Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Origins of the SoQ

Being ecologically inclined, I am skeptical of attempts to split aspects of the world into binary camps: he said, she said. The world simply doesn't work this way. It's in process. As humans with two eyes situated in the front of our heads, however, it's easy for us to see the world as binary; in a sense, it proves useful. When we know what something is—when it has been pulled out of it's complex relational web—we can work with it, manipulate it, name it's qualities, and otherwise identify with or against it in an attempt to situate ourselves in relationship to it.

With that in mind, I am returning to the Silliman-inspired School of Quietude debate. I probably would not be so interested in this debate if I didn't bump up against it on an ongoing basis at work. The English Department at Proctor is made up of predominantly SoQ folk who are openly influenced by traditional British Literature (a year-long required course here), publish their work in the Mid American Review, and promote The Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. Certainly, in New England (and literally, a mile and a half from Donald Hall's house) this is to be expected. And in a broader sense, there isn't a problem with this, except when I strike up particular conversations. For example, when I was discussing my spring American Literature syllabus, the department head genuinely asked me, "Why do you want to teach the Beats? They aren't Modern in any sense. I mean, Ginsberg… He's just so old." Another time, when I was describing the un-crafted, improvisational nature of poetic journals a teacher quipped, "Might they, then, be considered lazy?" With these kind of near-daily, personal experiences behind me, I have become increasingly interested in the history and tradition behind the School of Quietude.

What follows is a rough historical sketch of the SoQ… Consider these notes from an ongoing investigation:

Googling, "School of Quietude" and "Edgar Allen Poe" (whom Ron Silliman has repeatedly credited with the phrase) I came across a Claude Richard 1969 article on Poe that explains,

"Poe took an active part in the squabble between the "Young Americans," who were the proponents of a muscular and popular literature, and the Boston poets, who were attached to a more genteel, more traditional, more quiet conception of literature….the members of what we might call the "school of quietude."
On the School of Quietude Wikipedia page it states that "Silliman's contention is that the present day School of Quietude in American poetry are the spiritual heirs of those same Anglophile 19th century poets."

Looking at the early (2003) posts on Silliman's Blog, I pieced together a SoQ lineage. The unbroken chain looks something like this: [post 1810*] William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, Sidney Lanier, James Russell Lowell, Conrad Aiken, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, James Merrill, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Robert Pinsky, and so forth. Robert Frost, of course, should fit in here somewhere. Give or take a few, it looks like a rich white men's club meeting throughout the centuries in Cambridge. Pick up The Norton Anthology of American Literature and you are likely to find all of the Americans on this list.

What Silliman rejects is the SoQ's embrace of Dickinson and Whitman. Both of whom, Silliman thinks are far more formally radical to be represented in The New Yorker or The Mid American Review today. Silliman also rejects the notion that there is a long and honored "tradition" in the SoQ, but posits instead that the school is "traditional." In his own words:

"'Traditional' in the way it’s used by SoQ poets doesn’t in fact mean working within a tradition. Rather, it’s a stance toward the role of change within art that is most often being staked out by such a term. Change is not easy for anyone but in the SoQ world, it’s positively excruciating. Remember how dramatic the writing of the young Brahmins in the 1950s & ‘60s who revolted – Bly, Merwin, Plath, Rich, in particular – was perceived to have been….. The idea of Logan, Merwin & Bly as aesthetic rebels is laughable today. Yet in the context of the world in which they first arose as poets over 40 years ago, a universe in which Aiken, MacLeish, Lowell, Jarrell & the New Critics dominated the SoQ landscape, it was at least plausible to imagine them as closer to the New Americans than really was the case."
To get a sense of the anger post-avant writers feel toward the SoQ writers, I'll re-post this Ange Mlinko letter to Ron Silliman from back in 2003.
Dear Ron,

It's not enough that the school of quietude, the school of broken-up-plainspoken-prose-is-so-poetry, the school of "John Donne would totally be writing broken-up-plainspoken-prose today!" poetry, the "official verse culture," what have you, is a behemoth that systematically vanishes great poets like Robert Duncan or even John Ashbery (an acquaintance with an MFA from Southwest Texas had never heard of him) and leaves writers branded "experimental" with no place to publish except for a handful of journals they don't put out themselves. And if that sounds like sour grapes, I'll gladly be sour enough for all the excellent poets in their fifties & sixties who appear in Shiny but never in the Paris Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, etc. But I'd like to save the majority of my sourness for the idea that we should all be some happy poetry family on a "spectrum." Because that's a patent lie, and the poetry establishment is afraid of great poetry (where is Michael Palmer's MacArthur? Susan Howe's? Alice Notley's? just to name a few names who are more widely influential), and anyone outside the "experimental" "club" who whines about the "club" can take a flying leap – in his Republican-borrowed suit.

Thanks for letting me rage.
* See Ron Silliman's note in the comment section. He writes in to say that pre-1810, Wordsworth was anything but "traditional."

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