Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Michael Theune on Third Way Poetics

In a group of articles and reviews, critic and scholar Michael Theune has been critiquing in more detail than any other writer I’m aware of the concept of third way poetics. Below, I’m reprinting with permission his 2005 review of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries edited by the late Reginald Shepherd.

Several quick questions and points of my own:

To what extent did the writers in The Iowa Anthology think of themselves as third way writers? In other words, do the group of writers gathered in the anthology see themselves as interrelated in the sense, for instance, that the language poets, the flarf poets, and some of the gurlesque writers seem to do? Or was the concept mainly Shepherd’s own? Is third way poetics a literary movement or one writer’s concept? Theune's review explores this question closely and comes up with an answer somewhere between these two poles.

To what extent might The Iowa Anthology (along with, perhaps, the just recently released American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, which I haven’t seen) be said to be primary examples of what might be called a contemporary Iowa School Poetics? For instance, there’s a relatively close connection between the work featured in the anthology and what Johannes Göransson described awhile back (go to August 8 2008 post) as the kind of poetry taught and promoted in the Iowa MFA program in the Jorie Graham years when he was a student there. On the other hand, I remember talk about a UBuffalo Poetics in the 1990s. My sense, at that time, of how there were so many differences in the writing of the students and professors there that I was (and am) convinced that there was no one such poetics, although people outside the context often thought there was.

There’s a big difference between an anthology that tries to build a bridge for writers with different approaches to aesthetics and politics, and one that claims to have found an overarching aesthetic that renders such differences passĂ© and irrelevant.

The poems featured in The Iowa Anthology often have a grand lyrical sophistication, classical references (perhaps just a idiosyncrasy of Shepherd but nonetheless suggestive), and come equipped with claims by the editor to have overcome partisanship. To what extent might the anthology be an attempt at defining not simply a new American middle ground poetry but a new version of an American elite poetry?


Review of The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, edited by Reginald Shepherd
(Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2004).

Michael Theune

This review originally appeared in American Book Review 27.1 (Nov/Dec 2005): 16-17

Randall Jarrell writes that "[a]nthologies are, ideally, an essential species of criticism." The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries clearly wants to be an important critical/theoretical text by presenting work that situates itself in the supposedly newfound territory between American mainstream and experimental poetries. As Reginald Shepherd asserts in the anthology's "Introduction," "This anthology collects the work of twenty-four poets whose work crosses, ignores, or transcends the variously demarcated lines between traditional lyric and avant-garde practice" (xiii). However, when considered carefully, this anthology reveals itself to be, at best, carelessly crafted and, at worst, actively detrimental, presenting a skewed picture of what otherwise might be a significant, interesting, transgressive trend in American poetry.

Though, as its introduction makes clear, this is not a collection of work by younger poets, this anthology does collect work by poets who had published, at the time of the anthology's publication, "no more than two full-length books of poetry" (xiii). These poets, the introduction asserts, have been brought together not through synchrony and not as a "representative sampling" of trends in American poetry, but so that the poetry of the between, of the lyric/experiment middle space, might be "explicitly laid out and brought together" (xiii). This rationale, though, smacks of a cover-up. The notion that the middle space might be fruitful territory for poetry to explore is not the invention of these newer poets but others-including Jorie Graham, Alice Fulton, Donald Revell, and Michael Palmer, just to name a few mentioned in the introduction-who have theorized and written in and from this space with varying degrees of success for decades. Including such work, though, in this anthology would be problematic, revealing how derivative so much of the anthology's supposedly "new" poetry actually is.

Or is it "poetries actually are"? Though this is an anthology assembled according to the "commonality" of the included work, its title refers to "poetries" and its introduction refers to the poets' various "directions," as if to say that among this new work there are new developments and varieties (xiii). While this anthology wants this to be the case, it employs many pages, regardless of its "[s]evere space constraints" (xiii), to introduce the work of each individual poet with a brief "Artist's Statement," a cursory look at the poet's aims and influences-such is not the case. What is most shocking about the statements is how very similar they are to the introduction and to each other.

Many of these poets think of themselves as poets of the middle space. Jocelyn Emerson notes that she is "…fascinated by the process of trying to map governing epistemes of putatively antithetical discourses against one another (the 'scientific' and the 'aesthetic' for example) to see where their mutually exclusive definitions of self and other become visible and audible" (35), and Heather Ramsdell begins to investigate the governing epistemes of the anthology, wondering, "Is language poetry scientific? Is lyric spiritual?" (223) In this middle space, these poets also, as Shepherd writes, "…reject the dichotomy of thought and emotion, feeling thoughts and thinking feelings…" (xvi). This notion is borne out in Dan Beachy-Quick's hopes that "…the poet's mind pulses, the poet's heart thinks" (1) and in Joanna Klink's positive assessment of Stevens, Bishop, and Eliot as "…poets [who] thought in their poems," who "…could not separate physical pain from its mental shape…" (113). Lastly, according to Shepherd, all included in this anthology are "…poets for whom experience is not prior to the poem but something we undergo with and within the poem, for whom the poem itself is an experience" (xvi). Karen Volkman agrees, stating, "I believe one of the jobs of poetry is to discover and enable different and more complex ways of engaging experience…" (234). And Amy Newman virtually seconds this, defining poetry's task as answering "…the complicating, intoxicating call for the near-impossible, the magic trick of representation: a desire to capture the moveable world with a tool that might always seem somehow inadequate" (176).

From such similar ideas spring very similar poems. The inadequate tools of choice for many of the anthology's poets seem to be chance, fragmentation, and paratactic assemblage. As the various statements reveal again and again, these poems have been put together "by slow accretion" (47), according to "phonetic associations…[an] accrual of design…[that] allows for electrical mistakes, resonant slippages, kinetic cryptographies" (85), employing "accident" (163), with "a lot of hypertextuality" (176) and not too much concern for "fit" (197). This results in, largely, a plethora of half-baked meditations, pointless narratives, and series of short-circuitings which in the end really are, as Cynthia Cruz labels her own work, "broken lyrics" (22). While this may be the new American poetry, it is reminiscent of the kind of poetry challenged in Mary Kinzie's 1984 essay, "The Rhapsodic Fallacy." What's really new here is not the poetry but how familiar such poetry has become, and how improved are the capacities and means-including the anthology's introduction and statements-for theorizing, or excusing, such poetry.

What the anthology's cant tries to conceal is the anthology's general lack of wit. Though Emily Dickinson is a tutelary spirit, referenced in numerous artist statements and poems, the Dickinson who intrigues this anthology's poets is the Dickinson of variants, of multiplicity, the Dickinson favored for her obliquity, her telling it "slant." But this understanding of Dickinson gives no credence to why her multiplicities are worth attention in the first place: Dickinson is the great poet of wit, if we mean by wit something much more than mere verbal cleverness and mean by it, as Charles R. Anderson does in Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, "…the power of joining thought and expression with an aptness calculated to delight by its unexpectedness…" (4). Though Shepherd claims that the work in his anthology is "fully accomplished work" (xiii), it is not to the extent that it's true that, as Anderson claims, "Wit is indispensable to the great poet" (3).

In part, the omission of wit is due to the nature of writing now. Many of the included poems simply weren't made to be anthologized in the way that they are, as they have been selected from longer, sometimes book-length, series of poems in which, according to Karen Volkman, the "movement of mind" is "from poem to poem" (233), in which, according to Jenny Mueller, as a result, there may be "less interest…in 'finishing' or 'originating' individual works" (151). However, part of the anthology's lack of wit also is the result of bad editorial decisions. Some of the writers here are poorly represented; often, their wit has been removed. Nowhere is Laura Mullen's cheeky "After I Was Dead." Nowhere is one of Rachel Zucker's strongest poems, "In Your Version of Heaven I Am Younger"-a sassy poem that begins, "In your version of heaven I am blond, thinner, / but not so witty." And while the poems included by D.A. Powell generally are very good-like so much of Powell's poetry, which is some of the strongest poetry being written today-they are not nearly Powell's best, and they all largely share a similar elegaic tone. Nowhere appears the bawdiness of Powell's "dogs and boys can treat you like trash. and dogs do love trash," a traditional poem, much like Wyatt's "They flee from me," about lost love, but completely contemporary in its brashness and liveliness, or the sheer inventiveness of the sad and hilarious "morning broke on my cabin inverted. tempest in my forehead," a poem that employs the narrative of The Poseidon Adventure as an extraordinary extended metaphor for dealing with AIDS.

Shepherd clearly is not just re-presenting poetry of the middle space, he is shaping it, defining it. The problem is that he hobbles it, too, by presenting it weakly, substituting for literary quality-at most, 30 of the nearly 200 poems included are really good poems-a safe, unified style and tone. The extent to which this representation is hobbled is even clearer when one considers all that Shepherd has not included. Even limiting oneself to poets with a family resemblance to the anthologized poets-excluding, for example, poets participating in that very American phenomenon, slam poetry-it's hard to imagine how Shepherd relegated poets such as Olena Kalytiak Davis and Geoffrey G. O'Brien to a "Further Reading" list at the end of the anthology, and it is simply unimaginable that there is no mention whatsoever of work by poets such as Gabriel Gudding, Chelsey Minnis, or Spenser Short, poets who have written some amazing poems very different from each other's yet situated squarely in the middle space. Such exclusion seems especially unconscionable when it is considered that in their place was selected the generally convoluted work of Jocelyn Emerson, Catherine Imbroglio, and Jenny Mueller, three poets Shepherd, one assumes, knows, as they are thanked "for their comments, encouragement, and inspiration" at the end of his book, Otherhood.

Of course, it should be noted that in his introduction, Shepherd states, "…I have chosen poets whose experiments most compel me" (xiv). Fine, but it's not clear why their experiments are really new, or particularly American, or actually plural. Far from presenting new, American poetries, Shepherd has half-assembled and half-created a coterie, and, in doing so, he merely asserts a manner of writing already indicted and surpassed by so much of what it excludes.


Anonymous Worth said...

This blog makes me have to think too much. pass. :P

Michael Theune said...


Thanks so much for re-publishing this review.

This re-issue is, in fact, timely. It has been made timely by the recent publication of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (which I think of due to your link to Johannes's blog, which, on 6 February 2009 had a fine entry on American Hybrid). Though I’ve not yet examined the whole of that anthology, from having read the introduction and having glanced at the table of contents, it seems to me that American Hybrid largely repeats—though in its own way—many of the troubles of The Iowa Anthology.

But here’s the new twist…

A central problem with Shepherd’s two anthologies (The Iowa Anthology and Lyric Postmodernisms (2008)) is that while they employ the language of the boundary-breaking (the first sentence of the introduction to The Iowa Anthology claims that the anthology “collects the work of twenty-four poets whose work crosses, ignores, or transcends the variously demarcated lines between traditional lyric and avant-garde practice”; the first sentence of the introduction to Lyric Postmodernisms claims that the anthology “brings together…work [which] combines lyricism and avant-garde experimentation”) and the multiple (Poetries; Postmodernisms), they actually end up reinforcing many problematic demarcations and homogenizing the work of the poets selected for inclusion.

The NEW trouble with American Hybrid is thinking that what it does is new. The first sentence of Swensen’s introduction states, “The notion of a fundamental division in American poetry has become so ingrained that we take it for granted.” Swensen does not mention that, in large part due to Shepherd’s anthology (but also due to Alice Fulton’s theory of fractal poetry, James Longenbach’s Modern Poetry after Modernism and The Resistance to Poetry, David Caplan’s Questions of Possibility, “Principles for Formal Experimentation,” the final section of An Exaltation of Forms—problematic instances of “middle space” thinking all), the notion of there being a middle space aesthetic ALSO is (by now) ingrained. As she was included (knowingly—she wrote an “artist’s statement” to accompany her anthologized poems) in Shepherd’s Lyric Postmodernisms, Swensen should know this. (Additionally, though Swenson mentions the “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary Poetry by Women” conference at Barnard, she fails to mention the anthology that grew out of that conference, American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (Wesleyan, 2002). The omission of the existing work on the middle space feels more significant when one considers the many (at least six) oppositional anthologies Swensen names in her introduction.

But Swensen, of course, has done something new with her anthology: she has gotten rid of the plural—the Hybrid is singular. This is savvy: what was the (clearly problematic) illusion of multiplicity in Shepherd’s anthology in the title American Hybrid is transformed into a single entity. But I don’t think that because of this we now have a truth—rather, we have a (slightly) deeper illusion. According to Swensen, while “[t]he rhizome is an appropriate model…for the current world of contemporary poetry as a whole,” and though there are “many” “hubs” in this rhizome which are “true intersections” of the “extremes” (of the “extremely experimental” and the “extremely conservative),” she does not adequately explain how, from the generally non-hierarchical rhizome, she plucked the poems she selected for the anthology. Why Stefanie Marlis, and not H.L. Hix? John Koethe? James Tate? Jean Valentine?—each of whom could be labeled “hybrid.” And then why not Charles Bernstein or Kent Johnson?—who, along with many others, could be seen as “hybrid” if called such. What sets the poets in the anthology apart and groups them together? Does Swensen carefully select her poems so that the disparate work of disparate poems does seem to all go together, or does she include a wide variety of work and simply call it all similar? And how much is any serious, substantive answer to such questions compromised by the fact that Swensen includes in her anthology a poet like Stefanie Marlis, a poet and copywriter with whom Swensen works as a copyeditor? Initially, it SEEMS that all of the introduction’s (supposed) theory and the (half-)silences may be, very much like Shepherd’s introductions, much sound and fury and marketing that ends up justifying the connection of many poets already otherwise connected.

(I will need to look into this some more. I have a review of three new anthologies—Lyric Postmodernisms, The City Visible, and the “ultra-talk” issue of TriQuarterly—forthcoming from Pleiades. Perhaps I can add a more in-depth analysis of American Hybrid as an addendum.)

One final point. While the middle space seems like it is a meeting ground for opposites, and so signals an end to the “poetry wars,” middle space poetry (as I argue in my forthcoming review) in fact very often depends on an other to define itself against. Much middle space theory sets itself up over and against a whole range of “accessible” poetry, from slam to “ultra-talk”/”stand up” poetry. Middle space poetry does not end the poetry wars, but rather wages it by other means.

mark wallace said...

MIchael, thanks for this additional comment to your previous ones. I'm going to leave this post as the last one for a few more days, because of AWP last week and so on, just in case anybody else might still have a comment.

Re your final point in the comment box, I'd say, again, that there's a difference between an anthology that brings contrasting aesthetics/cultural ideas together under one cover (potentially a very intriguing idea) and lets them interact, and an anthology that suggests such differences are passe and have been resolved by the anthology.

In the second case, the idea of the "middle-space" becomes more or less just an updating of the older mainstream poetry anthologies that claimed to be publishing "the best" contemporary writing but featured only poems that reflected mainstream aesthetic values. In these more recent cases, though, the anthology imagines itself as "having gone through all that" conflict between schools of thought and arriving at a new version of "the best," in this case supposedly by finding writing that takes "what's good" from "both camps" and avoids excess and contention. There are of course different ways to do that: find writers who combine the supposedly warring aesthetic urges in supposedly new ways, or choose a new canon that identifies the supposed "best" writers of both groups.

As you suggest, the first version simply creates another coterie rather than ending coterie, and actually that would be fine with me if it acknowledged that fact. Another coterie? All well and good. Then let's turn to the poems and see what they do.

I wonder if the second version isn't more insidious: the creation of a new canon that seems to subsume differences into a more encompassing big tent. Representatives of what it supposedly "the best" in various tendencies combined to form a new whole from which no "major" poets have been excluded. But such a project would simply redistribute exclusion along a new axis.

I don't make this last point because I think "inclusion" is automatically positive or even possible. Instead, the concept of inclusion can often be used as a cover-up for exclusion.

More or less, I think the starting ground is often to acknowledge the inevitability of exclusion and that the goal of the most interesting anthologies should be to enable differences rather than imagining that they can or should be overcome in any final way.

And in the sake of full disclosure, I haven't read or even seen the American Hybrid Anthology and so my comments above are not about it specifically.

Johannes said...

I just added some more comments on my blog in response to the panel at the recent AWP.


baj salchert said...

Third Way does not qualify as a movement. It may qualify as a category name for a poet who does not wish to be associated with any coterie and with coteries whose members contend their poetics keep them outside of accepted historical movements.

Michael Theune obviously knows more about contemporary poets than many of us do, and I think it would be good if he provided a list beyond what he has provided here.

Such a variety of approaches to language occurred in the 20th Century that many now feel free to do as they please.

Several days ago Joseph Hutchison placed a link to D. A. Powell in a post on his blog. I knew of Powell before his appearance at Harriet, but I hadn't seen a photo of him nor read a biography of him nor read an essay on poetics by him. All these are at AAP. The photo has a haunting quality, the biography explains the photo, and the essay substantiates the biography. It is a fine essay. I was most struck by Powell's simile/metaphor/metonomy reasoning:
each thing is its own thing; no thing is another thing; no thing is like another thing. This is why simile and metaphor have lost the power they once had. Does this place him closer to the so-called Language poets? Can't say.

What I can say is that the technologies created by humans/ moved the experiences of the everyday away from simple unities and toward more complex atomizations. Now we get such questions as: "Is God a mathematician?" Better stop before I disappear over a cliff.

Anonymous Worth said...

This has nothing to do with your blog...but i just got accepted into an SNL sketch writing class that only takes 12 people and i have never been able to get in.
I RULE! im friggin happy!!

Johannes said...

I should say that i disagree with the idea of a "middle space." I mean how on earth can Minnis be the middle? It's like Alice Notley. They're writing some very extreme poetry, not at all a compromise. I can see Geoffrey G. O'Brien and Spencer Short (I know Spencer well and I think he would embrace that label heartily and perversely) as "middle" but a lot of these supposed middle-ists are just doing something totally different, not at all a compromise. What this "middle" idea hides is the fact that there are so many more influences than just quietism or langpo. And many of these influences come from outside of poetry - from other art forms, cultural fantasias, foreign lit etc.

mark wallace said...

Johannes, in what way do you "disagree with the idea"?

Do you disagree:

1) that it exists (a big question mark, to my mind)
2) that people are claiming that it exists and write their poetry at least partially with the idea in mind (seems true to me)
3) that people should try to create it at all (which I don't find such an interesting project)
4) with what writers are (typically) given as examples of it

Michael Theune said...


Great stuff here--! Smart.

A few responses, making my way back up the comment stream...

Johannes-- To be clear: I'd be fine with doing away with a middle space. For me, the middle space never really seems real but always carefully shaped by anthologists and critics and poets who tend to shape their version of the middle space to achieve goals other than serious, accurate accounting for the current state of contemporary American poetry (or even movements in contemporary American poetry).

I mentioned Minnis because 1) I thought she could (in some way) be included as a middle space poet, 2) her exclusion pointed to the ways that Shepherd clearly was shaping his anthology (without clarifying or justifying his shaping role)--his middle space went only so far, and 3) her exclusion seemed in some way due to the fact that many of Shepherd's friends were included. (I must admit: Shepherd's anthologies tend to make me nostalgiac for Foetry...)

But, on the other hand, Mark, in his list of questions, raises some good points: middle space poetry does in fact exist. As I mention in my above comment, Alice Fulton's (vastly problematic) fractal theory is self-consciously middle space theory, as are the poems she writes from out of this theory. David Caplan's Questions of Possibility is self-consciously middle space criticism. (Note that Longenbach and Finch, two other poet-critics who elsewhere advance middle space poetics, are this book's two blurbers.) But why others who do not ascribe to such theories get roped into them...I'm not sure. But do note--right?--that all the poets in these anthologies allowed themselves to be grouped in these ways. And for some this is accurate representation. For others, a mistake.

Baj-- About the coterie... In terms of Shepherd's anthologies, they are coteries largely of Shepherd's making. To find out more about the constitution of Shepherd's coteries, see the table of contents in each of his anthologies.

And that's the only coterie (or coteries) I have in mind--though my opinion may change after I investigate American Hybrid. What I suggest in my above comment about other middle space work is that, if there is not a middle space school or movement, there certainly IS a middle space trend. Lots of people have been thinking and writing about middle space poetry and theory for the past decade or so--among them, again: Fulton, Longenbach, Shepherd, Caplan, Finch, now Swensen, and one could probably add Burt and others. Not a coterie, but a trend worth noting, and critiquing.

Mark-- Thanks for keeping this post prominent a bit longer--that move has prompted what for me has been a really fruitful exchange. (I hope there'll be more...)

I agree with your assessment: the anthology that brings together movements, implicitly pronouncing "we're beyond those distinctions...," and establishes a coterie without acknowledging this establishment IS more problematic than an anthology that clearly sets up a new grouping of poets. Bring on the groups, the schools! Let there be wild incommensurable multiplicity! I simply wanted to note that middle space or third way poetics is not totally "beyond all that," that it in fact often at least in part justifies itself by invoking a degraded, straw man other that it then heroically and beautifully distinguishes itself from.

Johannes said...

Very quickly I have to teach:

Good points.

The middle space is not a middle space, it's an institution. And certainly people write with that in mind.

I agree with the rest of the points made.

Very good points, both of you.


Henry Gould said...

Some more (& maybe slightly different) middle thinking over here :


mark wallace said...

Johannes is right to note that it's difficult to really understand the middle space concept without reference to its institutional context. The concept is very much one that's being promoted primarily within the AWP/MFA industry.

Whatever particular theory of the third way one might have, the institutional effect is one that makes it seem as though the MFA industry has successfully responded to the challenge to open up its allowable aesthetic approaches. Either anthology approach will work to create that impression:

1) The middle space writers grab the best aesthetic elements of traditional and radical aesthetics and combine them into a more successful third way poetry that avoids the supposed excesses of other approaches; or

2) The middle space/hybrid concept provides a big tent under which the big names from all (supposedly) various approaches are allowed to gather.

The first approach functions more by denying the value of extremes, while the second approach more closely links itself to fame/status.

It's essential to note here that the MFA/AWP and academic/MLA industries are still distinguishably separate, despite an obvious and significant degree of overlap. But they have different conferences and publishing mechanisms and often hiring practices as well.

Generally speaking, the academic side is more open to theorized approaches. It's no accident that while clearly a number of writers with avant garde leanings are now employed in the academy, very few of them are hired through the AWP or work in the main MFA programs. There are exceptions--Cole Swenson, for instance, may very well be considered one--but not very many.

So more talk may be needed about the political/institutional/financial maneuvering aspects of the question and not just its aesthetic ones. And how to discuss all that without relying on some mainly illusory notion of absolute fairness is a big question.

Anonymous said...

The first new faits divers at the feneon collective blog today concerns the topic of this discussion. The second one is about Johannes Goransson. Serendipity!



Johannes said...


The MLA-style jobs have their institutional biases, perhaps even stronger than the AWP ones. Only perhaps those biases are friendlier to some ilks of writing.


mark wallace said...

I know, Johannes, believe me. I know. What I was trying to highlight was different kinds of biases when it comes to the writing of poetry. MLA is nobody's idea of paradise. I hope.

Henry Gould said...

The aforementioned nascent association (Plumbline School) is not about competing polemics, nor about anthology maneuvers (or "big tent" cowpunching). It is not about avant-garde vs. traditional, or conventional vs. unconventional - but neither is it about finding a convenient compromise between these tribes.

Instead, the group is developing a homemade poetics, grounded in an aesthetics of : 1) the golden mean (or "mediation", or proportion), 2) the conjunction of opposites, & 3) stylistic restraint (on behalf of representation, the "unpoetic", & the trans-representational).

mark wallace said...

I've added your blog to my blog list, Henry. Looks like interesting stuff. A middle space group operating outside MFA land. Who would have thought?

Henry Gould said...

Thanks, Mark!

Michael Theune said...

"So more talk may be needed about the political/institutional/financial maneuvering aspects of the question and not just its aesthetic ones. And how to discuss all that without relying on some mainly illusory notion of absolute fairness is a big question."

Mark's right. But there's no need for criticism to be hobbled because its only recourse might be to some "mainly illusory notion of absolute fairness." Okay, so: there is no such thing as absolute fairness--or, in art, at least, it is rare indeed...in part because it is so hard to achieve. But fortunately for the critic an anthology typically offers (in its introduction) a statement about how it has been created/organized, what its values are, etc.

One thus needn't critique according to a standard of "absolute fairness"--one can critique, very often, simply with recourse to examining the difference between what the anthologist said s/he was doing/representing and what the edited work actually does/represents.

That's been a central effort in my criticism: though there is no objective standard of value, one can, even with that limitation, still work to assess how much a work lines up with an editor's representation of the work. And such work, I think, can still reveal much: (sometimes fairly devastating) contradictions and cover-ups among them.

Michael Theune said...

The first of the new Feneon Collective posts--referencing American Hybrid--is, I think, terrific. Indeed, I envy it: it says in two sentences what it's taken me over a dozen essays and reviews to formulate!

In fact, I'd argue, Kent, that one of the main activities of the FenCol has been to critique, with its generally amiable japing, the notion of the middle space. Many of the FenCol's posts reference the odd pairings of seemingly different poets and aesthetics, the strange bedfellowings that seems rampant in the (often incestuous) contemporary American poetry scene, and 1) brings them to everyone's attention, and 2) sends them up...

Henry Gould said...

Mark writes:

"So more talk may be needed about the political/institutional/financial maneuvering aspects of the question and not just its aesthetic ones. And how to discuss all that without relying on some mainly illusory notion of absolute fairness is a big question."

Aside from the fact that you & others here are ALREADY talking about these aspects here, very acutely -

I think the ultimate critique of the "sociological" element would have to be - aesthetic. Because we already know how the politics of literary maneuvering works. What we need is a measure of literary judgement sharp, cogent, tasteful, & informed enough to evaluate poems & poets on a strictly aesthetic basis.

This might not come from a single critic, a new TS Eliot - but from a new orientation, influencing several poet-critics & professional (general literary) critics. A new measure of taste or value. A new way of reading or hearing poetry. (I myself think the sort of elusive negative approach of Mikhail Aizenberg - see his interview in Jacket - has a lot to offer. He makes poetry strange again, so that it eludes any sort of wilfulness, industriousness, egotism or gamesmanship.)

But an analysis of the status quo, the business scene, such as you all are providing here, seems very valid & necessary too...

mark wallace said...

I think the poetry and poetics comes first too, Henry. If somebody is producing great work--and I know "great" is subjective to our various viewpoints on it--I don't think it reduces the interest of the work to know what the writer who's writing it does for a living or does to get published, although it certainly may change our perspective on the person.

But hey, lots of great writers have been total assholes, manipulators, liars, whatever. I don't have to like them for being assholes, but hopefully I can think about their writing without reading it entirely in terms of their behavior as human beings.

In this case though there does seem to be something about (most) third way writing/thinking that's very closely related to literary institutional maneuvering, and that fact says a lot about the impetus for (some) of its creation.

Michael Theune said...

The aesthetic is what might resist the sociological--beautifully said, Henry. And, Mark, you succinctly drive the point home, I think.

We--critics--should not fear the aesthetic. Remember: so many schools/movements/coteries are founded in part (at least they represent themselves as being founded) on superior aesthetics (the straw man other I mentioned in a previous comment). It is completely fair to show such groups (when, indeed, it is the case) that their aesthetics are internally contradictory, or are in fact not what they think they are.

For example, so far as I know, Shepherd NEVER states that the middle space must consist of only serious poems, but his middle space is shaped so that it is, among other things, pretty much only serious. Was Shepherd aware of this? Was it intentional? Is it the case that there are no comic middle space poems? And might not some of those excluded comic poems be greater and even more appropriate to include in one of Shepherd's anthologies than a serious but pretty mediocre poem (which happens to be written by one of his friends)? These are pretty fair questions to ask, I think.

Anonymous said...

"Is it the case that there are no comic middle space poems?"

I tried to leave a comment here the other night suggesting just this (I think I must have botched the "word verification" test) -- surely these hybrid & middle space anths all have an unspoken agreement that lyric is the continuation of spirituality by other means. To counter that, I'd love to see an anthology of poets that might span, say, Bernadette Mayer and Paul Muldoon. Work that still retains elegance and wit -- Theune's word -- but that is not married to an idea of "the ineffable."

I've enjoyed eavesdropping on this discussion, so thanks --

Ange Mlinko

Michael Theune said...

Thank you for being persistent, Ange, and for contributing your comment.

I remember there being a little dust-up at Poetry when Christina Pugh suggested, in an essay of the same title, that there was "Humor Anxiety" in contemporary American poetry. Many replied: but there's plenty of humor in contemporary American poetry. True enough, of course. But Pugh certainly was right in terms of most representations of third way/middle space poetry.

It also is perhaps worth mentioning that the removal of wit from third way poetry does in fact become part and parcel of third way poetry in Stephen Burt's writing on elliptical poetry. In "Close Calls with Nonsense," Burt, after praising elliptical poetry, includes a section called "What I Miss in What I Like" in which he states that what he in fact misses from elliptical poetry is "argument and wit."

I kind of wish Burt, instead of maintaining this simple distinction, would have investigated it more. (Ange: you are mentioned favorably by Burt in that essay--but I think your poetry certainly has a lot of wit in it.)

In fact, Burt's argument kind of calls for such further investigation, as Burt, then, in the last paragraph of this essay, quotes (approvingly) Theodore Sturgeon, who says that "90 percent of anything is no good: contemporary poetry is not, and never has been, an exception." (Henry Gould: precisely here is where the aesthetic is invited to counter the sociological!)

Personally, what I would have liked to have read more was not an essay that made a somewhat overly-simplified distinction by kind (middle space v. wit...) but a more nuanced examination of that distinction by quality. I at least would have loved assurances that the poetry Burt discusses in that essay is in the upper 10%. And some sense of WHY they were in that group and not the other. (Why, for example, did he select, Ange, your "Aqua Neon" for discussion and not, say, "Ceremony for Removing a Painting"?)

Of course, Burt's essay isn't terribly long, and it's written for a more general audience. The above issues perhaps were not for Burt to take up in his essay, but his essay certainly opens the issues up for us to take on, to consider more fully.

I love your idea, Ange, for a new collection of innovative poetry that still keeps its wit about it. You should do it! (And good call with Bernadette Mayer. I recently encountered her sonnet "[You jerk you didn't call me up]" and, while laughing out loud at the great turn at the end, thought it seemed amazingly of our moment.)


Michael Theune said...

If I may: one further example of where brief mention of distinction by quality should actually supercede distinction by kind.

The following two paragraphs are lifted from the introduction to my extended review of Shepherd's Lyric Postmodernisms, Bianchi and Allegreeza's The City Visible, and the "Ultra-Talk" issue of TriQuarterly--forthcoming in Pleiades. The following paragraphs follow a brief analysis of Burt' thinking like the one I performed in my previous comment.)

...Another such critic is Ron Silliman. Silliman maintains the now (in)famous distinction between post-avant poetry (the difficult, experimental work he favors) and School of Quietude poetry (more accessible work he generally dislikes). However, like Burt, Silliman does not like a great deal of post-avant poetry he is thought to champion. In his August 27, 2003 blog post, Silliman notes that if he were to perform a close reading on “post-avant poetry in general” he would likely “find 95 percent of it wanting.” His rationale, however, for championing this kind of poetry is that this percentage is a bit better than School of Quietude poetry, about which Silliman notes that, when he applies the same kind of close reading, he finds “something much closer to 99 percent (or higher—the “five nines” theory of 99.999 does indeed beckon) equally lacking.” For Silliman, these slightly different percentages amount to a big difference; he states, “…[I]f I stack the two traditions against one another, five percent of one totally overwhelms the one percent (or less) of the other, which will tell you about my aesthetic choices, including, for example, why I make them.”

But, of course, this rationale does not really explain anything—especially why Silliman would champion anything that he in fact likes so little of. Silliman’s percentages seem much more a rationale for giving up the overly simple distinction between Post-Avant and School of Quietude in favor of thinking much more clearly about what makes good poems, perhaps even allowing oneself to consider, as poet-critic Dan Schneider has (at cosmoetica.com), whether seemingly different good poems have more in common than good and bad versions of the same kind of poem. That is, might, and shouldn’t, the (so far) foregrounded distinctions of kind be trumped by the (supposedly backgrounded) distinctions of quality? Such clearly necessary and potentially revelatory inquiry is never pursued—in part because the outmoded conversation about ossified poetic kinds continues and so occludes it.

Henry Gould said...

"Such clearly necessary and potentially revelatory inquiry is never pursued—in part because the outmoded conversation about ossified poetic kinds continues and so occludes it." - well put, Michael.

& I agree heartily on the idea of examining the whole notion of "wit" more closely. Eliot's essay "The Metaphysical Poets" is the place to start. Reminds us that for 17th-18th cent., "wit" was more substantial than clever japery - the term merged elegance with insight, sharp perception.

I also wonder if there isn't something precious in the quickly-outmoded experimental styles of previous couple decades, which is in danger of being tossed out. What I'm referring to is everything that falls under the notion of the "abject". The broken, the unfinished & unfinishable, the imperfect, the pratfall, the pathetic, the misguided. Everything that is not elegant, clever, witty & pitiless. Connects with the postmodern notion of the trace or the remnant, the occluded, the blindspot (& yes, maybe the ineffable too). I think there is a lot of this in the so-called NY School actually. The unfashionable poem that is nevertheless funny & effective in its very clumsiness... the irony of being poets & making poetry...

Henry Gould said...

i.e. think of Mark Halliday, for example. This is his area of expertise, his particular kind of humor.

Anonymous said...


It cheers me to be included among the wits -- thanks! (Burt's essay, by the way, came out before my second book, so "Ceremony..." wouldn't have come to his attention. The choice of "Aqua Neon" as representative was a bit of a surprise. Then again, I'm not at all objective.) To my mind, "middle space" poets are seldom witty because Oppen would just not approve.

I agree wholeheartedly with you that discussion of quality -- aesthetics -- is painfully inadequate in these third way anthologies. It is ... how shall we say ... ineffable!


Michael Theune said...


Thanks for the chronological clarification. What, Burt can’t see into the future?! A very limited critic… (Kidding, of course.)


I think the points you raise pull together some threads of this conversation. It seems to me as though one of the complaints Johannes, too, has with third way poetics is the exclusion of the comic abject (and perhaps the plain old just freakin’ abject).

So: the middle space excludes both the comic abject AND more polished wit (though, as my comments on wit in my review reveal: I agree with you completely, Henry, that wit has meanings and powers which need to be more carefully investigated nowadays)—such recognition seems to me a massive critique of the middle space, at least revealing that the middle space is not terribly radical, and simply not too much fun.

I’m heartened to hear Mark Halliday’s name invoked in this discussion. Over the past few years, especially in his critical writing that has appeared in Pleiades, Mark also has been, among other things, critiquing the middle space. And his new book is really good, containing both great wit, and deploying powerfully the comic abject.


JeFF Stumpo said...

Anybody familiar with any collections by a single author (or group-of-authors-not-in-an-anthology) that teach the reader how to read with greater complexity as the work progresses? Something that, for example, starts off traditional and goes avant/post by the end? I realize I'm operating in a nonstandard place as far as my feelings about a middle way, but I'm really and truly looking for a bridge. Not just something that draws from different schools/styles, but can help get a reader from one to the other.

mark wallace said...

Hi Jeff:

I'm not entirely sure that I'm following your question, but if you want to elaborate a little more, either here on my blog or at my e-mail address (markwallace1322@yahoo.com) I'd be glad to see if there's something I can suggest.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

(Part of this comment was somehow deleted, so resending)


One example might be Pessoa. The poetry of his heteronyms spans a wide range. He starts with Caeiro, whose language is very simple and limpid (and profound), then follows with the neo-classical Reis and the wild futurist de Campos. He's got many other lesser heteronyms, too.

Lots of stuff is available in translation from Richard Zenith. The great translator Chris Daniels, who's been working on FP for a good portion of his life, has the Complete Caeiro recently out from Shearsman and is coming out next with de Campos. I think Shearsman is planning three or four books all together.

But anyway, Pessoa's is an interesting case. Where does he go? A "hybrid" sui generis, that "person"...


JeFF Stumpo said...

Hi, Mark and Kent,

Kent's suggestion was a good one.

What I'm really looking for is someone who exhibits one style at the beginning of a book and a totally different style at the end, and whatever is in between is written in such a way that the reader can slowly adapt. Better yet if the volume is constructed to encourage the reader to develop new reading skills over the course of said volume.

An example of what I'm not looking for: the Norton Postmodern American Poetry, which does track the changes in PoMo for a time, but lacks a guiding sense of transition. Later poets may owe something to earlier poets, but it's generally a jumpy collation. The reader has to go out to find five or six or twenty other books to really learn how to go from style to the next. Similarly, generally not looking for the Collected Poems of X, Y, or Z (I've got Merwin's Flower & Hand nearby, which I like, but shows his changes as a writer, not builds up to the more complicated or down to the most simple/profound, to borrow from Kent).

Iffy example, but I'll stick with it for the moment: Say I've got a student or friend or whatnot who is familiar with free verse, even fractured verse, but has not a clue about prose poetry. Maybe I hand this person Anne Carson's Plainwater, which begins with free verse, mixes in some lyric essays and prose poems, and by the end is producing something that's an indistinguishable blend of memoir/essay/prose poetry. With that one volume, perhaps, my student/friend/whatnot has a decent chance to self-teach prose poems. There are of course a million places to go afterwards, but many of these will expect jumping in with both feet - journals of prose poetry, books consisting solely of prose poetry, etc. This is a way to get the feet wet.

I'm looking for any other examples out there that do something like this. Free verse to prose poetry. Rhyming forms to free verse. Prose poems to VisPo. Complex to simple. Whatever, so long as within the same volume there is an active effort to shift from one to the other and let the reader come along for the ride.

Hoping I was more clear that time. :-/


Michael Theune said...

Hi, Jeff,

I can't think, off the top of my head, of any book that does what you have in mind. Certainly, I can't think of any that do so so systematically, moving from more accessible to more difficult, experimental, and/or elliptical.

However, if you're looking for books that employ throughout a range of styles without melding all of them into one style/voice/approach, you might consider Megan Volpert's face blindness, Jennifer Knox’s A Gringo like Me, or (though Kent himself already has pointed you to Pessoa) Kent Johnson's own Homage to the Last Avant-Garde.

Megan's work spans confession, slam, and Oulipo. Jennifer’s spans “Ultra-Talk” and post-avant. Kent's poems are at times amazingly accessible (though always challenging--politically, aesthetically, etc), but at other times they engage and enact the difficulty of, say, the ellipticals/post-avants.

If you're looking for a book of criticism that can be used as a good introduction to both more accessible and more difficult poetry, I think a great one is M.L. Rosenthal's The Poet's Art. I just read this book in the past few weeks, and thought it was pretty terrific--and I thought almost as immediately of its great pedagogical potential.

Cheers, Jeff!

EKSwitaj said...

I think we can say that there are two kinds of middle-ground: one that looks for a way to make work of hybrid style that still contains the edges, that synthesizes extremes not by filing them down but by contrasting them, that takes full advantage of liminality (all of which is something I strive for in my own work), and on the other hand, one that files down the differences and makes mush (which seems to be what this anthology presents, as unfair as that may be to many of the poets included).

JeFF Stumpo said...


Huge thanks for the suggestions. The top of my poetry reading list has been bumped (between you and Kent). I'll have to check out the Rosenthal - last reading I did from him was The Modern Poetic Sequence and found myself a bit annoyed at his criteria for greatness. Will give The Poet's Art a fair shake, though.

mark wallace said...

Jeff, along with Kent's and Michael's excellent examples, I would say that the book that I'm aware of that most shows a development into more and more complex and discontinuous structures would be Hank Lazer's Doublespace (Poems 1971-89). The book traces Lazer's writing as he moved from being a lyric narrative poet to one working with increasingly extreme language experiments.

His book works that way because--for him specifically--the process really was one of his development as a writer. But there probably aren't many such books because I don't think most writers confronting this particular issue see it as a growth process per se, or as progress, as if one starts out as a narrative poet in order to end up as a language poet. I can see why, as a pedagogical tool, teaching it that way might make sense, but in practice there's not usually such a smooth arc. Instead the question is often more contested, or more likely to be characterized by rapid shifts and quick jumps.

My own recent book Felonies of Illusion has two long sections, one of which I was writing during the build-up to the Iraq war and while I was sick for several months on and off with bronchial flu, and a second longer section of poems designed to play with and frustrate the urge to representation. There's a big jump in technique and desire between the two sections, and I don't try to bridge it. Both talk about what it means to be living in the world for me, but they don't have the same approach to doing that.

It occurs to me that the early Modernists might be the writers most likely to have gone through these artistic changes as a kind of development, since they were developing towards a kind of writing that really did not significantly exist before they took it up. I think you can probably find a growth process of this kind in the work of Williams, Pound, and Stein, just to give some obvious and hopefully important examples.

Michael Theune said...

Very good ideas, Mark.

Two things come to mind:

1) You're certainly right that there typically is not such a smooth arc from, say, accessible/mainstream/what-have-you to, say, difficult/elliptical/what-have-you. In fact, this is, in large part, the problem with Shepherd's work as anthologizer: he implies that there is some kind of arc, and that we have arrived at, come down finally, to where we ought to be. But this is an effect largely of Shepherd's own creation. I go into this more in my review of Lyric Postmodernisms and some other anthologies forthcoming from Pleiades, but for now, I'll simply note that MANY supposedly "middle space" poets really publish books that incorporate poems from a wide variety of aesthetics, from mainstream/accessible to the post-avant/difficult.

And not unrelatedly:

2) Smart to point to the Moderns as possible examples of poets whose careers might have some of that arc, but I'd add this caveat: one should be cautious of reading any poet with an eye to the "breakthrough narrative," the clear, uncomplicated shifting from one aesthetic to another. As James Longenbach points out in Modern Poetry after Modernism (though there he focuses more on Bishop and Lowell), that narrative often is less an accurate representation and more a convenient plot for criticism.


JeFF Stumpo said...

Thanks to Mark and Mike, and sorry for the delay in returning to this post.

So here's the question that gets at the heart of my query: There is typically not such a smooth arc in a writer's development. But for purposes of interesting new readers, why is something like this so rare? As both of you point it, it might be a useful pedagogical tool (we're willing to jump over gaps in so many others places, why not this one?). It's the rapid shift and quick jump that I find loses students (or friends, or family, or other readers for whom type of poetry X just isn't a concern...yet).

Michael Theune said...

Agreed, Jeff--such a work, one helpfully linking (or showing the relations among) various aesthetics (rather than trying to meld them), could be a great boon, a terrific teaching tool, and fine act of criticism.

Now, who will edit such a book?--that's the question!


JeFF Stumpo said...


Once I finish the diss, I'll get right on it ;-)