Steve Kowit's Rules for Anti-Rules
The Writer’s Chronicle
Vol 43 No 6
One of the things that fascinates me is watching people attempt to be open to all kinds of poetry and then crash and burn. The latest instance of this is Steve Kowit in The Writer’s Chronicle. It’s a lesson. Even as he says to watch out for the biases and hidden agendas of teachers and those writing about poetry, he not so subtly advances his own.
His agenda can be seen easily enough by his choices of the best-and-most-open-to-breaking-rules poets: Galway Kinnell, Kim Addonizio, Stephen Dobyns, Ray Carver, Billy Collins, Ed Field, Tony Hoagland, David Kirby, Ron Koertge, Ted Kooser, Suzanne Lummis, Thomas Lux, Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Linda Pastan, Jane Shore, Natasha Trethewey, Diane Wakoski, and Charles Harper Webb.
OK, so I’m not knocking the work of the poets he’s choosing to list out (some of whom I like [Thomas Lux, for example]) as “our best poets,” but I am knocking him for making claims that his essay is supporting the idea that “everything is permitted,” when, in reality, he’s playing in a pretty narrow corner of the aesthetic sandbox. A poet looking for a wide field of possibilities isn’t going to find it in this essay, even as Kowit seems to be promising just that.
In the final section of his essay, titled “Poetry Workshop Teachers and Their Biases,” he rightfully says that “It’s hardly surprising that poet-teachers bring their own predilections, tastes, prejudices, attitudes, and emotional responses to the workshops they facilitate.” The problem is that he’s pretending he’s above all that in this essay, when in reality, he’s pushing his biases, hard, on the reader.
Kowit’s essay is another instance of the way many poets these days think of the aesthetic position of “simplicity, clarity, and grace” that is “committed to accessibility” as a default position, one outside of theory and the need for interrogation. It’s just being sensible, unlike, say, those deluded and crazy postmodern poets out to be “obtuse.”
For some of his essay, I’m with him. There are a lot of dumb rules that teachers and essayists oppress people with, and they need to be taken very skeptically. Things such as “Show Don’t Tell.” The irony is that he’s unwittingly participating in just this sort of silly rule-making without the least bit of self-awareness.
He hates the kind of poetry that he describes as “postmodern.” OK. That’s fine (even if that phrase is getting a little long in the tooth, I basically know what he means). I dislike the poetry of Mary Oliver, so we’re even. The problem is that he’s writing an essay that has at its heart the purported acceptance of experimentation and rule-breaking. He grudgingly accepts the poetry of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Crane, and Williams, barely, while attacking strongly any poetry that might be defined as “difficult” or “postmodern” or even mysterious:
“’Mystery’ seems to be a word that some poets, critics, and poet-teachers use as a synonym for mystification, and as a way of valorizing confusing or indecipherable passages, a way of coating an awkward fact with a patina of mystical romance. If one wants to valorize that quality in more intellectual terms, you can call it ‘indeterminacy’: that’s the modish, lit-crit version of ‘what the hell is he talking about?’ Now, if the workshop student wanted to be incoherent (i.e, indeterminate, mysterious) then fine. He’s succeeded. But if the poet had no wish for that passage to be indecipherable it might be advantageous not to seduce him with a term that validates a quality he is decidedly not seeking—and probably wishes to avoid.”
Kowit apparently lives in a world where the poem is either going be clear with the “grace, power, authority, and genuine humility” of Mary Oliver, or it’s going to be incoherently “drunk with theory.” This is a pretty wobbly dichotomy, and one I wouldn’t expect from someone who reads and reviews poetry on a regular basis.
The difficulty—and why Kowit is fighting here, rather than pitching the large tent—is that the poetry he loves, is, in his estimation, being ruled against in workshops, where the “postmodern notion that poetry needs ambiguity” is really an admonition against “socially conscious poetry.” Likewise, the “idiosyncratic” rule “widespread among postmodernists . . . to eschew the word ‘I’ so that—the explanation goes—one can escape the ego . . . [is] really meant as a prohibition against ‘personal’ poetry.”
First, I’ve never heard of either rule, either as a student, teacher, or in conversation with even the most theory-headed poet about his or her art. Kowit is still fighting a battle with the 1980s, it seems to me, and that old fight cheapens greatly the other things he has to say that can be of use. I mean, what do these poets want anyway? Billy Collins and Mary Oliver are the two most popular poets in America. What’s there to fight about?
To posit Billy Collins and Mary Oliver as, apparently, “socially conscious” and “personal” against the postmodern mystifiers who are NOT socially conscious and personal (C.D. Wright? Rae Armantrout? What names do we place in here?) is easily negated by examples. So it’s really neither of these he’s really worried about. It’s about this thing called “clarity.”
I feel a little like Kowit, myself, at times, as I keep having this same argument with the way people like him frame the debate between “clarity” and “incoherence”. I believe in clarity and find little use for incoherence, but usually (especially in essays such as this where there are no examples of what he means by “incoherence”) what they mean by incoherence is poets such as John Ashbery. I rather like the poetry of John Ashbery, and I don’t care for these reductive arguments that paint “all of that” as some “postmodern” delusion. We’re talking about art here, not trying to hail a cab.
PS. The fact that he doesn’t mention Kay Ryan makes me think there might be something to her poetry after all.