Wednesday, September 24, 2008

“I’m Happy On The Shelf” #1

Hey, folks, a new series at Robert Frost’s Banjo!—don’t worry, I’m more or less keeping track of them, & they’ll all keep turning up, hopefully not like the proverbial bad penny.

Anyhoo, although the title is a nod to “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” this has nothing to do with Fats Waller. It struck me that a goodly percentage of Robert Frost’s Banjo readers read books, & it might be fun to discuss some books I’m involved with from time to time. Leave it to me to write the first one of these about a book I’ve discovered is out-of-print. However, a Google search does show that you can pick it up from several online sources, & in some cases even for a good price.

The book is Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970, edited by Andrei Codrescu—that’s right, for you aficienados of NPR who aren’t also poetry readers, the witty NPR commentator who sounds like Count Dracula is a poet & a member of the literati—actually a member of some note, as he’s a prolific writer both of poems & essays, & also the editor of a big-time literary mag (in the sense any literary mag is “big-time”) Exquisite Corpse.

Codrescu’s aim in Up Late is polemical; he wants to present poets he sees as writing outside the accepted academic milieu (which of course includes most of the writing workshop bunch). In an informative & rollicking introduction, he excoriates anthologies that mix academic & non-academic poets without any regard for the aesthetic bias/stance of any given writer; he also traces the roots of his anthology by linking it to the Grove Press 1960 New American Poetry (still available under the title The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised). Obviously, his points about “mixed” & “proper” anthologies (which, in Codrescu’s terms, present “closed poems”) are points that can be debated, but Codrescu's position does have its logic—he’s carving out a place for the poets who are non-academic & anti-literary, drawing connections between them, & establishes their overall “voice” by the sheer number of poems & poets (the book is 600+ pages, though this includes additional material like an index & mini-biographies, & it contains over 100 poets). In doing so, he includes poets from divergent schools—there are both Beats, as well as the “East Coast beats” of the New York School (2nd & 3rd generation in each case), surrealists, political poets (actually, most if not all of these poets could be said to be at least implicitly political—& political topics range from general U.S. policy to gender, racial, & sexual politics, to meditations on general cultural conditions), minimalists, & language poets.

It’s a wild & wooly bunch, & very few if any readers will like all the poets included here. However, it’s a starting point for each reader to use in discovering which poets he/she finds moving/intriguing/inspiring, & then (it’s hoped) go on to discover more about those specific writers. This is always the ”job” of any anthology—other than being a book professors & grad students can order as reading material for their hapless under-grads.

What’s the importance of a book like Up Late to the average reader? After all, poetry in the U.S. these days is such a specialized field—it’s not read very much (the last poet to be on the Times best seller list? Frost, who at this point is a few generations back….); one wonders if in fact there are as many “poetry readers” as there are self-professed “poets”: certainly the circulation for the average literary journal is so low one has to assume that a number of folks writing poems aren’t reading that many of them. Eberle talks about the time she spent in what was Czeckloslavakia back in the 80’s, & mentions that the publication of a book of poems there had about the same cultural impact as the release of a big-name movie here stateside. I actually don’t come from the school that bewails the fact movie stars, etc. are making seven figure salaries & poets are clerking in bookstores—after all, I kinda think poets are best when they’re on the outside looking in, & as has been proved abundantly in our culture, the whole fame/celebrity phenomenon is one sure way of assimilating outlaw artists. & besides, as Frank O’Hara (a VERY good poet) realized—where would we be without movie stars? Check out his poem “Lana Turner Has Collapsed!” here.

So if you want a taste of U.S. poetry from “the wrong side of the tracks,” check your local used bookstore, or an online outlet for used books & give Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970 a look-see.

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