It might seem a little belated to be talking about this now, but Anis Shivani, in the Autumn 2009 issue of The Midwest Quarterly, is writing about the 2004 edition of The Best American Poetry. It’s not a review, but more of a general attack on what Shivani sees as evidence that, “[t]he various schools of experimentation have now become frigid parodies of their own early intentions, and nothing of lasting value is to be found in the detritus.”
It’s too bad the essay isn’t online. I would love to connect to it, as I think it represents the views of a fairly sizeable population of poets and readers of poetry. It’s a position that’s intended to be provocative, as Shivani is ready to take all comers, even the entire history and practice of the prose poem: “The absurd genre, prose poem, trying to be two things at once and ending up only with a restless, attention-calling identity disorder, like a teenager who can’t decide if she wants to refute her sexual identity or enhance it with cosmetic surgery, ought to be banished to the trash heap of failed twentieth-century literary experiments.”
I wonder what Montaigne would think of that. But no matter the placing of prose poetry as if it were solely a twentieth-century phenomenon, Shivani is wanting to start a fight, and there’s no room for subtlety when one is attempting to start a fight. And the punches are flying. About the Best American Poetry series in general: “Regardless of the volume editor chosen annually by Lehman, year after year the mediocrity rises assuredly to the top, assaulting the discerning reader with yet another collection of self-indulgent poetry, obscure and vacuous, in tune with the poststructuralist mode still dominating the liberal ramparts of the academy.”
It’s also too bad this essay is in The Midwest Quarterly, as there’s close to zero chance that any of the poets Shivani is attacking will come across it, as the aesthetic of the journal is about as far removed from the sorts of things Shivani is attacking as possible. I would welcome this conversation (or fight), as, when Shivani gets around to naming names, he names some of my favorite poets: John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Mark Bibbins, John Koethe. Granting him a few narrow points (I mean, I can find some poems or poets where his criticism holds some weight), I find his reading of poetry in general to be wildly slap dash and terribly reductive to a set of beliefs that I’m quite certain aren’t shared by all the poets he’s aiming at. For instance, he gets so inclusive as to name Jane Hirshfield an avant-garde writer, and to toss Carolyn Forché in there as well.
He mostly blames this all on the Language poets, specifically Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian, but also on the “avant-gardist school in the MFA universe” that “fights it out with the confessional school.” And Shivani’s third position is not a new fight either. People have been accusing poets such as Ashbery of vacuity since the 1950s, but Shivani brings a certain brio to the task that really is worth either championing (boo!) or countering (yea!). If you come across an issue, it’s Volume LI, No. 1. Here are a few volleys from Shivani to take home with you, for what it’s worth, along with a few responses from me, because I just had to:
The poetry avant-garde continues insisting that it doesn’t get enough respect from the mainstream scholarly apparatus, when in fact it has been seamlessly absorbed into the academic machine.
The obscurity of the volume under study [BAP 2004] is self-desired, fully programmed, and coordinated, not by any means accidental. This is a far cry from Randall Jarrell defending the obscurity of modernist verse to its earlier befuddled readers, as obscurity has been made the primary fetish, and poetry that seems easy to read being dismissed out of hand as the product of a compromised subjectivity. Experimental writers […] offer prolific defense of the new poetry, again and again making a virtue of obscurity because it supposedly forces the reader to be on his feet, instead of passively consuming poetry. But if meaning is entirely arbitrary, or if it is everywhere, isn’t it really nowhere?
[JG: I must step in to comment on this last bit. First, I don’t believe anyone is saying the meaning is entirely arbitrary. Rather, the rhetorical situation that is the work of art is filled with overt, covert, historic and contextual relationships to language as to make a final meaning problematic. That’s all obvious and nothing new. How one reads, and what one does with a poem (and indeed, the poem itself) is going to seem, perhaps, arbitrary to another, but it comes out of relationships with memory, biography, experience, and circumstance that are more than simply arbitrary. Just as any chance situation isn’t truly arbitrary, as all situations depend on variations within a context. And secondly, if meaning is indeed “everywhere,” that does not mean that it is “nowhere.” Everywhere meaning is NOT the same as nowhere meaning. That’s an old shell game some like to play so that the slippages and continuances of meaning can be dismissed to YES / NO economies. Indeed, at some point we have to deal in YES / NO meanings, but art need not be that place.]
In what they consider the paradigmatic Wittgensteinian move, avant-garde poets want to fragment existing languages, defamiliarize the nature of individual absorption into the capitalist more of production. [….] The obscurity of language is the point of the exercise itself—once the reader finds himself unable to work his way into an epiphanic position following from some discernable narrative of the progress of the self, he is presumed to experience an aha! moment, as the manipulations of the many operative modes of language become clear to him. This is the final revolutionary gesture for today’s American avant-garde poet.
[JG: I disagree, by the way. I think such museum pieces regarding the gestures that art is able to enact are only good for encyclopedia entries and straw man arguments such as this. Art itself, the artwork, the poem, is going to have to do more—and successful artworks do—than gesture toward some base belief about language. This is no more true or untrue than to say that Billy Collins’ poetry is there simply to gesture toward the fact that meaning can be communicated between people. It’s an absurd reduction.]
Punning is carried to such an extent in the new experimental poetry that it becomes unable to strike an effect in a reader; it stabilizes language, contrary to its presumed intention.
[JG: sorry. I wasn’t going to keep interrupting, but I must clarify that there is the possibility that a poem fails. Perhaps the wordplay does become unproductive. I will grant that in specific cases. That much is obvious. But I don’t see how possibly the failure of puns means “here come the Huns!” A failure of a method does not in any way “stabilize language.” Language is stabilized through repeated utterances that are then agreed upon in a community as fact. That’s just a floor show of blowing snow.]
Poets today declare extreme discomfort with classification and categorization, taxonomies and hierarchies, rankings and degrees, all the alleged blowback of modernity. Yet they never seem to understand that standing outside the tradition of reason and logic puts them in the undesirable posture of backing up with hallucinatory dreams and disconnected thought the rationalized destructiveness of today’s political actors.
[JG: I declare some discomfort with classification, etc., but not out of any desire to stand outside of reason. Classifications, etc., often show themselves to actions that are themselves standing outside of reason. I don’t like that. I like it when classifications, etc., are produced with caution, and go forward carefully.]
The poets seem to say with one voice that they are skeptical of reason, because it is often utilized for totalitarian purposes. But without the backbone of reason, not even the solace of fighting totalitarianism remains, only resignation to it. Art as handmaiden to primitivism has been overdone, and a retreat to classical proportion wouldn’t hurt.
[JG: Classical proportion aside, I want to counter that a healthy skepticism of reason is a very good thing to have, as all reason as at its base an irrationality. Granted, such a skepticism does itself not need to be a dichotomous flipping into “anti-reason” however. That’s not even interesting when teenagers do it. But art is under no rules to be argument by example. Art is many things and utilizes many means to move toward many ends. It’s a large room.]
So they state their disallegiance to reason, and pastiche and parody and merge and collage to their hearts’ content. We are supposed to be impressed by their nirvana of knowingness.
[JG: OK, so this one is perhaps just a taste issue, but I find no problem with this. I refuse to feel bad for process-oriented work. There are many reasons to read poetry, and the one that I most enjoy is the experience of the poem, the poem as experience. True, sometimes that experience is more of the sort of a rush of wind on a roller-coaster than it is the great weight of loss, but so what? Often the poems fail, as well. But poems fail all the time. And sometimes poems written in the style of pastiche and collage DO encounter the terrible weight of what it means to be alive now and to die then. A style—in and of itself—is not a value. It is a method. Styles and methods incorporate world-views, but that is not the sole argument of the style. I happen to agree with the world-view behind the work of John Ashbery, for instance. The world IS collage and pastiche and parody and more. What one is missing in this dry charge, however, is the WHAT that is being collaged. Shakespeare wrote from a standpoint of collage and pastiche and parody as well. So does anyone who writes in form. So? Well, I’ll give Shivani the last word.]
We’ve seen, over and over, the refusal to make meaning of the material world, even as this desire is stated to be the summum bonum of the poet’s existence. We’ve heard poets shouting that the tops of their unrhythmic, cacophonous voices that they desire to be relevant, to mean something to the culture, to figure out some way of making language the useful tool it was in prehistoric times (by which they mean something like four decades ago). We’ve seen them posture, and preen, and prance, and dance around in all states of dishabiliment and undress. We’ve seen them argue with political phantoms, philosophical quandaries, and scientific indeterminacies, which they’re eager to reproduce in more prolix forms than ordinary human endurance can stand (particularly when they turn their hand to the late, great prose poem). What we haven’t seen in this anthology is the poet pursuing the art of poetry as something other than churning validation of his profession qua profession. Strong poetry demands a strong audience, which these poets aren’t willing to grant.