I was watching Charlie Rose one night years ago when Bill Styron called in and said he didn't "get" David Letterman. Styron said, "Yes, he's mildly ironic, but ..." Letterman is from Indianapolis, which is one of the towns I'm from. I think I "get" Letterman pretty well, but that's another story. I thought of this quote as I was prowling around the recent AWP conference in Chicago. Are we poets too mildly ironic? Is the Midwest too mildly ironic, and poets are chameleons, therefore become too mildly ironic when they visit? Mulling this over as I rode the elevators, I thought maybe it would be interesting to post another poet's response to a midwestern conference many many years ago, as recorded by Richard Howard in his great book on American poetry, Alone With America:
"Not long ago, at one of our recurrent poetry conferences which suggest with all the force of an Euclidean proof--just look at those celluloid identification badges, typed with each poet's name and (of course) his university--that we are, even in our most notoriously dissident callings, a nation not of joiners merely, but of members; at one of those chapter meetings, then, in the endless volume of our self-concern, I listened to an address by a celebrated poet, an elderly professor it was, who had rised to the Collected Poems level and who, before arriving at our conference somewhere in the midwest, had reached for the wrong speech among (I imagine) several on his desk, thereupon regaling his fellows with a description of the bare-breasted beauties of Nigeria intended surely for the National Geographic Society. A married man, the father of daughters, it came as rather a shock to hear him extol the rare privilege of moving among a race of women proudly nude, and precisely then (though his own performance was not scheduled until much later in the program) Allen Ginsberg ... performed! He got up from the ring of chairs where the ulterior speakers were waiting for their turns to read their own poems, to speak their own thoughts, to do their own thing, and advancing solemnly--bearded, intent, unmistakeable--toward the old eulogist of noble savagery, he stepped up onto the dais and without a word, without a smile, without a single deprecating gesture, Allen Ginsberg took off all his clothes."