Charles Plymell on Robert Peters – What Peters Means To Me

I’ve never been that big of an advocate of “oral” poetry (in fact it suggested sex to my dirty mind). Nor did I care that much for “voice” or “performance” poetry, which always suggested to me a way to present otherwise dull poetry where everyone bows their head to the grave task of “understanding.” I thought of it as more arts org decoration because no one knew what real poetry was when funding it, so applause would thus take cues from Jerry Springer with all the slam and “stuff.” I am old fashioned enough to know that in black ink the love of poetry still shines bright. So what do I get in the mail but the new wave of the future of publishing: a cd of the recorded voice; a little booklet of poems; the photo of the poet’s life all in one neat little package! i revised my thinking on the topic. Maybe it WAS important to hear the old Celtic tremble of Yeats, or the dramatic sculpted prosody of Pound in recordings. So here is the gift of the voice of Robert Peters, Professor Emeritus who is probably the last academic scholar and real voice in American poetry to be heard.
His accomplishment in critical analysis would awaken a Ford Maddox Ford. For decades he has made the academe tremble with his witty iconoclastic, intense and diverse critical work on American poetry, its poets, its pedagogy, its ultimate aesthetic. He has shown no mercy. I remember the subliminal courage he gave to my colleague, John Norton, a slight man tough as nails, on a cane since birth, who with me went to hear Robert Penn Warren read from his new volume imitating Native Americans to a packed hot house of academic elites. When Josh and I were classmates in Baltimore…I whispered to Josh that it was very stuffy breathing all that dead air and a window should be opened. After the esteemed poet finished one of his heady poems, Josh got up and banged his cane demanding fresh air in the room. Josh had read the Peters’ essay on Penn Warren classifying his new volume as UGH poetry!
Peters’ many books of criticism such as Hunting the Snark, classification and commentary of American Poetry at the century’s end, or Where the Bee Sucks: Workers, Drones and Queens of Contemporary American Poetry were examples of his many books that have been methodically suppressed over the years out of fear of what he might have said about his contemporaries. Just before I picked up his cd book in the mail, I had been visiting college classes and had given a poetry reading. When I walked down the dead halls of the English Department, I saw again, the image I had known through the years when a poet visited and professors peeked from cubicles and offices through trolling doors with oblique glances at the alien among them. I had to laugh to myself thinking of the time Robert came to visit us in the D.C. area when I was teaching part time in the area’s colleges, that semester at the two Georges: Washington and Mason, where he was embarrassed by the pink round wintered co-ed bodies in the first spring sunlight practicing ballet. Instead of dining with the faculty he suggested we stop at an Asian vegetable stand and get some items, He proceeded to eat the raw head of cabbage like one eats an apple.
Still amused at my thoughts of him I visualized his large daunting figure striding through the halls of the English Department in California on his way to class carrying his briefcase and an armload of books while timid professors poached and peeked with averted glance. I laugh and visualize him thusly as the Vikings in the ad on TV “What’s in Your Wallet!”
Also in the mail was my alumni magazine and I thought again of Robert Peters when I read an article about Professor Gildersleeve, John Hopkins first teacher, who had heard in a hotel in Baltimore, Poe recite “The Raven.” He said his voice was pleasant, nothing dramatic about his recitation and was sensitive to the music of his own verses that he emphasized in his delivery. This made me think what a valuable thing to hear the old poets, the masters’ voices in Peters, Yeats and Pound and others that would have been otherwise lost of not available as in Poe. I was reminded of Peter’s scholarly essays examining his subjects prosody calling attention to half rhymes and devices of which I was unaware even in my own work. What a reward to hear the old poet’s voice.
It is also rewarding to hear Peter’s selections from his immense repertoire. His many volumes that always take on something new. His “seance poetry” that Michael McClure calls his brilliant award-winning volumes of the voices of Ann Lee, the Shaker leader, King Ludwig, the Blood Countess of John Dillinger. For this new format he has selections too, from his many volumes. He’s the last scholar I know who is hip to every gimmick in modern poetry and has tried it all and in this set even digs into his biographical works, into the maw that makes the squeamish wring their hands. He knows the found poems, the ego poems, the catatonic Surrealist poems all the ones he has written about, labeled and many times practiced what he preached. He connects it all from the poem of antiquity to found poems of the scraps we pen today. I’m reminded of him again in the words of the first professor Gildersleeve who said: “Scrap knowledge is the band of many scholars. Not to see a thing in its connections is to not see it at all.” Peter’s greatness was not seen for the reasons I have suggested that shape contemporary poetry. In this new format, he throws a lifeline to those who are drowning in the scrap heap of today’s poetry. -Charles Plymell

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