Monday, March 31, 2003

Mea culpa: I'm the mysterious back-channeling Bay Area blogger quoted in Ron Silliman's blog, sparking further hand-wringing about kids today. More precisely: "the problem of younger poets in particular lacking much sense of recent literary history." By the time this reached Jonathan Mayhew it was "younger poets in S.F. no longer know who Ron Silliman is" (certainly not what I said), and by the time it got to John Erhardt it had metastasized to "young poets don't know who Creeley and Levertov are." Sorry, Jim.

When I said that "younger poets" (a term I think we've all been using far too broadly of late) know Silliman primarily as his blog, I did not mean to suggest that such poets had no knowledge of literary history or of Silliman's place in it. Rather, I was trying to call attention to the particular role Silliman and his blog are playing in poetry right now, a question that seems to have become quite separate from the actual influence of Silliman's poetry. Jim's point that Silliman doesn't post his own poetry on his blog is well taken in this regard. There certainly are links to Silliman's EPC homepage and bibliography on his blog, but the blog itself by and large maintains the integrity of critical prose. I think this is an entirely legitimate role for a blog to play; but it gives the blog a tone of authority that other blogs don't have, for better or worse.

That said, I don't think it's surprising or even undesirable that poets are often more aware of the work of their peers and contemporaries than of "literary history," conventionally understood. Again, as I suggested in my last post, institutional and generational issues are rearing their heads. Any avant-garde is in part a rejection of canonical literary history, an assertion that there is a tradition other than the one generally taught by university professors. But if that avant-garde is at least partially successful in displacing some parts of the canon--witness the radical shift in the critical fortunes of Gertrude Stein over the past two decades--it risks becoming a canon itself, subject to challenge by later writers. At some point, one may find oneself having gone from the position of insurgent writer to teacher and critic, and as any teacher knows, once you have a classroom to run you have to pick a syllabus. And as any student knows, the tradition your teacher finds relevant may not be the same one you do. (I'm sure my grad-school colleagues who study the Renaissance--some of whom are also poets--would find Silliman's statement that the relevance of older literature "recedes with each preceding generation" appalling. Who's to say that reading Shakespeare is going to be less formative than reading Stein? Or that it's more important to be familiar with Denise Levertov than Bernadette Mayer?)

As Silliman rightly asks: how far back does one need to go? He says that for blogging purposes he "draws the line at the 1940s." Fair enough--that's about 20 years before Silliman began his writing career. So it would not be surprising that poets of the current decade might choose to draw the line at the 1970s. But honestly, I don't think many do. Perhaps their interests lie in traditions not yet explored.

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