The concluding volume of Barrett Watten's Grand Piano project, volume X, has a feeling of completion, not so much as a result of any accretive fullness of accomplishment, as much as a simple exhaustion of purpose. What began as an experiment in "collective autobiography," ends, as one would expect, with a partial account of the editor's formative years as a writer, surveying the possible uses he might have made, by way of ambitious strivings, of the chaotic milieu of the San Francisco avant garde writing scene of the 1970's.
A retrospective haze of glamour infuses the tone of much of what is discussed, as if the fruits of the intervening years' labor--the little pamphlets, magazines, university study, recordings and correspondence--constituted a kind of testimonial before the fact--of the reader's curiosity and concern for the outcome. We are here, the text seems to declare, because of a coordinated accident of interlocking fates, the ultimate ulterior purpose of which was the self-evident necessity of their finding a common purpose in the need to succeed. But success is not meaning.
The heroes--Olson, Creeley, Ashbery, Coolidge, Grenier, and even Laura Riding--are remarked and recorded in the context of an ascending social structure of aspiration and authority, but rather than the "turn to" an exploration of language itself (instead of personality and psychology)--which has been the expressed mission of the Language writers from the beginning--we are treated to personal recollected accounts of interaction and encounter. Coolidge is interviewed, Grenier--first met in Berkeley in the late 1960's where BW is finishing a degree in biochemistry [!!]--becomes the paternal "mentor" with whom he co-edits the canonical little magazine this, and embarks on his quest for acceptance and professional esteem. How and why a pre-med major who grew up largely overseas, and began his academic life at MIT, should have chosen, instead, to become a poet and bohemian, is the underlying subtext of this narrative, which is neither referred to, nor even mentioned.
(This aspect of concealment, to which I've referred in earlier posts, is relevant: The biggest secrets, those issues and events about which we tend to be most evasive, are usually those which yield the clearest insight into the subconscious, and which can explain at the deepest levels, our behavior and choices. And it is often the case that we are not even aware of our own duplicity in this regard. One's whole life program may entail a grand evasion of a dominating anxiety, which we will go to any lengths to hide, even from ourselves.) And yet life, for this Editor, begins not at birth, or in childhood or in adolescence, but at the moment he discovers his calling, as if all that had existed or taken place before was of no significance at all. Though we know this is invalid, we accept the resolution on its face. All we're really interested in, at the end, is who knew who; what model, what exemplary predecessor, seemed most available, most compelling, most useful. If Grenier and Coolidge hadn't made themselves available, if Creeley and Olson didn't, somehow, seem more amenable to approach and adaptation, might the Language Poets have ended up following different paths, different inspirations? Perhaps it's an unfair question. We can't undo the past, and social and literary politics unfold in predictable ways. A teacher holds forth, and his students follow. How do we separate careerist ambition from friendship, and the individual voice from its chosen milieu?
The answer to those questions, I would argue, is the underlying subtext of the whole Grand Piano experiment, despite its expedient expressed purpose. Though this group of ten shares a certain common age, the real narrative of their interaction and proximal accounts is accidental and indeterminate. The Beat phenomenon, the Black Mountain phenomenon, the New York School phenomenon--these are mostly illusions constructed out of convenience and partial accounts, in order to give form and meaning to wayward tendencies among widely scattered and distracted individual voices. The works of Olson and Creeley, O'Hara and Ashbery, Whalen and Corso really have very little in common with their popularly identified counterparts. Even in cases where their lives may have intersected regularly and significantly, as individual writers, we recognize that their uniqueness, their strong personal styles and interests--which drive their work--are vastly more important than anything we might wish to make out of their common associations or professional connections. It is, after all, their uniqueness that we most admire: How silly it would be to think that what most counts is the likeness and/or similarity of styles or approach amongst writers thus conjoined?
Is it important for us to think that Silliman is most a Language Poet when he's most like or un-like Watten or Armantrout or Pearson? Do we look for common threads, and is the Grand Piano an attempt to make a case for such comparisons? For my part, I find the pretext for the composition of the group to be relatively flimsy. If Language Poetry is about a certain approach to composition, and criticism, then why rope off a certain segment of its adherents based on a reading series which occurred in San Francisco during a short span of time in the mid- to late 1970's? How does the selection, thus defined, exclude other "Language" writers whose work and concerns were parallel in time? There's the geographic fact of proximity, which makes the selection appear opportunistic and accidental. Then there's the problem of writers simply excluded due to their age, their publication dates, or their resistance to being included in movements which they feel no obligation to, or real connection with. Clearly, figures such as Jackson Mac Low, Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Aram Saroyan, Robert Grenier, etc., have as large a claim to be thought of within a tradition of experimental poetry of the kind that Language Poetry claims as its special precinct, as any of the Grand Piano participants.
If common literary purpose, then, wasn't the defining rationale for inclusion in the Grand Piano project, then it must be social and personal. But social and personal criteria as pretexts for inclusion would seem to be at odds with ultimate literary values. Though we may grudgingly accept Merrill Moore, for instance, as a member of the Fugitives, there are few if any readers or critics, today, who would pay more than lip-service to his work. Proximity and social association alone place him historically among the important writers of the period. If there had been an "experiment in group autobiography" for the Fugitives, Moore would undoubtedly have been invited to participate, if he had been living (he died of cancer at age 54 in 1957). The point of my mentioning Moore is two-fold: 1) His works may not have risen to the level of merit which would justify our remembering him for any reason other than his association with other, better writers; and 2) The meaning of his life and work may exist outside the context of his official claim to notoriety. Why do we choose to lionize one writer simply on the basis of his connections, while we repudiate the work of another on purely textual grounds? These are highly relevant questions in considering the use and purpose of the Grand Piano project.
So I question that purpose. If Watten wanted to indulge in a little nostalgic back-tracking, to consolidate his historical position (and that of his friends), he might have chosen a somewhat less socially and geographically connected pretext. Friendship and proximity don't make art. Individual members will succeed or not on their own. And what we learn from these 100 essays does little to enlighten us about how any single one of them managed to write what they did, or how their lives and work intertwined in ways we might credit or acknowledge as pertinent. There could be ten "Grand Piano" projects, each with its own reading series, each with its own social matrix, each with its own heroes and groupies and hangers-on. The more the merrier. Bring it on. Everybody must get stoned!