David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Poetry Wars


One of the more mind-blowing get-togethers to take place in the last ten years occurred in Havana, Cuba, when Fidel Castro led a unique international conference that brought together participants in the Cuban missile crisis from the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and Cuba to discuss the events of October 1962. Events that gave the world its closest brush with nuclear war.

Here was former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Captain William B. Ecker, the U.S. Navy reconnaissance commander who flew the first low-level flight confirming the missiles, sitting down with Georgy Markovich Kornienko, the Soviet attaché at the USSR Embassy in Washington and Anatoly I. Gribkov, Head of the Operations Department of the USSR General Staff and a main planner of the missile installments — all alongside Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro himself with some 40 Cuban military personnel active during the crisis.

Now I might be getting a wee carried away with my metaphor, but there was something of that spirit of reconciliation in another, albeit less publicized meeting, held three years ago in 2009 (and so I guess I’m coming late to this) in the New York City offices of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. First, there was poet, translator, critic, editor and FSG president Jonathan Galassi. Joining him in his office was avant writer, poet, novelist, essayist, former St. Marks Poetry Project director and literary raconteur Eileen Myles. The conversation was moderated by Jesse Pearson of m.vice.com.

To say that Galassi and Myles represent two disparate points on the continuum of American poetry is to state the obvious, I know. This was a meeting between the poetics of the Flatiron District and the poetics of the East Village. A meeting between the Union Square Park’s elegance of, say, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill (and Galassi, too), and the Tomkins Square yawp-ery of say, Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg (and of course Myles).

But one of the delightful aspects of this thoroughly delightful conversation — I mean, I’ve been smiling with my whole body all the time I’ve been reading the transcript between these two sexagenarian former Bostonians — is that there is more common ground between them, more ease of unifying what, on the surface, appears to be different literary initiatives and ambitions, and more consensus, cohesion and collegiality all around.

In short, the scars are now just gossip. Savage, delicious, fabulous gossip at that!

These aren’t poetry’s ex-Cold Warriors so much as representatives of poetry’s contemporary fusion of identities. What they find unites them is something I was trying to address in a recent Poetry Wire (“If You Ain’t Got Your Poetics, Man, You’re Sunk”). It’s the idea that, to nearly all American poets, writing in whatever style, existence is fleeting, language is unifying, and poetry is an essential expression of human experience.

Rather than analyze the ideas Galassi and Myles take on, better, I think, to let you have some of the rich flavor of the communion that takes place between, and let them speak for themselves.

So, here is one extended exchange:

Jonathan: …when I came down in the mid-70s from Boston to New York, I felt I had missed out, actually, on the great moment of New York, which was the 60s artists and poets. And, of course, something else was happening here then, but my own training was much more rigid, I guess. So I always had a kind of hankering for the freedom of the New York School. But those two cultures didn’t talk to each other. There’s a famous debate, you know, the Lowell and Ginsberg —

Eileen: Were you at that reading?

Jonathan: No, but I’ve heard about it. And today, when you go back and read them side by side, what you’ll see more than anything is what they have in common.

Eileen: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

Jonathan: But at the time, it felt like the mandarin versus the voyant, someone influenced by drugs and all who had this kind of dangerous freedom.

Eileen: Right, yeah. I remember hearing Denis Donoghue giving a talk one night in the 80s at the Poetry Project and saying, “Well, the last poet that anybody really broke friendships over was Lowell.” And in that room, it was such a crazy thing to say, like, “What? Where does this man come from?”

Jonathan: I love that, “broke friendships over.”

Eileen: Yeah, yeah, even the phrasing was just astonishing. And it’s so funny, too, because Allen, though he associated himself with a life of doing wild things, like posing naked and writing about his asshole, was in fact, in terms of drugs and all that, a moderate. He was always the person mopping up after everybody else.

Jonathan: But he was about freedom, and experimentation and, you know, breaking taboos and all that kind of stuff. It’s a quintessentially New York thing, somehow. It’s there from Walt Whitman on down. Don’t you think?

Eileen: What is?

Jonathan: The kind of freedom, the experimentation, the looseness, the humor, the spoken quality. I think of it as less worked. Do you think that’s right?

Eileen: Less worked? You mean the—

Jonathan: In other words, if you look at a Lowell poem, you know that it’s been sewn into its form.

Eileen: I guess I think of Schuyler, again, because his philosophy was so great about it all. I remember him saying that the writing-the-poem part is the easy part; it’s the rest of your life that’s the problem.

Jonathan: Right.

Eileen: And I think that with Jimmy and a lot of poets, though they certainly do edit, there still was a perception that the practice was the life itself, and the economy was expressed in the line rather than in the edit. I mean you really could break down poetries into the poetry school that believes in perfection, and pushing the poem toward that, and the poetry school that believes in practice and is about profuseness.

Jonathan: Right, right.

Eileen: With somebody like Jimmy, it’s like you want to find the really great ones in a slew of poems.

Jonathan: Right. I think that’s a good way of describing it. It’s not just a different formal approach, it’s a different approach to writing per se. Actually, I think of Bishop as someone who stands in between the two because she was a very, very hard worker on her poems, but she loved O’Hara and Schuyler. And I think that the naturalness of her voice—though it has a very different formal vestment—is much closer to the spirit of Schuyler than to Lowell, actually.

Eileen: Yeah, and her poems land in ways that feel like the poem happened. Like that sonnet that ends, “and you love me.”

Jonathan: “And you love me.”

Eileen: It was just like Jimmy ending his poem “This Dark Apartment” with “They were/not my lovers, though./You were. You said so.”

Jonathan: Right.

And here is another cool exchange:

Jonathan: So, what do you think is happening in poetry today?

Eileen: That’s what I was going to ask you! [laughter] I guess I’m thinking about a young person today who’s into poetry and almost no matter what their persuasion is, there’s kind of a sense that there’s a lot of hurdles for them to jump over toward becoming a poet. It seemed so open when I got to town, and it seemed that you would learn a lot just by being here and by going to readings or meeting everybody and looking at all the other kinds of art. When I think of our generation, I think, in many ways the gesture, or the one that’s gotten the most play, is Language poetry. But I feel that there’s an eruption going on right now, too, and we’re not hearing about it yet because of all the historical talk, the need to make schools of poetry, and because of the tendency of people in their 50s and 60s to be telling their history…

Jonathan: Rewriting history?

Eileen: Yeah. I was trying to be kind, but yeah. Like a bunch of them have started to write a group autobiography about this particular reading series in the 70s and how it produced them. [laughs] I mean, I love many of these poets and their work, but there’s something troubling about poetry revisionism. Because I think lots of other things were happening too in the late 20th century. Messier things. I think that since they’re clearly staking a claim, putting a big sign on poetry history, I think there’s a need to pull out and explore some of the other things that happened in the 70s and 80s and 90s besides them.

Jonathan: Right. I’m doing a book with Charles Bernstein, a selected poems, because I thought it would be fun to have FSG publish something from the Language-poetry school. But you know, when you read his book, it’s not very different from a lot of other folks. It’s a bit like what I was saying about Lowell and Ginsberg. When you actually step away from the polemics, the differences aren’t as large. I think that Language poetry has been—and I don’t read it that much—but my impression of it is that it’s going more toward other things now. It’s less meaning-averse; it’s much more meaningful.

Eileen: Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan: Is that right?

Eileen: Yeah, I think that even ten years into it, it was like film—experimental film. Suddenly it was like, “Why not use an ‘I,’ but ‘I’ doesn’t mean ‘I’ necessarily,” or, “Why not do a narrative, but a disrupted narrative?”

Jonathan: I always felt like Dada, for instance, which is like an ancestor of Language poetry—

Eileen: Or New York School, I think.

Jonathan: Yeah, except, Dada is where the meaning is disrupted, and it’s not supposed to have a meaning that’s rational, that’s prosaic.

Eileen: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan: But once you’ve done that once, you’ve done it. You’ve made your point, and then you have to do something else, I think. And I feel that way about Language poetry, too. But maybe I’m missing something. It’s just not my thing. What is my thing, though, that I associate with New York School, is its open speech. Relaxed, natural, but very artful. I think Schuyler is the best at it. And when he was at his best, he was as good as any other poet who’s writing now, I think. It’s very close to the best of even Lowell and Bishop. Like Lowell in Day by Day, his last book, which is free verse, really, not rhymed and not sonnet form. And it’s very melancholy and depressed.

Eileen: Going back to Schuyler, I think it’s interesting that he keeps getting rediscovered.

Jonathan: His flow is—sometimes the flow is verbiage, but when he hits it, it’s just the natural stream of consciousness.

Eileen: Yeah, it’s limpid.

Jonathan: Limpid, and it couldn’t be better. It’s perfect.

As with those Cuban missile crisis veterans, surely the arc of history for American poets is from war to detente to reconciliation to unification. Let’s hope so.

Our critics could be better at highlighting the connecting facets between poets of different schools instead of cheering on one school over the other. Surely our reviewers could be better at locating the connecting, underground roots of American poetry, and acknowledging that, like canes of bamboo, the connections lead to the spread. Or, that the various schools of poetry are like a shared ecosystem and not islands separated by shark-infested waters.

In a lot of essential ways, the differences in American poetry sometimes come down to the difference between x+y versus y+x.

It’s a matter of emphasis, no? It’s a matter of unifying what both Galassi and Myles come to share in this lovely conference, that the poem aspires to equal the life, and the life aspires to equal the poem. That some poets seek to perfect the life of the poem, while others seek to perfect the life of the poet. That whatever route one takes, one ought to be focused on the shared ideals, the shared ambitions, the shared difficulty, and pain, and transcendence, and pleasure.

And to acknowledge, at long last, that the poetry wars are over, that the orthodox and the avant are one and the same.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →