Sunday, July 05, 2009

Russel Edson

I've spent a couple of days proofreading Laura Wright's translation of Henri Michaux's classic "La vie dans les plis," which Action Books is putting out this fall/winter. Amazing book. Just kills me.

A somewhat lesser (less spectacular, less perverse) American version of early Michaux is Russel Edson. With a view of the way "Conceptual Writing" seems to have been manufactured as topic of academic study, and fit so neatly into current academic study, it's interesting I think that Edson has been such a profoundly influential and popular poet over the past 50 years (and just recently received a handsome collected in Swedish translation), and yet he never seems to be discussed at academic conferences or in academic journals. (in difference to Michaux, whose work is discussed in book after book, and who gets mentioned by Deleuze and Guattari with some frequency)

What makes that even strange is that two of the most famous contemporary American poets - Simic and Tate - are hugely influenced by him. In fact the now somewhat dreadful genre of "the prose poem" seems almost entirely to be written in the astrological sign of Edson. In the 80s and 90s there was a poetry journal called The Prose Poem that was pretty much a monument to Edson's influence.

[Come to think of it: when was the last time I saw an article or went to a paper that treated either of those two, Tate and Simic, very famous and influential poets?]

It was kind of gross, the monotony of that journal. And maybe that's partly the answer to my question. Neither Edson nor his hordes of followers seem to develop - they're in a state of arrested development. Edson has been writing the same poem for decades. Prevalent notions of poetry seems to demand development, evolution etc. Usually I'm opposed to that arch-obsessed view of art (related as it is to Hollywood movies having characters who change, or are changed by some important event). But in this case there may be a point; so much of the followers are just so incredibly repetitive.

But I also think his view is fundamentally incompatible with academic appreciation in various ways: the violence is problematic. He can't be turned into a feel-good idea of progress or social critique. Etc.

I don't know much about Tate (as I have confessed before on this blog), but he does seem to be someone who was able to develop his own take from Edson. I still think Edson is a better poet, but Tate's most recent book - in which his vacuous narrator finds himself as a torturer at Abu Ghraib - seems truly original and frightening (I haven't read teh whole thing yet).

Among my generation, I could mention Ron Klassnik and Black Ocean, Mark Tursi's book "The impossible picnic", and Tursi's journal Double Room, and perhaps his co-editor Peter Connors's anthology pp/ff (which I'm in, I admit it Max!) as some places where Edson's influence and "The Prose Poem" might be moving in some place more interesting.

Well, this entry came out all wrong and I don't really have the peace of mind to correct it. I don't mean to suggest that academic study is the ultimate value of a poet (though it is starting to seem that way at times); I suppose I go back to a very childish, Harold-Bloom-like issue: Why isn't he considered a great you know "important" American poet? Sorry about the jumbled thoughts.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I presented on Edson at the Pop Culture Conference last February--I was the only person in the room who had even heard of him. (Two of the other people on the panel taught creative writing &/or poetry).

3:38 PM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

I think the best think re Edson is to buy his Collected. Read some of the middle third and then put the book away for a long time. Perhaps even then, for better or for worse, the ape will find its way into your thoughts and poems.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I published a book of 118 epigrams a few years back, each epigram dedicated to a "living" U.S. poet (a few have since passed away). Here is the one about Russell Edson:

Russell Edson

A man is beating a dead horse in his living room. “I’m going to beat the shit out of you,”
he screams, beating it, repeatedly, with an implement. The years go by. Literary magazines rise and fall. The horse shrinks down to a mummified chalk. All the furniture in the room goes out of fashion. “I’m going to beat the shit out of you,” screams the man. “I’m going to beat the fucking living shit out of you, you motherfucking horse.”

5:36 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

And actually (I could go on, but I won't), here is the one for Charles Simic, since Johannes mentions him, too:


Charles Simic

In this 19th century wood-cut
my Uncle Ratko bought in Calcutta,
the man stuck in the kayak
has come to cut a
figure like that of Charles Simic.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Max said...

American history is rife with examples of cultural progenitors forced to sit in the shadows of the figures they've influenced. I think what's at the heart of this outcome is the fact that notoriety has nothing at all to do with quality or talent or actual greatness or whatever you want to call it.

And I think the larger truth behind all this is that, in academia, quality, talent, actual greatness, or whatever, don't really have anything to do with whether something is considered "significant" or not. This "significance" is what determines academic value, not the "subjective merit" (as if all measures are not subjective) of the item.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

RE: monotony, rewriting etc, and Conceptual writing (and a bit of the email i just sent you; keyword: entropy) I think the big thing maybe (this is jumbled too, i apologise - i'll prob. reread it tomorrow and disagree with half of it) is Kenny Goldsmith. As i have said before, I love 111, but is he not rewriting the same book over and over, after abandoning the assemblage works of the numbered projects? I think there is only so far one can (maybe) go in that direction, before entropy and vacuum set in. And after seeing Sucking on Words on UBUweb my opinion of the whole project changed dramatically - he seemed so "high culture", like the works were a kind of cultural slumming ... the original sense of fun and play (akin to what one gets from Bruce Andrews) dissipated very fast, and were replaced by a sense of clinical, academic, distainful "Art-with-a-capital-A".
I'm reminded of a review of "Ezra Pound and Visual Culture" i read recently that said the book posits a connection between Fascism and Formalist criticism (then mentions Perloff), and I'll have to find out how that is argued. But it does gel somewhat, as in Radical Artifice where she attempts to force meaning onto McCaffery's Black Debt. There seems to be a similar power-play at work in Conceptual Writing, in spite of the seeming egalitarianism.

Shit, does any of that make sense?

And I suppose that a similar (Fascist-accusing) reading could be made of most of my favourite writers, who tend toward the hermetic.

I'm rambling, and waaay off topic. Sorry.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Two brief responses: 1. It's really easy to make parodies of people's styles, though I think the Edson is better than the Simic parody. 2. I don't have the impression that Edson was ever canonizedin the quietist-MFA world. He seems to have rather have been a funny weirdo world where quietists would slum once in a while. The evidence here being that when Bly and others tried to write Edson poems they would merely be silly, without the violence and perversion of Edson's work.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>It's really easy to make parodies of people's styles, though I think the Edson is better than the Simic parody.

Hi Johannes,

OK, thanks. Satire has been around for a while. Parody, a subset of the mode, has too. The Edson is a parody of his style on one level, obviously; the one for Simic is not really meant as a parody of his style, easily parodied as it can be (Simic's style is just as recycled as Edson's).

Most of the epigrams in that book are not parodies of style-- epigrams too short, in most instances, to do anything like that.


9:04 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Kent --

The thing is, after reading your Edson poem, I really felt like being the guy beating the horse.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Matt Walker said...

"Simic's style is just as recycled as Edson's"

Huh? How is Edson's style recycled?

10:19 PM  
Blogger Ross Brighton said...

I think the idea is that Edson's style *became* recycled, through his later work verging on self-parody.

And "Edson's Style" becoming a guise worn by later imitators.

And if you're into the horse thing, you might want to try emulating Kenny Goldsmith.

(I find myself ragging on him a bit recently, and there is an element of disingenuousness there. I'm not averse to parts of his work, and at times find myself quite liking things like Day, but its the person/a that grates. And the monolith of capitalised-Conceptual-Writing that becomes an exercise in "look-at-me-i'm-clever-ism".

5:38 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Anybody ever make the case that Edson was trying to to make Max Jacob into a sitcom? I would watch every episode of that sitcom.

I vote for Michael Brownstein's versions of Jacob, btw. I'm remembering MB's Brainstorms as a masterpiece - time to go to the storage space and see if I'm right.

8:21 AM  
Blogger John Gallaher said...

Edson has been championed over the years by Field magazine and Oberlin press, both of which also have an afinity for Jacob, etc.

There was a big Edson thing at AWP a couple years ago. Or maybe it was just last year. They blur. But Simic and Tate were there. No one said anything academic.

There was a pretty good size crowd. Edson read. Laughter and pathos.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yeah that sounds awful.

It might be as simple as his work doesn't work easily with current scholarly frameworks and that's where I get a lot of my impressions about canonicity from.


7:17 PM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Yes to Charles Simic. Yes to Edson as more interesting than the "mature" James Tate, as well (The Lost Pilot is another matter). Yes, even, to Johannes' point (it might be in another post above) that certain kinds of workshop discourage poets from soliciting criticism (because the poem should explain itself). But the sort of poem Edson writes, if not Edson himself, has indeed attracted academic critics of contemporary poetry, as John Gallaher implies, including some smart ones-- just not the same ones who write about, say, Hejinian or Lisa Robertson (or Deleuze or the idea of canonicity). Do you know Alan Williamson's book Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (from the early 1980s), or Paul Breslin's ill-tempered but on-target The Psycho-Political Muse (also from the 1980s), or David Wojahn's collection of essays? All good examples of academic critics who have something to say about post-surrealist (yet another post, I know) writings from the 1970s and 1980s, from a direction that's not at all post- neo- avant, nor institutional critique. Finally, if you like Edson, do you have to like Norman Dubie?

9:25 PM  

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