Thursday, June 30, 2011

THE SEVENTH SON OF A CORNISH VICAR

Ned Maddrell, a fisherman and the last native speaker of Manx — the Goidelic language associated with the Isle of Man — passed away in 1974. This fact evidently has no bearing at all on the poetry of Geoffrey Grigson, whose biographical note on the dust jacket of his Collected Poems 1963-1980 identifies him as "the seventh son of a Cornish vicar." David Hadbawnik, who visited earlier this week, pointed this wonderfully odd statement out to me after we returned from a bookshop in Portland, Maine where I was thrilled to find both volumes of Grigson's Collected Poems. And stranger than the statement itself is the fact that someone in Southern Maine saw fit to discard these largely wrongheaded but delightfully peculiar volumes.

Grigson is, no doubt, most well known as editor, from 1933 on, of the UK poetry journal New Verse. In an editorial statement featured on the cover of the first issue, Grigson claims that New Verse "favours only its time, belonging to no politico-literary cabal, cherishing bombs only for masqueraders and for the everlasting 'critical' rearguard of nastiness..." In tone and texture, the editorial statement in the first issue of Claudius App — a web-based magazine that bills itself as a journal of "fast" poetry — is strikingly similar: "The point is not to articulate a school, but to articulate so quickly it registers as a slur." Nihil novi, no matter the speed (viz. I find it useful to walk at a moderately brisk pace, not so slow that I arrive at the bar after last call and not so fast that I break a sweat en route).

Beyond the banal appeal to speed (even the worst of cars has a range of gears), the first number of Claudius App includes an impressive range of poets, including Joshua Clover, Joe Luna, Marianne Morris, Rod Smith and Keston Sutherland, among a wide cast of others. But the explosive character of its generosity is, I think, best captured by the inclusion in this first issue of work from both Charles Bernstein and Kent Johnson, each representative of incredibly distant and largely antagonistic poles within a broad constellation of often-overlapping poetry communities.

The Bernstein poem, titled "Autopsychographia" and written after Pessoa, begins: "Poets are fakers." The poem is interesting, especially since it's the first piece included in the issue — that is, Bernstein's clickable name appears in the upper left hand corner of a three-column front-page index. As such, the journal begins with an insult or, perhaps more likely, a self-reflexive comment on authenticity and authorship. But the Bernstein poem appears to take on a curiously self-excoriating, even confessional quality when read in the context of Johnson's essay "Poetic Economies of Scale," an extended and thoroughgoing critique of the recent acquisition of Jacket magazine by PennSound and the Kelly Writers House, two institutions Johnson corals together under the aegis of what he refers to as the "Bernstein Group." Framed as a letter to the editor, Johnson writes:

For example, I'd had in mind to write, using advanced micro and macro-economic analysis, supported by graphs and charts, concerning how J2 [Jacket 2], in context of the avant-po-biz economy, is to be seen as a massive acquisition that moves the Bernstein Group into the territory (sub-culturally speaking) of quasi-monopolistic status: Tranter's independent, multifarious, often cantankerous, unruly, sometimes satirical upstart bought up and aesthetically downsized (rationalized) as tame and proper subsidiary vertically integrated into the Academic Post-Avant Consortium (APAC).

In a closing postscript, Johnson includes a message sent him by an anonymous poet-critic, who comments:

I think the analysis of BG's (she means the Bernstein Group) acquisition is exactly right — Penn Industries receives the academic equivalent of gov't funding, as well as, I imagine, plenty of actual gov't funding, so that snapping up an undercapitalized but ferally innovative Jacket at a bargain-basement rate was something like Wells Fargo using TARP funds to buy Wachovia. The analogy isn't exact, if only because, as you indicate, it doesn't go far enough: I'm not sure there's a bank as (sub-culturally) monopolistic, as horizontally and vertically integrated, to compare it to — really a rather shocking concentration of institutional power in very few hands, as even the small staffs of these supposedly individual organs completely overlap (PennSound, Jacket2, Kelly Writers House, etc.) ... the new Jacket feels, especially in the reviews, almost hysterically groomed, like the university quadrangle it in fact is.

Whether or not we agree with the whole of this critique, there can be little doubt that an overwhelming amount of cultural capital — along with the power, at least in a US context, to include or exclude, promote or ignore, various tendencies in poetry — does in fact reside within a very limited number of hands that, since the acquisition of Jacket, are now even fewer.