American Hybrid #5 or So: The Göransson Review
Johannes Göransson has written about American Hybrid.
I like American Hybrid, myself, and wrote about it several times around the turn of the year. Here’s the conglomeration link [FYI: once you hit the link, you'll have to scroll down, as it's a search resuls link, and this post will be the first result], which includes an email from Cole Swensen regarding their selection process and the full text of her introduction, for reference.
One of the things Göransson gets to that really interests me is this paragraph:
Admittedly, there are many attitudes toward tradition in American poetry. While the idea of the “hybrid” goes back to modernism and the New Critics, it is not the only reaction to various alternative aesthetics to take hold in American poetry. Over the past three decades years, representatives of the Quietist aesthetic—who, need I mention, hold most tenure track jobs in Creative Writing and edit most poetry series and journals—have been digging in their heels to defend “traditional poetry,” by which they mean a watered-down version of Robert Bly and James Wright’s “deep image” poetry of the 1960s. These poets, writing increasingly dull and out of touch poetry, have used their positions of power to control and defend “traditional” poetry against perceived plots and excesses, publishing and rewarding the least offensive poetry available. The summit of this “tradition” is the famously homogenous Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. For all its faults, American Hybrid is certainly a step forward from that morass.
One of the things that I think a lot about is the fight (often hidden) between aesthetic positions and generations in American poetry. So I want Göransson’s list of names. So often, when one is writing, it’s easy to toss a paragraph like this in (Tony Hoagland has made a stir recently by performing some wild generalizations, for instance) to stand for something that only the initiated can follow, or, perhaps more specifically, allows people to populate in their own fashion. Allowing a sort-of politeness, or deniability.
But what positions and journals is Göransson talking about? Certainly, for journals, he means these, off the top of my head (The list is much longer, but these can stand as general examples):
The Georgia Review
The Gettysburg Review
Tar River Poetry
Looking at them, which I do on occasion, one thing I don’t find is that they “have been digging in their heels to defend ‘traditional poetry,’ by which they mean a watered-down version of Robert Bly and James Wright’s “deep image” poetry of the 1960s.” I wish they were. I kind of liked the Robert Bly of Silence of the Snowy Fields, and the James Wright of The Branch Will Not Break. (Granted, not all Bly and Wright from those books, as they both exhibited a tendency toward a kind of sloppy sentimentality that has always grated on my nerves.) What I see, when I look at the above journals, is a prevalence of “readable texts” that have the appearance of autobiography, or pseudo autobiography, where “communication” of a learned or experienced “truth” is the goal of the poem, often ending in some highly sentimental, elegiac, image (epiphany). I believe this is the “Quietist” that Göransson mentions above, and that Ron Silliman put forward years ago, as a sort of place-holder, so that it could be talked about it as one thing?
I see this much less as an outgrowth of Bly and Wright than I see it as an outgrowth of the post-confessional generation(s): Levine, Kinnell, Olds, Dove, and on, including the touchstones of William Matthews, Tess Gallagher, Billy Collins, David Wojahn. These poets were hybrids themselves of several tendencies (including Bly and Wright), granted, but to place it on Bly and Wright makes it sound much more interesting than it’s turned out to be. What’s lacking in a lot of the poetry I read in these journals is specifically what Bly and Wright were attempting to foreground through image, a certain mystery and unconscious (or preconscious) connection between things. Instead, many of the poets I see in these journals trade that imagistic mystery for a kind of asserted, or verbal nodding to mystery. The poster child for this tendency could well be Matthew Dickman.
What I’m getting at, other than that, is really to agree with Göransson, by stressing that all poets are a hybrid of tendencies. The name American Hybrid, while great for marketing, isn’t very good for an actual definition of anything. It ignores and elides too much. On the other hand, I like the anthology itself very much. It includes a tremendous number of poets I admire. I just wish it had been presented differently. Or as part of a larger conversation.
Back to Göransson:
In her introduction, Swensen mentions that the original idea for the book was to make an anthology of younger poets, but that the editors changed midway through and made it mostly about the preceding generation. There may be many reasons for this, but one possible reason is that much of the most interesting poetry written by younger poets is patently excessive and in bad taste—whether crass flarf, hysterical gurlesque, angry political slogans, or aestheticist panic attacks—a radical move away from Quietism that has been fomented by the proliferation of small presses and Internet journals. A fuller look at American hybrid poetry would have to account for this phenomenon. Meanwhile, American Hybrid merely proves that “indeterminate” poetics has shaped the tradition, leaving it as high-minded and ambiguous as ever.
While not all flarf is “crass” and not all gurlesque is “hysterical,” there is a point to the fact that what once, a decade or so, could be called “Elliptical” can no longer be called so, as the first energy of many of the poets included in American Hybrid has fanned out into a proliferation of fascinating styles (some coming directly from poets included in American Hybrid, and some from other places entirely), which does point to the fact that there IS something of interest in having American Hybrid around. And maybe for close to the very reasons Swensen and St. John put it forward.
Looking at the last sentence from Göransson, above, I like “ambiguity,” but “high-minded” freaks me out. The “high-minded” moments in American Hybrid, and in poetry in general, seem a throwback to something essentialized, reductive. I want that to go away.