Tuesday, January 9, 2007

To Clarify

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.


Andrew Shields said...

Regarding John Barr, I have read his verse novel "Grace," and it is does many things, but one thing that it does not do is "offer the consolations of familiar form and familiar content." It is a startling, powerful work, written in a half-invented version of English.

Since you're most interested in poems than in poetry (a sentiment I am wholly in agreement with), check out "Grace": a unique poem.

Anonymous said...

W/ the possible exception of Michael Palmer, I think Silliman would probably categorize the other poets you listed at the beginning of your post -- Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Ann Lauterbach, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Cole Swensen, and Rosmarie Waldrop -- as either "quietudinous" or "faux-avant."

I agree w/ you that, as critical categories, "SoQ" and "post-avant" don't quite measure up. As you mentioned, the former term seems designed to be something of an epithet -- a pejorative characterization of a range of aesthetic commitments that simply aren't to Silliman's taste maquarading as an objective, value-neutral critical category.

Archambeau said...

Glad to hear you're a fan of John Peck! I've been wondering where he fits on the map for years. Actually, I've been wondering where the map is, nowadays...



John Gallaher said...

From Poetry Daily

John Barr

I love to recover the quality
of things in decline.
To scour stone, scale paint from brick,
to compel, with wire brush,
the flourish wrought by iron.
To refinish wood, solving for
forgotten grain.
To give, by weeding, our stone wall
back its dignity.
To left and right the borders of our lot,
to square the corners of our keep.

I have even dreamed: pushing a pushcart,
I stop anywhere and start
doing what needs to be done.
The first building takes time:
replacing windows, curing the roof.
I know compromises must be made
and make none, a floor at a time.

I work along an interstate
a century after Johnny Appleseed.
A modest people makes me chief.
(They, too, enjoy the hazy shine
of finished work by last light.)
Storm drains relieved, brick walks relaid,
a heritage of dust and wrappers
is renounced. The square square,
trim trim, the town for once
is like an artist's conception of the town.

sean said...

Oh, but you should expect the good out of Kooser! I can't speak for his recent work, except the superb collab w/Jim Harrison, Braided Creek (Copper Canyon), but am always on board w/the hearty work in his earlier selected volume, Sure Signs, and books earlier.

Sean Casey

Bloodbelter said...

Oh, what you have written is so refreshingly well-said. Me: I stick mostly to experiencing poems instead of taking stock in polemics, and a large part of my experiencing involves following the structural, vocal, and typographical principles that even poorly conceived poems set into motion.

It is such a wonderful ego-shaterring opportunity to teach freshmen college students poetry-writing and to chuck the notion of partisanship away so that I can deal directly with what is before me, to consider not what I want work to be but what is actually there, its emerging principles, and to urge the freshman or sophomore undergraduates (17, 18, 19 years old) to come gently to some perspective about virtuosity, and for me virtuosity is when what we think we are doing may become the same as what we ARE doing. I would be so blessed to teach freshmen and sophomore creative writing for the rest of my life and I've come to believe it a kind of calling to which I am suited, and when many berate creative writing pedagogy in higher education they forget the undergraduate end of things which is far more challenging and perhaps more rewarding then MFA experiences. For many of the younger poets with whom I work there is simply a lack of self-interrogation about the state of virtuosity in their practices. This kind of work has made me critically generous, as I like to say, to a host of approaches, and deepend my sense of close, humble, careful reading.

I grew up working class in familial and geographical situations marked by extreme dissention, violence, abuse, hyper-competition--sites where even a look was suspect. Why would anyone in creative writing want to foster those kinds of energies, this warring? I've been trying for so long to get out of ghettoized thinking. I want to engage even with those who I may at first disagree. That's living, really riding the cross-currents of life.

When I read poems, the conflicts are imaginative problems that do not engender any need for polemical chest-thumping. Dare I say that the root problem (sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly kept) with extreme literary partisanship, hasty generalizations, and other fallacies is ego--and I've made these fallacies too--none of us is immune. When a poet-critic is angry I sense that he or she moves from a place of deep misplaced want; or to be even more specific: she or he may truly want something that she feels has not been afforded to her or his peers.

It's not easy negotiating critical generosity (which is neither hagiography nor rebuke) but such generosity opens up a shockingly productive life of reading for me, especially on the bus on my way to work. I am less interested in whether I liked or agreed with work and more concerned with how it moved me to see, hear, to experience language and ideas in fresh, singular, disturbing, if not always new, ways (and my own creative approaches are hardly new or necessarily innovative), and so much work these days invites such experiencing.

So thank you for your splendid observations and for your splendid poems too.

Kirby Olson said...

I htink Billy Collins' major crime is to have become popular. A similar thing happened with Brautigan, who struck a chord with the public in a similar sad hilarious vein.

I like both Collins and Brautigan.

Collins is probably also deliberately anti-communist in some of his poems, and I'm pretty sure this drives the former editor of the Socialist Review up the wall.

Andy Gricevich said...

I like a lot of what you have to say on this blog, but I don't think you're right about Silliman being more interested in social context than in poems themselves (which is not to say that he doesn't have an abiding interest in the former, in a gossipy as well as a serious fashion). Hillman is a good example; the "crowd" she runs with would definitely put her in an "avant" camp. I'd assume that it's her poetry that Ron feels merits accusations of conservatism.
And I'd agree; I don't personally feel comfortable using this kind of label, but if there's anyone who merits the appellation "faux-avant," it's Hillman (I find her work to be both politically and aesthetically conformist--acknowledging that these aren't the same thing--a kind of smug, artsy liberalism that mimics the gestures of politically committed and aesthetically courageous art). Pardon the rant--there are few poets I'd spend so many negative words on. The main point is that Hillman is definitely socially "post-avant."

Andrew Shields said...

I just thought I'd come back to your comments on Kooser here and refer you to the one poem of his that I have read, which was on Poetry Daily a couple years ago. Whatever he says in prose, he may, like Barr, be saying something else in poetry:

They Had Torn Off My Face at the Office

They had torn off my face at the office.
The night that I finally noticed
that it was not growing back, I decided
to slit my wrists. Nothing ran out;
I was empty. Both of my hands fell off
shortly thereafter. Now at my job
they allow me to type with the stumps.
It pleases them to have helped me,
and I gain in speed and confidence.

Ted Kooser
Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985
University of Pittsburgh Press

Anonymous said...