Geography and Genealogy
“You speak of Mr. Whitman—I never read his book—but was told that he was disgraceful—“
–Emily Dickinson, to T.W. Higginson, 25 April 1862
So where do you fall? Walt or Emily?
I have loved Walt, but Emily not so much. The latter has been my secret shame for years. My most respected friend-poets have professed deep, persistent love for her. “I found her closest to my own mind,” sayeth one1. “Walt sucks and Emily is the Queen,” sayeth another1.
I was recently on a panel in New Jersey on “poetry and place” that quickly turned into a discussion on genealogy—more specifically, one audience member’s genealogy. I was irritated, with the irritation taking the edge off the boredom, and that irritation stemmed partly from that I’m lately and universally irritated by insistence on genes due to my personal circumstances of building a family not based on bloodline, but also as a very loosely termed “ecopoet” (and that’s a whole other blog post), at place being equated with descent within locale.
I wanted to initially blame my coolness toward ED on geography. When we first made our acquaintance, I was living in New Orleans, and to be snared by the cool cadences of Western Massachusetts while speculating whether the masked King of Comus was sacrificed on the last night of Mardi Gras was just too ridiculous. My concurrent homesickness for NYC’s overpopulation and construction sites maybe drew me to WW instead. Or perhaps I found camaraderie in his work habits—his filing system was a floor strewn with papers and when he wanted to find something, he would poke around with his cane until it surfaced2. ED’s house was nice, if a bit bare, and I especially liked the staircase, imagining her at the top, a disembodied voice conversing with visitors at the bottom. Her brother’s house, on the other hand, was more alluringly unrenovated with, as Brenda Coultas would put it, “the magnificent bones of time” sticking out all over.
But Henry David Thoreau never went much beyond Massachusetts either, and I count him in my “blood” lines. Lines in poetry are tricky things to tabulate—while I appreciate the fascination with tracing who fits where in poetic trees, I also find it a complete fallacy. Strange meetings, chance correspondences, stray books read—all dilute descent. Fathers and mothers and sisters and aunts and brothers and cousins can be who shows up at a reading. I once contemplated an academic career in Renaissance poetry, with a thesis on John Donne and Clark Coolidge. Wouldn’t that have been a hoot? Every poet reads and likes someone unexpected. I was surprised to learn that Allen Ginsberg was so interested in Ezra Pound. And that both Ginsberg and John Ashbery looked to the ancient Finnish epic, The Kalevala. During my time working at the Poetry Project, there was always a surprise to be had in terms of who “knew” (ahem) whom.
You’ve got to publicly declare yourself as part of a “school” to permanently establish ancestry I think. Sort of like a self-stamped birth certificate. But I often think of Mondrian secretly sketching flowers while trumpeting his distaste for anything green. Establishing a poetic lineage smacks of purification, of many other exclusions, and poets who have been excluded because of gender, race, sexual orientation may find themselves doubly or triply excluded because they read “off the list.” The binary of WW and ED is a false one—even a brief browse of America A Prophecy3 will show that. But, on the other hand, the game of tracing lineages—even if doing so hints of obsession with establishing paternity—keeps the “solitary rebel genius” myth, which can be equally irritating, at bay.
1 Names have been changed to protect the innocent
2 Not that my house is messy
3 America A Prophecy: A new reading of American poetry from Pre-Columbian times, eds. George Quasha and Jerome Rothenberg. Out of print!