Keys and Outer Space|
Review of Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets Ed. Michael Brennan & Peter Minter (Sydney: Paper Bark Press, 2000)
by Logan Esdale
In A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928), Laura Riding and Robert Graves discuss many of the 68 anthologies they claim to have examined, anthologies from ancient Roman and Greek times to the 1920s. (“Pamphlet” is a bit misleading, at almost 200 pages, though the word does allude to their attempt to intervene with some immediacy in the contemporary poetry book market). The popular or trade anthology has been around since those ancient times; the true anthology has been as well, though less often. Trade anthologies are singularly profitable: a “publisher knows well enough that poetry cannot pay its printer’s bills except in the form of standard text-books, nursery verse and anthologies”(26). The editors of trade collections tend to damage the identity even of work written against the anthology context, once it’s been absorbed: “The aim of the popular anthologist is to make a single book out of clippings from many books; to create a composite author who shall be a mean struck between all the poets included”(67). Leah Price has also commented recently on “the power of anthologies to cleanse their raw material of its generic origin”(78).
Riding and Graves define the true anthology strictly, as either a sort of scrapbook of unmotivated material—motivated only by an individual need to write, without the desire for publicity—or a book that rescues material on its way to oblivion: “Popular ballads, epitaphs, squibs, stray lyrics and even longer poems that have irretrievably lost author and date, may be fittingly united in a volume of non-classifiable verse; and this is always a legitimate use of the anthology”(11). It’s the poetry that produces the need for a true anthology, a poetry of stray lyrics; but in 1928 Riding and Graves sense that the day when it’s the trade anthology that produces the poetry was already upon them.
But does poetry belong any more naturally in a single author volume than in an anthology? Where does poetry belong? What is its natural habitat? At least since Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960) anthology, poetry has appeared as a collective enterprise, rather than an individual one. (The New American Poetry concludes with 43 poets, only 4 of whom are women.) A single author book suggests a writer in solitude; an anthology suggests a writer in community. An emphasis on community or context over text naturalizes the anthology; it is not the place to be, but the place you are. For the reader too—there is a tradition in the editor’s preface to “present the anthology as the effect of an audience’s cohesion rather than its cause”(Price 70). Supposedly an anthology doesn’t create a unified culture, but represents it.
In her 1960 review of The New American Poetry, Marianne Moore takes a moment to respond to Charles Olson’s notorious principle of “composition by field,” articulated in his influential essay “Projective Verse”(1950), and included in the anthology. According to Olson, the poet must be aware of what’s happening as he writes, how to recognize that instant by instant a poem changes its location. To write but fail to recognize that a poem’s place and trajectory have changed betrays the poem as a thing of energy. A poet must be open and let a new perception happen—a breath in forces a breath out. A poem without a certain speed is like holding your breath till you’re blue in the face. Moore observes that for her “a work may be said to have form in so far as one part leads a reader to anticipate another part and be gratified by the result”(538). Moore touches on the tension in poetry between the centrifugal (difference) and the centripetal (resemblance); use that tension productively, Moore suggests, as if you were editing a journal (like The Dial, which Moore edited from 1925 to 1929), but beware situating yourself exclusively in one or the other. Olson’s field principle is a worthy one, though not new—and affiliates itself too strongly (in Moore’s opinion) with the centrifugal tendency, producing a poetry without form. The tendency of the trade anthology is centripetal, anti-Olson, a composition by resemblance; the true anthology verges on being formless—a “free verse” anthology.
One poet or citizen leads a reader to anticipate another poet or citizen and be gratified by the result? Both The New American Poetry and Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets organize themselves by nationality, and claim to include the most exciting work by relatively young poets during a particular decade (the 50s and the 90s). Riding and Graves warn against this kind of specialty anthology: “A poet is not a poet because of his origin, nor even a special kind of poet because he has a special kind of origin. So long as the language used is more or less the same there may be a greater affinity between a poet born and living in, say, Dayton, Ohio, who is not wilfully Daytonian, and a poet born and living in, say, Oxford, but not wilfully Oxonian, than between the former and any Dayton-proud poet, or between the latter and any Oxford-proud poet.” They continue: “The only excuse for a regional anthology is where the language and psychology of the region selected varies very considerably from those of other regions, and where an accumulation of uncollected poetry exists which may be regarded as the product of the region rather than of individual poets.” A few pages later: “Separate regional portfolios . . . should be only allowed where the regional idiom is unmistakable, and allowed for fugitive pieces only”(146-147; 152).
A Pamphlet Against Anthologies can be a witty book. They joke about how excited readers are by “Mr. Dribble’s” new Hundred Best Telephone Numbers anthology (“28443 Pobham, for instance, is a genuine discovery. . . . [however] one misses the superb 00010001 Mayfair”), a variation on the many Best Poem anthologies then in bookstores, and imagine the marketing schemes of trade publishers who have already produced anthologies of Sea Poems, Animal Poems and Flower Poems. Ah, an “Anthology of Suppressed Poems” is just the trick! Then we’ll put out anthologies of Vitamin E Poems, Television Poems, and Death-Ray Poems! Books of poems by single authors appear even if others already exist, of course. On the other hand, anthologies stake out territory, and publishers have to manufacture new territories for new anthologies. Thus Vitamin E Poems. Publics for these books must be both targeted and created.
As funny as Riding and Graves’s jests are they malign their own comments on the legitimate use of an anthology as a place for fugitive poems. They talk of poems having gone astray, ignored by history, but never really define what circumstances contribute to the making of the fugitive poem. A “fugitive” poem seems to refer, finally, to the poem that in a dreamy state of mind wanders off the publishing track, aimless because it lacks that certain necessary ambition for permanence. According to these terms, good editors rescue child poets; adult poets can take care of themselves.
I had been reading such stuff about anthologies when I read Calyx. I can’t help but wonder if “Anthology of Suppressed Poems” is the subtitle for all anthologies. Typically anthologized poems are advertised as having been “suppressed,” even if many are well known. Anthologies of poetry by women, or poets of color, and other anthologies organized not by region but by identity, are sold as necessary interventions in a literary history that has (actively) suppressed the work. Certainly work by young Australian poets has not been actively suppressed in the US, but it wouldn’t hurt if the American reader felt a little neglectful. Marjorie Perloff writes in her cover blurb for Calyx that the poets in this “exciting new anthology represent the cutting edge of current Australian practice and demonstrate, in case US and UK readers still don’t know it, that theirs is a poetry no one can afford to ignore.” The critic as surgeon general.
Calyx gathers 30 poets together, 15 men and 15 women. The poetry by women covers 45% of the pages, so it averages two pages less than that by men: 9 and 11. Because the editors have included brief biographical statements I can mention also that the poets range in age from 26 to 49 (average 34). (Helen Adam was the oldest at 51 in The New American Poetry, Olson was 50; average 34, the youngest 23.) Eight of the 30 poets were born or are living outside Australia. These numbers interest me because poetry by women has been (actively) suppressed, historically, and Calyx has consciously, I would guess, divvied up the space pretty much equally in terms of gender. “Calyx” means something in the shape of a cup—akin to the word is “chalice.” In other words, “calyx” connotes the traditional symbol of the female, the bowl, which stands opposite to male symbol of the staff.
According to the definition offered by Riding and Graves, this anthology is not a true one—but it is not a trade one either. It is, materially, a high quality soft cover book: binding, paper and presentation on the page all bestow favor on the reader. Paper Bark Press, the publisher of Calyx, appears to be a commercial press, but receives (at least for this project) government funding. That the average contributor is in her early 30s immediately disqualifies it, however; no true anthology contains work by contemporaries. It cannot accurately be claimed that the work of a 34 year-old poet is on its way to oblivion. Can it? Although there are no stray lyrics from long out-of-print books, no anonymous folk ballads, many of the poems are culled from limited edition chapbooks and small press productions. What is on its way to oblivion in the anthology context is historical difference and specificity. The 27 presses that originally made public the work of these poets (only a few of which are international or theoretically profitable) become one. In her summary of women Language poets and anthologies in the 70s 80s and 90s, Ann Vickery has noted that an anthology renders source books and their publishers indistinguishable from one another. Of Susan Howe’s early books, which were published by small presses run by women, Vickery says that “history is elided when her poetry is reproduced in the anthology form”(148-149). The history too of the individual poets gets confusing, fronted as they all are by a list of publications. Anthologies more often than single author books do carry bios in a weak attempt to offset their power to “cleanse” themselves of their origins (as Leah Price suggests above).
I was able to anticipate—in a variation on Moore’s terms—one poet from the experience of having read another in Calyx, and felt gratified by the result. There is form and the poets resemble one another, but are not the same. Their excellencies resemble those of Bob Perelman or Barbara Guest, here in the US. In Calyx the proposals about language, identity and relations in general are constantly subtle, quietly political. Most contributors are lyric poets, searching for and testing a language that names things: emotions, memories, people’s relationships. It may happen that an entire poem or series of poems is needed to name that thing. A lyric puts into words an experience, without calling too much attention to the language as language, to experience as already mediated by language. For others the poem registers the experience of writing itself. The former might be characterized as uncertain about certainty; the latter as certain about uncertainty.
I admit that I cannot see what distinguishes the poets in Calyx as particularly Australian—except for a tendency to read anything in English or English translation, or texts in the original language, which opens up a world. See “the sky slide down and shatter”(Alison Croggon, 104). Australian writers see themselves objectively, globally. At an extreme, perhaps, are the “Letters from Space” (my subtitle) poems in Susan Bower’s “Space and Technology Series”:
“Weren’t we selected for our suitability,” Bower asks, acknowledging a collective failure to meet the strict qualifications for the space travel that we must commit to anyway. “I know the earth is round / because I see it reflected in your helmet”(63). (See also MTC Cronin, “the woman feels her skull / turn into the moon”(106).)
On a space walk dodge a charging bull in zero gravity! Also writing in space on the space that is beyond earth, the space through which the earth passes, is Luke Davies: “Open the pod bay door, HAL. On earth the birds / twitter”(125) and “Even when there is no wind there is / the solar wind, whipping our bodies from the depths of space”(126). Davies reminds us of “the first postulate of relativity . . . there’s no such thing as place”(128).
So here we are, sitting on a satellite of some kind. In their preface the editors, Michael Brennan and Peter Minter—both in the anthology—say that these 30 Australian poets have thought about “the demands of how to live and how to write ethically and decisively,” and “of what it might mean to live now in geographic and psychic locations which are both strangely familiar and comfortably vertiginous”(13). The insistent question about place, on the globe and in time: “Where am I?” “Where are we?” To know where I am might tell me something about who I am. Epigraphs zip from Susan Howe to Gérard de Nerval to Wallace Stevens to David Bowie to Emily Dickinson to Courtney Love. The image of “American linguists in a helicopter, dropping / ration packs of Chiclets and brand new grammar”(14) in an Adam Aitken poem: should this evoke the relief supplies American workers airlift into drought-stricken or war-torn lands, the absurdity of brand name nutritionless food, a world learning to speak and chew American? Susan Howe is not the same as Courtney Love to an Australian audience (of course), but on some level references to them in the same book should suggest that the product being dropped is, I think, not so much American literature but culture—or literature as a cultural product, like American music, part of mass culture. Space debris.
From Return to a New Physics (2000), this is Kate Fagan:
Moments later, “room to room / we collide”(143). Different: Rooms. Offices. Spaces. Genders. She steps into a location; the vista reads you back. How different from commanding ownership of a space as far as the eye can reach (with a telescope or a tv monitor). Space here is that which exists or happens between things (people, ideas, buildings); we are enveloped by space. And the hazardous story of occupation—in the Middle East today (as I write), for instance, the continuous violence a result in part of who is entitled to occupy what land—and our jobs, as occupations, what we do for money, where we are in the employment landscape.
What enables a poet when poetry never pays the bills? What if where we work is where we write? Consider these lines from Kate Lilley: “If this were any other language / I’d turn in my office key and go home.” I’ve taken these lines out of context (they’re from “Illocution,” a loose Italian sonnet about language use, as in “use it or lose it”) to make a suggestion: the poets in Calyx have office keys, and work in institutional rooms. I wonder whether to write is to have an office key. There’s no evaluative judgement intended by these comments—they’re just a measure of the distance in time from anthologies like The New American Poetry and its anti-establishment antics. In Calyx there’s no list of terrestrial jobs (gardener, heroin addict, cab driver, assassin, political organizer, freelance expert on enlightenment) to lend credibility to the idea that real poetry comes not from books but out of life experience, as there were in the 1960 bios. Robin Blaser’s bio in The New American Poetry represents the trend 40 years ago: “Born in 1925. Tied to universities from 1943-59: Northwestern, College of Idaho, Berkeley, California as a student; Harvard as a librarian from 1955-1959. Now free and hoping to remain that way. But it’s doubtful. Money!” Whereas the emphasis then was on what they were doing, and where they were not (the university), now the emphasis lands in general on publications and affiliation, if any, with a university-type structure. The repressed element (the university) then was an uncanny one—destined to return, for Blaser (who became an English professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada) and for the generations since.
The poets in Calyx do share with the (temporarily) untied poets of the early 60s an intention to publish in something other than an anthology context. Zan Ross states in her bio that “She has appeared in all the usual journals, but prefers zines because they allow her more opportunity to experiment”(326). While I question the logic of this statement (zines no doubt publish poetry that a larger more commercial publishing venue would not, but zines also publish entirely derivative efforts; there’s no necessary correlation between experimental writing and publisher’s budget), I agree that what a person writes will be determined by the venue. (Should I assume, then, that this is Ross’s least experimental work here, in a book—in an anthology?)
I confess a certain suspiciousness of writers who claim that poetry today is outside the corporate institution, the writing of it contiguous with their life as freelance counter-culture expert—it was okay then (1960), but naive now (2000). I admit as well that I work and live in one myself, and the windows on my building might be mirrors. But writers need to be in business, at least in the US, to get teeth cleaned or have a tumor removed; they have been in business for some time now. Consider Anthony Trollope (an extreme example no doubt), who in his posthumously published Autobiography (1883) declared “Brains that are unbought will never serve the public much”(72). Trollope mocks the affected virtue of writers who claim to be above the interest in pecuniary reward. “I confess,” he says, “that my first object in taking to literature as a profession was that which is common to the barrister when he goes to the bar, and to the baker when he sets up his oven. I wished to make an income on which I and those belonging to me might live in comfort”(72-73). He believes also that writers should serve the public, not be hostile to its desires. Trollope’s theory (as he calls it) that writers are in a profession like bakers or shoemakers and should produce saleable work is an offensive one, he assumes, to writers. According to his theory, however, a writer may not have to sell his brain if he cares nothing for the public. According to the observation put forward (above) by Riding and Graves—that a book of poetry is always published at a loss—poets despise money. (“It is a mistake to suppose that a man is a better man because he despises money,” says Trollope.) Perhaps poets despise the public too, and write for a private audience. Poets have thought kindly of themselves: “Because I make no money as a poet,” the logic goes, “I must be writing for virtuous reasons.” What of anthology-poets?
The editors of Calyx mention that these are all “poets who started publishing widely in the 1990s”(12, my emphasis). The anthology makes this somewhat exaggerated claim much more of a reality: though not “fugitive,” many of these poets are likely unknown to readers in Australia, certainly elsewhere. To the extent that it follows anthologies like The New American Poetry, this new anthology has produced the poetry. But Calyx is an anthology of poets most of whom are not anthology-poets; the poetry has truly produced the anthology, which will create a new public. True anthologies want to participate in the construction of the contemporary historical moment, become an event. Ideally a poet in Calyx would feel, thinking of Fagan’s poem, “poet to poet / we collide.” Knowing that she has stepped into the location of the anthology, the individual poet can change it or have it happen to her. To intervene in history an anthology must unify for strength, however, collapsing the histories of its contributors in a centripetal movement—authors become a composite author. The vista (anthology) would reinterpret them. An anthology is in business and flattens the distinction between poets, and Calyx is no exception. But again and again, I wished I had more from the poet, the books that sacrificed themselves for the anthology.
It was Emily Dickinson who wrote “I touched the Universe –”
Susan Bower sat “alone on the edge of a [moon] crater” considering tossing bread to imaginary ducks (readers of poetry?). By this crater—this “calyx”—no one is alone, however. Even anthologies of poetry cannot pay the printer’s bills, these days, and only a few ducks will appear, hungry and grateful; maybe this poet is on the edge of a crater somewhere. But others are there with her, at least. “An eagle by the cliff edge assumes the character of ‘missing,’ intersects waves or recollects flesh. Fish. At this edge. At this edge we confide what traces of needing redefine doubt. The breeze our coagulate excess”(210, Peter Minter).
Moore, Marianne. “The Ways Our Poets Have Taken in Fifteen Years Since the War.” 1960. Complete Prose. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. New York: Elizabeth Sifton–Penguin, 1987. 535-539.
Price, Leah. The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel: from Richardson to George Eliot. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Riding, Laura, and Robert Graves. A Pamphlet Against Anthologies. 1928. New York: AMS Press, 1970.
Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. 1883. Ed. David Skilton. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Vickery, Ann. Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Geneaology of Language Writing. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2000.
Bio: Logan Esdale lives in Buffalo, NY (USA). He is student at SUNY–Buffalo, in the Poetics Program, and is working on finishing his dissertation, “Paper Routes: Epistolarity and Modern American Poetry.”