I want to make it clear that I am very sympathetic to much experimental poetry, and to many of its stated aims. Many of my favorite living poets, among them Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Aaron Shurin, Cole Swensen, and Rosmarie Waldrop, could be considered avant-garde, or post-avant, or whatever the going term is these days. (I omit mention of my contemporaries.) I have edited a poetry anthology, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, which collects the work of emerging poets who write in the interstices of avant-garde experimentation and traditional lyric, and am attempting to publish a second anthology that collects the work of more established poets working in this space that transcends tribalization.
On the other hand, many of my favorite living poets, including Louise Gluck, Linda Gregg, Marilyn Hacker, W.S. Merwin, Jean Valentine, and Charles Wright, could be considered "mainstream" poets, diverse as they are. And where would the work of poets like Michael Anania, Alvin Feinman, Jorie Graham, Allen Grossman, Jane Miller, or John Peck be placed on such a map? I don't understand the compulsion to categorize and label. Why must every poet be put in a box? And why there are only two (with a special, somewhat patronizing box for properly accredited oppressed minorities)? I have been much labeled and categorized in my life, and it's rarely been to good ends. I have usually thought that one of the things that art offers us is a way out of such categorical thinking.
Unlike Ron Silliman, my interest is very much in poems. I am certainly interested in poetry, but to me that term has meaning only in relation to actual poems, and whatever issues we consider and discuss in poetry should arise out of and return to poems. To call Brenda Hillman a "School of Quietude" poet, as Silliman has done recently, with all the assumptions of poetic conservatism and narrowness that epithet implies, is simply to show that one hasn't read her work. This is what I meant when I wrote that I am sometimes hard-pressed to tell the difference between work that Silliman considers progressive and work that he considers reactionary: his criterion is not the poem but the context he assumes for the poem, or really, for the poet.
I know that the Dana Gioias and John Barrs of the poetry world dismiss and denigrate any work that doesn't offer the consolations of familiar form and familiar content. (I am not familiar with Barr's poetry, but am referring to statements he has made about contemporary poetry. His own work may be at odds with his polemics, as is often the case.) But traditional forms, like any forms, are not in themselves either reactionary or progressive, if such terms can even be meaningfully applied to artistic activity. They are resources, and as Wittgenstein wrote about language, their meaning depends on their use.
I focus on the shortcomings of the poetic avant-garde for the same reason that I focus on the shortcomings of political leftism: one is more sensitive to the failings of those one feels closer to. I expect nothing (good) of Ted Kooser or Billy Collins in the poetic realm, anymore than I expect anything (good) of the Republican Party in the political realm. Thus I'm not much disappointed by them. (Though the Republican Party does have a seemingly unlimited capacity to horrify.)
Given the frequent conflation of so-called poetic conservatism and political conservatism, I must point out that Billy Collins, at least, seems to be a political liberal. I would also say that I don't consider him a traditional or conservative poet, because his work eschews most of the traditional resources of poetry; it certainly doesn't seem to seek to conserve those verbal virtues. In his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser rejects and even disdains most of what makes poetry interesting and engaging, in the name of a highly patronizing populist clarity that assumes readers of poetry are lazy, ignorant, and unintelligent. While some readers undoubtedly are these things, it seems a very depressing enterprise to write on the assumption that one's readers are both incapable and unwilling.
The English language poetic tradition includes, just to mention a few of my favorites, Thomas Wyatt and William Shakespeare and John Donne and George Herbert and John Milton and John Keats and Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats, and of course the Moderns in their many-splendored diversity. All of these poets can be said to have "experimented" to expand the possibilities of what can be done and said in poetry. As Wallace Stevens wrote, all poetry is experimental poetry. One writes to find out what will happen. This is the tradition that I wish to conserve against both commercial culture's insistence on profit and relevance (under which rubric I would place the Ted Koosers of the poetry world) and cultural activism's pseudo-politics. (In Jean-Francois Lyotard's words, "Artistic and literary research is doubly threatened, once by the 'cultural policy' and once by the art and book market.") In that sense I am both a traditionalist and a conservative.