Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Period Style(s)

The writing's on the wall. But what does it say?

 We continue to describe, debate, etc., the period style.  Is the period style simply the “usual” poem of a time?  That doesn’t work, because then what we’ve thought of as the period styles of the past weren’t the period styles at all.  So is it the manner of the poems that get the most awards?  Also, no, as the awards of the past reveal. 

So what is it? 

Here’s Seth Abramson’s take:

“Scholars of the avant-garde warn darkly that we are suffused, in the twenty-tens, in a period style enamored with pretty rhetorical gestures, self-indulgent egotism, self-expressive melodrama, and bourgeois epiphanies. These scholars have been reading too little and too narrowly; the period style they describe was ubiquitous in the eighties and early nineties and, while now and then evident even today, has in the greater part been replaced by a dramatically divergent aesthetic sensibility.”

I kind of agree with him here.  This is the negative way to describe a large segment of the poetry that is often termed “Quietude.”  Right?  (There are more positive ways to describe it, but I’ll leave that for others to do.)  But it seems to me, from looking at the raw numbers, that this is still the most common type of poem being written today.  But again, the most common poem doesn’t mean “period style.”  Either way, we all can kind of guess who’s being talked about. 

Here’s where he gets really interesting:

“Dominant now are classically paratactic ‘implied’ lyric-narratives—employing the comma, that is, not the caesura; gesturing at story, not fetishizing it—marked by their disjunctive enjambment, eccentric juxtapositions, an absence of temporality, choked-off grammar and syntax, an indifference to the lyrical ‘I,’ and a penchant for mastering (in the neo-Modernist lineage) extremely well-said non-sense. This period style’s lyricism is all akimbo; its jagged edges and field-composition jump-cuts compose a despairing sort of postmodernist music which yesteryear’s neo-Romantics and New Formalists and post-confessionalists would hardly recognize.”

I want lists of names!  I'm kind of thinking he’s talking about John Ashbery?  Or Ashbery-like poets?  (Skipping the fact that Ashbery’s been publishing since the 1950s.)  Perhaps the poets once described as Elliptical poets?  Post-Avant? Third Way? This is something like the group that Tony Hoagland has said in the past represents the current period style.  If so, it’s a fair number of poets, and some have gotten awards and notice recently.  Here he continues:

“What's most striking about where we've come to in American poetry is just how universally this period style is well-executed, where present: of the many books not selected for review here, a clear majority exhibited a pleasing-enough competence which, while never jarringly or demonstrably idiosyncratic, nevertheless suggested to this critic that a veritable horde of our nation's younger poets, particularly those hailing from academic-institutional contexts in which a healthy one-upsmanship is now brewing, will shortly enough make us very proud indeed. A second group of younger/youngish authors has learned to dial back the period style just enough, and compound it with their own unique contributions just enough, for all those generative period-features and occasional eccentricities of concept and structure to be appreciated rather than merely noted.”

This fascinates me.  The way styles (I’m skipping the whole “period style” thing for now, because I don’t understand it.) work is that once we say things like “how universally this period style is well-executed,” and “a clear majority exhibited a pleasing-enough competence which, while never jarringly or demonstrably idiosyncratic,” about it, then it’s all over and headed for the library shelves.  And this: “A second group of younger/youngish authors has learned to dial back the period style just enough, and compound it with their own unique contributions just enough, for all those generative period-features and occasional eccentricities of concept and structure to be appreciated rather than merely noted” points our possible way to something new. 

So are we done with this style?  Is it all over?  It seems to me, in philosophy, the postmodern period and its attendant interest in relativism that has given these poets much of their energy is no longer generating much enthusiasm.  So what is?  Indeed. 

The new thing.  It’s on its way. 


At 7/21/2012 8:42 AM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

Hi John,

I'd think of period styles (by way of analogy) as like pluralities in elections. Add to that the difference between federal and state/local elections, and there's a working analog, I think. Essentially, there are so many styles evident in American poetry that if even (say) 7% of published books (or poems) exhibit a certain sensibility, it stands out. It may dominate the attention without actually/numerically dominating bookshelves. Likewise, there's a difference between publishing and publishers with a sufficient national audience to gain widespread attention for their authors via a variety of means (some more reliably trackable than others: social-networking sites; the publisher's own web presence; sales figures; reading opportunities/tours) and those publishers without that cultural capital. So we're speaking of a plurality of a subsection of American poetry.

I can tell you that of the 100 poetry collections I was just looking at recently, fewer than 10 exhibited the "period style" I'm associating with the 1980s and early 1990s. It was astonishing. More than 50 exhibited some variation on the "period style" I discussed in my essay. And the clear trend was this: The more high-profile/competitive the publisher, the more likely the book was to exhibit the "new" period style; the smaller or more "local" (influence/audience-wise) the publisher, the more likely the book exhibited the period style of the 1980s and early 1990s.

My main point was to say, a deliberate (in both senses of that word) misreading of period styles has permitted scholars to ignore a huge swatch of the poetry being produced today, as they focus instead on prizewinners (who are actually most likely to exhibit the "old" period style) or the smallest forward regiment of the avant-garde. The problem is that they see the former group as a proxy for everyone else who's not in that forward regiment, which is an error.


At 7/21/2012 8:44 AM, Blogger Seth Abramson said...

For "swatch," read "swath." --S.

At 7/21/2012 9:25 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I completely agree with your assessment of how some people are misreading the period style to make arguments that then depend on their misreadings readings of the period style (Tony Hoagland and Marjorie Perloff come to mind), and I’m tempted to also say “deliberate,” but I don’t have enough evidence to feel safe doing so. And I find much of value in your descriptions of some of these styles. I guess I’m just more tentative in jumping into the strong categorization taxonomy. Long lists of names help, but then when people supply lists of names, then that becomes the conversation, and the larger point gets side-tracked.

Reginald Shepherd was really good on this sort of thing. He would have been a great debate partner for you. I think you both would have enjoyed the exchange.

At 7/21/2012 3:05 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

I think we need examples here, don't we? Let's see some poems...

At 7/22/2012 7:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Well, when it comes to specifics, “The period style” is akin to “The common American family.” It’s a statistical abstraction. Therefore, finding the poem that fits it would be as possible as finding the 2.3 kids sitting in someone’s living room.

But, that said, we often use such abstractions to say meaningful things about families and such, as we can kind of feel how close people are or are not to that statistic. The problem is, that no family, no poem, will absolutely fit. That makes examples pretty useless to hold up absolutely.

We can kind of get a feeling though by looking at Seth’s list of books that he read to get the statistic in the first place. I doubt any one book would completely exemplify the period style he’s describing, but, in total, they should.

The question then should be one of how the statistics were gathered. Is the list Seth compiled a good list? Is the sample size big enough to make a useful abstraction? Maybe it is. Certainly the way he describes this period style, especially the use of parataxis, is similar to how others have done so, so there appears to be something like consensus brewing.

At 7/24/2012 8:39 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Does this suggest what the new thing might be like? This is from Thomas Albright's "Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks" (1968):

"Musically, rock is primarily a development of the folk-soul reactions against the overcerebral dead-end that jazz had reached by the late Fifties....But what a fantastic devlopment the rock scene represents. Composition, at a low ebb in jazz days, has been restored; groups and individuals everywhere are creating tunes in which the distinction between pop and art song has been completely obliterated. At the same time, performances retain the creativity of jazz...."

Do a lot of people find the period style of which Ashbery is the avatar an "overcerebral dead-end"? Recently I heard about a guy who read the opening of a Spencer Short poem to a group of non-poets--normal people. They looked at him with hatred. Normal people don't have the capacity to get excited about " The blackbird eclipse reworked as beauty/ mark." They won't even NOTICE the figurative language/conceptual rhymes in that sentence, just as the average listener won't notice or get excited about a chord invented by Wagner. To them, such poetry is overcerebral; and unlike Wagnerian opera, it includes little that normal people can connect with. Will the new thing be a reaction like rock after jazz? Like Pop Art after Abstract Expressionism? Maybe tweets that retain the creativity of elliptical/post-avant/third way poetry, obliterating the distinction between "word art" and more popular venues of expression such as social media? Normal people could connect with the lyrics and sexual passion of rock, with the apparent realism of Pop Art. Rock and Pop Art are easier to write ABOUT than more rarefied music and art. Ashbery is comparable to AbEx, and by his own admission he tries to write poetry that's hard for critics to write about.

But I just remembered Philip Larkin saying somewhere that little had been written about his poems because once you grasp what they say, well, that's it. Is it actually easier to write about Ashbery types than about Larkin types? And composition certainly isn't at a low ebb now, during Ashberyesque days. Hmm... I done opened a can of peaches I don't have time to eat.

At 7/24/2012 9:35 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


This is something fun to bat around. On the one hand, it’s difficult to imagine specific pop/rock performers of the late 50s early 60s sitting down and thinking, hmm, jazz is too heady, man, let’s rock out. But on the other hand, there is a similarity to late 60s electric jam bands (Neil Young has several times cited John Coltrane as an important influence on his playing) and certain loose tendencies in jazz.

So, to use Ashbery as a jazz analogue and the new thing (The New Thing) as a pop/rock alternative, starts out, at least for me, on fairly soft ground. Still, times follow times, taking what suits and renarrating. The general tendency that Ashbery has come to represent will certainly wane (if it hasn’t already) from wide compositional practice. I hope, though, that Ashbery himself, will continue to be the strong touchstone for future poets that Coltrane is for Young, say.

I could imagine a New Poetry that combined the inclusive nature of Ashbery with more of the “direct treatment of the thing,” in much the way that Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” narrowed the direct treatment of the pop song while privileging the improvisational alternatives, but still retained a vestige of the original melody, which would be like Ashbery, say, privileging the associational nature of the possible to say over the direct description of the thing at hand; this becomes, then, a poetry where the “thing” is pushed up front, but some of the alleys of thinking and possibility are still allowed to trouble the waters.

This sounds almost like I’m describing someone like Dean Young, or Mary Ruefle, even. So perhaps that new thing isn’t so new after all?

At 7/24/2012 9:57 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

A new thing that's LIKE Dean Young--reckless, primitive, surreal, comedic, etc.--but NOT Dean Young would appeal to me.

At 7/24/2012 10:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

A new thing that's more like Dean Young's The Art of Recklessness. Word.


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