Monday, September 24, 2007

an excruciating spasm of guilt

In his semi-bombshell New York Times Book Review essay** about the new American poets generally - the piece was written in 1960 but published in the February 21, 1961 newspaper - Kenneth Rexroth said that the new poets owe more to the example of Apollinaire or Lorca than to the T. S. Eliot giving speeches about the English Metaphysicals. (Yes.) He said that for better or worse the doings of poets were once again momentarily "hot copy for newspapers and magazines." This was because of a myth about the new poets--a myth, he felt, promulgated by the Beats, whom he somewhat dismisses as a PR phenomenon: myth-making about not poetry but the image of the poet as "Bearded Barbarian" (the title of the essay is "Bearded Barbarians or Real Bards").

The new poets were political in their frankness, their independence of mind, their non-academicism, and their intellectual affiliations with the world ("American poetry is once more a recognizable part of world poetry").

They're more socially conscious than the preceding era's poets and at the same time also more willing to "sacrifice all for Art."

Rexroth felt that Denise Levertov was the best of the lot.

"Second only to Denise Levertov is Robert Creeley." Rexroth lavishes praise on Creeley. His poems superficially fall in the William Carlos Williams category but they "turn out to be anything but Imagist." "They are all [sic] erotic poems."

And this good line: "Each [poem] is an excruciating spasm of guilt."

Then Rexroth goes on to talk about Charles Olson. While he doesn't call him third on the list behind Levertov and Creeley, it's pretty clear that that's what he means. (One can just imagine how Olson felt about that implication.)

I realize that it is or at least was once the custom of those who design NYTBR that an illustration is always placed somewhere on the front page. Sometimes the drawing or photo has nothing whatever to do with the lead review. Perhaps in this case it doesn't either. And yet the choice to use a modernist wood sculpture by Barbara Hepworth had to lead readers to believe a relationship between the image of Rexroth's survey of contemporary avant-garde poetry was being meant. Especially because the sculpture is a biomorphic lyre. Are poets returning to the age-old responsibilities and song-singing of Western poetic tradition? Actually, in a way, Rexroth is saying yes. But he is also saying that the new American poets are getting beyond modernism - that Eliot's influence is waning, that the "social role" of the poet, long an agonizing question for first-generation modernists, is a comfortable one for these young writers. So what were the NYTBR editors consciously or half-consciously expressing by way of illustrating Rexroth with the Hepworth sculpture?

Implicitly: Bearded barbarians or whatever.... Play things as they are.

** February 12, 1961, pp. 1, 44.