“What Is American About American Poetry?”
[Response to a questionnaire sent out by the Poetry Society of America]
Copyright Ó by Clayton Eshleman, 9/29/01

1.Our amplification of Walt Whitman's panopticon phrenology, Egyptology, opera, Hinduism, the poet as reporter and mystic, amative and adhesive, cultured and anarchic) and his "open road": the democratization of the whole person, the liberation of impulse and instinct from involuntary servitude, a new breath line based on vernacular and natural measures. We continue to operate under Whitman's charge.
2. Our invention of historical and prehistorical otherness: for Ezra Pound: ancient China; for H.D.: classical Greece; for Charles Olson: Maya and Sumer, for Gary Snyder: ancient India and Japan; for Judy Grahn: menarchic metaforms; for me- the Upper Paleolithic.
3. Our view of translation as an integral part of the poet's work. Examples: Pound's Cathay; Louis Zukofsky's Catullus; Kenneth Rexroth's Chinese and Japanese anthologies; Paul Blackburn's El Cid and Provencal troubadors; Cid Corman's Basho, Montale, and Chat; Richard Wilbur's Moliere; Richard Howard's Baudelaire; Rosmarie Waldrop's Jabes; Jerome Rothenberg's Lorca (and his international anthologies); my Vallejo, Cesaire, and Artaud; Bill Zavatsky's Breton; Ron Padgett's Cendrars and Apollinaire; Lyn Hejinian's Dragomoshchenko; Robert Pinsky's Dante, etc.
4. Our incorporation of multiple levels of language-the archaic, the 'American idiom," the erudite, the vulgar, the scientific- along with sound texts, sublanguages, and typographical eccentricity, into the poem's textures. A sense of relentless excitement; say anything-, all words can enter into play.
5. Our incorporation of the nonpoetic and the popular-reportage, history, dreams, songs, visions, libretto, chant, chance event, comic books, legal transcripts, agit-prop- as part of an ongoing, international 'grand collage.' Everything is material.
6. Our belief that poetry can be institutionalized and funded- degree writing programs, professorships for poets, archival purchases, endowment and foundation support-and remain authentic.
7. Our commitment to a radical, investigational poetry that is raw, unfinished, wayward, ineluctably in process; poetry as an intervention within culture against static forms of knowledge, against schooled conceptions and traditional formulations.
8. Our commitment to a conservative, univocal, episodic poetry employing a restricted vocabulary, grammar-book syntax, and traditional English verse forms; the world represented as it is; a poetry of 'intimate, shared isolation.'
9. Our vision that poetry must be political (in spite of the fact that no one in America takes the poet politically seriously), and confront racism, imperialism, ecological disaster, and war, as part of the poet's social responsibilities.
10. Our vision that the only genuine poetry is apolitical, sublime, victimized by a chronic belatedness, and thus is, at best, a revisionist palimpsest of predecessor poetry; distrust of the local and specific event; a belief that only poetry monumentally stripped of context can be great.

  Nearly all current, seriously written American poetry draws upon varying aspects of the polarities proposed in points 7 and 8, and 9 and 10. Writing poetry is more complexly adversarial than in the past. The Dionysian/Apollonian, traditional/experimental, personal/public oppositions that have divided poets against their peers (and against themselves) have scattered into a kind of archipelago of sites.
  One reason American poets have made contact with foreign poetries and "other" societies for materials and workings is because many of us feel that we cannot help but write an American poetry regardless of our thematic concerns. We are so saturated by media and commodity, so drenched in what might be called an imperialistic inscape, that regardless of what we intend we are walking pyramids packed with the impress of the daily blitz.  


  To speak internationally for a moment: poetry is always going nowhere and on one level to hell-on another, not to hell, but to the underworld,  the pre-Christian subconscious. Poetry is fundamentally pagan and  polytheistic, and would create assimilative space out of depth. One
might say that a perpetual direction of poetry is its way of ensouling events, of seeking the doubleness in event, and an event's hidden or contradictory meaning. Each age produces some artists who, in their quest for authenticity, achieve their own truth by creating their own view of things. Such artists are never defined by movements of schools -their work may define or become the figurehead of a school, but as such they are never of the school they might be said to have created.
  Individual poets are campers in the new technological wilderness, and at the periphery of the centers of social and political power. It does not matter what you say-or, it matters only to a very few. I am speaking here, of course, of the so-called "free world." In China and Iraq, for example, the "free world" situation is pulled inside out: your life depends on what you say or do not say.
  Like alchemy, the poetry that matters to me faces the blackness in the heart of man and seeks to transform it into a product that attempts to become responsible for all a poet knows about himself and his world.

  At the turn of the century, American poetry, with the compelling exceptions of Whitman and Emily Dickinson, was still filled with Victorian decorum and was a poetry of taste, on extremely restricted subjects, written almost exclusively by white males. As we approach the millennium, this picture has changed radically: written by American-American, Asian, Chicano, as well as white heterosexual and declared homosexual men and women, American poetry, as a composite force, has become human. Given the interest on the part of college students in writing poetry (often at the expense of reading the great dead), there are more people attempting to write poetry in American than ever before.
  The archipelago of sites I mentioned earlier could also be described as a blizzard made up of academic poets, vagabond poets, student poets, Buddhist poets, eco-poets, surrealists, language poets, Neo-Formalists, haiku clubs, deaf signing poets, and poetry slams. In a fragmentary and confusing way, we are approaching what Robert Duncan called 'a symposium of the whole."
  Our situation today does not reveal-as the critic Harold Bloom would have it-that the barbarians are bursting through the ivory gates, but that the Anglo-American WASP stranglehold on the keep has disclosed its own only partially relevant center, and that those previously considered "barbaric' are now among the messengers displaying excluded energies, grounded information, and hybrid connections. [1998]

[reprinted from Eshleman’s forthcoming book Companion Spider- Wesleyan Press]

[Dan replies- I think the 10 points stated are a bit broad & do not represent more than a small academic portion of poets. As for your comment on ‘the blackness in the heart of man, etc.’ I’m glad you at least prefaced it with the fact that this is your own bias. Poets too often ask too much of art & their particular genre. Most art is bad & utterly disposable- it leaves no real value in its wake- save for what not to emulate. But neither do most people. Most of my family are just average folk. Poets try to reconcile the lack of immediacy & impact of their art by hyperbolizing its import. To ‘merely entertain or inform’ is not only bad but contemptible! A good point that you scratch at- regarding poetry or just plain American life- as well as being a good thing societally, is that as the USA becomes more diverse it becomes actually more homogeneous in the many aspects of the world as a whole! But, still, diversity quickly descends into tokenism sans quality, & bad art is quickly repudiated by the descendents of whatever tribe is ascendant. Or as I once told Sansei superba David Mura, “Don’t worry about people like me ripping you, in 50 years the people burying your reputation won’t be round eyes, but those who look a lot like you!”]

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