Armantrout Is to Ashbery as Who is to Who?
“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.
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.
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.