Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hall's Contemporary American Poetry - the Model Post-War Anthology

The poet, editor and teacher Donald Hall has had a long career. At 82, he's one of the grand old men of American literature, having completed (and retired from) a career as a professor at University of Michigan, and spent the last 35 years living in his family home (Eagle Pond Farm) in Wilmot, New Hampshire. A cancer survivor, he also lost his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia in 1995. A precocious poet, and student, Hall began to publish while still an undergraduate (1952), and by the mid-1960's was associated with the "deep image" school--Bly, Wright, Simpson, Kinnell, Dickey, Merwin--and like them, he had begun primarily as a traditional poet, employing strict forms, and straightforward subject matter, undergoing an emotional self-examination, or mid-career aesthetic crisis, which was to make his work more deeply felt, and direct in manner.

I must first have encountered Hall in about 1970, discovering his The Alligator Bride [1969], and The Yellow Room: Love Poems [1971]. (I can recall a colleague in the Iowa Workshop, at the time, complaining the "alligator bride" was a trivial and naive title for what was, in fact, a selected poems book.) The Yellow Room was a documentation of what I took to be an extra-marital affair, which presumably was the relationship with Kenyon. It seemed a needlessly obvious and shameless confessional exercise, but it clearly was a necessary book for its author, whatever its (or his) faults. It almost seemed a "guilty" book.

All this lead-up might suggest that I'm interested in Hall's work as a poet. And it is true, that I've admired many of his (mostly early) poems from the 1950's and 1960's, but I rather lost interest in his work after Kicking the Leaves [1978], and have never really returned to it. Mr. Hall even mentioned my name in an essay once, ironically, by way of explaining, half-apologetically, that he didn't understand post-modern poetry (though perhaps he should have made the effort!). But, again, my primary interest in Hall is that he was the editor of what I think was perhaps the best eclectic poetry anthology of the entire post-war period.

Contemporary American Poetry was a paperback original, published simultaneously in England and America by Penguin Books--at that time, a very British concern. The book was small--4 1/2" x 7"--and yet, at only 200 pages total, managed to be as comprehensive and judicious in its choices as any other book of its kind during this period. Appearing in 1962, it looked both backwards and forwards in time, and managed to represent the emerging rift in the American poetry scene, without in any way mishandling any of its participants, or the curious readers who would have stumbled, innocently enough, into its carefully organized pathways. The layout is a model of order and logical presentation, with a discrete biographical sketch placed in the table of contents before each contributor's selections. In a gratifyingly short introduction, he sketches in his editorial bias, assigning to the publication date of Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle [1946] the putative start date for consideration.

Historically, we tend to think of the split as represented by the separation between Donald Allen's The New American Poetry [1960], and the Hall-Pack/Hall-Pack-Simpson New Poets of England and America [1957-1962]. It would be three more years before Kelly-Leary's A Controversy of Poets [1965] would appear, an experiment in peaceful disagreement. (Given the lack of "progress" in the arts, a similar kind of "anthology" would be just as partisan today, as it was five years after Allen's bombshell of 1960.) But Hall, in Contemporary American Poetry, had the temerity to suggest an integration based on quality and intensity, instead of formal priorities--an act that might have seemed, in the context of irreconcilable difference implied by the other collections, almost a betrayal to the respective camps. Bringing people into the battlefield tent, if only on paper, might have constituted a futile gesture, designed to end hostilities--but as we know, once the geographical lines had been drawn, neither side would be willing, in the coming decades, to concede one line of territory to the other, or even to admit that renegades or border-jumpers might represent the harbingers of a new consolidation of means.

The Hall Penguin book includes 25 poets. None of color, and all, except for Levertov and Rich, white males. The order is by earliest date of birth:

William Stafford [1914]
Robert Lowell [1917]
Robert Duncan [1919]
Reed Whittemore [1919]
Howard Nemerov [1920]
Richard Wilbur [1921]
Anthony Hecht [1922]
James Dickey [1923]
Denise Levertov [1923]
John Logan [1923]
Louis Simpson [1923]
Edgar Bowers [1924]
Donald Justice [1925]
Robert Bly [1926]
Robert Creeley [1926]
James Merrill [1926]
W.D. Snodgrass [1926]
John Ashbery [1927]
Galway Kinnell [1927]
W.S. Merwin [1927]
James Wright [1927]
X.J. Kennedy [1929]
Adrienne Cecile Rich [1929]
Gary Snyder [1930]
Robert Mezey [1935]

What Hall proposed in CAP, was an accommodation, based not on any clear choices of principled adherence to an orthodoxy, but on an energetic co-existence, a lively interplay of voices. Rejecting the ruling 30 year tyranny based on Eliot's prescriptions and example, he imagines a liberation of potential oppositions, though, characteristic of his time, he sees these almost exclusively among a white male class. Hall acknowledges, for instance, that between 1925 and "quite recently" (circa 1962) American Poetry [had] functioned as a part of the English tradition" [italics mine]. Henry James went to England; Melville went to the Pacific South Seas. He sees Lord Weary's Castle [1946] and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet [Berryman, 1956] as a "dead end" and a "failure" respectively, the result of a "constricted subject matter and a tense line," and observes that Lowell, and Wilbur (the very "peak of skillful elegance") are the "culmination" of American poetry in the post-war period. He marks a tendency to identify with Williams--the Williams of "native" American speech, and a poetry of "experience" over "ideas," of "real toads" instead of mythical goddesses. But as Hall notes even Robert Lowell had, by the mid 1950's, begun to morph into something more nearly "colloquial" "direct" and "personal" [with Life Studies, in 1959]. "The challenge of free verse is to make shapes which derive their identity by improvisation, without reference to past poems." One could build useful generalizations about the work of Marianne Moore, or Ezra Pound, out of just that one sentence. Finally, "synthesis of the literary and the colloquial occurs, surely, in some of the poets of the vanguard already. An approach of the two contraries may guard against the perversions of each." I would argue that the best of the "perverted" are what we almost always need in art, referring to various concepts of an "outsider" aesthetics (a la Duncan's H.D. Book).

In any case, what Hall was proposing was a literary community in which all might participate, traditionalists and experimenters, "livers" and thinkers, sky-divers and spelunkers. Exhibiting the true outsider's naiveté, Hall includes the poets of the New York School with the Beats, and inadvertently includes Ashbery with them (the Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Whalen, Snyder, Kerouac, Burroughs and McClure nexus)! Such misapplications may be understandable when the participants forget to wear their name-tags, and Hall is aware of the ironies of categorical vagaries as the next man. He concludes his introduction by arguing on behalf of the new "deep image" movement (thought he fails to name it as such--perhaps that occurred somewhat later--my memory fails me*), as exhibited particularly in the work of Bly, Simpson and Wright, as a "new kind of imagination," the "vocabulary...mostly inwardness...a profound subjectivity...reveals through images...which corresponds to an old objective life of shared experience and knowledge."

By beginning with Stafford's date of birth, Hall escapes having to consider Olson [b. 1910], or to address the resurgence of the Objectivists [Zukofsky b. 1904, Oppen b. 1908, Reznikoff b. 1894, Rakosi b. 1903, and Niedecker b. 1903], whose careers, though beginning in the 1920's, would become more important in the post-War period than they had ever been before. None of the NAP's "wild men"--Blackburn, Corso, Dorn, Eigner, Ginsberg, Jones, Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Sorrentino, Spicer, Welch or Whalen--almost certainly would have had even a prayer of being included in such an anthology as this. Spicer, or Eigner, or O'Hara--figures who have become so crucial to the generations of innovators in the decades since--seem completely alien to this company.

But Hall's anthology is an act of mediation, of a bridging of differences, rather than of an emphatic partisanship, which the other books are. The conservative contingent--


is counter-balanced by


but between these two oppositions, one finds Hall's "interdisciplinary" exceptions--


--all poets who though they may have begun as de facto formalists in the old Eliot/Brooks-Warren tradition, would each move some distance beyond, and would end up, as we have seen, standing for much different things than their earliest efforts might have suggested. These appellations become quite meaningless if carried to logical extremes. Was Pound ever really an innovator? Didn't Eliot, in The Waste Land, write the most Modernist of poems? Didn't Williams begin his career self-publishing trite sonnets sprinkled with must thou's and should thine's? Didn't Auden, the brash British wild young Turk of the terrible Thirties, end up reading Ogden-Nash-lite verse doggerel on The Tonight Show?

Seriously, many of my memorable first readings of contemporary poetry occurred in this book: Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark," Lowell's "Skunk Hour," Duncan's "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," Nemerov's "Storm Windows," Levertov's "Six Variations," Simpson's "There Is", Justice's "Here in Katmandu," Creeley's "After Lorca," Ashbery's "A Vase of Flowers," Kennedy's "Nude Descending a Staircase," Snyder's "Hay for the Horses." Though I would not count many of these among my favorites today, the cross-fertilization inherent in their contradictory approaches to form and subject-matter strike me as a healthy regimen for anyone thinking about writing as an activity with potential for curious interest or serious application. Hall's acknowledgment of pluralities and complexities was probably the most refined and intelligent response in the literary community of his day. Regarding the selection today, one grants its prejudices and opacities as givens; but the attempt to show how apparent separate extreme camps could produce hybrid "third streams" or sports--from off the beaten track--or be persuaded and seduced by divergent specimens, to make poems unlike the "orthodox" samples of either kind of excess, should have been an inspiration. At least it was to me. Without Snyder's wet horse's ass, or Creeley's crazy poor, or Lowell's my head's not right, or Levertov's shlup-shlupping dog--I might never perhaps have become interested in poetry!

Much has been made in recent years about the possibility of a so-called "third stream"--either as a clear alternative to the poles of opposing historical approaches, or as some kind of consolidation of the two. Ronald Johnson, for instance, might be my nomination for the kind of writer I have in mind--one whose knowledge of the history of literature (and thought and art and so forth) is extensive, and deep--whose awareness of the different ways of thinking about form allows for a wholly original style, but still apprehensible to a variety of readers. Imitation is a kind of flattery that is unavoidable, but there's no reason why we should not expect, and encourage, originality of every kind. I remember thinking, when first reading Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath, that its author clearly had a profound knowledge of, and love for, traditional poetry, all the way back to Chaucer and Spenser and Donne and the Metaphysicals, but that his expression of this feeling had found a new manner of presentation, different from (yet integral to) Eliot's or Moore's or Pound's (Cantos). Today I regard Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath as a monument in the tradition, despite JA's measured repudiation of it, and the fact of its being a somewhat isolated exception in his oeuvre, and the fact that it has become overshadowed by the bulk and direction of his later work. That such exceptional works can occur, amongst milieus bristling with controversy, is an encouraging sign, at least to me. Without the dialectic which is implied by such vast gulfs in aesthetic preference--as evidenced by Hall's dilemma in forming a selection from among so very different streams--it is less likely, it seems to me, that we can expect to see significant departures from the norm. In my own work, for instance, I know that my inability to come to terms with the breadth of my appreciations, has led me to wander, over time, between or amongst seemingly incompatible kinds of poetic expression: minimalism, syllabics, dense wit and gracious music, abstract non-syntactic experiment, acerbic satire, wilderness dreams, nature and love poetry, and so on. The wider the perspective, the more we can encompass in our vision. But the windows are "never wide enuf," as Paul Blackburn once said, so we keep changing and trying out new ways, restlessly. Nothing wrong with that, I say.


*I am, of course, aware that the term was originally the invention of Rothenberg and Kelly as derived from Lorca and other surrealists; it was its adaptation, perhaps to some degree unconsciously, by the Bly-Wright-Kinnell-Simpson-Merwin-Hall grouping, with which I believe Hall is concerned to describe in CAP.

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