Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master (Kevin Prufer / Michael Dumanis, editors)

Russell Atkins didn't stick to the script. At a time (say, 1950-1980) when most African-American poets were somewhat understandably focused on the literary expression of socio-political themes, Atkins, born in 1926 in Cleveland and still alive there today, insisted on remaining what he had started as, a knotty formalist. This lost him some support in the black writing community, although he had his defenders too: the debate over the value of Atkins' writing may be characterized as a micro-controversy. With the publication of this new volume in Pleiades Press's "Unsung Masters" series, that controversy lives again.

Is Atkins, scarcely referred to in literary histories and seldom anthologized, to take his place among the recognized poets of the mid-20th Century? He has an undoubted position as an out-and-out experimentalist among African-American writers, but that in itself would not be enough to secure his status. This "Unsung Masters" volume is a bid for Atkins' canonicity, and on my view is a near-miss in that regard. But time will tell.

The volume collects 39 poems by Atkins, a manifesto, an essay, and a poetic drama, along with a critical introduction and six additional essays about his work by academics and poets. Embedded within these pages, and especially the various essays, there is plenty of evidence of a dispute over not just Atkins' output, but over what African-American literature in general is or should be. The essayists here are all champions of Atkins and by extension, of his pronouncedly aesthetic-purist stance on the question. But they quote from his detractors, including an anonymous 1969 reviewer for Negro World - "Brother Atkins [is] not a blkman dealing with his history as he should be about doing (blkartists are responsible to the blkcommunity)" - and poet Kirby Congdon - "He chooses to write in a [way that]...comes off as pretentious and unnatural...We don't think...that the sadness lies in our neglect of [Atkins]; but rather in his neglect of us."

Atkins himself has fueled the controversies. He has been explicitly audience-disdaining, and has spelled out his rejections of poetry-as-communication, linguistic clarity, "economical" and "ordinary" language (which he associated with William Carlos Williams), "sense," "meaning," and "insights," and poetry that "convinces" or "works," in favor of mannerism, self-indulgence, "conspicuous technique," and the poem-as-object (he was a pioneer in concrete poetry). Some of these manifesto positions (he was associated with two such documents, in 1964 and 1991) read defensively, as does his criticism of Henry Dumas' choices of "subject matter" rooted in feelings about "injustices."

Atkins' tone overall is irresistibly reminiscent of the infamous 1958 High Fidelity article by his near-contemporary, composer Milton Babbitt, entitled (not by its author) "Who Cares If You Listen?" It is, frankly, a little pissy. There are ample hints scattered throughout this book that Atkins was raised by his mother and older female relations with a sense of entitlement, and that he nursed this throughout his life. For example, he expressed great annoyance with the notion of earning a living, and apparently seldom came close to it, once quitting a part-time job when it threatened to become full-time. (To be fair, he was industrious with respect to his avant-garde activities, such as co-editing the little journal Free Lance.)

Atkins was a composer himself and deeply involved with music, although along different lines than Babbitt. In fact, the literal centerpiece of this "Unsung Masters" volume is his 1955 essay "A Psychovisual Perspective for 'Musical' Composition," which he set great store by and which is referred to admiringly in several of the critical essays. In my opinion, reliance upon this essay in putting forward a case for Atkins is quite problematic. It is cranky and eccentric, difficult to follow, and reads as the work of a writer who has not quite mastered the type of philosophical language he wishes to use. There is the germ of a partial insight in the essay's insistence that music is as much or more a visual as an aural art, relying on "spatial relationships" that we cannot help perceiving and describing visually (a tone is "higher" or "lower"). But the tone becomes unhinged when Atkins resorts to shouting capitals:

THE PSYCHOVISUALIST CANNOT TAKE SERIOUSLY ANYTHING WRITTEN FOR THE EAR...Can serious composers honestly compose FOR such an organ as the ear?

I would very much like to hear some of Atkins' largely unperformed music, but this essay cannot be said to represent him well. Several assertions are made that it was admired and championed by composer Stepan Wolpe, Music Review editor Geoffrey Sharp, and various enthusiastic Europeans - but I can't help noticing the lack of any documentation offered for these claims.

And what of Atkins' poetry, Exhibit A? He strikes me as a decent poet of the second rank. He developed a manner and tricks which he perhaps over-relied on, such as appending apostrophe-d ('d) to almost any word. Or perhaps it would be fair to say, that since such great kindred poets as Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Ivor Gurney also over-relied on their manners and tricks, that there isn't enough energy in Atkins' writing to distract the reader from that over-reliance.

Atkins also has an odd but unmistakable affinity with Louis and Celia Zukofsky's translations of Catullus, which most of his poetry predates. I don't know if the Zukofskys may have read him, but it is certainly possible.

An early Atkins poem, "Elegy to a Hurt Bird that Died," is so Hopkins as to amount to pastiche:

I suppose you suppose that yon of little burial
Is non of? Rather it is of universal o'er
Unvast because it unvast looks?

Later his voice became more recognizably his, but he has a tendency to overdo it, as in "World'd Too Much (Irritable Song)":

Bus hollows on       of back windows
awidth'd with oxygen, gust'd,
crosswise of neglect, a joyous'd
foregone of seats, the while a beer can's
joust'd about the floor's rubbish'd
and a driver's on the last run
as of fatal'd alone -
          how such cheerfuls me!
then someone boards
          there's always somebody

Neither of those is a specimen I would offer to put Atkins in the best light. There are some, such as "It's Here in The," which leant its title to Atkins' last major collection, Here in The (1976, Cleveland State University Press). But on the evidence of the entire portfolio included here, Atkins' poetic urgency is somewhat low. The one poetic drama included from several Atkins wrote, The Abortionist, is way off the Yeatsian standard in that genre.

I feel that Atkins merits this volume he has been granted; he is an an interesting figure to make the acquaintance of. But the American Master in the title is an over-statement.  

No comments:

Post a Comment