Louis XV’s lover, Madame de Pompadour, said it best and most romantically.  And who could blame her, after all she did for architecture, the decorative arts, and Voltaire?  She dressed in pink to go with her pink phaeton and to catch the King’s eye; he brought her venison and dressed as a yew tree.  But that pregnant phrase has another, biting meaning for Marx; a sorrowful, lonely one for D.H. Lawrence.  And yet another for many groups of poets I’ve known.

I will admit I am old-fashioned in the sense that I like my avant-garde art served with a side of continuity.  And I have found America—poetic America—a place of dogmatism, in which one must pledge allegiance to a style, a group style even, amounting to an ideology.  The so-called “language poets,” or to type it as they prefer, in sheer semiotics, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” were said to have (newly) disrupted the lyric “I”.  And I say, Good for them!  That “I” needs to be poked, to be made to blink, every so often.  Let it shed tears, the more so as it specializes in mourning and loss.  But are persons who continue to write as Roethke did, as Elizabeth Bishop, be shouted down as naïve tourists taking postcards of volcanoes off the rack?

Pound showed us the value of rupture, with his Vorticism, with Futurism.  I would have found him unspeakably tedious.  I might have whacked him with my youthful man’s walking cane.  Yet I read most of the Cantos.  Was there a man more deeply indebted to the classics than him?  He made me wish I’d paid more attention in Greek and Latin class as a a boy.  The man cannot disrupt in fewer than three or four ancient languages.

We French have been as bad as anyone about these coteries that somehow become “schools.”  Yet there is a clear line of succession from Baudelaire to Mallarmé to Breton.  They might as well have had the same bloodstock.

Mallarmé’s surprising “Un coup de des,” is prefaced with modesty, when he declares that “the ensuing words, laid out as they are, lead on to the last, with no novelty except the spacing of the text.”  He derives from Baudelaire, and in his turn, will usher in, perhaps unwittingly, Breton.  Our habit of overthrowing our predecessors is more in the way of a strong disagreement at a family reunion.  That “throw of the dice,” the herald of modernism,” has not, for me, yet been surpassed.  It fractured time, but then it healed time.

Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hazard

A throw of the dice will never abolish chance

Yet may we remember those choice sonnets of his?  The ones certain parties would deride as fin de siécle?  As if by one century merely ending, innovation will appear in the next.  The end of the century is just as likely the herald of apocalypse. And everyone these days, it seems, wants to be the first into the fire.  One of my favorites of Mallarmé’s sonnets begins thus:

Victoriously the grand suicide fled
Foaming blood, brand of glory, gold, tempest!
O laughter if only to royally invest
My absent tomb purple, down there, is spread.

Yes, I want to be interred in this purple tomb, be its color ever so gaudy.  It is so caught up in beautiful excess it has no time for the quarrels of others, their backward-looking, bleary-eyed derision of its quaintness.

And Breton, that genius of impudence, one can easily imagine him looking backward at Mallarmé, but clear-eyed, smiling, addressing him directly:

In the inviolate darkness
I anticipate once more the fascinating rift occurring
The one and only rift
In the facade and in my heart
The closer I come to you
In reality
The more the key sings at the door of the unknown room
Where you appear alone before me.

That is honor.  That is realism.  He looks askance only to draw nearer to his putative foe.  That is—dare I say it?—manners.  Even as we disrupt, explode, even throw our fists and swear, we must recognize that this need to slay those around us, and before us, as something of a tantrum among educated people pretending to be precocious brats.  So I say to the Hejinians, the Bernsteins, the Antins, the Armantrouts, and their legions of successors—for yes, there are now many thousands at the helms and in the pages of magazines and presses—It was all done before you came along.  You added flour to the roux, no doubt, but you staged no revolution by putting equal signs between a kindergartner’s alphabet blocks.

So to say, Après nous, le déluge, is simply to overreach.  In these days of « branding » I personally prefer not to have a brand.  Perhaps I am only derivative, but in each of my books, I change my style, like a man who lives in one rental house after another.  The process for me is one of constant self-reinvention, devoid of one-upmanship.  I don’t want to stay in one place; less run the risk of getting grouped with someone else, other than those predecessors I acknowledge, and those fellow poet-travelers whose preferences and tastes are unlike mine, so there is no chance of us claiming an ideology together.  I consider this stubbornly non-commital streak a virtue.  None of us is, or ever can be, the apotheosis of our art, and less so by banding together like cave dwellers cursing a lightning storm.  I love no one so much as a contrarian.  Even more, the one who will reject my devotion to his or her contrarian streak.