In a memoir of his boyhood friend Donald Justice, Laurence Donovan says the poet “records in his writings the passing of a time and place that were truly unique, and that bred a type of American now disappearing from the scene.” (“Donald Justice’s Miami,” Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice, edited by Dana Gioia and William Logan, 1997). Donovan cites as examples among Justice’s friends the poet Robert Boardman Vaughn and bassoonist John Lenox. Justice wrote poems about both (read them here and here, respectively). Of Lenox he said: “Lonely / In eminence he sat.”
What strikes me most powerfully about Donovan’s observation is his rueful reference to “a type of American now disappearing from the scene.” I think I know what he means, and judging from other poems and essays by Justice, he might have added to the list Sherwood Anderson, the composer Carl Ruggles (once Justice’s teacher), and the painter Charles Burchfield. What characterizes these artists, besides the “remarkable talent and interest” cited by Donovan, is their independence, refusal to play the careerist game and their proudly defiant amateur standing. Most would have gone on making art even without an audience and rewards. Justice elaborates in his book-length interview with Philip Hoy (BTL, 2001):
“Ruggles is one of those gifted amateurs of the arts that America produced, especially in the early modern period – Marsden Hartley and Charles Burchfield among the painters, Charles Ives and Roy Harris among the composers, and Sherwood Anderson, perhaps Hart Crane, among the writers. For me these artists have long seemed the truly American type of artist, though not necessarily as profound or world-shaking as some of their contemporaries. Nevertheless they may be the ones we can be secretly most proud of.”
Elsewhere, again in reference to Ruggles, Justice says: “He was one of those eccentric self-taught artists – homemade geniuses – of which America has had its share.” The type, never common, seems extinct. Once it was regularly observed among jazz and blues musicians, but those fields too have grown professionalized and commodified. No more Joe Sullivans among jazz pianists. No more Alec Wilders, Edward Hoppers or Edward Dahlbergs.
Thanks to David Sanders for passing along an essay by Anis Shivani, “Philip Levine and Other Mediocrities: What it Takes to Ascend to the Poet Laureateship,” which he rightly guesses I might find amusing. I had never heard of Shivani before but his critical gist, that American poetry has turned dreary, gutless and predictable, is no revelation. Few dedicated readers, I suspect, would defend the usual suspects he rounds up – Levine, Olds, Glück, Graham. Nor does he spare the parlor-revolutionaries, Language Poets and other self-styled avant-gardistes. Near the conclusion of his essay Shivani poses a series of pertinent, unanswerable questions:
“What to do then? Where do poets of broad imagination, genuine classical mooring, wit and irony and humor, and sympathy across the class lines come from? Can a culture, so decrepit and inhumane that it boasts of its own periodic death at every turn, produce broad-minded poets? Or are these the best we have to live with? Will their work survive, or will they be footnotes to a transitional age, where history took a break, prosperity made their kind of work possible, and lapsed standards of judgment let them get away with their fraud for so long?”
One can quibble with details. What do “class lines” have to do with anything? Is being “broad-minded” a virtue, among poets or anyone else? But Shivani’s central point is inarguable: Most prominent contemporary poets, several of whom, strictly speaking, have never written poetry, have come to believe the committees that award them prizes, academic berths and other blandishments. And why not? Everyone has a right to earn a living. If you’re rewarded for writing dreck, why suddenly become conscience-stricken? All of us have bills to pay and egos to soothe. What would you do in their place?
Forgotten are Justice’s “eccentric self-taught artists – homemade geniuses,” the writers, painters and musicians who work because they have little choice in the matter, who tinker in the home workshop, fumble uncertainly, without operating instructions or career counselors, and leave behind something some of us still care about. Shavani concludes, perhaps in partial answer to the questions he posed:
“Genius, it seems, can't necessarily be produced in factories. A strike just might be in order!”