frank bidart, rafael campo, marilyn hacker, ann lauterbach

 

WHAT’S AMERICAN ABOUT AMERICAN FORM?

 

Frank Bidart: Modernism in English poetry was the creation of Americans, and Pound was the central figure in this. You know his famous assertions: “Make it new,” “Literature is news that stays news.” Even in that very famous and influential essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot talks about an ideal order made by all the works of art of the past, and that to enter that order you have to do something that’s new. The premise is that to make a poem that truly joins those works that constitute what people understand as the heritage of literature, you have to be new.

People now so easily think that Whitman and Dickinson are the great fountainheads of Americans’ understanding of their own literature and own purposes as writers; but, in fact, early Pound sounds like Yeats. Pound ransacked history for models of style–the troubadours, Provençal poets; he wrote a famous essay called “The Chinese Character as Written Character: a medium for Poetry.” His sense of the need for transformation not only had to do with diction, but went to the very guts of a sentence, radically changing the way people understood meaning in a poem. Pound proposes that the poetic not be the result of what ordinarily is understood as syntax, but rather the collocation of images–juxtaposition becomes a fundamental principle in the making of the page. Ideas should proceed from the joining of things, and the artist’s function is to join things in ways that generate or embody ideas. Pound took his understanding of this, again, not from anything in the English or European tradition, but from the Chinese written character. Eisenstein was doing the same thing in film; if you read his books The Film Form and The Film Sense, he was arguing that the importance of montage precedes from the same principle, and he too links it to the nature of the Chinese language.

I think all of us on the panel, when we first heard about the prospect of a panel on form, rued the prospect of one more rehearsal of the arguments about free verse versus formal verse. That’s a barren distinction. The modernists did not understand their project as constituting a rebellion against formal verse, or form, itself. It was a far more complicated and fundamental issue. They had the consciousness of making a revolution, and the fact that our nation is founded in revolution, founded in transgression, seems to me a fundamental, a recurrent theme in Americans’ use of form.

I think you can argue that another major innovation happened with confessional poetry, both through Ginsburg in Kaddish and Lowell in Life Studies, and this had to do with taking seriously and incorporating into the very texture of poetry the psychoanalytic model of the search for meaning. And that psychoanalytic model was taken deeply seriously by Americans in a way that the English have always somewhat resisted.

Rafael Campo: We recognize poets as uniquely American because of the universalizing quality of the various forms they employ, which ultimately make empathy out of the very act of perceiving, be it in the familiar sound of the heartbeat, in the intoxicating plunge between stanzas, or the luxuriant discursiveness of narratives. Meaning springs out of the unsaid, the gesture, the reflected glance, the rhyme, the enjambed line-break, the iamb, out of a connection between poet and reader that is by definition empathic, in that it resists explanation and yet is utterly understood.

Speaking for myself I find that I am present at a number of intersections between form and identity. As a bi-lingual Latino who writes villanelles, I wonder at my efforts to try to make English sound like my beloved, inherently musical Spanish, reclaiming and remembering in this country of shortest memory the songs of my Gypsy troubadour ancestors. As a gay man who writes sonnets, I flex the muscles of my own desire against the walls of that heterosexualized narrow room, as it’s been called. As a physician who incorporates medicalese and blank verse, I thrill to re-animating the language with the human heartbeat it too often ignores or suppresses. The forms I choose are not themselves some kind of political statement, I hope–as some still mired in the tired, old debate of free verse versus form might contend. Rather I view these structures as opportunities for amplifying what I can say with mere words, for creating a repository for what needs to be remembered and passed down. My use of form, and especially meter and rhyme, is what, I hope, makes the poetry memorable and perhaps even memorizable, and allows for a layering of the language with the possibility of mutual understanding.

Marilyn Hacker: I’d like to start with the really obvious remark that all poems are formal, that a writer’s decision to arrange a piece of writing on the page with line-breaks, stanza breaks which don’t correspond to the page’s margin, creates an implicit and fertile tension.

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American poets writing in English, whether they be from the United States or Canada, stand at an intersection of many formal traditions, including the indigenous poetries of Native Americans; the call-and-response forms enslaved Africans brought with them to this continent, which they married to English ballad and hymn forms to create both spirituals and the blues; the continual proximity of Latin American poetry; and of course the various prosodic traditions and their antitheses that came to this continent with the English settlers. Witness, for example, the brief career of Phillis Wheatley, that brilliant child from Senégal, who was writing verse in forms she learned from Pope and Gray six years after she was taken off a slave ship in Boston not speaking one word of English, her age six or seven�determined by the fact that she was losing her baby teeth.

Many American poets grew up with the echoes and cadences of another language as background to their English, just as, at least here in New York, the quintessential American foods seem to be pizza and the bagel, and the quintessential American music is jazz, and the quintessential American locution is ein bisselYiddish and un pocoLatino and sounds a bit ebonic on the phone. It’s not surprising that John Berryman had a black-face double, Mr. Bones, in his Dream Songs,or that Elizabeth Bishop wrote the suite “Songs for a Colored Singer” in honor of Billie Holliday, nor that Gwendolyn Brooks adopted the persona of the white Mississippi housewife whose complaint led to the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. As Toni Morrison has pointed out, the constant presence of a racialized other, sometimes even a racial alter-ego, is deeply rooted in American writing; but it is, I think, also rooted in the American language.

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We fortunately do not have an Académie Anglaise, certainly not an Académie Américaine, to determine the acceptance of “knish” or “dreadlocks” or “megabyte” into the dictionary. And that is one thing, in a personal parentheses, which makes the writing of rhymed and metered poetry in English such a pleasure, the juxtaposition of those Anglo Saxon, latinate, and other flavored words–chicken-shit and hermatacrit, morose and mechanose, contextual and transsexual, marathon and maricón,dental floss and mishegoss. That kind of juxtaposition is perhaps more flamboyant when it involves rhyme, but it’s also characteristic of American poetry in unrhymed forms. Perhaps also the American romance with technology, only briefly chilled by the enormities of Hiroshima and Auchwitz, has made American poets open to acquiring yet another kind of vocabulary; another set, in fact, of forms.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that one of the projects of Modernism–one whose effect was perhaps not the one most thought of by its progenitors–or perhaps it was–was to take poetry out of the realm of the hoi-polloi, the ordinary folks. Pound certainly said more than once that he wanted to take poetry away from the women’s clubs, and while that was certainly a gendered remark, I think it also had to do with class and education. This may not have been, for example, William Carlos Williams’s idea of poetry, but I think it did have to do, for example, with why Edna St. Vincent-Millay was so rigorously excluded from the canon. This was not only because of gender–because after all Marianne Moore was not excluded–or even with Millay’s often feminist subject matter, but perhaps much to do with the fact that Millay was an extremely popular poet who wrote poems that could be easily remembered, in fact, easily memorized, and a poet who reached an audience that was much larger than other poets and critics of literature.

Ann Lauterbach: “Lists,” the novelist Don DeLillo remarked, “are a form of cultural hysteria.” But the answer to the question, “What’s American About American Form?” keeps wanting to formulate itself as a list of examples, names of persons whose work represents the unique experiment which America still is. I wanted the list to show a poetics of American invention; I wanted a list that would show the relation between necessity and innovation; to be one of persons who understood the idea of form as quintessentially the idea of transformation. But lists are pernicious. They are always exclusionary; they lead to canons, hierarchies, rules, rather than exceptions. So I asked my students at Bard College what their answer to the question would be. One young man said, rather grimly, “manifest destiny.” “What do you mean by that?” I asked. “The right to expansion,” he said. The students are darkly cynical about American hegemony. I asked him how he thought the idea of expansion, however repugnant politically, might translate itself positively into form. He wasn’t sure. I suggested it might be about variation within extension, in which the local, the particular, the radiant detail was picked out. I suggested that the American notion of possibility was founded on an ideal of mobility and transition.

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The experiment is always between,like a hinge, a preposition. “So much depends . . . ,” Williams wrote, finding image in the structural relation between things. Recently, I was introduced as an “experimental poet.” The word was uttered with disdain; I was damned with the faintest of praise. In the world of poetry, to be experimental is often taken to mean you have an aversion to form rather than an aversion to conformity. I began to give up the use of classical syntax, the logic of cause and effect, of an assumed relation between subject and object, after my sister died. The narrative as story had been ruptured once and for all; I wanted the gaps to show. When the gaps began to show, a new sense of possibility came forward in which mobile units were suspended in time and space. In the new syntactical dispensation, hinges or places of contact became an important location of meaning, as in musical composition and in much abstract art; meaning itself seemed to be the occasion of contingency. I began to perceive that the fragments among which we live are cause for celebration rather than lament.

This is important to me because I think it’s a different idea of the fragment than the Modernist idea. In the Modernist idea the fragment was really about the lament for the lost whole narrative, the historical narrative. So at the very end of the Cantoswhen Pound says “I cannot make it cohere,” it’s a crucial moment for him because it’s a moment where he understands a new nature of the fragment. A fragment is a discrete whole, a gesture that offers vitality and variety, multiple perspective and disparate vocabularies not bound to predicates of sense. These fragments might lead to clusters, to molecular structure collaborations, artifacts and institutions which retain within their matrices both curiosity and flexibility. Such mobile clusters would deliberately upbraid categories including the one which distinguishes tradition from innovation.

Marilyn Hacker: I confess to being a little bit uncomfortable coming back to Eliot and Pound again and again.

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Rafael Campo: It’s striking that in English, Modernism was created by Americans, and a weird phenomenon that happened in England in the 1970s and 80s was a sudden sense of, “My god, Modernism is a kind of fraud that’s been perpetrated on us by Americans.” Many English poets insisted that their real tradition went through Hardy and Larkin, and that there had been a kind of modern deformity imposed upon them by Americans–in a way confirmed by Eliot moving to England and becoming the editor of the most powerful publishing house in England in terms of poetry, Faber & Faber. And Auden moved to America.

Frank Bidart: A sense of the return to origins is a recurrent theme in American poetry. Frost’s great poem “Directive” is about a return to the primal, healing place. “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” The form of that poem is, on one hand, blank verse–which is the most traditional English form–but Frost’s use of the blank verse is distinctively American. The diction is so radically American. The first line of “Directive” sums this up very well: “Back out of all this now too much for us.” That line, I think, could not have been written by someone who is English. It’s tied up with a sense of regional ways of speaking, a certain home-made language. And the fact that Frost could join that to pentameter suggests that he imagined the poetic project as connected both to the great tradition of English poetry and to the need to make it new.

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I think one very brilliant thing that Ann said was that in her work she’s trying to think of fragments not as haunted by the whole of which they were once part, but to understand them as nodes of energy and meaning–to somehow drain away from the fragment the nostalgia for lost order.

Rafael Campo: But I would say also that there’s a nostalgia, particularly in American poets, for the empathic, for connectedness. How do we connect as human beings from a wide diversity of experiences? And so then I think form does become a medium for exploring those possibilities in a wide range of permutations, because I think there is a fundamental human longing for that kind of connectedness, and it’s not, perhaps, so much searching for the correct form, but how the various forms can help us in the process of questioning who we are and how we are related to one another.

Ann Lauterbach: This little notion I have about the fragment as a structural idea–it’s really exactly about the possibility that in any given day, something goes on. This is going on right now; we’re all having this little moment in our narratives–and if one conceives of the moment having in itself a kind of actuality independent of what comes before or after it, the moment then becomes the luminous detail, because we can actually pay total attention to what’s happening here. I mean, we can look at each other and the empathic thing can take place, but if I’m on my way somewhere else all the time, and I’m making my story go from here to there–then I never know where I really am in terms of the now.

Rafael Campo: Because of the way it can create meaning out of its structuring of language, the poem does become the essential opus for that kind of presentness.