Ron Silliman recently shut down his blog comment stream, because, as he says, "some people make a point of verbally attacking writers I praise on this blog simply because I’ve praised them" and that another poet "reading responses to a positive review on my blog [was] seriously discouraged...about poetry & writing."
Now I consider myself as sensitive as the next person when commenting about poetry. Poetry is something I care about, in an objective sense, probably as much as Silliman claims to. But I don't think anyone who weighs and examines and considers poetry critically, has a right to confuse that process with the promotion of the work of certain writers, because of the possible affect such critical regard might have, either on the reputations or lives of the writers being considered, or on the poetry community at large. Based on the commentary that flowered on various sites around the web following Silliman's announcement, it was clear that many shared his sentiment.
I had frequently posted critical responses to reviews Silliman had done on his blog site, at least partly to balance what I took to be opportunistic instances of excessive peer promotion there. As I've said earlier, "If [Silliman] chose to promote the work of someone for purely political reasons, I [argued] that, in effect, liking bad work for the right reason, was worse than acknowledging good work for the wrong reasons," especially when, "in Ron's case, the 'wrong reasons' would include giving aid and comfort to the enemy, even if the enemy was a very talented (and innocently non-partisan) writer. "
Well, now that Ron has closed down his comment stream, there's no way anyone can openly disagree with him without taking the matter elsewhere. Reviewing books online is a perfectly acceptable practice, one I've exercised before, and will do again. While I don't receive the steady stream of free review copies Ron does, I do have access to a broad range of new work in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In a recent post, Ron reviewed the work of Joseph Massey, a young poet living in Northern California. Massey's work is seen as an inheritor of a tradition of writing--a style--which begins with the Imagists (Pound), and proceeds through the Objectivists (both early and late), Williams, H.D., and culminates in the work of Creeley, Eigner and, finally, Kay Ryan (present Poet Laureate of the United States). Massey's work is seen in the context of an ongoing tradition of minimalism--tightly controlled, sharply seen, keenly felt and observed. Positive reviews of Massey's work have appeared in Jacket 38, and in two blogs, by Steven Fama [April 5, 2009], and Jack Boettcher [April 8, 2009].
In reviewing Massey's work--which I have now read [Areas of Fog, Lavergne, Tennessee: Shearsman Press, 2009], and having heard Silliman's (and others') admiring take on Massey--I want to offer a contrary reaction, of why I think his work has been led astray. I do so not to inflict harm on Mr. Massey, who seems, on the basis of this book, to be a well-intentioned man, devoted to his craft, modest, careful and decent, but to try to point out how compromised aspirations lead ultimately to mediocrity and dullness. In doing so, I obviously don't hold myself up as an example of success in this regard. In the late 1960's, I was in a very similar position, aesthetically, to Massey, subject to the same influences, and possessed of a similar tendency to recreate effects and approaches which I had seen others perform.
If I call Massey's poems "apprentice-work" it is because what his poems appear to me to be doing, had already been done--no better and no worse--by secondary writers of secondary talent, decades earlier--writers whom Massey obviously values and whose aesthetic he has pretty much adopted, lock, stock and barrel. It is my assertion that it is his adoption of these models, rather than any native lack of ability or insight, which has ultimately led Massey to limit his own efforts, by closing his poems off at an historical point, at which the fruits of the Imagists, Objectivists and later practitioners (Creeley, Eigner, Grenier) were incompletely digested by writers of lesser talent and insight, who offered inferior reinterpretations of what had been bequeathed to them in their own language, in their own country.
In order to understand how this occurs, it's necessary to distinguish among threads of descent in the post-War period. As a short-hand, let's just say those avant writers "associated" with the post-Modern period (the later 1940's, 1950's, 1960's) are connected historically with the work of Pound, Williams, and the Objectivists. As a matter of taste, a young poet might choose to emulate and imitate the work of Black Mountain, the first generation of New York School, the Beats, the Deep Image group, or even the academic Confessionalists. There are excellent reasons and justifications for admiring the work of all the writers, to whom these so-called schools or movements or associations, are meant to refer, or to describe. One might, for instance, attempt to learn from and to improve upon (or re-cycle) the work of Olson, Creeley, Blackburn, Levertov, Duncan and Eigner; or of O'Hara, Ashbery, Koch and Schuyler; or of Kerouac, Snyder, Whalen, Welch and Spicer; of Bly, Wright, Simpson, Kinnell and Stafford; and even of Plath, Lowell, Seidel, Berryman and Jarrell. You could make a case for any of these figures, as legitimate models of style and approach, given the range and power of their work.
But there is the danger of adopting inferior work, work associated with, influenced by, and even intimately involved with, the life and work of important writers. That danger is in thinking that such work, because of its shortcomings, its modesty of design, its anemic lack of high aspiration, is "easier" to follow and imitate, or to speak to. In Areas of Fog, Massey deliberately allies himself with a collection of writers who constitute a sort of second-tier of early- or middle-post-War vers libre. These writers are Cid Corman, William Bronk, Frank Samperi. One could, merely in aesthetic terms, include the work of John Tagliabue, A.R. Ammons, and Theodore Enslin. Perhaps it is no surprise that, at least in one sense, certain of these writers were associated with Corman's magazine Origin, with the publishing concern of James Weil's Elizabeth Press. Both Corman and Weil were important figures in the underground literary and publishing scene in this country. Like Jonathan Williams (of Jargon), they were loners, with their own taste, and an aesthetic position. Judging from the kind of work they liked, and published, their critical sense was derived from the early post-Modern period, and they identified with early Pound, middle-William Carlos Williams, the Thirties period work of the Objectivists, and several of the Black Mountain group. Both Corman's and Weil's historical sense tended to be limited. Corman, for instance, was among the first to recognize the work of Gary Snyder, a writer whose sense of form derives from the middle Cantos of Pound. Weil courageously published the work of Bronk and Enslin (and Taggart and Eigner and others) when major publishing houses probably wouldn't have considered doing so. Stylistically, the kind of work they liked felt like middle and late Carlos Williams. Narrow, stingy poems, clipped, relentlessly enjambed; and occasionally heavily influenced by Oriental forms (such as Haiku)--whose subject-matter was usually restricted to the modicum, every day, or classically safe objects, impressions, or situations.
In one sense, reading Massey's poems, I have the feeling that I'm reading Corman and Bronk and Samperi all over again. The trouble is, that this wasn't important, or impressive work in the 1960's. In hindsight, forty and fifty years on, it appears to have been a kind of diversion from the main stream efforts of better writers. Corman's and Weil's sense of the modern lyric was still-born when they conceived of it, and feels as old-fashioned and threadbare as it did then.
Anyone seeking to adopt an aesthetic based on Corman's or Weil's taste, and the sort of writing which tends to coalesce around that taste, is doomed, I'm afraid, to a very limited sense of poetry. As far as I can tell, this is very much what Massey has done.
Why Silliman, for instance, should choose to privilege Massey's work with a very careful and evasive praise, perhaps says more about Silliman's literary politics and literary agenda(s), than it does about his underlying critical principles or taste. I think the lady doth complain too much.
The Modernist interest in the purely descriptive mode, derives partly from the Precisionists (Schamberg, Demuth, Murphy, Ault and especially Sheeler); from Cubism, Picabia, and the photographic work of Strand, Weston, Moholy-Nagy, Evans, etc. It may have seemed, beginning in the 1930's, as if simply describing a factory roof-line and foul-air stacks was in itself an aesthetically pure and admirable act. The pre-emptive preference for the new, artificial, synthetic environment, created out of the Industrial Age, tended to trump the old landscape, nature-based descriptive tradition, both in Western Europe, and in the East. Following the War, this (mostly American) descriptive tendency was taken up by poets whose orientations were either Eastern--following Chinese and Japanese traditions--or more towards a Thoreavian ideal of a return to and identification with the land (ecology, the nobility of farming--Snyder/Berry/et al).
What this led to, in effect, was the adoption of a generic "objectivist" line--a narrow poem with heavy reliance upon enjambment and clipped diction (a "Zen" self-effacement) meant to convey in the fewest possible words, a "small" instance of observation, a report of something seen, materially immanent, immediate, physical, "raw," detailed, laconic, pithy. Its concision was seen as a badge of honor, honesty and homely virtue. Waste not, want not. Little poems, little books. Little ideas.
What is it that distinguishes truly inspired minimalism work--like that of Creeley's Words and Pieces, Grenier's Series or Sentences, or the work, say, of Geof Huth--from secondary work like this? It isn't an idle question for me, since I'm interested in the form myself, and I share Massey's preoccupation with its potentials. Ultimately, we can judge the success or failure of a work either through its dominant intentions, or the particulars of its means; unfortunately, I think Massey's work fails on both counts.
Areas of Fog is divided into five sections, each of which could be (was) conceived as a separate chap-book of poems. As a strategic practice, almost every Massey poem begins and ends in descriptive objectivity. The authorial voice has no identity, and there is seldom any hint of the circumstances of a life to which any of the events or observations in the poems can be referred. This kind of narrative autonomy can be useful; often, in reading Asian poetry, for example, which is usually based upon specific poet-roles or situations, Westerners will read this as non-specific utterance, whereas its original undertones are narrational, tangent to a real human condition. Pound, for instance, who did understand, early on confronted this issue, and adopted the use of classical "personae" in replicating the techniques and rhetorical devices that he wished to reintroduce to the modern audiences. The Cantos employs a voice which is unmistakably Pound's, and in many of the best parts of his epic, he used objectified imagery and metaphor to summarize or characterize a feeling or point--but Pound understood that "naked" description, shorn of its context and human implication, is aesthetically limiting. He could have gone on writing little Imagist poems for decades. Williams, too, understood that mere observation, mere description had to occur within a setting, a social and historical place and time (Paterson, New Jersey), and that the "voice" of his poems should have an identity, a function and a relation to his community and the artistic life of his age.
The second section of Areas of Fog is titled Bramble a gathering of lunes. Lunes, as you will perhaps not be surprised to learn, is the invention of Robert Kelly. Lunes are composed of three lines with a 5/3/5 syllabic order/count. Massey's use of the lune strikes me as an entirely predictable approach, affording him the use of a quasi-Asian perspective, fraught with all the usual cliches of classical Chinese and Japanese poetic conventions, and providing an entirely trouble-free form to exploit. Of 43 poems, here are 9 selections--
on the page, a stain
of an ant
crushed in the margin
lies on the
what's between us--this
pretended to write
her to walk past me
calla lily sways
crescent moon cuts low
black--scent of wet grass
staring at water
in a glass
you felt the earthquake
last week's news: a pile
pulp on the sidewalk
As an instance here of a "strict" form, there's a certain level of monotony, unrelieved (for me) by the dimension or ingenuity of any of the statements. I'm attracted to "television light/lies on the/American lawn" because it seems to connect a pure physical impression with a larger cultural implication ("American"--I'm thinking here of the photographer Robert Adams's Summer Nights [Aperture, 2009]). It doesn't really express anything, but leaves a strong impression of something seen, noticed. The thought--if there was one--is excluded by the form. What I also find troubling here, is the adoption of the hackneyed cliches of the typical haiku-like format. It's difficult not to sound as if you're imitating Basho. There's nothing wrong with imitating Basho, but the self-consciousness necessary to exceed the limitations laid down by the form (which include the set of conditions which previous Asian writers established inside the genre) require considerably more ingenuity than Massey demonstrates here. The daily newspaper has been rained on, is now pulp; "last week's news" has been returned to pulp; okay, the material text is eaten or transformed by the natural world (rain). This is so predictable as to be a tired cliché, not only of the kind of assertion typical of haiku, but of the potential of the form. You could say, with perfect justice, that the poem isn't short enough, because the sentiment it conveys is actually smaller than the poem is! Is water in a tumbler an adequate objective correlative for an earthquake? In the movie Jurassic Park, the device is used to report the impact of a dinosaur's footfall--a terrifying tremor in a cheesy American sci-fi adventure-movie. Is its use here any more profound, or moving?
Let's look at Massey's technique within the straight vers libre lyric form. A typical example is--
A typical Massey poem begins with a noun and varies between a modifier and a verb to arrive at enjambed contrasts, or obvious onomatopoeic convergences. I'm frequently confused by what Massey seems to think are effective combinations, but really seem kind of clunky. "Sun's thud" ? Thud/overhead, leaves/bees, thumbed/threshed--it's hard to know what this concatenation of aggressive syllabic constructions is meant to accomplish. What is thumbed out supposed to mean? What, really, are we to deduce about the proximity of the shrubs beside rusted metal? What does the poem do about this fact, other than to describe it, and not very well? There seems so little connection between the form the poem describes, and the content it's meant to convey, that the choices and decisions appear wholly gratuitous to a probable desired end.
From the section entitled Property Line:
by a garbage
in the undergrowth.
I find myself asking just what is it that is gained by setting these sentences in linear alignments? Crushed/cracks seems no more pointed or effective by occurring in vertical order than in simple time and prose setting. Sun-set clots sounds very tinny to my ear; these are subjective considerations, I know, but in the analysis of these kinds of effects, they aren't objections I find myself making with poets who are in full command of their means. "Cracks the/room's/silence in/half" is the kind of overbearing violence of effect which exceeds its putative purpose. Intended as a dramatic gesture, it comes off instead as mishap, an Emmett Kelly malapropism--and this is how many of the poems in this collection seem to me. In the work of more experimental writers, such as Coolidge, the use of non-referential language can have fortuitous consequences, in spite of, or perhaps occasionally as a result of, unintended meanings. But in a writer of straightforward, avowed application to coherence, cohesion and fidelity (like Massey) such energetic potential is often mishandled.
In day's diffusion
I drink to this
On the corner
a neon palm tree
Poetry like this asks us to accept the accuracy of the subtle gestures which the word choice and placement are intended to establish. We're supposed to be impressed by the surprise of the word "thaws" in the third line--and the crudely alliterative thought/thaws--but its heaviness doesn't seem to reflect a real impetus. A neon palm tree stammers through fog." Stammers? Even if this refers to a sign, say, of an image of a palm tree, is stammers meant to signify a steadily blinking, or an irregular blinking, or any blinking at all? An abiding emptiness? It all seems terribly vague, but the authorial voice's intention to inject a kind of ersatz conviction into the word choice isn't effective. Thaws, stammers--they're like abjectival insertions meant to convince us that there's a poem here, folks, just in case you missed it!
Night rakes the landscape,
empties the room.
through a gradual lack
a certain silence
rain dims to breath.
This ostensible simplicity of these descriptions belies a sense of confusion behind their conception--or, at the very least, a failure to attain the clarity necessary to a useful apprehension. Night "rakes" the landscape? "Rakes" ? "Empties the room" ? Does darkness "empty" a space, can the poem "speak without speaking" ? So it starts raining, and all we can hear is one's breathing in the darkness. In what way is the poem--its words, word choices, ordered impressions--actually constellated to convey more than what a prose crib of the same experience could, with no unnecessary fuss, tell us?
vision, my resolve
not to remember
through that which
floods us forgetful.
One season to the
next, and still
the same light lingers.
A construction like "protrusions/puncture my/vision" makes my teeth ache. Then there's that "floods us forgetful" which is about as awkward a phrase as I've read in a long while. I must admit to not being particularly interested in poems like Kay Ryan's, which yearn inward to solicit the most elusive and delicate tendrils of surprise and mystery from the unconscious. But reading her, I can see how much more effective her straightforward, grammatical level of statement is than someone, like Massey, who has mistakenly subscribed to the half-realized, third-rate work of Corman and Bronk and Samperi--believing that such crudely imagined and incompletely thought-out attempts like those above, constitute a useful set of inventions.
All of which is not to say that Massey--still young, still unformed--is unlikely ever to produce work of merit. He does understand the intuitive ticklish flicker of mystery that hides in ordinary things, how just watching and waiting will sometimes yield important insights. But he's invested himself in an inferior style (or technique) which, if taken to a limit, may lead nowhere. Archy Ammons built a whole career out of pathetic little descriptive poems, talking about sand and rock and mud and bark and grass and rubber and window-glass. A poet of insufficient means may mistake this for a full explication of experience. At some point, a young poet must confront more complex problems; his poetry must be forced to address phenomena and mortal issues at a higher level than the merely descriptive. What Massey has told me about his life in these poems constitutes so tiny a part of the actual matter the poems occupy, he's completely effaced himself. He could be a mildly observant land surveyor or plant counter, for all I know. Thoreau, after all, worked briefly in his family's pencil factory for a while. But the poems he wrote are sadly inert; he had a thoroughly prosaic mind.
Is it permissible to find value in the work of a writer with whom one senses a shared purpose and approach, merely on account of this fact? My sense is that this is precisely what motivates Silliman to offer his unqualified encouragement to Massey. Ron and I have had this discussion about Corman and the inferior version of the Williams style which tended to dominate the poetry scene during the 1950's and 1960's. But that's not the kind of thing Ron would consider appropos of a young aspirant circa 2010, even if the mistakes evident in this later incarnation are identical to those which plagued us 40 years ago. But I'm not politically correct, and don't have a reputation to preserve. That's the kind of freedom you can really cherish.
Note to Mr. Massey: The best cure for a wounded ego is a good laugh. Have one on me at your local tavern. On the other hand, if you show up drunk at my door, I won't hesitate to have you arrested. Be cool, dude.