At first heft, both The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry and Thus Spake the Corpse: An Exquisite Corpse Reader are a bit appalling. Each tome, however, presents some good stuff while aspiring to be an important record of a certain time and place.
"Outlaw poets have fierce and highly personalized styles, and reputations for deadly talent," Alan Kaufman writes in the introduction to The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. Although this might be the solution to the riddle of what defines an outlaw (Attitude! First-person pronouns! Free-form!), it also indicates the book's problem: big names with deadly talent. Requisite Beats on holiday (Kerouac the "poet"), a movie star here (James Dean, no less), some rock stars there (Janice Joplin, Patti Smith), references to Bukowski (because they couldn't get the rights to reprint his work), correspondence from William Carlos Williams, and the obligatory invocation and benediction by Walt Whitman bloat the book. In flirting with the famous, the Bible commits some spectacular sins. Which is worse: establishing outlaw lit street-cred by availing itself of the "verse" of Mumia Abu-Jamal, or damning one of the best poets in the book by printing an awful collaboration between Frank O'Hara and the painter Larry Rivers?
And yet, for all its pretensions, its renegade labels and graphics, and its reliance on luminaries whose best work is either lousy or all too available elsewhere, the Bible is a fairly handy way to approach the current poetry scene. Rather than seek enlightenment, use it as an anthropological culture guide. Rather than religion, think of the Bible as the slang term used by circus people to refer to the program for the show. This big top is big enough to display both Gary Snyder and David Lerner's denunciation of Gary Snyder, to stage a parade for performance poets, slammers, and whole troupes (the Babarians, the Unbearables, the Carma Bums). After all, the Beats taught writers that it pays to organize--or, to be organized by reviewers--into some group. If poet Jack Micheline hadn't come to be associated with the Beats in a way that struck a chord deep within the souls of Kaufman and his associate editor S. A. Griffin, the Bible might never have pitched its tent.
Both the Bible and the current anthology of Exquisite Corpse magazine make much of being outside of mainstream American writing. This situation becomes blurred in the cases of the Beats and of the Bible's contingent of rock stars, whose followings would easily outstrip the gatherings at insider poetry readings (whatever they are). Beyond that, though, open mic readings, slams, poetry festivals, little magazines, chap books, and anthologies are mainstream poetry, while the oddities that pop up in The New Yorker and in hardcover editions from commercial presses are relics of an esoteric fringe.
"The hardest and most important lesson for an American poet to learn and accept, and exploit, is the subservient position of words in American culture. To choose to be a poet is by definition to be a victim, to be an outsider," Murat Nemet-Nejat writes in "Questions of Accent," one of the remarkable essays in the Corpse reader. Rather than learn and accept defeat, the magazine thrived by brandishing this outsider status. From 1983 to 1998, it published some of the best articles and most engaging stories and poems to appear anywhere. Among "little" magazines, it was a national institution. As if that status were not outside enough, it died (or, if you prefer, went to the Internet at www.corpse.org). The current anthology is a decent representation of the magazine, without fiction, letters, and translations (all to come in volume II), but with an extended Body Bag--Laura Rosenthal's often hilarious and cruel public rejections of submissions, some of which were better than poems they published. We can accept their anthology, but it's no substitute for the magazine.