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modern poetry

There are many reasons why Karl Shapiro is no longer taught or on the lips of MFA students.

First, he was part of the post-war formalist/structuralism/urban boom in poetry, but he had enjoyed great success (Pulitzers and whatnot), and he was a Jew. A Jew with a Pulitzer in the 1940s/1950s who was neither humble nor particularly unwashed and earnest (Shapiro…was dapper) was treated with some envy and contempt.

Second, the Beats had visited him and not thought themselves properly treated (they expected a hipster jazz sort of poet because it was Shapiro–not Ginsberg–who first start writing in long rhapsodic free verse lines in emulation of Whitman). Shapiro became for them the symbol of stuffed shirt bougie poetics (as you will see from this poem, Shapiro was anything but. He was sexually open and using the long free verse line a good ten years before Allen Ginsberg came anywhere near it).

Shapiro was buried under the reps of Lowell, and Jarrell, and Berryman. Of those three, Berryman appeals most to post-structural poets (he’s the darling of every grad students MFA program). Lowell has enjoyed a rise in fortune after a ten or fifteen year eclipse. Jarrell’s name is starting to come up again, albeit more for his essays than poems.

But here’s the rub: Shapiro was doing everything they got the credit for innovating a good ten years before they were doing it: including confessional poetry. Those who run poetry are shrewd. They know the best way to disappear a poet is to refuse to talk about him–neither to praise nor ridicule, simply relegate him to a non-entity status. Ginsberg (and I think this makes Ginsberg a total self serving piece of shit) would not admit that it was Shapiro’s sexually explicit, long lined free verse poems, and not Whiman’s, that influenced him most immediately. (Whitman made for a more exciting father). Shapiro was a Jew with a Pulitzer. It was Shapiro to an extent who represented the most legitimate use of Whitman in terms of modern poetry–not Ginsberg. So what were Shapiro’s sins? He was eloquent, and proud. He probably pissed off the Columbia school (Trilling may have sniped at him, and Ginsberg and the Beats were Trilling’s pet primitives).

It doesn’t matter. He is a superb poet who does not deserve to be in obscurity but will remain so. Below is his “Aubade,” written in the 1940s when Ginsberg was a student. It’s elaborate, courtly, sexually explicit, but purposefully artful, and it uses the long Whitmanesque line and the sense of humor–the American suburban wise ass that Ginsberg would employ in Supermarket in California. We must return to Shapiro. We won’t. So it goes:

AUBADE – KARL SHAPIRO

What dawn is it?

The morning star stands at the end of your street as you watch me turn to laugh a kind of goodbye, with
love-crazed head like a white satyr moving through wet bushes.
The morning star bursts in my eye like a hemorrhage as I enter my car in a dream surrounded by your
heavenly-earthly smell.
The steering wheel is sticky with dew,
The golf course is empty, husbands stir in their sleep desiring, and though no cocks crow in suburbia, the
birds are making a hell of a racket.
Into the newspaper dawn as sweet as your arms that hold the old new world, dawn of green lights that
smear the empty streets with come and go.
It is always dawn when I say goodnight to you,
Dawn of wrecked hair and devastated beds,
Dawn when protective blackness turns to blue and lovers drive sunward with peripheral vision.
To improvise a little on Villon
Dawn is the end for which we are together.

My house of loaded ashtrays and unwashed glasses, tulip petals and columbine that spill on the table
and splash on the floor,
My house full of your dawns,
My house where your absence is presence,
My slum that loves you, my bedroom of dustmice and cobwebs, of local paintings and eclectic posters,
my bedroom of rust neckties and divorced mattresses, and of two of your postcards, Pierrot
with Flowers and Young Girl with Cat,
My bed where you have thrown your body down like a king’s ransom or a boa constrictor.

But I forgot to say: May passed away last night,
May died in her sleep,
That May that blessed and kept our love in fields and motels.
I erect a priapic statue to that May for lovers to kiss as long as I’m in print, and polish as smooth as the
Pope’s toe.
This morning came June of spirea and platitudes,
This morning came June discreetly dressed in gray,
June of terrific promises and lawsuits.

And where are the poems that got lost in the shuffle of spring?
Where is the poem about the eleventh of March, when we raised the battleflag of dawn?
Where is the poem about the coral necklace that whipped your naked breasts in leaps of love?
The poem concerning the ancient lover we followed through your beautiful sleeping head?
The fire-fountain of your earthquake thighs and your electric mouth?
Where is the poem about the little one who says my name and watches us almost kissing in the sun?
The vellum stretchmarks of your learned belly,
Your rosy-fingered nightgown of nylon and popcorn,
Your razor that caresses your calves like my hands?
Where are the poems that are already obsolete, leaves of last month, a very historical month?
Maybe I’ll write them, maybe I won’t, no matter,
And this is the end for which we are together.
Et c’est la fin pour quoy sommes ensembles.

Warning: mUutations are a project from my other site, Uut Poetry. They are arbitrary interpretive readings that change the poems into something they’re not. Proceed at your own risk.

Pete Winslow is a very minor Beat surrealist poet who died young and only published a few books, including Monster Cookie, which contains this short poem, “The Dada Scarecrow”:

Two crossed sticks in a field
This is the dada scarecrow
The crows gather around to wonder at it
No straw no old clothes
No floppy hat like scarecrows wear
Just two crossed sticks in a field
And a real man suspended naked
From its arms.

When reading poems, it’s always good to ask yourself how your expectations and assumptions about the poem changed throughout. This is essential with a poem that has a “shocker” ending like this one. Once the sticks become a Roman cross, it’s impossible to see the first six lines without Christ’s crucifixion in mind, which almost irreparably cuts you off from your initial reactions and thoughts.

Before I got to these last two lines my thought process went something like this: Two sticks in a field is quite Dadaist—it is a humorous and effective appropriation of an iconic America object into an “art object,” and, like Dada, it is the “act” of art that creates social and ideological implications without breeching political contexts topically. operates totally in the realm of symbolism.

And I saw the scarecrows. The crows can be taken literally, suggesting, intriguingly, that other animal species can, to however slight a degree, encounter Dada art like we do. Why not? Animals are aware of changes to their environment; they can sense when something an object is alien to its context and demands observation; and they might even be confronted with the inability to interpret such phenomenon. We go beyond this, of course, to conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, like these gawking crows, successful Dada art initially makes us ask, “What is it?” before we realize it is “art.”

These aspects of the poem, though, become background noise after Winslow blows up the poem with the final image. Suddenly, the harmless, funny dada scarecrow (which I took as being merely two sticks—without a doll or a body) becomes a horrific, perverse encounter. The metaphor creates all sort of implications that critics explore, but what is most interesting to me, though, is how the metaphor doubles back on itself and becomes a commentary on Dadaism. Christ is here “the Dada scarecrow,” a Dada artist who confronts his society directly and viscerally. And there is sense in which the crucifixion was a conceptual frame-breaking event dramatically changing human consciousness. In the religious iconographic sense, the crucifixion must be seen in a variety of incompatible ways. It is both art and not art, both something that must be gazed at and something that resists and delimits aesthetic distance. Similarly, Dadaism is re-seen as having unique and expansive metaphysical meaning, as affecting a paradigmatic shift in reality (in opposition to the popular view of Dadaism as “throw-away” art). Like the crucifixion, Dadaism, the poem suggests, transgresses and transforms through radical action that is simultaneously “art” and ideology.

If the Dadaist is a Christ figure and Christ is a Dada figure, they share the status of the cultural martyr. This might be seen as an aspect of Winslow’s Beat identity since the Beats’ premier metaphor for self-representation was the victimized prophet figure who willing subjects his body (and mind) to violence for the sake of humanity.

Finally, it’s important to appreciate the basic act of “re-seeing” at the heart of the poem. The conceit is simple: Winslow surveys the American landscape and changes utilitarian objects into symbols of the collective unconscious. The operation of framing “found” objects into aesthetic space may be one of the oldest techniques in recent history, but it’s one of the basic premises of modern poetry and surrealism.

Gene-cov-lg

Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.