60 on the 60's (1969), the anthology of poetry edited by Robert McGovern and Richard Snyder, covered the issues of that decade of civil protest and public war. There was cause during those years for anguish on the part of many, including those to be found inhabiting the American academy. The editors, in their "Introduction," wrote, "This book, then, is a celebration of the dignity of human sensibility in the face of war, assassination, poverty, alienation, exploitation of nature, fear of extinction, and other shocks of our evolution. It is a collection of song, which should make it an optimistic record of history. Where there is song, however painful or even despairing, there is hope for human salvation. The themes developed in this volume have not been devised by the editors; rather, the unity of feeling about our world derives from the nature of poetry and poets. While the writers in this book demonstrate a spread of generation, a distinction of race, religion, and sex, there is little gap in sensibility" (5).
Poets represented in the volume included Gwendolyn Brooks who wrote on "Martin Luther King, Jr.," Daniel Berrigan, S. J., who in future years would serve time for his non-violent civil protests against the military draft and the Vietnam conflict; Robert Bly on the "March in Washington Against the Vietnam War"; Denise Levertov who two years earlier, in 1967, had edited an anti-war anthology, Out of the War Shadow, for the War Resisters League; Richard Wilbur, who contributed "A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson" — that is, Lyndon Johnson, President of the United States of America; Robert Lowell on "R. F. K." — the assassinated brother of President Kennedy, and many others. Not represented in the book was LeRoi Jones — or Amiri Baraka, as he was by then known.
However, my poem titled “An Open Letter to Le Roi Jones," originally published in TheNew York Times Magazine, May 25, 1969, did appear in the anthology:
AN OPEN LETTER TO LEROI JONES
“Nobody sings anymore.” — from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by LeRoi Jones.
When we were younger, when words were the things we loved;
when men were men, evil and good;
when there was hope;
when you could speak to all, though few would listen;
when I could speak to you, though I did not know you;
when I did not know you were black, but only that your words were black on a white page;
when the page spoke and did not scream;
when there was a way for minds to touch across great distances;
when I read you and, perhaps, you read me in the magazines only the young and the hopeful read;
when time and life meant something more than now they mean;
when there was art;
when we meant to change the world with reason and love;
when there was infinite possibility, in art as in life –
then the world stayed the same, and we did not change it;
then we grew older, and now we are bitter;
now you speak bitterly, to bitter men, and the words are black in your mouth;
now bitter men hear, but do not listen’
now the words you say are the old words – we have lost our art;
now we say what has always been said,
now everyone understands – there is comfort in what we say;
now what we avoided when we were poets has come to pass:
now we are clichés, and our words mirror us;
now you are a black man and I am white – only the colors remain, the colors of our words and pages:
now we do not speak, we only harangue;
now we do not tell what could be, but only what is, what always has been;
we have lost ourselves in slogan;
we have lost our art in the web of words;
we are devoured by unreason, by the spider within;
we have forgone that which is human: mind, love, and art:
“Nobody sings anymore.”
We are no longer poets.
“Amiri Baraka,” who died today, Thursday, January 9, 2014, was exactly my contemporary. Everett LeRoi Jones was born in 1934, a native of Newark, New Jersey, where he attended school and began college at the Newark branch of Rutgers University. He transferred to Howard University subsequently and took his B. A. there in 1954. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force after the Korean War, from 1954 to 1956. He married a white Jewish woman in 1958, was divorced in 1965, and married again the following year. His teaching career included holding academic positions at the New School for Social Research in New York City from 1961 to 1964 and shorter stints at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Columbia University, and San Francisco State University.
Even in his first full collection of poems Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note published in1960 (two chapbooks preceded it), Baraka's characteristic themes — distrust of and hatred for the caucasian world —were well developed. The Dead Lecturer, Jones' second book, appeared in 1964; Black Art in 1966, Black Magic: Poetry 1961-1967 in 1969, and It's Nation Time in 1970. By the publication in 1972 of Spirit Reach, Jones was "Amimu Amiri Baraka" and well-established as the premier black militant of the world of poetry, but he was also establishing himself as a playwright; he had written two books of fiction — a novel and a collection of short stories, and he had edited or written many other titles, most of them on social issues. His Selected Poetry was published in 1979.
Baraka has inspired more scholarship since 1973 than any other black poet in America. "If Baraka is a villain in the eyes of whites," Theodore Hudson wrote in From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works (1973), the first study to appear, "he is a hero in the eyes of the current generation of black nationalists and their sympathizers. No one so captures the cultural sensibilities of young black cultural revolutionists. He has great drawing power on predominantly black campuses. There is no doubt that among young black readers he is the most consistently read of all the current black writers" (37).
Baraka never wrote formalist poetry like that of Robert Hayden or Gwendolyn Brooks. His earliest work was line-phrased prose, and it remained so, though as his work matured Jones sometimes treated prose in the manner of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, as in the "A New Reality Is Better Than a New Movie!" the first part of which is quoted:
"How will it go, crumbling earthquake, towering inferno, juggernaut, volcano, smashup, in reality, other than the feverish nearreal fantasy of the capitalist flunky film hacks tho they sense its reality breathing a quake inferno scar on their throat even snorts of 100% pure cocaine cant cancel the cold cut of impending death to this society. On all the screens of america, the joint blows up every hour and a half for two dollars an [sic] fifty cents. They have taken the niggers out to lunch, for a minute, made us partners (nigger charlie)
surrogates (boss nigger) for their horror."
But it was the proposition of William J. Harris, in his book The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic (1985), that it is difficult to pin the poet down because of his Protean transformations "of avant-garde poetics into ethnic poetics, of white liberal politics into black nationalist and Marxist politics, of jazz forms into literary forms. Baraka's entire career is characterized by such transformations.... Because it emulates a transformation process typical of jazz revision, I call Baraka's method of transformation the jazz aesthetic, a procedure that uses jazz variations as paradigms for the conversion of white poetic and social ideas into black ones" (37).
Particularly Black Mountain ones. Harris pointed out that Baraka was "influenced by the Projectivist School; no one, however, has made it clear how profound and lasting this influence has been. The main source of influence is the great white whale of American literature, Charles Olson" (35). This insight explains Jones' sojourn for a summer in the Little Black Mountain of S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo in 1964. "From the Projectivists," Harris continued, "and from Olson in particular, Baraka absorbed his sense of the poem as open form, his sense of line, his sense of the poem as a recorder of process, and his conception of the poem as definition and exploration. For instance, speaking of form, Baraka...said [in Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, p. 425]: 'There must not be any preconceived notion or design for what a poem ought to be. "Who knows what a poem ought to sound like? Until it's thar" says Charles Olson...& I follow closely with that. I'm not interested in writing sonnets, sestina[s] or anything...only poems'."
In this respect, then, Baraka's primary literary influences were those of a renegade white academy rather than those of Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, or Gwendolyn Brooks, who worked out of a tradition of black formalism deriving from, on the one hand, mainstream English literature and, on the other, black musical forms. But at this point Baraka's practice approached those of his older black contemporaries. Harris maintained that "Baraka...blackens the white avant-garde poem with scatting — a jazz singing technique that substitutes nonsense syllables for traditional lyrics — and by creating poems more suited to oral than written presentation. Scatting occurs when singers imitate musical instruments. Baraka uses scatting both to incorporate black rhythms into his poems — to make them familiar — and to break down conceptions of what the elements in a poem should be to radicalize poetic form" (107). The example Harris uses is
these warm street shoobies
my soul gets off behind
from Black Magic (144). Another that also shows the Olson influence is the first strophe of "Like, This Is What I Meant! from Selected Poetry:
Poetry makes a statement
like everything poetry
makes a statement
Poetry is a being of words
a being of language flicks
produced by the life
of (DAH da da Dah!)
But here is where we differ
from Funk & Wagnalls, Empson
& the rest of assorted bourgeois functionaries
of the inherited
"Take Class Struggle
as the Key Link", sd Mao, "Act according
to the past principles" (294)
Here is much that is frustrating to many readers about the 1960s: the in-group jargon, including shorthand words ("sd" for said), imitation Ezra Poundisms-via-Olson of a low order, such as allusions to "Funk & Wagnalls," "[William] Empson," the British New Critic; "Thaddeus Dustface," who may or may not be an "Academic Poet," and Chairman "Mao" Tse-Tung; the idiosyncratic arrangement of phrases on the page, which Harris and others would excuse as "jazz," and the "scat" syllables that Stephen Henderson made much of before Harris did. A comparison of Baraka's early work with his late will not show, in the opinion of some critics at least, an improvement. Unfortunately, he did not transform Olson's prosodic peculiarities into his own style as successfully as Hayden and Brooks combined black ethnic traditions with English language formal techniques to make a poetry as effective as any written during the period of protest.
I am a year late, but I just finished reading an essay, "Nature's Best-Dressed," by Dr. Nathalie Yonow, a marine biologist at Swansea University in Wales, in my favorite periodical, Saudi Aramco World for July/August 2012, about the ornately decorated nudibranch or sea
slug. Absolutely fascinating!
It happens that I wrote a poem many years ago about the sea slug:
for John Brinnin and Don Justice, on a line by Joel Sloman
If it is true that
"the sea worm* is
a decorated flute
that pipes in the most ancient
and if it is true, too, that
the salt content of mammalian blood
is exactly equivalent
to the salinity of the
at the time life
emerged onto the land;
and if it is true
that man is the only
mammal with a
capacity for song, well, then,
that explains why the
worms swims in our veins, piping, and why
we dance to his measure inch by
equivocal inch. And it explains why
this song, even as it
*I take it that Sloman
meant “sea slug.” There is another photo-essay on the nudibranch in the current, October, 2013, issue of National Geographic from which the illustration above is taken.
The word form is a turnoff for some people. They think “sonnet.” “The sonnet
is dead,” is a frequent claim by such folk, but what they usually mean is that,
in their opinion, nobody can write a sonnet anymore because the form has been
done to death; it has become trite.
But “the sonnet” is not dead. It cannot
die. It is merely a specific, often-used pattern. It is totally neutral in the
abstract. It isn’t the form that’s dead, it is the burden of tradition that lies upon the sonnet. When one thinks
“sonnet,” one doesn’t think merely of the form, one thinks of all the sonnets
he or she has read, and when one goes to write a sonnet, one still thinks of all those sonnets lying
in all those books of poetry sitting on our shelves.
As a result, one often winds up writing a
sonnet that sounds like Wordsworth, or Millay, or somebody, and one thinks, “I
want to write like me, not like
somebody else,” and we grunt n disgust as we crumple the paper and tosses it
into the circular file. But if one can unburden oneself of the burden of
tradition, the form remains waiting to be used in a new way. It is nothing more
than a pattern that offers potential.
Take the triolet, for example, that form which Edgar Lee Master derogates in
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a
Faint iambics that the full breeze
But the pine tree makes a symphony
Triolets, villanelles, rondels,
Ballades by the score with the same old
The snows and the roses of yesterday are
And what is love but a rose that fades?
Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
Courage constancy, heroism, failure —
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!
Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers —
Blind to all of it all my life long.
Triolets, villanelles, rondels,
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics,
While Homer and Whitman roared in the
Edgar Lee Masters
Every garden club poet from Dubuque to
Oshkosh has written a triolet. Its burden of tradition is that the form is a
pretty little thing, fit only for writing about fluffy cloudlets on a spring
day, and daffodils on a lawn. Even the poet Dylan Thomas, when he was a child,
wrote a triolet, and fell under the weight of the burden of tradition:
The bees are glad the livelong day,
For lilacs in the beauty blow
And make my garden glad and gay.
The bees are blad the livelong day,
They to my blossoms wing their way,
And honey steal from flowers aglow.
The bees are glad the livelong day,
For lilacs in their beauty blow.
truly awful piece of work, unless one looks at it simply as an exdercise in
metrics. But even then one need not have written a triolet about flowers and
bees. This is a triolet too:
I take my women any
way they come —
I'm Jasper Olson,
brother. Hard and fast
I play this
game. Though some folks think I'm dumb,
The French triolet
is an octave poem turning on only two rhymes and including two refrains: ABaAabAB. Every line is the same metrical length.
I suppose one of the reasons I wrote
“Jasper Olson” was just to see if, for once, someone couldn’t dump the burden
of tradition that encumbers the triolet. I found that the form wasn’t dead. Imagination is smothered by
tradition, and all the poet needs to do in order to use an old form is to push
the pillow off his face so that he can breathe again. Here is another triolet,
a send-up of the form:
In every era there are always two sorts
of poetic diction: that to be found in what David Perkins in the second volume
of his A History of Modern Poetry
called a "period style" ... and any number of "idiosyncratic
styles" invented by individual poets.
Such writers we call "stylists." The 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins
sounded little like his contemporaries; here is the opening of "Hurrahing
in Harvest": "Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks
arise / Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviours / Of
silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier / Meal-drift moulded ever and
melted across skies?" Clearly, this
is "poetic diction," but in Hopkins' case it has less to do with
rearrangements of syntax than with effects on the sonic
level of language and with vocabulary.
The English-language Neoclassical
period of the eighteenth century also had both its period style and its
idiosyncratic styles. Alexander Pope exemplifies
(we are told) the best of the period style, as in lines 259-60 of the
"Essay on Man": "What if the foot, ordain'd the dust to tread, /
Or hand, to toil, aspir'd to be the head?"
To flesh this passage out in ordinary prose is to illustrate the
difference between ordinary and elevated language: "What if the foot,
ordained to tread the dust; or the hand, ordained to toil, aspired to be the
head?" Poetic diction is generally
intended to intensify the aural experience; perhaps, however, in the hands of
most poets what poetic diction actually does is to mask inanity.
Samuel Johnson's contemporary
Christopher Smart sometimes wrote in the poetic diction of the Neoclassical
period style, as in Section VII of "Hymn to the Supreme Being":
"Yet hold, presumption, nor too fondly climb, / And thou too hold, O
horrible despair!" Considerably
before Whitman he also wrote poems in the prose mode; however, in those poems
Smart's poetic diction turned away from the period style and became
idiosyncratic, as in "Of the Sun and the Moon": "For the Sun's
at work to make me a garment & the Moon is at work for my wife. / For the
Wedding Garments of all men are prepared in the Sun against the day of
acceptation. / For the Wedding Garments of all women are prepared in the Moon
against the day of their purification."
Here, the syntax is normal, but the form of his sentences is based upon
the schema anaphora (the repetition of an initial word or phrase), and the
sensory level of the passage is unusual and arresting.
Another poet of that period who wrote
in both prose and verse mode, William Blake, had his own poetic diction, but it
was the same or quite similar in both modes.
The syntax of this so-called "pre-Romantic" style was more
ordinary than that of the succeeding Romantics, as in the beginning of "A
Little Girl Lost" from Songs of
Experience: "Children of the future age, / Reading this indignant page,
/ Know that in a former time / Love, sweet love, was thought a
crime." This was a verse poem, of
course, but "Creation" is prose: "I must create a system, or be
enslaved by another man's. / I will not reason compare [an inversion: 'compare
reason']. My business is to
"In the ten years following the
Second World War," James E. B. Breslin wrote, "literary modernism,
like an aging evangelical religion, had rigidified into orthodoxy. In fact, with the publication of the widely
used second edition of Understanding
Poetry (1950), modernism had been codified into a textbook. The most conspicuous feature of the writing
produced by younger poets Robert Lowell, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Richard
Wilbur, for instance — was their revival of the very traditional forms that
modernist poets had sought to dismantle; the predominant mode became the
well-made symbolist poem. Yet in the
modern era, the very existence of an identifiable mode, much less its
perfection, is self-discrediting, so that during the fifties the predominant
mode came increasingly to feel limited, excluding, impoverished" (xiv). By
the end of the decade it seemed to many readers of contemporary poetry almost
as though Modernism had never happened.
The reaction against Modernism had begun
as early as the 1930s in the work of the British poet W.H. Auden and his Oxford
University contemporaries including Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis, but the
reaction was not a revulsion against the poetry of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and the
other high Modernists so much as it was a feeling of frustration with the
apparent impossibility of continuing to explore the outer edges of
twentieth-century expression. Auden's
first collection Poems appeared in
1930, and in it can be perceived the beginnings of the post-Modernist period
Auden and his group in the pre-World
War II period blended traditionally formal verse structures with an urbane
conversational style, as in Auden's "What's the Matter?" — "To
lie flat on the back with the knees flexed / And sunshine on the soft receptive
belly / Or face-down, the insolent spine relaxed, / No more compelled to cower
or to bully, is good; and good to see them passing by / Below on the white
side-walk in the heat, / The dog, the lady with parcels, and the boy: / There
is the casual life outside the heart." Perkins wrote, "to understand
why the poetry of the thirties took the direction it did, we must keep in mind
the situation in literary history of these poets born between 1907 and
1917. They were the first generation for
whom the development of modern poetry from the 1890s was what it is for us —
history, tales of the tribal elders" (v. II, 120).
This is the first part of the Foreword to Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry:
In the history of
literature there have always been two major types of poetry, religious and
social. In pre-scientific cultures,
the "words of power" associated with the gods or God were always
controlled by a caste of priests or priestesses who wove them into various
ritual religious formats including prayers, liturgies, incantations, curses,
oaths, prophecies, and so forth. This is religious or “priest-poetry,” and it
was of basic importance in every culture. It came to be called Platonic or
Romantic, Dionysian or ritual, emotional or "natural" poetry.
Social poetry consists basically of
entertainments: songs, word games, stories, plays, puzzles, and so forth. In
many ways this type of poetry is as basic as religious poetry, for it is part
of the folk life of a culture. It passes on the myths and legends, the lore and
the crafts of the people. Without it, there would be no culture. Nevertheless,
the class of priests tended to disdain this kind of poetry, which came to be
called variously Aristotelian or Classical, Apollonian or secular, intellectual
or "artificial." Both types of poetry have always flourished in
Europe, and both have always been "formal" there.
In Colonial America religious poetry
was paramount, especially in New England. America was a clean slate upon which
might be written the Word of God; it was to be the New Jerusalem, dedicated to
the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The land was to be filled
with Light, a Light that had been obscured in the corruption of the Old World.
The Bible was The Book. Art for Art's
sake, or for any other than God's sake, was corrupt, like the art of Europe —
or, if not corrupt, at best it was frivolous. If language did not serve the
purposes of pragmatic communication, it was to serve the purpose of the Church
However, if America were a clean slate,
ought not the literature it produced to be written in a new way? How else to
differentiate corrupt literature from purified literature? As America grew and
Puritanism was transformed; as other religions came into America, this attitude
toward literature was also changed. But a new element worked itself into the
fabric of development: The colonists more and more saw themselves as an
autonomous body of people. Pride of country demanded that America be
identifiably America, not England-in-America. Americans wanted a unique
American national personality, separate from that of the mother country.
A distinction may be made between the
"amateur" and the "professional" poet. The former is one
who uses poetry as a vehicle for a particular purpose, as Edward Taylor
(1642?-1729) did. The latter is simply one who dedicates her life to writing
poetry. Thus, Anne Bradstreet (1612?-1672) was America's first
"professional poet." Edward Taylor was the first "amateur"
and the first poet to evince what would later be seen as Emersonian qualities.
There is a third possibility, however, besides the professional and the amateur
poet. There is the “agonist,” the theoretician of poetry who worries about what
poetry is or ought to be, and how one ought to go about writing it, which in
America led to Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth century, during what has
been called the “Romantic” movement in England and America, of which Emerson is
popularly supposed to be a member. In fact, however, although Emerson when he
was a young man had all the tools of a professional poet, apparently what he
most wanted to be was a priest-poet. As a result, he became that third type of
poet, the agonist, emphasis on the;
he was America’s first and, so far, foremost theoretician of poetry.
When he was young, Emerson could write
perfectly acceptable, standard verse in any formal manner he chose, as Hyatt H.
Waggoner pointed out in “Chapter II, The Apprentice Years: Composer of Verses”
of his book Emerson As Poet
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974). In fact, he was a virtuoso
performer in the old British formal tradition. He could do anything he wished
to do with the English language, but it came too easily to him, apparently, and
he felt uneasy about his facility. He agonized over this lack of difficulty he
experienced young. As a result, he attempted to roughen up his meters, and his
mature writing style is more “amateur”-seeming than his youthful work. Clearly,
he chose to do what he did in his
later work. Emerson began to explore
the convergence of prose and verse.
of Emerson’s later poems develop from prose germs, as if the poems were somehow
simply the upper range of ordinary language.
Emerson's prose is hardly less full of tropes than his young work was,
and often it impresses in the same way the poems do, and yet the question of
the frontier between them remains. Emerson wondered what gulf is crossed — if
any — in getting from one to the other.
It seems that if many of his poems lie closer to the boundary, they
compel some awareness of qualities in the performance that point both
ways. It's not just a matter of mixing
vulgar diction with a certain amount of gorgeousness — but that must be part of
For two centuries, until the end of the
first decade of the twentieth century, much if not most of American poetry had
been derivative and imitative, a sub-branch of British poetry, and this is what
fretted Emerson deeply. Only four or five poets had been exceptions to this
rule. Ever since William Cullen Bryant, who has been called “the father of
American poetry,” though some American literati had been kicking against the
traces, most had been unable to break away from traditional accentual-syllabic
metrics in practice, including Emerson himself, the agonist for a new poetics.
Most of the trouble seemed to be technical — American poets had difficulty in
getting personal voices out of the old forms. Emerson prescribed a remedy:
invent new forms; cast off the burden of tradition and allow American poems to
grow naturally, like plants; operate through intuition in order to attain
Vision, which is poetry's core, and the form will follow
Perhaps, as someone who wished to be a priest-poet, Emerson simply had a
theory that poetry ought to be "revealed" to someone who was truly a
poet, and that one therefore ought not to have to "think" about what
he was doing. Apparently, when he "thought" about metrics, it came
very easily to Emerson, and he hated it, so when Walt Whitman came along with
his system of grammatic prose-parallels, which Emerson must have recognized as
the system used in the Bible, he hailed Whitman as a genius of a “poetic” prose
It is true that Emerson's prose sometimes came close to being more
"poetic" than his verse, but what he probably wanted was some hybrid
system that was neither verse nor prose. Such a system cannot exist, however,
because verse is “metered language”
and prose is “unmetered language,”
and one cannot have unmetered metered language. The Modernists soon came up
with a term, however, that covered what Emerson wanted, "free verse,"
which makes no sense at all.
Emerson’s great white whale of American literature Walt Whitman became
the exemplar of Emerson’s agonisms, the guidon-bearer of the Modernist
revolution of the early twentieth century. Because of the old convention that
poetry ought to be written in verse, and because people still thought that
prose could not be a vehicle for poetry (even Emerson suspected that this might
be the case), the twentieth century had to have a new term to apply to prose
poems; hence, the confusing term "free verse" was borrowed from the
French Symbolists of the nineteenth century who called non-syllabic prosodies vers libre. Whitman never used the term;
probably, he never heard of it. He knew he was writing prose poems. If Emerson had been born a bit later he would very likely
have been writing lineated prose and calling it "free verse," and
perhaps he would have been as happy as many ensuing "poets" who
hadn't a clue what they were doing and were happy not to have to think about
Reacting against the pervasive English conventions of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, the “Modernists” who followed from Whitman’s
prose-poem examples were wildly experimental. The so-called (later on)
"Modernist" period, which began about 1912 and lasted through the
1920s, came up with all sorts of prosodies that were called "free
verse," though in fact a system is a system, even that of Whitman, and
each system can be analyzed, identified, and given a descriptive name. Instead,
so many poets wrote to justify prose poetry as a kind of "verse" that
"free verse" came to be accepted as a term that actually describes
something that exists.
Whitman's influence upon
twentieth-century American poetry was not, however, merely prosodic and
technical. Like the English Romantics he was the champion of the "common
man" and of ordinary speech, and he was the first American poet to speak
in prose poetry in what we today would call the "confessional" voice,
the subjective first person singular, as Emerson had demanded in his essay “The
Poet.” Furthermore, he made the egopoetic "I" into a symbol of the
New World as a whole — Whitman maintained that he spoke for America, not merely for himself.
By the time World War II was over in
1945 the Modernist period was pretty well past, though most of its exemplars
were still living: T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings,
Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, Amy Lowell, Robinson Jeffers, and Carl Sandburg
to name a few. But there was another group of poets also, the late American
Romantic formalists including Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Archibald
MacLeish, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the Southern “Fugitives” including John
Crowe Ransom and Alan Tate.
The poets who returned to civilian life after
having served in the armed forces, like Howard Nemerov, John Ciardi, Karl
Shapiro, James Dickey, Allen Ginsberg, and Randall Jarrell, or as conscientious
objectors like Robert Lowell and William Stafford, and their female counterparts such as
Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov and others, had two literary choices,
basically: They could either return to the earlier formalism of the
pre-Modernist nineteenth century and become post-Romantics, or they could
continue the well-laid-out and well-traveled road of the Modernists and become
post-Modernists. The so-called “academic poets” of the 1950s chose the former
route, and almost everybody else chose the latter. All of these people, many of
them subsequently hopping from one “school” to the other, were dubbed
The rest of the forward to Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry may be found here, as well as essays on the poets mentioned above and many others:
Monday, October 1, 2012, Christopher Wiseman, the Canadian poet who had been
one of my classmates in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop during the
academic year 1959-60, sent me and a couple of others this email message:
Jim, Lew, Bob,
probably old news to you but I just learned that Ed Skellings died last
month. I haven't communicated with him since 1962, so feel very little, but he
was certainly, for better and worse, part of that Iowa time when we were all
there. And Lew, you were at school with him as a kid, right? He was one of
those Messianic types who needed disciples — no wonder he revered Norman Mailer. So a new Poet
Laureate for Florida needed, and this time, I hope, not a lifetime appointment.
we all were….”
replied, “Ah, good old Ed, yes, we were schoolmates at Suffield Academy in
Suffield, Connecticut, from 1947-49. I remember one vivid scene from those
days: seeing Ed get crushed while we were fooling around on the field with a
member of the varsity football team.”
recall, there were just the three of us on a muddy football gridiron. The
varsity player was a first string tight end, and he was big. Ed was strutting
around giving orders as though he were a quarterback and the big kid was
annoyed, I could tell. He picked up the football and said to Ed, “Go out for a
pass.” Ed ran a distance, the ball was passed, Ed caught it, and the end
started running at Ed saying to me as he took off, “Watch this.” When he caught
up with Ed, the varsity guy tackled him and, as he did so, swiveled his hips
upward and then down like a hammer into Ed’s body beneath him. It was
impressively brutal. Hardly batting an eye, Ed jumped up and said, "Okay,
let's try that again!” I remember thinking it was about the cockiest thing I’d
morning I went on-line to find Ed’s obituary, and I discovered this, published
in the Deerfield Beach, Florida, Sun-Sentinel on August 31, 2012:
Skellings, Edmund G, the Poet Laureate of Florida, passed away
at his home in West Melbourne, FL, on August 19, 2012. He was born March 12,
1932, in Ludlow, MA, to Romeo and Lolita Skellings. He was preceded in death by
his parents and his sister Robin Miller. He is survived by his wife of 50 years
Louise Noah and his daughter Sonnet, son-in-law Gordon and grandson Cutler
Fairrington of Lincoln, CA; and his friend and associate Diane Newman [?].
Edmund attended Suffield Academy in CT, served for three years in the 82nd
Airborne Special Forces, earned his BA from the University of Massachusetts,
and his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in the Iowa
Writers' Workshop. He was a professor at Frostburg State College in Frostburg,
MD; the University of Alaska in Fairbanks (where he started the Alaska Writers'
Workshop and the Alaska Flying Poets); Florida International University in Miami,
FL; Florida Atlantic University in Ft. Lauderdale, FL (where he was Director of
the Institute for Creative Communication); and Florida Institute of Technology
in Melbourne, FL (where his archives are housed at http://research.fit.edu/edmundskellings). He was a
creative and innovative person who had been using multi-media effects to
enhance poetry since 1960. He gave many poetry readings and lectures at
schools, conferences and clubs across the country. He had a patent on a color
learning system, was an IBM scholar and developed educational software,
designed the Florida House of Representatives computer information system and
had eight books of poetry published. He will never be forgotten by his family,
friends, and students who have had their lives changed by him. A tribute to
Edmund Skellings, Poet Laureate of Florida for 32 years, will be held October
12, 2012, from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Daytona Beach, FL, at the La Playa Hotel
When I read the obituary I was particularly bemused
by its mention of Ed’s being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It is
publishers, among others, who nominate their authors. I have been nominated
many times, which I never mention because I have never won, and mere nominations
don’t really count for anything. However, the notice of his death brought back
many other memories I had of Ed, so I searched my own computer for anecdotes
and found quite a number of them.
On that first day of class at Iowa in 1959
Paul Engle asked the members of his and Don Justice’s Poetry Workshop how many of
us were from the state of Iowa. Not a
single person raised a hand. Paul said,
"I'm embarrassed. This is the first
time such a thing has happened." I looked around and saw what seemed to me
to be a familiar face, and indeed it was — it turned out to be Ed Skellings,
with whom I had gone to prep school at Suffield Academy in Connecticut from
1947-1949. Some of my other fellow workshop students were George Keithley,
Robert Mezey, Vern Rutsala, Morton Marcus, Christopher Wiseman, Raeburn Miller,
and Kim Merker. Walter Tevis, John
Gardner, and Jerry Bumpus were members of the Fiction Workshop.
I soon invited Ed over to our flat just
outside Iowa City, on the second floor of Mrs. Keithley’s farmhouse. He brought
a bunch of his poems to read to Jean and me — Ed was married, but I don’t
recall that his wife, Fern, came along. Those were the days just after W. D.
Snodgrass had been on campus as a student in the Workshop, scoring an enormous
success with his first book, Heart’s
Needle, poems about his marital breakup — I had reviewed the volume for
Harold Vinal’s magazine Voices earlier
that same year, while I was still an undergraduate at the University of
Connecticut. Ed’s own first volume was in the works, Duels and Duets, and the poems he read Jean and me the day of his
visit sounded as good as Snodgrass’ work on the same subject. Probably Fern
didn’t come because the dissolution of their union was in the works. I remember
her as a quietly beautiful woman, and I had a hard time getting my mind around
the idea that Ed wanted to leave her.
When Ed had gone home I sat down and read the
marvelous stuff he had left with me…only it didn’t read on paper nearly as well
as it had sounded when he read them aloud. To this day I have never experienced
a duplication of the phenomenon of bad poems that sounded like good ones when
read aloud by an author. It was amazing.
Subsequently Ed told me that he didn’t submit
his poems to periodicals, but that the local Qara Press, published by Gerald
Stevenson, would bring out his first book with a “gimmick” that nobody was
going to be able to resist: it would have two small lp records contained in
split front and back covers of Ed reading the entire contents of the book, and
so it came to pass in 1960. His second “book,” The Marriage Fire, which was published in 1963 from Qara, forsook
the book format entirely and was issued as two small lp recordings in a box.
I left Iowa in 1960 and went to teach at Fenn
College in Cleveland where I stayed for four years. One of the projects I
completed before I left Cleveland was a long satire on various schools of
poetry that I wrote for The Oberlin
Quarterly titled “Odds Bodkin’s Strange Thrusts and Ravels,” a feature of
which was a set of quatrains on my classmates at Iowa. This was Ed’s:
Take next, sirs, Akademos
Constructing solid rime.
His brow is smoothest marble;
On his foolscap there is lime.
In January of 1965, while I was teaching at
Hillsdale College in Michigan, I went down to Frostburg State College in
Maryland where Ed was teaching at the time. I read in a festival run by the
director of the college library, John Zimmerman, which also sported readings by
Snodgrass, Paul Engle, John Ciardi, the Cleveland poet Robert Wallace and, of
course, Ed Skellings. Subsequently
Zimmerman edited a chapbook, In the
Poet’s Hand, that featured poems inscribed in the handwriting of the
Later on in 1965 I took a teaching position at
the State University of New York College at Oswego. Three years later, in 1968,
I had a call from Kelsie Harder, chair of the English Department of the SUNY
branch at Potsdam. I had first met Kelsie out in Ohio when I taught at Fenn (which
is now Cleveland State University) and he was at Youngstown (now Youngstown
State) University. As I spoke with him on the phone I discovered that William
C. Knott, an Oswego alum and writer of many children’s novels, had asked Harder
to call me because he remembered I had told him stories about the adventures of
Ed Skellings when Knott had come to visit us in Oswego a year or two earlier.
In a game of academic musical chairs that was
to take place the coming fall, Ed Skellings had applied to take the place of Potsdam’s
novelist, K. B. Vaid, who was going to Brandeis to replace Howard Nemerov while
Howard went off elsewhere else for a visit. Bill Knott wanted me to fill Kelsie
in on Ed’s many activities over the years — the Alaska Flying Poets...,
[Bob Berner provides this information: "The Fairbanks Airport photo is interesting. That's
Ed in the cockpit, Don Kaufmann on the wing, Bob King on the ground,
second from the right. I don't know who the other two guys are."]
vanity press books of poetry on recordings, Don Justice’s remark that Iowa had
given Ed his doctorate just to get him off campus at last, the request I had
received from a woman in Florida (one of Ed’s students, I suspected) asking if
I wouldn’t be willing to back Ed’s campaign to receive the Nobel Prize for
Literature (astonished, I forgot to laugh before I replied, “Certainly not!”).
When Harder mentioned Skellings’ name, before
I knew what it was he wanted, I did laugh out loud. After that, I filled him in
and I could hear Bill in the background saying something urgently. Kelsie laughed himself and said, “Can you hear
what Bill is saying?“ I replied that I could hear the hubbub but I couldn’t
make out the words.
“He’s saying, ‘Ask Turco to come! Ask Turco to
come!’” Harder did so. He offered me a six-hour teaching load, a $3,000 raise,
and the temporary rank of full professor. That was a whole lot better than I
was doing at Oswego, so I quick got a year’s leave of absence and accepted.
That was about the last time I had any direct
news of Ed and his days in Florida except, of course, what I heard through the Iowa
grapevine. The most amazing thing, of course, was his lifetime appointment as
Florida’s Poet Laureate, which he apparently kept for, in fact, his lifetime.
Robert Berner wrote me today, October second,
“Dear Lew — This news is not old news for me. In fact, it’s the first I’ve
heard of it. It didn’t exactly make thr obits page of the New York Times. Well, penny for the guy, eh?
David Axelrod sent this:
2012 Annual Florida State Poets Association Convention
Hotel. October 12, 13, 14, 2012
Registration and wine & cheese reception.
FSPA President, Cheri Herald’s greeting.
7:15 Tribute honoring Dr. Edmund Skellings
Florida State Poet Laureate,
Dr. David B. Axelrod, emcee
behalf of Dr. Skellings:
Crawford, Florida Division of Cultural Affairs
Lena Juarez, Legislative lobbyist and arts
Tom Gustafson, Colleague of Dr.
Robert Saccante, flutist
accompanies a reading of “Double Helix” Lola
Peter Meinke, Poet
presents her film, “Edmund Skellings in His Own Words,” with music composed
by Jerry Gates
Letters Honoring Edmund Skellings to Mrs. Skellings by
Some while back this past summer Jack Foley sent me by e-mail Dana Gioia’s “’Just One Damn
Thing After Another’: Jack Foley as a Literary Historian," which has appeared in a couple of venues now (September 2012), most recently in The Tower Journal (http://towerjournal.com/fall_2012/index2.html ) as part of Jack Foley's on-line "Festschrift." When I received it I enlarged the font of the e-mail and ran it off so that I could read it without squinting too much. It’s quite a
paean, I must say — one almost never runs into an unqualified rave like this,
so my congratulations to Jack, to say the least!
As I was reading I thought of several things to
say about it, though, some quite minor. The first thing I thought to say is that after
reading two pages I was beginning to wonder when he was going to start talking
about Jack’s work: for two and a third pages Gioia attacks academic criticism
(not without reason) and praises only Saintsbury and Wellek. (It's probably a good thing thing that my second book of criticism, Dialects
of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, hadn't been published yet -- it contains a large article on Gioia's poetry.) And Dana wonders why
California hasn’t had a decent literary history until Foley came along.
I have always thought that the idea of a literary
history of a state is parochial, of interest only to those
who have an affiliation with the area in question, but here is Gioia saying
things like, “Other critics have been set on explaining the state [of California]
from the perspective of outsiders, such as Mark Twain,…” Here in Maine where I
live the “natives” (I’m not talking about the Indians) are always saying that
the “summer people” are outsiders “from away,” and when they see a New York
license plate they assume that the people in the vehicle are from New York
City, which is very annoying. I find it strange to hear the former chair of the
National Endowment for the Arts taking a similar position.
This is pretty personal with me. I was born in
Buffalo, New York, but I was raised in Meriden, Connecticut. I was in the Navy after high school and my ship, the USS Hornet (CVA12), was still being built at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard when I went aboard. I later spent most of my professional career teaching at the SUNY College in Oswego. I spent a couple of years sailing around the world on a ship (that wound up in
California), a year in Arlington, Virginia, working at the Bureau of Naval Personnel, and six years in the Midwest going to grad school and teaching; nevertheless, I have always thought of myself as a New Englander.
When I was taking my first interest in poetry I was annoyed and frustrated to
realize that nearly all of the best-known “Connecticut poets” were “from away.”
Only a few of the minor ones, including the historic “Hartford wits,” were born
in the state. Even in modern times, the most notable native Connecticut poet is Donald Hall. Now, in my old age, my work appears in a collection edited by Dennis Barone and just published by Wesleyan,
So, of course, does the work of people like Wallace
Stevens and Richard Wilbur. Most of us in the volume are “from away.” If we
were not included, there could be no collection larger than a chapbook.
Dana says that “If literary history in general is
in trouble, the literary history of California has never been out of it. No
state has had a richer history over the past 125 years — since the days of Jack
London [b. San Francisco], Ambrose Bierce [b. Ohio], Bret Harte [b. Albany,
NY], John Muir [b. Scotland], Mary Austin [b. Illinois], Frank Norris [b.
Illinois],” Ray Bradbury [b. Illinois], Nathanael West (b. New York City),
etc., etc., etc. Yes, that is trouble, indeed.
Our literary history is of the United States. To return for a moment to my own particular case, I
am listed in various venues as a poet not only of Connecticut, but of Maine,
Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, and, of course, New York — I know this last for sure
because early in my career I was the compiler of The Literature of New York: A
Selective Bibliography of Colonial and Native New York State Authors, (Oneonta: New York State English Council, 1970).
What would be my chances of garnering even a sentence if someone were to write
a Literary History of New York State?
Close to zero. The book would be immense. Not to mention useless. Even a history of
New York poetry.
Gioia says, “The literary history I’ve described is Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line: Poets and
Poetry 1940-2005. If you think the title is long, you should see the work
itself — two folio-sized volumes running nearly 1300
pages. Arranged as a series of
chronological lists mixing commentary and quotation, Foley’s work pushes
forward year by year presenting, juxtaposing, and contrasting the creative
ferment of post-war California in all its inexplicable profusion. Some entries consist of a single
sentence. Others go on for pages. The
entries also contain quotations—sometimes just a single line, sometimes several
poems. There is no template for the entries, except what interests the
writer.” From this point, Dana’s praise
is fulsome and unstinting. Jack Foley is fortunate to have such a totally
there be no doubt about it. Visions &
Affiliations shouldn’t work. The wonder is that these unwieldy folios are
compulsively readable, intellectually provocative, and even weirdly
entertaining. One simultaneously has the sense of reading an experimental work
of cultural history and a highbrow literary gossip column. Visions & Affiliations represents something new and important
in literary studies—not just for the study of California literature but for
dealing with the complexity of cultural history itself. Foley’s work offers a
new form for literary history that fundamentally revises the rules of the genre
in ways that seem especially relevant at present. I don’t think there has ever
been a better book published about California poetry. There has certainly never been an odder
one. The oddity and excellence of
Foley’s postwar chronicle are not unrelated."
for all that, wouldn’t a reader willing to read such an immense compendium of
criticism about “California poetry”
[!] have to be as crazy a fanatic for the subject as Jack Foley? I can’t
imagine it myself, and if, indeed, Dana Gioia actually read it all the way
through I would be willing to place a substantial bet that he’d be the only
one, except for Jack himself. The two of them will very likely forever form one
of the wackiest duprasses* in the world.
*duprass – a karass [according to Wikipedia],
is a word invented by Kurt Vonnegut meaning a fanatical religious group] that
consists of only two people. This is one of the few kinds of karass about which
one can have any reliable knowledge. The two members of a duprass live lives
that revolve around each other, and are therefore often married. "A true
duprass can't be invaded, not even by children born of such a union." The
novel [Cat’s Cradle] cites the
example of "Horlick Minton, the New American Ambassador to the Republic of
San Lorenzo, and his wife, Claire." The two members of a duprass always
die within a week of each other.
The Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American
Poetry, First Printing
material is missing from the bottom of page 18:
…Berryman (1914-1972), Delmore Schwartz
(1913-1966), Richard Eberhart (1904-2005), Richard Wilbur (1921—), Elizabeth
Bishop (1911-1979), Howard Nemerov (1920-1991), Randall Jarrell (1914-1965),
and Karl Shapiro (1913-2000). A subdivision of these poets whose vanguard
consisted of W. D. Snodgrass (1926-2009), Robert Lowell (1917-1977), and John
Berryman, became known, beginning in 1959, as "The Confessional
School." Women were prominent among these writers, particularly Anne
Sexton (1928-1974), Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), and Maxine Kumin (1925—). Their
hallmark was the extremely personal poem. Snodgrass' lyrics regarding marital
breakup and divorce, Heart's Needle,
led the way back up the aisle.
Wesli Court Self-Interview Wesli Court is interviewed by Lewis Turco about his new collection titled The Gathering of the Elders and Other Poems.
Traveler's Moon Photograph by Adel Gorgy
Three Poems “Domestic Duties Scorecard,” “Leftover Shakespearean Gnomes,” "Tsunami Strait."
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.
Fenn College - School of Arts & Sciences Lewis Turco's first creative writing class, with Loring Williams (left) and James L. Weil (right): the beginning of The Cleveland State University Poetry Center