Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Any Given Wednesday

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

I’ve been having an interesting time reading the new issue of the literary journal Fifth Wednesday, as it came in while I was thinking more about Marjorie Perloff’s complaint in Boston Review, which got me back to thinking about very different takes and complaints by Tony Hoagland, etc.

And so here is a journal with several of the poets I think of as “the general aesthetic” of our contemporary version of American poetry: Kim Addonizio, Bob Hicok, Tony Hoagland, and Dean Young. They are not “Pulitzer prize winner” popular (though any of them could be at any moment), but they are the ones I often see on the marquee of AWP advertizing and other festivals and PBS News Hour emails. So here are four “A-listers” together in a journal with new poems. The issue has many other poets as well, not quite as well known, but also part of what I would think of as the general middle of the zeitgeist: Allison Joseph, J. Allyn Rosser, James Harms, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, and Mark Halliday. And then there’s Donald Revell, certainly well-known, though I’m not sure how “popular” he is.

If I’m right in categorizing these poets as representative of where mainstream poetry is at, then finding similarities in their work would describe the tendencies of mainstream poetry.

(Disclaimer: I also have work in this issue of Fifth Wednesday, but I’m going to ignore it.)

The poems I read by these poets do seem to indicate a (maybe slight, but still readily apparent) turn away from the description of poetry that many have been using to describe Post-confessional, pseudo autobiographical poetry for the past decade or three, namely, a poetry of small domestic measures, that through vaguely heightened language and heavy use of simile, bring the reader to an elevated epiphany, some general statement on the union of souls, or somesuch. At least that’s a version of the negative description I’ve heard of the tendency, and it seems to be the one Perloff is still working from in her Boston Review essay. Contrary to that, Hoagland, in several essays over the last few years, has postulated a “skittery poem of our time” in which all things were shifty and provisional, ironic, and aphasic. At least that’s my version of the negative extreme of his position.

This is mostly a waste of time, this chasing a description of a period, but people keep doing it. So here I am sitting here with this journal, looking at these poems. In many ways it’s a random journal of a random group of poets, but, in a way, maybe that’s a better way to take the temperature of the times.

In this issue, Kim Addonizio has two poems. The first, titled “Divine,” is addressed to a “you” who could easily be an “I,” described as in the “middle of your life,” who then meets a man and then has a bad go of it and finally is left alone again. It’s a love/loss poem, but what makes this different is that Addonizio has decided, rather than to use autobiographical-sounding language, to use more dreamlike and self-aware language, so the you, after outrunning all the werewolves of youth, ends up in a field:

There was one man standing in it.
He held out his arms.
Ping went your iHeart
so you took off all your clothes.

After a time, the relationship sours. Or, for the poem’s purposes, it must sour:

Something bad had to happen
because no trouble, no story, so
Fuck you, fine, whatever,
here come more black trees
hung with sleeping bats
like ugly Christmas ornaments.

What’s interesting to me in this and the other poems in this issue is the way Addonizio is incorporating what would be described as the methods of Skittery poetry to write a very Not-Skittery poem. Why this is interesting is because it changes the way people tend to want to describe contemporary poetry. “One type of poetry writes this way while another writes a different way.” That sort of thing. When really the consideration is different. Addonizio is using imagery more akin to the poetry of those skittery younger poets like Heather Christle or Zachary Schomburg (as my two super easy examples), but to retain her desire for the reader to always know exactly what she’s saying.

What we should and could be talking about is less the methods and strategies of poetry writing and more the values the poems exhibit. Addonizio and Hoagland and Young and Hicok all share the value of communication. They, even as they’re playing with image and association, are not trying to dislocate the reader, but to bring the reader to stay on track to the inevitability of the poem’s conclusion. This is not, in strategy, the way Perloff is describing the mainstream poetry of our time, but it is in value.

That’s one example, but the poetry of most of the other people above fits generally in that same description. Hoagland has a poem titled “Warning for Shoppers” where he addresses a “you” in a life that’s a version of a fantastic supermarket, full of real things such as “wasp spray that smells like fresh citrus” as well as more metaphorical things such as “a capsule that eliminates / ambivalence,” but what you can’t get is a way to keep the “hope and disappointment / of being human / from rising and rolling / / off you in waves.”

Method-wise this poem, as well as Addonizio’s, is working in the role of the imagination to advance the poem, while value-wise, its wanting to transfer a common experience back to the reader, relocating the reader where the reader already was: You can’t buy happiness.

It’s poetry such as this that defies the easy categories, when talking about modes and strategies. 


At 5/22/2012 11:30 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

You don't quote the whole Addonizio poem, so I shouldn't say anything about it. But I can't see how what you've quoted is skittery. If you can trace a narrative line, then it isn't skittering, is it? Even if the narrative line is as faint as a security thread embedded in a dollar bill, the poem isn't hopping (or slithering, or whatever) associatively from one thing to another. And is there a distance from strong feeling here? "black trees
hung with sleeping bats
like ugly Christmas ornaments" sounds like a Schomburg image, maybe, but it also sounds like images by some unskittery poets, poets who just use dreamlike imagery or symbols. Well--substituting "you" for "I" might be like a skittery poet's attempt to subvert the convention of narcissistic first-person narrative.

Maybe I just need to see the whole poem.

At 5/22/2012 11:41 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

No, I think you're right. It isn't Hoagland's "Skittery" that she's doing here, or that he's doing in his poems in the issue either, but she is not doing the narrow description of how Perloff describes the mainstream either. That's more my point, I guess, but that sounds kind of lame.

I guess what I'm looking at is what I kind of get to at the end, that talking about the strategies of construction is not a good way to understand a period. That seems more like summary of methods. What I'm more wondering about is what values - what artistic values poets are putting forth by their choices.

In that way, Addonizio (and the others, I'd also argue) are moving away from the strategies of the domestic-epiphany poem, but retaining their strong desire for "communication" and "accessibility."

At 5/22/2012 11:42 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'll add that that's pretty much what Dean Young has been doing all along.

At 5/23/2012 1:50 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Like a boss.

At 5/24/2012 4:35 AM, Blogger underbelly said...

You might be able to borrow Ron Silliman's vocabulary for messing with sense, and say that language can skiter on the level of the paragraph (narrative), the sentence (grammar) or sub-sentence (syntax) ... or any combination.

Or even on the word level. "Jabberwocky" uses made-up words with conventional syntax and grammar, and a linnear, not very interesting narrative. The surrealists do something like the opposite.

Is Hoagland specifically targetting untraceable narratives with his accusations of skitterieness?

At 5/24/2012 9:15 AM, Blogger David Grove said...


Check out Hoagland's "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment" @


At 5/24/2012 11:41 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Once upon a time, there was a skittery poet...

At 5/24/2012 11:51 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

A monkey kicked the secret printer.

At 5/24/2012 12:08 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Down monkey, down!

At 5/24/2012 1:43 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Like a comforter.

At 5/24/2012 2:45 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Ugh, I read that once. Not sure I want to subject myself to it again, even if his specific definition of skittery has mercifully drained from my brain cells.


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