“When you realize how little these people like being themselves, you begin to understand why they want to escape consciousness”
Today at the tree-tucked magic barn of Grey Matter Books in Hadley, MA, I bought for $8 the very first issue of Genesis West, the magazine Gordon Lish edited pre-Quarterly, so we’re talking on the fun bus with Neal Cassady and not out to lunch with Raymond Carver. Grey Matter Books had the entire set of Genesis West, all seven volumes, except now they don’t, because Nat Otting owns six and I own one.
In this 1962 issue is an interview between Lish and Jack Gilbert, whose book Views of Jeporody had at the time just won the Yale Younger Poets Series award. After the break are two cool excerpts from the conversation, one about that old hobbyhorse of poetry’s relevance, and one in which Gilbert takes to task the aesthetics of the Beat movement. The whole interview is terrific, and I post these excerpts not to signal unequivocal agreement with Gilbert’s grouching, but to air for the consideration of contemporary relevance some pretty solid gnashing from the early mouth of a major poet.
I) Jack Gilbert in 1962 on “exactly why poetry is crucial now.”
Poetry seems almost the only device we have for persisting at problems without their being mysteriously transformed into an abstract game. It seems almost our only escape from the blind alley of sophistication where comparative anthropology and psychiatry have led us, seeing that there are so many sides to any question that it is impossible to have convictions. Poetry is almost the only way we can escape from the viscous constipation of moral relativism. Because poetry is the art of prejudice. If prejudice is the inability to discuss a conviction calmly, then poetry is prejudice. Prose is rational and fair. It works out an idea and gives all the evidence. Poetry doesn’t. It doesn’t argue, it demonstrates.
II) Jack Gilbert and Gordon Lish in 1962 on poets of the Beat movement.
GILBERT: They evade the complexity life really has; and they can escape awareness of themselves into sensation. When you realize how little these people like being themselves, you begin to understand why they want to escape consciousness.
LISH: But I thought the idea was to arrive at a greater awareness of the self. And to be more open to love.
GILBERT: They talk a lot about love, but they experience almost none. Neither for people nor for the world. Their natural condition is unhappiness. And because they have so little genuine appetite for the world, they go in constant fear of boredom. That’s why they are quiet so little. After all, there is something radically wrong when you have to go to always more violent and stranger devices to get a response. A man who delights in the world isn’t so dependent on drugs and alcohol and novelty. And the sad thing is that even so they manage to squeeze out always less response. If you’ve been to any of their parties, you must have noticed how much it was like an hysterical woman straining for an orgasm synthetically. And the poetry is the same. Almost none of it stands up under rereading. In the first place, it all ends up sounding curiously anonymous. And in the second place, despite the cult of energy, all that violence of language and image seems curiously slack after six months. The poems just don’t wear well.
LISH: None of it?
GILBERT: Certainly some remains. Parts of Howl and Kaddish, for example. And besides, it depends on who you mean when you refer to the Beat Movement. It’s as Procrustean a word as academic. I certainly am not talking about Creeley or Duncan or Olson. And I think Whalen and Snyder will produce important poetry. But for the rest, if you travel around America, you find the reputation of five years ago washed up like great dying whales. And beginning to stink.