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The World's Most Innovative Poets (One Perspective)

I was thinking today about compiling a list of poets I perceived to be the most
innovative in the history of the art form. Of course, this is such an impossibly
huge question, and one is always limited to a certain degree by which languages
besides one's birth tongue one can truly read for nuance and subtlety (poetry
translation is the original Bed of Procrustes) and how many thousands of books one
has time to consume. And then does one technically consider those writing at the
dawn of poetic language innovators simply because they are entering uncharted
waters with the first metaphors, the first myths, the first narratives...basically
the first lyric poetry?

I just wanted to flesh out my particular view of things, which will most likely
not match up wholly with yours. But I would be interested in hearing where we
match and where we diverge.

I was trying to focus here on poets I thought changed the poem itself, or somehow
changed our conception of the nature of poetry. This differs from my list of poets
I feel were the most important poets, or the greatest poets who ever lived.
There's some overlap, but some of these poets I see more as innovators who were
more important for opening doors than for what they actually wrote (Simias or even
Khlebnikov, say, arguably could fall into this category). I consider Wallace
Stevens one of the twentieth century's greatest poets, for example, but don't feel
he merits inclusion on this list of innovators of form or innovators of what is
"permissible" in poetry.

Anyway, if you'd like to comment feel free. I'd love to hear your input...but
please give at least a hint of a reason for your particular additions or
subtractions. :-)

Here's my list, and yes I realize how Eurocentric this is. Give me some of the
great Asian and Indian writers I missed. Yes, the Mahabharata, that longitudinally
constructed masterpiece, obviously...but what or who else? I read the list of
Nobelist poets and couldn't justify a single one as an innovator of form (and
please don't say Tagore! yuck! lol)....

I have added a number after each author, ranging from one to three: one indicates
innovation with moderate impact formalistically, NOT overall cultural or cross-
cultural impact, obviously. This speaks purely to how much future writers
recognizably use this author's modifications to the poem itself; two indicates
broad impact formalistically, significantly increased influence on future writers;
three indicates an author who revolutionized form and whose influence is
pervasive. Yes, this is a whim. It amused me to do so. Let's play.

No particular order here....

1. Simias of Rhodes/Theocritus of Syracuse...for being two of the earliest

identifiable innovators in concrete poetry. Not exactly the most influential
change in the art form, but a substantial move in the direction of how submissive
the medium could be, and a strange sort of reverse-abstraction process. (1)

2. Shakespeare. The Sonnets are just one facet of a mind that exploited every
rhetorical device in the book, and then invented others that the masters of
antiquity had not conceived. Minting the English language anew as he went, he is
of course a titan and yes I Eurocentrically place him here. (1) Should I place
Racine here? I haven't read enough of the French Shakespeare to speak confidently
of his place. Sue me.
3. Mallarme. "Un Coup de Des" by itself would earn him a place here. An open field
poem that embodies self-referentiality to that degree would earn him a place as a
prophet of twentieth century poetics. (2)

4. Rimbaud. The revolution was not televised. Besides perfecting the prose poem
form, the postmodern sensibility was from its mother's womb untimely ripped with
this young visionary. The "Lettres du Voyant," "Les Stupra," poems that sampled
everything from alchemy to the names of shopkeepers on a Paris street, a visionary
synaesthetic poem about "Vowels." The infinitude of possibilities for poetry
opened up instantly and permanently, like a terrible, mesmerizing battlefield
wound. And yet it wasn't enough to keep this man interested. The ultimate crowning
touch to a Job-like life. (3)

5. Rilke. The degree to which Rilke formed a new atheist spirituality is stunning.
Existentialism needed a great poet who could embody the way the world's thinking
was fundamentally changing, and book after book disclosed to us how far we were
wandering from the fostering thought of millenia. The Duino Elegies should hold up
nicely as empires crumble. (3)

6. Khlebnikov. The father of zaum, sound poetry. The man who was a poet-
mathematician and tried to divine universal laws of history and time in number
itself, which could then be transformed into poetic language. This is why many of
his poems are based almost cabalistically on mystical meanings imparted to
numbers, from the single number which he believed governed historical cycles of
change, to the number of heartbeats he counted in his chest to be synched up to a
poem. (2)

7. Kruchenykh. Surely the father of visual poetry, asemic poetry and so many other
variations of what Bob Grumman calls vizlature (visual literature). If not the
true father, the pimp daddy. And that's who we care about. We always care about
the pimp daddy. (2)

8. Fernando Pessoa (or choose a heteronym). The idea of voice smashed to bits on
the floor. Thank Gods. And we are free to move through all the dreams of language
suddenly, to be anyone and act out Publius Naso's Metamorphoses within our single
body. Vive la schizophrenie! Okay, that's not what schizophrenia is, but you know
what I mean. (1)

9. Whitman. Free verse personified. What can be said or confessed fast-forwarded a

century or so. The ability to warp language so perfectly that "I sing the body
electric" sounds like perfectly fine English, and not even stilted. He came back
to us some time later in the disguise of Mr. Ginsberg, of course. The almost
pantheist embrace of life is a tad nineteenth century mystic, but the grasp of
America as a phenomenon that was to become the future for more than just one
nation was more than simply astute. It was visionary. (2)

10. Tristan Tzara. Dada was many things though it didn't want to really be
anything but a demonstration of its own stylish nihilism, but the elevation of
chance and the emergence of poets who were actors and magicians abusing politics
on a political stage was something very new. What emerged as a scourge for World
War I became something of a philosopher's aspirin for the art. Every poet falls
under its spell at least once in his or her life. (3)

11. Gertrude Stein. I don't think anyone on this list changed language more than
Stein. The limits and the liminal are her province. And it's very logical that
this came out of her studies with William James and her scientific training.
Wittgenstein and Stein go hand in hand, of course. And perhaps throw in Godel. It
feels great to read her until you realize how insubstantial the structure whereof
one is composed really is. It changes one permanently. (3).

12. Paul Celan. If any poet was Job in the 20th century, I would think it was
Celan. And he warned God, in an infamous poem. When one reads the biography, one
cannot blame him. His genius at reinventing the language of the murderers staved
off the inevitable implosion for a few decades. Celan's morphological reductionism
is still a staggering achievement. A poet reads him once and cannot help but be
changed. (3)

13. Ponge. Ponge flirted with embodying the phenomenological project in poetry. He
had wildly varying degrees of success in this project. In following the precept
"Zu den Sachen" ("to the things") he moved poetry in a surprisingly forward
direction by seeming to step backwards. (1)

14. Kitasono Katue. This Japanese master created some vizlature that was concrete
sculpture, three dimensional poems, such as paper sculptures in the shapes of
suspended crescent moons with poems on them, to cite one example. I don't know
enough about the larger movement of which he was part to competently cite other
creators on this cusp with him. Any suggestions about this Japanese school? And I
will not name an Oulipan, although I feel remiss in not including someone from
that school on this list. Suggestions? (1)

15. William Carlos Williams. Who has not encountered a poem by the man which
redefined poetry for you in one reading? There are too many examples to cite, as
the man's gifts were forgetive. He invented much, often by reducing. Patterson is
impressive collage and prefigures L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry more than other
celebrated disjunctive epics, I believe. (2)

16. Robert Creeley. He grows right out of W.C.W.'s breast (poems like "The Term"
by W.C.W. are "pure Creeley" long before Creeley). But Creeley takes the poetics
embodied in several early W.C.W. poems and elaborates it into an entire body of
work. There are many different Creeleys in his body of work. His statesmanship and
constant gift for friendship and patronage with regard to other poets is seemingly
what shaped his protean soul. He wanted poetry to serve multiple functions
clearly, from the spiritual to the political (are they really different?). And he
wasn't afraid of writing utilitarian poems. Creeley turns the focus onto the
Wittgensteinian scotomas and misassumptions about what language is, or can do, and
moves it very strongly in the direction of the labworks to follow in the
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school. (2)

17. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. The phenomenological project resumes in language with

this fascinating poet. Nature is the only philosopher and bracketing and reduction
are recurrent modi operandi in this poet's work. Sui generis and yet very
influential among contemporary poets. (2)

18. Rae Armantrout. 21st century poetics. A strange confluence of Creeley and
Niedecker, seemingly. I wanted to include at least one L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, since
it was the most influential avant-garde in the past twenty years, and this one
seems to be clearly stepping off from the pack at this point in terms of universal
appreciation. I would argue Lyn Hejinian would be an equally good example as a
poet with a very impressive body of work that has had a cosmopolitan influence,
but I see Armantrout's influence more in contemporary poetry. (1) (1)

Should I have included Zufkofsky, Olson, Oppen, Niedecker? Why did I slight the
Objectivists in general? Certainly they are more innovators than say Eliot or
Pound, who both looked backwards as much as they looked forward, if not more so.

I guess who ever mastered the disjunctive, recontextualizing line first should be
on here. Apollinaire? A Russian Futurist? And where does Marinetti belong? On this

Okay, I admit it. This was like a game show. All that was missing were the
blinking lights going around in a big rectangle. And all I needed was Gene
Raeburn's long skinny microphone and a velveteen emcee suit with REALLY big
lapels, but it was fun for a half hour or so. And I did want to see who I really
thought were the big movers in my own mind, as I hadn't really formulated it as a
list. Yeah, I know lists suck, lists were what they used to make concentration
camps, gulags, yadda yadda. I repeat....Sue me.

Refer all litigation to my attorneys "Fuchyou, Fuchyou & Igivashitz."


copyright W.B. Keckler 2007. You may freely reproduce as long as you credit me.