Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On the New Chicago Poetry

The quote by Reginald Shepherd included by Robert Archambeau on Adam Fieled’s blog in an old blog post gave my morning a jumpstart, along with my morning cup of sacred bean squeezings

“T. S. Eliot said that the poet must be as intelligent as possible; Wallace Stevens said that the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully. It is in the play between the intelligence of language and the resistance to intelligence of language as an object that poetry occurs. What matters is not what a poem can say, a preoccupation Harold Bloom shares with the multiculturalists he so despises, but what a poem can do. I look to poetry for what only poems can do, or what poems can do best–to alienate language from its alienation of use (the phrase is Adorno’s), to treat language as an end-in-itself rather than a mere means: to communication, expression, or even truth.”

Although Shepherd passed from this earth on Sep. 10, 2008 he was described by Lawrence White as “born and raised in Bronx projects, exiled to Macon, Georgia, then rising up to Bennington and Brown and beyond—was the stuff of an Oprah-list memoir. The motor of that progression, his adamantine integrity that would not swerve nor stoop, was heroic in the old-fashioned sense: it brought him to glories and it brought him to calamities. But he was no cliché. His friends, and those students and readers who were drawn to him, knew he was a rare spirit.”

In thinking about what’s "new" about the poetry being written right now in Chicago (dubbed by Kent Johnson recently as the New Chicago School and by Adam Fieled previously as the Chicago Eliotics, and even earlier by Tim Yu as New Prairie School), I came upon Shepherd's quote, which posits an idea that has a different drift than Auden’s famous “Poetry makes nothing happen.” And it’s worth reading Poetry magazine senior editor Don Share’s post against the holding up of W.H. Auden’s line as evidence of anything when taken out of context, being that the line was written to describe a poet whom, according to Auden, did/does make things happen—William Butler Yeats.

Although Share comments that Auden’s line isn’t necessarily a declaration of poetry’s inutility, in my experience, proving the utility of poetry, as absurd an idea as that may seem, comes up frequently when one applies for a grant or funding of any kind, either for the monetary means to travel in order to write poetry, or to take time off of work to write poetry, or to host a poetry event. Often questionnaires include a line or two asking “how will this serve the community.” In other words, why is poetry on a different side of the line than, say, fiction (or painting or film)? Does Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds serve the community of Los Angeles, or did William Faulkner somehow serve his community by writing The Sound and the Fury? In the case of Faulkner, the folk of Oxford, Mississippi grew to dislike the novelist in their midst, after they'd read his books, because they claimed that Faulkner had presented an unflattering portrait of what went on there. These two examples are perhaps polar opposites of a sort, but I still hold to the notion that an artist creates because he/she must. I’m pretty sure that authors of fiction who receive grants or endowments aren’t asked whether the new novel that is in the process of being will somehow serve the community.

This “newness” has come into being largely on a completely parallel course to the course that is being charted by the Poetry Foundation. Perhaps two or three of the younger poets that I know have been published in the pages of Poetry magazine, but none of the other 30-40 other amazing younger poets living in Chicago who are all writing what could be called experimental poetry (I would call it contemporary) have been published there and it could be that the editorial board of Poetry is simply not able to hit that vein, whether that’s intentional I have no idea.

Another recent foray into publishing Chicago poetry has been Granta’s (which is financed by a Swedish billionairess who purportedly doesn't like Americans) recent Chicago issue that includes virtually none of the many younger Chicago writers of this newer poetry who frequent venues, bars, and bookstores such as Danny’s, Myopic Books, Elastic Arts, Red Rover, and Series A in Hyde Park.

I was surprised to receive a near-immediate response from the American editor of Granta John Freeman, after I originally criticized Granta's odd editorializing of the Chicago scene and he stressed via e-mail that it wasn’t the intention of Granta editors to “exclude younger poets,” but that he couldn’t find one whose work “bowled him over.” He concluded by commenting that many poets don’t know that Granta publishes poetry and that keeping track of new poets is daunting. My guess is that Granta solicited all the work that was published in their Chicago issue and that the net they cast to find these “Chicago poets” must have been a pretty small one. Ok, enough appetizer.

The poets here aren’t necessarily anti-confessional (and I’m really speaking only for myself). In fact, I love Anne Sexton’s work (who lived in Boston and died in 1974), for example, but what I love about it isn’t its juicy confessional details or risqué (for the time) subject matter—reading Sexton is like watching fireworks. She wrings language into new meanings, which is what’s always excited me about poetry—old or new, whether it was written in Chicago, Boise or Khatmandu.

(Even stranger: A recent addition to the Granta Web site under the “Chicago-issue” banner includes a piece by Milwaukeean Bruce Olds titled “Leaving Chi-Town” that wistfully illustrates the memories that he still has of the city, although presumably he moved away. He even mentions Al Capone—pow, pow, pow, but no Michael Jordan? Ok, to be fair he does include the words “at risk of cliché.”)

As Roland Barthes said, (to paraphrase in a meathanded way and bend the quote by Barthes from a separate discussion to suit my own) I believe that readers of this new Chicago poetry to some extent help “generate the texts they are reading.” So, the poetry here does something, even if it's only the impetus for the creation of new and multiple meanings in the mind of the reader. This open ended poetry that kicked out closure and didn’t even give it cab fare exists because there is a confluence of poets who have either relocated here from elsewhere or returned after stints at Brown, Iowa, or other major schools and what had been known previously as a fly-over city is now a cultural blender par excellence where, if one has an active interest in poetry, there is a genuine sense that something is happening. These poets all seem to have a sense of this kind of awareness. These poems do enact, rather than describe or list in the sense that New York School poems, especially evidenced by the timing in the moment-to-moment sensibility of Frank O’Hara as it comes through in his writing, list or map the consciousness of the author as it splattered against another day living in New York.

So, I’m here to say, too, that it matters not what a poem can say, but it’s what a poem does that makes one want to inhabit it by participating in its meaning. It’s not that some of these Chicago poets have some programmatic impulse to create poetry that narrowly adheres to these sort of strictures regularly—but the awareness of this as an aesthetic option (of many on the menu) and a certain brand of extroversion of personality gives the writing being produced here a genuinely wide-ranging quality that is unique. Despite the quibbling over who is or isn’t a “Chicago poet” as if one would have to live out an expiration date from a previous existence to be granted the nameplate and plastered with the title of “Chicago poet”, from where I’m sitting what’s happening here is galactic. Paul Hoover’s words on the topic of Chicago poetry from an old blog post sum it pretty well “perhaps the usual thing had happened, a revolution of the word.” If all this is so, there is definitely evidence here of the orbit of a number of “heavy planets” (Paul’s words), and I’m happy to drift among them.