I was intrigued a few weeks ago when in response to my first Larry Levis post, Milford gave a little history lesson of late 60s early 70s poetry: How supposedly Merwin had influenced a lot of poets to write deep image poetry, generating a “glut” of surrealist-ish poetry, which was then abandoned as those very same poets moved on to write personal narratives of interiority and sentimentality. Milford suggested that Levis’s own writing trajectory follows this path.
I was intrigued by this not just because I liked Wrecking Crew – the Levis book I quoted from – but also because I wondered what would make somebody abandon this very lively, spasmodic poetry in favor of the type of personal narratives that so much of American poetry seemed to be about when I started writing poetry (in the late 80s).
I’m also interested in how that “glut” (too many poets, writing too much poetry etc) reflects our own current “glut” of excess, our “plague ground” as Joyelle put it way back when this debate began. There are of course tons of similarities – the expansion of the number of authors (through MFAs, GI bill etc), an interest in translation, an interest in “surrealism” (by which it might just mean non-American-based poetry).
So I’ve been doing a lot of literary historical research and lineage thinking – exactly the kind of stuff I don’t like to do, the kind of ways I don’t like to read poetry… Nevertheless I’ve become obsessed over this and I don’t really want to be so I’m going to write a fairly shallow post about it and get it out of my system! I just need to stop thinking and reading about this.
First off, I think Milford is largely correct – though it should be pointed out that he was told this narrative by a mentor who I think was referring to “common wisdom”, that most pervasive and so seldom studied manufactured consent that so powerfully influences how we view poetry – that Levis’s trajectory seems to follow this general trajectory of American poetry. Even in his introduction to the Selected Poems, David St John makes the same argument:
In the five books of poetry from which this collection is drawn, Levis had charted a course that itself reads somewhat like a precis of poetic endeavor in American poetry since the mid-sixties. His early work – the first three collections were all award-winning volumes – moves from a deep image lyricism to a more highly reflective and meditative mode. His mature style… exhibits an even more relaxed, discursive and wry philosophical style.
I think this is largely correct. If you look at the “Wrecking Crew,” which I quoted in my first post, you get a lot of play with masks, energized by a violently spasmodic energy. It is certainly not “reflective” – it does the opposite, jerking personas and masks around in a desperate and often hilarious engagement with our spectacular age.
I get a gun and go
shoot an airplane full of holes,
and stare at the thing on the runway
until its covered with rust.
This takes years.
I turn forty somewhere, waiting
for the jet underneath me to
clear its throat of burned
from For the Country
You are the sweet, pregnant,
teenage blonde thrown from the speeding car.
You are a dead, clean-shaven astronaut
orbiting perfectly forever.
You are America.
You are nobody.
I made you up.
I take pills and drive a flammable truck
until I drop.
I am the nicest guy in the world,
closing his switchblade and whistling.
But I have to make an important revision of the Common Wisdom causality of this poetry. It’s obviously not exactly Merwin that is the Daddy of this poetics – his poetry tends to be very low key, little ever happening, mystical. I see much clearly a poet Merwin (and others) frequently translated in the 1960s, Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, great writer of “anti-poetry” – austere in diction yet quick, mobile, spazzy, violent.
I give no one the right.
I worship a piece of rag.
I transport coffins.
I transport coffins.
I give no one the right.
I look ridiculous
In the sunlight,
Scourge of the soda fountains
I am dying of fury
(“Rompecabezas”[Puzzle]) (trans. Edith Grossman)
I don’t know how I wound up here
I was running happy and content
With my hat in my right hand
After a phosphorescent butterfly
Who drove me wild with joy
When suddenly pow! I tripped
And I don’t know what happened to the
The landscape changed completely!
My mouth and nose are bleeding.
Really I don’t know what happened
Save me once and for all
Or shoot me in the back of the neck.
It also has a more than a wiff of Vasko Popa, the great Serbian poet who mixed folklore and surrealism, and whom Ted Hughes had been championing since the early 1960s:
You get kewpie doll notions
I bathe them in my blood
Dress them in the rags of my skin
Make swings out of my hair for them
Toy carts from my vertebrae
Gliders from my eyebrows
I make them butterflies from my smiles
Wild beasts from my teeth
To hunt to kill time
What kind of game is this anyway
Again we see a similar a kind of saturative irony coupled with fiercely affective imagery, which invokes political violence.
Another influence I think is -as in Plath’s late poetry – film. The flat, violent, saturative image of cinema, its trick photography, its chaplin-esque slapstick bodies (which Henry Parland and many avant-gardists loved in the 1910s and 20s). The book includes a sequence called “Magician” which makes connection between the trickery of film and poetry, and invokes Ingmar Bergman’s film The Magician (which draws similar parallels between film and magic) (Called “Ansiktet”, “The Face” in Swedish).
I noticed my arms,
how they act without even telling me anymore,
their preference for rain and razor blades,
or for simply dropping off,
like forgotten two-by-fours falling off
half built houses.
Now they grab at me like stubborn interns.
I turn quickly, mirrored
in the dark glass of the ambulance,
my face is wood and painted to a doll’s
astonished whites and red.
Outside even the sky is shocked and darkens.
Here’s the climax from the movie (complete with New Criterion style commentary):
I think the commentator here is a little wrong: afterall, the magician comes off as bogus and ridiculous, nothing but kitsch and trickery. Another key is of course the sense of art as violence, as an attempt to shatter the sure self of the scientist. But it’s not as binary as the commentator suggests; there’s a sense of connection between the two (they both have “tools” so to speak, they do their stuff).
But we have the same sense of violence and trickery, the body exposed as flawed and spasmodic, cinematic.
Levis’s next book, Afterlife (at least as represented in the Selected Poems) begins “after” this “life” of “wrecking”:
Winter has moved off
somewhere, writing its journals
But I am still afraid to move,
afraid to speak,
as if I lived in a house
wallpapered with the cries of birds
I cannot identify.
Wow! Suddenly it’s all about interiority, the personal, sadness. And perhaps most importantly, the poetics of immobility. While in the first book, the speaker – moving through personas and masks – does a whole bunch of stuff (shoots up an airplane for 40 years! kills people! Etc!) in this one he is utterly immobile, almost dead. The violence has been absorbed into a kind of traumatized persona, which seems mainly capable of reflecting on its own impotence. There is still some flashy language, but it’s very much subdued compared to the first book
The third book – The Dollmaker’s Ghost – may sound like it’s going to promise a return to the doll-cinema-body of the first book, but it’s even more restrained than the second book.
Picking grapes alone in the late autumn sun –
A short, curved knife in my hand,
Its blade silver from so many sharpenings,
Its handle black.
I still have a scar where a friend
Sliced open my right index finger, once…
But in this poem he’s gathering grapes and recollecting. The style is even more restrained, with very little in the way of metaphors, very unspectacular descriptions of mundane objects.
Another poem called “Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931″ begins:
The young woman is just sitting on the bed,
Looking down. The room is so narrow she keeps
Her elbows tucked in, resting, on her bare thighs,
As if that could help.
And outside this room I can imagine only Kansas:
Its wheat, and blackening silos, and beyond that,
The plains that will stare back at you until
The day your mother, kneeling in fumes
On the hardwood floor, begins to laugh out loud.
When you visit her, you see the same, faint grass
Around the edge of the asylum, and a few months,
White and flagrant, against the wet brick there,
Where she has gone to live. She never
Recognizes you again.
Many of the poems in this book feel ekphrastic in the worst sense of the word: as if they are merely describing an image, in a very low-key way. Here’s the image:
In a lot of the poems, he seems to be merely describing real or imagined Edward Hopper paintings. Life seems really empty and the people don’t move.
I think it’s also important that he moves from the first book, in which male speakers are kind of out of control and hysterically cinematic, to this book in which the sane, calm, masculine man describes and contemplates, while the mom goes nutso. Things happen “after” “life”, or rather after the trauma, the “wrecking,” when the persona has come back together, become whole, in a way that has been criticized by disability theory.
OK, I guess I won’t be able to finish this discussion right now. But let me finish with some opinionating. If you agree with my analyses here, it follows that to “mature” in American poetry means that you begin to write more “reflectively”, that you’re writing about interiorty (which is “grief” and anomie, immobility), make the writing less spectacular, more restrained, and to create a sense of unified speaker (as opposed to cinematic mask-wearer).
It also seems to mean: to move away from foreign influences, and from the cinematic. I think this is really crucial, because the ethos of this is still with us: poetry must be separate from its spectacular age by giving us interiority, authenticity. I would hypothesize that this comes largely out of a real disapproval of the society of the spectacle, but it’s misplaced in a number of ways, largely caused by a form of iconophobic anxiety about the dynamics of the cinematic image, the cinematic body. Steve Shaviro writes about this quite engagingly in his great book The Cinematic Body:
“Behind all these supposedly materialist attacks on the ideological illusions built into the cinematic apparatus, should be not rather see the opposite, an idealist’s fear of the ontological instability of the image, and of the materiality of affect and sensation?… Images are condemned because they are bodies without souls, or forms without bodies. They are flat and insubstantial, devoid of interiority and substance, unable to express anything beyond themselves… They [images] are suspect, unreliable, and “ideological,” because they presume to subsist in this state of alienation, and even perpetuate it by giving rise to delusive “reality effects,” ritual s of disavowal, and compensatory fantasies of plenitude and possession.But is it really lack that makes images so dangerous and disturbing? What these theorists fear is not the emptiness of the image, but its weird fullness; not its impotence as much as its power. Images have an excessive capacity to seduce and mislead, to affect the spectator unwarrantedly.”
Shaviro defends this cinematic image persuasively throughout his book:
“Visual fascination is a passive, irresistible compulsion, and not an assertion of the active mastery of the gaze. And it is linked with the delegitimation of violence, its dissocation either from the demands of social order or from the assertion of virile (stereotypically male) power and control, for Eugene “catches” violence as one catches an infection, more than he inflicts it as a willful expression of a warped self. His Phallic, aggressive fantasies are decentered and unhinged in the very movement by which they are intensified. He is less an independent character than a hysterical figuration of the destabilizing excessiveness of Turner’s own desire. And Blue Steel as a whole celebrates this excess.”
(Susan McCabe has also written about this in her fascinating book Cinematic Modernism. Maybe I’ll bring that up in another post. She does more with the gender aspect of the whole thing – hysterical women and hysterical TS Eliots etc.)
The foreign influence I think is maybe even more key here. The reason we get a “glut”, a state of excess is because there’s too much poetry written, too similar to each other, too influenced, too under the sway of dark forces.
What you don’t get is “lineage.” Lineage redeems art, renders glut into a narrative. But the problem is, these poets were not following in the lineage of the New Critics, or even Pound/Eliot/Williams. They were in fact writing under the influence not just of foreign poets but under the influence of the stilted “translatese” of translated texts. They were making US poetry more a part of Chilean literature than “US Literature.”
As in Ron Silliman’s dismissals of “soft surrealists” for not belonging to the American Traditions, and for their “softness” – their image-ness – many critics also attacked these poets for not presenting arguments, for not offering up poetry that one could close-read, could make theses out of. The critics repeately refer to them as “inhuman” and “shallow”, criticizing them for creating “ambience” or “mood” over arguments.
OK, I’m done for today, I’ll continue later…