A permanent condition: some American women
[ opinion - june 10 ]
"It is when the slavery of half of humanity is abolished and with it the whole hypocritical system it implies that the 'division' of humanity will reveal its authentic meaning and the human couple will discover it true form." - Simone de Beauvoir
"In modern art anarchy has proved preferable to the restrictions of a benevolent tyranny. It is preferable as a permanent condition. We do not want merely to substitute one orthodoxy for another... we want all possibilities, even contradictory ones, to exist together." -Donald Hall (Preface, Contemporary American Poetry, 1962)
"The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once. - Albert Einstein
I recently came across an old copy of Contemporary American Poetry edited by poet Donald Hall, first edition published in 1962 and updated in 1972. I found the handy ensemble of mid-20th century American poets - with its famous Jasper Johns 'Flag above White' cover painting - on a rarely visited bookshelf in my house and instantly remembered awful readings in at least two Lit classes in college in the mid-Seventies. The book was widely taught then, but I recalled almost none of the poems today, and have no memory ever caring very much about any of them at the time. (I confess to pursuing French film criticism then, Beckett, early Marx, Sartre, Camus and Pound, while regularly ignoring class assignments.) So I revisited the Hall collection without nostalgia, as if for the first time, cover to cover in one sitting.
Of the 39 "contemporary" poets selected by the distinguished Professor Hall, only four are women and of those, one is still living, one was born in England, one is lesbian and two were later suicides. Two were political activists. Most of the poems assembled are "bad" in that temporal sense of "bad" - the damage done by a half century of cultural dynamism to any poet, living or dead. Many poems are unreadable today, simply vacuous to my post modern ear and sensibility. Some poets are completely unrecognizable or unsustainable no matter how celebrated they may be or have been in the past. A few purely subjective and completely arbitrary samples might illustrate what time and history can do to any concept of the "contemporary":
I do tricks in order to know:
careless I dance
then turn to see
the mark to turn God left for me.
I stopped to pick up the bagel
rolling away in the wind,
annoyed with myself
for having dropped it
as it were a portent.
It must have been a Friday. I could hear
The top-floor typist's thunder and the beer
That you had brought in cases hurt my head;
I'd sent the pillows flying from my bed,
I hugged my knees together and I gasped.
Death of Sir Nihil, book the nth
Upon the charred and clotted sword,
Lacking the lily of the Lord,
Alases of the hyacinth.
Even something more modernist creaks a bit with age:
In the story the ants help. The old man at Pisa
mixed in whose mind
(to draw the sorts) are all seeds
as a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
had part restored by an insect, was
upheld by a lizard
(to draw the sorts)
the wind is part of the process
defines a nation of the wind -
father of many notions,
let the light into the dark? began
the many movements of the passion?
The youngest of these poets was born in 1921, the youngest represented in the anthology is Ron Padgett, born 1942, who, from a contemporary perspective, seems to have been turning a corner in the Sixties:
From point A a wind is blowing to point B.
Which is here, where the pebble is only a mountain.
If truly heaven and earth are out there
Why is that man waving his arms around,
Gesturing to the word 'lightning' written on the clouds
That surround and disguise his feet?
Some poets stand up better than others over time, of course, the work still vital and authentic despite the corrosion of history. Robert Bly seems to me much more relevant now, for example, than he did in the "flower power" decades:
The Possibility of New Poetry
Singing of Niagara, and the Huron squaws,
The chaise-longue, the periwinkles in a rage of snow,
Dillinger like a dark wind.
Intelligence, cover the advertising men with clear water,
And the factories with merciless space,
So that the strong-haunched woman
By the Blazing stove of the sun, the moon,
May come home to me, sitting on the naked wood
In another world, and all the Shell stations
Folded in faint light.
Again, purely subjective, but the always interesting Allen Ginsberg comes off oddly formal in my read today; nonetheless one engages a poet who was with it, as they said then:
In the huge
wooden house, a yellow chandelier
at 3 a.m. the blast of loudspeakers
hi-fi Rolling Stones Ray Charles Beatles
Jumping Joe Jackson and twenty youths
dancing to the vibration thru the floor,
a little weed in the bathroom, girls in scarlet
tights, one muscular smooth skinned man
sweating dancing for hours, beer cans
bent littering the yard, a hanged man
sculpture dangling from a high creek branch,
children sleeping softly in bedroom bunks,
And 4 police cars parked outside the painted
gate, red lights revolving in the leaves.
Gary Snyder still strikes me as an introverted environmentalist, not quite the visceral, political humanist the age demanded:
They came to camp. On their
Own trails. I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Ten thousand years.
For me art is always political, affirming or rejecting an implied status quo: what Hall calls "orthodoxy" in the above quote. And then there is the inimitable Frank O'Hara, who will not be ignored no matter how lightly represented in Hall:
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stand in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
A younger John Ashbery - poet of the circuitous, terror-packed sentence - seems restrained now compared to the American women asserting their claim to fame in the turbulent Sixties:
All contact with the flowers is forbidden.
The white flowers strain upward
Into a pallid air of their references,
Pushed slightly by the red and blue flowers.
If you were going to be jealous of the flowers,
Please forget it.
They mean absolutely nothing to me.
One could go on, but what's of interest here, after all these years, is how naturally the modernists seem to fall away from their sieged traditional colleagues; and how really good the female poets were, how strong their work sustains today, how contemporary. The female poems (is that a genre?) sting (as opposed to sing) with existential connections revealing complex historical and emotional contexts; with human feelings confronted, frequently under duress - here are mere samplings of Denise Levertov, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich from Hall's collection:
After the First Communion
and the banquet of mangoes and
bridal cake, the young daughters
of the coffee merchant lay down
for a long siesta, and their white dresses
lay beside them in quietness
and the white veils floated
In their dreams as the flies buzzed.
Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention
the furniture you have placed under the sun.
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.
Someone is dead.
Even the trees know it,
those poor old dancers who come on lewdly,
all pea-green scarfs and spine pole.
I think . . .
I think I could have stopped it,
If I'd been as firm as a nurse
or noticed the neck of the driver
as he cheated the crosstown lights;
or later in the evening,
if I'd held my napkin over my mouth.
The present breaks our hearts. We lie and freeze,
our fingers icy as a bunch of keys.
Nothing will thaw these bones except
memory like an ancient blanket wrapped
about us when we sleep at home again,
smelling of picnics, closets, sicknesses,
and insomnia's spreading stain.
I am not his yet.
He tells me how badly I photograph.
He tells me how sweet
The babies look in their hospital
Icebox, a simple
Frill at the neck,
Then the flutings of their Ionian
Then two little feet.
He does not smile or smoke.
How well this work holds up over time. How terrifying Sexton and Plath, really. The visceral sense of their lives lived, honest or otherwise, of relationships and situations explored, explicated, honestly or not; while the males of the species come off artificial by comparison, traditionalists and modernists searching for a through line out of the sixties and into a harder, post-modern world. Some of the anthologized poets survive the half century, and some don't. In my view all the women remain permanent fixtures in the history of humane.
Art is a trickster's game, an anarchist's jig, and poetry at this level is nothing less than fine art. It represents the humanely possible over time, potentiality and process encapsulated in language. It is a way out of chaos for the suppressed mind which has no other choice but to write its way out of whatever existential corner (or neuro-processes) life delivers. Poetry can be the singular means to objectify the self in a largely remote and alien universe and perhaps women are more attuned to its necessary confrontation with solitude. Perhaps women are immersed by nature into the silent flow of things, able to absorb the inhumane more openly than men. Perhaps they are more adaptable and aggressively resistant to academic pressure to make "orthodox" poetry because the change implicit in the sixties offered more progress for each of them personally. Women had more to lose when "tradition" pushed back against the progressive social surge emerging after World War II. Their voices breached a tipping point and they became 'mass media' when the accelerated maturation of the alienated nuclear generation of the late 1950s took to the streets against war and social injustice.
American Tradition was a flimsy cultural construct even then. A formalist attempt to repress emerging subterranean American cultural roots, accelerated by politically conscious women and African Americans, under a veneer of white protestant male academia and its authoritarian support structures. Even the genre categories and labels made little sense. What was a "confessional poet" "confessing", as opposed to a non-confessional poet? Was the surrealist any more or less valid or interesting than the neo-surrealist, expressionist, or dadaist? In the early sixties, Susan Sontag took on the traditional when she critiqued interpretation as the "conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain "rules" of interpretation." Sontag was riding the shift from modernism in New York to the emerging post modernism in Paris. "To interpret is to impoverish." She wrote. "To deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of "meanings." It is to turn the world into this world." 
Here's Donald Hall on one delineation of that shift he recognized in the 1972 preface:
"A world of black poetry exists in America alongside the world of white poetry, exactly alike in structure - with its own publishers, bookstores, magazines, editors, anthologists, conferences, poetry readings - and almost entirely invisible to the white world." 
The American Tradition collapsed along with American segregation, as Hall anticipated it would, under the weight of his 'anarchist modernist'  movement, particularly in New York City in the 1960s. But Tradition took its toll on the psyche of artists and writers as they hustled to adjust to the next wave of the moderne. They sought refuge in academia, in the humanities, where they encountered mostly 'tradition' in the classroom. For some the adjustment proved traumatic, even fatal. Hall wrote that the modern artist "acted as if restlessness were a conviction and he had to destroy his own past in order to create a future." For every Andy Warhol surfing the arrival of the new to profit, there was a Jackson Pollack or Jack Kerouac wiping out in the cross currents of change. For every buoyant established Elizabeth Bishop, there was a tragic Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton. Alienated women, African Americans and gays would soon establish the beachhead of the post modern.
Sixties history was shaped by television cameras in mid-century fire-hosed streets of southern towns and burning slums of northern cities. Those were the days of Dylan, Warhol, Coltrane, Civil Rights, peasant wars, serial murders of American progressive leaders, the underground press, fire bombs on college campuses, Fellini, Kurosawa, Goddard and Antonioni; the rise of the peace movement, the second wave of the feminist revolution, Mailer and Bertolucci, LeRoi Jones, the rise of organized latino workers, the globalization of rock n' roll and American social liberalism; the Fugs, riots in Paris and ultimately, the resurgence of the American right wing out of a disastrous war, and the rejection of change by the American electorate in the name of cultural comfort and social stability.
Where is this existential reality and its historic context to be found in the paradigm of Hall's Contemporary American Poetry anthology? It is there, in the poetry of course; but as the quotes above indicate, one has to mostly read between the lines and unpack that history as subtext. To experience directly what it felt like to live on the edge in those days, to be viscerally alive and engaged in the historic moment beyond nostalgia, one must encounter the permanent condition of alienation embedded in the work of the anthologized women poets while they were actually living it.
1 Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation. [Back]
2 Donald Hall, Contemporary American Poetry, p39 [Back]
3 My use of the term "Anarchy" here is precise. Anarchy is the process of questioning (deconstructing) authority to determine the validity of any "authority" over the individual within a democratic context. An historic moment of anarchy is occurring right now, as I write, promulgated by the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. An anarchist deconstruction of the "legitimacy" of the "authority" involved in the environmental catastrophe is under wide public discussion right now; and all authority - from private corporations to US legislation, US regulatory agencies, the office of the President, and the very idea of "private" and "public" property and "interests" - is subject now to broad public scrutiny. In this sense, "anarchy" is not lawlessness at all, but a process by which free people determine their willingness to subject that freedom to the authority of law. The pragmatic results of this "anarchistic" ecological discussion will have global consequences over the next century. [Back]