Friday, March 25, 2011

Grand Piano X - the Ultimate Dilemma

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.

Merrill Moore

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!


Anonymous said...

I had a Baby Grand piano... a Steinway M

... I guess I should have joined a Baby Grand Piano Club...
but so doing seemed to me to be .... well ... a

cop-out. You know.. misery likes company
as also being

I have nothing against any of the Lang Gang "poets"
seem to me to be Credentialist Bores...

Curtis Faville said...

Sorry, Anon.

Blogger inadvertently double posted my current entry.

You did, in fact, just read it.

But now it's gone.

Never fear.

J said...

Credentialist Bores

at least Bores, sons of the Boredom-king WC Williams. Why bother with a few pages of difficult prose, plot, theme, etc when a hip, enigmatic haiku will do.

Bring back the Tomahawks, Sir F! Cruise-missiles--> poesy in action.

Anonymous said...

curtis, you're such a bitter little twit. you were left behind a long time ago and no amount of blog blather will ever catch you up. you're a mediocre writer, a twice-failed poet, and a nasty person. as they say: sucks to be you.

Anonymous said...

you out there in CA

as per RS's post today..he now is "doing" something
he is calling "sculpture Poetry" which is going into some museum in England..

since RS is Centra Con to The Grand Piano....and you are close to the .... Bigpo..

do tell, what the hell is "sculpture Poetry"?

geezie-peezie... what a kulchur! Everybody really must get PRETEXTUALLY/VIRTUALLY stoned.


What IS "sculptural Poetry" as Siliman is doing "it"?

is it more concrete Appolomaire? or just "con"?

Anonymous said...

found link-back to what "sculpturePoetry" is:

just going back into Surrealism and stealing from...

especially from writings of woman artists/poets of the period

Ithell Colquhoun, Eileen Agar, etc...

not to mention/slight Claude Cahun

as an huge source of immitation

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

You say:

"curtis, you're such a bitter little twit. you were left behind a long time ago and no amount of blog blather will ever catch you up. you're a mediocre writer, a twice-failed poet, and a nasty person. as they say: sucks to be you."

People who make snide and hurtful comments like this think to inflict injury, even if only privately. But hiding behind anonymity doesn’t serve this purpose. Injury occurs when someone you know, and/or respect, does this. But anonymity takes all the sting out of it.

The thing is, I take responsibility for my opinions, which, right or wrong, are right out there for all to see and respond to. Whereas you, Mr. or Mrs. lowercase, hide behind a mask. My question would be this: Which is more ethical? I may be wrong-headed, but you are the twit.

With respect to your assertions, I am 6’ 4” tall, so “little” is anaccurate. No one “left me behind a long time ago.” I stopped writing and went to work for 27 years, to support my family and keep off of welfare. I do write this blog, and hold forth on a lot of topics, some of which I’m better qualified to speak about than others. Some of it’s undoubtedly blather. I’m not as good a writer as I’d like to be, but I try to avoid simple grammatical and spelling errors. I do my best. “Twice-failed” poet is a nice touch. I gave up the idea of “making a living” as a writer (or “poet”) 35 years ago, and never looked back. Everything I ever did as a writer or editor or publisher was for my own pleasure, not because I thought I would be “famous” or “successful” or “influential.” A “nasty person”—well, where’s the evidence for that? That I attack some writers, while praising others?

The sincerest form of disrespect is ignorance. At least in that sense, you succeed admirably.

Anonymous said...

hey Curtis that is another "anonymous"


I and The Anonymous the one who
never attacks an individual just after what is produced
by said/so&so....

now to read your reply that that ... Interlocutor

hang in

Anonymous said...

pee est

to that other anonamusT:

you are not responsible for anyone
elses undrstanding or ignorance or itellihence

or my spelling ..

the reason I remain anon is because I don't want 12,333 pis-aunts going to my web-site

I too dropped out for 35 years would drop out again
but fear that when I 'dropped back in'
I'd be dead!

pee pee est

no need to sign either my art OR my poetry... everyone who is either paying attention
gives a flying phuch

knows who I am ... what I do

for those who do please clue me as I don't have the phoggiest notion of

Anonymous said...

all The Gran Piana needs to do is add a trumpette to the 'seen' to be REALLY connected and firmly entrenched in that 70's repetitive , canned ....redundant ... crap:

actually, boring-harmless "stuff"

nothing authentic in the lot..... then as now.
&, don't confuse "authentic" with

Anon #1 The Authentic One (so to speak)

Curtis Faville said...

The literary remains of the participants of the Grand Piano project have nothing to do with the project itself. Further, there is no evidence in the project which would support a presumption of "synergy" or "support" as aids to composition.

Armantrout would have been Armantrout, Silliman would have been Silliman, Pearson would have been Pearson. The Grand Piano readings, and the associations of those so involved, played no significant part in the writing of the participants. The Grand Piano is a nostalgic act of self-aggrandizement, designed to consolidate reputations and re-write literary history.

Good luck on that,

Anonymous said...


i guess that "the literary remains" are those of The Avant Guardists whom The Post-Modernists .... murdered.

Anon 1

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I couldn't agree with you more:"The Grand Piano is a nostalgic act of self-aggrandizement, designed to consolidate reputations and re-write literary history."

As I was saying to Ed Baker in email correspondence recently, Silliman and company are products of pure "spectacle" (after Guy Debord),an "integrated and diffuse apparatus of images and ideas" (as Hardt & Negri say in "Empire") that the Zuckerbergs of the world have learned to make their billions on.

That he's recently gone to a new garish "poetry sculpture" format is very telling. In an age of decreasing readership, his "Sentences" appeal is evaporating and so the perpetual need for a new artistic individuality every so often. Somebody should tell him the avant garde died with postmodernism about 30 years ago, & that all the experimentation with fragments, letters, vowels, glyphs, etc etc has been very profitably appropriated by the new globalized capitalism.

I'm always surprised at just how ignorant the Language people are of significant culture theory.

J said...

Silliman? some of us still insist he was, until like 10-15 years ago, a fatman wandering down Mission holding a cardboard sign (will do avant garde poetry for food, or some such). Or was it Sac.

RS put his shoulder to the wheel at least-- until he went J-Edgar with his blog, which was sort of important for a while

Anonymous said...

Curtis, look at your audience: You have the dementia-addled Ed Baker pretending to be anonymous, Kirby the Lutheran, Conrad Dildo who couldn't write his way out of a wet paper bag, and J the psychotic who doesn't even read poetry.

Turds of a feather.

Curtis Faville said...

"Curtis, look at your audience: You have the dementia-addled Ed Baker pretending to be anonymous, Kirby the Lutheran, Conrad Dildo who couldn't write his way out of a wet paper bag, and J the psychotic who doesn't even read poetry.

Turds of a feather."

Anon: The commentators comprise a small percentage of those who actually check out blogs. If you don't know this, you should.

Chronic commenters are a diverse group.

If the Anons are all "turds" you've put yourself in that company.

As I've said before, I don't write for any one reader, but if someone gets something out of what I post, fine. Otherwise, it's not something I worry about.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


Curtis, I think I'll have that 'Tropical Jungle Juice'

word verification: dingr

Anonymous said...

I"ll difur to J and The Kirbster
and meanwhile
get tanked w Con

I'm not gonna tell you who I think that that anon is
his mother wears combat boots

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

they were originally military troops the

vanguard who spearheaded them into battle was a marching band or a drum and bugle.

the military significance of the Avant Garde has been dropped

small point and ,most assuredly, (this too) pointless

J said...


Maybe Adorno was right, though his bon mot needs a bit of retrofitting. After ...WWI, Stalin, Nazis, Hiroshima, 'Nam, and cruise missiles, poetry is impossible.

Larry Ferlinghetti once said something like that IIRC (tho as a beat he probably changed his mind). At least an honest writer doesn't start with decorations but with like battlefields, bombs, war brothels.