Thursday, June 12, 2003

David: I didn't mean to suggest that the "avant-world" is workshop-free--it's obviously developed its own set of institutions--or free of the mysticisms of "I get it." But in my own college experience, at least, the workshop and the avant-garde were opposed: workshop was all Bishop and Lowell and "Strike to the terrible crystals," and I read Stein and Olson and Bernstein and Hejinian with a grad student in a tutorial. Was that work off-putting, even repellent at first? Sure. I threw Tender Buttons against my dorm room wall more than once. But the grad student I was reading with, Jacques Debrot (also a poet--where are you these days, Jacques?) was remarkably patient with me and convinced me that there was something interesting going on there, something really worth talking and thinking and arguing about.

Reading avant-garde writing made me feel I might have something to say about or even contribute to poetry. I felt I'd hit a glass ceiling in the workshop and Vendler world, one that seemed dominated by power and ambition and whose winners were dictated in advance. Maybe this is just to say that I was lousy at writing workshop lyric; if I look at what I was writing in college it was obviously trying to ape what my classmates were doing. I remember one workshop during my freshman year where at the end of the class we were each supposed to read something we liked. A lot of what I'd read in high school was Romantic poetry, so I picked Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind." The other students all got these funny looks on their faces, as if I'd put on a particularly embarrassing outfit, and even the instructor pronounced it "indulgent." The person who read after me--the son, I later discovered, of a famous English professor--read Frank O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter" and they loved it--it was a perfect riposte to my poor taste. I didn't even know who O'Hara was. Bishop, Plath, and Lowell were all people I had to discover in college. I couldn't talk about myself with that weird combination of ego and modesty that seemed required; I was either too much there or not there at all.

Also, honestly, the nerdy quality of avant-garde writing had its appeal; it seemed that it might have something to do with studying and thinking, which I felt comfortable with, and not just be based purely on my own taste or genius, which I had severe doubts about. It's probably why I ended up in grad school.

I'm realizing increasingly that it was very different for a lot of people, that some people were being assigned Stein and Language poetry in their workshops, and that for them this has become the Establishment itself, more needful of resistance than the old Official Verse Culture (e.g. Jordan's remark a while back that in his world Helen Vendler is not a critic).

David points out that he said "artwork," not "network." I wonder how much difference there is. We don't read poetry in a vacuum; we learn about it in classrooms and anthologies, in talking with friends, going to readings, browsing in bookstores of libraries. I guess I don't believe there is some way in which an artwork, all by itself, can restrict--or expand--social and political possibilities; ultimately, somebody's got to do something with it. Where I've ended up means that I find avant-garde works more able to allow me to do something more, to go on.

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