Reviewed September 1, 2013 by D. S. Lawson.
The city/county dichotomy in literature goes back practically as far as does the written word. It seems from the very beginning of recorded language there have been those who favored the unspoiled or the contemplative or God’s handiwork or our Mother earth as well as those who preferred best the sophisticated or the imprint of human activity. Indeed the list of adjectives which could be meaningfully inserted into this two-part paradigm extends much farther than I wish to go. At least since the Victorian era reaction against the Romantics it has been pointed out that “nature” is as much of a construct as is “city,” and at least since the heyday of structuralism we have known that—as we are a product of and part of nature—our handiwork is as natural as a beehive or a beaver’s dam.
Indeed this split is invoked in discussions of language itself (albeit usually in abstract form): is “language” a “natural” phenomenon or a “man-made” artifice? By extension, we certainly ask ourselves about poetry (somehow simultaneously both the most artificial and most natural expression of which language is capable) whether “formal” poetry is more like nature (adhering to inflexible rules) or like an urban environment (humans imposing themselves onto an existing linguistic “place”). In the visual arts, the dichotomy works as the opposition between countryside and landscape, in the divide between realism and abstraction, or in the Kantian distinction between the beautiful and the sublime.
There can be a “grass is always greener” aspect to the matter, with Virgil (that most urban and urbane of Roman poets) writing his Eclogues and Georgics and Ovid in his dreary Black Sea exile longing for Rome and to hear Latin spoken again. It is too simple, however, to assert the primacy of one over the other during any individual literary “period”: the Romantics are stereotypically associated with nature but parts of Wordsworth’s The Prelude or shorter poems like “Upon Westminster Bridge” are among the greatest “urban poems” in the English language; though (thanks to Northrop Frye) we associate Shakespeare’s “green world” with hilarity and romance, horrible things happen in the woods in his plays as well.
The past half century has seen a hybrid notion of “urban pastoral” (often spotted in the work of Frank O’Hara) or “suburban pastoral” (the gardening poems of Kenneth Pobo come to mind) develop, at once conflating and unpacking received notions of both sides of the poetic diagram. Literary critics have long earned their livings mining ore from the city/county motherload (Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City being, to my mind, the best of many such efforts). Today we continue to ask ourselves whether poets—humans in general, really—thrive best in contemplative accord with nature or in the ever-changing, high-stimulus city (though this simplistic arrangement ignores the brutally hard work of agricultural labor and the enervating anomie of urban life).
Two hefty new anthologies—Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (edited by Jed Rasula and Tim Conley, Action Books) and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (edited by Joshua Corey and G. C. Waldrep, Ahsahta Press)—give an opportunity to assess the state of the poetic presentation of these matters today. Both books present generous selections of poets from the famous to the obscure, and from a variety of poetic practices. I think it likely both anthologies will be used widely in creative writing and post-1900 poetry classrooms.
Rasula and Conley propose to make their volume “a multi-sensory Baedeker to the complex traffic of aesthetic impulses” of modernist poetry and they proceed by means of collecting poems representative of a wide variety of transient “isms” within the greater, more permanent framework of modernism, but without organizing this presentation along any kind of functional or theoretical or chronological lines (the headings given to groupings of poems here vary from musical—“Overtures” and “Interlude” and “Coda”—to geographical—“Paris” and “New York”—to metaphorical—“Cineland” and “A New Mythology”—to genre—“Futurist Hope”). If (and I very much wish to stress the provisional nature of this statement) there is an overarching structure to the anthology, it is that of the journey, filtered through musical structure (i.e., beginning with “Overtures” and ending with a “Coda”) where the groupings of poems according to varying criteria of selection serve as kinds of “symphonic movements” unified by, it would seem, tone more than anything else.
In essence, then, Rasula and Conley present an argument: the best way to grapple with the complex phenomenon of urban modernity in international poetry is to see it as a kind of music, exhibiting harmony at times and cacophony at others, developing one theme for a while and switching gears (sometimes roughly) to another. The editors here define “poems” quite broadly: the anthology treats excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as prose poems and includes works by Ilarie Voronca and Andor Sugar which appear to function more as visual art than as poems. By thus casting so wide a net, they risk including work that would be of interest only to the narrow specialist or work that is merely representative rather than remarkable, but this risk mostly pays off and their having taken it allows the reader a fuller and richer impression of the great technical and thematic variety which can reasonably be gathered under the rubric of “metropolitan modernity.”
In their introduction, the editors propose Apollinaire as a kind of focal point for their entire presentation of poems, and this nicely decenters received anglocentric notions of poetic hegemony (Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is conspicuously absent from the anthology, despite its “unreal city” which is the best two word summation of urban modernism in literature, Williams and Pound and Moore are represented only by short examples, and Stevens is altogether absent). The figure of Apollinaire (a multilingual Pole, born in Italy, famous as a French poet, wounded in World War I, and killed by the influenza epidemic of 1918) functions well as a metonym for the modernist period. Perhaps as much as by extension of the Apollinaire metonym as anything else, Rasula and Conley see (accurately, in my view) the city as the best (the only?) metonym for modernity itself. If it makes sense to speak in any way of “modernism” as a unified phenomenon, it does so only in the urban context, as a form of protest of or triumph over what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life.”
Burning City’s vivid examples of this protest and triumph include characterizations of cities as “oases of our starving plights” (Philippe Soupault “Westwego”). Fernando Pessoa attributes to the modern city a “beauty completely unknown to the ancients” (“Triumphal Ode”). One entire section of “Cineland” is devoted to poems about or inspired by that icon of urban modernism, Charlie Chaplin. In one poem, Xavier Abril writes of Chaplin in a reality that “belongs to everyone but him” (“X-Ray of Chaplin”), an image appropriate both for an actor in the larger context of a film and for a lone man in the larger urban environment; Osip Mandelstam writes of the urban figure of The Tramp facing a pitiful fate where “Somehow we all live unsuccessfully” (“Charlie Chaplin”), a reminder that, if the city is the space onto which we project our dreams, it is also the site where we come to know our failures.
Starting with Baudelaire’s groundbreaking work and continuing through Walter Benjamin’s analysis of his poems, Paris has been the paradigmatic “modern city.” A section of poems on Paris offers a variety of attitudes to this city. Henry Miller writes of a Paris “that has to be experienced each day in a thousand forms of torture, a Paris that grows inside you like a cancer, and grows and grows until you are eaten away by it” (from Tropic of Cancer). Pierre Reverdy likens human life in Paris to a “bare head under the lightning flashes” (“Paris in Play”). In “Four Quartets,” Julian Pryzbos celebrates the poetic inspiration Paris lavishes on him: “It is here the golden current spends the triumphant night. / I watch for when the poem will change into a skyrocket.” These poems acknowledge the excitement and the danger of the French metropolis, both contributing to a dynamic in which the city comes to take the place of the Muse.
Corey and Waldrep’s The Arcadia Project sets itself a smaller, quieter goal, but succeeds fully in achieving it. The range of poems—while broad—is limited to North American writers writing in English. In his introduction to the volume, Corey admits that “the pastoral” is “a charged ideological fantasy”; thus he intends the anthology not “as a call to conscience or a referendum on ecological policy,” but rather as “a call to the imagination.” Corey conflates pastoral and poetics as forms of “a hybrid terrain of human and nonhuman elements to be negotiated and explored.” For Corey the postmodern pastoral is inevitably caught up with questions of environment, ecology, sustainability, and so on; while he makes a case for this view both by argument and by demonstration (i.e., the selection of poems themselves), I am left wondering whether there may well be other postmodern pastorals—escapist fantasies or shepherd/shepherdess reenactments or anti-modern reactionaries, for instance—which he neglects or ignores.
If Burning City attempts to see the world of urban modernity revolving around the sun of Apollinaire, Corey wants his anthology “to stand in the light of Frank O’Hara’s claim in ‘Meditations in an Emergency’: ‘I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless there’s a subway handy or a record store or some sign that people do not totally regret life.’” Yet Cory and Waldrep don’t include O’Hara’s trailblazing ventures into postmodern pastoral in their selection. All of the work included in The Arcadia Project was published after 1995 by writers some of whom are young enough to be O’Hara’s grandchildren. While Burning City revels in (and gains much of its excitement from) reprinting poets whose work had faded into obscurity, The Arcadia Project’s list of contributors would mostly be familiar names to anyone well versed in contemporary American poetry (though this may be a factor merely of the recentness of the work included, as none of these poets has had time to fade into obscurity as yet). The contributors include winners of the Pulitzer Prize (Rae Armantrout) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (C. D. Wright), and range from very well established literary figures (Leslie Scalapino and Peter Gizzi) to writers just beginning to establish their claims on our attention (Brian Teare and Paul Legault). But the selection’s contemporary nature itself causes the anthology immediately to be outdated, as new work that would fit comfortably into the anthology continues to be published weekly.
The Arcadia Project is organized around a series of themes central to postmodern pastoral, beginning with “New Transcendentalisms,” moving through “Textual Ecologies” and “Local Powers,” and finishing with “Necro/pastoral.” In timbre, the work included here runs the scale from flat-toned observation or quasi-narrative (from Lisa Robertson’s The Weather), to rapturous internalization of experience (Brian Teare’s “Transcendental Grammar Crown”), to almost hallucinatory or surreal juxtapositions of the internal and external (from Jonathan Skinner’s Tope Prisms). Thus the book seems more coherent and unified than Burning City manages to (though the wild energy and vitality of urban modernism might well present an excuse for that anthology’s absence of disciplined architecture) while still recording a range of voices and tones.
If one widely distributed (if not widely accepted) view of postmodernism (not widely accepted because to achieve such currency would disprove its own thesis) is Lyotard’s notion of the absence or failure of grand narratives to explain away (or at least categorize) everything, Peter Gizzi’s “Some Values of Landscape and Weather” anthologized here provides a fine example of this notion vis-à-vis the postmodern pastoral:
Night coming on, goings to and fro
under a canopy of burning discs
and that twinkling bigness. It was all the time
happening. Here beneath
the shadow of branch and ballot.
Where else can you say
that to love the questions
you have to love the answers.
The “goings to and fro” seem not aimed at any destination (other, perhaps, than the night itself, if a time of day can function as a destination) or goal or telos. The firmament serves neither as a geographical locale for Heaven, nor as the source for an astronomical chart, but merely as a “twinkling bigness.” The Heideggerian acceptance / embrace of “It was all the time / Happening” seems without recourse either to narrative or resistance. Even the question (not punctuated as such) that ends this fragment of the poem implies not that one does love the questions or the answers, but only that the speaker doubts whether in any other place one could frame the thought that another alternative exists. Even the title of Gizzi’s poem melts three worlds (the scientific of “values” and “weather,” the pictorial of “landscape,” and the poetic—i.e., merely by virtue of the words’ purpose as the title of a poem) into one while presenting us no clue as to the relations between those worlds or as to the method by which we are to proceed to separate them.
It might seem that the pastoral is a state of mind as much as anything else. Forrest Gander’s “Escaped Trees of Lynchburg” seems to explore this possibility, opening with “Mostly, they lived disagreeably amid volleys of far-off barking” which could as easily be a description of people living in a crowded city as a description of trees by a spring-fed lake. Gander’s poem evokes ancestors like Walt Whitman’s “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” or William Meredith’s “A Couple of Trees” or John Ashbery’s “Some Trees,” though it does so more by contrast—Gander’s trees not only “live disagreeably,” they secrete “chemicals that attract parasitic wasps” and suffer “from woodpecker holes”—than by kinship. The arboreal poetic lineage Gander summons is undercut by his refusal to see the trees as a metaphor for companionable human life, his unwillingness to see them as anything more or other than objects upon which no one can “decipher / the concealed from the given.” Indeed in this sense Gander’s trees are anti-metaphorical and we are expressly not to decipher them, to see other meanings behind their appearance on the page.
Thus The Arcadia Project collects a goodly number of poems from the last nearly twenty years in which issues of pastoral are focused or dispersed through the lens of concepts of postmodernity. Comparatively few of the poems here could be considered “traditional” in their essence (and this is equally true of the poems in Burning City) but the abandonment or transcendence of tradition has been a chore assigned to poetry since the high noon of modernism (Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) and re-assigned in the gathering dusk of postmodernism (Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence).
Taken together, these anthologies give a reader handy access to a large number of poems focused around twin, complementary topics in which one literary period is wed to one literary theme. Both books amply supply work fitting their criteria, though both also simply ignore aspects of their periods which fall outside the thematic concerns determined by the editors. Burning City shows us poets keen on the newness, the “nowness” of the city, and The Arcadia Project follows with work that languishes with desire for the country (though without illusion or nostalgia). In the course of these two major new anthologies, the “here/now” of urban modernism gives way to the “there/then” of postmodern pastoral, both of which were always already new and always already gone.