by Max Winter
Recently, on web host Web Del Sol, Boston Comment columnist Joan Houlihan published an essay entitled “Post-Post Dementia,” the seventh in her series of pugilisms entitled “How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem” (www.webdelsol.com/LITARTS/Boston_Comment/). Houlihan’s targets tend to share (by comparison with the work she admires) a certain enlightened, almost radiant raffishness; recent niggling foci have included Language Poetry (in an essay called “I=N=C=O=H=E=R=E=N=C=E”) and poet James Tate. She begins with a complaint that Fence, along with Slope, New American Writing, and many other magazines, “keeps meaning away from the reader.” This seems to be a recurring complaint of hers, over the course of her seven columns thus far: that the growing impulse in much contemporary poetry is more ludic than elucidating, that many poets are just playing games, writing for each other, taking up space that could be better used. It’s acceptable, even human, to make such claims, and of course it’s okay to complain. When Steve Evans launched a similarly contentious, if far more articulate and complex complaint againstFence and The Germ, among other publications, in his own privately circulated online forum in 2001 (www.thirdfactory.net/resistible.html), the editors of this magazine became more self-aware almost immediately. Indeed, the essay not only produced extensive (and how!) dialogue between Fence editors, it also spurred dialogue between numerous poets, all of which has been fully catalogued (www.umit.maine.edu/~steven.evans/3F-index.htm)—and all of which was productive, if longwinded and, for that, highly internalized. It’s not okay to complain, however, when the complaint, regardless of its intent, is erroneous and offensive. In clearing up a few inaccuracies in Houlihan’s piece, I can reinforce some basic underpinnings of Fence that have been lost or forgotten.
Houlihan describes Fence as one of several “journals of the avant-garde establishment.” Wrong. Given that we’ve published Molly Peacock, Allen Grossman, Muriel Rukeyser, James Galvin, and many other poets who really couldn’t be considered “avant-garde”—because the question of such a label wouldn’t pertain to them—along with younger poets who haven’t necessarily found the more established literary journals welcoming and yet aren’t diving into the fray on flame-bedecked surfboards either—this description is, quite simply, incorrect. From its outset, the magazine described its purpose as one of calling attention to the boundaries that exist between what some call experiment and tradition, between new and old, between Chain and The Atlantic Monthly, between countries, between social strata, between styles, between languages, between epochs. In this magazine, the form-inclined nuzzle up against the new architects of poetry’s form and shape, and find themselves stretched. Charles Bernstein, meet Jean Valentine. Alice Notley, meet Stephen Sandy. Stephen Dixon, meet Peter Straub. And so on. In the process, the magazine strives to educate, in its own way, readers who might, in the process of searching for Bruce Andrews, be struck by Cole Swensen—or vice versa. The width and breadth of each reader’s knowledge might well be expanded by the experience. Call it forced serendipity, call it slick, call it disingenuous, call it naïve (others have, and worse—and keep doing so, dag nab ’em), but the intention is one the magazine’s editors pursue doggedly. The work is kept fresh by persistent adherence to a genuine (or alarming, or contrapuntal) mixture of styles—which is why we try our best not to publish authors too repeatedly, enforcing a four-issue lag between each appearance.
And as to this question of fences, and neighbors, and meaning: Fence, in part, exists in response to the semi-pathological determination on the part of many readers to get-what-they-come-for-or-else when reading poems, to track down “meaning” where it lives (usually somewhere in the third stanza—or is it the second?—or maybe the epigraph?Uhh.) and then leave the battlefield victorious, wiping spittle from their lips. It’s unsettling to think that any reader’s time with a poem might involve such vaguely imperialistic and self-defeating motives, which reduce reading to the level of a chess game played with, well, one’s self—and yet it’s heartening to think that Houlihan does not view Fence as a publication that would strive to limit the possibilities for “meaning” in the “contemporary” poem as do the magazines she considers superior to it. Houlihan takes several samples from Fence to demonstrate what she considers a tendency towards verse “without the baggage of meaning and connection,” poems that “seem to want to make contact and shuffle towards us but can only speak in half-meanings, word tatters, aborted sentences,” even comparing the verses she terms “post-post” to “babbling, afflicted beings.” Egads! In the face of such Jonathan-Edwards-esque effrontery, it seems more pertinent to point to the issue at hand, and look at what it has to offer, than to argue and risk adopting, in the hot-bloodedness which would assuredly ensue, equally careless rhetoric.
The twelfth issue of Fence is replete with meaning, however you take that word. We’ve got Rodney Phillips’ prolonged salute to the good poetry being printed by presses everywhere, as displayed by the 2002 Poets House Poetry Showcase. Poet Alice Notley has a long chat with her son, Edmund Berrigan—among the topics discussed are the relationship of songs to poems, what it “means” to be a novel, and the nature of poetic personae. The fiction pieces include Lydia Davis’s re-imagination of Franz Kafka’s preparations for a romantic dinner, and Diane Williams’ meditations on love as a guard against time and the ways we fill our days. The poems in the issue would, by anyone’s standard, show much meaning, from John Taggart’s meditations on music, the Dickinsonian character of everyday life, and the mystical command of enumeration to Nancy Kuhl’s exploration of the lyrical potential of solitude to Laynie Browne’s plunge into a nest of medieval iconography. The concern these writers show for the future of writing itself is what gives their work “meaning,” never minding their rich subject matter.
At the point of her greatest certainty, her greatest rage, and her poorest articulation, Houlihan asks of the words of one of the poems she cites, “Why are they printed in a journal someone paid to produce, for someone else to pay to read instead of being spoken by a stroke victim in a rest home?” Later, she suggests that the “avant-avant-garde” work, as displayed in Fence, is “indistinguishable from the early stages of dementia.” These seem like the kinds of observations that don’t take very much effort (born of the my-five-year-old-could-do-that school of art criticism, to which the only response is, “But would he?”)—and yet are the most profoundly insensitive, and the most wounding. These statements are libelous and, beyond that, offensive: to the poets named (seemingly every poet who’s ever published in this magazine), to stroke victims, to the “demented,” and to the reading process as a whole. (In a fair world, Fence and its appointed co-conspirators would be seeking legal counsel. But since this is a verbal medium, you get a “response.”) The voices in this magazine and others are adhering to standards which are, even after so many years, still new to readers in some un-placeable way, still inspiring in their almost taste-able risk. Why these poets have shaped their poems in the manner in which they’ve shaped them is not always meticulously apparent, nor should it be, to the magazine’s editors—we are not, after all, in the business of drawing up due diligences for poems, testing their structure, looking for leaks. There should be room for mystification in any experience, literary or otherwise. These poets are not heard elsewhere in abundance, and they’re definitely not heard in any similar context—or for any similar purpose. And there are readers—Houlihan among them—who haven’t necessarily read this work before, don’t necessarily know from the dichotomies the magazine addresses, aren’t necessarily even that knowledgeable about literature, G-d forbid. Those readers are, perhaps, the most valuable part of the magazine’s audience. They would, one would hope, practice Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dangerous unselfishness” cited in the Fence 11 editors’ note—and let these voices in, let them do whatever they want inside the reader’s imagination. Rather than, that is, abandoning these voices for environs where poems might have “parse-able syntax, drama and story, tension and resolution, epiphany and symbolism; and some impact of either an intellectual or emotional nature,” as Houlihan demands, but no joy. None. What. So. Ever.
But I digress. There’s plenty of joy here, along with the requisite sadness—and at times the two exist side by side, as in life. Avanti!