Saturday, June 27, 2015


In a review of the late poet John Berryman, August Kleinzahler says:
For what seemed a lengthy spell, from the late 1950s well into the 1970s, the standard-bearers of American poetry were a group of manic depressive exhibitionists working largely, if not exclusively, in traditional metre and rhyme schemes, analysands all, and with self-inflating personae that always reminded me of those giant balloons of Mickey Mouse and Pluto with Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. They published and reviewed one another in journals like the Nation, Partisan Review, the Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review, with a good deal of auto-canonising. Robert Lowell, almost by default it seemed, was ceded pride of place, the 'most important American poet now at work'. Lowell and Randall Jarrell, roommates at Kenyon College in the 1930s, and to a lesser extent Berryman too, were big on rating and ranking: the top three poets, the top three oyster houses or second-basemen, the three best Ibsen plays–they seemed especially to like the number three.

It has always seemed somewhat arbitrary to me how connections and self-promotion, especially among male American writers, have often led to successful careers. Perhaps because I am less suggestible than many as to what counts as good writing, I frequently find that esteemed writer so-and-so just plain stinks, and I then start thinking about how on earth he or she succeeded. It is not uncommon for college buddies to promote each other as described by Kleinzahler. Of course, going to the right college probably makes a difference. In my last foray into American poetry I noticed that quite a few recent poets attended Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale or Princeton: Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Mark Strand, Robert Pinsky, Robert Haas, William Matthews, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück and J.D. McClatchy. Although poetry seems to be getting more diverse, it still looks as if connections at major universities help a lot.

Four of my undergraduate acquaintances once seemed to be aspiring writers, and I suppose that is fairly common among English majors. The college was better known for producing journalists, not novelists or poets, though the successful writer Barbara Kingsolver happened to attend it - majoring in biology. None of the four actually became writers, though they did produce some writing, which I saw much later and left me unimpressed. One of them became an insurance salesman and apparently sold an insurance policy to Saul Bellow. Another worked for years at a psychiatric hospital near San Francisco. One had mental problems and hardly ever worked: he became a ward of the State of California. The one I knew best seemed depressed all of his life, never married, worked as a bond trader in Chicago and died young from lung cancer. For all I know, under slightly different circumstances, the four of them might have become famous writers.

I am not personally acquainted with any successful writers, and it is hard for me to generalize about them. Most of what I now read is just journalism, and my expectations in fiction and poetry are quite low. Biographies and other types of nonfiction are more reliable for my purposes. It seems as if the most successful fiction writers are small businesses with carefully designed products made to suit large audiences. The better writers, in the U.S. at least, now seem to live in the university gulag, which offers them a semblance of job security at the cost of depriving them of diverse experiences and making them more predictable than they might otherwise be. As far as I know, there is no current equivalent to the Beats, though I'm not sure that their work was memorable either. Like Berryman, Lowell and Jarrell, they were good at self-promotion and several had good academic connections.

Rather than rehashing some of my earlier posts, I'll just say that most of the American writers that I come across produce work that is unsatisfactory to me. Whenever I find someone interesting - Julio Ramón Ribeyro or Patrick Chamoiseau - they are almost unknown here. Apparently the American marketplace and the American mind that drives it are more than a little insipid.

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