & Reconstruction, Part Two: Our Life in the World


A Bird’s Eye View of Poems for the Millennium, volume 2

What we knew then, much of it obscured by the anti-modernist turn at the beginning of the decade, was imperative for us to know. What we didn't know - obscured by our own breakthroughs as American poets [pre-Viet Nam] - was how much else was coming into presence then or had emerged, even in this most American of centuries & moments, without our blessings. Over the last few years I've had a chance - working with Pierre Joris - to go over the terrain of the immediate postwar decades (1945 to 1960, the years of the New American Poetry) as the opening wedge for the second volume of Poems for the Millennium, the "global" anthology that's been a central work of ours since 1990. This is in some sense fired by Pierre's nomadism, as well as my own: our sense of a community / a commonality of poets that both of us have known (& continue to know) across whatever boundaries. Being far enough away from the fifties now to have a wider view of the terrain, I see the "new American poetry" that so much defined us as itself a part (a key part, sure, but still a part) of a worldwide series of moves & movements that took the political, visionary, & formal remnants of an earlier modernism & reshaped & reinvented [extended] them in the only time allowed to us on earth. I believe at the same time that such a view is both truer to the facts & provides a richer source & context for later American postmodernisms (that of the Language Poets, say) & for aspects of the experimental American '50s and '60s neglected in both earlier & later versions of The New American Poetry.

I would like to give you, then, a sense of the configuration, the reconfiguration we've attempted - both to see how the New American Poetry fits into that larger frame & how little of it was evident to us then. The first volume - for those who haven't seen it - covered a range of work "from fin-de-siècle to negritude" - from Mallarmé's Coup de dès of 1897 to work appearing in the midst of World War II. The division was into three "galleries" of individual poets & six sections devoted to the movements that typified the time but have been deliberately omitted or reduced to footnotes in most other gatherings of poetry. (These were, in order, Futurism [both Russian & Italian], Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, the "Objectivists," & Negritude.) In doing this we were not being original (or even "ornery" in some sense) but asserting what for many of us was the actual configuration of that time. We were also setting the stage for the second volume – the present world in which we live & work.

With that second volume - from World War II to the present [& beyond] - there is no completion & the omissions & gaps are overwhelming. Having said that, I would like to go over the disposition of the contents - some portion of them - to give a view of American poetry & poets interspersed with sometimes equally experimental, sometimes more experimental poets from elsewhere. (For this reason, with America as the point of departure, the amount of U.S. poetry is & remains disproportionate.) Over all, the question of inclusion & exclusion, which can never be properly resolved, was less important with regard to individuals & movements - more with regard to the possibilities of poetry now being opened. There are two galleries this time around, the first & earlier consisting largely of poets who were or became active during the 1940s and 1950s - the subject in short of this gathering. And within these we've imbedded a number of groupings - somewhat like the movements of the previous volume, but often more localized or more restricted to moves in poetry rather than across the arts (although that poetry may itself show real amalgams with the plastic arts or music). After I give you a sense of what the juxtapositions here feel like, I'll end it with a reading from those clusters or mini-movements, which are contemporaneous with the New American Poetry or, in several instances, come before it. The point is not to trace influences from group to group or poet to poet (largely absent till the later 1950s/early 1960s) but to set out a range of responses to the postwar (cold war) era and the wars & holocausts that lay behind it.

The first gallery, then, consists of work from some fifty poets - from Marie Luise Kaschnitz born in 1901 to Gary Snyder born in 1930. It follows a section of poems by some of the poets who appeared in the earlier volume but whose postwar poetry - often "maximal" as Olson would have had it) showed a continuity between the century's two halves; namely Stein, Stevens, Joyce, Williams, Pound, H.D., MacDiarmid, Breton, Michaux, Zukofsky, Neruda, Ekelöf, Rukeyser, Césaire. (You will note already the gaps & omissions that any of us could point to.) But it's in the contents of the first gallery as such that the richness of the time begins to show itself - a richness measured in fact by its unboundedness. In sequence, then, the first twenty to appear run like this: Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Vladimir Holan, Samuel Beckett, George Oppen, Yannis Ritsos, Charles Olson, Edmond Jabès, John Cage, Octavio Paz, Bert Schierbeck, Robert Duncan, Yoshioku Minoru, Paul Celan, Mohammed Dib, Amos Tutuola, Helmut Heissenbüttel, Jackson Mac Low, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vasko Popa, & Denise Levertov. It is a configuration of contemporaries - ours - & of possibilities - ours also - with regard to which the vaunted American dominance (forty years later) seems a wild exaggeration. That we may feel a kinship (& sometimes open friendship) with all those named is a further point worth making.

Along with poets such as these - & there were, clearly, many more – groupings had begun to appear with some resemblance to the pre-war movements. Some were confined to a single place & language or to a set of places, others (the exceptions) to a sweep that cut more boldly than their predecesors across divides of place & nation. Six of the ones we've chosen were already active in the 1950s, two as far back as the later 1940s. The thrust in all was toward a rupture with the past, or a renewal of the interrupted ruptures of the pre-war avant- gardes, now made more urgent by the war & by a sense of dangers & repressions still persisting. As with those predecessors the urgency went back into the poem itself (the way the poem was made) - a point reiterated in those years (again, again) by William Carlos Williams. In America his rage for a new measure dominated - in Olson's sense of a projective verse, in Ginsberg's citation that "when the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake." The openings elsewhere - as among American avantgardists of another stripe [Mac Low & Cage immediate examples] - took different but equally dynamic turns.

As particular groupings - clusters - topoi - take the following.

The Wiener Gruppe [Vienna Group] kicks off in 1953, with the founding by H[ans] C[arl] Artmann of "a basement theater in Vienna (die kleine schaubühne) for 'macabre feasts, poetic acts', and pranks like black masses, an evening 'with illuminated birdcages,' or one 'in memoriam to a crucified glove'." (Rosmarie Waldrop) Early participants in the group were Artmann, along with Gerhard Rühm, Konrad Bayer, Oswald Wiener, and Friederich Achleitner, joined in 1957 by Ernst Jandl and Friederike Mayröcker. The range of work included a renewed exploration of visual and sound poetry and a high degree of vernacular language play, including works in Viennese dialect, "not in order to mimic speech or render local color" - writes Rosmarie Waldrop - "but as a reservoir of sounds and expressions ... that exploit the tension between the spoken immediacy and the outlandish look of the dialect words when spelled out on the page." Writes h.c. artmann in his 1953 eight point proclamation of the poetic act: "there is a premise which is unassailable, namely that one can be a poet even without ever having written or spoken a single word. / however the prerequisite is the more or less felt wish to act poetically. the alogical gesture can itself be performed such that it is raised to an act of outstanding beauty. ineed to poetry. beauty is however a concept which is here allowed a greatly enlarged field of play." And then, as poem, the following in Viennese dialect (translated by me into I don't know what kind of New York thing from childhood):

[reads, ah rosie," page 117]:

Or this [example of "new sentence," say] - in prose from Konrad Bayer:

[reads "The White and the Black Bones," page 126]:

A second grouping, the self-proclaimed "Tammuzi poets," consisted of writers from Lebanon and Syria, who in 1956 came together around the Beirut magazine Shi'r [Poetry] - one of the key instances, in the two decades following World War II, of third-world liberation movements with their well-known cultural/political concommitants: the simultaneous demands for revolution & tradition. As poets of the Arabic language the Tammuzis not only proclaimed a relation to a deep tradition (an ancient order newly rediscovered) but spelled out a further struggle (a second liberation from within the culture & the language) to create "a poetry that establishes another concept of identity - one that is pluralist, open, agnostic, and secular." (Thus: the Syrian poet Adonis [born Ali Ahmed Said] on "poetry & apoetical culture.")

And this from the Lebanese poet Unsi al-Hajj in Pierre Joris's English version:

[reads "The Charlatan," page 199]:

A still earlier movement - & one which would have a curious repercussion at a later time - was that of the artists & poets who came together, starting as early as 1948, under the coined name COBRA. "The choice of a name whicis not an ism, but that of an animal," said poet-artist Christian Dotremont in retrospect, & added: "We were in fact against all isms, against all that implied a system." The cities in which they worked - & whose opening letters formed their name - were Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam; the participants themselves, mostly younger artists & poets, witnesses to mid-ecntury war & holocaust from which, in 1948, Europe was just emerging. Short-lived as the "movement" was (it would dissolve by 1951), it was to that degree "international," with links - often reiterated - to other postwar groups [Situationism, Lettrism] that sought new ways of life through art. An aspect of their project was therefore political & social - a belief in the transformation of art itself as instrument (in its experimental modes) of even larger transformations. In a move reminiscent of earlier Dadaist disgust, Cobra artists turned from "Western Classical c ulture," not so much to so-called "primitive" art (too often conflated with the "Non-Western") as to the art of children, say, & the "outsider art" of the insane. The result was a commitment to a rawness & openness of form ("we never permit ourselves to finish a poem" - C.Dotremont) & for many of them a further "erasure of the boundaries between the arts" (in the words of a major forerunner, Kurt Schwitters). Artists & poets worked together or crossed into each others' domains, "committed to marrying poetry with the plastic arts" (J.C. Lambert), or from a recognition (thus: Asger Jorn) that "painting and writing are the same."

Along with Jorn & Dotremont, the principal Cobra artists were the Belgian artist-writers Pierre Alechinsky and Hugo Claus & the Dutch experimentalists Lucebert, Constant, Gerrit Kouwenaar, & to a lesser degree Bert Schierbeck. A further connection - largely through the somewhat older Jorn - is to the Internationale Situationiste & to a lesser degree to the Internationale Lettriste of the 1950s/60s. The following is by Pierre Alechinsky, working here as writer/poet.

[reads "Ad Miro," page 245]

What we have here is a language poetry - a poetry of diverse experimental means - two decades or more before a group of American poets would offer up their work as "language poetry" per se. And there is also a push in Cobra toward a coincidence of word & image that was being taken in new directions by the (so-called) Concrete Poets of the 1950s/60s - one of the few movements (like the closely related Fluxus) with a genuinely international standing. That many of its works could readily cross borders was in part a function of their stripped-down (= minimalist) nature: a reduction of the poem to a sign (often in bold typography, sometimes in color) that typically eliminated syntax & even words themselves, thus offered up an image open to interpretation (reading) at a single glance. In a larger sense the same mind-set that produced concrete poetry tied it not only to other (older) forms of visual poetry but – more surprisingly perhaps - to radical forms of sound poetry & textsound performances. Practitioners were also drawn to "process poetry" & to experiments with reduplicating verbal patterns or, as the semiotics of the work developed, to pieces that dispensed with words in favor of a purely visual, often photographic, image.

The following, however divergent from the concrete norm, is by the great American conretist Emmett Williams: a version of The Red Chair (circa 1960) - here set for three voices.

[reads "The Red Chair," page 210]

The last grouping I'll mention is Japanese, & what I'll do here is read the opening paragraph of our introduction to the grouping in Millennium. (The Beats are also included, by the way, but no need to tell you about them; & still other movements are represented by scattered individual poets.)

[reads from "The Arechi Poets & After," page 539, as follows:]

"Against the view - Japanese & Western both - of a traditional Japanese poetry defined by long-established canons of brevity & refinement, the work of post-World War II generations shows an enormity of means & voice that turns the old ways upside down (or seems to), while bringing those ways simultaneously into the present. Less resembling the mode of haiku and tanka (waka) - for those of us who view them from the outside - fthan that of a ghost-ridden poets' theater like the traditional Noh or contemporary Buthoh, their work becomes 'a celebration in darkness which is at once weird and refined, scatalogical and lofty, comic and serious.' (Thus: Yoshioka Minoru, early among the 'postwar' poets.) As with other new poetries, that of Japan's 'postwar' poets moves increasingly toward the demotic (colloquial, everyday), bringing in a range of new - often foreign - vocabularies & imageries, along with a mix of class & gender usages (long separated into discreet social levels) & a 'violation of grammatical norms carried to the point of linguistic rapine' (Roy Andrew Miller). On their literary side - Miller again - the resultant poems display a 'stripping-away of all the customary decorations and embellishments of traditional Japanese poetics' toward a 'naked language' (hadaka no gengo) & 'what may very well be their single most salient structural feature - the great freedom and variety displayed by
the poetic line that they employ.'"

The following are examples, then, of how the Japanese "postwar" could function.

[reads from Takahashi, Shiraishi, et al., pages 541-557]

CONCLUSION. The point of this presentation is retrospective. It is not a point I would have made – or would easily have made - during the period itself. I understood that it was necessary at that time for American poets to make what George Quasha and I called (in our 1970 anthology America a Prophecy) "a declaration of independence" for American poetry. We were speaking then of the ongoing domination & intrusion of British letters and language that had haunted us into the 1950s, but we were aware at the same time that our work if it was to mean, to signify in that special sense, would have to take its place in a "revolution of the word" that had developed as well outside the native shores. We also found - increasingly - that it was possible to join & to make common cause with poets & artists everywhere (not an everywhere which was nowhere but an everywhere made up of many somewheres). If Charles Olson spoke of a "new localism" that would feed our historic & poetic senses, it seems to me now that it is increasingly possible - & necessary - to speak of a new globalism. That this has its own complications is obvious as well, but it also has its own richness & for many of us it has brought a sense of personal & artistic relationships & collaborations that have grown up over the last half century. In light of this it is time (& long past time) to consider the 1950s - the decade of the postwar & the burgeoning cold war – as the time also of a global awakening, & to view (or re-view) the New American Poetry as part of a greater, still more electrifying symposium of the whole.

[The first part of this essay/talk appeared on Poetics & Polemics in the June 5th posting.]