Nothing to Say & Saying It
Searching for a Heartbeat in Poetry & Music
Friday, February 27, 2009
Obama Says Knock You Out, Pt. 2
And some fantasy responses brought to you by google:
Obama says budget focuses on rebuilding America's Superfriends.
Obama says 'lace 'em up' for service.
All photographs taken in Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, Anaheim.
I Ching question this morning shows Renegotiation Must Wait, Obama Says
Rezko cash triple what Obama says
This is what the ancient Chinnese Oracle, the 'Book of Changes' says about the fantasy team.
'I Would Make A Bad President,' Obama Says
Obama says she is looking for a Portuguese water dog
We should keep in mind that it has quickly become President Valentine to women.
Obama Says comic will be generated for you!
So, let’s get some proof behind what Obama says.
Obama says stimulus could grow and pick a fantasy football team.
There are 64 hexagrams in the I Ching.
Obama says he will bankrupt coal industry
President-elect Barack Obama may be coming to Disneyland.
Obama says renewable energy key
Obama Says Internet Key
Check out this sticker called Obama 08, browse the moms and dads.
Obama says 'my Muslim faith' was foretold by the I Ching.
Obama says race isn’t holding him back
Obama Says Building Sprawl Stops Now!
If Obama says 'carbon tax,' do we say 'Comments 0 Comments?’
Do most Americans live in disneyland.
Obama Says “We've Gotta Get Serious”
You can't tell me Obama sees this as important.
He will get to it at some point and DISNEY.
Obama Says 'I Won'
Obama Says a Leader Needs Judgement!
Obama says there are 57 states
Disneyland's founding dedication includes the phrase “here youth may savor an African country beset by political dysfunctionality.”
Obama says Palin's family off limits.
Obama Says Help is Here
Obama Says “Thanks, But No Thanks”
I’m wanting write something about the president, so I went to google.
I typed in “obama says” to get a picture.
I typed in “obama says” to get some sort of quote.
Obama says i won
Obama says 57 states
Obama says knock you out
Obama says he is muslim
Obama says don’t listen to rush
Obama says pull up your pants
Obama says goodbye to bush
Obama says we are no longer a christian nation
Obama says constitution is flawed
Obama says oath again
Another meme is going around. I was tagged by Oliver. So here goes.
20 albums that changed my life. In something like order of importance, or at least autobiographical order.
Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan
“Ballad of a Thin Man”
“Highway 61 Revisited”
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
“Like a Rolling Stone”
After the Goldrush – Neil Young
“Tell Me Why”
“After the Gold Rush”
“Don’t Let it Bring You Down”
Rust Never Sleeps – Neil Young
“Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”
Revolver – The Beatles
“Tomorrow Never Knows”
“She Said, She Said”
(And then The Beatles in general. They were so omnipresent on the radio as I was growing up it was difficult to not be completely swamped by them. Other standout songs: “Come Together,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day in the Life,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Helter Skelter,” etc.)
The Best of Leonard Cohen
“Famous Blue Raincoat”
“Take This Longing”
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Neil Young
“Down By the River”
“Cowgirl in the Sand”
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots – The Flaming Lips
“Do You Realize???”
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1”
The Soft Bulletin – The Flaming Lips
“Waitin’ for a Superman”
“Race for the Prize”
“Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”
Fisherman’s Blues – The Waterboys
“A Bang on the Ear”
Trace – Son Volt
“Tear Stained Eye”
“Ten Second News”
“Out of the Picture”
Remain in Light – Talking Heads
“Once in a Lifetime”
“Houses in Motion”
Kerosene Hat – Cracker
“I Want Everything”
“Sick of Goodbyes”
“Get Off This”
OK Computer – Radiohead
“Exit Music (for a Film”
Automatic for the People - R.E.M
“Man on the Moon”
“Find the River”
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road – Lucinda Williams
“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
Changes One – David Bowie
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Wilco
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”
Don’t Tell a Soul – The Replacements
“I’ll Be You”
Rumors – Fleetwood Mac
“Go Your Own Way”
“Gold Dust Woman”
Bachelor No. 2 – Aimee Mann
“How Am I Different”
Time (the Revelator) - Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
History: America’s Greatest Hits
“A Horse with No Name”
“Sister Golden Hair”
Misterioso – The Thelonious Monk Quartet
“Blues Five Spot”
Time Out – The Dave Brubeck Quartet
“Blue Rondo a La Turk”
“Strange Meadow Lark”
Blue Train – John Coltrane
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
The Whole Forest for the Trees Bit
Here’s my rambling response to the David Orr piece I posted this morning (below).
I contend that “greatness” has left our collective imagination, and that it’s time for it to return (because it really hasn’t left, it’s just gotten warped into other things—into professionalism, for one, but there are others).
Now to say “greatness has left our collective imagination” is not to say necessarily that great poets have left—who knows—any number of poets writing now might be great and we just haven’t realized it yet—I would, by the way, nominate both Michael Palmer and Rae Armantrout as great poets (but I certainly could be wrong). And there’s always the frightening possibility that Billy Collins is great, and I’m busy off looking at the wallpaper. Yikes.
But enough of that. Right now, I’m more interested in the reception of “greatness” in our post-great times, where perhaps we are or are not, as poets, worth our weight in balloons.
The fact that the creative imagination is alive and well in American poetry is everywhere manifest, but the discussion, the real discussion about this imagination is everywhere lacking. One of the main reasons Ashbery is now sitting on the X of greatness has as much to do with people actually talking about his work as it does the work (or his or its aspirations) itself. Harold Bloom helped greatly this notion of Ashbery’s greatness. Of course, in my estimation, the work deserved it, but that doesn’t change that to be great one has to be considered great, and to be considered great one has to be talked about as, well, great.
Writers (mostly poets!) these days have a strong aversion to talking about greatness. Well, I think it’s time to pony up, everybody. We are in a pockets-of-interest time where, if we’re going to talk about poetry it’s either going to be to pitch a panel for AWP about how to sell and market a book, or to celebrate an aspect of the biography of ourselves or others. It’s all well and good to celebrate types of poetry that are reflected in their content, and it’s all well and good to talk about getting published, but I think we could and should do more with what we find truly great in the art of others. The “20 Books” meme that went around facebook last week is a wonderful example of this. It is creating a small but interesting conversation about what our personal reading lists consist of. It’s just one step from that to the next: where is greatness.
We’re in times that call for a large imagination. As goes politics, so must go culture. Here’s is how some poets are attempting to join that cultural conversation:
It’s another sign of hope.
I think that the conversations around postmodernism have, by illustrating all the failures of Modernism, propagated them on a smaller stage, and now that we are done with both, I feel it’s much less interesting to continue to think of hybrids and ghosts, than it is to actually have a conversation about the point we’re making, and to point to the future. I think the poets are already there, it’s just that we’re talking about ourselves with all the wrong words. Or something like that.
I don’t mean this to sound like a rant. If it does, then I’m missing my point, even if what my point is is a bit elusive. And obviously I’m not (I promise) thinking we should all start writing poems about the president (though there might be a bit [ouch] of truth in the accusation that poets these days have more interest in flashy wits than we do in having a point). But I do think we should be reading and talking about poetry in more productive ways, ways that might lead to us actually realizing the worth of some of the great poetry that we have before us.
The Great(ness) Game - David Orr
Just in case you missed it where other blogs linked to it, here it is again, full text. It's one fo the most interesting things on the reception of poetry I've seen in some time. I have several reactions to it that I'm having to think through.
The Great(ness) Game
By DAVID ORR
Published: February 19, 2009
In October, John Ashbery became the first poet to have an edition of his works released by the Library of America in his own lifetime. That honor says a number of things about the state of contemporary poetry — some good, some not so good — but perhaps the most important and disturbing question it raises is this: What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.
That may seem like a strange (and strangely fraught) way of putting things. But the concept of “greatness” has a special significance in the poetry world that it often lacks elsewhere — after all, in most areas of life, greatness is to be cherished, but it isn’t essential. The golf world idolizes Tiger Woods, sure, but duffers will still be heaving 9-irons into ponds long after Woods plays his last major. Poetry can’t be as confident about its own durability. Poetry has justified itself historically by asserting that no matter how small its audience or dotty its practitioners, it remains the place one goes for the highest of High Art. As Byron put it in a loose translation of Horace: “But poesy between the best and worst / No medium knows; you must be last or first: / For middling poets’ miserable volumes, / Are damn’d alike by gods, and men, and columns.” Poetry needs greatness.
Or so the thinking goes, anyway. The problem is that over the course of the 20th century, greatness has turned out to be an increasingly blurry business. In part, that’s a reflection of the standard narrative of postmodernism, according to which all uppercase ideals — Truth, Beauty, Justice — must come in for questioning. But the difficulty with poetic greatness has to do with more than the talking points of the contemporary culture wars. Greatness is — and indeed, has always been — a tangle of occasionally incompatible concepts, most of which depend upon placing the burden of “greatness” on different parts of the artistic process. Does being “great” simply mean writing poems that are “great”? If so, how many? Or does “greatness” mean having a sufficiently “great” project? If you have such a project, can you be “great” while writing poems that are only “good” (and maybe even a little “boring”)? Is being a “great” poet the same as being a “major” poet? Are “great” poets necessarily “serious” poets? These are all good questions to which nobody has had very convincing answers.
STILL, however blurry “greatness” may be, it’s clear that segments of the poetry world have been fretting over its potential loss since at least 1983. That’s the year in which an essay by Donald Hall, the United States poet laureate from 2006 to 2007, appeared in The Kenyon Review bearing the title “Poetry and Ambition.” Hall got right to the point: “It seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition — a modesty, alas, genuine . . . if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense.” What poets should be trying to do, according to Hall, was “to make words that live forever” and “to be as good as Dante.” They probably would fail, of course, but even so, “the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best.” Pretty strong stuff — and one wonders how many plays Shakespeare would have managed to write had he subjected every line to the merciless scrutiny Hall recommends.
Yet many of Hall’s points are still being wrangled over more than 20 years later. In 2005, Poetry magazine published a round-table discussion entitled (naturally) “Ambition and Greatness,” in which participants were alternately put off by the entire idea of “capital-G Great” (as the poet Daisy Fried put it) or concerned that, as the scholar Jeredith Merrin suggested, the contemporary poetry world might be trying “to rewrite ‘great’ as small.” What no participant did, though, was question the implicit premise that greatness isn’t something American poets can take for granted, but rather something they should subject to the analysis of a panel. No one, for instance, said, “Well, obviously we are living in an age of great and hugely ambitious American poetry, so let’s talk about [insert name(s)] and how we all admire and envy [insert work of timeless relevance].” No one even mustered the contrarian hyperbole with which William Carlos Williams greeted “The Waste Land”: “It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.” Instead, the panelists bickered mildly over Elizabeth Bishop (who had been dead for more than 25 years) and Frank O’Hara (who was born 15 years after Bishop but died in 1966), with Adam Kirsch concluding, “Good and enduring as they are, . . . there is something not quite right about calling them great, in the sense that Eliot and Whitman and Dickinson are great.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for either poet. And yet the ambivalence about Bishop’s status in particular is worth pausing over for two reasons. One relates to the structure of the poetry world, and I’ll get to it shortly. The other has to do with the fact that, as I touched on above, words like “great” have a tendency to get a little squirrelly when applied to complex disciplines like poetry. In relatively straightforward activities, such words aren’t as much of a problem. If we’re looking at a series of foot races, for example, it’s not hard to see who finished first the most times (or had the highest average finish), and as a result, whether we call a given runner “great” or “excellent” or “terrific,” we’ll generally have the same thing in mind. Not so with poetry. A list of “great” poets will look quite a bit different from a list of “perfect” poets, which may have almost no overlap with a list of “spectacular” poets, which in turn may be completely different from a list of “sublime” poets. When we talk about poetic greatness, we’re talking about style and persona, even when (or maybe, especially when) we think we aren’t.
OUR largely unconscious assumptions work like a velvet rope: if a poet looks the way we think a great poet ought to, we let him or her into the club quickly — and sometimes later wish we hadn’t. If poets fail to fit our assumptions, though, we spend a lot more time checking out their outfits, listening to their friends’ importuning, weighing the evidence, waiting for a twenty and so forth. Of course, this matters only for poets whose reputations are still at issue. It may have taken Emily Dickinson 100 years to get into the club, but now that she’s there, she’s there. For contemporaries and near contemporaries, though, falling on the wrong side of our intuitions can mean trouble, because those intuitions give rise to chatter and criticism and scholarship that can take decades to clear away.
What, then, do we assume greatness looks like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since our unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.” And the persona we associate with greatness is something, you know, exceptional — an aristocrat, a rebel, a statesman, an apostate, a mad-eyed genius who has drunk from the Fountain of Truth and tasted the Fruit of Knowledge and donned the Beret of. . . . Well, anyway, it’s somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well. Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.
It’s risky, then, to write poems about the tiny objects on your desk. But that’s exactly what Bishop did — and that choice helps explain why she was for a long time considered obviously less “great” than her close friend Robert Lowell. As the poet David Wojahn noted in a letter in response to Poetry’s panel, Lowell was “probably the last American poet to aspire to Greatness in the old-fashioned, capital-G sense.” Lowell had the style: his poetry is bursting with vast claims, sparkling abstractions and vehement denunciations of the servility of the age. And Lowell had the persona: he was a thunderbolt-chucking wild man from one of America’s most famous Bostonian lineages. Bishop, on the other hand, had neither. Her poems open with lines like “I caught a tremendous fish,” and she’s invariably described by critics as “shy,” “modest,” “charming” and so forth. Yet it’s Bishop’s writing, not Lowell’s, that matters more in the poetry world today. “What is strange,” the poet-critic J. D. McClatchy writes, “is how her influence . . . has been felt in the literary culture. John Ashbery, James Merrill and Mark Strand, for instance, have each claimed Bishop as his favorite poet. . . . Since each of them couldn’t be more different from one another, how is it possible?”
It’s possible, one might answer, because Bishop was a great poet, if we take “great” to mean something like “demonstrating the qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.” But our assumptions about how greatness should look, like our assumptions about how people should look, are more subtle and stubborn than we realize. So in certain segments of the poetry world, the solution has been to make Bishop what you might call “great with an asterisk.” In particular, there has been a persistent effort to pair her with the less-talented but greater-looking Lowell, a ploy that resembles the old high school date movie tactic of sending the bookish plain Jane to the prom with the quarterback. (When her glasses are slowly removed by the right man, she’s revealed to have been, all along, totally hot!) In reviewing “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell” for the Book Review recently, William Logan carried this tendency to its logical if nutty conclusion, depicting the two poets as star-crossed lovers despite the fact that (a) Bishop was a lesbian; and (b) Lowell’s only romantic overture to Bishop in their 30-year friendship — and this was a man who would’ve made a pass at a fire hydrant — was met with polite silence by its intended recipient. Yet while this flight of fancy is almost comically unfair to both writers, it does give us a workable if unwieldy model of greatness. Bishop wrote the poems, Lowell acted the part, and if you simply look back and forth fast enough between the two while squinting, it’s possible to see a single Great Poet staring back at you.
Which brings us to the point I mentioned earlier about the structure of the poetry world. Greatness isn’t simply a matter of potentially confusing concepts; it’s also a practical question about who gets to decide what about whom. Our assumptions about poetic greatness are therefore linked to the reputation-making structures of the poetry world — and changes in those structures can have peculiar effects on our thinking. For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club. One had to know the right people; one had to study with the right mentors. The system began to change after the G.I. Bill was introduced (making a university-level poetic education possible for more people), and that change accelerated in the 1970s, as creative writing programs began to flourish. In 1975, there were 80 such programs; by 1992, there were more than 500, and the accumulated weight of all these credentialed poets began to put increasing pressure on poetry’s old system of personal relationships and behind-the-scenes logrolling. It would be a mistake to call today’s poetry world a transparent democracy (that whirring you hear is the sound of logs still busily being rolled), but it’s more democratic than it used to be — and far more middle class. It’s more of a guild now than a country club. This change has brought with it certain virtues, like greater professionalism and courtesy. One could argue that it also made the poetry world more receptive to writers like Bishop, whose style is less hoity-toity than, say, Eliot’s. But the poetry world has also acquired new vices, most notably a tedious careerism that encourages poets to publish early and often (the Donald Hall essay I mentioned earlier is largely a criticism of this very tendency). Consequently, it’s not hard to feel nostalgic for the way things used to be; or at least, the way we imagine they used to be. And this nostalgia often manifests as a preference for a particular kind of “greatness.”
The easiest way to see this phenomenon in action is to look at a peculiar development in American poetry that has more or less paralleled the growth of creative-writing programs: the lionization of poets from other countries, especially countries in which writers might have the opportunity to be, as it were, shot. In most ways, of course, this is an admirable development that puts the lie to talk about American provincialism. In other ways, though, it can be a bit cringe-worthy. Consider how Robert Pinsky describes the laughter of the Polish émigré and Nobel Prize-winning dissident Czeslaw Milosz: “The sound of it was infectious, but more precisely it was commanding. His laughter had the counter-authority of human intelligence, triumphing over the petty-minded authority of a regime.” That’s one hell of a chuckle. The problem isn’t that Pinsky likes and admires Milosz; it’s that he can’t hear a Polish poet snortle without having fantasies about barricades and firing squads. He’s by no means alone in that. Many of us in the American poetry world have a habit of exalting foreign writers while turning them into cartoons. And we do so because their very foreignness implies a distance — a potentially “great” distance — that we no longer have from our own writers, most of whom make regular appearances on the reading circuit and have publicly available office phones.
In addition, non-American writers are the perfect surface upon which to project our desire for the style and persona we associate with old-fashioned greatness. One hesitates to invoke the dread word “colonialism” here, but sometimes you’ve got to call a Mayflower a Mayflower. How else, really, to explain the reverse condescension that allows us to applaud pompous nonsense in the work of a Polish poet that would be rightly skewered if it came from an American? Milosz, for instance, wrote many fine poems, but he was also regularly congratulated for lines like: “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies, / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment, / Readings for sophomore girls.” Any sophomore girl worth her copy of “A Room of One’s Own” would kick him in the shins.
It may be starting to sound as if greatness isn’t all that great; that it’s simply another strategy for concealing predictable prejudices that poets should forswear on their path to becoming wise and tolerant 21st-century artists. That is, however, almost the opposite of the truth. Yes, greatness narrowly defined to mean a particular, windily dull type of writing is something we could all do without, and long may its advocates gag on their pipe smoke and languish in their tweeds. But the idea that poets should aspire to produce work “exquisite in its kind,” as Samuel Johnson once put it, is one of the art form’s most powerful legacies. When we lose sight of greatness, we cease being hard on ourselves and on one another; we begin to think of real criticism as being “mean” rather than as evidence of poetry’s health; we stop assuming that poems should be interesting to other people and begin thinking of them as being obliged only to interest our friends — and finally, not even that. Perhaps most disturbing, we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels. Instead, we cling to the ground in those artists’ shadows — John Ashbery’s is enormous at this point — and talk about how rich the darkness is and how lovely it is to be a mushroom. This doesn’t help anyone. What we should be doing is asking why a poet as gifted as Ashbery has written so many poems that are boring or repetitive (or both), because such questions will allow us to better understand the poems he has written that are moving and funny and beautiful. Such questions might even allow other poets — especially younger poets — to find their own ways of writing poems that are moving and funny and beautiful. Which for those of us who read them, for those of us who believe in them, would be a very great thing indeed.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Allison Benis White - Self-Portrait with Crayon
I feel a lot of the time that I live in a roaring, blowing up, world, so Allison Benis White’s poems seem descriptive to me, but my world and hers are not precisely the same, so her poems a fullness of experience, from the personal to the philosophical. The way the family drama unfolds. The way memory fuses with fiction. So that all things come and come back in competing waves.
Here are a couple short pieces that illustrate some of what I like about the book:
Seated Woman Donning Her Hat
Never mind eternity. The moment before smoke withers it appears animal. A gray back turned above a white, billowed skirt and the charcoal circle fallen around her feet. We will wipe this away later. Her hat is made of ashes. Even with several pins, it is difficult to keep fastened. Arms lifted to center it in the mirror but the tips of the fingers turn black. Whatever she touches afterward leaves headstones of fingertips. Without bodies, they will know where we are. Sifted down her neck and shoulders covered in ash. Her hands held above her head briefly in the air crown the shape of what is no longer there.
Self-Portrait—Red Chalk on Laid Paper
Blood on my forehead before I knew it was blood. It was a low branch and I walked with my head down, listening to a woman. We crossed the parking lot. A few trees planted in rows between cars, and a low branch, a small offshoot trimmed back, almost a fingernail, scraped the top of my head. Of course there was warmth and the strange look on her face, conflated with the color of fingertips. I sat down or crouched and then a white towel she had retrieved from her car, pressed to my forehead. We said things, amazed at the amount. The skin of the scalp is thin. Other people slowed to glance. Periodically pressed to the cut and pulled back to check, the blood on the towel widened, like paper folded in half over paint and opened, as if to say the rest is fascination.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Twenty Poetry Books
I was tagged on facebook to do this, but I thought I might as well do it here instead. The tag was essentially this: “What are 20 poetry books (if there are twenty) that made you fall in love with poetry?”
So here’s my initial playlist. Which is, I’m not claiming these as the best books of all time, and I’m also not claiming them as the books I return to most often, or that they are the best books by the individual poets listed, and I’m also skipping anthologies. These were—simply stated—the ones I came into contact with that changed something fundamental in me at the time, things I’ve remained changed by, organized here roughly in the order in which I encountered them, starting around 1986:
Selected Poems, Robert Lowell
Country Music, Charles Wright
Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens
The Desert Music, William Carlos Williams
Selected Poems, John Ashbery
The Complete Poems, Elizabeth Bishop
Selected Poems, James Tate
Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein
Dark Harbor, Mark Strand
Notes for Echo Lake, Michael Palmer
Region of Unlikeness, Jorie Graham
Of Being Numerous, George Oppen
The Wild Iris, Louise Gluck
Lawn of Excluded Middle, Rosmarie Waldrop
Selected Poems 74-94, Gustaf Sobin
Eyetrouble, Martha Ronk
Chicamauga, Charles Wright
Massacre of the Innocents, Bin Ramke
Viridian, Paul Hoover
Louise in Love, Mary Jo Bang
There are many books I’ve read that are as good as the books on this list, but they came along to support or clarify or otherwise swerve from these core books. The last ten years alone have brought wonderful work that continues to strike me, but trying to name it all would just be impossible. Suffice it to say it’s everything I’ve been talking about on my blog since I started it.
So what core texts do you carry around? What books of poetry have put tapes in your head that continue to play, long after?
Palmer - Lunch Poems - Berssenbrugge
Lunch Poems - Michael Palmer
Michael Palmer is one of the poets I go back to most often, and usually when I go to the Internet to see what he’s up to these days, I come up with “Michael Palmer” the pulp fiction writer. That in and of itself is an interesting journey. But I’m happier to find the Michael Palmer I’m looking for (above). I think of his work (I've said some version fo this a million or so times now) as a sort of “betweening,” which I suppose isn’t much different than the current notion of “hybridity” that’s finding some purchase. He’s both wedded to the lyric, the music of language and thinking, and focused on the action of language happening as overt subject matter. Even as all that sounds a little cumbersome, his poems sound utterly conversational to me, equal parts speculative and humanly voiced.
Lunch Poems - Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
I’m continually interested in Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. She investigates what I guess I could term the “poetics of error” where the words of science are sprinkled, within the logic of grammar but not of "sense," through her sentences that mostly investigate family and friendship. It creates a fascinating kind of prism where any possibility of “truth value” is thwarted, but still a sort of “truth of desire” rises.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
So what are you reading now?
I managed to pick up a few things (Not, by the way, the Gioia. I was enjoying how much I still dislike it all these years later and thought I should share [above]).
Self-Portrait with Crayon, Allison Benis White
The Book of Props, Wayne Miller
Chronic, D.A. Powell
Versed, Rae Armantrout
12X12: conversations in 21st-Century Poetry and Poetics, Mengert & Wilkinson
Lyric Postmodernisms, Reginald Shepherd
Glass Grapes, Martha Ronk
Intervening Absence, Carrie Olivia Adams
The Whole Marie, Barbara Maloutas
Trust, Liz Waldner
The Temple Gate Called Beautiful, David Kirby
THE MS OF MY KIN, Janet Holmes
Lip, Kathy Fagan
Elephants & Butterflies, Alan Michael Parker
Broken World, Joseph Lease
And So, Joel Brouwer
The Currency, Paul Otremba
Rising, Farrah Field
After Dayton, C.S. Carrier
The All-Purpose Magical Tent, Lytton Smith
Torched Verse Ends, Steven D. Schroeder
I’m starting with Self-Portrait with Crayon. I’m a little way in so far and really liking it a lot.
It’s been suggested to me by a friend that I need to check out Michael Dickman's The End of the West. What else am I missing?
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
American Hybrid - Part 4 (I think)
A little more on the new Norton anthology, American Hybrid.
David St. John, from his introduction:
Although I have always distrusted writers who run in packs, I welcome all literary partisanship as a gesture toward what I would call a “values clarification” in poetry. However, let’s be frank. We are at a time in our poetry when the notion of the “poetic school” is an anachronism, an archaic critical artifact of times long gone by. The most compelling new poets today draw from a vast and wildly varied reservoir of resources. Their choices concerning “voice” and stylistic possibility (as well as their attitudes toward aesthetic, theoretical, cultural, and political urgencies) are now articulated as compelling hybridization.
* * *
The most compelling poetry I’ve been reading for the past fifteen years has been that which has ignored and/or defied categorization, poetry that embraces a variety of—even sometimes contradictory—poetic ambitions and aesthetics. These hybridizations of poetic value seem to me all to the good of the individual poet and of American poetry itself.
Monday, February 09, 2009
OK, first of all, I’m NOT going to see John Barr talk on Thursday morning. Apologies. But I’m trying to cut down on things that infuriate me. As for things that don’t infuriate me, first of all, a little business:
The Laurel Review
AWP Bookfair subscription offers:
One-Year subscription, starting with 43.1 (on site): $10.00
Bonus: Free chapbook
Two-Year subscription, starting with 43.1 (on site): $15.00
Bonus: Free Chapbook
Single chapbook subscription
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There are a LOT of things going on around AWP this year. Where do I start?
How about with American Hybrid?
International Ballroom South
R200. American Hybrid: The Meeting of Extremes. (Cole Swensen, Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, Cal Bedient, Lynn Emanuel, Mark McMorris) This panel will address the critical premise behind the 2009 Norton anthology American Hybrid: that the long-standing division in American poetry between tradition and experiment has given way to myriad hybrids informed by both extremes, bringing them into real conversation for the first time. The panelists chosen demonstrate the rich range of our poetic inheritances; their statements on this trend will be followed by a public discussion to explore its potentials and ramifications.
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A lot of people are signing books I've been looking forward to this year: Rae Armantrout, Joseph Lease, J.D. Smith, Wayne Miller, Kathy Fagan (I think?), Chris Carrier, Joel Brouwer, David Kirby, Jake Adam York, and the list goes on and on.
Anyway, I’ll be signing as well:
Table 422: The University of Akron Press
11 – Noon
Map of the Folded World
It’s in limited release, AWP only. And there are a limited number of copies.
The book will officially come out, I think, on or about April 1st?
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And how about those off-site events? There are too many to mention, mostly on Thursday and Friday. Here are a couple:
diode and Anti- Offsite Reading & Reception:
Bob Hicok * Mary Biddinger * Jake Adam York * Paul Guest * Noah Falck * Joshua Ware * Steven Schroeder * G.C. Waldrep * Patrick Lawler * Lee Ann Roripaugh * Brent Goodman * Adam Clay * Matt Guenette * Ada Limon * Beckian Fritz Goldberg
Date: Friday, February 13, 2009
Time: 7:00pm - 10:00pm
Location: Curtiss Hall, 10th Floor, Fine Arts Building
Street: 410 S. Michigan Ave
And then one for Fence on Saturday:
Time: 7:00pm - 10:00pm
Type: Music/Arts - Listening Party
Time and Place Date: Saturday, February 14, 2009
Location: Ganz Hall, Rockefeller University
Street: 50 Congress Parkway
City/Town: Chicago, IL
I’ll be reading here, which looks like fun:
Thursday, February 12, 2009
6:00pm - 8:00pm
5148 North Clark Street
Black Warrior Review, Bat City Review, and Mare Nostrum invite you to an evening of drinks, readings, and conversation with recent contributors to each magazine.
Matthew Zapruder * Betsy Wheeler * John Gallaher * Hadara Bar-Nadav * Elisabeth Benjamin * Jamey Bradbury * Rebecca Hoogs * Brandon Krieg * Zach Savich, * Kevin Craft
Conversation and cash bar from 6:00-6:30pm
Readings from 6:30-8:00pm
Directions to Hopleaf from the Loop:
Take the Red Line north towards Howard. Get off at the Berwyn stop. Walk six blocks left on Berwyn, crossing Broadway, to Clark Street. Take a left on Clark and walk a block and a half south. Hopleaf will be on your right. Reading upstairs.
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On FRIDAY, one gets to choose between perhaps the most unfortunate competing events on the ZWP schedule:
Noon – 1:15
International Ballroom North
F139. Where Parallel Lines Meet: Discussing Relations Among Our Various Contemporary Poetries. (Richard Silberg, Nickole Brown, Mark Doty, Rusty Morrison, Charles Harper Webb, Matthew Zapruder) American poetry has split into a bewildering number of styles that can be as different as Language poetry and Slam poetry. How do our poetries relate: disdain? benign neglect? interest? cross-fertilization? The panelists, widely spaced within the poetic sphere, will each read one of their own poems and then offer a personal response to the question, opening discussion among panelists and between panel and audience.
International Ballroom South
F140. The Poets of American Hybrid. (David St. John, Ralph Angel, Alice Fulton, Rae Armantrout, Peter Gizzi) This reading represents the range and diversity of poetry collected in the new Norton anthology American Hybrid, the premise of which is that the day of "poetic schools" is long over and the best of American poetry has been drawing, for many years, from all aspects of poetic endeavor in this country.
Well, that’s a decision. Maybe one can stand at the partition and get a, um, hybrid experience of the both of them?
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Later that day (Friday), I’m looking forward to this:
3:00 – 4:15
International Ballroom North
F175. The Academy of American Poets Presents Mary Jo Bang & Frank Bidart. (Tree Swenson, Mary Jo Bang, Frank Bidart) Readings by Mary Jo Bang and Frank Bidart. Introductions by Tree Swenson.
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And then, after that, I get to choose between these two. Ouch.
4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
F187. Milkweed Editions Poetry Reading. (Wayne Miller, Eireann Lorsung, Alex Lemon, Melissa Kwasny, Ada Limon, James Cihlar) This reading features new work by five distinctive poets—Ada Limon, Melissa Kwasny, Alex Lemon, Eireann Lorsung, and Wayne Miller—all recently published by Milkweed Editions, one of the largest literary nonprofit publishers in the country. Commemorating Milkweed's twenty-fifth anniversary as a book publisher, this event is an exciting opportunity to discover innovative work. Moderated by Wayne Miller, author of The Book of Props and editor of Pleaides.
F190. Amerika in Chicago. (David Lazar, Kelly Cherry, Ray Gonzalez, Cynthia Hogue, Ander Monson, Diane Wakoski) Come hear a selection of work as Hotel Amerika celebrates its move to a new venue: Columbia College Chicago. Created in 2002 at Ohio University, Hotel Amerika continues to offer its provocative, eclectic mix of work in known and unknown genres by acclaimed and emerging writers.
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If I survive until Saturday, I’ll be on a panel . . . wish me luck.
Also, I'll certainly be here:
Saturday, February 14
1:00pm - 2:00pm
Authors include Paul Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Elizabeth Robinson, Tyrone Williams, Laura Moriarity, and many others.
Saturday, February 07, 2009
Of Mid & West (& Boy Cows)
The Midwest is something to fly over, so that Midwest and mid-air are synonymous.
Artists don’t get a lot of community, a lot of face-time community, with other artists in rural areas, and the Midwest has a large share of rural areas. But the Midwest also has a fair share of large cities, so that the Midwest cannot be one thing. As really any category of any place breaks down into further categories, so that one can’t gesture toward an encompassing definition without rendering all statues headless.
What is community anyway? How about virtual community? One can travel a great distance in one’s armchair in Maryville, MO, population 10, 600, true. That’s my Midwestern small town, much like, I imagine, small towns most anywhere, if not in specifics, than certainly in difference from most cities anywhere. And virtual community counts for a lot. The Internet changes everything. Or nearly everything.
There’s an urban and rural split in America that’s much more important and noticeable than any geographic split, if not in self-definition, or shared text (as most everyone in the US shares the common experience of television anyway), then certainly in daily experience. Why do cities mostly tend toward Democrats and towns toward Republicans? That’s a much more fundamental question for America than regionalism.
Still though, region must matter, but how? There must be something one can say about one region that differentiates it from another. Landscape maybe? Ratio of Wal-Marts to minimum-wage earners?
Ted Kooser feels very Nebraska to me. That would seem a lot of people’s version of the Midwest. But, on the other hand, Keith Waldrop is from Kansas. And James Tate is from Kansas City. Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips live in St. Louis, and their work doesn’t seem to shout out MIDWEST to anyone. Maybe, in a way, though, at least in the work of James Tate, I can imagine I feel a Midwestern sensibility. The difficulty of narrative steeped in an ever-changing past. The continuing problem of the one and the many. But those are as much American themes as they are Midwestern.
Is there a Midwest subject matter? Do we talk about corn more than other people do?
Experience must inform sensibility. Take Back at the Barnyard for instance. Back at the Barnyard is a cartoon on Nickelodeon that is a spin-off of the 2006 film Barnyard. Most interesting for rural viewers, is the fact that the main character, Otis, is apparently a boy cow. The idea of boy cows is a new idea, and one could tip one’s hat to Nick for the progressive inclusion of the first transgender lead in a television show, but for the fact that it’s a completely unintentional inclusion. And the fact that Otis, the macho wannabe boy cow—what would be called a bull otherwise—has prominent udders, and in moments when his loveable cowardice rears its head, he is often heard to exclaim “milk me.” It’s udderly ridiculous, as the over-used joke goes.
Rural Midwesterners, as with any people who know anything about farms other than something one dives by (where one usually only sees cows, so we could excuse the definitional miscue I suppose), can laugh at the television from time to time. As with any “other,” we can laugh at the voice-over narration, as our experience comes back to us warped. But that is still the official voice coming back at us, the “voice that empties” (to use Michael Palmer’s phrase).
There’s a lot of space in the Midwest, but that’s also the case for many other non-urban parts of the US. In the Midwest, much of the space is managed in some way, unlike the open spaces of the West and Southwest, that enter the imagination as wild, the spaces of the Midwest are farmed. Or at least they are imagined that way.
So what have we heard of the Midwest? Well, Midwesterners are, by and large, not boisterous, and their cooking habits tend toward the bland. And there are a lot, a LOT, of white people in the Midwest. And it’s the heartland. When living in the Midwest, however, one does not get the feeling one is at the heart of anything. There’s no more a feeling of what it means to be an American here than there is anywhere else. Newspapers seem to come from far away, always about other people. What they show doesn’t look like anything we see out our windows. Perhaps that’s where the Midwestern, or rural, skepticism comes from. The distrust of government. But yet the Midwest isn’t so far away from the narrative of America that it has the level of militias and doomers as the more exurban states do. That’s certainly something in our favor.
A foreign student (from China) remarked to a colleague of mine that her biggest surprise about coming to Maryville, about as “interior” as one can get in the Midwest, was that we had cars.
I think there is not now, nor was there ever, a Midwest. We’re a myth made up by politicians and writers who needed a location for the “heartland.” They—and we—need a place where there is no flux. A lynch-pin. Something to know of, without question, as America. But even that, I believe, has been replaced, at least for the time being, by the postmodern version of the Midwest, the Suburban Abstract, with its own version of the fantasy of what the rural Midwest was, but with cleaner cars, and curbs, and within easy driving distance of good restaurants.
I tried to complete a circumference. I took out my grandmother’s yardstick, the one she kept behind the dropdown ironing board. I started in Lancaster, Ohio, and then attempted a line to the Arkansas-Missouri border, and then over as far as the eastern Colorado border, and then up into Nebraska as far as Omaha, and then as straight as possible east to the Twin Cities, swallowing Iowa, and then off into the imagination, skipping all the large cities (and the entire Great Lakes region).
I’ve been here now for years and I’ve never found it, as it’s all in the imagination already, there with the Boy Cows and the purely American.
Friday, February 06, 2009
Meanwhile in Akron Ohio
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
American Hybrid - PART 3
Anthologies are highly political things. OK, that’s obvious. But it’s true. All I have to do is think back to my first encounters with the poems of many of the poets I’ve come to admire greatly, and they are almost to a person through anthologies. If they had not been included in that anthology, I might not have found them. Certainly not when I did. And some of those meetings came at very important times for me. Wallace Stevens, for instance.
I can’t stress enough how important two anthologies, specifically, have been for me: The Longman Contemporary American Poetry from the early 80s that Friebert and Young edited, and Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover. The first brought me to poetry, and the second showed me a whole new palette that still holds my attention.
In this light, I’ve been very happy this week to read through American Hybrid. There are very few poets older than 50 whose poetry I admire that are not included here. And while I quibble at the inclusion of some (Dubie and Hass and a few others), thinking that they don’t fit the hybrid definition of the whole, it’s not a big quibble, knowing that anthologies have to stop somewhere (even if it does beg the question that if you’re going to include Hass and Dubie and Emanuel and Galvin and Dean Young, why not include James Tate, say, or Maxine Chernoff, or others, like Gustaf Sobin?).
This anthology does a good job at presenting an interesting slice of what’s being written at or near the center of what does at times feel like a movement. Again, though, it’s only a slice of the picture, which is understandable. An anthology of what’s happening precisely as we speak is going to have to wait. And who will be in that anthology? The anthology of poets who look to many of these poets for company. There are other anthologies, with other agendas. This one fits mine pretty well.
Interesting caveat: while the poets here included span generations (Ashbery and Guest, for example), the poems chosen are mostly very recent. Ashbery, for example, has a poem from A Wave, but then the rest of his poems are selected from the years 1992 to 2005. Another compromise to keep the anthology as contemporary as possible.
It’s all very interesting and fine, clocking in at something like 508 pages, averaging something like 5 or so poems from each poet (and with even huge poets like Ashbery only getting eight, it feels pretty democratic). And here's another option: you can use it as a drinking game. Every time you come across mention of San Francisco or "the bay area" you have to drink. (Please drink responsibly and have a designated driver.)
So finally, I posted the TOC here, a few days ago, with some comments from Cole Swensen about the anthology:
And just to get all the eggs in one basket, here’s my first post on the thing, with comments from others:
And finally, here’s Cole Swensen’s introduction, which is well worth the read:
Introduction to American Hybrid:
A Norton Anthology of New Poetry
The notion of a fundamental division in American poetry has become so ingrained that we take it for granted. Robert Lowell famously portrayed it in the 1950s and 60s as a split between “the cooked and the uncooked,” and Eliot Weinberger updated the assertion over thirty years later in his 1993 anthology American Poetry Since 1950, stating, “For decades, American poetry has been divided into two camps.” Were the poetic landscapes of 1960 and 1993 as similar as these two statements might imply? And where are we in relation to them today, at the end of first decade of the new millennium? This anthology springs from the conviction that the model of binary opposition is no longer the most accurate one and that, while extremes remain, and everywhere we find complex aesthetic and ideological differences, the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of previous “camps” in diverse and unprecedented ways.
The history of the two-camp model has been well documented in various places, so I won’t recapitulate it here except to briefly argue that the term “model” gives an overly static impression. Far from set, it’s a continually evolving situation with roots going back to the end of the 19th century and the birth of the avant-garde. Writer and translator Paul Auster has made the astute observation that most 20th-century American poets took their cue either from the British poetic tradition or from the French. And while all were influenced by the Romantics, on the one hand, and the Modernists, on the other, resulting in lineages that developed with much cross-pollination, Auster’s distinction presents a useful model. It lets us follow one thread that inherited a pastoral sensibility from British Romanticism, emphasizing the notion of man as a natural being in a natural world, informed by intense introspection and a belief in the stability and sovereignty of the individual. Christopher Beach epitomized this trend in the work of two poets, saying, “The poetry of Robinson and Frost suggested one possible direction for American poets in the twentieth century: a reworking of traditional lyric forms that would require no radical break from nineteenth-century poetic convention.” Lack of a radical break, however, does not mean lack of change, and poets following this vein continued to refine and augment this lyric verse model in rich and diverse ways, some of which look dramatically different from their precursors.
The second prominent line of poetic thinking stems from the urbane modernism of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire and moved from there into an increasing emphasis on the materiality of the text as developed by the early 20th-century avant-gardes, a lineage fueled in part by the belief that meaningful change in the arts requires dramatic rupture. In Charles Altieri’s words, these were poets who “considered their work a challenge to traditional notions of poetry.” This trend is marked, on the one hand, by innovations in form, from Baudelaire’s prose poems to Mallarmé’s revolutionary use of the page, and by a relentless look at contemporary society, on the other, which also included Apollinaire’s enthusiasm for the Eiffel Tower and Marinetti’s for the automobile. All were expressions of a dawning sensibility that Rimbaud captured in the simple statement, “We must be absolutely modern,” which refused sentimentality as much as his “I is an other,” invited it back in through a sense of loss so absolute it put the individual’s claim to authority forever at bay.
This split is more than a stylistic one; it marks two concepts of meaning—one as transcendent, the other as immanent. Thus, 20th-century American poetry offers both a model of the poem as a vehicle for conveying thoughts, images, and ideas initiated elsewhere, a model that recognizes language as an accurate roadmap for or system of referring to situations and things in the real world, and a model of the poem as an event on the page, in which language, while inevitably participating in a referential economy, is emphasized as a site of meaning in its own right, and poetry is recognized as uniquely capable of displaying that.
While many American poets throughout the 20th century would not fit neatly into one mode or the other, the perspective of a hundred years reveals an overall pattern in which this split leads through various modifications, infiltrations, and permutations to the “anthology wars” of the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Donald Allen’s 1960 collection The New American Poetry brought to light the margins that had been thriving for years around a poetic center delineated by Hall, Pack, and Simpson’s 1957 anthology New Poets of England and America, as well as other anthologies edited by Auden, Ciardi, and Rolfe Humphries earlier in the 1950s. Those anthologies had consolidated an English-language voice distinct from a more continentally-inflected modernism and honed by the New Criticism to reflect certain formal and ideological values. The ideal poem in New Critical terms was self-contained, refined, precisely formed, detached, and difficult in the sense that it required, and rewarded, careful study. As Pack argued, the good poem “deepens upon familiarity.” Many of the writers Allen presented, by contrast, were to be grasped in an instant; their work was spontaneous, raw, illogical, and exuberant, and while he included others who were more measured and studied, it was often in traditions unfamiliar to contemporary literature departments or understood quite differently. Overall, the forms that Allen’s poets employed were open and unprecedented, their subjects at times irreverent, and their emotional registers unfettered. Their emblematic phrases, such as O’Hara’s “You’ve got to go on your nerve,” or Ginsberg’s “improvised poetics,” underscored their affinity with Olson’s “Projective Verse,” which advocated a mode of poetic composition epitomized by Creeley’s famous statement that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Taken as a whole, the stance of the “new American poets” seemed to posit a vibrant faith in intuition and chance over deliberation and intentionality. Though Allen’s anthology covered a vast range, from the esoteric historicism of Duncan to Spicer’s playful timelessness to Ginsberg’s bardic momentum, it effectively brought all these marginal poetries together, naming them and throwing them into sharp focus, which marked the beginning of their demarginalization.
And it changed American poetry tremendously, to such a degree that by 1982, the year of Allen’s sequel volume The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited, co-edited with George Butterick, his opposition had all but joined him. Though excellent poets were still writing with the formal tension that had typified much poetry of the 1950s, their numbers were fewer, and free-verse was increasingly prevalent, based in a natural language modeled on Williams, but also importantly influenced by the Beat poets and all they had inherited from Whitman, including the Romantic impulse to see man’s corollary in nature. The mainstream verse of the day retained much of the New Critical sense of shape, however: the poem remained a tight construct with a distinct beginning and end, but it had a much more personal tone, having incorporated the centrality of self and the belief in the importance of individual history that distinguished Confessional poetry, a stance whose influence grew continually throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Also increasingly prevalent was the sense of the magical, transformative potential of quotidian epiphany that the Deep Image movement had fashioned from of the vestiges of European Surrealism.
This, then, was the new mainstream, and it, too, had opposition, which, to some degree, retained the forms of Allen’s original categories, with their more ragged, open-ended shapes and their ongoing interrogation of the relationship between self and voice. But the distinction was no longer so sharp, and several poets included in Allen’s first anthology, such as Gary Snyder, were writing the epitome of what had become the new mainstream epiphanic lyric. Others, such as John Ashbery, had moved into the mainstream through publishing and awards while continuing their varied experiments. But an entirely new opposition arose as well, one that, ironically, shared some points with the New Criticism in its rigor, its interest in the difficult, and its demand that the poem be a worked object of art, rather than a spontaneous expression of personal feeling. However, it opposed New Criticism in even more, and more important, ways, including its social and political convictions, its appreciation of the avant-garde, and its sense of history. Though broadly based, this new opposition was most readily visible in the Language poets, who, as Robert Grenier indicated in his famous “I HATE SPEECH!,” rejected the abiding emphasis on orality that stemmed from Olson, the Beats, and the New York School and problematized the natural language of the post-Confessionalists by interrogating its “naturalness” and finding it illusory. Instead, acknowledging language as a social construct, they focused on the surface of the text, emphasizing its materiality along the lines of the Russian Futurists, and the inherently political nature of language along the lines of the Objectivists. They also critiqued the arbitrary nature of genre distinctions by creating texts that fused poetry, criticism, and philosophy. Like all the twentieth-century movements that preceded them, from the Modernists to the Confessionalists to the Beats, they too, opened poetry up to new subject matter, but this time the subject was international critical discourse.
Opposition to the new mainstream came from yet another direction as well in the form of a resurgence of formalist work. Sometimes linked with New Narrative poetry under the banner of “expansive poetry,” New Formalism had its roots in the 1970s with X. J. Kennedy’s journal Counter/Measures, but really took off in the mid-’80s with the publication of Philip Dacey and David Jauss’s anthology Strong Measures and Robert Richman’s The Direction of Poetry, followed in the ’90s by other anthologies and the journal The Formalist. Focused on the beauty of constraint as an imaginative and intellectual stimulus, these poets not only revived old forms but renewed them through contemporary phrasing and subject matter. Other poets, while not writing in forms per se, were inspired by the movement to select specific formal elements and make use of them to give more structure and ornament to the dominant free-verse lyric.
In short, the two camps that dominated American poetry in the 1980s were very different from those of 1960, and the situation by the mid-’90s looked as different again. One of the main differences was that binary opposition had begun to break down, notwithstanding three major anthologies designed around it. Indeed, as those anthologies attest, all opposition had not evaporated; it quite likely never will. Yet now, almost fifteen years later, American poetry finds itself at a moment when idiosyncrasy rules to such a degree and differences are so numerous that distinct factions are hard, even impossible, to pin down. Instead, we find a thriving center of alterity, of writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits developed by everyone from the Romantics through the Modernists to the various avant-gardes, the Confessionalists, Allen’s margins, and finally to Language poetry and the New Formalists. The product of contradictory traditions, today’s writers often take aspects from two or more to create poetry that is truly postmodern in that it’s an unpredictable and unprecedented mix.
The New (Hy)Breed
The hybrid poem is one that has selectively inherited from both principal paths of development outlined above. It shares affinities with what Ron Silliman has called “Third Wave Poetics” and with what is increasingly known as “post-avant” work, though its range is broader, particularly at the more conservative end of its continuum. And Stephen Burt touched on something similar when he introduced the term “elliptical poetry” in a review in 1998. Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first-person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with “conventional” work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of “experimental” work, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools, each one of which changes dramatically depending on the others with which it’s combined and the particular role it plays in the composition.
Hybrid poems often honor the avant-garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry—thereby increasing the expressive potential of language itself—while also remaining committed to the emotional spectrum of lived experience. As different as these two goals might seem, they’re both essentially social in nature and recognize a social obligation—and as such, they demonstrate poetry’s continued relevance. Hybrid poetry speaks out, but in ways that avoid echoing the canned speech that has become so prevalent in this age in which fewer and fewer people control more and more of the media. While political issues may or may not be the ostensible subject of hybrid work, the political is always there, inherent in the commitment to use language in new ways that yet remain audible and comprehensible to the population at large.
While the new is an important common denominator of much hybrid work, it is a combinatory new, one that recognizes that “there is nothing new under the sun” and has embraced the postmodern understanding of the importance of connection: that given elements are often less crucial than the relationships that bind them. Some hybrid writers address the complexities of the new with an interest in repetition and collage, devising ways that similarity and novelty can be combined in a generative manner. And many hybrid writers go beyond novelty to incorporate the strange, the odd, and the uncanny. In fact, it was precisely a sensitivity to the strange that instigated the bridge between earlier poetic extremes through their common willingness to acknowledge the limits of human knowledge and to refuse to let them be limiting. Harold Bloom has argued that “a mode of originality that… cannot be assimilated” is the determining element of the literary,3 and these works exhibit precisely the irreducibility that triggers the “uncanny startlement” of which he speaks. Hybrid writing tolerates a high degree of the restless, the indeterminate, and the uncanny because, like the best writing of any era, it doesn’t seek to reinforce received ideas or social positions but to break open new arenas of sensation and experience.
Much hybrid work is being written by writers under forty who reconfigure and even reinvent the various moves of preceding decades, but the trend toward hybridization was actually led by writers of earlier generations who continued to push their styles and their underlying principles, even if that meant abandoning stances for which they’d become well-known. Among the writers in this volume are first-generation members of several tendencies, including the epiphanic lyric, Deep Image, the New York School, and Language poetry. Often these poets have retained much of their earlier sensibilities, but have opened them up to additional modes, broadening their audiences as well as their own voices. The earliest-born writer here, Barbara Guest, is perhaps the quintessential hybrid poet—first identified with the New York School in Allen’s The New American Poetry, she followed her explorations through permutations that, a decade or so later, identified her with the Language poets. In subsequent years, she published works that ranged from anecdotal and narrative prose poetry to abstract minimalism that maximized the meaning of page space, and her final volume, The Red Gaze, includes many short lyrics based on readily accessible, concrete imagery.
This volume also includes many second-generation members of various schools as well as many poets who began writing in the late 1980s and early 90s, at a time when the experimental vs. conventional binary had begun to break down due to specific historical developments, one academic, the other technological, that transformed two of poetry’s principal centers of force, universities and publishing.
The Current Landscape
“Academic” is always a problematic term in poetry, and its meaning has changed considerably in the past fifty years. Once shorthand for the distilled and allusive, the crystallized and formally precise, the term currently evokes two very different sets of interests. One is the relatively new branch of graduate studies, creative writing workshops. From a few scattered programs in the 1960s, the number has mushroomed to 325, including MFAs, MAs, and PhDs, in the country today.4 Workshops have changed the tone of poetic criticism by extending it beyond the critics to the poets themselves; they’ve also legitimized practice as a viable site of study, created communities centered around a fusion of creativity and analysis, and brought the work of very recent or contemporary poets into literary studies curricula.
The expansion of workshop-based programs and the trickling-down of creative writing classes into undergraduate and community college curricula have created teaching jobs for hundreds of poets, giving them careers that continually deepen their historical and critical understandings and leave them with more time for their own writing than they would have in most other professions. All in all, workshops foster a kind of poet-professor that recalls the early days of New Criticism.
As graduate creative writing programs proliferated, they also diversified, and now run the gamut from academically rigorous PhD programs with creative dissertation options to programs based in fine arts schools, such as the ones at Otis College, the California College of Arts, and the Chicago Art Institute, that emphasize writing’s commonalities with the visual and performing arts and offer a different perspective on aesthetic criteria. This great range of programs unsettles the position of poetry writing in academia by raising the question of whether it belongs in the art department or the English department, thus revealing that it’s a slightly awkward fit in either case. It may be precisely this inability to fit neatly into any department or school that will keep contemporary poetry from ever getting subsumed by the academy, which will guarantee it a sufficient degree of autonomy to follow its own course while also staying informed on the intellectual issues of the day, which are indispensable to that course.
Such intellectual issues are behind the other meaning that the term “academic” has acquired for poetry since the early 1980s, and it came from the direction of the Language poets. On the whole, they were not, like their Beat and New York School predecessors, content to let the poem just happen; they wanted to know why and how it happened, and what the social and political implications would be. From the movement’s inception in the mid-1970s, public lectures, debates, and critical and theoretical writings were an important part of its activities. These writers were in particular concerned with exploding the myth of the ahistorical through examining poetry’s connections to contemporary social structures and further developing its theoretical underpinnings. During the 1980s and ’90s, many people associated with Language poetry took jobs in universities, often in literature, critical studies, and even philosophy departments, rather than in creative writing programs. Though equal in rigor, this new academicism differed from that of the 1950s in its insistence on seeing poetry as one aspect of a complex network that is itself the product of various historical, economic, and cultural forces. It also differed in exercising an aesthetically experimental rather than conservative perspective, supported by decidedly leftist social and political interests.
With poetry’s position in academia leaning in two directions, serious students are often exposed to both the conventional and the experimental, but unlike their elders, they don’t necessarily feel that they have to choose between them. Instead, they see both presented as viable approaches and sanctioned by the same institutions.
If the university is one primary force in American poetry, publishing is the other, and it, too, has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. While small presses and magazines, from the early issues of Poetry and later reviews such as Corman’s Origins to the mimeograph revolution of the 1960s, played an important role in the development of avant-garde poetries in the United States, they remained relatively marginalized, and the post-World War II publishing establishment based in New York was seriously rivaled by only a few university presses and “alternative” ones such as City Lights, New Directions, and Grove. However, by the 1980s, the phenomenon of the university press had spread so much that it played a substantial role in poetry publication, which from there, grew into a sturdy three-tiered structure, still dominated by the New York houses, followed by university presses, and then by pioneering small presses such as Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Black Sparrow, and Burning Deck. The most recent step in that shift has been the explosion of the bottom tier until, in terms of sheer numbers, the bottom is now the top. Though earlier canon-makers, such as FSG and Penguin, still maintain important poetry lists, these constitute a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall number of poetry books published annually in the country, and their influence is increasingly mitigated by that of the dozens of small presses now thriving because of the past twenty years’ technological changes in typesetting, design, and printing.
One effect of these changes is that poets themselves are increasingly deciding who gets published, often with little or no need to consider sales, and they are marketing their books through the Internet directly to targeted audiences. In all respects, the role of the Internet has been considerable. It not only facilitates production and distribution, it also functions as a publisher itself. While it would be utopian to say that it constitutes a mode of production with truly democratic access, it has broadened access sufficiently to constitute a decentralizing force and has complicated the accepted avenues of career and canon building. A whole world of poetry writing and publishing has grown up there, just below the radar of the traditional poetry-reading public, which is itself constantly evolving and, more and more, includes people who routinely use the web for information and entertainment.
The Internet has also engendered forms unique to itself, both in publishing and in writing. Its unrestricted length and flexible format offer publishing options that print cannot. Many Internet journals are using the web simply as an affordable alternative to print, but others are using it for its unique features, incorporating moving or transforming elements, video clips, and audio dimensions. Others combine creative outlets with informative ones, using hypertext to send readers to related sites, encouraging other lines of pursuit that lead ever-outward, operating in a rhizomatic rather than an arboreal fashion.
Where Does That Leave Us?
The rhizome is an appropriate model, not only for new Internet publications, but also for the current world of contemporary poetry as a whole. The two-camp model, with its parallel hierarchies, is increasingly giving way to a more laterally-ordered extensive network composed of intersections, or hubs, that branch outward toward smaller hubs, which themselves branch outward in an intricate and ever-changing structure of exchange and influence. Some hubs may be extremely experimental, and some extremely conservative, but many of them are true intersections of these extremes, so that the previous adjectives—well-made, decorous, traditional, formal, and refined, as well as spontaneous, immediate, bardic, irrational, trans-logical, open-ended, and ambiguous—all still apply, but in new combinations. Such hybridity is, of course, in itself no guarantee of excellence, and the decentralizing influences cited above make it harder to achieve a consensual judgment or even to maintain stable critical criteria; instead, these factors put more responsibility on individual readers to make their own assessments, which can, in turn, create stronger readers in that they must become more aware of and refine their own critical criteria.
While the principal catalysts of this shift may be changes in education and technology, additional factors have anticipated, augmented, and implemented it in ways that have determined its character thus far. Women have played a particularly important role in creating sites for discussing and welcoming these changes. A few specific instances include the conference held in April of 1999 at Barnard College titled “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary Poetry by Women,” and the “Page Mothers” conference held a month earlier, in March of 1999, at UC San Diego, which focused on the crucial work of women in publishing in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the ways in which book and journal production have helped remap contemporary poetry.
Just as the shift in gender balance played an important role, increased internationalism and multiculturalism have also had a hand in broadening the aesthetic field, dispersing critical attention, and decentralizing power. Though the first word in our anthology’s title is “American,” it’s increasingly difficult to say just what the “American” in American poetry is. More and more poets writing and publishing in the United States were born and raised in other countries, and various poets in this volume come from China, England, Lebanon, Germany, Jamaica, Canada, Korea, and elsewhere—it’s a truly wide range of cultures that filters into this work. In addition, many of the poets presented here routinely spend part of each year out of the country, and though they all write in English, for some it is not their native language, and many write in other languages as well. These factors position a linguistic differential at the center of the work that keeps the English language questioning its parameters.
For many of these writers, translation is also an essential aspect of their writing practice, and, as it’s a discipline that constantly folds difference into the core of personal linguistic landscapes, it imports these differences—of form, sound, syntax, perspective, etc.—into American poetics as a whole.
Translation is also a literary practice that casts creation out, away from the creating “I” into a more public realm, and that same gesture is made by the many poets represented here who work editing, publishing, and producing the poetry of others through reading series and other modes of public access. By thus creating literature on the most concrete, material, and social level, these writers extend the Rimbaudian “I is an other” beyond the estrangement inherent in committing the first person singular to paper and into a socially creative act—it literally creates the society in which it can thrive. Many of these poets also work in other media—in theater, in music, and in the visual arts. Some incorporate language into their paintings and sculptures, intentionally complicating the ‘materiality of the word,’ while others incorporate images as integral elements of their texts.
Poetry is eternally marked by, even determined by, difference, but that very difference changes and moves. At the moment, it is moving inside, into the center of the writing itself, fissuring its smooth faces into fragments that make us reconsider the ethics of language, on the one hand, and redraft our notions of a whole, on the other. Putting less emphasis on external differences, those among poets and their relative positions, leaves us all in a better position to fight a much more important battle for the integrity of language in the face of commercial and political misuse. It’s a battle that brings poetry back to its mandate as articulated by Mallarmé: to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe. It’s something only poetry can do.