Saturday, June 28, 2008


An Introduction.....

These two rejoinders by Leon Lewis were sent to THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (re: Charles Simic's "review" of / denigration of, the poetry of Robert Creeley, issue dated Oct. 25, 2007), and to LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS (re: August Kleinzahler's piece on Mark Scroggins's biography of Louis Zukofsky, issue of 22 May 2008). Neither letter was accepted for publication.

Leon Lewis is the author of the best full-length study of the works of Henry Miller (Schocken/Random House, 1986), and ECCENTRIC INDIVIDUALITY IN WILLIAM KOTZWINKLE'S THE FAN MAN AND OTHER WORKS OF FICTION AND FANTASY (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2002). He is the translator of Gilbert Michlin's OF NO USE TO THE NATION (A JEWISH FAMILY IN FRANCE, 1925 - 1945: A MEMOIR) (Wayne State U. Press, 2004), and the Editor of ROBERT M. YOUNG: ESSAYS ON THE FILMS (McFarland & Co., 2005). He also guest-edited the current issue of COLD MOUNTAIN REVIEW (Spring 2008).

His essays are wide-ranging, and they do not sacrifice insight or depth for scope. He has published substantial pieces on Hesiod, on Issa, on Scott Fitzgerald, on Heaney, on Charles Wright, on Burroughs, as well as on Bunting, Olson at Black Mountain, Creeley, two pieces on Zukofsky, most recently a brilliant cognitive exegesis of some of the poems of 80 FLOWERS titled "Aural Invention as Floral Splendor: Louis Zukofsky's Vision of Natural Beauty" (The Writer's Chronicle, volume 40 #1, Feb. 2008). Another recent essay, on Robert Frost, "Frost Among The Infinities" - published in SHENANDOAH, is the finest short literary/critical/theoretical piece on Frost I have ever read.

Lewis is a professor of literature and film at Appalachian State University, and he lives in the hills near Boone, North Carolina, with his wife and daughter.


The concept of a "publishing event" - once an eagerly anticipated occasion when a book of unusual significance for the literary community was about to appear - has been engulfed by too-familiar marketing strategies more dependent on an appeal to the sensational than one based on any discernable literary merit. If the traditional aspect still carries much currency, it might apply to the publication of a "book" that provides, at the moment of conclusion of a distinguished writing life, the full range of the work that drew and held attention through a span of at least several decades. The U. of California Press two-volume edition of Robert Creeley's COLLECTED POETRY - arranged by chronology as 1945-1975 and 1975-2005 is arguably such an "event," and the imprimatur of a review by the current poet laureate of the U.S., Charles Simic, would seem to support this assumption.

While Simic's consideration of these two volumes is welcome recognition of Creeley's place in American letters, his discussion of Creeley's life and work presents a portrait that does not adequately convey some of the singular qualities that made Creeley such an essential person in the development of American literature in the twentieth century. In too many ways, Simic seems to diminish the dimensions of Creeley's contributions to both the practical and theoretical aspects of American poetry, particularly in his dismissal of Creeley's work after 1975, which he finds "especially hard going." It would take at least as much space as Simic uses to present an argument for the latter work, and I expect there will be adequate venues for this to occur. (*) The limitations of Simic's essay lies in its dependence on assertions forming the basis for judgments that make vital elements of Creeley's oeuvre unrecognizable.

Part of the problem may be Simic's perspective, which is revealed by his comment on "the fabled circle of poets" including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn and Ed Dorn which he describes as "little understood." This was an accurate enough assumption at the time that Donald Allen's ground-breaking anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 appeared in 1960, but by the time Allen and Warren Tallman produced The Poetics of the New American Poetry in 1973, the conversation had progressed to the point that a lack of understanding was primarily a product of the resistance or opposition of other gatherings of poets who had their own agendas about what constituted poetic excellence. It might be useful to substitute the term "militia" for "school" since this is often a more accurate depiction of the internecine aspect of the pernicious combat that sometimes erupts. Albeit a valid argument in some aspects, it leads to Simic's condemnation of encouragment from Allen Ginsberg and Duncan, which Creeley called crucial to his own development, as "two awful pieces of advice." This is an indication of the disparity between Simic's own poetic practices and those of the "little understood" circle, a legitimate point of contention, but in Simic's essay a means of easy disparagment and too-casual dismissal.

He misreads Ginsberg's statement that "you don't have to worry so much about writing a 'bad' poem" as license for laxity. Ginsberg was aware of the kind of care Creeley brought to every poem he wrote, and understood that even if the method of composition might not involve extensive revision, there was a kind of directed attention to the process in accord with Olson's statement in his "Projective Verse" essay that the poet "be instant by instant, aware of forces" operating in a poetic field. Ginsberg was suggesting that the adverse reception that a particular poem might draw ought not to discourage Creeley. Both men knew that not every poem would be a polished masterpiece, and that to use as a model an established and accepted poetic form could be a severe detriment to the evolving poetic voice which Creeley was fashioning, Creeley's visionary ideas about form, which began as an epistolary exchnage with Olson and which have been recorded in their letters and many other places - notably Creeley's interview in The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from the New York Quarterly (edited by William Packard; New York: Doubleday, 1974) - indicate just how much thought Creeley gave to the shape of a poem, and illuminate many of the methods of the "little understood" company (to use one of Creeley's favorite formulations) brought to their craft. Simic imples that Creeley was following a destructive strategy, but the idea of what a "bad" poem might be is a point in an ongoing argument between Simic and Creeley's company. This does not mean that Simic is wrong, just that he might not have been the most appropriate choice for the review. And that is at the core of my concern. There are numerous examples of a totally inappropriate choice by a prestigious publication for a significant review of an important, even ground-breaking book, such as the selection by LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS of August Kleinzahler for Mark Scroggins's life of Louis Zukofsky.

Even as he acknowledges how much Creeley continued William Carlos Williams's efforts to speak in the American vernacular, Simic reduces the complexity of Creeley's control of this kind of speech to a "colloquial ease" and summarizes the intricate shape of Creeley's poetic invention as "the fragmented look of modern poetry." When he actually examines the earlier poems of the first volume, his discussion is often illuminating, but too frequently he generalizes as in his comment that Olson and Creeley "raised each other's spirits" even though they didn't have that "much in common," further revealing his misunderstanding of their intense friendship. The several paragraph summary of Creeley's early life and his contact with Olson covers some of the facts, but leaves out much of what makes the "facts" interesting, or narrows them deceptively. To depict Creeley as "a slight, stooped figure" misses that aspect of the man who presented himself, with a sly smile and dashing cape in a photograph from his days at Black Mountain, "as a Spanish assassin." Similarly, Simic's view of Olson gets a few details right, but gives no sense of the daunting intellectual presence Duncan called "a great fire source." Understandable limitations of space require Simic to contain his rendition of the context for Creeley's writing, and I appreciate the prestige that Simic brings to Creeley even as he marginalizes him as "a cult figure." Nonetheless, the words of a previous laureate, Robert Haas, might help to expand the sense of what Creeley has accomplished. As Haas astutely put it, Creeley's way "has been to take the ordinary, threadbare phrases and sentences by which we locate ourselves and to put them under the immense pressure of the rhythms of poetry and to make out of that what dance or music there can be."


* (Editor's Note): For the best explorations of Creeley's poetry, see Marjorie Perloff's superlative essay, "Creeley's Radical Poetics", @ electronic book review 10/13/07, and Susan Stewart's beautiful piece, "A Human Pledge", in The Nation, January 2, 2008.

Letter #2

The dismissive supercilious tone of the first paragraph of August Kleinzahler's review of The Poem Of A Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky is an indication of his lack of respect for both Zukofsky's poetry and Mark Scroggins's ambitious, informative book. Imprecise, inaccurate and reductive, Kleinzahler calls Zukofsky's parents Russian Jewish (they were from Lithuania); doesn't mention Zukofsky's attendance at Columbia where he worked on a literary magazine with his friend Whitaker Chambers, has him in New York City his "entire life" although he taught in Wisconsin, traveled to the United Kingdom and lived and worked in Brooklyn where he taught for many years at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, rather than "doing as little as possible." Calling him "abstemious, hypocondriac," and asserting that "he cared little for food," the portrait that emerges is of an eccentric, self-centered individual who still managed to have a "long writing life." Kleinzahler concedes that some of the lyrics are "splendidly musical" but asserts that "it's hard to determine what any given poem is about." Assuming correctly that Zukofsky's life and work is not that familiar to even most literate readers, he draws a psychological portrait of the poet that is highly selective and which expresses a particularly personal estimate of Zukofsky's poetry, concluding his review by quoting Kenneth Cox, once a strong supporter of Zukofsky's work who eventually decided that "Assiduous industry and cautious calculation do not replace creative energy," a position which he finds "difficult to argue with finally." A reviewer does not have to be an advocate, but he should be able to substantiate his judgment. Kleinzahler does not do an especially effective job of supporting his comments about the poetry, but the real failure of his review is his completely inadequate assessment of Scroggins's book, a thoroughly researched, carefully considered, clearly explained presentation of Zukofsky's life and work which is also an excellent overview of American poetry in the twentieth century.

Undisputably the leading Zukofsky scholar, whose work is cited and admired by nearly everyone who has written about Zukofsky, Scroggins stated in his ground-breaking earlier study Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (1998) "I love Louis Zukofsky," and it is this passionate response, combined with an impressive grasp of the sources and subjects of Zukofsky's work and an ability to make Zukofsky's distinctly original employment of language and syntax at least understandable, that make The Poem of a Life indispensable for anyone interested in a poet whose reputation for obscurity has kept him hidden in spite of the wide range of other esteemed poets who have declared their debt to him. Kleinzahler devotes a significant section of his review to Zukofsky's friendship with Basil Bunting, an important if intermittent relationship, but doesn't account - as Scroggins does - for Zukofsky's contacts with and influence on the next generation, especially Robert Creeley (not mentioned at all) and Robert Duncan (one brief reference). Kleinzahler faults Scroggins for not making a definitive statement about Zukofsky's relationship with Lorine Niedecker, somehow misunderstanding Scroggins's measured account of available evidence, and ultimately dismisses the entire enterprise by recommending "Rather than read Scroggins, anyone interested in Zukofsky's life should read the interview with Celia," Zukofsky's wife Celia Thaew. This is an absurd suggestion. Scroggins provides a full, sensitive and appreciative portrait of Celia, which succeeds in encouraging further explorations of her life and their relationship; not a substitution. His summation (quoting Cox, who he preposterously describes as "perhaps Zukovsky's closest and most appreciative reader" which ignores Michele Leggott's Reading Louis Zukofsky's 80 Flowers;1989) that "Zukofsky's exploration of language looks like a child's exploration of a new toy; heedless or ignorant of its original function," is an absurd contention, and reveals a misunderstanding of Zukofsky's extraordinary involvement with language sufficient to disqualify him as a commentator. Nonetheless, as a reviewer, he is entitled to his opinions. It would be unfortunate, however, if his review - containing some useful information and illuminating insights - were regarded as a fair account of Scroggins' book, or if it deterred a library or academic institution from purchasing it. At this time, there is no other publication that comes close to providing as much essential information and incisive commentary about a poet finally beginning to receive the kind of attention that is long overdue.