Monday, April 03, 2006

Letter from Lopate

Phillip Lopate has been considerate enough to respond to the ULA's challenge with a full-page single-spaced snail letter addressed, "Dear Underground Literary Alliance."

Noteworthy is that Lopate argues not from a position of strength-- that he and his colleagues are good poets who deserve to be on the Miller Hall stage-- but from their own weakness. Further, the scheduled presentation is apparently an unfortunate mistake!

Jason Shinder accidentally happened to get a book contract to put together a "Howl" anthology, and happened to accidentally ask fellow academy writer Lopate to contribute. That neither is in any way a Beat poet wasn't a consideration. "--I have never ever presented myself as a Beat, or an inheritor of the Beat mantle-- quite the contrary," Lopate writes. The refined delicate characters who'll be on the Miller Hall stage celebrating "Howl" turn out to be innocent bystanders! ("Beats? No, we're not Beats, never said we were in any way related to Beats!" they proclaim.)

The culprit must then be book corp Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, for designating a line-up of literary usual suspects to take charge of the anthology-- the Miller Hall event part of the publicity. Which in no way detracts from the purpose of the ULA's counter-reading. It intensifies our purpose, I'd say.

The puppets dancing to the publisher's strings scream to us that they're only helpless puppets!, not responsible for anything-- and so we should let them be.

The latter part of Lopate's letter argues that Allen Ginsberg "willingly ended up in the academy. . . ." What does this have to do with "Howl," first read by the poet back in 1955! Given a choice between a young, rebellious Elvis or the later drugged and bloated version, Lopate makes the wrong selection-- and misses the entire point. His argument to me is a celebration of the Company Man lifestyle which the young Ginsberg rebelled against. (Lopate also takes a shot at Kerouac drinking himself to death, and Neal Cassady dying on railroad tracks: icing on his conformist cake.) Lopate posits only two choices for writers: embrace the System, if you can, or die. He insists that writers like Ginsberg are readily co-opted by the Establishment, "because there isn't enough writing of genius to go around . . . and the Establishment, who are no dumbies, know that."

In fact, members of the Establishment, who are indeed "dumbies," have no idea how many writers of genius are outside their walls, because they're actively hostile to them. Have they read James Nowlan's Security, Frank Walsh's "Reagan's Brain" (its squelching by U of Penn a story in itself), or any number of significant underground works of today? Ginsberg's "Howl" itself is a classic example of Establishment cluelessness. One of the author's own former professors, Lionel Trilling, scorned the work when Ginsberg sent it to him to read. Only AFTER the Beats became a national phenomenon, thanks to sympathetic anarchist critic Kenneth Rexroth and to their own self-promotional abilities-- the excitement THEY THEMSELVES generated-- did the establishment eventually tardily embrace them.

Phillip Lopate, re-read your history! What kind of inaccurate tales do you teach?

Two sentences in the letter stand out above the rest to me. FIRST, when Lopate writes, "Neither is my work 'tame'. . . ."
It's not? I've not encountered an academic writer yet whose work WASN'T tame-- or at least its presentation. But I come from not so narrow a perspective as Phillip Lopate, the mouthpiece of the academy where everything is neat, ordered, polite, predictable, and safe. One can see from the posts on this blog that the underground is a contentious place. Poets battle at open mics and some take who wins or shows best very seriously. Some congenial souls are known to heckle futilely, or, in temper tantrums, publicly destroy another's writing! Contentious but also entertaining-- the kind of contention and entertainment the ULA brings, which the literary world badly needs.

Phillip Lopate, you and your work are very tame. Only by reading against us could you demonstrate otherwise.

SECOND, when Lopate writes, "--writers write in large part to reach out to readers unlike themselves; and it was the genius of Ginsberg to have been able to touch the lives of the 'safe' as well as the alienated, the academics and professionals as well as those hospitalized with shock treatment."

This sentence is a contradiction on two scores. Academy writers like Lopate write ONLY for readers like themselves. It's the essence of the MFA education: creating a built-in audience for whom refined "literary" stories and poems are easily digested. What readers does the Academy of American Poets, sponsor of the event, reach out to? The man on the street? No way! They've taken lifeless academic poetry into their fortress of bureaucracy, in so doing withdrawing it away from the people.

The other contradiction: the Miller Hall event is geared exactly toward the "safe," "the academics and professionals" Lopate mentions-- not toward any other body of people. It's the way of all such presentations. That evening "the alienated" will be reading outside.

"I will not try to compete with you in howling April 17th," Lopate concludes in his letter to the ULA.

No shit! What a terrible surprise.

12 comments:

King said...

I have to admit I knew very little about Phillip Lopate going into this-- I assumed he was a poet, but seems to be mainly an essayist. (I now recall hearing his name.)
In his letter, Lopate describes how he must work four teaching jobs in order to feed his family.
A little checking shows that all is not quite what it seems.
Lopate not only is adjunct professor at three of the most elite schools in the country-- Columbia, Bennington, and the New School (all with tremendous influence in the world of writing), he also holds some kind of well-funded Chair at Hofstra University.
Does this mean he's tenured-- high salaried and set for life? Someone answer this for me please.
It all adds up to Phillip Lopate being an Insider's Insider-- a very influential literary personality behind the scenes.
For all that, I can't say the guy is very bright. The arguments in his letter were as easily sliced to pieces as a sharp knife cutting through cake.
Is this the best the System has to offer?
No wonder they fear the ULA!

King said...

(Needless to say, Lopate has also been the recipient of many grants such as the Guggenheim and the NEA.)

Jeff Potter said...

Too bad Lopate doesn't see this as a chance for a little sporting competition. He could take a little time out and bust out some of his wilder stuff out on the stairs. He might surprise us, or himself. He doesn't have to win. We'd give him props for a good effort. A prof is a bit of a performer. You'd think it'd be fun to do some loud stuff with undergrounders for a change. He wouldn't even have to go out of his way, to some time-wasting dive. We'll be RIGHT THERE.

(What's the entry fee for this fancy Howl event? I've seen two wildly varying prices.)

Ricky Joe Sanchez said...

I must admit that I didn't know I was stealing my own identity! Never knew anyone would want titles such as prison rec. leader, rail car shovel outer, or be known for working on Grime's pig farm...whoa boy...uh huh.

jimmy the hyena said...

would this letter be declared well written if judged by the normal nitpicking academic standards. "never ever" ? I think should be "never ever whever shwever thever ever" "inheritor of the Beat mantle"? I'd prefer "reluctant recipient of leperous legacy" "'safe' as well as the 'alienated'" right now "alienated" is the "safest" place to be and they never were entirely mutually exclusive there were always the alienated amongst the safe but of course they wouldn't have been very safe amongst the alienated and this shock treatment it's reaching out to the academics professionals etc; or just the hospitalised and they are hospitalised "with" shock treatment? it's not a condition is it? or is that something that's said? "He's hospitalized with shock treatment the poor safe alienated academic professional beat mantle inheriting fellow" wouldn't a herr doktor proffesor get out his gross rotes bleistief and write
"Confusing"

chapman said...

it's never good when famous and well-connected guys have to tell you how little money they make, and how just last night at the party at somebody's york avenue pied-a-terre they had to scrape through the back of the leather sofa looking for spare change to get the subway fare back to brooklyn heights. they're lying to themselves more than they're lying to you.

philip does good-selling anthologies for like doubleday. and his brother leonard has had a lit-chat show on WNYC radio for years. well-connected you bet. i don't know about the chair thing, but it sounds well-compensated.

but being an adjunct professor is a sucky gig. it's almost the same as being a teaching assistant. they don't get paid well, get no benefits, etc. i don't know why he would do it unless he had to. maybe he has six ex-wives to support or something?

- Leopold said...

Ditto with everything said above, plus: Hey, maybe he doesn't get paid much. Still, it's a bit rich for him to use that to say he has no power. I can gauruntee 99.9% of ULAers, who also have NO power with the the lit elites, make less. AND we're out there fighting for change. His lousy salary, real or imagined, doesn't cut the excuse he thinks it does.

jimmy the hyena said...

by the way doesn't "lo pate" mean "the dough" in provençal?

Ricky Joe Sanchez said...

dunno....but in the South it's a crewcut....
hee hee hee hee!!!!

Ricky Joe Sanchez said...

personally, I don't care how you wear your hair.

We're lookin' at other stuff.

jimmy the hyena said...

Lopate est trop prés à Lopette.

Ricky Joe Sanchez said...

betcha can't say that three times...