Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Future Is Being Written. Are You Part of it?

Where do you get off?

A sort of satire:

And now, an explosion of a small moment:

The point of the attack is against a minority of the poetry being written today, on behalf of the mainstream. Writing about Kay Ryan’s complete poems (published in 2035, you see), the author, Jason Guriel uses his position twenty-five years in the future to look back on the early poetry of the century (now) to let us know that the disjunctions (etc) associated with the “Ashberians (or the Sillimen or the Dean Youngians . . .)” that typify the period will give way to an age of poems that look and sound a lot like Ryan’s. Kay Ryan, the piece argues, is going to be the voice of the next 25 years.

The tone of the piece aside, he might be right that the poem of the future will look something like Kay Ryan’s poetry (which, if so, I believe will have a lot less to do with Kay Ryan than it will to Rae Armantrout), but I must, once again, stress that the typical poem of right now looks nothing like the poetry of Ashbery-Silliman-Young. All one needs to do is to pick up the three or four largest circulation literary journals, or, better, check out Poetry Daily and Verse Daily for a week and note the modes and methods of the poems there. The poetry typified by Ashbery-Silliman-Young (or, as a female counter [because it fascinates me how writers continually talk about male examples while ignoring equally powerful and appropriate female examples], I propose Armantrout-Hejinian-Ruefle) looks to have little in common until you place it next to the poetry of Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, and, more typical of what is being written by most poets today: Robert Pinsky or Kim Addonizio.

Two things come to my mind when I see this division put forward (and it seems to be put forward a lot, and always by people arguing on behalf of the mainstream, what was once called "Official Verse Culture" and then, more famously, as a sort of prod "School of Quietude").

One, critics don’t have a way to talk about the real mainstream of American poetry without acting like it’s not the mainstream, and as if Ashbery (et al) were the mainstream. In acting as if the mainstream were not the mainstream, in placing it in opposition to this Ashbery/ Silliman/ Young (Armantrout/ Hejinian/ Ruefle!) trio (or sextet!), critics can position it against a large enemy and thereby pitch it as a heroic quest. The way Kay Ryan’s story is being pitched as a version of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (she came from nowhere to the Laureateship!) perhaps, or “The Emperor Has No Clothes” (Her AWP piece is full of insight no one else would dare utter aloud!), when in actuality Kay Ryan’s reputation was built mostly through the strong endorsement of Poetry Magazine, the most visible (to the culture at large) poetry publication in the country, and her laureateship was a political appointment, in the hands of very few. Hers has been less a grass-roots rise than it has a rise through a few powerful advocates.

Two, it could be that the world of Ash-Sil-You / Arm-Hej-Rue is currently a minority position, but a minority position that is growing, or that has, as Tony Hoagland suggests, seeped into the fabric of the time. If this is true (which I’m not certain of, looking at the majority of poems written today), then it does explain the weight of the arguments against it. Poets such as Hoagland see it as something that’s OK in a small measure (he endorses Dean Young and others), but he also sees it as a dangerous “skitteriness” that has no real emotional depth. The barbarians are at the gates, perhaps. Or the writing is on the wall.

I think there’s something to this when I read things such as the recent reviews in The New Yorker of the most recent books by Rae Armantrout and Ann Carson, and a little less recently, but noteworthy nonetheless, the reviews of Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy. All three books are from poets associated with the Ash-Sil-You “side” (which, again, is absurd as a “side,” as, for one, I don’t think Ron Silliman much cares for or feels much affinity with The New York School, represented by Ashbery, and I’m quite certain he doesn’t care much for Dean Young’s work) that have overt, readily apparent, emotional qualities. Such could also be said for Ashbery’s breakthrough (in the mainstream sense, as many experimental poets turn rather to The Tennis Court Oath) book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. (This could be taken as a wonderful opportunity for a “note to self” for poets in the “experimental” “community.” [!]) Hah!

So all this is to say that if I were to guess (knowing that Guriel’s piece is some sort of satire, even as it, to me at least, makes more points against Ryan as it does against what seems to be its true targets [AWP? Experimental poets? Critics who think Ryan is slight?]), the poetry of the future (twenty five years isn’t enough time, by the way, as many poets writing today will still be writing then—so I suggest we look 50 to 75 years off) will be unrecognizable, or at least as much like any tendencies that are swirling today as, say, William Carlos Williams is like Kay Ryan.

In the future the world will appear three dimensional.


At 8/12/2010 7:37 AM, Blogger Don Share said...


I can't believe you really think that Ryan got where she was via the "strong endorsement" of Poetry magazine. We publish lots of poets who never go to Washington or gain any sort of power, political or otherwise. Certainly, publication in the magazine is a kind of endorsement - but it's not an annointing.

Whatever one thinks of Kay Ryan or her poetry, she got where she was all by herself. (For the record, I've never laid eyes on her, or been in touch with her about anything other than the publishing of her poems in our pages.) Why the conspiracy theory?? We've also published Silliman, Armantrout, and, for that matter, Ashbery (including, by the way, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror") - but nobody thinks we've "endorsed" those guys!

Just sayin'.

At 8/12/2010 8:03 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Ouch, yes, I’m sorry! I didn’t intend to make her rise sound like a conspiracy between Poetry Magazine and Dana Gioia or something, but I can see how you could read it that way. I was trying to stress that she’s not the level of hermit and outsider as keeps getting written about her. I mentioned Poetry, because her winning The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize is one of the things that helped her get wider notice. As her bio goes on (at the Poetry Foundation website – which is a good resource):

“Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Union League Poetry Prize, the Maurice English Poetry Award, and three Pushcart Prizes. Her work has been selected four times for The Best American Poetry and was included in The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997. … Ryan's poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, The Yale Review, Paris Review, The American Scholar, The Threepenny Review, Parnassus, among other journals and anthologies.”

And her works has also been “a finalist for both the Lamont Poetry Selection and the Lenore Marshall Prize.” So, absolutely, you’re right, it was not a conspiracy. Her biography is quite impressive. It’s also true that she’s been somewhat reticent putting herself forward, which is where the story of her outsider artist status got started.

I’m also not criticizing her work here. I have before, but this is not about her poetry, it’s about the zeitgeist, I suppose. A zeitgeist that some keep saying is currently centered around Ashbery. Looking around, I just don’t see it.

Whew, almost done with the corrections: I’m also not criticizing Poetry Magazine for publishing her work (or, as you say, that of Armantrout & Silliman). I’m stressing that although she’s not been heralded by all from day one, she’s done quite well for herself with admirers and publications.

Since Armantrout is mentioned by both of us, it’s interesting to compare the two, as Armantrout is never talked about (as far as I can see) as the hermit outsider that Ryan is, but how much more under the radar Armantrout has been over the years than Ryan has been. But of course, Armantrout has the LANGUAGE POET tag to wear, and we all only get one pigeon hole when the culture finally starts talking about us . . .

At 8/12/2010 8:25 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Quick addition:

The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize is awarded by The Poetry Foundation, not Poetry Magazine. So I shouldn’t have conflated the two.

Here’s the list of winners of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize since it began in 1986. It’s an impressive list (and it includes Ashbery!).

2010: Eleanor Ross Taylor
2009: Fanny Howe
2008: Gary Snyder
2007: Lucille Clifton
2006: Richard Wilbur
2005: C. K. Williams
2004: Kay Ryan
2003: Linda Pastan
2002: Lisel Mueller
2001: Yusef Komunyakaa
2000: Carl Dennis
1999: Maxine Kumin
1998: W. S. Merwin
1997: William Matthews
1996: Gerald Stern
1995: A. R. Ammons
1994: Donald Hall
1993: Charles Wright
1992: John Ashbery
1991: David Wagoner
1990: Hayden Carruth
1989: Mona Van Duyn
1988: Anthony Hecht
1987: Philip Levine
1986: Adrienne Rich

At 8/12/2010 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Open the 2nd bottle, Donny POETRY, and relax. You're like the Franz Wright of editors--wherever POETRY is
"besmirched"--you'll be there to unsmirch it! And, Gallaher owes you no apology--his piece sounded nothing like a conspiracy theory. --Driscoll

At 8/12/2010 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh, oh, JG, they're coming for ya. I see black helicopters on the horizon.

At 8/12/2010 10:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone who has screened for any of the major poetry prizes--perhaps not counting those with a pronounced or explicit bent towards more innovative work--knows just how small a percentage of the poetry will bear any resemblance to, or even acquaintance with, the Ash-Sil-You or Arm-Hej-Ru axes. I've screened for the Bakeless competition three times in the past six years, and while I've seen some very good work in more conventional/accessible modes, the percentage that could in any way be said to fall in innovative or experimental precincts is consistently less than 10%.

I'm more interested in the process by which formal or stylistic innovations "bleed through" into idioms that are, overall, more "accessible" or conventional. The New Yorker's recent attempts to recognize and domesticate Armantrout and Carson are, I would argue, part of that process.


P.S. word verification: exuation

At 8/12/2010 10:56 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


My two cents: I think the most famous (at least it was illustrative to me) moment of this sort of bleeding, was in Robert Lowell's "Fall 1961." It illustrates (for me) how the enacted surreal images of more experimental poetry can be brought into mainstream poetry, usually into the right hand side of a simile (he denied that, though, saying he got it from his daughter):

A father's no shield
for his child.
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.

At 8/12/2010 11:02 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Part II:

You can see a more recent version of the same thing in Philip Levine's prose poem, "The Language Problem" published last year. In it, he pushes the "skittery" elements into a kind of foreign tour and academic joke, which helps keep them under "control":

Cuban Spanish is incomprehensible even to Cubans. "If you spit in his face he'll tell you it's raining," the cab driver said. In Cuban it means, "Your cigar is from Tampa." Single, desperate, almost forty, my ex-wife told the Cuban doctor she'd give a million dollars for a perfect pair of tits. "God hates a coward," he said & directed her to an orthopedic shoe store where everything smelled like iodine. A full-page ad on the back of Nueva Prensa Cubana clearly read "Free rum 24 hours a day & more on weekends." ("Free rum" was in italics.) When I showed up that evening at the right address, Calle Obispo, 28, the little merchant I spoke to said, "Rum? This is not a distillery." They were flogging Venetian blue umbrellas for $4 American. Mine was made in Taiwan and when it rained refused to open. Before sunset the streets filled with music. In the great Plaza de la Revolución the dark came slowly, filled with the perfume of automobile exhaust and wisteria. I danced with a girl from Santiago de Cuba. Gabriela Mistral García was her name; she was taller than I & wore her black hair in a wiry tangle. She was a year from her doctorate in Critical Theory. After our dance she grabbed me powerfully by the shoulders as a commandante in a movie might, leaned down as though to kiss me on the cheek, & whispered in my good ear, "I dream of tenure." It was the Fifties all over again.

At 8/12/2010 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you can see IT x 100 in the much gallaherized (thanks) american hybrid.

yeah, john, picking on 'donny' (haha) Share?--ah--you got brass ones--you'll never publish in america again! certainly not in poetry magazine. --cs

At 8/12/2010 2:27 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Ha! Oh, it's just a misunderstanding, I think. Anyway, for my money, Share has been the best thing to happen to Poetry Magazine in many years, and I'd tell him that if he'd return my calls.

At 8/12/2010 2:29 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

(That last bit was a joke, about the call. I've not tried to call him. We've had pleasant exchanges on facebook, however, so I think it's all good.)

At 8/12/2010 2:45 PM, Blogger Don Share said...

Anon. is right to notice that I get all excited; I didn't mean to come off accusatory. Sorry to have overstated the case, to have overreacted. A. is also right that I shouldn't go into comment boxes.

Let me just say that John's blog is one of the best around, and that I like his poems very much.

So: apologies all around from ME; John certainly has nothing to apologize for.

At 8/12/2010 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get a room!

At 8/12/2010 8:50 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

It seems a bit disingenuous to compare Poetry's publication of Silliman (published in 1969, not published again until 2010!) or Armantrout (not published at all until 2007!) with its consistent advocacy of Kay Ryan. No one thinks Poetry endorsed those first two poets because they fairly clearly didn't. Ashbery is at least a more reasonable analogy.

At 8/13/2010 9:13 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm still thinking of what the typical poem of "our time" is, and I think I found it today on Poetry Daily:

Again, I'm just looking at tendencies, not if it's a good poem or not. But it does all the things that I most often come across in cotemporary poems, probably at least 75% of the poems being written in America:

1.Epigraph from a famous poem/poet. (optional)

2.Description of birds to set the scene. (Or any semi-domestic / semi-wild animal or landscape)

3.Autobiographical-sounding story of the speaker's Father (or mother) set in an earlier time, when things were more simple.

4.This sort of prosody:

"Peering into lightless warehouses,
into dank dim hatches, holding
a fistful of pale papers,
men called out, signaled
cranking cranes,
hooked crates and barrels and bales."

5.A description of the speaker's current life, moving from the past to the present tense, usually in counterpoint to the lives of his/her parents, with a light, nostalgic epiphany. Something like this:

"Weightless dollar transactions
cross waters on the backs
of electrons and we too
in our bodies ride, rattling
toward work, cross.
In rain or sun (How good), over
the river bridges (it is),
inside tinny trains in debt
(to be alive). We peer down
through rusted trestles at
the backwards river that
does not remember."

At 8/13/2010 10:36 AM, Blogger Henry Gould said...

Typical poem of today :

1. Opens with picture-window perspective of vaguely California-SW landscape, seagulls & bridge in distance. The word "honk" appears somewhere early on.

2. Allusive reference to Alfred Hitchcock incognito crossing street with umbrella in 2nd or 3rd stanza.

3. Line-lengths long & breezy, or choppy & mixed-salad.

4. Favorite dog barks plaintively in background of midsection. Lines are numbered, but out of sequence.

5. Vague Ashbery wheeze is a constant overtone - or its rather awkward absence!

6. The word "plangent" - if not applied, implied - permeates the whole sensibility with its fragrant ambience, or, in other words, tone. "Shore" is a favorite.

7. Some relationship issue usually surfaces about now : men, women, generations, ethnicities... the whole gambit. It is poetry, after all.

8. The poem is usually short - but not short enough.

At 8/13/2010 10:44 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Number 4, that should read “sequins,” not “sequence,” I think.

At 8/13/2010 11:46 AM, Blogger Henry Gould said...

"Number 4, that should read “sequins,” not “sequence,” I think."

How right you are, John Gallaher. Somehow the 17th century got into the mix there. Alla mistakeo on my port.

At 8/13/2010 1:02 PM, Blogger Eli Hemistich said...

Henry, that is superb. But--can we limn the plangency? Can we?

At 8/13/2010 1:14 PM, Blogger Henry Gould said...

"But--can we limn the plangency? Can we?"

"If only, if only from here,
in the gently defibrillating cubicle,
possibly radioactive - if only
from here, where the questions arise
like tardy terns over the missing sparkle
of the Harbor - one could answer
only this : this plangency, that is still
percolating, forever bereft of its own
garbanzo fields..."

- Herbert Van Weed, in the Aug. issue of Penfield's Bi-Annuated


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