Cellar Notes: An Introduction
Again, what's the theme?" my friend, the painter Stephen Henriques, asked. We had just enjoyed a tasty sidewalk lunch blocks from his studio in San Francisco's Richmond District. That we should be meeting to choose from his recent work a cover for this issue of
Ploughshares seemed natural. Two books of mine --
Things Ain't What They Used to Be and
Heaven: Collected Poems 1956-1990 -- sport stunning Henriques covers. Time had ripened us both for the picking.
"Believers," I told him. "The theme is
Believers. When I mentioned it over the phone to Barry Gifford -- the guy who wrote
Wild at Heart -- Barry said, 'Believers in what?' "
"Oh, yes," Steve said. "Now I remember. You had to change it from something else to
Believers, didn't you?"
"Right. Originally, the theme I'd wanted was
Ploughshares editors told me I was going to have a hard time with that. They said they don't get many celebrative submissions."
"Why do you suppose that is?"
"It's complicated," I said. Thirty years in the lit biz, and I was mulling it over. "But some of it, I know, boils down to fashion."
While Steve and I wandered around his studio, chatting and looking at paintings, many of which had been created under the influence of music -- current jazz, Latino rhythms, soloists, classic combos -- portions of me couldn't help but drift.
Memory snatched me back thirty years to my coffeehouse and nightclub days, when my performing repertoire had included a brisk little ditty called "Putting on the Agony, Putting on the Style." But then I zigzagged forward to the night in the early Reagan era at a Washington, D.C., jukebox tavern, where DeWitt Henry had first approached me about guest-editing an issue. Along with writers William Fox and Beverly Lowry, we were teaching the lovely, legally blind poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg to dance. I told DeWitt I wouldn't mind doing a parody number. Even then, I'd felt the way I feel now about life, the spirit, and imagination, all of which were slowly disappearing, it seemed, from American writing.
"I try to get with it," Trude had told us that night in D.C. "I experiment with open forms and breath lines and visual layouts -- what everyone else is doing. But, for some reason, I always seem to end up working in iambic pentameter. I'm hopeless."
"You've found your groove," I said. "At least you aren't doing Adrienne Rich or Richard Hugo imitations. Or Ray Carver or Jayne Anne Phillips or Bobbie Ann Mason imitations. I hate what's going on in writing these days."
I still ask myself: What is it that's been strip-mining our poetry and fiction of its originality, the level of vitality that once distinguished our literature the world over? Is it the formulaic, art-by-consensus approach of creative writing workshops? Is it the rush to publish on the part of emerging writers, forced to view publication as an adjunct to advancement in a teaching career?
Besides the ubiquitous and, in basic ways, iniquitous influence of television, perhaps the bleak and flickering outlook of North American life itself has flattened and short-circuited our "imaginative" writers. After all, as a nation we have become almost robotically solipsistic and ostrich-like-to say nothing of cynical -- since the Vietnam era. Would that explain the sense of sluggish withdrawal and self-entrenchment I get from cruising our main lit mags and journals? Whether cooked up or microwaved or, in any case, nuked like a standup comedy monologue, such fodder -- waggishly termed McPoetry, McFiction, or McCommentary -- is commonly delivered in the fragile, inorganic Styrofoam container of the present tense. But even Big Macs and Whoppers need grease, a little salt, a little onion, and some measure of "secret ingredients."
"I write the literary equivalent of a Big Mac," Stephen King once told an exacting interviewer.
Stephen King was one of the novelists my students and I wolfed down and nibbled in "Art & Trash," an oversized course I conducted at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1989. That spring we also read and discussed Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon, Charles Johnson, James D. Houston, Richard Wiley, and Anne Rice. The idea was to determine for ourselves what separated straight-ahead, best-seller storycraft and storytelling from the artful, serious kind. What put those feelie-cover paperbacks of John Updike, Toni Morrison, Scott Turow, Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow, and Alice Walker right up there on supermarket racks and airport gift shelves alongside Belva Plain, Robert Ludlum, Mary Higgins Clark, and Elmore Leonard? At the same time, Amy Tan, Terry McMillan, Rosellen Brown, Jimmy Buffett, and Ivana Trump were offstage, fixing to get in the mix.
Summarily, what the class came up with was this: There appears to have been a time when our best storytellers were also our best writers. Late in the twentieth century, however, a schism occurred: it became Creative Writing vs. Literature Lite. The nation began to produce fiction writers who were virtual pyrotechnicians and eloquent crafters of language, but who couldn't quite seem to tell a story. At the other extreme, we churned out gripping pop storytellers who often seemed oddly insensitive, neglectful, or just plain downright ignorant when it came down to questions of language or character development or thematic depth. The breakdown is simplistic, of course: many writers fall into neither camp. And students, like many of the readers they interviewed at supermarkets, actually prefer good writing
As for poetry, not many of us realize that it used to appeal to a much larger audience -- collections selling far more than the two thousand copies considered respectable today. The poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, e. e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg comes to mind. Many readers whose poetry adventure or experience began with Khalil Gibran's
The Prophet or with Rod McKuen's
Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows moved on to "heavier" or headier stuff.
And, don't forget, had it not been for the nearly 100,000 copies sold of
Fruits & Vegetables, her maiden poetry collection, Erica Jong may not have gotten that contract with Holt for her smash novel
Fear of Flying. As a Holt author myself at the time, publishing novels and books of poetry,
I haven't forgotten. Nor have I forgotten how Nikki Giovanni -- America's most widely known and translated poet in the early 1980s -- kicked off her career and moved 80,000 copies of her first book by hawking a broadside for one dollar apiece at readings. Poet Dana Gioia's invaluable analysis of the poetry scene, which prompted his eloquent call for the deprivatization of poetry ("Can Poetry Matter?,"
The Atlantic, May 1991) remains accurate and resonant.
During a 1990 lecture and reading tour of Bangladesh and India, sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency's Arts America Program, I thought a great deal about Mr. Gioia's observations and prescriptive comments. During the question-and-answer segment that followed my talks throughout the subcontinent-Dhaka, Bombay, Bhopal, Madras, Bangalore, New Delhi, and in the countryside and remote provinces -- high school and university students and their teachers and professors routinely inquired, "What's going on in your country, Mr. Young? The only stories and poems we read that tell us anything about everyday life in the United States come from the blacks, the Latinos, the Asian Americans . . . Others, the whites, the majority -- whatever they are called now -- their writing often seems so disconnected from the country's problems we read about. Why are American writers so coded, so . . . so private?"
Inevitably, I dealt with this question by pointing out that culture is the most valuable product any society produces. In South Asia, this truth required no explanation or embellishment. And, since Bangladeshis and Indians understand that art is thoroughly reflective of a given culture, it was easy to remind those attending my presentations that the short stories one reads in
The New Yorker, in annuals, and in literary journals do indeed mirror the consciousness of a segment of America that has, in fact, disconnected itself. Not only do many of the poets and writers in the U.S. take no interest in what's going on in the rest of the world, many truly neither know nor notice what's going on in their own country. Psychologically, it sometimes feels as though we've suffered excessively from the corporate dismemberment of awareness and its deep-freezing of consciousness.
"There was even a time," I told an audience in Bhopal, where thousands had died or sustained serious injuries in a Union Carbide industrial accident, "when our fiction and poetry were overrun with brand names such as K-Mart and Gucci and Sony. We Americans tend to identify ourselves with brand-name products and the images they project. So much so, that people who drive a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz automobile actually think they're superior to anyone who drives a less expensive car, or takes the bus or the subway, or walks.
"This goes on in the art world, too. Many novice poets and fiction writers think it's important to plug into a going style or sound. And this is fine, while you're still learning your art, your craft -- the tricks and all. But the late Seventies and Eighties seem to have killed off the idea of originality, as well as the idea of mastering something classic. More than ever in American life now, focus is on the so-called individual and on individual personality. Once writers grow rich or famous, they're imitated."
Toward the close of 1992, while I was winding up a teaching visit at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and poring over the scores of
Ploughshares submissions posted batch by batch from Boston, Knopf brought out an intriguing new book called
The Art of Celebration: 20th Century Painting, Literature, Sculpture, Photography, and Jazz. Written by Alfred Appel, Jr., Professor of English and American culture at Northwestern, this exuberant testament to the health and well-being of the celebrative urge in modern art prompted, to my surprise, a full-page review in
The New York Times Book Review. "To be as unabashedly enthusiastic as Mr. Appel takes courage," wrote art scholar Nicholas Fox Wever. "But he is determined in his goal of shattering the 'tired half-truth' that modernism is 'unfathomably abstract and obscure.' He treats as the enemy 'the newest academic fog banks' that obscure the more joyous, life-embracing sides of recent art. Instead, he explores the ways that certain artistic achievements of this century represent connection more than severance -- their links to archaic sources and to myriad exciting aspects of everyday life."
Writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, and jazz musicians, by the jetload, are pouring out of college and university Masters of Fine Arts programs, where I myself sometimes teach. Cheek by jowl with literary scholars and theorists, musicologists, art historians, and aestheticians, these artists-to-be are studying their craft. I theorize that this late twentieth-century development might explain why yea-saying exuberance and heart-on-sleeve inventiveness have become so hard to locate. I mean the kinds of life-endorsing oomph and zest that make art in all its forms so inconceivably affecting -- from those undatable, unbeatable cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux, to the head of Nefertiti, Chaucer, Li Po, and Noh plays, to kachina dolls, Mozart, tango, cakewalk, Georgia O'Keeffe, Sergei Eisenstein, and the room-moving, soul-bracing sound of Dexter Gordon's tenor saxophone.
That's why I was so pleased to discover, after I'd picked the poems and stories for this issue, that all the work had something in common: reverence; passionate beliefs and loves.
I tried to explain as much to Stephen Henriques in his studio, where an LP recording of youthful Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba was spinning on a new Roksan super-turntable, weaving fresh, beguiling webs of sound that rose and swayed and quivered, then hovered. "You can check it out for yourself," I told Steve. "Writers were putting across something they either believed
believed ! And I love that. Passion, emotion, and sentiment are pretty much considered passé nowadays. One poet even apologized in advance for the passion in one of the poems she submitted; she knew most editors would disapprove."
"Amazing," said Steve. "And it's funny, too. That's what I'm all about -- passion and feeling. And color and rhythm."
At that, we stopped and zeroed in on the music. The astonishing Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whom Dizzy Gillespie had encouraged during visits to Cuba, was thrilling us with his take on John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."
"Well," I said, "you remember what Lester Young said about that?"
" 'Invention is a mother!' That's what Prez said."
Steve got to his feet. "Oh, man," he sighed, "you don't have to remind me. I listen to this stuff and start painting to it, trying to capture what I'm hearing and feeling and remembering and seeing. It's funny, when I started painting full time, I had to learn how to paint all over again."
"How do you mean?"
"You know how it is. You paint your way through art school, then you have to learn to unpaint."
I reached for my camera; it was snapshot time. I wanted to get some pictures of Stephen Henriques's studio just as it was, before the afternoon had reached the last of its groove, and time flipped over into twilight.
"Hey," Steve yelled from another room, "take all the pictures you want. I'll get the slides I've already made of this new stuff. But be thinking about what you want for a cover."
Believers, I thought one more time, then clicked and flashed my way around the room.