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Douglas Messerli


What Is To Be Done?

Introduction to the forthcoming PIP Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative Poetry in English



Writing in 1994 in the first Sun & Moon volume of The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry, I noted that it had continually struck me “that at the end of a century primarily defined, in terms of literature, by its innovative poetry, the major literary awards, anthologies, and other publications devoted to American poetry still consist of the kind of academic and thematically-based poetry that Ezra Pound might have railed against in the first decade of the 20th century; poetry that Frank O’Hara, who at mid-century claimed a poem had to be at least as interesting as the movies, might today have perceived as less interesting than the worst of television. In the commercial publishing world, the media, and the university, innovation is primarily frowned upon, if not out rightly dismissed.”

     There was, obviously, no single solution to the situation I recognized that year, but I felt that at least by presenting an anthology of more innovative poetry, I might somewhat balance the equation and reveal what I perceived as a truer representation of the continuing tradition of late 20th century and early 21st century American poetry and poetics. Predictably, such a gathering of writers resulted in some critical dismissal, one reviewer claiming he found little of interest in the work of the 94 poets included—such a broad-ranging disinterest that I can only surmise that he simply didn’t like poetry. The conservative press (which, in the context of their coverage of literature, includes The New York Times Book Review and Los Angeles Times Book World) mostly ignored these anthologies, while attending to others such as David Lehman’s The Best American Poetry series (which I feel represents a more narratively-based poetry and works which the populist-conceived online encyclopedia Wikipedia has characterized as “Precious Moments Poetry”). For the writers of more innovative work and the less highly funded review publications, however, The Gertrude Stein Awards volumes offered a refreshing alternative. Unfortunately, after only two volumes, the series suffered as part of the more general financial difficulties facing my Sun & Moon Press, and I had to cease publishing.

     In the ten years since the 1994-1995 volume, we have seen, with ever more increasing determination, what appears to be an almost concerted attempt to redefine the 20th century tradition of American poetic writing, one of the most obvious of these examples of literary revisionism being David Gates’s comment in The New York Times Book Review (in a basically negative review of Pound’s great poetic contribution) that “Compared with equivalent stretches of ground-clearing and throat-clearing by Frost and Yeats, little [of Pound’s poetry] remains readable. This is partly because, thanks to the modernist emphasis on subjective experience, poetry has largely come to mean their [Frost’s and Yeats’] sort of post-Romantic personal lyric.” Given the remarkably energizing output of poetry by established and younger authors that I noted in 1993, it is evident to me today that Gates must have read  very few of those poets I had described as innovative writers.

      Evidently Brad Leithauser had also read few of those poets given the evidence of his Seamus Heaney review published recently in The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 16, 2006). It seems almost beyond belief that a critic at the beginning of the 21st century, after 100 years in which all but the most traditional of poets writing in English have eschewed end-line rhyme, could begin a review by asserting “I sometimes think there’s no more reliable way of initially entering a poet’s private domain than by examining what he or she rhymes with what.” Only a handful of contemporary poets, in fact, might reveal themselves under Leithauser’s criteria. How many poets in the Gertrude Stein volumes, I wonder, might reveal their “private domain” through rhyme? Is there one?

      Perhaps, I now feel, I had expressed the issue too simplistically. For it is not really a matter of whatever one defines as innovation against some vaguely understood concept of a more traditionally-based writing. No matter which “side”—if one is even interested in taking “sides”—with which one allies oneself as a reader or writer, the real issue is that commentators such as Gates or Leithauser ignore the vast majority of writing by poets who are not interested in “personally expressive,” transparently thematic poems. Indeed, such a narrow definition of contemporary poetry—one, I would argue, that dominates not only the American press but award-giving institutions such as the Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Awards, and National Endowment for the Arts literary panels—disenfranchises the wide range of poetic expression that in its very diversity may be the most challenging and defining writing of our times.

      As with the Russian revolutionary democrat, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, I could only ponder, accordingly, “what is to be done?” Without attempting to overthrow the autocracy, I openly wondered what I might do to help reveal to readers in the USA and throughout the world that “larger perspective” of contemporary poetry. One answer resulted in my ongoing Project for Innovative (PIP) series of World Poetry of the 20th Century, currently in its eighth of a projected sixty to seventy volumes. Another is a revival of the Gertrude Stein Awards volume you have in your hands. Now a product of my Green Integer publishing activities, I determined—since the Sun & Moon volumes already included Canadian writers, and the Green Integer publications are international in perspective—that I should expand the volumes to include all English-language poetry, including writers in Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India and other countries in which poets write in English. This broader perspective, I feel, might help to make it clear that the achievements of the poets included are not simply representative of one or two nations, but of writing in English around the world. I also believe these poets might benefit from putting the poems I’ve chosen (with no intentions of describing their single contributions as the “best”) within the context of their writing in general. Although my choices are not based on any previous poetic publications—in fact, some of the chosen poets are quite young, with few or no book publications to their name—it may also help new readers who I suspect feel I am representing only lesser known, “experimental” poets to perceive that the majority of the poets included have been writing for many years and have produced numerous volumes. 


     I have been overwhelmed with the enthusiasm and expressions of appreciation with which my announcement of this revival has been greeted. All of the poets whose work is included have happily provided me with substantial biographies and complete bibliographies of their poetry. Editors and publishers of the numerous magazines from which these works were taken helped me in communicating with the poets and often provided me with further materials of use in my search for poems. Charles Bernstein, Paul Hoover, Joe Ross, and Paul Vangelisti, in particular, suggested poets and pointed to journals, both print and on-line, from which I made these choices. As always, I must also thank my stalwart and brilliant typographer, Kim Silva, for taking time from her university studies to bring this book into print. I must also thank the advisory board to the Project for Innovative Poetry, whose own poetry and essays continue to illuminate my understanding of poetry around the world.


                                                                                                            —Douglas Messerli


Los Angeles, July 18, 2006



Copyright ©2006 by Douglas Messerli.