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Bob Grumman’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)

 

(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)

 

 

Considering that Jake Berry and I met through the mail close to a quarter of a century ago when we both were running micro-presses and immediately became good friends, and began publishing (and publicizing) each other's work, it would be hard for me to say anything bad about his essay, even if it didn't make central use of my terms, "otherstream" and "knownstream."  But not knowing him wouldn't have made any difference: we are fully agreed that in rarely acknowledging the existence, and never acknowledging the value, of what Jake and I call "otherstream poetry," academics and their pawns have for fifty years kept the best specimens of American poetry (with rare exceptions) invisible to all but those knowing how to seek them out.

 

On the other hand, Jake and I do have our differences about related matters. One is my extreme belief in the value of detailed definition of terms. So, it bothered me some that he specified only two kinds of knownstream poetry, Iowa School and language poetry, and never labeled any specific kind of poetry as otherstream.

 

But that's great for me, for it gives me a chance to push my own agenda: which is to force Academia to accept a list of poetry schools! This isn't off the subject of Jake's essay, but an extension of it. It’s also a more optimistic position on it, for—unlike Jake--I feel that despite the gatekeepers marginalizing otherstream poetry, it will eventually have to be recognized. And that recognition will not be far away if only a list of contemporary schools of poetry can be advanced forcefully enough for even academics to have to look at it, they will then have to respond to it.

 

Such a list would include all the knownstream varieties of poetry such as Iowa School poetry, Eliotic jump-cut poetry, surrealistic poetry, New York School poetry, beat poetry, and so on, but also visual poetry, sound poetry, performance poetry, contragenteel poetry, mathematical poetry, infra-verbal and grammar-centered poetry (the two main schools of genuine language poetry), cryptographic poetry, cyber poetry and others I've forgotten about or missed. I've several times advertised in print or on the Internet my need for help in making such a list but gotten just about no responses. The Establishment has taken no notice whatever of the idea. They obviously want the general public to believe the contemporary American poetry continuum has nothing on it but what I call "Wilshberia."  

 

I picked that name for Certified American Poetry after reading some mediocrity's introduction to a collection of forgettable poetry he'd chosen for his edition of a volume in David Lehman's "Best American Poetry" series. In his introduction the mediocrity proclaimed his breadth of taste as by assuring his readers that he'd made his selections after reading thirty or so different magazines (Like the Hudson Review and the New Yorker). He went on to boast that he greatly enjoyed all sorts of poetry, from the work of Richard Wilbur to the work of John Ashbery! 

 

“Wilshberia” seemed a natural for "all the contemporary American poetry from the most formal kind composed by Richard Wilbur to the most free-ranging that nonetheless ignores all techniques not in wide use forty or fifty years ago such as the Eliotic jump-cut poetry of John Ashbery [which the ignorant consider avant-garde]" OR, more simply, the entire range of contemporary American poetry academics know more than the names of.  For a long time Wilshberia was off-limits to the work of the poets known as "language poets" but ten or fifteen years ago it admitted some of it—the kind enough like Ashbery's not to upset the status quo too much.

 

Academics, needless to say, have not cottoned to the term. A representative spokesman for them, David Graham, criticizes it as much too broad. He put it this way during an Internet discussion at New-Poetry, "Let’s run a bit with (a) sports analogy. Wilshberia as Bob tends to define it would not just include the major & minor leagues of pro baseball, but every single college, high school, middle school, and community league. Plus sandlot games, softball at company picnics & family reunions.  Fathers playing catch with kids in the back yard, too, of course. Oh, and naturally all games overseas, not to mention computer baseball games & fantasy leagues."  

 

As for what the label excludes? "Well," according to Professor Graham, "such things as two guys in Havre, Montana who like to kick a deer skull back & forth and call it “baseball.” Sure, there’s no bat, ball, gloves, diamond, fans, pitcher, or catcher—but they do call it baseball, and wonder why the mainstream media consistently fails to mention their game."

 

I have trouble treating this kind of obtuseness as even-handedly as Jake has. It seems to me to be responsible for a state of affairs in American poetry since around 1950—a kind of unstoppable Egyptification due the unification of mediocrities in the equivalent of  a trade guild who control what goes in, what stays out, of the poetry anthologies that become our college English departments’ texts, and dictate and reflect what poetry is taught there, discussed in the most visible publications by the only widely influential critics, and accepted by the huge majority of poetry-accepting publications, including all of the commercially viable ones—and, worst of all—subsidized by the imbeciles running organizations like the Poetry Foundation. Their obvious aim being to protect its members from competition from non-conformingly innovative poets. 

 

Here's how this state of affairs came about, it seems to me (without having carried out a formal detailed investigation of the kind beloved of grinds):

 

Perhaps as many as fifty years ago, according to a magazine article I read as a teen-ager in the hard-bound magazine, Horizon, all the poetry prizes were going to the same people. The theory expressed was that Harvard, basically, was in control, and The New Yorker was its main representative. And Harvard-approved poets won the great majority of prizes. My impression is that the poetry of Williams, its power greatly amplified by the popularity of the rebellious beats, finally broke through the hegemony of the time—circa 1960. Visual poetry, even then a major kind of poetry, was ignored. But so was the very much less threatening (one would think) haiku, although the beats revered it (generally without much understanding of it). Iowa School Poetry, really just a slight variation on the dominant poetry of the first half of the twentieth-century, a few years later began to represent, and still represents, the mainest of the mainstream poetry.

 

Somewhere along the line Helen Vendler, our most visible critic, started championing Ashbery. Gradually Ashbery's friend, Frank O’Hara, and the New York School became acknowledged as significant. By the eighties, with an influential Stanford voice in Marjorie Perloff, the language school started becoming noticed. Some of those calling themselves that, or being called that by the ignorant, became confused with the now prominent members of the jump-cut school Ashbery had emerged with from the New York School. They kept their name, and are now certified. That many of their members were academics at prestigious universities (there are a few professors among the better visual poets but none at an Ivy League school or the like that I know of) greatly helped them to their high estate, I’m certain. 

 

Once Poetry came into big money, things have worsened. Critic David Orr has a review in its February 2011 issue that typifies what makes it, in my view, the largest obstacle facing superior American poets. It is the belief that poetry, as Mark McGurl put it somewhere, "has been all but entirely absorbed by institutions of higher education.” Only someone oblivious to all the poetry happening outside academia, most notably, visual poetry, language poetry, sound poetry, cyber poetry and mathematical poetry, can believe this.  

 

What’s depressing about this is that Poetry is wealthy, influential, often-appearing and claims to want to represent the full continuum of contemporary poetry, so could do so much to help the impoverished R&D department of the poetry enterprise.  

 

And so, the latest anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry, published by Penguin and edited by Rita Dove, includes not one contemporary otherstream poet, even excluding such tepidly sometime visual poets as John Hollander and May Swenson—and is criticized by our most visible critic, Helen Vendler, not for the narrowness of its views of our poetry continuum but for presenting the work of 175 poets, since no country could possibly have that many top-drawer poets during a single century (something I agree with).   

 

I haven't given up all hope, though. I feel that eventually the intelligent lay public will find its way around the middlemen between certified poetry and better, or at least interestingly different, poetry due to the Internet. With the help of a widely distributed, intelligent list of schools of poetry, with comments on and examples from each! This is not happening to much of an extent now; the Internet is too confused. And no one yet seems willing to help me list all the schools of current American Poetry (oh, the horror of labeling!), to facilitate discovery of the uncertified, and at least demonstrate the degree to which the academy and its brain-dead media mouthpieces, has constricted the width of the poetry continuum visible to the public. Nor do I know of any book on this topic available or planned. I’d love to get the opinion of someone more knowledgeable than I, much more a victim of literary history than a student of it, am. And, sure, someone more likely than a marginalized creative artist like me to be objective about it.

 

   

 

copyright © Bob Grumman

 

   

 

Now past seventy, poet/critic Bob Grumman thinks of himself as the world’s oldest apprentice cultural- force-to-be-reckoned-with. For nearly twenty years he has written a regular column focused mainly on otherstream poetry for Small Press Review, which he still writes. Beginning in the middle eighties, he was also a columnist for such now-extinct otherstream magazines as Lost & Found Times and Factsheet Five, and wrote a number of reviews for less adventurous publications such as American Book Review and Modern Haiku. For the past few years, he has confined his writing on poetry mainly to his blog, poeticks.com. His first book of poetry—self-published as most of his books have been—was poemns (1966), a collection of visual haiku. He’s had several collections of poetry published since then, the most important of them being April to the Power of the Quantity Pythagoras Times Now (2008), a collection of the mathematical poems for which he is best known.