Archive for July 16th, 2011

by lizard

Poets often act like terrible people to fellow poets. Petty disagreements, jealousies, and competition permeate the academic/publishing circles where reputations are built, defended, and attacked. Today I got an interesting little peek into that underlying dynamic after visiting Spivey’s Books, a bookstore that specializes in old maps, rare books, and fine art.

After rummaging through the poetry section, I took the little stack I had accumulated to the counter, where Hans made note of my selections, nodding approvingly at the Thomas McGrath book I found, titled Letter to an Imaginary Friend, a narrative epic that McGrath worked on for over 30 years.

I ended up talking to Hans for about a half hour, and it was one of the best poetry discussions I’ve ever had, though way too brief. So much was packed into this exchange, I didn’t get all the names, like the last name of the man Hans took classes from, John, who was the primary source for many of the little vignettes Hans related to me.

For example, Hans talked about the poet James Wright, who, according to his mentor, was hounded by critics for a number of reasons, including teaching Walt Whitman, which I guess at the time was contentious. Apparently the poet Robert Bly interceded in Wright’s downward spiral, and helped him salvage his broken life, to a degree. I did a cursory search to verify this account, and found this:

At Kenyon College, Wright studied with John Crowe Ransom, published his first poems, and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1952. That year, too, he won the Robert Frost Poetry Prize. After graduation, Wright married Liberty Kardules, his high school sweetheart, and traveled with her on a Fulbright Fellowship to Austria for two years to study the poetry of Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl at the University of Vienna. Wright later published translations of works by these poets, as well as by Pablo Neruda, Herman Hesse, Cesar Vallejo, and Rene Char. Upon his return to the United States, Wright went to graduate school at the University of Washington, where he studied with Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. In 1957, his first book of poetry, The Green Wall was published in the Yale Younger Poets series. His first teaching job was at the University of Minnesota from 1957 until 1964, when he was denied tenure because of problems caused by his alcoholism. In his last years there, too, his first marriage dissolved. One of the most significant events in his career as a poet was meeting, in 1959, the poet, editor, and social activist Robert Bly. Bly helped Wright through a period of gloom and doubt and encouraged his transition from what Wright called the “old” poetry of formal metrics, in which he had begun to feel trapped, to a poetry of common speech, depth imagery, intuitive connection, and personal involvement. After two years of teaching at Macalaster College, he accepted a position at Hunter College of the City University of New York, in 1966, and taught there until his death.

Though I already knew there were plenty of competing factions in the American poetry world, and that egos vying for their little niches fueled all sorts of drama, especially when it came to the anthologies (who was the editor, who made the cut, which poems were selected, how many poems, etc.), what talking to Hans emphasized for me was how the hurt feelings, in many cases, carried through these poet’s careers, and affects who gets their names remembered, and who falls down the memory hole into obscurity.

At one point in our conversation, I told Hans I was in Kansas City visiting relatives and friends, and that I lived in Missoula, Montana. Hans lit up and told me how he once had a contract to write a biography on Richard Hugo, and that he got about 3/4 of the way through finishing before it fell apart, and he couldn’t get it done. During that process he spent a considerable amount of time in Missoula and Seattle, meeting literary figures like William Kittredge, hoping to finish his biography. He peppered the whole thing with little tidbits I gobbled up.

Honestly it made the whole “vacation” ordeal worth it.

Talking to Hans made me realize how lucky I am to have 4&20 Blackbirds as a venue to advocate for poetry and the poets I think are worth reading, and remembering. seeing that advocacy mentioned by the Independent further validates, for me, that sharing a few of the many poets/poems I like is a worthwhile part of our collective work here at 4&20-BB.

It also made me realize how similar poets are to bloggers when it comes to allowing petty bullshit and drama to distract us from the larger issues we are all trying to work through in our own ways. And I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to providing fuel.

It’s impossible to expect anyone not to be angry about what’s happening in this country and across the globe, but without keeping that broader perspective somewhere present in our thinking, it becomes easier to buy into the petty clash of egos so often measured by the ensuing brushfire sweeping across our little blogosphere.

So I’m going to finish off this post with a very short poem by Edward Abbey, originator of the dreaded EarthFirsters who recently caused quite a stir and, I would say, a somewhat petty blogger backlash among the usual suspects of our local blog-drama.

*

WHAT ZAPATA SAID

The land,
like the sun,
like the air we breathe,
belongs to everyone—
and to no one.

—Edward Abbey

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