Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Against Unity conclusion (part three)
(Part One and Part Two)
In various essays and reviews, Michael Theune has been tracing the problems in Shepherd’s and related notions of third way poetics. As just one example, Theune notes that some of the selections in Shepherd’s anthologies reflect personal aesthetic preferences that have little to do with the dividing line between mainstream and experimental practices. Classical references, and their predominance among the poems Shepherd chooses, seem to have little to do with the issues at stake, unless we imagine that a love of classical gardens is the thing that, before now, most U.S. poets were afraid to recognize that they all shared. And as Johannes Gorannson pointed out in his review of the The American Hybrid, to make the case that the anthology is creating a middle ground between two long warring camps, the editors “caricature a multiplicity of styles as two extremes.” More successful is American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, edited by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, which selects work by and about a small group of women writers whose approaches might seem on the surface opposed to each other. But that anthology makes no claim to find similarity across the total ground of contemporary U.S. poetry, although Spahr’s introduction addresses problems with seeing “lyric” and “language” as synonyms for two warring groups.
I think it’s safe to say therefore that anthologies attempting to establish middle ground between various U.S. poetry practices have not done so, and certainly could not do so by attempting to create a new middle of American poetry based on combining or overcoming the limitations of what is supposedly only two prior camps.
There have been now about fifteen years of claims that the distinction between so-called “mainstream” and “avant garde” literatures are increasingly irrelevant and/or old-fashioned. And in fact the contemporary poetic landscape shows that to be true. But that’s not because poetry exists in any greater state of unity than before. Just the opposite: probably we have more differing claims than ever regarding the value of contemporary poetry. The American Hybrid and Shepherd’s anthologies represent not a new middle ground but instead posit specific schools of thought that oppose themselves to other schools of thought.
In fact, schools of thought may now appear and disappear more rapidly than ever. The appearance of anthologies supporting the apparent growth of the concepts of third-way poetics and American Hybrid may in fact signal that those concepts have already peaked and may quickly become relics (perhaps even abandoned relics) of a now gone era. I also wonder whether new approaches can genuinely be created by editors. I think terminologies have more staying power when writers self-identify as a group. Nada Gordon for instance considers herself an ongoing member of the flarf group, yet I doubt that Rae Armantrout considers herself a poet of a Hybrid School. Quite literally, there is no such school, although I doubt that Armantrout would consider herself a member of it if it did exist.
U.S. poetry in almost all recent anthologies and in much poetry criticism and discussion still seems based on differing, often competing groups, with various terminologies defining publications, blogs, and websites, although most groups highlight the multiplicity of approaches that can be harbored safely within them. There are now flarf and gurlesque anthologies. The development of the Plumbline School, a poetics of moderation and balance recently named by Henry Gould and compatriots, will despite Gould’s constant mockery of the notion of schools be ultimately measured by the writing that does or does not appear in relationship to the name of the group. There is no such thing as an anti-group poetics that brings together all or even a significant portion of the varying groups that exist. Attempts to do so usually just create further groups.
Certainly we have no anthology of contemporary poetry that successfully critiques the notion of the singular school or highlights the range of differences and disagreements fundamental to contemporary poetry. A recent issue of Poetry Magazine that featured flarf and conceptual writing in one section and more conventional narrative and lyric verse in another was an intriguing, if overly cautious, example of at least a small-scale attempt. Approaches that come closest can still be found more within anthologies that consciously embrace experimental extremes rather than attempting to tame them.
For instance, Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary Experimental Prose by Women Writers, edited by Nava Renek, features more distinctively and outrageously hybrid texts than any recent poetry anthology. It includes works that variously mix poetry, prose, fiction, memoir, criticism, taboo language, self-reflexive commentary, instructional manuals, visual art, processual text, computer-generated and not, as well as much else. Many of the hybrid texts in that anthology are not designed to smooth over differences between these ways of writing, bur instead show how differences collide with and question each other.
But even if there were poetry anthologies that highlighted, rather than attempting to minimize or avoid, differences across groups, those anthologies would create not a new center but just another way of thinking. Although U.S. poets continue to have difficulty accepting difference or even acknowledging its value, and factionalism creates hostility and furthers existing resource imbalances, I don’t think that trying to end factionalism is a suitable response to the existence of so many approaches. Factionalism isn’t going to end. Any new claim to end it will only be opposed by further factionalism.
And in many ways that’s how it should be. The huge energy of factionalism, of aesthetic and cultural disagreement, shows just how many and different are the people who remain committed to the value of poetry, especially in a country (and perhaps a world) where we’re often told that no one values it at all. Part of that factionalism involves the fear of being unknown or forgotten (right now as well as forever) and the anti-democratic fear that too many points of view equals a chaotic loss of defined value. But it also exists because poets, defying supposed good sense, continue to believe that their poetry and their ideas about it matter.
I hope that my conviction that we should resist trying to make the multiple into a singular will not be confused with lacking direction. My commitment remains to poetic innovation and extremes and to their connection to other forms of cultural awareness and action both on local and global levels. There are histories to borrow from and remember but there are no models sufficient to guide the present or future of poems. Poems that attempt simply to reflect poetry’s past, or to see in it a bedrock source of value, will never be sufficient to deal with the always changing present. It’s difficult to feel optimistic about global political conditions and the role of the U.S. in them. Even if one is optimistic, that can only be on the grounds of the continued possibility of change.
What we need are poems that understand and challenge the present while being aware that the present itself is both a function of the past and an inevitable rewriting of it, for better or worse, since history hardly involves pure progress. We need poems that take aesthetic risks and explore new techniques and provide new cultural insights. The writers I’m most interested in are ones who I feel do that: I’ll save the list of names for another time. Still, I doubt that poems of that kind are going to arise solely within the work of one poetic school or from one or two poets of greatness. We need a more eclectic—and yes, monstrously hybrid—understanding of the profound mismatchedness of contemporary poetry, without a liberal flattening that suggests that all poems meet the challenge of the present with similar types of significance.