The Argotist Online
Bob Grumman’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)
(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)
that Jake Berry and I met through the mail close to a quarter of a century ago
when we both were running micro-presses and immediately became good friends, and
began publishing (and publicizing) each other's work, it would be hard for me to
say anything bad about his essay, even if it didn't make central use of my
terms, "otherstream" and "knownstream."
But not knowing him wouldn't have made any difference: we are fully
agreed that in rarely acknowledging the existence, and never acknowledging the
value, of what Jake and I call "otherstream poetry," academics and
their pawns have for fifty years kept the best specimens of American poetry
(with rare exceptions) invisible to all but those knowing how to seek them out.
the other hand, Jake and I do have our differences about related matters. One is
my extreme belief in the value of detailed definition of terms. So, it bothered
me some that he specified only two kinds of knownstream poetry, Iowa School and
language poetry, and never labeled any specific kind of poetry as
that's great for me, for it gives me a chance to push my own agenda: which is to
force Academia to accept a list of poetry schools! This isn't off the subject of
Jake's essay, but an extension of it. It’s also a more optimistic position on
it, for—unlike Jake--I feel that despite the gatekeepers marginalizing
otherstream poetry, it will eventually have to be recognized. And that
recognition will not be far away if only a list of contemporary schools of
poetry can be advanced forcefully enough for even academics to have to look at
it, they will then have to respond to it.
a list would include all the knownstream varieties of poetry such as Iowa School
poetry, Eliotic jump-cut poetry, surrealistic poetry, New York School poetry,
beat poetry, and so on, but also visual poetry, sound poetry, performance
poetry, contragenteel poetry, mathematical poetry, infra-verbal and
grammar-centered poetry (the two main schools of genuine language poetry),
cryptographic poetry, cyber poetry and others I've forgotten about or missed.
I've several times advertised in print or on the Internet my need for help in
making such a list but gotten just about no responses. The Establishment has
taken no notice whatever of the idea. They obviously want the general public to
believe the contemporary American poetry continuum has nothing on it but what I
picked that name for Certified American Poetry after reading some mediocrity's
introduction to a collection of forgettable poetry he'd chosen for his edition
of a volume in David Lehman's "Best American Poetry" series. In his
introduction the mediocrity proclaimed his breadth of taste as by assuring his
readers that he'd made his selections after reading thirty or so different
magazines (Like the Hudson Review and the New Yorker). He went on
to boast that he greatly enjoyed all sorts of poetry, from the work of Richard
Wilbur to the work of John Ashbery!
seemed a natural for "all the contemporary American poetry from the most
formal kind composed by Richard Wilbur to the most free-ranging that nonetheless
ignores all techniques not in wide use forty or fifty years ago such as the
Eliotic jump-cut poetry of John Ashbery [which the ignorant consider
avant-garde]" OR, more simply, the entire range of contemporary American
poetry academics know more than the names of.
For a long time Wilshberia was off-limits to the work of the poets known
as "language poets" but ten or fifteen years ago it admitted some of
it—the kind enough like Ashbery's not to upset the status quo too much.
needless to say, have not cottoned to the term. A representative spokesman for
them, David Graham, criticizes it as much too broad. He put it this way during
an Internet discussion at New-Poetry, "Let’s run a bit with (a) sports
analogy. Wilshberia as Bob tends to define it would not just include the major
& minor leagues of pro baseball, but every single college, high school,
middle school, and community league. Plus sandlot games, softball at company
picnics & family reunions. Fathers playing catch with kids in the back
yard, too, of course. Oh, and naturally all games overseas, not to mention
computer baseball games & fantasy leagues."
for what the label excludes? "Well," according to Professor Graham,
"such things as two guys in Havre, Montana who like to kick a deer skull
back & forth and call it “baseball.” Sure, there’s no bat, ball,
gloves, diamond, fans, pitcher, or catcher—but they do call it baseball, and
wonder why the mainstream media consistently fails to mention their game."
have trouble treating this kind of obtuseness as even-handedly as Jake has. It
seems to me to be responsible for a state of affairs in American poetry since
around 1950—a kind of unstoppable Egyptification due the unification of
mediocrities in the equivalent of a
trade guild who control what goes in, what stays out, of the poetry anthologies
that become our college English departments’ texts, and dictate and reflect
what poetry is taught there, discussed in the most visible publications by the only
widely influential critics, and accepted by the huge majority of
poetry-accepting publications, including all of the commercially viable
ones—and, worst of all—subsidized by the imbeciles running organizations
like the Poetry Foundation. Their obvious aim being to protect its members from
competition from non-conformingly innovative poets.
how this state of affairs came about, it seems to me (without having carried out
a formal detailed investigation of the kind beloved of grinds):
as many as fifty years ago, according to a magazine article I read as a
teen-ager in the hard-bound magazine, Horizon, all the poetry prizes were
going to the same people. The theory expressed was that Harvard, basically,
was in control, and The New Yorker was its main representative. And
Harvard-approved poets won the great majority of prizes. My impression is that
the poetry of Williams, its power greatly amplified by the popularity of the
rebellious beats, finally broke through the hegemony of the time—circa 1960.
Visual poetry, even then a major kind of poetry, was ignored. But so was the
very much less threatening (one would think) haiku, although the beats revered
it (generally without much understanding of it). Iowa School Poetry, really just
a slight variation on the dominant poetry of the first half of the
twentieth-century, a few years later began to represent, and still represents,
the mainest of the mainstream poetry.
along the line Helen Vendler, our most visible critic, started championing
Ashbery. Gradually Ashbery's friend, Frank O’Hara, and the New York School
became acknowledged as significant. By the eighties, with an influential
Stanford voice in Marjorie Perloff, the language school started becoming
noticed. Some of those calling themselves that, or being called that by the
ignorant, became confused with the now prominent members of the jump-cut school
Ashbery had emerged with from the New York School. They kept their name,
and are now certified. That many of their members were academics at prestigious
universities (there are a few professors among the better visual poets but none
at an Ivy League school or the like that I know of) greatly helped them to their
high estate, I’m certain.
Poetry came into big money, things have worsened. Critic David Orr has a
review in its February 2011 issue that typifies what makes it, in my view, the
largest obstacle facing superior American poets. It is the belief that poetry,
as Mark McGurl put it somewhere, "has been all but entirely absorbed by
institutions of higher education.” Only someone oblivious to all the poetry
happening outside academia, most notably, visual poetry, language poetry, sound
poetry, cyber poetry and mathematical poetry, can believe this.
depressing about this is that Poetry is wealthy, influential,
often-appearing and claims to want to represent the full continuum of
contemporary poetry, so could do so much to help the impoverished R&D
department of the poetry enterprise.
so, the latest anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry, published by Penguin
and edited by Rita Dove, includes not one contemporary otherstream poet, even
excluding such tepidly sometime visual poets as John Hollander and May
Swenson—and is criticized by our most visible critic, Helen Vendler, not for
the narrowness of its views of our poetry continuum but for presenting the work
of 175 poets, since no country could possibly have that many top-drawer poets
during a single century (something I agree with).
haven't given up all hope, though. I feel that eventually the intelligent lay
public will find its way around the middlemen between certified poetry and
better, or at least interestingly different, poetry due to the Internet. With
the help of a widely distributed, intelligent list of schools of poetry, with
comments on and examples from each! This is not happening to much of an extent
now; the Internet is too confused. And no one yet seems willing to help me
list all the schools of current American Poetry (oh, the horror of labeling!),
to facilitate discovery of the uncertified, and at least demonstrate the degree
to which the academy and its brain-dead media mouthpieces, has constricted the
width of the poetry continuum visible to the public. Nor do I know of any book
on this topic available or planned. I’d love to get the opinion of someone
more knowledgeable than I, much more a victim of literary history than a student
of it, am. And, sure, someone more likely than a marginalized creative artist
like me to be objective about it.
© Bob Grumman
past seventy, poet/critic Bob Grumman thinks of himself as the world’s oldest
apprentice cultural- force-to-be-reckoned-with. For nearly twenty years he has
written a regular column focused mainly on otherstream poetry for Small Press
Review, which he still writes. Beginning in the middle eighties, he was also
a columnist for such now-extinct otherstream magazines as Lost & Found
Times and Factsheet Five, and wrote a number of reviews for less
adventurous publications such as American Book Review and Modern Haiku.
For the past few years, he has confined his writing on poetry mainly to his
blog, poeticks.com. His first book of poetry—self-published as most of his
books have been—was poemns (1966), a collection of visual haiku. He’s
had several collections of poetry published since then, the most important of
them being April to the Power of the Quantity Pythagoras Times Now
(2008), a collection of the mathematical poems for which he is best known.