Saturday, February 13, 2010

Armantrout Is to Ashbery as Who is to Who?

Stephen Burt on Mark Bibbins:

“Bibbins does not write an entirely new kind of poetry (it is a very rare poet who does): he writes a kind perhaps 15 years old, old enough to have prompted reductions to absurdity (as in some of the poetry now called Flarf) and worthy counterrevolutions (as in some of the poets published by Flood). Yet it is a kind that still works, whenever (as here) it takes an interest not only in words on the loose, on bits of culture in the wind, but in people who mean those words or cherish those bits, who watch their city as they watch and love and often lose one another, caught up or caught out amid the mercurial fun.”

It’s a good review of a good book. So there’s that, of course, to merit mentioning it here, but what’s really interesting me is this sense that (and I’ve read this in other recent things from Burt) the time of Bibbins’s poetry, the, for want of a better term, heroic period, is over, and that this being over or passed must be mentioned. There was a direct treatment of this when Burt was writing in Boston Review about what he sees coming next, what he’s nodding to here as the Flood counterrevolution (I’d also toss Black Ocean and Octopus in there, to help define out the area). It’s a fascinating, if elusive, conversation to have and I wish I were having lunch right now with someone who wanted to have it.

(NOTE: As part of the conversation I wish I were having I’d at some point move away from the shifting playing field of period styles and mention period content. How, regardless of style, certain obsessive images permeate the period style. Remember angels? It seems a couple years ago you couldn’t open a book without paragraphs of them tumbling out on their wingèd feet. And then they were replaced by birds. And now it seems birds are getting a little long in the tooth and I’m wondering what’s coming next. I vote for clouds, by the way.)

What does it mean that the poetry that Mark Bibbins’s Dance of No Hard Feelings represents is 15 years old, and that counterrevolutions have erupted in its wake?

One of the poets said (I believe by Burt, but also by others) to be an initiating figure for this school that includes Bibbins (sorry for the clumsy taxonomy, but what are we supposed to call it?) is John Ashbery, whose first book came out over 50 years ago, and one of the poets said by Burt (if I’m remembering correctly) to be an initiating figure for the Flood (etc.) counterrevolution is Rae Armantrout, so that Rae Armantrout, who has been publishing books for over 30 years, is back as a new kid on the block. If I’m imagining correctly here, that means that even as these two movements can be said to lead or follow, it can also be said that they overlap, interpenetrate, and depend upon one another.

Rae Armantrout

To support this, I would say that there’s no major difference in the world represented by Armantrout or Ashbery. What I mean by that is that Ashbery, to me, moves through plenitude (or Planisphere, if I’m feeling clever), or, in more practical language, by tossing as much in as possible, while Armantrout, to me, moves though attenuation, or by keeping as much out as possible. To me that’s a superficial difference, and not one, at least in the way I’m reading them, to marshal the troops over.

John Ashbery

But I’d want this to be part of a conversation, as I’m not really all that wedded to what I’m saying. I could imagine restraint (Armantrout) and exuberance (Ashbery) as opposed, and I can see why others might as well, though I still keep going back to the fact that the restraint of Armantrout (etc) is the silence over a great leap of association that is then picked up on the other side. In that way, it feels less a restraint in the manner of Kay Ryan (who is the current poster poet for artistic and intellectual restraint) and more a suggested plenitude more in line with Ashbery (etc). Just to keep the binaries moving, I would posit C.K. Williams as the flipside to Kay Ryan. He represents the exuberance that is in tune with her attenuation, as Ashbery does with Armantrout.

Is it possible to have a friendly counterrevolution? Maybe that’s what I’m wondering. When I think of literary revolutions, I think of Lowell’s Life Studies turn, and how Tate freaked out over it. Or James Wright’s turn. Or Adrienne Rich’s turn.

It’s just difficult for me to imagine Graham Foust (as Flood champion) and Mark Bibbins (as 15 year old stye champion) facing each other on Main Street. The town seems big enough for the both of them. On the other hand, I could imagine either one deciding to face off with Kay Ryan or C.K. Williams, which is a good thing.


At 2/13/2010 2:03 PM, Blogger Elisa Gabbert said...

Ha! My friends know me as the cloud poet. I hope I'm remembered as being on the leading edge of the trend.

At 2/14/2010 8:49 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I was thinking "ghost," but then wrote "cloud." That happens a lot.

The good thing about ghosts and clouds is that they allow for all sorts of angels and birds. "Cloud angel" and "Ghost bird," for example.

Move 42!

At 2/16/2010 8:35 AM, Blogger Meg said...

I was reading this....and then I wondered how many average Joes would know who Armantrout or Ashbery are?

I had to laugh you know.


At 2/16/2010 9:18 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Well, on the other hand, how many regular Joes know any living poets?

Or dead ones that have been dea less than 50 years...

At 2/17/2010 6:00 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Is the town big enough, or are they comfortable enough with their parts of it.

At 2/17/2010 6:28 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


That was a not very useful side track for me to get to, wasn't it. I think "being comfortable" and the creation of art are usually not helpful to each other.

Rather than "big enough" I think the allusion I was trying to make is that I see the production of art as an attempt to come into productive association with one's time, and when art doesn't do that, it becomes something to disagree with . . . hence my High Noon ending, though I don't see art fights as anything very violent. Just larger acts of revision, I guess.

Or something like that.

At 2/17/2010 7:43 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Art fights are silly, but if we didn't react physically when we read, how good could the good work be?

Or: Poets exist mainly to keep other poets from writing.

At 2/17/2010 7:58 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Whose is the voice that empties?

-Michael Palmer

But art fights are the best! Especially in Jell-O.

At 2/17/2010 8:17 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

That Michael Palmer line reminds me of something Chevy Chase says to Ted Knight in Caddyshack.

If we get to talk at AWP or somewhere I'll tell you the line.

At 2/18/2010 6:17 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Yikes, but in a good way.

At 2/22/2010 9:33 AM, OpenID Worthyb said...

Hi! I just stumbled on your blog, and I love it. I'm having my first collection come out in April and I guess I sort of tap into that collision of poetry-into-flarf. I just found out about the phrase "Flarf" several months ago. It seems somewhat inaccurate, a critical term rather than a craftsman's term.


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