Wednesday, February 04, 2009

American Hybrid - PART 3

Anthologies are highly political things. OK, that’s obvious. But it’s true. All I have to do is think back to my first encounters with the poems of many of the poets I’ve come to admire greatly, and they are almost to a person through anthologies. If they had not been included in that anthology, I might not have found them. Certainly not when I did. And some of those meetings came at very important times for me. Wallace Stevens, for instance.

I can’t stress enough how important two anthologies, specifically, have been for me: The Longman Contemporary American Poetry from the early 80s that Friebert and Young edited, and Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover. The first brought me to poetry, and the second showed me a whole new palette that still holds my attention.

In this light, I’ve been very happy this week to read through American Hybrid. There are very few poets older than 50 whose poetry I admire that are not included here. And while I quibble at the inclusion of some (Dubie and Hass and a few others), thinking that they don’t fit the hybrid definition of the whole, it’s not a big quibble, knowing that anthologies have to stop somewhere (even if it does beg the question that if you’re going to include Hass and Dubie and Emanuel and Galvin and Dean Young, why not include James Tate, say, or Maxine Chernoff, or others, like Gustaf Sobin?).

This anthology does a good job at presenting an interesting slice of what’s being written at or near the center of what does at times feel like a movement. Again, though, it’s only a slice of the picture, which is understandable. An anthology of what’s happening precisely as we speak is going to have to wait. And who will be in that anthology? The anthology of poets who look to many of these poets for company. There are other anthologies, with other agendas. This one fits mine pretty well.

Interesting caveat: while the poets here included span generations (Ashbery and Guest, for example), the poems chosen are mostly very recent. Ashbery, for example, has a poem from A Wave, but then the rest of his poems are selected from the years 1992 to 2005. Another compromise to keep the anthology as contemporary as possible.

It’s all very interesting and fine, clocking in at something like 508 pages, averaging something like 5 or so poems from each poet (and with even huge poets like Ashbery only getting eight, it feels pretty democratic). And here's another option: you can use it as a drinking game. Every time you come across mention of San Francisco or "the bay area" you have to drink. (Please drink responsibly and have a designated driver.)

So finally, I posted the TOC here, a few days ago, with some comments from Cole Swensen about the anthology:

And just to get all the eggs in one basket, here’s my first post on the thing, with comments from others:

And finally, here’s Cole Swensen’s introduction, which is well worth the read:

Introduction to American Hybrid:
A Norton Anthology of New Poetry
Cole Swensen

The notion of a fundamental division in American poetry has become so ingrained that we take it for granted. Robert Lowell famously portrayed it in the 1950s and 60s as a split between “the cooked and the uncooked,” and Eliot Weinberger updated the assertion over thirty years later in his 1993 anthology American Poetry Since 1950, stating, “For decades, American poetry has been divided into two camps.” Were the poetic landscapes of 1960 and 1993 as similar as these two statements might imply? And where are we in relation to them today, at the end of first decade of the new millennium? This anthology springs from the conviction that the model of binary opposition is no longer the most accurate one and that, while extremes remain, and everywhere we find complex aesthetic and ideological differences, the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of previous “camps” in diverse and unprecedented ways.

The Legacy

The history of the two-camp model has been well documented in various places, so I won’t recapitulate it here except to briefly argue that the term “model” gives an overly static impression. Far from set, it’s a continually evolving situation with roots going back to the end of the 19th century and the birth of the avant-garde. Writer and translator Paul Auster has made the astute observation that most 20th-century American poets took their cue either from the British poetic tradition or from the French. And while all were influenced by the Romantics, on the one hand, and the Modernists, on the other, resulting in lineages that developed with much cross-pollination, Auster’s distinction presents a useful model. It lets us follow one thread that inherited a pastoral sensibility from British Romanticism, emphasizing the notion of man as a natural being in a natural world, informed by intense introspection and a belief in the stability and sovereignty of the individual. Christopher Beach epitomized this trend in the work of two poets, saying, “The poetry of Robinson and Frost suggested one possible direction for American poets in the twentieth century: a reworking of traditional lyric forms that would require no radical break from nineteenth-century poetic convention.” Lack of a radical break, however, does not mean lack of change, and poets following this vein continued to refine and augment this lyric verse model in rich and diverse ways, some of which look dramatically different from their precursors.

The second prominent line of poetic thinking stems from the urbane modernism of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire and moved from there into an increasing emphasis on the materiality of the text as developed by the early 20th-century avant-gardes, a lineage fueled in part by the belief that meaningful change in the arts requires dramatic rupture. In Charles Altieri’s words, these were poets who “considered their work a challenge to traditional notions of poetry.” This trend is marked, on the one hand, by innovations in form, from Baudelaire’s prose poems to Mallarmé’s revolutionary use of the page, and by a relentless look at contemporary society, on the other, which also included Apollinaire’s enthusiasm for the Eiffel Tower and Marinetti’s for the automobile. All were expressions of a dawning sensibility that Rimbaud captured in the simple statement, “We must be absolutely modern,” which refused sentimentality as much as his “I is an other,” invited it back in through a sense of loss so absolute it put the individual’s claim to authority forever at bay.

This split is more than a stylistic one; it marks two concepts of meaning—one as transcendent, the other as immanent. Thus, 20th-century American poetry offers both a model of the poem as a vehicle for conveying thoughts, images, and ideas initiated elsewhere, a model that recognizes language as an accurate roadmap for or system of referring to situations and things in the real world, and a model of the poem as an event on the page, in which language, while inevitably participating in a referential economy, is emphasized as a site of meaning in its own right, and poetry is recognized as uniquely capable of displaying that.

While many American poets throughout the 20th century would not fit neatly into one mode or the other, the perspective of a hundred years reveals an overall pattern in which this split leads through various modifications, infiltrations, and permutations to the “anthology wars” of the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Donald Allen’s 1960 collection The New American Poetry brought to light the margins that had been thriving for years around a poetic center delineated by Hall, Pack, and Simpson’s 1957 anthology New Poets of England and America, as well as other anthologies edited by Auden, Ciardi, and Rolfe Humphries earlier in the 1950s. Those anthologies had consolidated an English-language voice distinct from a more continentally-inflected modernism and honed by the New Criticism to reflect certain formal and ideological values. The ideal poem in New Critical terms was self-contained, refined, precisely formed, detached, and difficult in the sense that it required, and rewarded, careful study. As Pack argued, the good poem “deepens upon familiarity.” Many of the writers Allen presented, by contrast, were to be grasped in an instant; their work was spontaneous, raw, illogical, and exuberant, and while he included others who were more measured and studied, it was often in traditions unfamiliar to contemporary literature departments or understood quite differently. Overall, the forms that Allen’s poets employed were open and unprecedented, their subjects at times irreverent, and their emotional registers unfettered. Their emblematic phrases, such as O’Hara’s “You’ve got to go on your nerve,” or Ginsberg’s “improvised poetics,” underscored their affinity with Olson’s “Projective Verse,” which advocated a mode of poetic composition epitomized by Creeley’s famous statement that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Taken as a whole, the stance of the “new American poets” seemed to posit a vibrant faith in intuition and chance over deliberation and intentionality. Though Allen’s anthology covered a vast range, from the esoteric historicism of Duncan to Spicer’s playful timelessness to Ginsberg’s bardic momentum, it effectively brought all these marginal poetries together, naming them and throwing them into sharp focus, which marked the beginning of their demarginalization.

And it changed American poetry tremendously, to such a degree that by 1982, the year of Allen’s sequel volume The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited, co-edited with George Butterick, his opposition had all but joined him. Though excellent poets were still writing with the formal tension that had typified much poetry of the 1950s, their numbers were fewer, and free-verse was increasingly prevalent, based in a natural language modeled on Williams, but also importantly influenced by the Beat poets and all they had inherited from Whitman, including the Romantic impulse to see man’s corollary in nature. The mainstream verse of the day retained much of the New Critical sense of shape, however: the poem remained a tight construct with a distinct beginning and end, but it had a much more personal tone, having incorporated the centrality of self and the belief in the importance of individual history that distinguished Confessional poetry, a stance whose influence grew continually throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Also increasingly prevalent was the sense of the magical, transformative potential of quotidian epiphany that the Deep Image movement had fashioned from of the vestiges of European Surrealism.

This, then, was the new mainstream, and it, too, had opposition, which, to some degree, retained the forms of Allen’s original categories, with their more ragged, open-ended shapes and their ongoing interrogation of the relationship between self and voice. But the distinction was no longer so sharp, and several poets included in Allen’s first anthology, such as Gary Snyder, were writing the epitome of what had become the new mainstream epiphanic lyric. Others, such as John Ashbery, had moved into the mainstream through publishing and awards while continuing their varied experiments. But an entirely new opposition arose as well, one that, ironically, shared some points with the New Criticism in its rigor, its interest in the difficult, and its demand that the poem be a worked object of art, rather than a spontaneous expression of personal feeling. However, it opposed New Criticism in even more, and more important, ways, including its social and political convictions, its appreciation of the avant-garde, and its sense of history. Though broadly based, this new opposition was most readily visible in the Language poets, who, as Robert Grenier indicated in his famous “I HATE SPEECH!,” rejected the abiding emphasis on orality that stemmed from Olson, the Beats, and the New York School and problematized the natural language of the post-Confessionalists by interrogating its “naturalness” and finding it illusory. Instead, acknowledging language as a social construct, they focused on the surface of the text, emphasizing its materiality along the lines of the Russian Futurists, and the inherently political nature of language along the lines of the Objectivists. They also critiqued the arbitrary nature of genre distinctions by creating texts that fused poetry, criticism, and philosophy. Like all the twentieth-century movements that preceded them, from the Modernists to the Confessionalists to the Beats, they too, opened poetry up to new subject matter, but this time the subject was international critical discourse.

Opposition to the new mainstream came from yet another direction as well in the form of a resurgence of formalist work. Sometimes linked with New Narrative poetry under the banner of “expansive poetry,” New Formalism had its roots in the 1970s with X. J. Kennedy’s journal Counter/Measures, but really took off in the mid-’80s with the publication of Philip Dacey and David Jauss’s anthology Strong Measures and Robert Richman’s The Direction of Poetry, followed in the ’90s by other anthologies and the journal The Formalist. Focused on the beauty of constraint as an imaginative and intellectual stimulus, these poets not only revived old forms but renewed them through contemporary phrasing and subject matter. Other poets, while not writing in forms per se, were inspired by the movement to select specific formal elements and make use of them to give more structure and ornament to the dominant free-verse lyric.

In short, the two camps that dominated American poetry in the 1980s were very different from those of 1960, and the situation by the mid-’90s looked as different again. One of the main differences was that binary opposition had begun to break down, notwithstanding three major anthologies designed around it. Indeed, as those anthologies attest, all opposition had not evaporated; it quite likely never will. Yet now, almost fifteen years later, American poetry finds itself at a moment when idiosyncrasy rules to such a degree and differences are so numerous that distinct factions are hard, even impossible, to pin down. Instead, we find a thriving center of alterity, of writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits developed by everyone from the Romantics through the Modernists to the various avant-gardes, the Confessionalists, Allen’s margins, and finally to Language poetry and the New Formalists. The product of contradictory traditions, today’s writers often take aspects from two or more to create poetry that is truly postmodern in that it’s an unpredictable and unprecedented mix.

The New (Hy)Breed

The hybrid poem is one that has selectively inherited from both principal paths of development outlined above. It shares affinities with what Ron Silliman has called “Third Wave Poetics” and with what is increasingly known as “post-avant” work, though its range is broader, particularly at the more conservative end of its continuum. And Stephen Burt touched on something similar when he introduced the term “elliptical poetry” in a review in 1998. Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first-person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with “conventional” work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of “experimental” work, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools, each one of which changes dramatically depending on the others with which it’s combined and the particular role it plays in the composition.

Hybrid poems often honor the avant-garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry—thereby increasing the expressive potential of language itself—while also remaining committed to the emotional spectrum of lived experience. As different as these two goals might seem, they’re both essentially social in nature and recognize a social obligation—and as such, they demonstrate poetry’s continued relevance. Hybrid poetry speaks out, but in ways that avoid echoing the canned speech that has become so prevalent in this age in which fewer and fewer people control more and more of the media. While political issues may or may not be the ostensible subject of hybrid work, the political is always there, inherent in the commitment to use language in new ways that yet remain audible and comprehensible to the population at large.

While the new is an important common denominator of much hybrid work, it is a combinatory new, one that recognizes that “there is nothing new under the sun” and has embraced the postmodern understanding of the importance of connection: that given elements are often less crucial than the relationships that bind them. Some hybrid writers address the complexities of the new with an interest in repetition and collage, devising ways that similarity and novelty can be combined in a generative manner. And many hybrid writers go beyond novelty to incorporate the strange, the odd, and the uncanny. In fact, it was precisely a sensitivity to the strange that instigated the bridge between earlier poetic extremes through their common willingness to acknowledge the limits of human knowledge and to refuse to let them be limiting. Harold Bloom has argued that “a mode of originality that… cannot be assimilated” is the determining element of the literary,3 and these works exhibit precisely the irreducibility that triggers the “uncanny startlement” of which he speaks. Hybrid writing tolerates a high degree of the restless, the indeterminate, and the uncanny because, like the best writing of any era, it doesn’t seek to reinforce received ideas or social positions but to break open new arenas of sensation and experience.

Much hybrid work is being written by writers under forty who reconfigure and even reinvent the various moves of preceding decades, but the trend toward hybridization was actually led by writers of earlier generations who continued to push their styles and their underlying principles, even if that meant abandoning stances for which they’d become well-known. Among the writers in this volume are first-generation members of several tendencies, including the epiphanic lyric, Deep Image, the New York School, and Language poetry. Often these poets have retained much of their earlier sensibilities, but have opened them up to additional modes, broadening their audiences as well as their own voices. The earliest-born writer here, Barbara Guest, is perhaps the quintessential hybrid poet—first identified with the New York School in Allen’s The New American Poetry, she followed her explorations through permutations that, a decade or so later, identified her with the Language poets. In subsequent years, she published works that ranged from anecdotal and narrative prose poetry to abstract minimalism that maximized the meaning of page space, and her final volume, The Red Gaze, includes many short lyrics based on readily accessible, concrete imagery.

This volume also includes many second-generation members of various schools as well as many poets who began writing in the late 1980s and early 90s, at a time when the experimental vs. conventional binary had begun to break down due to specific historical developments, one academic, the other technological, that transformed two of poetry’s principal centers of force, universities and publishing.

The Current Landscape

“Academic” is always a problematic term in poetry, and its meaning has changed considerably in the past fifty years. Once shorthand for the distilled and allusive, the crystallized and formally precise, the term currently evokes two very different sets of interests. One is the relatively new branch of graduate studies, creative writing workshops. From a few scattered programs in the 1960s, the number has mushroomed to 325, including MFAs, MAs, and PhDs, in the country today.4 Workshops have changed the tone of poetic criticism by extending it beyond the critics to the poets themselves; they’ve also legitimized practice as a viable site of study, created communities centered around a fusion of creativity and analysis, and brought the work of very recent or contemporary poets into literary studies curricula.

The expansion of workshop-based programs and the trickling-down of creative writing classes into undergraduate and community college curricula have created teaching jobs for hundreds of poets, giving them careers that continually deepen their historical and critical understandings and leave them with more time for their own writing than they would have in most other professions. All in all, workshops foster a kind of poet-professor that recalls the early days of New Criticism.

As graduate creative writing programs proliferated, they also diversified, and now run the gamut from academically rigorous PhD programs with creative dissertation options to programs based in fine arts schools, such as the ones at Otis College, the California College of Arts, and the Chicago Art Institute, that emphasize writing’s commonalities with the visual and performing arts and offer a different perspective on aesthetic criteria. This great range of programs unsettles the position of poetry writing in academia by raising the question of whether it belongs in the art department or the English department, thus revealing that it’s a slightly awkward fit in either case. It may be precisely this inability to fit neatly into any department or school that will keep contemporary poetry from ever getting subsumed by the academy, which will guarantee it a sufficient degree of autonomy to follow its own course while also staying informed on the intellectual issues of the day, which are indispensable to that course.

Such intellectual issues are behind the other meaning that the term “academic” has acquired for poetry since the early 1980s, and it came from the direction of the Language poets. On the whole, they were not, like their Beat and New York School predecessors, content to let the poem just happen; they wanted to know why and how it happened, and what the social and political implications would be. From the movement’s inception in the mid-1970s, public lectures, debates, and critical and theoretical writings were an important part of its activities. These writers were in particular concerned with exploding the myth of the ahistorical through examining poetry’s connections to contemporary social structures and further developing its theoretical underpinnings. During the 1980s and ’90s, many people associated with Language poetry took jobs in universities, often in literature, critical studies, and even philosophy departments, rather than in creative writing programs. Though equal in rigor, this new academicism differed from that of the 1950s in its insistence on seeing poetry as one aspect of a complex network that is itself the product of various historical, economic, and cultural forces. It also differed in exercising an aesthetically experimental rather than conservative perspective, supported by decidedly leftist social and political interests.

With poetry’s position in academia leaning in two directions, serious students are often exposed to both the conventional and the experimental, but unlike their elders, they don’t necessarily feel that they have to choose between them. Instead, they see both presented as viable approaches and sanctioned by the same institutions.

If the university is one primary force in American poetry, publishing is the other, and it, too, has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. While small presses and magazines, from the early issues of Poetry and later reviews such as Corman’s Origins to the mimeograph revolution of the 1960s, played an important role in the development of avant-garde poetries in the United States, they remained relatively marginalized, and the post-World War II publishing establishment based in New York was seriously rivaled by only a few university presses and “alternative” ones such as City Lights, New Directions, and Grove. However, by the 1980s, the phenomenon of the university press had spread so much that it played a substantial role in poetry publication, which from there, grew into a sturdy three-tiered structure, still dominated by the New York houses, followed by university presses, and then by pioneering small presses such as Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Black Sparrow, and Burning Deck. The most recent step in that shift has been the explosion of the bottom tier until, in terms of sheer numbers, the bottom is now the top. Though earlier canon-makers, such as FSG and Penguin, still maintain important poetry lists, these constitute a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall number of poetry books published annually in the country, and their influence is increasingly mitigated by that of the dozens of small presses now thriving because of the past twenty years’ technological changes in typesetting, design, and printing.

One effect of these changes is that poets themselves are increasingly deciding who gets published, often with little or no need to consider sales, and they are marketing their books through the Internet directly to targeted audiences. In all respects, the role of the Internet has been considerable. It not only facilitates production and distribution, it also functions as a publisher itself. While it would be utopian to say that it constitutes a mode of production with truly democratic access, it has broadened access sufficiently to constitute a decentralizing force and has complicated the accepted avenues of career and canon building. A whole world of poetry writing and publishing has grown up there, just below the radar of the traditional poetry-reading public, which is itself constantly evolving and, more and more, includes people who routinely use the web for information and entertainment.

The Internet has also engendered forms unique to itself, both in publishing and in writing. Its unrestricted length and flexible format offer publishing options that print cannot. Many Internet journals are using the web simply as an affordable alternative to print, but others are using it for its unique features, incorporating moving or transforming elements, video clips, and audio dimensions. Others combine creative outlets with informative ones, using hypertext to send readers to related sites, encouraging other lines of pursuit that lead ever-outward, operating in a rhizomatic rather than an arboreal fashion.

Where Does That Leave Us?

The rhizome is an appropriate model, not only for new Internet publications, but also for the current world of contemporary poetry as a whole. The two-camp model, with its parallel hierarchies, is increasingly giving way to a more laterally-ordered extensive network composed of intersections, or hubs, that branch outward toward smaller hubs, which themselves branch outward in an intricate and ever-changing structure of exchange and influence. Some hubs may be extremely experimental, and some extremely conservative, but many of them are true intersections of these extremes, so that the previous adjectives—well-made, decorous, traditional, formal, and refined, as well as spontaneous, immediate, bardic, irrational, trans-logical, open-ended, and ambiguous—all still apply, but in new combinations. Such hybridity is, of course, in itself no guarantee of excellence, and the decentralizing influences cited above make it harder to achieve a consensual judgment or even to maintain stable critical criteria; instead, these factors put more responsibility on individual readers to make their own assessments, which can, in turn, create stronger readers in that they must become more aware of and refine their own critical criteria.

While the principal catalysts of this shift may be changes in education and technology, additional factors have anticipated, augmented, and implemented it in ways that have determined its character thus far. Women have played a particularly important role in creating sites for discussing and welcoming these changes. A few specific instances include the conference held in April of 1999 at Barnard College titled “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary Poetry by Women,” and the “Page Mothers” conference held a month earlier, in March of 1999, at UC San Diego, which focused on the crucial work of women in publishing in the last quarter of the twentieth century and the ways in which book and journal production have helped remap contemporary poetry.

Just as the shift in gender balance played an important role, increased internationalism and multiculturalism have also had a hand in broadening the aesthetic field, dispersing critical attention, and decentralizing power. Though the first word in our anthology’s title is “American,” it’s increasingly difficult to say just what the “American” in American poetry is. More and more poets writing and publishing in the United States were born and raised in other countries, and various poets in this volume come from China, England, Lebanon, Germany, Jamaica, Canada, Korea, and elsewhere—it’s a truly wide range of cultures that filters into this work. In addition, many of the poets presented here routinely spend part of each year out of the country, and though they all write in English, for some it is not their native language, and many write in other languages as well. These factors position a linguistic differential at the center of the work that keeps the English language questioning its parameters.

For many of these writers, translation is also an essential aspect of their writing practice, and, as it’s a discipline that constantly folds difference into the core of personal linguistic landscapes, it imports these differences—of form, sound, syntax, perspective, etc.—into American poetics as a whole.

Translation is also a literary practice that casts creation out, away from the creating “I” into a more public realm, and that same gesture is made by the many poets represented here who work editing, publishing, and producing the poetry of others through reading series and other modes of public access. By thus creating literature on the most concrete, material, and social level, these writers extend the Rimbaudian “I is an other” beyond the estrangement inherent in committing the first person singular to paper and into a socially creative act—it literally creates the society in which it can thrive. Many of these poets also work in other media—in theater, in music, and in the visual arts. Some incorporate language into their paintings and sculptures, intentionally complicating the ‘materiality of the word,’ while others incorporate images as integral elements of their texts.

Poetry is eternally marked by, even determined by, difference, but that very difference changes and moves. At the moment, it is moving inside, into the center of the writing itself, fissuring its smooth faces into fragments that make us reconsider the ethics of language, on the one hand, and redraft our notions of a whole, on the other. Putting less emphasis on external differences, those among poets and their relative positions, leaves us all in a better position to fight a much more important battle for the integrity of language in the face of commercial and political misuse. It’s a battle that brings poetry back to its mandate as articulated by Mallarmé: to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe. It’s something only poetry can do.


At 2/06/2009 12:28 AM, Blogger ncc said...

History seems to have caught up with print publication technology. Centuries ago, printing had the same revolutionary effect on the Bible; it was the older rhizome. Will a new master technology come in to restore arboreality to the Net?

At 2/06/2009 2:55 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Or has it already?

At 9/12/2011 3:34 AM, Anonymous writingservices said...

Contains almost any interesting information I have, very smart site.


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