I’m rereading Thomas McGrath’s magnificent Letter to an Imaginary Friend, in which he several times mentions Don Gordon. Don Gordon? A poet, it turns out, one of the many I’d never heard of until some other reader (usually another poet—in this case McGrath) brings them to my attention. Now I’ve discovered Don Gordon’s Collected Poems and am waiting for a check or two to clear so I can buy it. In the meantime, I’ve been searching for (old) news of Don Gordon—born 1902, died 1989—and in the process came across a fine essay by a friend of this blog, Lyle Daggett. It’s called simply “Political Poetry“, and it’s well worth reading, and stepping back from to think about.
At bottom Lyle asks if everything we’ve been taught to value in poetry is not in fact secondary; if the names we’ve been taught to view as exalted in the hierarchy of the Modernist tradition are not, in fact, secondary. The question itself is bracing because it pits the honest, personal experience of poetry against the received, institutional experience—the latter being the one we’ve been taught to consider supreme. Bored by Wallace Stevens? There’s something wrong with you (not Stevens; definitely not Stevens). Trying over and over to find the greatness in Elizabeth Bishop? In John Ashbery? In Olson, Creeley & Co.? Well, young reader, you must insert this thermometer where the muse don’t shine. Take three post-avants and call me in the morning. Lyle has the temerity to pit certain names against certain others and ask, “Which one really speaks for you?”
It’s a serious question. One our over-academicized denizens of the creative writing mills would rather not address. This point is made beautifully by Dani Shapiro in a recent New York Times essay. He speaks of the hot young fiction writers of the 1980s—”[Ann] Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Joan Chase, Douglas Unger, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alan Hewat”—and notes that their names “would draw blank looks from my students.” If they draw a blank look from you, oh Perpetual Birder, I wouldn’t be surprised.
And doesn’t it make you wonder about not just a particular generation but the Canon at large? Have we all been conned? That is, have we all been convinced that our own experience doesn’t count for much? If so, isn’t it incumbent upon us to reclaim our imaginations, our passions, our commitments—and stop going over the same barren ground again and again? Do we really need to waste another splash of ink or ejaculation of pixels on Ezra Pound? Or Robert Lowell? Or Gertrude Stein? The so-called avant-garde loves to bemoan their marginalization, but the truly marginalized in our current situation, it seems to me, are readers. It’s not that poets should attempt to speak for them, necessarily, but they might at least attempt to speak to them.