The “Easy” (a.k.a. “less difficult”) Poetry of Southern California

PART TWO: Charles Harper Webb and the “Easy” (a.k.a. “less difficult”) Poetry of Southern California

Starting in the late 1990s, the Idyllwild Poetry Festival had a decade-long run as one of the best events of that kind in the United States. Under the exceptionally fine management of its co-founders, Artistic Director Cecilia Woloch and legendary civil rights activist and college president John Maguire, the huge outdoor stage at the Idyllwild School for the Arts accommodated both a small jazz ensemble and a half-dozen poets at the same time; poets and musicians directed by Marshall Hawkins alternated with precisely timed presentations. Gently undulating parachutes strung above the grassy slope of the amphitheater enabled the venue itself to amplify the advantages of the mild summer weather at 5500 feet in altitude. It was indeed an idyllic setting.

The line-up in any given year at Idyllwild represented both the well-known and those who should have been more recognized. Several of the poets, in fact, whom Cecilia and John chose to read at Idylliwild became much more famous in the decade after their leadership of the festival ended. Terrance Hayes, Eloise Klein Healy, and Natasha Trethaway, for instance, all went on to receive major honors between 2007 and the present moment that no one could have foreseen back in the early days of the Festival. Other guest poets, such as Tom Lux, Carol Muske-Dukes, Yusef Komunyakaa, Billy Collins, and Galway Kinnell were already about as famous as they remain.

Among the regular poets who led workshops as well as took the main stage were Richard Garcia and Charles Harper Webb, both of whom were relative late bloomers in terms of mainstream recognition. While Webb, for instance, had published dozens of poems in little magazines through the 1970s and early 1980s, his first collection, Zinjanthropus Disease, was limited to a print run of 250 copies and published by Querencia Press in Seattle. It received a Wormwood Review Award, but little other notice, and was followed up by Everyday Outrages, published by a Los Angeles co-operative of poets, Red Wind Books, which also issued the first of three editions of an anthology of Stand Up poets. Three years later, Applezaba Press in Long Beach published A Weeb for All Seasons, which according to World Cat became his first book to end up on more than a score of library shelves.

Webb shifted gears at that point, and it would appear from a note in Shadow Ball that Edward Hirsch (“teacher extraordinaire, who got the train on the tracks”) played a role in his transformation, for beginning in 1997, Webb commenced a run of prize-winning volumes of poems that boosted him into the top two dozen of the most nationally recognized poets based in Southern California. A dozen years later, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems, which gathered Webb’s best poems from five books published since the appearance of Reading the Water in 1997. One of the most remarkable aspects of Webb’s Shadow Ball, however, is the absence of any poems from his early books. That Webb achieved mainstream poetry validation as he hit middle age hardly makes him an exceptional case. One of the more recent poet laureates of the United States, the late Philip Levine, was equally slow to gain public notice as a poet. His second book (Not This Pig) was published in 1968, at the age of 40. In contrast with Webb, though, Levine’s first Selected Poems in 1984 included a half-dozen poems from On the Edge, which had been published when Levine was 35 years old. For a poet in mid-career to have no poems from a book published before the age of 40 in a “new and selected” volume is virtually unheard of.

There is yet one more puzzling absence from the book: no mention is made whatsoever of Webb’s editorial activity and his advocacy of Stand Up poetry, an attitude towards contemporary poetics that had achieved its initial critical mass in Los Angeles County in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the time Webb arrived from the Northwest in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, the best known poets in this “school” were already appearing in national anthologies, such as Edward Field’s A Geography of Poets, a mass market paperback from Bantam Books that was meant to update and build upon the success of The Voice that Is Great Within Us, Hayden Carruth’s immensely successful compilation.

As I have pointed out before, Edward Field holds a distinctive position in American poetry: he is one of the few poets in Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology to go on, in turn, and edit an important anthology. Field’s introduction to A Geography of Poets would have served, in retrospect, as a good model for Donald Allen’s too brief and almost reticent commentary. Whereas Allen pointed to Venice West, in terms of Southern California’s presence in West Coast poetics, Field pointed to the southernmost environs of Los Angeles County as a bastion of canonical usurpation.
“Today, for example, there is a lively poetry scene around Long Beach, California, with its own magazines and small presses. Against the clean background of blue sky, a sea with tropical islands that are camouflaged oil derricks, beautiful blond people – the American Dream – poets like Charles Stetler, Ron Koertge, and Gerald Locklin are writing poems that are direct, funny, and often filthy. …Their vernacular style, sassy and jaded, is at the opposite pole from the issue-oriented, righteous poetry of the Bay Area to the north.” (page xxxix).

Published in 1979, A Geography of Poets provides the best context for Webb’s early development as a poet. The scene he undertook to champion by the end of the 1980s was already well in motion when he arrived in Los Angeles about the time Field’s anthology appeared. In point of fact, Field neglected some of the most significant contributors to the core ensemble of the Stand Up school. The absences of Jack Grapes and Bob Flanagan from Field’s anthology are major omissions, especially in light of Stetler’s minor contribution to the emergence of Stand Up.

By the mid-1980s, Webb had established himself sufficiently in Los Angeles to earn a spot in my second anthology, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” which I published in 1985, and like Field, Webb became one of the few poets to appear in an anthology and then go on to edit a collection in turn. Before his first, thin edition of Stand Up Poetry was published in 1990, however, the late Steve Kowit edited an anthology that reiterated Field’s commentary. Like A Geography of Poets, Kowit’s The Maverick Poets does not include Charles Harper Webb, but Kowit’s brief introduction to the collection (published in 1988) strikes many of the same notes that Webb will elaborate on in his introduction. Here is Kowit’s opening salvo:

“In 1980, Alex Scandalios and I decided to edit an anthology of “easy” poetry for his Willmore City Press. ‘Easy’ was Alex’s word for a kind of straight-on, anti-rhetorical poetry written in the mother tongue: colloquial, hard edged (sic) and feisty – a brand of poetry that was easy to read but not, he liked to remind us, easy to write. Much of the work he had in mind was inspired by Charles Bukowski, poet laureate of the disaffected, and was being published in off-beat poetry magazines like Nausea, Purr, Scree, Vagabond, and The Wormwood Review. It was an underground poetry that avoided the preciously self-conscious diction of mainstream verse on the one hand and the unrelenting incoherence of conventional avant-garde poetry on the other. It was gritty, raw, anecdotal, often funny, and seemed to us decidedly more interesting than the rather solemn stuff being touted by the respectable quarterlies. It was our contention that if the public had turned away from poetry, it was due not to the pernicious influence of television or the incompetence of schools or the technocratic bias of the culture, but simply to the fact that most of what was being published was ponderously obtuse and unrelievedly dull.” (page 1)

Although the anthologies that Kowit and I edited in the 1980s featured a considerable number of the same poets, I can hardly say that we shared the same analysis of the alleged plight of contemporary poetry. (It should be noted that Webb’s commentary in his essays is to a large extent extrapolated from Kowit’s stance.) In particular, the categorization of “conventional avant-garde poetry” as being grounded in “unrelenting incoherence” was an appalling oversimplification and remains an example of the egregiously uninformed attitude that served to undermine the thoughtful efforts of many equally maverick poets affiliated in some manner with the Language poets between 1970 and 1985.

Nevertheless, the overlap between Field’s, Kowit’s, and my anthology provides the best means for tracing Webb’s trajectory as a poet with a successful academic career. Here are the poets who appeared in both Kowit’s The Maverick Poets and “Poetry Loves Poetry”:
Laurel Ann Bogen
Charles Bukowski
Wanda Coleman
Jack Grapes
Ron Koertge
Gerald Locklin
Austin Straus

Webb includes all of these poets in the first edition of Stand Up Poetry: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond, which he co-edited with Suzanne Lummis. Other poets who had appeared in “Poetry Loves Poetry” who are also included in Webb and Lummis’s anthology include Michael C. Ford, Eloise Klein Healy, Jim Kruose, as well as the editors (Webb and Lummis), and myself. In other words, 13 of the 22 poets in Webb’s anthology had already been clustered together in an anthology that was visible enough to be reviewed in the Los Angeles Times as well as the Bay Area’s Poetry Flash. Sharon Doubiago also wrote a long review of “Poetry Loves Poetry,” which appeared in Electrum magazine.

Despite the obvious overlap and despite the fact that my long introduction to “Poetry Loves Poetry” emphasizes how humor plays an unusually prominent role in poetry being written in Los Angeles, Webb completely ignores my anthology in his introduction. Given that he cites both Field’s and Kowit’s anthologies, this omission can hardly be accounted for as anything but a deliberate gesture meant to marginalize PLP‘s editorial complexity in addressing the heterogeneity of contemporary poetry. Heterogeneity, however, tends to make aspiring trend-setters uncomfortable. Diversity complicates any given situation, though anyone working with gene pools in an environmental context understands its importance.

The lack of any acknowledgement by Webb of the contribution of “Poetry Loves Poetry” to the evolution of a poetics largely associated with poets working in Los Angeles County hardly affects the impact that my collection had on catching a particular turning point in the region’s literary history. What interests me more at this point is how Webb represents a model for career success in the overgrowing field of MFA programs. Let there be no mistake made about the chasm that exists in American poetry right now: there are a huge number of aging poets who achieved fluency in their art well before the MFA programs started proliferating in the early 1980s; and there are a massive number of younger poets whose social context for writing poetry is almost completely embedded within the world of MFA programs. While Webb’s initial edition of his Stand Up anthology emphasized poets from the former cluster, the subsequent editions drew heavily upon the ranks of those who teach in MFA programs.

I don’t think this shift in the composition of contributors to his editions of Stand Up poetry is unrelated to the culmination of the article Webb published in The Writer’s Chronicle, which I addressed in the previous post. The longer I have thought about it, the more I have come to understand that Webb’s dislike of “difficult” poetry is not just an aesthetic preference, but umbrage about a loss of market share. “They have bet on the wrong horse,” Webb says, in reference to those who have committed themselves to “difficult” poetry.

What I don’t understand about Webb’s position is why one is supposed to bet on only one horse. Or only one stable of horses, as if a single trainer had the “whisperer” secrets that enabled one to claim the trophies of success. Am I truly expected to choose between reading only Thomas Lux or only Ron Silliman? Only Pattianne Rogers, Heather McHugh. and Natasha Trethewey, or only Rae Armantrout, Harryette Mullen, and Laura Mullen? I refuse, point-blank, to live that way or to encourage young readers of poetry to make such either-or selections. It would seem to lead to the kind of in-breeding that marks so many academic programs, with the result that many MFA programs have very little of the risk-taking, eclectic energy that marked the work of the contributors to “Poetry Loves Poetry.”

I suppose it is possible to live as a poet and be more concerned with career success than fostering a diversely empowered audience of readers. My lifelong experience of observing, either at a distance or close-up, the preferences of academically based poets is that they encourage homogeneity as a foundation for one’s personal claim to canonical representation. I choose to discourage others from taking that path. It is not a million M.F.A.s that are needed, but a million maverick readers of maverick poets. Potential readers of contemporary poetry are far more ready to begin turning pages than most contemporary poets give them credit for. It is not “easy” poetry or “less difficult” poetry that will increase the number of readers of poetry, but thoughtful poetry willing to answer the questions, “What’s at stake?” and “Who cares?” Whether Charles Harper Webb wants to admit it or not, both Language poets and poets who write long poems are frequently capable of answering those questions in a more interesting manner than those who settle for the safe bet of “less difficult” poems.

(Upcoming Post) PART THREE: The Intriguing Complexity of Charles Harper Webb’s “SHADOW BALL”