WHAT IS AMERICAN ABOUT AMERICAN POETRY?
The Place Of American Poetry
I placed a jar in Tennessee
A mongrel child of a mongrel nation, about as American as you can get, I was born in Tennessee. Each American is a quintessential American, unique stories all. This is the strength of America and American poetry: The Handmade Tradition of the New, A Tradition That Makes itself Up as It Goes Along. When I was working on The United States of PoetryI kept worrying about the rich diversity of these 50 states, the vast array of landscape cultural and aesthetic that make up our poetry, or, poetries, how was I going to fit it all in? Start with Whitman and Dickinson—how could you get two US poets more different from each other? Robert Frost and TS Eliot. Gertrude Stein, Carl Sandburg. Langston Hughes and Sylvia Plath. There are three Nobel Laureates in USOP,Brodsky, Milosz, Walcott—none was born here, all chose to live here. Is this payback from turn of the last century, when Pound and Eliot and Frost and Stein all spent years as expatriates? Milosz continues to write in Polish, Robert Hass his number one translator and haiku expert claims he doesn't speak Polish—ah, US poetry!
Because America is where we have a Poetic License guaranteed in the Bill of Writes. And at the millennial moment poetry is back from abroad, in our lives, driven by the acknowledgement that there are as many genres of poetry as music (rap is poetry!) and via the democratizing dynamic of slams and open mics, we can realize that it never left. There are poems in subway cars and moveable type on our refrigerators. At a reading I gave earlier this year with Lucie Brock-Broido, host Tom Lux noted that not only have the number of poetry readings increased dramatically in the last ten years, but while 90% of readings used to be in academic settings, that percentage has reversed in the same period of time. Readings abound, poetry is flowing, an art once endangered is moving into the center of culture.
My mother, Sally Ruth Lewis, daughter of a coal miner, married the only Jew in Harlan, Kentucky: Benjamin Franklin Geller. Ben's parents, Solomon and Sophie, migrated from Ukraine in 1918. In my veins then, the wild cool hollers of Appalachia cross the crackling electric rants of Mayakovsky. This land is your land, this land is my land. One more American tale.
I first heard Mayakovsky rage on the page through Frank O'Hara, tracking "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island" on a tip from Kenneth Koch. Professor Koch was my first poetry teacher at Columbia. Koch was a Jew from Cincinnati, as was I—I grew up in New Richmond, about twenty miles upriver from the Queen City, or Porkopolis, as we learned in eighth grade Ohio History. But, like most people ("Americans!"), I didn't become a Jew till I moved to New York.
In Koch's first class he threw his arms around himself and hugged him tight and said, "Walt! I love you!" Walt Whitman. I'd never heard anyone call a poet by their first name before. Especially a dead poet. When I read O'Hara's and Koch's poems, I discovered that this first- name basis was a part of the aesthetic of the New York School. I liked thinking of Kenneth and Frank and John and Jimmy and Barbara. Hello, Ron and Ted! Being on a first-name basis is an American thing, part of an informality that grounds poetry in reality, allowing marvelous flights, surrealistic imaginings, to be plain talk. To others, of course, unexplained first names create an exclusionary, cliquey feel. Poetry always contains its opposite.
My poetic education before Columbia had been fairly conventional. Dr. Seuss was there at the beginning, especially his On Beyond Zebrawhich reshaped the alphabet as language tried to keep up with imagination. What Seuss did aloud, ee cummings did on the page for me. But even here, the opposite reared-— loved to read the impossible "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r" aloud. As a freshman at New Richmond High, my teacher, a Christian Fundamentalist, stood in the back of the room and demanded we not turn to look as he read Poe's "The Bells," his voice ecstatic, transporting. In 11th grade, we studied Amy Lowell's "Patterns." "Christ! What are patterns for?" she asked, and I wondered too, amazed that someone had got away with saying "Christ" as an expletive in a poem in our conservative textbook. The anti-pattern: revolution as motif in US poetry.
My senior English teacher had me read The Canterbury Tales,and assigned me the writing of a modern version. That was great. Then I got in Big Trouble, and the school newspaper printed my haiku of resistance:
I have a clear view
Of the rising moon, now that
My house has burned down.
I wish I could find my friend Mike who I met through Len Fulton's Dust Directory—he published a little mag, was it called "This and..."?—and introduced me to the world of the small press. The do-it-yourself approach to literature has everything to do with US and American lit. Whitman was a printer, published his own first book. Reviewed it, too, pseudonymously—that's seizing the means of production! Gave it a rave, too. Pound engineered the Imagists through Harriet Monroe's "Poetry." I think of Ferlinghetti, stapling. Years later, walking around the collating table in Bob Rosenthal and Shelley Kraut's apartment, I felt great pride in blasting open the myth of the poet in garret placing poems in drawer, in locked box, key with purple velvet ribbon attached. Spring of '98, there's "Bicentennial Suicide: A Novel to Be Performed," one of those Frontward Books, in a vitrine at NY Public Library, an all-mimeo exhibition!
In the late '70s, I was working for the CETA Artists Project, the largest federally-funded artists' project since the WPA. Receiving governmental support for arts projects was critical in my making my way as a poet—the St. Mark's Poetry Project grew up with the NEA. This interaction with government mitigated the mistrust developed during Viet Nam. When Sara Miles and Susie Timmons and I founded the NYC Poetry Calendarin 1977, June Fortress of the New York State Council on the Arts tracked us down, gave us money. A patriotism that included a subversive element seemed cool, and very American.
I had come to New York from rural Ohio with a copy of Howl in my back pocket. The outlaw status of the Beats had created a new literature, a new world I felt at home in. The Beats! The first time I heard Ginsberg, his voice scoring direct hits on the nervous system—not speakingthe words, becoming them, embodying them, I was hooked. Language is real. Amiri Baraka, voice as instrument, jazz riffs of verbal, smartened and toughened me up while making my brain mush sweet and revolutionary. I just came back from touring with Sekou Sundiata, the Last Poets, Maggie Estep—life in a blender! Yes, these are US traditions! The street corner Jibaro, Jorge Brandon, with his poems all in memory, hundreds of them, where are they now that he has passed? Some have been passed on, I can find them in Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. I watch Susan Robeson's videos of the Hmong bringing their homeland here, ritual poems in Minneapolis, American poetry. Joe Gould, whose "Oral History of the Universe" multi-volume poem, has never been found, if it was even written: single voice tradition. John Trudell and Umar Ben Hassan (of the Last Poets) both live at no fixed address, shamans in a tech-mad world.
Hearing Joy Harjo is to hear the ancient Anasazi poetry totally contemporaneously. Cecilia Vicuña, exiled here from Chile, weaves together an audience, literally, with yarn and languages: Spanish, English, Quechua, all languages of America. Anne Waldman keeps alive the Beat and other traditions at Nairopa, a fast speaking woman whose poems come to life via voice. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky records the people's poems' Millenial moment in his Famous Poem project; Andrew Carroll crosses the land in a rental van passing out free poetry books hand-to-hand as the legacy of Brodsky; Victor Cruz has moved back to Agua Buenas, P.R. and his English dives into Spanish which is America, too. Hearing Jayne Cortéz live, that powerful, modulating voice while she stood absolutely still. Going to my first Poetry Slam at the Green Mill, where Marc Smith insistently demands the audience rule. Sapphire, who moved poetry to prose, as did Jessica Hagedorn—American move? Among the poets Sekou Sundiata has taught at The New School are Ani DiFranco and M. Doughty. Ani's Righteous Babe label just released first non-DiFranco title—an amazing spoken word album by 70 year-old folkie, U Utah Phillips. Doughty's poetry sells millions with rock band Soul Coughing...
US poetics trips along, but flip the telescope around and this overview unity splinters into turf wars: for example, if you're acknowledged as a poet by the academy, it seems to cut off from the populace at large, while populist poets still contend with a "That's not a poem" mentality from the academy. To me, this is a win-win debate. The minute you question if some writing is a poem, you're asserting you know what is. Turf wars seem part of the landscape of poetry world, not necessarily confined to US. Alas. Poets of the World, Rewrite!
Langston Hughes told us, "America never was America to me." If anybody could redefine this country, it's the poets. In putting together The United States of Poetry,we tried to find poets who would stake out the extremes which could define these States geographically and aesthetically. Poets guided us—so we set about finding the poets and poems that could do that while getting the thing on TV.
People come up to me breathlessly, saying how great it is to finally see poets on TV! I shrug--it was seeing a poet on TV that kicked me into the world of poetry. That would be the influence of the poet Percy Dovetonsils, a creation of Ernie Kovacs. Kovacs, great US surrealist, made populist intellectual television. More! America, get poets on TV! Now that SLAM,the movie, follows love jones into the mall cinemas, and Amiri Baraka gives Bulworth his last bit of advice...
While running the slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café, I was invited to tour the Literaturhaussenof Germany. With a Wellsian Time Machine zapper (what are The Cantosbut Poem as Time Machine?) I envisioned the building on East Third laid over the Hamburg site. A bookstore and delightful formal restaurant on the ground floor, well-appointed offices headquartering various publishers, a budget put forth completely by city and federal governments, and over 100 years of readings bouncing off the walls. Nothing in the US compares. We are young, damn it!
Trip to Nicaragua in 1988 with Roland Legiardi-Laura, Allen Ginsberg, Zoë Angelsey, Rev. Pedro Pietri, Diane Burns, Joe Richey, Joy Harjo, Alurista. Everyone reading poems. The national sport of Nicaragua, except for beisbol.Sandanista failure? Argument of Cardinal and Jose Coronel Urtecho, Vanguard Poets, over Pound. As if they owned him, which they do, Nicaragua is America, too... Death of Paz, end of Sandanista reign—is our continent losing poet-politicians? Jimmy Carter publishes Always A Reckoning; Eugene McCarthy continues on the poet's path.
English has become the big bully language, thanks to horrendous Triumph of capitalism and the pervasive English-driven Internet. USA poets have benefited from this, including me. Slams are big deals in Germany and Scandinavia, and many poets are writing in English. The recent moves to officialize English are part of this trend.
But languages are living things. We must treasure and nurture them as we do endangered species of flora and fauna. Here's what I see for US poetries of the future. Increasing use of a variety of media to record and transmit the poem. I hate the theme parkification of the US—but I do think the variety of languages that intermingle will eventually make this country a showplace for languages, with pride in maintaining one's roots linguistically. And no better place to see this than in our poetry.
The annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko will expand to include all poetries! There will be regional poetry festivals all over US! Poetry in cyberspace, CD labels, on TV. Hard not to be a mite optimistic. An American trait, that.