Monday, April 18, 2005

Essential Reading?

Ron Silliman has an interesting piece on his blog this morning about Peter Davis’ Poet’s Bookshelf, an anthology of various poets’ lists of “5-10 books that have been most ‘essential’ to you, as a poet.” Silliman says the 13 living poets listed most often on other poets’ “essential” lists are John Ashbery, Edward Field, Charles Simic, James Tate, Louise Glück, W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Forché, Lyn Hejinian, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Galway Kinnell, Michael Ondaatje, and himself.

Personally I’m rather happily surprised to see Michael Ondaatje on the list, and if there’s one poet I’m surprised to see not on the list, I guess it would be Anne Carson, but of course there are plenty of others (Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich) whose absence is noticeable. Anyway, Silliman makes this interesting observation:

“This actually points to a curious phenomenon that pops up in the book—one that I suspect is ‘real,’ i.e. true of a broader spectrum of poet/readers than one can find in this book. SoQ poets are often apt to include one–sometimes more—post-avant types in their reading lists of ‘essential books.’ But post-avant poets virtually never list SoQ poets in theirs.

“That can be interpreted variously, all the way from ‘SoQ poets are forced to concede that post-avant writing includes some of the most compelling poetry composed in the past century’ to ‘post-avant poets are far more cliquish & closed-off to a wide range of writing than are SoQ folks.’ But what if the real answer is more both/and rather than either/or?”

Not surprisingly, I tend toward the “far more cliquish” interpretation, although certainly both may be true. But can it also be true that “post-avant” poets are blind to the power of the poetry of Merwin, of Glück, of Kinnell? Or perhaps they just don’t want to call them “essential.”


David Koehn said...

It's all pretty understandable.

I'd bet very few folks love Shostakovich and the Pixies.

Though I'd rather have learned more about the post that Silliman took down. Apparently there was a drink spilling fisticuffs at some poetry reading in SF. I know now more though I wish I did. I'd love to hear the gossip if anyone knows anything.

Robert said...

Yeah but he's arguing that Shostakovich fans are more likely to be open to the Pixies than Pixies fans to Shostakovich (or maybe it's the reverse--I'm getting confused). I know nothing about the fisticuffs, though.

David Koehn said...

Yes. Of course Shostakovich fans are more likely to be open to the Pixies than vice versa. I don't know how I can prove this but statitistically speaking this seems like a no brainer.

I'd bet I could easily find 50 Pixies fans to put in a room that have never heard of Shostakovich. But I'd bet I'd be hard pressed to find 50 Shostakovich fans that have never heard of the Pixies.

True? Or am I skewed here?

Robert said...

That definitely makes sense, but I wonder if the analogy is not so much to Shostakovich as to, uh, the Beatles, say. Pixies fans may not like the Beatles but they've heard of the Beatles. Lyn Hejinian fans may not like Galway Kinnell but they've heard of Galway Kinnell, and would probably say they're all too familiar with "that kind" of poetry. I'm not sure it's true that Kinnell fans are any more open to Hejinian than Hejinian fans are to Kinnell, but maybe so.

Maybe there are two kinds of poets: opinionated and non-opinionated, and maybe the "avant-garde" tends to be opinionated. Keats talked about how he felt like a chameleon, without any opinions of his own.

Diane K. Martin said...

Guys, guys, can we get another analogy here? I've heard of Shostakovich, but I don't know if I heard him. I mean, I haven't a clue what a Shotakovich piece sounds like. And I never heard of the Pixies. So I'm an ignoramus when it comes to music. Can we get back to poetry?

I still don't know what the discussion is about. I for one like individual poets, even individual poems, not whole schools wholesale. And I suspect most people are like me.

Robert said...

Hi, Diane, it might be a better world if more people were like you, but I'm not sure they are. Don't you think most poets do have a knee-jerk negative reaction to whatever kind of poetry it is they can't stand? "I hate that 'academic' crap" (e.g. anything that makes allusions to Greek gods) or "I hate that 'spoken word' crap" or "I hate that 'abstract incoherent' crap" (i.e. the entire world of 'experimental' poetry) or "I hate that 'sentimental' crap" (i.e. the entire world of mainstream American poetry) or "I hate that 'formalist' crap" or .... It makes sense that the "avant-garde" would be particularly aggressive, because they need to hack down the giants of the past to make room for themselves. The "deep image" poets of the 1960s were pretty ruthless about attacking poets like, say, Elizabeth Bishop (as "shallow image poets," I guess), and they were attacked in their turn.

Robert said...

Hmm, looking back on my comment, I think I totally failed to respond to your question, Diane, about "what the discussion is about." I guess what I'm really wondering is to what extent "open-mindedness" is a good thing and at what point it becomes self-destructive. I imagine it this way: Would it have been a good thing or a bad thing if, in 1860, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson had sat down together at a workshop in Iowa City (conducted by, say, Emerson) and tried to learn from each other? Would they have learned or would they have ruined each other as poets?

Diane K. Martin said...

Well, sure, it would be counter-productive for Emily and Walt to compromise--it would be like those recycled paints they get by mixing everything in that's around--a sort of dull beige. But that isn't to say that you can't pick up a Dickinson poem and appreciate it and a minute later pick up a Whitman poem and appreciate that.

What I do think is harmful is not to read what's there--to say this is my kind of thing and that is not and not read it. But maybe I'm not getting the discussion still.

NancyNi said...

Just to let you all know I have finally arrived as a member of this blog and wonder which of these poets could have survived the Earthlink Spam Blocker interrogation rooms that have erstwhile kept Diane's invitations from arrival in my inbox. Perhaps the poet "himself"?