15 may. 2005

Column A:

Ronald Johnson, Barbara Guest, Lorine Niedecker, Clark Coolidge, David Shapiro, Bernadette Mayer. . .

Column B:

Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Mark Strand, Billy Collins, Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Dana Gioia...

It's not that every poem by any of the column As is superior to anything the B's might produce.

It's not that the names in column B are not worthy of some respect, or that Column A is uniformly beyond reproach. I don't even know that it's a question of conservatisim vs. "avant-garde." Is Ronald Johnson in the "avant-garde"? Who cares?

What is the difference then? For me, column A is a source of endless poetic renewal. I can go to school with these poets in the art of poetry. Column B are poets who enjoy success in the poetry world, who have earned a respected place in this world but whom I cannot accord the same degree of respect. I frequently find their poetry deeply flawed when not simply dull. I would find it odd that any young poet would admire such writers if he or she had read and studied work from Column A. This is what Tony Tost once kindly dubbed "Mayhew's Fallacy," that is, the tendency to extrapolate from my own views and think them unversal. Fallacy though it is, I cannot escape it.

I'd like to say that all this is purely a matter of quality. In other words, that I have no bias toward the avant-garde per se, but simply happen to find that these are better, more artistically accomplished poets, offering more fruitful aesthetic possibilities. Of course, nobody would believe me, since column B happens to include only poets of certain arbitrary categories. That seems a bit too convenient! From my own perspective, though, my preference does not seem "ideological," but simply the result of long years of study.

I could come up with a list in reverse, say, of poets I admire who are more "conservative" and "avant-garde" poets I don't like. If I think Elizabeth Bishop, Auden, and certain poems of Roethke, belong in the A column, part of Anne Waldman and a good chunk of Ginsberg after 1970 in the B column for example. One important point, though, is that Pinsky is no Auden, Knott is no Cavafy. In other words, it could be argued that the conservative poets of today are not even good even when measured by "conservative" standards.

17 comentarios:

mark young dijo...

The poets in col_b have got to you! Should be "Column B" in the second line of your third paragraph.

Jonathan dijo...

Thanks. I've fixed it, so now your comment makes no sense anymore!

David Koehn dijo...

You almost have an existential versus sociological bifurcation of poets...

One might argue your preference is for a world of poetry rather than poetry about the the world.

I'd have to see longer lists on both sides of the equation to make a more compelling argument that this might actually be the case.

Just a thought...

Jonathan dijo...


I don't think any particular kind of poetry is any more or less "about the world." It depend what you mean by that phrase. From my A list, you would have to say that Niedecker, Johnson, Mayer, Shapiro, and Coolidge have a decided interest in the physical environment and/or in "lived experience" as commonly understood--more so that Strand or Howard, or Guest who is also on the A list.

Unless you mean something far less subtle by your comment than I think. That some of the B's just give you the experience directly, with less apparent "artifice."

Tony Tost dijo...

Mayhew's Fallacy! I'd forgotten that one. If I remember correctly, it was less making your own tastes universal then when faced with a case where someone else prefers Robert Hass and you prefer Ronald Johnson, it would be Mayhew's fallacy to assume the reason the other person prefers Hass was that that person had not yet sufficiently immersed her/himself in Johnson's work -- so the assumption of a certain naivete or under-learnedness informing an other's preferences, and the assumption that one's own preferences are the less naive and more learned/subtle one.

So, basically, I would be applying Mayhew's Fallacy if someone tells me they don't like Zukofsky and I tell them that they just have to read some more, read some Spinoza, Adams and Wittgenstein, maybe some Ronald Johnson, John Taggart, Niedecker and Frank Samperi -- if I do all this without considering that maybe they have a well-considered reason to dislike Zukofsky and maybe I should read some stuff and reconsider my position, then I would falling prey to what I so gleefully named Mayhew's Fallacy.

But I'm not blogging now, am getting hitched in less than three weeks, and the Carrboro Poetry Festival is next weekend, so I don't give a flying fish, cuz everything is so shiny.

Jonathan dijo...


Tony: congratulations on your upcoming wedding!

Mayhew's fallacy is a little different from what I had remembered. More arrogant ,certainly, than the simple universalization of personal taste.

Tony Tost dijo...

Well, the Tostian Stumble anticipated that (the Tostian Stumble being the inability to communicate an idea/observation of any complexity or subtlety due to the idea-maker/observer's excitement at finding something he/she believes he confidently disagrees with. See also the Tostian Backtrack).

Thanks on the congrats!

michael dijo...

always make 3 columns.

"Binary thinkers should be eaten."


Jonathan dijo...


There are two kind of people, those who make binary oppositions and those that don't.

Those for whom "Bly" is an authority to be quoted, and those for whom "Bly" is a New Age charlatan.

michael dijo...

column 3: those for whom Bly is a bad poet who occasionally gets off a good quip. those who find irony in Quoting the Enemy.

looky: logopoeia/ phanopoeia/ melopoeia.
there's 3 columns.

it's not between those who buy their tools from the store, & those who go out into the forest & make their own from a tree. is it?


Henry Gould dijo...

I REFUSE to join any binary that would [have/not have] me as a member !!!

Jonathan dijo...


Yes, yes this binary both has you AND doesn't have you as a member. You are "always already" inscribed there.

Whimsy dijo...

I like to think of poets as quantum phenomena, winking in and out of one column or another with a certain likelihood.

knott dijo...

"Knott is no Cavafy."

I don't remember ever trying to be a Cavafy. A Parra, yes. A Desnos, yes. A Szymborska, yes. A Larkin, lots of times.

Needless to say, I failed each time.

I didn't even succeed in being a Knott.

Jonathan dijo...

I'm thinking of taking down this unfortunate post. I don't even agree with it any more.

knott dijo...

I dislike what little I've read of your A-list, but what I dislike is the kind of poetry they write, not their success or failure in writing
that kind of poetry; indeed I couldn't tell a good Coolidge poem from a bad Coolidge poem, and suspect the categories of good/bad don't apply to avantipo—— I can tell (or at least form an opinion about) a good poem by a B-lister and a bad poem by a B-lister . . . I think.

And as for "Column B are poets who enjoy success in the poetry world, who have earned a respected place in this world"——— you're putting ME in that successful/respected group?!——
me who's never been in BAP, me who has never been asked to judge a book contest, me who has had to self-publish my books, a vanity poet! ——

The big diff between me and every A/B lister you mention is very simple: to read their books you have to BUY them or find them in a library, whereas all my books of poetry (17 at current count) can be downloaded FREE via a link at any of my three blogs——


Jonathan dijo...

I don't know why I even mentioned you, Bill, except that maybe you had self-identified with the school of quietude shortly before I wrote this post in 2005? Really, I kind of liked your poetry when I was first reading poetry in the 70s. There was a mystique about Bill Knott.

I don't even really agree with my own post anymore, as I said, but you are free to come and disagree with my former opinions as much as you want.