Saturday, August 08, 2009

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
New Letters
Poetry Magazine
Missouri Review
Prairie Schooner
Poetry Northwest

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.


At 8/09/2009 3:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ummm... Goransson? Teaches at Notre Dame? Husband of Professor Joyelle McSweeney of Notre Dame? The Catholic Church Notre Dame? Yeah, no power there. I agree, John, he should name the names AND also name the poets/would-be-professors who were denied tenure or positions of power because of their radical poetry.

At 8/09/2009 7:26 PM, Blogger Ross Brighton said...

Um, yeah; but that's not the point. Ad Hominum, my friend.

At 8/10/2009 4:12 AM, Blogger Josh said...

John, can you elaborate on the Dickman comment? Please excuse my request if you've previously written about his work. I'm curious about this "nodding" as it pertains to him, and why you chose him, specifically, to mention. Thanks.

At 8/10/2009 4:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Anon & Ross,

Maybe that's specifically why so many of us, when we write about such things, keep our comments pointed but or name-dropping very narrow. When someone writes something, the very first thing that comes back is often more about the person speaking than it is about what that person is saying.


I put Dickman in there because he's currently a very popular, young writer, who, when I read his book seemed to me to be bringing a lot of the things that are often called Quietist together in one place. Kinnell and Levine and Olds are all different writers, but they've all been called Quietist (I think), and I can see traces of all of them in Matthew Dickman. I was trying to show that the aesthetic is continuing.

At 8/10/2009 8:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Despite Silliman’s old assertions, to lump so-called Deep Image poets (Bly, Wright, Merwin) with a Confessional and post-Confessional poetic line under the moniker of "Quietism" is a misreading of poetic history--one that seems designed to establish a false binary when, in fact, numerous strains and influences have been at work in American poetry since Modernism. Let’s remember that Bly, in his magazine "The Fifties" (and then "The Sixties"), was largely agitating AGAINST the influence of Confessionalism and "academic verse" in favor of surrealism.

Yes, as you say, certain poets in the 1980s hybridized Bly's ideas with those of the Confessional poets (Larry Levis especially comes to mind), but that doesn't make Bly or Wright the fathers of a monolithic "Quietist" movement. Nor does it make the Deep Image poets especially “establishment” or particularly academic. (Of the three primary Deep Image poets, only Wright got a PhD and/or taught for any period of time, and his relationship with the Academy wasn't easy.)

And, of course, I have real doubts about the idea that a clear majority of tenured and tenure-track poets in America are writing out of Bly and Wright (or, these days, the Confessional line, for that matter--unless one sees the Confessional line extending through many of the “elliptical poets," which, actually, I kind of do”).

More than anything else, Johannes seems to be depicting creative writing programs as they might have existed in 1985, but surely not as they do today.

And even so, to present such an “establishment” as aesthetically unified ultimately serves to flatten or ignore its diversity. Saying that Mathews (a chatty, jazz-influenced poet) writes like Kinnell (whose Book of Nightmares is anything but) is sort of like saying that John Ashbery writes like Denise Levertov.

At 8/10/2009 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you strip a lot of poets of their affiliations and publication contexts and just look at the work, they actually get pretty blurry. Other than the fact that a poet like Ed Dorn feels less "cooked" and more off the cuff than Lowell, he really has a lot in common with him. I mean, if you squint, isn't O'Hara just a slight tack away from the Confessional poets? He writes about his own life and with a kind of clarity. Yes he's less unhappy, but there's a lot of pathos-based autobiographical disclosure if you read between the lines.

Of course, if you pay attention to ALL the details, that isn't really all that true. But Silliman and company only seem to pay attention to the details when it suits their arguments. Otherwise, they wash over the differences.

Or, given that you're probably something like a "post-New York School Quietist," think about this: which of the New York School poets is the MOST Quietist? Probably Schuyler, I would say. Then probably Ashbery (especially if you pick the right poems). O'Hara seems the most Confessional. Koch seems the least of either--and the closest to what eventually will be called flarf. Or something like that, right? A fair exercise and one we can do pretty easily, but because it crosses entrenched aesthetic lines I suspect a lot of folks would balk even at the idea.

Because, in my opinion, too many people today read a poem like Schuyler's "Korean Mums," which could have been written by someone like Donald Hall, and come up with a way to like it and justify it because, hey, Schuyler's "New York School" and those guys are good. While they read a really weird, relatively challenging Stafford poem like "Epitaph Ending in 'And'" and they easily dismiss it because, hey, Stafford's one of those traditional poets.

At 8/10/2009 9:30 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Anon 1 & 2:

I've long asserted that examples bedevil aesthetic generalizations (which is why so few examples are usually put forward). But we are called upon, for whatever reason, to put things into categories. At least we've convinced ourselves we are so called upon?

Maybe if when someone is talking about strands of poetry, one could add some sort of disclaimor, an "in general" clause, and then list out some names? Somethign like what Burt does in his Close Calls with Nonsense, in regards the Elliptical Poets.

There's a lot more I'd like to say to this, but I'm getting in a car right now to go to Texas for a couple weeks, and don't have the time.

At 8/20/2009 7:24 PM, Blogger David Dodd Lee said...

So, anonymous, you mean to say
Goransson no longer has the right to speak to these political structures--the haves and the have
nots as it were--because he teaches at Notre Dame? So then anyone, a President for example, shouldn't be able to talk against
power or be able to show empathy
for the poor since, being the President now, he'd just come off as a hypocrite if he did so?
We have to be sitting in the ditch
in order to talk about the ditch?
Isn't all this imagination stuff
to at least some degree a thing
that allows us to empathize
with others no matter our station
or plight? I don't find other content in this post or comment stream necessarily uninteresting, but that first assertion doesn't make any sense. How he argues his case is a different story . . .
But if anything more people from
"inside the beltway" should be
addressing these sorts of inequities . . .

At 8/21/2009 8:05 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


True. I wish we could have a fuller conversation about this bit:

"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—"

I can see his point - it's obvious, yes - but it's less so every year. In fact, I think we're getting to a point where this entranched "most" has turned things over to a different sort of generation . . . even if that generation is not as experimental as one might wish.

If I had tons of time, I'd like to do a study. Maybe we could do somethign like that at the next AWP Bookfair. That would be interesting. Maybe make a questionaire?


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