Academic journal article Chicago Review

Life in Rodefer

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Life in Rodefer

Article excerpt

"We all await an idiot's judgment."

--Stephen Rodefer

"What we need more than critics" Rodefer wrote in 1986, "is historians." The line is from one of Rodefer s few published essays in prose, but it might easily be taken for one of the many opinions in prose moments scattered throughout his poetry. Of these many moments, many are about what we want or don t want, what we're tired of or what we somehow, after everything, still lust and greed after, what we continue to live for or merely do. "About suffering we are always wrong." Or, "We are more than cabwise/Less than cattlebirds every night we sing"; "We are tired of your socage rates"; "We understand the bus of alcohol/is dangerous"; "What we knew when we were you know where"; "Sooth la! do we still have cheeks?" And to make a suite of this scattered few:

In the unsettling West, we think our fellow
     creatures perpetually in danger
                       of losing their dignity
                  and value because of their incapacity
to resist the temptations of drink and sex.
      But things get miserably done.

The tones of these opinions are unmistakably Rodefer s tones. But we know them, or we are ready for them, from hearing what seem likely to be their progenitors, often in O'Hara or Pound, "... we don't like Lionel Trilling/we decide, we like Don Allen we don t like/Henry James so much we like Herman Melville/we don't want to be in the poets' walk in/San Francisco even we just want to be rich ..." Or, and for Rodefer I think this in Pound is the monumental precursor, if anything is: "We have kept our erasers in order"

Now, every liberal with a smattering of materialism knows, quite as well as though he had it by rote, that no poet's first person plural can be allowed to be above suspicion; but only a true cognoscenta of the unofficial scene will know just how pre-eminently suspicious is Rodefer s we. It is not a modest thing. Rodefer has kept his erasers in disorder. Its a we that, looking back as someone not yet initiated into the "Stephen Rodefer lounge" during the 1980s, I can only think most American poets must have hesitated to imagine they might be caught up in, though all or lots of them may have laughed along with Rodefer s famous line in Four Lectures, "They own the lobby. But they cant pick up the tab. We've got the writing." (1) Does it really ask us to be caught up it in, this unwieldy, comradely, impossibly third-hand poets' pronoun? Does it simply refer us to an irony and not ask us, really?

The hesitation was gigantically mutual. Rodefer has showed little respect for the respectable, or even for the respected, American poets in the course of his long vocation, and has been roguish enough to insinuate, in a sort of print, no less, as well as at the bar (there are not bars in Rodefer, there is THE BAR), not only that these American respectees are simply not good enough poets "to lift us out of our seats and keep us in them," engrossed as they always are in their ingenuities and innovations, but even that they are not so good as Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Tolstoy--quite as though he remained completely innocent of the inadmissibility of that sort of comparison in professional postmodern discourse about texts. Rodefer s we who have the writing is not we who are in the anthology. Rodefer s we is Olympian, canonistic, the open-all-hours Big Time where he and Homer look down on the caucuses of applicants and their larceny in wit (to lift a phrase from another author of The Spleen) or, more likely, out of it; but also his we is just some cipher that gets evacuated in the slow stampede out of the lecture hall. Torn halves, then, as Adorno, one of what Rodefer in "Arabesque At Bar" calls the "adornoboys" might put it. (2) So this we in torn halves, are we in or out?

"Hello Mummy, you look lovely in there. I don't know who I am.

To settle things, Rodefer wants "historians," and not more writers writing writing that looks like critics' writing, who are doing that because they believe that writing writing that looks like critics' writing will prove that they are poets. …

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