David Wojahn on Younger Poets
Anna Journey sits down with David Wojahn
You can find the whole interview here:
Johannes Göransson has written about this interview (from the same issue of Gulf Coast that occasioned my earlier post on Tony Hoagland [see below]) over on his blog. I don’t want to just repeat what he wrote, but I do have similar questions. Here’s my version.
I very much like the general way that David Wojahn talks about a desire for, or way of, writing:
“: . . . Bringing order out of chaos is all well and good, but sometimes it’s a worthier goal to simply make the chaos interesting. . . . Juxtaposition does a better job of replicating real life, and it better reflects the way I think. . . . and the juxtaposition of seemingly unlike images can make for some very fortuitous meetings.”
I was hopeful when I read this, that this interview might go to some intersting places. Juxtaposition is a way of writing that has become increasingly important in recent poetry. It’s the primary method of composition from The Waste Land to John Ashbery, and onward. I would go as far as to say that, as I was just reading a poem on Poetry Daily by Kim Addonizio yesterday that used juxtaposition as it’s major compositional strategy, that it is or is becoming, if not the preferred method, then at the very least the most common way of putting a poem together, across styles (or schools). I might even go so far as to say that “Juxtaposition” typifies the contemporary American poem. But then again, if one would try to pin juxtaposition down, it would quickly evaporate into a kind-of all-encompassing “one thing next to another” that would quickly lose the ability to describe anything (even if it's still not the same as composition by narrative or autobiography or argument). OK, so never mind. But I think this has a lot to do with what Wojahn is getting at when he starts to complain about younger poets (perhaps poets who he thinks take the notion of "juxtaposition" too seriously?):
“: . . . You know, there’s no small degree of charlatanism in contemporary poetry, a lot of facile and merely clever writing . . . . facile and the trivial.” He then places this against the idea of “authenticity.” So, are you a younger poet? Is he talking about you?
OK, so he’s not going to name names when he says this, because he’s mostly, it seems, arguing against something that’s in the air. In the abstract, since he’s calling “facile and merely clever writing” the period style (erroneously, I believe), the names should be all around us. My guess, thinking of poets that have been described in this way by others, is that he’s talking about presses like Wave Books and Action Books, and specifically, poets like Joshua Clover and Joshua Beckman, though I could be wrong. But whatever it is he’s arguing against has a lot to do with lineage, the canon, the writers from the middle 20th Century (which would seem to go against the above, as many of these younger writers are keenly aware of at the very least early 20th Century poetic movements):
“Earlier this summer a friend of mine asked me to participate in an AWP panel that would celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Some terrific people had agreed to be on it and we all thought the panel proposal was a shoe-in. Life Studies has been an absolutely essential book for generations of American poets. But—go figure—AWP rejected it. We’re in a somewhat preposterous situation right now. It’s not simply that readers don’t know the tradition, they don’t even know recent literary history. There are a lot of pretty articulate and well-read people who are clueless about the crucial poets of the middle generation. They draw a blank when you mention Oppen or Rukeyser or Roethke, or even Berryman, Lowell, and Bishop. Admittedly, those writers aren’t easy models—they’re militantly self-confronting, sometimes self-lacerating, sometimes self-humbling. The approach to the self that Lowell championed and pioneered in the late ’50s changed the whole game for two or three generations of American poets. He wasn’t the only one to do this at the time; poets as diverse as Ginsberg, Snodgrass and Penn Warren were doing similar things. But Lowell cast the longest shadow; he made possible a new sort of autobiographical urgency, as well as the deep emotional subjectivity that you see in, say, Merwin’s The Lice or James Wright in his best poems. The interior journey is immensely important for these poets, they want to circumnavigate the self.”
So it’s less that young writers haven’t read anything from the past and more that they don’t appreciate enough the generation born around the 20s. I think these things are connected. He’s arguing against Skitteriness (“facile and merely clever writing”), lack of reading knowledge of the middle generation, and the inauthentic (that the writing of many younger writers is theory-driven, not lived). It’s the same anxiety hovering behind Bob Hicok’s poem “Weebles Wobble” that he read on the News Hour the other night, when he starts to tell a story about a woman devastated by recent economic upheavals, and then folds back to a version of “we can’t say it that way anymore”:
“Sadly, I think that in our post-modern, theory-inflected climate, the very notion that self-representation can be authentic and sincere—can in fact be an essential goal of poetry—seems to a lot of people a little passé.”
Self-representation abounds in contemporary American poetry. Poets, to me, seem to have no problem with exploring “self-representation” in poetry. But what he means here, I think, is less the exploration of how the self can be represented that is a common concern of many younger poets (Arielle Greenberg / Ben Diller / and on), and more the self-representation that is more flatly autobiographical. It seems he’s making an argument for, to use Ron Silliman’s term, The School of Quietude. And he positions it against a sort of masking he sees in his students:
“I find it maddening when students in graduate workshops write obscurely not for any abiding aesthetic reason, but for mere self-protection. The workshop never gets beyond the rather pointless exercise of trying to figure out the poem’s dramatic situation, and when you finally ask the poet to say something about her work, the answer goes something like, ‘Well, I didn’t want to tell it like it actually happened because that would seem too ‘confessional.’’ And so ‘confessional’ has become an unjustly pejorative word like “liberal” or “community organizer,” so vastly out of fashion that it seems like it’s never going to rise again.’
I find this an amazing moment. Maybe we really are at a crossroads. A good number of students are, for whatever reason, skeptical of flat autobiography, and the Confessional poets in general, but they don’t have an alternative model except to be kind of abstract about it. The accusation he makes earlier that students haven’t read the Middle generation is a little odd to me here, because if the students haven’t read them (well, at least the Confessional poets), how do they know to say they don’t want to write like them? It’s possible that students aren’t reading them deeply (which is fine with me, as it’s not nearly as important and interesting a generation to me than Modernists, for instance), but to say they haven’t read them at all seems hyperbolic, to say the least. To give Wojahn credit, I also have found very few young poets who have read Oppen (and many who’ve never even heard of the Objectivists).
It’s pretty clear why this is happening. In their literature classes, students get a pretty decent education of everything written from Modernism backwards. That’s what the surveys cover. But anything written after Modernism is usually going to be tossed in in very idiosyncratic ways, either in a creative writing workshop, or as the last book or two in some themed seminar. This is always the case. The closer one gets to any present time, the more available literature there is. The more choices. And less agreement on what’s important. Wojahn thinks we should read more Lowell. I think we should read more Spicer. That’s just the way it is.
The other factor playing into this is that living poets will come to your class and talk with your students about writing. And living poets are likely to be the friends of the professor. So, in any student’s education, that student is going to have a blind spot around the generation that is recently deceased.
He goes on:
“Tony Hoagland has a withering label for the way we’ve almost all started to write—he calls it ‘the skittery poem of our moment.’ Don’t get me wrong: I find some of the Language writers very compelling. Rae Armantrout’s new collection is brilliant, and says a lot of wise and frightening things both about selfhood and culture that couldn’t be stated in any other fashion. Nevertheless, I think the current period style has replaced self-confrontation with slipperiness, with various strands of irony. We now have as many gradations of irony as the Inuit have words for snow, and I’m tired of irony being our lingua franca. We’ve become brilliant at cannibalizing the trappings of contemporary culture, but I sometimes worry that it’s all a form of solipsism that blinders us to the workings of the world. I know a lot of the Language poets really talk up Marx and in an oblique way they want to emphasize the social responsibilities of the poet, but I’ve had it with Skitter-ism.”
This is about as close as he gets to naming names, and it’s pretty close, as he does implicate “all of us,” in it, but, more specifically, he’s talking about all the younger poets he sees that he describes as writing in ways where “the social and political” that “are evoked are facile and theoretical rather than urgent.”
So who are some contemporary poets that he admires? The ones who don’t write in this “facile and theoretical” way?
Beckian Fritz Goldberg
C. D. Wright
Beth Ann Fennelly
And then the earlier writers we should be reading more of and talking more about:
I find the addition of Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, C. D. Wright, Rae Armantrout, and Jorie Graham to be especially interesting. I would guess that the writers he’s speaking against would also consider at least a few of these writers to be models. So maybe here these four writers stand as the dividing line.
(Rae Armantrout! If I were to nominate one poet as the most likely to enter the canon from our period, I would nominate her. Her work seems to sum things up, much like Ashbery has. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking because I like both their work.)
He then comes to something of a conclusion that shows what he means as the flipside to what’s going on in our moment:
“When I look back on Oppen’s generation and back at the generation born in the twenties—the Levine, Rich, Merwin group—the integrity of their ambition always humbles me; they saw the mission of poetry as something far different from the way we see it. They didn’t see poetry as a profession or a career, but as something more mysterious and grave. I also admire how grounded they were in the entire tradition. When I see Lowell in Near the Ocean laboring so mightily to find a way to modernize and contemporize the line of Milton and the line of Marvell, I never fail to be astonished. And who in our century has such lofty goals? We lack them in no small measure because of an imperfect and very limited reading knowledge—but I suffer from that same shortcoming.”
For most of this little tour, I’ve just been trying to get at what Wojahn’s thinking, but here I want to step out and clearly say that I think he’s wrong. Just because you don’t like what you’re reading in the poetry of some younger poets, doesn’t mean there’s no ambition behind it. I recall the same sort of argument against Lowell and James Wright, back in the early 60s. Their turning from the formalism of that period to open their work to more conversational language and interior images had many people calling them all sorts of names.
Wojahn makes that same turn many people are making these days in many guises. It’s the same turn John Barr makes. It’s the anti-academy turn, where the making or art and teaching are conflated: “They didn’t see poetry as a profession or a career, but as something more mysterious and grave.”
Maybe I’m being willfully obtuse, but I just don’t see it in the younger poets I know. Yes, AWP has a tendency to become something of a job talk week, and yes, poets do talk about who is teaching where way too often for my nerves, but to say that somehow that has something to do with the poems themselves is going too far. I also recall that the middle generation was the first one to start these conversations? Weren’t they the first generation of university professors? And didn’t they do all sort of gossiping about who should and who shouldn’t have what job, what award?
And since I'm ending on a bunch of questions, here's another, perhaps telling question, going back to the title of the interview ("How Do You Bottle the Lightning?"):
Why would you want to bottle the lightning in the first place?