More than a Memory of its Milieus:
A small gathering of younger American poets
a long line of long lines
I turn the page of Rimbaud's Illuminations
and read two stanzas in French before realizing
I'm reading French and I don't read French.
-- Tom Devaney, « Mr. Glinting as Seen off the Atlantic Seabord ».
In 1929 French critic and translator Rene Taupin published L'Influence du symbolisme francais sur la poésie americaine (1910-1920), a book only translated into English in 1985. Taupin points out an enriching correspondence between French and American writing and also discusses the idea that the "poets in America were lucky in having a lingo that hadn't yet settled into a literary language."
Nearly thirty years later, American art and literary critic Harold Rosenberg invoked Taupin in his significant and much quoted (though often indirectly) book The Tradition of the New (Horizon Press, 1959). The book is now out of print. Rosenberg writes:
The revival of American poetry around World War I and the twenties depended on an awareness of this luck, an awareness in which the French consciousness played a leading part. The poets who spoke American best-Williams, Cummings, Stein, Pound, Moore, Eliot, Stevens-had all been enthusiastically frenchified. They learned from Paris what it meant to find a word that was free of poetry or that stuck out of it at an angle. Whitman alone had been unable to teach them this. They needed to see it in the French reflection.
True enough, Rosenberg 's commentary, written in late 1950's, was made in reaction to the dominant literary tradition of American poetry, which traced its roots back to England rather than to France . It's curious that at the same time Rosenberg was writing the poets John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest, and Kenneth Koch had been working to incorporate various lessons from the French and translating them into an inventive and original strain of American poetry.
From the first World War on including the symbolist, the NY Armory show, and the Surrealist including Stein in Paris and Breton's stay in New York the connections are various and significant.
A side note on Taupin, who is little known in America today, is that in addition to his vast knowledge of early Modernist American poetry, his significant relationships with American poets, including Wallace Stevens and Louis Zukofsky, continued a material interaction between French and American poetries, which continues on in an amalgam of some of the most interesting contemporary poetry being written in North America today.
The current connection between French writing and the younger American poets who I will discuss here-Peter Gizzi, Hoa Nguyen, Eleni Sikelianos, and Jeff Clark-is significant in only one essential regard. The connection is not a style choice, and would be of no interest whatsoever, if these American poets were not using every means at their disposal in which (directly or indirectly) the "French consciousness" is but one salient factor in their efforts to begin poetry again.
The poets here are apart of a latter wave and confluence of both Franco-American (often) bilingual readers and writers where in American Language School poetry, Black Mountain, last generation NY School and others continue to cross-pollinate.
In all of the possible ways to characterize the poets here, the clearest distinction they share is an ingrained sense of music and blunt lyricism. Their distinctive music acts as a vehicle where meaning, pleasure, tension and secrets all travel together or they do not travel at all. Meaning and music are embedded in the sonic design of each poem. From Hoa Nguyen's poem "You have your ancient see-through" where she writes: "Bleeping gastro kick-start/We pock mark plains," to Jeff Clark's "My Interior," (published in the French/American journal Double Change ) where he writes, "I go to it like a callboy to a c-note," and Peter Gizzi's "New Picnic Time," (published by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop in Burning Deck ) where he writes, "Same page same fable trajectory. A window./ The young father dreaming. A hand a face a feeling.// It was a sound he heard." This overriding concern for musicality, for "a sound he heard," is reflected in the interlingual, physical, and spatial sense of the most interesting poems here. In the poem "Essay: The Complete Sentence of the Limbs," (published by Mark Salerno in Arshile ) Eleni Sikelianos writes:
A woman melted
into the ground of several
women & a man left over from the
old war which they repolished to make it
look new again (#3) The amber piece of the
it said: Here// are your dead The glowing
Another characteristic all the writers share is to make poems that artfully engage notions of coherency in light of the undisputed supremacy of disjunction among experimental writers. That is, these poets take a certain use of disjunction as a given and work it out from there. "The glowing/fragments" become the test sites for momentary nodes of coherence. In the next stanza of the poem quoted above Sikelianos continues:
When I think of you I thought of you in waves// of color
but not grain// An enemy
dream forced its way
into (my) sleep
there were so many forms I /they hadn't yet isolated
in/from the vast spectacle viz. reality
Sikelianos's poem, which is itself called an essay enacts the "forms I/ they hadn't yet isolated in from the vast spectacle viz. reality".
It is significant that the poem is called an essay in the sense that the verb to essay (in English) literally means to attempt or to endeavor something, which is tentative in its nature. The tentative coherence in Sikelianos's poem is also perceptible in Nguyen's "Funk Enters English By 1625," which delights and absorbs as much as it counterbalances the array of competing forces and fragments. Nguyen writes:
It's easier than you think
to chop off parts and juggle them
Now notice those dinosaurs on fire
thousands of them
so that the Harley says "potato, potato, potato"
Again, in title poem of Nguyen's book Your Ancient See-Through (selected and edited by Anselm Berrigan for the noteworthy collective of younger American poets Subpress in 2002), she explores a historical continuum reaching backward and forward between fragments and selves. Nguyen writes:
You have your ancient see through
ways Stars sustain their axis
Orion listing like gallows
for my creepy life the pieces
of our ascending selves
One intriguing and subtle feature notable in Nguyen, and all of the poets here, is their deceptive use of surface qualities. What is deceiving is how each poet is constantly changing the terms and uses of how collage, fragmentation and the self (to name a few) are configured in the poems. In the poem "Napoleonette" Clark writes, "Sometimes a ghost entered my heart and I could feel, and sometimes a phrase entered my mind and I could speak, with reason. But never was I able to stay a man long enough to remain him."
Jeff Clark, like Sikelianos's, traffics in many genres, sometimes simultaneously. In Clark there are fables, love letters, and dialogues among others. In some cases Clark is overt in the echoes he is invoking. Such as, in his Michaux-like poem, "Some Information About Twenty-Three Years of Existence." Still, overall Clark engages senses and memory through artful selves, which are ever seeking to annihilate his other artful selves. In the poem "My Interior" (published in Volt ), he writes:
High noontide in my interior: the red deer
wends out of my ravine when I wave, the gilled goat.
The Shadow of my Frenchman annihilate my little night-womps.
In my back-of-the-eyelid cinema: arabesques.
My best records are each his or man or termolo.
Your shadow annihilates my little day-womps.
A tension in all of the poets here is highlighted in a stereotypical characteristic between American and French sensibilities. That is, a great limitation of the American sensibility is its thin patience for and suspicion of the aesthete -or for poetry, ideas, or theories, which are too indulgent in their mental and artful elaborations. The great influence of French-speaking theoretical writers including Saussure, Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida all have provided space in the consciousness of American artists and thinkers. For the American poets this limitation can also be a boon since it serves as crux for creative tension. Gizzi cites the practical as a means to the "ecstatic" when he points out that, "Poetry is not about information; it's about communicating messages in a more ecstatic way. We know the distance between the sun and the earth is 93 million miles, but we can't comprehend such a vast space. The act of the poem is the act of trying to define that space."
A historical whiff between the "French consciousness" and an ever renewing American poetry is resonant in Gizzi's poem "Edgar Poe," (published by Macgregor Card and Andrew Maxwell in The Germ ). Gizzi writes:
Winter's the thing.
A place to lay one's head.
To sleep at last
to sleep. Blue on flesh
in snow light,
iced boughs overhead.
This is a poem about breath,
brick, a piece of ink
in the distance.
Winter's the thing
I miss. The font is still.
A fanfare of stone air.
The poem is an allegory of influence in its convergence of accumulated notions that we have of Poe: the original American/European Poe; the French Baudelaire/Poe, and the Poe reread through the modernist/Imagist all absorbed and newly constituted into Gizzi's striking "piece of ink/in the distance" blunt lyric Poe.
The poets here differ as much as they resemble each other. Peter Gizzi's poems are a continual and direct reprocessing of spatial and mental unmeasurables; Hoa Nguyen uses pulverized phrases as if they were not pulverized but their own new wholes; Eleni Sikelianos's permutations of science, self and writing cohere in genres, which are permanently mixed; Jeff Clark's poems are a lavish interface between the senses and memory overlays as well as a complete trust in a willful self (through various speakers), which can never be itself.
How strong is the French influence upon them? Though it is possible to trace some of the individual strains and influences in each writer, the question is not as interesting as the work itself, which at its most enticing surpasses its influences, traditions, and milieus. There is a genuine intellectual engagement in the work of each writer, yet each shows that intelligence alone is not enough. The poets' fluent use of language as an art animated by an inherent music, sound linguistic design, and a surface readability, all point toward an amalgamated poetry where limitations and possibilities are poignantly inextricable.
* The title "More than a Memory of its Milieus," is taken from Jennifer Moxley's collection Imagination Verses . Moxely writes, "The poem offers a history of and a future for the mind's prerogative to exist as more than a memory of its milieus."