Saturday, July 13, 2013

Minor poets revived

Is "minor poets" an oxymoron?  Actually, that's not right.  Instead, I should ask isn't it redundant.  How many poets are actually known outside their circle of family and friends?  It's quite possible that (in the U.S.) the last poet with any kind of widespread recognition was Allen Ginsberg, though Alice Walker might qualify through her connection with Oprah Winfrey and that crowd and Adrienne Rich was well known among feminists.  It's hard for me to even tell how obscure or well-known a literary figure is.  Even though I may run across this or that poet, I am hardly representative of the general public.  Also I don't talk about literature with anyone outside a (very) small group of contacts who still are immersed in literature to see if they have heard of this or that particular figure (i.e. this doesn't come up very much around the proverbial water cooler). I generally imagine most poets are fairly obscure but some are still more obscure than others.  (I have to say while it really is mostly about other things, including a trek to see a secret nuclear waste deposit site, I love the title of the novel Making Love to the Minor Poets of Chicago by James Conrad.  I picked up a copy recently to go through it again, then donated it to the library, though sadly it doesn't look like it was added to their collection.)  I will also say it is hard to make it even as a minor poet.  Getting a book published, knowing that it will not crack the 500 mark in sales...  I only did the self-publishing route, so can't even qualify as a minor poet (formerly of Chicago).

Anyway, I did manage to find R.P. Blackmur's book of poems at the library.  I'm sure this is a case where it is only available (and published in the first place) because he was such a well-known critic at the time.  I liked the poems from his first book the best.  They reminded me of some of T.S. Eliot's minor efforts.  I don't think one can objectively say that Blackmur was objectively that much worse than other Modernist poets, but he didn't spend that much time on it and he certainly didn't set out to carve out a career as a poet.

Well, it certainly a mug's game worrying too much about literary reputations and what makes it and what doesn't.  I do think that many of the NYRB Classics are quite good (and will probably be writing later about J.F. Powers who has had all of his work reprinted in this line) but some are just "eh?"  I just read a piece in Slate about Hoban's Turtle Diary being reprinted and I can't quite see the appeal.  But maybe I'll feel differently in a few more years.

As far as poets go, I think being able to pull together (and publish!) a Selected or better yet Collected Poems means that you had either sufficient readership or stature in this rarefied world and that your legacy will last to a certain extent.  It is those poets with only a few chapbooks here and there that only a curious grad student will stumble over in the library.  And maybe not even this in the future.  More and more books are just going the e-book route, and while that may mean a longer life in the long tail it also may mean it is harder to just stumble across them.

Anyway, I have still been gathering up a few poems here and there for my transportation anthology (which I have not conceded is a dead end as of yet). Starting from Katha Pollitt's Antarctic Traveller, I was led to her later collection The Mind-Body Problem (in general, Pollitt seems to spend too little time on poetry to ever qualify as a serious poet) but then to Thomas Rabbitt's The Booth Interstate and then on to ExileExile is actually quite a gem of a book, which I had never heard of, despite it winning an award (from the International Poetry Forum).  Rabbitt went in a very different direction with his "Booth poems" -- kind of rural pastoral/gothic.  And while this was productive for him and appealed to a certain readership, I much preferred Exile.  Rabbitt actually does have a selected poems (American Wake) but it isn't really my thing, since it focuses mostly on the post-Exile work.

Karl Shapiro actually has two selected poems (one of which I only learned about in the library) and Harvey Shapiro one (The Sights Along the Harbor).  I actually quite like Sights, especially the later poems where he has a few poems about traveling.  I was surprised about a year ago to find that Alan Dugan had a much more comprehensive collected poems out (Poems Seven) and I have been enjoying dipping into that. I'm a tiny bit torn over the Shapiro, as I have the more recent Selected.  However, I compared this to the earlier one (The Wild Card) and stopped counting at 50 (poems in The Wild Card not in the newer one).  That's basically an entire chapbook, and I could probably justify having both collections -- at least temporarily.

Constance Urdang was perhaps the biggest find from the last library trip.  I had never heard of her before.  I can't quite recall the link.  Maybe through another chapbook listing the entire Pitt (Pittsburgh) Poetry Series.  But you know what's really strange -- I just went to the U of Pittsburgh Press website, and they have completely scrubbed her from it.  You would never know Urdang had 3 books on their imprint.  Crazy!  At the same time, these books seem to have migrated to another publisher as e-books.  I did not like her first collection at all, but thereafter liked a few poems from each collection -- and even found a few related to transportation!  I liked her middle collection (Only the World from 1983) the best, but will see if I can borrow these from the library (2 are sort of readily available and the others would have to go through ILL) to give myself a bit more time to digest them.

I'm not expecting that she get the full Gluck treatment, but I don't see any reason why she doesn't have a selected poems out.  Her work seems quite in line with Jane Kenyon's (maybe a bit more wide-ranging).  Kenyon had a well-received selected poems (Otherwise) and about five years ago got the full Collected treatment.  Granted Donald Hall is a powerful force to push her legacy.  Curiously, Urdang was also married to a poet (Donald Finkel), who was a much more marginal literary figure than Hall.  Both of them (Kenyon & Urdang) died far too young.  It does strikes me that Urdang is due for a revival (or perhaps a good article comparing her to Kenyon -- not that I think I have the time to take such a piece on).  I'll have a better sense of what works from among her books after I read her again more carefully a bit later (mid-September sounds about right).

In the meantime, it seems apropos to close with "A Hot Night in July" from Urdang's collection The Lone Woman and Others (1980):

How slowly the leaves
Shuffle against one another
With a sound like paper being crushed
In a heavy fist
And the night presses down
Like dusty black felt
And the moon hangs there
Like an enormous paper lantern
With a single candle burning inside
That we once watched drifting higher
And higher over the terraced roofs
Before it burst into flames
And scattered ashes like flakes of dirty snow.

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