In which Tony Hoagland applauds Lyn Hejinian’s Poetry
In the “A for Effort” category, we have Tony Hoagland’s interesting and problematic model:
For Hoagland to achieve the sort of largesse he’s attempting as an observer of contemporary poetry, he has to figure out how to talk about that type of poetry that he’s both drawn to and repulsed by, and he’s been trying to write his way into it for quite awhile now.
Here’s the frame:
…one by Wordsworth, one by Stevens:
type a: Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
type b: The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.
These two assertions, though not opposed, place distinctly different emphases on the function of poetry. The first description, Wordsworth’s, suggests that poetry is a means of gaining perspective on primary experience: powerful emotions can be gathered, then dynamically relived, translated, and digested in the controlled laboratory of the poem—by proxy, such a poem also constructs perspective for the reader.
In contrast, Stevens’s description implies that the poem and the reader engage in a sort of muscular struggle with each other—that struggle is how they become intimate, how they really “know” each other. Stevens suggests that a good poem, as part of its process, resists, twists, and enmeshes the reader (and perhaps the poet as well), an engagement in which perspective is challenged, and by no means guaranteed.
I don’t want to trouble the waters too much at the onset, but I have to mention that there’s a problem with using the Stevens in this way, as Stevens’s assertion here doesn’t necessarily have to do with the reader at all. “The intelligence” can have as much to do with the writer, on the one hand, and, on the other, the intelligence is not the totality of the reader, which is: The reader is not being resisted, just the intelligence. I think that’s an important distinction. It’s not the writer vs the reader here, but the imagination vs the intelligence.
And, thinking a little further, as he's saying this Type A poetry takes "recollected in tranquility" as its entry point, is Hoagland getting close to theorizing Ron Silliman's "Quietude"?
But, after that, I’m fascinated by Hoagland’s journey and I applaud his tenacity. But what do we have to say about this essay, though? Is he spot on, or does he miss the mark. Hoagland observes:
What do we, as readers, want from a poem? On the one hand, plenty of poetry readers are alive and well who want to experience a kind of clarification; to feel and see deeply into the world that they inhabit, to make or read poetry that “helps you to live,” that characterizes and clarifies human nature. To scoff at this motivation for poetry because it is “unsophisticated” or because it seems sentimental—well, you might as well scoff at oxygen.
Similarly, to dismiss the poetry of “dis-arrangement,” the poetry that aims to disrupt or rearrange consciousness—to dismiss poems that attract (and abstract) by their resistance, thus drawing the reader into a condition of not-entirely-understanding—such a dismissal also seems to foreclose some powerful dimensions of poetry as an alternate language, a language expressive of certain things otherwise unreachable. Perhaps language as a study of itself has ends which are otherwise unforeseeable.
In our time, this bifurcation of motives among poets has become so pronounced as to be tribal. The polarization in premises has been further enhanced by a whole generation of poets who have been intellectually initiated into critical perspectives on language and meaning which render all forms of “recognition art” suspect, problematical—or, even worse, boring. Because the fit between the human mind, the actual world, and language is imperfect, is fraught with distortion, to manifest those distortions in poems has come to constitute a subject matter, even an idiomatic universe of its own, accompanied by a host of lyrical conventions and manners.
The poetry of perspective is well known in its essentials—it is an integral part of the history of rational humanism. This essay will focus on the relatively more recent poetry of “resistance,” the poetry of derangement, and try to exemplify some of the contemporary options.
He has a couple points, and is supposing we all are fine and agree with point number one, that “On the one hand, plenty of poetry readers are alive and well who want to experience a kind of clarification; to feel and see deeply into the world that they inhabit, to make or read poetry that “helps you to live,” that characterizes and clarifies human nature. To scoff at this motivation for poetry because it is “unsophisticated” or because it seems sentimental—well, you might as well scoff at oxygen.”
True, one should not scoff, but I imagine one could feel that there is a large strand of this type of poetry that is reductive of the human condition, and that it should be resisted as a sort of secular propaganda, as it gives false color to being in the world, which actually hinders our full living in the world rather than helping it. So, for me, I’d like to see some sort of explanation of how these poems “clarify” when one could just as readily see the tendency to more often glaze over, and how they “see deeply” when one could see them instead do a sort of pop psychology dance with family and history that is anything but deep. But, in general, I will take his point. This is the popular strand of poetry, one that we are to take for granted and not theorize or need to explain. The other tendency, though, needs some explaining.
And from that second strand, he sees a period style emerge:
One might extrapolate from these several examples [George Oppen, John Ashbery, Karen Volkman, Lewis Warsh, Ben Lerner, Rusty Morrison, C.D. Wright, Jorie Graham, D.A. Powell, James Tate, Lyn Hejinian] the features of a period style. Here are the characteristics I observe:
1. A heavy reliance on authoritative declaration.
2. A love of the fragmentary, the interrupted, the choppy rhythm.
3. An overall preference for the conceptual over the corporeal, the sensual, the emotional, the narrative, or the discursive.
4. A talent for aphorism.
5. Asides which articulate the poem’s own aesthetic procedures, premises, and ideas.
Surely I am over-generalizing and omitting some things. But it is curious how much contemporary poetry bears some combination of these stylistic features, even when the poets are concerned with quite different possibilities of poetry.
I’m changing my mind about the idea of a “period style,” the more I think about it. I was, recently, arguing against this sort of characterization, as this characterization (as he’s attempting it) is of a decidedly small number of poems being written (as one can extrapolate from the examples). My thinking was that the period style is what is most common in the period, and what is most common in this period is much more like the poetry of Reginald Gibbons than it is the poetry of Rusty Morrison. But the more I think of the period styles of previous decades and generations, the more I’m being reminded that any period style is a decidedly minority style that lingers long after the more common types of poems from that time are forgotten. Modernism is a good example.
So Hoagland is right, I think, in saying that our period style is going to be defined by the future as something other than what is most common in the poetry being written, but the jury is still out on if it’s going to be on the sort of poetry he’s using as examples here.
Don’t get me wrong, I hope he’s right, because the sort of poetry he’s talking about here is just the sort of poetry I tend to like, and I’d like to think that what I like is what is going to be the period style. Still, though, the examples bear little resemblance to the poetry of Reginald Gibbons (where Reginald Gibbons stands as a place holder for any number of poets from Rita Dove to whomever), and, looking at the awards for poetry handed out in most years, they are going to poetry that is decidedly NOT what Hoagland is describing (to take his examples as, well, examples). So is there always to be this disconnect between that which is called the period style and that which wins the poetry awards in the period? Probably. As one could posit there isn't ONE period style, but many. Or at least TWO.
Or, to look at what he writes above as a description of the [one] period style without the example poems to clutter the issue (or to focus our attention), maybe he’s simply being too general (as he tries to cicumvent by acknowledging)? I mean, if a description could be said to encompass the work of both Dean Young and Lyn Hejinian (or Kay Ryan and John Ashbery), is it much of a description? Or maybe that’s the point, to use examples from a very narrow slice of the poetry pie, but to take from it a description general enough to describe, say, two-thirds of that pie. But then, to trouble it further, one could say that the above description also describes the work of Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein. And there is where the problem lies. He’s less describing the current style (or a current style) than he is describing poetry from the early 20th Century on (I think he might even agree with this, as he uses Wallace Stevens as omen). I could, if I felt inclined, make Robert Frost’s poetry fit this description (“The Road Not Taken” is a wonderful example of how declaration and disjunction work in a way to trouble both form and argument). So is he describing a period style?
He asks: “Is this assertiveness of quantity and momentum a kind of correction for the general helplessness of our circumstances? Is it reflective of a new aesthetics of “confrontation,” which strives to overwhelm with velocity and facility? One question we can usefully ask in regard to a particular style or poem is, What is the range of feeling or sensibility in this poetry? Is it narrow or broad? Is it merely whimsical, merely disjunct, merely antagonistic, or can it also be friendly, entertaining, deep, and spacious?”
It can in Tate and Hejinian, he asserts, just as it’s largely absent in Ashbery (where I think he’s misreading Ashbery, but in a way that others do as well), but is there any further answer to his line of questioning?
I’m glad, especially, that he’s praising Hejinian, as she’s not someone often praised by, for want of a better phrase, mainstream critics. The fact that she’s being used as an example does seem to nod that a sea change is happening, or has happened. It’s the sort of sea change that several wondered about recently, as major awards went to Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, and Keith Waldrop. And I think, in the above description and questions, Hoagland’s attempting to understand why and how these poets who so recently seemed off limits can now be given major awards in poetry with barely a ripple in the time-space continuum. The way to talk about them is to say either they’re more like “regular” poems in their content, even as their formal structures diverge, and also, our “regular” poems are more like theirs than we thought, as the period style of declaration and fragment describes us all.
This kind of pointing toward the fact that she has real human content in her work, and Hoagland's "post-tribalism" gesture, acts as if that had been in question. Well, I guess it has been in question (that was the first argument against this sort of poetry back in the 80s-90s), as it remains so for poets like Ashbery, who will always trouble the sort of large apparatus that Hoagland is attempting. So the conversation he’s participating in is an interesting one, and I mostly applaud his bookshelf choices, but I think it’s a creaky house of cards. On the other hand, he’s attempting to popularize several poets whose work I like, so in that way, I say more power to him.