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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Insider Histories, or, Really Getting Into Poetry

Linda Russo reviews

Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde by Libbie Rifkin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. ISBN 0-299-16844-1

Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing by Ann Vickery. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8195-6432-x, no price given

This piece is 3,300 words or about seven printed pages long

These two recently-published books each address quite different topics but are quite similar in their aims nonetheless. Each grapples with poetic and critical authority and investigates position-taking in the field of poetic production. In each, the author positions herself ‘inside’ the workings of poetry, rather than looking into a poet’s life or poems as though these were the only effects of the various activities poets (as critics, editors, writers) undertake. Or as though this were the only activity undertaken by literary criticism.
      To varying degrees, each brings to question official narratives in which their subjects are situated, and addresses poetic production and the means through which individuals are (and aren’t) capable of partaking in the collective phenomena ‘poetry.’
      Libbie Rifkin’s Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde does this by following suit with Cary Nelson who, in Repression and Recovery (Wisconsin, 1989), writes that ‘We tend to ignore evidence that promotion by oneself or others plays a role in building careers, preferring to assume it is the best poets, not necessarily those who are most ambitious or most widely publicized, who retain long-term visibility’ (35). Tracing the contours of career-building in the poetic field, Rifkin hopes to portray ‘the roles avant-garde poets play in the less stable, always emergent, synchronically experienced institutional environments in which they conduct their careers’(5), the roles that constructed the phenomenon, ‘poetry.’ Of importance are not the careers that are made — the success at retaining ‘long-term visibility’ — but the career-making strategies made evident through ‘moves’ in the ‘multilateral space of avant-gardist identity formation’(23).
      By focusing on contemporaneous strategies — ‘career over canon,’ she writes — she ‘Attempt[s] to articulate career at the intersection of individual ambition and collective production’(10). That is, the poet, driven by ambition to form a poetic identity, acts in ways that both constitute the production of poetry and respond to other constitutive acts. This dynamic model of literary production turns to the archive and not the anthology to understand literary permanence. Correspondence, edited magazines and small press books, interviews and poems (particularly where self-mythologizing is involved) are evidence of what ‘poetry’ produces beside poems; that is, poets and their audience — a purposeful making.
      At this ‘intersection of individual ambition and collective production’ Rifkin theorizes a ‘double-positioning’ of the career-making avant-garde poet operating on the border between aesthetics and economics, between where poetry is made and its value established. This characteristic self-fashioning is tailored to each of her four subjects: it is Olson’s straddling of professions as poet and ethnographer/archaeologist/ historian; it is Zukofsky’s ‘personal and social’ motives in writing poems and in building his collection at the University of Texas, Austin; it is Berrigan’s production of poetic collages in ‘a sonnet machine [that]... will pump out infinite poetic production’(123), The Sonnets, and, in his magazine ‘C,’ of poetic coteries, guided by his ‘abiding concern with literary-historical positioning’(124). It’s unclear what it is in Creeley, perhaps his ‘marketing savvy.’
      Rifkin attends primarily to Olson, beginning the study with a detailed chapter on Olson’s talk at the 1965 Berkeley conference, followed by a chapter titled for Olson and Creeley’s correspondence, but focusing for the most part on Olson (The Maximus Poems, ‘Projective Verse,’ his correspondence with Cid Corman and Origin, and his Mayan exploits). Olson’s claim in Mythologies, that the discovery of formal structure is an action and that the poem is a field of action, becomes an analogy for action — ‘self-positioning’ — in the social field, and this serves as a template for the double-positioning through which careerist ends are achieved: both in poems and in other discursive acts that conjoin them.
      Clearly Rifkin might have written a book solely on Olson. Her attempt to put him in context — to avoiding letting Olson, the man and the myths, obscure our retrospective view of the literary field — robs Creeley of a career in his own right.
      While there is throughout reference to the phenomena of ‘career-making,’ it remains unclear what exactly distinguishes the ‘career’ from the ‘writing life’ or ‘writing practice,’ terms that suggest what is unique in poets is how they go about making a life of poetry, and vice versa. While ambition serves to glue distinct instances of writing into a unifying movement, the creation of identities consistent enough to ride out avant-garde fluidities or powerful enough to make waves, Rifkin inevitably portrays the ‘flawed’ nature of poetic careers vexed with insecurities and failures.
      Berrigan’s The Sonnets, for example, fails ‘to present a singular aesthetic statement’(115) and to present its author as a force to be reckoned with. And these beleaguered career-makers never get to retire. Two of the four chapters close like obituaries. Olson’s is particularly ominous; the last lines of Maximus lay ‘claim to an isolation and an inwardness from which the ambitious position takings of an entire poetic career have been banished’(66).
      One suspect that the agenda behind Rifkin’s terminology is — admirably — to ‘denaturalize’ the processes by which poets are made — i.e. that they are not ‘born,’ that there is no propensity in the male of the species toward genius (a more even-sighted approach could have made this point clear, as I suggest below), and that the social field in which poetic acts play out is constructed, manipulated or modified by different figures and to varying degrees of success. The construction of a career, Rifkin suggests, is an attempt to control literary history, based on the view of one’s self as an already historical subject.
      Olson and Creeley ‘had a hand in their own posterities’(36); Berrigan’s career, compared with Keats’s, ‘is easily dwarfed’ and aligning them ‘throws the local vocational challenges of the 1960s New York scene into historical relief even as it makes the case for the poetic career as an overdetermined, reflexively literary phenomenon’(113).  At times like this it seems that the notion of ‘career moves’ threatens to displace the notion of poetics, posing the question of whether the ‘position-taking’ view is mechanistic to the extent that it ignores poetry as a social function, as a means through which people engage for purposes other than self-promotion.
      I suspect Rifkin, aware of the riskiness of her position, took strains to ground it theoretically (with Bahktin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Benjamin, Bourdieu, Bürger, Derrida, Jauss, etc.) so that any simplistic objection, such as the many I offer here, would do her argument, and her scholarship, injustice.
      Rifkin’s approach is admirable for honesty as unflinching as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s when she remarks upon the beloved epic heroes of her age in Book V of her own epic, Aurora Leigh.

                   . . . I could never dream
As Payne Knight did . . .
That Homer’s heroes measured twelve feet high.
They were but men!

One gets the sense that while Rifkin’s approach is androcentric, feminism is playing a role, working to counterbalance the sort of hero-worship from some quarters that exerts a skewing force in our understanding of certain literary figures. She seems to take particular glee in lambasting Olson occasionally; ‘Projective Verse’ is a ‘masturbatory fantasy’ and Maximus reads like a ‘hope chest.’
      As Browning continues to comment on female figures in the epic field — ‘his Helen’s hair turned grey / Like any plain Miss Smith’s’ — likewise Rifkin. This is one of Career Moves’s disappointments: its failure to treat women as possibly other than marginal by critically reproducing as central the poetic productions only of men. As much as Rifkin refutes a center/margin model in avant-garde poetry proposed by Peter Bürger, preferring instead to view ‘the unstable, diversified field of cultural production in which these poets operated ... [and in which] new ‘centers’ keep cropping up’(27), she reproduces it as such through the masculinism implied in the metaphor of career-making.
      In the introduction Rifkin rationalizes the focus of her scholarship, commenting that ‘when it came to building and sustaining alternative institutions, women poets seem to drop from view’(7). That is, they seem, in retrospect, to have fallen. Because Rifkin’s attempt is to ‘reconceiv[e] the stakes of literary exchange in the narrower terms of the poetic career... [to examine] institutions from the interested perspective of particular, historically situated individuals’(6), if women poets simply ‘drop from view’ they cease to be ‘historically situated individuals.’
      Rifkin argues from the point of view that they were not — that ‘women poets were... excluded from [these male poet’s] sense of the contemporary literary field’(7), but in fact their historical situation as excluded was a major factor in shaping the literary field and the possibilities it offered. Yet they were not Helens — motivators of male action — but themselves active — but how? Were these same strategies undertaken by women poets, with less success, or none? Or perhaps something (the pressure to form an identity?) encouraged the success of male poets? Was the exclusion of women required? Were these men’s poetic practices productive of their ignorance or exclusion of ‘their female counterparts’?
      Whether it is a phenomenon that marks post-War poetry or not, the notion of the poetic career raises questions about the role of gender. If the context (or field) constructed by men was equally consequential to the women writing who lived within and without it, then perhaps it was limited by the creative and intellectual exclusion of women. Even without attempting to construct a sense of the public field as specifically unoccupied by women, there’s ample evidence of private sacrifices to be made on the part of women, but not a word of Frances Boldereff or Lorinne Niedecker is to be found.
      If they have ‘dropped from view’ initially, perhaps the pressures exerted on men to build careers propelled women also, but with what force and in what direction? Without attempting to answer such questions they remain ‘dropped’ through our continued omissions.
      The ‘selective traditionalism of the avant-garde’ is what Rifkin blames for the ‘disappeared’ women poets; and while she makes reference to notions of the absence of women as ‘a constitutive feature’ of the period Career Moves covers, it is a study that, finally, quietly marks a history of male control over social and textual space. Rifkin seems not unaware of her elision, concluding with a hasty chapter on the work of a few women associated with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church: Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, and Alice Notley. This chapter announces the promising futurity of ‘Unnatural Acts and the Next Acts.’
      But one can’t help reading it as an addendum to the prior chapter on Ted Berrigan, as one can’t help reading the second half of the book as an addendum to the first two chapters on Olson. A full fifty pages focus on Olson — including the chapter on the ‘collaborated careers’ of Olson and Creeley (about 5 pages are devoted to a close reading Creeley’s poetry) — 30 pages investigate Zukofsky, 20 Berrigan, and 8 belong to the ‘conclusion,’ clearly meant to open onto another topic, another period marked specifically by gendered changes in the field of literary production.

Ann Vickery, in Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing, broaches just that topic. Vickery’s first book marks a significant moment in recent poetic history. Unlike any other collection of essays published to date, it focuses exclusively on the discursive and non-discursive poetic practices of contemporary women.
      Regarding the textual and social formations that emerged as ‘Language’ poetry, Leaving Lines of Gender broadens the view of the field revealed by earlier critical studies, such as George Hartley’s Textual Politics and the Language Poets (1989), which focused on writing by men, and a group of books that addressed work by women in terms that explicitly avoided the significance of the collective phenomenon being played out in gendered terms.
      In Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry (1996), for example, a female poet is said to construct an ‘alternate route’ in the poem as ‘cultural mapping’ where only women’s maps are ‘gendered’; there isn’t any such thing as ‘male writing.’ The single essay of Marjorie Perloff that addresses gender, ‘Canon and Loaded Gun: Feminist Poetics and the Avant-Garde,’ distinguishes camp-style the work of women poets from the work of ‘feminist’ poets. And Hank Lazer, in an essay on Susan Howe inOpposing Poetries (1996), employs the term ‘feminist’ in order to make reference to the ‘skeptical’ nature of Howe’s approach.
      These works miss the significance of a generation of poets, women and men, affected by the influence of women and feminism in the field of poetic production.
      Leaving Lines of Gender doesn’t rely on opposition as a means of inscribing ‘Language Writing’ onto recent literary history. An insider/outsider trope central to a work like Lazar’s two-volume Opposing Poetries, where the ‘Language moment’ is marked by textual ‘oppositional activity’ is dispelled. Vickery’s book instead explores the ‘insides’ of poetic communities that circulated around and culminated in ‘Language Poetry.’
      To this end Vickery delves into the archive: the Susan Howe papers, the Bernadette Mayer papers, the Sun & Moon papers, the Ron Silliman papers, and, especially, the Lyn Hejinian papers, are prominent sources. Vickery offers an interesting analysis of the archive and the work of the archivist in her introduction, and the glimpses at correspondence between Howe and Hejinian or Silliman and Bernstein, for example is an enticement.
      Though Vickery sees a genealogy as ‘a way of reading texts and their contexts against each other’(16) such that a ‘feminist genealogy’ isn’t Other, it is not singular at all, but offers variants, alternatives to both genealogies of feminist poetry produced with the women’s movement as a centralizing force and to partial narratives of Language poetry that have been written. Vickery refers to her work as ‘the writing of community’(5) and her purpose in doing so is manifold, but primarily she hopes to offer ‘an alternative to reductive originary narratives’  such as Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree and Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (her examples), to attend to ‘the shifting ‘mess’ that encapsulates actual poetic practice through the traces it leaves’(13).
      She also hopes ‘to recover and celebrate the work of women writers,’ as poets, publishers, editors, theorists and ‘supporting a broader poetic practice’ — indeed addressing these various acts and positions is part of the ‘mess’; and ‘to position Language writing within a diverse field of innovative poetries and demonstrate how its consolidation as a group practice... was both enabling and problematic for the women writers involved’(6).
      No longer will one or two tropes or metaphors serve to characterize the poetic work done by women. At the same time Vickery is wary of the potentially reductive nature of describing the practice ‘of women writers.’ Her point is never to ‘universalize’ women’s experience as writers.

One question that must be asked then: how is a feminist genealogy situated in the larger poetic field? Vickery explores writing by women as a differentiable field, not within Language writing, but as, constitutive of, that group of practices. She writes: ‘We need a map of Language writing as a field of rich and diverse feminisms’(51). A feminist genealogy is, she writes, ‘a mode of intervention’ with which she hopes to reveal hidden differences and relationships.
      Vickery’s vast survey marks the shifting gender of poetic authority, revealing women as poets and editors, publishers and critics — a revelation that is crucial to an understanding of poetics in the United States since 1968. This is an ambitious project, covering a great deal of territory. The pace is brisk: with introduction and conclusion, it totals eighteen quite brief chapters: the average length is 14.5 pages (most scholarly studies might have 6-8 chapters of about 40 pages). Her goal was ‘to present some breadth of representation with a detailed examination of specific texts’(19), and considering the breadth, the brevity, and the relatively unexplored nature of the territory she covers, chapters will seem, at worse, a cursory treatment (the tone of these essays is, at times, dispassionate), and will, at best, encapsulating or pointing in valuable directions, to peripheries teaming with intriguing questions.
      Often the field (of all the practices Vickery attends to: her methodological field) appears too diversified; it is unclear how an individual chapter is meant to contribute to the whole — though this itself might be read as a testament to what was enabling and problematic for her subjects.
      This is not to suggest that this study doesn’t have its share of developed points and crucial revelations: the pace accounts for a survey of various facets and complexities of this ‘feminist genealogy.’ Aside from chapters on Hejinian, Susan Howe and Rae Armantrout, already subjects of chapter- or book-length works, several poets whose work hasn’t been as thoroughly explored are included. They are Tina Darragh, Fanny Howe, Bernadette Mayer, Joan Retallack, and Hannah Weiner. Interspersed with these close readings of poetry, several more chapters consider other scenes of poetic activity.
      One chapter explores a web of material and ideological conditions that, historically and contemporaneously, promote a gendering of critical and theoretical writing as male, and create a context in which ‘women don’t write theory.’ The prevalence of critical texts published in the 1980s by men, she argues, have been viewed as ‘representative’ of this genealogy, and Vickery looks at the role literary criticism plays in reproducing this assumption, such as Jed Rasula’s American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects 1940–1990, in which she finds, in at least one instance, ‘women writers [being] performatively marginalized, literally sentenced to the margins in the body of criticism’(105).
      The chapter continues to theorize about women’s theoretical writing. In short, Vickery shows the means by which various texts construct and perpetuate critical understandings that make it difficult for women to locate themselves, and to be located, while bringing into view women’s theoretical practice in order to construct an ‘alternate’ genealogy. The anthology, another mode of genealogy making, is investigated as well, but this chapter appears more of descriptive than analytical, an instance of where Vickery’s study lays essential groundwork for further critical studies. Other chapters reveal various acts in the 70s and 80s through which particular women built poetic communities, such as Kathleen Fraser’s HOW(ever), Hejinian’s Tuumba press, and Susan Howe’s radio program Poetry.
      The result is a variety of approaches that attend to language itself as a field of poetic activities. The central issue of gender and authority is shown to be intricately constructed across various contexts that are, whether textual and social, always linguistic. Vickery shows how these two contexts impact on another through the notion of the genealogy, which is very much a social understanding of a period created on (or out of) textual evidence of activity. That which speaks first or loudest, while influential to primary configurations of a genealogy, must give way to alternatives, Vickery suggests, when one is attuned to the various cadences and volumes that exist as well. The archive is loud with variations.
      While reading these two involving studies there is often a sense that the writer’s attention shifts to another point, another argument, leaving the previous thought prematurely. This perhaps reflects the duty of an academic treatment of poetry to be, on the one hand, a rhetorical performance, and on the other hand, to gaze upon a set of objects for empirical study, to borrow Rifkin’s terms.
      Whatever individual critical paths each makes through their material — and this, too, contributes to the interest in reading — these books are interestingly shaped, I think, by cultural and critical pressures to pay attention to certain subjects in particular ways; to address women, in Rifkin’s case, to address women inclusively, in Vickery’s.

photo of Linda Russo

Linda Russo is co-editor of *verdure* and author of two chapbooks of poetry: o going out (potes & poets, 2000) and secret silent plan (curricle patterns, 2001).

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