Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Golden Age

The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry Since 1940, edited by Mark Strand (1969)

The original Golden Age was pastoral--zephyrs and barks plying languid lakes, high clouds reminiscence of Orientalist cities, sun (but not too much), distant peaks and the sorts of views a city-dweller might enjoy from the comfort of her carriage. High summer, one imagines, on Martha's Vineyard, a nice Sauvignon Blanc on the portico, oysters, cucumber sandwiches.

Not that one. The golden age of American poetry was urban, gritty and unshaven, fueled by whiskey and cheese sandwiches, adjunct jobs that never quite panned out at small Midwestern colleges --booze, or the temptations offered by frisky undergraduates--manual typewriters, manila envelopes, trips to the post-office for stamps, polite phone calls from editors who knew a thing or two about poetry, readings in bookstores--bookstores!--crowds languid with smoke and wine and an unquenchable thirst for words.

The Golden Age. Not, of course, for everyone. Not for Negros (as they said back then), or for women, or for the poor, or for almost everybody else. But still--if you were young and male and white and got to college on the GI Bill, and had been bitten by the unforgettable verses of the King James Bible, or King Lear and had managed to get over T.S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, and saw the charms of Auden but didn't have the epic impulse--if you were an American romantic, footloose and lyrical, if you'd grown up in a small town but left at once for New York or Chicago, if you didn't give a shit about money--then you just might join the illustrious American post-modernist pantheon of poets.  [See Saul Bellow, Humbolt's Gift for this version of the pastoral].

Post-modernist? That's Strand's view, not my own. No, these poets were somewhere in between the high modernists and what came after, the waves of language poetry unmoored from meaning, the lines that scuttle down the pages of Poetry and The American Poetry Review and the Paris Review like fishing lines atwitch with carp, poems workshopped to suit the tastes of poets workshopped, which is to say poems produced and not written, formed and not felt. The Golden Age was golden for having been produced by men and women who simply had the urge, loved the language, and were confounded by the world around them. That, after all, is the alchemy of art: talent and opportunity come together at a moment when someone--a patron, William Shawn, Harriet Monroe--cares enough about the art to take a chance, when the publisher has taste and not a rabid yearning for profits and fashion.

Roethke and Bishop, Ammons and Justice and Bly, Corso and Creeley, Dugan and Dickey and the great Richard Hugo and sublime Howard Nemerov and Louise Gluck (still going strong), and diminutive Diane Wakoski, and sad sad Anne Sexton, and the gentlemen James Tate, and May Swenson who always surprises, and little knowns now like Reed Whittemore and David Ignatow, and tragic ones like Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, and the saintly James Wright, and craftsmen like Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht: Donald Hall and John Ashbery (both of whom still appear to write a poem a day), Ginsberg of course, and Le Roi Jones (remember?), and did I mention Philip Levine, Carolyn Kizer, and Charles Wright (three of my all-time favorite poets), X.J. Kennedy whose writing text remains unrivaled, and William Meredith, the discovery of whose work reignited my love of poetry thirty years ago. And many others, ninety-six in all, comfortably residing in the 350 or so pages of this classic collection edited by our finest anthologist Mark Strand (who, modestly, includes only one of his own poems, the haunting "Keeping Things Whole").

I adore all of these writers, each one of whom has a voice and style and concerns that overlap but never duplicate those of his or her peers. America after the war, America during another and longer war. The place of poetry in a philistine society. The aches and pains of America's emergent greatness (written about with irony, anger, awe, and disbelief, depending on the poet). City streets. Restless searching for meaning, or despair over the lack of meaning--or wondering what "meaning" means. There were no limits on subject matter, no forms that went untried, no lexical shyness--crazy diction by modernist standards, a rejection of academic norms--these poets were often found in the academy, but with few exceptions were not of the academy. They wore their learning lightly--no pretentious Greek and Latin quotations, though lots of them knew the classics (Charles Olson was an exception, and, sure enough, he's here with "The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs" sounding for all the world like that Satyr Ezra.)

Here's one of my favorites, from 1968:

You might come here Sunday on a whim.   
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss   
you had was years ago. You walk these streets   
laid out by the insane, past hotels   
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try   
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.   
Only churches are kept up. The jail   
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner   
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now   
is rage. Hatred of the various grays   
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,   
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls   
who leave each year for Butte. One good   
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.   
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,   
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat   
or two stacks high above the town,   
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse   
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?   
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium   
and scorn sufficient to support a town,   
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze   
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty   
when the jail was built, still laughs   
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,   
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.   
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.   
The car that brought you here still runs.   
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver   
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

I like to imagine Richard Hugo trying to place this poem with any of today's on-line publishers. Or imagine the response to this poem, by Stanley Moss:

I have not used my darkness well,
nor the Baroque arm that hangs from my shoulder,
nor the Baroque arm of my chair.
The rain moves out in a dark schedule.
Let the wind marry. I know the creation
continues through love. The rain’s a wife.
I cannot sleep or lie awake. Looking
at the dead I turn back, fling
my hat into their grandstands for relief.
How goes a life? Something like the ocean
building dead coral. 
How goes a life? There's a nice line, and its resolution must have taken Moss weeks to come to..."dead coral."
This is a wonderful book to own, to keep handy, to consult frequently. Thanks to commerce, you can buy it, here, for only one cent. 
George Ovitt, (8/26/16) 

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