Tony Hoagland's "Dean Young Effect"
In the new issue of APR, Tony Hoagland is back at it again, talking about the new poetry, and saying how it’s derivative and not worth much.
Before I start quoting:
I’ve talked about this sort of thing before:
I’ve nothing against Tony Hoagland’s poems. I don’t own any of his books, but I don’t’ have anything really negative to say about them. He does what he does. I’m not very interested in it, but I can see that others would be. But, I can’t go very far through one of his essays before I just want to start ranting. And also, I’ve nothing against the poetry of Dean Young. Actually, I like his work, and have several of his books.
What I find so annoying about Hoagland’s essays is that he tends to use examples from very young writers to say very general and large things about some much larger group. This time, he’s saying the group is the Cult of Dean Young. It’s very unfair to go after a few young poets, especially ones who haven’t published much (excepting Mark Yakich, who I think Hoagland intentionally misrepresents), to make statements about a whole generation. If you’re going to start throwing stones, you should throw them at more established writers, otherwise it makes the argument look like what Hoagland’s argument looks like to me: an easy puff piece. Also, it’s, well, absurd to make generalizations about a generation of writers, to call something the new poetry, when all your examples are male. In Hoagland’s economy of the new poetry, women don’t seem to exist. That, in and of itself, is enough to make me want to throw his argument out. It’s also a heterosexual thing, full of heterosexual eros.
His thesis: Dean Young is a genius, and all these young male writers out there who are younger than he is are writing in his shadow and are not geniuses.
I suppose such an argument could be made. But it could be made in any age around a strong poet. There were essays I remember about fifteen or so years ago saying much the same thing about Jorie Graham. All this proves is that Dean Young is going to get a Pulitzer prize soon. Probably within a couple years. And Hoagland’s essay seems an attempt to set that stage. That’s all well and good, but why the pot shots at all the younger (male) poets? What’s the benefit?
Well, I think it has to do with the kind of stage Hoagland is setting for Dean Young. Hoagland’s Dean Young is a domesticated Dean Young, more like Keats than Ashbery. In other words, Dean Young is OK. He’s one of us. We can let him in without letting in all those “elliptical” poets to whom we’re in opposition
Blah. Such an argument might be great for the canonization of Dean Young, but one has to be careful to cherry pick his poems to make the argument.
Nevertheless, I’m fine with Dean Young getting a Pulitzer prize. Like I said, what I’m finding so inexcusable is Hoagland’s characterization of the next generation. What this all means to me is that Tony Hoagland is greatly under read in the poets he’s talking about. His support for the assertion that these poets are emblematic of the next generation, is that “any teacher-poet who has read manuscripts for competitions, or screened applications for prizes or graduate program admissions of the last ten years, can recognize [them].”
I consider this pretty thin anecdotal evidence. What he’s really saying is that he’s that “teacher-poet,” and it makes sense to me that he would see these sorts of manuscripts, because poets who write this way are often aware of his work, and they think he might be sympathetic. His next book, due out in January, is titled Unincorporated Persons of the Late Honda Dynasty, after all. That could easily be the title of a Dean Young book.
Next Hoagland puts Dean Young up as the thing that is to be wholly emulated, so that Young’s attributes can become the bar that others are to get to—he’s the controlling genius, but Young, as well, is a combination of tendencies, as Hoagland admits, but fails to understand. Dean Young, according to Hoagland, sounds like Billy Collins, John Ashbery, Robert Hass, and Kenneth Koch, by turns. There’s no attention paid to a counter claim that Dean Young, as well as many other poets, though constantly being influenced back and forth, might all be responding to something in the culture, and that others are not participating in cheap imitation born of envy. Weren’t Russell Edson, James Tate, Charles Simic, John Ashbery, etc, doing much the same thing 40 years ago (to keep the examples only on boys, as Hoagland seems to want us to do)?
I also dislike the way he talks about Surrealism, by the way. In fact, I don’t much like the way he talks about anything in this essay, or in previous essays I’ve read by him.
OK, I’ve said my piece. I’m now going to let Hoagland have his say at describing the next generation, the Cult of Dean Young:
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“The American modifications to the imported surrealist aesthetic (which to some extent have turned Surrealism from theology into a fashion statement) have been two [. . .] ironic tonal deflation and a certain kind of cartooniness in the use of image. American surrealism (consider Strand, Tate, and Lux) usually has a kind of auxiliary self-conscious goofiness, and acknowledgement of the difference between the literary reality of France in 1915 and the 20th-century American culture. [As if Surrealism only comes from France?] [Dean] Young’s poetic incorporates these American features, but retains the essentially heroic mission of Surrealism proper.”
So what Hoagland is setting up is that Dean Young is like (but more pure) these older male poets who are already established and incorporated into the canon, and fundamentally unlike the younger poets who admire him. This is the bedrock of his argument: Dean Young is one of US, not one of THEM. He’s the end of a tradition, and everything after him in this lineage is not good. It’s an old argument, isn’t it? Doesn’t every generation make it? I’ve heard Stevens talked about in this way years ago when people were trying to say he was great but that Ashbery wasn’t . . .
Ah, time! The cluttered march!
“We are living in a time of poetic explosion; the university creative writing systems have not just trained a lot of young poets in literary craft, they have fermented these young artists in a broth of language theory, critical vocabulary and aesthetic tribalism, which the age apparently demands.”
Boy do I hate when people take this approach. Oh, the horrors of learning things! Oh, how much better we are, who don’t need to have our minds cluttered with all that mumbo jumbo! And tribalism! How wonderful that our tribe doesn’t do that! You know?
“The New Poetry, called by some “ellipticism,” can be generally characterized as stylistically high-spirited and technically intensive, intellectually interested in various forms of gamesmanship, in craft and “procedure,” acutely aware of poetry as language “system.” These young and not so young poets have invented a whole vocabulary of techniques for disassembly, deflection, ventriloquism, miming, theatricality, misdirection, and feinting. The self, in their manifold species of poems, is more theatrical than confessional or meditative; their sense of “voice” is not so much an organic extension of self, but more an artifice, a fabrication of vocabularies and rhetorics. Such a poetic voice proves itself by constant and erratic motion, throwing off guises one after another.”
OK, a couple things. One, isn’t “their sense of “voice” is not so much an organic extension of self, but more an artifice, a fabrication of vocabularies and rhetorics” simply a definition of how “voice” is constructed in a poem? It would seem to be as true for Keats (no matter what he’d say about it) as well as Poet X of the New Poetry? And second, doesn’t this paragraph describe The Waste Land as well as Book X of the New Poetry?
He goes on:
“But there is a downside as well as an upside to imitation. To begin with, Young’s admirers have a difficult act to follow. It is a bitter fact of life that the neural associative capacity of a Dean Young is pretty rare. His method suits no one as well as Dean Young. The nets of association whose spaces he adroitly negotiates, others fall through. The transformative associative cornucopia that tumbles out of his poems by the bushelful seem, not the result of will, but of a born and cultivated genius. Elliptical as they might be in presentation, Young’s poems have the intrinsic strength of arising from a unified psyche.”
So, all you poets out there, Hoagland is saying, who I think write like Dean Young, you better cut it out, because I know Dean Young, and you, you young male poets, are no Dean Young. He’s a genius, and you’re not. He’s more like us that he’s like you, so cut it out, I’m warning you. His brain is better than yours. If you persist, I’ll make examples of you, you un-unified psyche-boys.
“Even if the energetic hijinks of Young’s style can be simulated, the coherent under-discourse is less easy to emulate . . . . [H]is poetic nephews and nieces often manage only to portray a speaker who is entertainingly baffled and dismayed. They are better able to fracture than to put together.”
“. . . . For al the potential richness of “hybridity,” such splicing can be a dysfunction as easily as a function. The acquisition of speech gestures is part of what imitation, and writerly apprenticeship, is all about, but not to be able to attach those gestures effectively, or excitingly to one’s own psychic necessity, is to remain only a technician, not a poet.”
Once again, he brings in some internal, scientific-sounding, thing: “psychic necessity.” I’ve no idea what he’s talking about, and I’m pretty certain he doesn’t either. If he’s really talking about broken psyches and psychic necessity, how he’d be able to look inside the poets to know is beyond me, and if he’s really just saying that Dean Young writes better than grad students, he should have realized that before he started writing, and chosen some other subject entirely, for such a realization should be not much of a realization at all.
“Is it possible that manners can be acquired without a sense of their original, originating context, and their tonal implications?” Hoagland asks. It’s a similar point Jorie Graham made years ago talking about the students she was seeing. Something to the effect that they saw all the moves 20th-century poets made outside of the politics behind those moves. But how is Hoagland to know that poets don’t know the “originating context”? All he can know is that they don’t exhibit a knowledge of this “originating context” to Hoagland’s satisfaction, much like Strand, Tate, and Lux (to continue his examples) were criticized for “appropriating” Surrealism years ago . . .
“Absurdism has a kind of seductiveness, we know, and obliquity can resemble—in fact, can be—daring. But how can there be daring when there are no stakes?” he goes on to ask. I respond by saying that he, by writing aggressively against these poets is creating an atmosphere of stakes, so this very writing that he says has no stakes now has stakes as it courts his dismissal. Granted, no one’s standing in front of a tank here, but still, cultural capital isn’t nothing. Hoagland has it, and he’s spending it.
Here’s how he dispatches the style:
“Poetic values don’t just wax and wane, they rotate and calve and invert. To read much of the New Poetry (this is the only name that makes sense to me) is to realize how undervalued quiet (different from minimalism) is right now, and how conversely attractive obliquity and hyperactivity have emerged as poetic values. But constant motion in a poem provides no resting place for emotional fullness. Surface agitation is not inauthentic, but is only effective at communicating certain kinds of sincerity—anger or anxiety. Ironically, the epidemic proliferation of the New York School voice, itself humanist in spirit, has been another contributing agent to the New Poetic whimsy. The decibels of whimsy have been turned up, the decibels of humanism down. If it is idiosyncratic and disheveled, if it is manic, strange, and verbally bright, it might, we reason, be poetry.
“Most profoundly, in their emphasis on style and subversive forms, in the enshrinement of idiosyncrasy, too few of the New Poems aspire to the most ambitious mission statement of what poetry can do—to extend the range of our experience and the reach of our imagination.”
Are there no quite poems being written by poets who like Dean Young? What about Zachary Schomburg (just as one boy example)? Does “constant” motion in a poem really preclude emotional fullness? Maybe to Hoagland. And maybe he and I have different definitions of motion and emotional fullness? Does “surface agitation” only allow anger or anxiety? What about brio? What about joy? What about horror? Ecstasy? Thrill? You know? And is "surface agitation" all that's going on? I dont' think he's right about that either.
And yes, to Hoagland, in the end, it’s the New York School voice that is at fault, and universities . . .