Tuesday, May 21, 2013

New Website!

You can now find me on the web at www.sethabramson.net (link).

Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Saturday, August 4, 2012

100 Ways Poetry Is In Your Life

I was out with a friend recently and he disclosed something troubling. He said that, as to poetry, he'd come to a point in his life in which he just couldn't see the purpose of it anymore. Of poems specifically, or poetry generally. Writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Somewhere along the line the art had become tainted, for him, by certain of its manifestations, certain of its practitioners, certain of its communal practices. And while I wanted to console him -- more than console; I wanted to grab him by the collar and shake him from his complacency -- I found I had no words with which to do so, as I myself had not written a poem in some time, had become increasingly jaded about poets and poems and poetry and "poetries" and poetics.

Two days later -- that is, today -- I found myself driving in my car, reflecting on that moment of silence and inaction. I had a moment, in the midst of that reflection, in which it seemed poetry was gone from my life as well, possibly for good. Then I stopped -- more than stopped; I grabbed myself by my collar and shook myself from my complacency -- and considered how poetry suffuses my life in a way nothing else but sleep and dreaming has ever done in such quantity and with such persistence. And suddenly, as I drove my car down Gorham Street in Madison, I realized that there is rarely a moment in my life that is not profoundly touched by poetry, or in which I'm not seeking to infuse my life with poetry, whether or not I've recently written a poem with which I'm satisfied. So I thought I'd come home and enumerate some of the ways poetry is in my life, and in all our lives, partly as a reminder to myself and partly as encouragement to my friend and any others similarly beset by doubts about poetry and its place. This post is the result of that process of self-analysis and self-measurement.

Poetry is in your life, of course, when you read a poem for pleasure, but also when you memorize a poem as a means of self-instruction. When you write a single word or phrase that one day may find its place in a poem, or when the muse smiles at you and you write a poem in its entirety all at once. When you meet a muse for the first time, even if you don't yet speak. When you revise an old poem, or when you create an erasure of a poem written by another. When you transcribe a poem, whether your own or someone else's, for any reason. When you remember a word or phrase from a poem written by another. When you remember a word or phrase from a poem you wrote yourself. When you try to remember words you know are of grave importance to your future but cannot, so long as you dearly wish to. When you try to forget words of grave significance from your past and are successful because you've acknowledged the capacities and incapacities and incapacitating capacities of language. When you concentrate on a given parcel of language so long and so devoutly that the material and meaning of that language is fundamentally challenged and changed.

When you buy a book of poetry, online or in a bookstore. When you browse the poetry section of a bookstore and don't buy. When you read a print or online literary magazine, or when you submit your own work to such a magazine. When you edit a magazine or press, or simply spread the word that a new magazine or press has been born or that an old magazine or press is in trouble and needs help. When you donate time or money to an organization that helps poets in need or promotes poets who haven't yet been widely read. When you donate books of poetry you've written or that anyone else has written to anyone, anywhere, for any purpose. When you buy someone a book of poetry. When you loan someone a book of poetry. When you recommend to someone a book of poetry. When you help design, bind, distribute, or promote a book of poetry someone else has written. When you self-publish your work, whether online or in a broadside or on the side of any building or object you've been granted permission to write upon. When you use language without permission, when you change the terms of a discussion permanently by changing its language.

When you read the personal blog of a poet, or when you read an article about poetry in the national media. When you read literary theory that touches on aesthetics or poetics, whether or not you find yourself thinking, later, how little that theory circumscribes your own aesthetics or poetics. When you participate in a workshop. When you participate in a poetics group. When you review a book of poetry. When you read a review of a book of poetry. When you explain some aspect of poetry to a non-poet. When you write an essay about poetry or being a poet. When you teach poetry or poetics to those less experienced with both or either. When you help others find a job teaching poetry or poetics. When you make yourself available to speak with and answer questions from students of poetry or poetics. When you seek a degree in either area yourself. When you encourage and give heart to others with that ambition or any ambition likely to increase the common stock of love for and understanding of poetry. When you participate in any grassroots campaign to increase the common stock of love for and understanding of poetry. When you attend a conference of any size or duration or purpose primarily attended by poets or others who love poetry. When you attend a fellowship or residency. When you apply for or receive a grant to make writing poetry for more hours each day financially feasible.

When you share a poem, whether privately with a friend or at a public reading. When you attend a reading given by others. When you meet new people who are poets or spend time with old friends who are poets, even if you don't discuss poetry but merely allow their novel way of seeing to conjoin with your own. When you contact a poet, whether you knew them previously or otherwise, through any form of print or online media, in the hope of seeing things through their eyes, however briefly. When you let a poet know you appreciate what they've done or what they're doing. When you sign a copy of a book you've written to let a reader know how much you appreciate their time and thoughtfulness.

When there's a single word no daily tribulation permits you to forget for hours on end. When you invent a new word by accident or design. When you mishear a word or phrase in a conversation or a lyric and prefer the mishearing. When you silently quibble with a word you've read in any medium. When you save, in any fashion or for any purpose, a piece of language you've encountered in any context. When you gently and tactfully and without condescension correct the grammar of another, not because grammar is a skill-set but because grammar is ever and always inextricably tied to content. When you exhibit, in any fora or through any media, a passion for honest communication. When, in any context, you say a thing well, or see a thing well, or hear a thing well, or smell a thing well, and you know it. When you permit yourself to be mindful that life is context every bit as much as all language is context. When that realization drives you to the sort of empathy that lasts.

When you find a new way to express an old idea. When you write a word in a place you ought not write it, and when you write to someone you ought not write to. When you exhibit wit with a pun. When you describe a thing by its relation or resemblance to another thing or refuse to describe something in the interest of saving it from damage. When you laugh at yourself, and when you laugh despite yourself. When you smile secretly, and when you smile for only one other to see. When you hope. When you listen to music. When you write or perform your own music. When you share music written and performed by others via online social media. When you allow language its potential transparencies, in any context, and when you acknowledge also its many necessary materialities, in any context.

When you wish. When you pray. When you sing. When you cry at beauty. When you imagine yourself in a storybook. When you read a storybook whose prose is shot through with poetry. When you take a mental picture. When you meditate. When you keep secrets none will ever know. When you handwrite someone a letter. When you surprise someone with the vehemence of your love. When you surprise yourself with the vehemence of your love. When you love without hope of happiness, when you love secretly, when you love and that love is not requited or love and lose that love forever. When you dare to be spectacular, and when you dare admit the spectacular to the workaday. When you dare fight for the welfare of another, and when you fight for your own honor in the face of others' silence. When you break a silence. When you maintain your integrity under harsh conditions, and when you fight to regain your integrity after having lost it too easily or tarnished it too lightly. When you weather the threat of death, when you weather your waking fears. When you save someone from any ill, and when you save yourself from any new foolishness or self-sabotage. When you face your death with bravery. When you die and discover what's next.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On the Power of Positive Poetry-Reviewing (Part II)

[Find Part I here].

It was wrong of me not to put Part I of this essay in perspective and in context. It was partly because I knew some of the context but had not thought about it in some time, as the last major dispute over the state of poetry-reviewing occurred in 2009.

Here's what happened then (with links): Jason Guriel wrote an essay called "Going Negative" in Poetry in March of 2009, after writing a number of "negative" reviews in the pages of that magazine; poet Kent Johnson wrote a response to that essay in the form of a Letter to the Editor of Poetry (some of which later appeared online, but none of which, as I understand it, appeared in the pages of the magazine); and then others, indeed a whole host of very intelligent others, wrote responses to Johnson in the online mag Mayday, including the following poets and poet-scholars (click a name to see the response):

V. Joshua Adams
Joe Amato
Robert Archambeau
Tim Atkins
Robert Baird
John Beer
John Bradley
Stephen Burt
Scott Esposito
Annie Finch
Bill Freind
Daisy Fried
Mark Halliday
Johannes Goransson
John Latta
David Lau
Eric Lorberer
Maureen McLane
Ange Mlinko
Murat Nemet-Nejat
Tom Orange
David Orr
Richard Owens
Rebecca Porte
Kristin Prevallet
Michael Robbins
Michael Theune
Barry Schwabsky
Don Share
Dale Smith
Rodrigo Toscano
Mark Wallace

[ADDENDUM 7/20/12: A parallel conversation has happened/is happening in Canada; see (in sequence) here, here, here, and here].

I'll concede that I haven't yet had a chance to read all these responses, but suffice to say that there are a lot of luminaries here--Joe Amato, Robert Archambeau, John Beer, Stephen Burt, Annie Finch, Daisy Fried, Mark Halliday, Johannes Goransson, John Latta, Ange Mlinko, David Orr, Michael Theune, and Don Share--along with the many others listed above, among which latter group (I will say) are a small number of well-known cranks whose interest in "negative reviews" is likely, my instincts tell me, first and foremost a product of their interest in light sadism rather any sincere interest in the dialogic. (They know who they are.) I make that comment, snarky as it seems, for a reason: I think it needs to be said that, if you're reading this, and if you're a poet, you know that poets as a class are as bitter a population as we have in America, and so if we're going to discuss "negative reviews" we must cleanse the debate, first and foremost, of that instinct to wound other poets under the guise of the "professional" operation known as "reviewing." Surely, such an instinct has at times infected certain reviewers and reviews, just as it routinely infects poets despite our best efforts to ward it off. Nevertheless, the desire to take someone down a peg will never be an adequate justification for a negative review, though again, I do suspect it's just that sort of sanctioned "flaming" that animates certain individuals.

Anyway, I can't and won't speak to the responses above individually, except to say that I hope some or all of them have acknowledged the history of the negative review, which is that it is generally a type of review that takes upon itself the task of mapping the contemporary American poetry scene by comparing one poet to another, one poetics to another, one community to another -- in short, there's necessarily a lot of line-drawing, distinction-making, taxonomizing, et cetera, that goes into the so-called "negative review." Implicit in many such reviews is this message to the reader: "You're reading this, but you shouldn't be!"; or "These poets are present top dogs, but it ought not be so!"; or "This poetics is retrograde, as compared to this other!"; and so on. For the negative review to work, it has to be pushing off a series of assumptions about the clarity and organization and alignment of contemporary poets and poetics which -- I submit -- have largely become laughable in a country with 70,000 working poets (2012) instead of 5,000 (1942). It is hard for me to imagine a negative review that does not predicate its attacks or criticisms on a series of false assumptions and false first principles about the sociology and present circumstance of poets and poetry. I've come to believe this even more strongly as I've been exposed to the largely-execrable scholarship available on any poems, poets, poetries, or poetics emanating from the Program Era (1964-present, though not a presence on the national scene until the late 1980s at the earliest). Such "scholarship" has discarded entire generations of poets on the basis of the ideology-driven -- and, I'll add, perniciously ahistorical -- narrative it developed in order to have something to "push off" from.

One reason negative reviews require this pushing-off point is that no one, whether poet-critic or scholar, is willing to deep-six a work without contextualizing it first. Which is all to the good -- if the poet-critic or scholar is an expert when it comes to literary history. Most aren't, so their contextualization of a work is typically narrow, reflexive, and skewed. It's not clear to me that the negative review, in consequence, says much more to anyone than that a specific reviewer didn't like something (as if I wanted a proper literary history, I'd not look to the genre of the "poetry review" to find it). That's a pretty minimal contribution, but one which would be further foreshortened if Kent Johnson's above-linked-to proposal of anonymous reviews were adopted -- as in that case we'd simply know that someone, somewhere, with an education in literary history consisting of we know not what, didn't like what they read. And moreover, even if we took such a review at face value it would only -- at most -- prompt us not to read the book in question, though human perverseness being what it is, negative reviews are even inoperative (I feel) in that way, as we're often more likely to use a negative review to hunt down the derided books to "decide for ourselves." Poets aren't big, thank god, on taking anything at face value.

As to the reviewer himself/herself, at most a non-anonymous negative review makes a name for that reviewer as someone worth reading due to the universally-acknowledged deliciousness of snark (and presumably, that awareness of prospective notoriety sometimes helps form the reviewer's motivation for reviewing in the first place); at worst, it leads to the reviewer being unfairly blacklisted by the derided poet and every friend she or he has ever made in the poetry community.

As to the content of such a review, at most it makes for a terrible literary history far less comprehensive or accurate or ingenuous than any one of a number of such histories you could find among the scholarly works of today's Contemporary Poetry Studies, at worst it creates an entirely notional map of contemporary American poetry which will mislead its readers into thinking certain movements or poets or groups of poets are more "central" to American poetry than they are -- or that American poetry even has a "center" anymore. Far better for us to simply acknowledge what we know: Book sales figures are unreliable because they can be manipulated easily by even one or two friends of the poet teaching a given book (you'd be floored if you knew how few book sales are required for a book to be a monthly bestseller on SPD; and fewer than 50 books sold in a given week can make a book a national bestseller); too many poets are now writing for anyone to announce themselves a dean of the contemporary poetry "scene"; despite reviewers' ongoing fetishizing of only two groups of poets -- those who win prizes and those who self-define as avant-garde whether they really hail from that august tradition or not -- most of what's happening in contemporary American poetry hails from the Program Era scene which both literary studies academics and poet-critics have thus far entirely ignored.

Which, I think, is the real point here -- and is how this conversation dovetails with the essays I've been writing about "creative writing" and the academy. With the growth in creative writing doctoral programs -- almost all of which came between 1980 and 1995 -- and with the advent of the nation's first "hybrid" doctoral program during that time (at SUNY-Buffalo, in 1989), and even with the development of an Internal Creative Writing Minor within the traditional Literary Studies doctoral program at University of Wisconsin-Madison, an entire generation of poet-scholars was born. And these individuals had no idea what to do with themselves. They are still not taken seriously by their peers -- a Contemporary Poetry Studies scholar of some renown recently reminded me that Charles Bernstein's SUNY-Buffalo program is not an "academic" doctorate; creative writing doctoral students at the nation's thirty-three such programs are largely segregated culturally and academically from their literary studies peers; few poets who delve deeply into poetry criticism are taken seriously, at least for long, by their working-poet peers -- and most vitally, it's not clear what genre their hybridistic work (or sensibilities) can or should fall into. As a nominal poet-critic, my own fourth manuscript is an attempt to finally reconcile academic and "creative writing" discourse using certain favored avant-garde compositional techniques; Lord knows when or where or how I will publish it, especially as we continue to suffer fallout from the longstanding (false) linkage between academic-institutional-housed "creative writing" and the New Criticism.

The poet-critic naturally feels she or he should be writing a sort of review that acknowledges his or her academic training. And surely, positive reviews offer fewer opportunities to do that, as praising a work without spending overmuch time on what it's pushing off from is seen as lacking scholarly rigor (in my own reviews, I often gesture at trends I consider worthy of repeal by working poets; these "negative" commentaries on contemporary poetry are quickly consumed, however, by any superlatives I might apply to the specific work under consideration). Meanwhile -- and this is also vital -- Contemporary Poetry Studies scholars of the "traditional" type (meaning: no MFA; no interest in "creative writing") are more specialized than ever before, having spent the last twenty-five years doing their best to ignore any poet hailing from the Program Era and lionizing, instead, a tiny cadre of avant-gardes from the 1940s and 1950s who were a) largely male, b) largely white, c) largely upper-middle-class, d) largely coastal, and e) largely incestous inasmuch as almost all of them knew each other. Such self-ghettoization, on the part of literary studies academics, was understandable when there were 5,000 working poets in America; with 70,000 working poets now publishing, there's an increasingly broad swath of writing which is getting no scholarly attention and which -- a self-identity-confused poet-critic might feel -- is therefore ripe for the sort of quasi-scholarly review we denominate "negative."

The question is, do such reviews serve the community of working poets, which is primarily invested in, well, how not to become bored by poetry? Which is primarily interested in finding new and exciting work to fuel its own creative energies? Which is excited -- not chagrined -- to read a wide range of reviews looking at a vast array of poetries now extant in America, rather than reading conflicting scholarly accounts of the same small number of authors time after time? I really don't think negative reviewing serves that community or those interests. I think the "negative review" largely serves a series of reading interests which no longer exist -- they died out as the number of working poets exploded in the 1980s, and individual readers no longer could navigate the landscape without assistance -- and a series of reviewing interests which are largely confined to this "new" question of the poet-critic and his/her place in contemporary American culture.

So to those intrigued by the negative review I say -- well, first, "Is this about sadism? If so, get a grip!" -- and secondly, "Is there any reason this 'negative review' can't be written as a piece of traditional Contemporary Poetry Studies scholarship, rather than masquerading as an attempt to 'help the reader' determine what to read and what's happening in American poetry?" As to that second query, one worries that part of the answer is that poet-critics would rather publish in Poetry than in venues none of their poet-peers read -- like MLA publications of dubious interest to anyone outside academia -- and also that the latter form of scholarship requires much, much more background preparation regarding the study of literary history than does the "negative review."

By contrast, I believe that a positive review that meets the standards I laid out in Part I of this essay -- no cronyism; a large number of reviews in a short space; a large stock of books considered for possible review; no esoteric limitations on eligibility (e.g., books only published in the last thirty days, or only books not yet published, or only books submitted by publishers, or only books that are not published POD, et cetera) -- does serve the actual needs of the community (not the reviewer) provided that it explains in clear terms why a book is working in the way it seems to wish to work, rather than merely supplying conclusory language about a book's merits without such explication.

I am as concerned as anyone about reviews becoming merely "blurbs," but contrary to those who sometimes decry positive reviews I also am quite clear about what a blurb is and is not. A blurb is: solicited by the poet or his/her publisher; not written electively (that is, the blurbist has not explicitly and actively rejected hundreds of other books of poetry in the process of choosing this one to speak on); offers praise without qualification or nuance; provides little to no explication in support of its claims; trades as much on the identity of the blurbist as the content of the statement itself; constitutes an attempt to make a sale, whereas a positive review provides a recommendation to the reader which may not ever lead to a transaction -- i.e., a positive review can raise awareness and interest in what a poet is doing such that readers will seek out free exemplars of that poet's work, something that's possible largely because the review is not inextricably tied to a physical product (as most reviews are now online). I'm not saying I always succeed at writing this sort of positive review; I can say that it's what I'm striving toward and believe I have (sometimes or even often) achieved.

Those are a few key distinctions between blurbs and positive reviews. There are others. But there's also one more I'd add here: I do think faith plays a vital role in the life of a poetry community just as in (perhaps in a secular way) the life of most individuals. As poets, we have to know who to trust -- as friends, as possible critics of our work, as critics of the work of others, as co-workers, as peers, as editors, as publishers, as community organizers, as commentators, et cetera. We are constantly being called upon to acknowledge that our field is one filled with those who have their own -- and not anyone else's -- interests at stake. If you don't trust someone, you don't read their reviews, whatever their stripe. Certainly, we already know that, whatever poets say -- and they often do say otherwise -- they won't read any poetry written by someone they don't like personally, no matter how much they laud the purity, autonomy, and clarity of Art's first principles. So why shouldn't the same apply to reviews? Surely, it already does apply -- to both positive and negative reviews, or really to any pronouncement by a poet on any topic, including this pronouncement, by me, on this topic -- so let's promote a reviewing regime that materializes that requirement of faith rather than pretending it doesn't exist. Those who attribute a sort of purity to the negative review that they deny to the positive review are not considering either the history of American poetry, the history of American poets, the history of poetry reviews, or the history of that designation so many of those writing negative reviews now (willingly or no) claim for themselves: the "poet-critic" who sits halfway between the academy and "creative writing," and is therefore in the crosshairs of an internecine skirmish that as yet hasn't any resolution.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

There's a War On in American Poetry (Part III) [Aborted]

More than a week ago I wrote (but never posted) Part III of this essay series, an entry which was largely focused on how my Tolkien-inspired "Battle of the Four Armies" trope was self-consciously tongue-in-cheek -- an acknowledgment that we really don't have a good language for discussing the pushes and pulls of history, none of which (at least in poetry) are actually violent or scary, thank god, so we end up mythologizing them in (in my case cheekily Tolkienesque) terms. I wrote about how different ideologies at various points ally with one another -- and that at their most clandestine (which usually just means "no one is paying attention," not that anyone is engaged in purposeful subterfuge) -- these alliances operate in a manner consistent with "conspiracies," though just like conspiracies it is only a sort of secrecy (self-conscious or de facto) that's required, and not (as some wrongly believe) perniciousness. But of late -- I mean, because of the concerns I have, and have expressed here, over the recent dialogue between Yankelevich and Perloff in the "pages" of Boston Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books -- I wonder whether the subtlety of a tongue-in-cheek military trope is really appropriate right now. It's hard to convince people that one considers these discussions to be fun, that one doesn't actually believe much is at stake here, and that therefore one is merely trying to inject some fun and passion and excitement into what otherwise would be the most esoteric, dreary discussions imaginable. (Has anyone here recently read reams of Contemporary Poetry Studies scholarship? I have. And let me tell you...) But really I do know, and anyone reading this should know, that none of us will be read after we are dead and that the only people who "matter" when it comes to posterity (a topic that doesn't interest me in the slightest, unless it's a question of enacting permanent structural changes that benefit real people in real terms) are a small cadre of anthologists who, now and historically, are even more likely to be ethically ambivalent than the rest of us. So, so much for that.

What does matter in all this -- in the "There's a War On" posts and elsewhere -- is whether our participation in poetic discourse is intended to produce something of general value or merely a very small form of personal satisfaction. Every week there are one or two minor scandals that "rock" (that's tongue-in-cheek also) the poetry world -- most recently it was the decision, by Ploughshares, to fire a blogger for conduct they felt was unbecoming of their "brand"; and that blogger's decision, in turn, to release private e-mails to the media in his own defense -- and to me the question is always one of first principles. As in, are there any first principles at stake here? Or are we merely dialoging through one poet's or one editor's or one magazine's personal experience of the poetry community? That's not a loaded question; I really don't have any opinion on whether the Ploughshares debacle met that standard. Nor on whether the binary Yankelevich constructs in response to Perloff's binary is anything likely to advance our understanding or appreciation of Art. Maybe? Probably not. But how would I know, or how could I say? And it's not for me to decide whether anything I write here meets that standard -- only to say that I hope it does, and that I intend it to, and that I can't really understand the thinking of poets who sit on the sidelines of the world and carp. You know the sort; they're all over Twitter and the blogosphere launching snarky asides about folks they've never met and/or issues they've not the courage to speak directly to themselves. Ultimately, that sort of apathy -- inasmuch as it's so often dressed up as intelligent remove -- is the only thing I find ugly, even grotesque. It makes the world sad and turgid.

So what in the world is TSE attempting to contribute? Well, I believe a revising of how we view and use poetry reviews could dramatically change the presence and vitality of poetry in American culture. I believe more clearly defining our terms in the contentious discourse over "the academy" can help ensure that such discussions are more profitable for all involved -- and for poetry generally, inasmuch as some great poets and poems and poetry and poetics fall through the cracks whenever our way of looking at things denies all the subtleties we actually perceive and live through. I worry that an entire generation of writers is being ignored in literary studies by scholars like Perloff, and even by binaries as well-intentioned as Yankelevich's, and that our entire culture stands to lose if we can't find the language to at least possibly incorporate every poem, every poet, and every poetry into our experience of Art on Earth. By the same token, I do a lot of work on MFA programs because I believe that, in the long run, such work increases the common stock of justice available to individual poets and institutions. And maybe I'm wrong -- maybe I'm wrong about a lot of things, and maybe some people hate me for not being a better man than I am, however close by their various bedroom and bathroom mirrors may be -- but when it all washes away the one thing that will be clear about each and every one of us is how much we attended to (or tried to attend to) people and ideas and values outside our own immediate experience, and how much that attendance was earnestly directed at improving the experience of life that others enjoy. We occupy a community -- and Twitter and blogging software certainly doesn't help with this -- in which witty snark and fashionable boredom is more often responded to with admiration than is active engagement. And that's not going to stop. But it stinks. And every once in a while we all, myself included, have to look at those around us and ask how much investment they actually have in any other person or ideal besides their own skin and their own subjectivities, or whether keeping things light and airy and sociable is in fact the first principle always most vitally in operation.

I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, many of them quite recently -- the past few years should never have happened in the way they did, and I'm angry at myself for wasting my time with nonsense -- but none of them have to do with trying to do something Big, even when I've failed. I'm going to pull back from this essay series primarily because I just have too much reading to do, partly because I need to save some of this research for a book or article (not for career purposes, as frankly I've been very down on any sort of professional activities for a couple years now, but rather because no one really reads or takes seriously anything written on a blog, and I really do want to contribute to the discourse on/about contemporary poetics), and in small part because I do think the possibility of raising negative energies rather than stoking positive ones exists whenever one uses the sort of tropes I've been using (and in spots the sort of tone I've been using), even though, on my end, this is simply how I amp myself up about things and people and ideas I care about and am invested in. But above all, I just really don't have any interest in feeding the apathy mill that (I'll only say "in my experience") dominates the contemporary American poetry community -- or the personal drama disguised as crusade (of which this essay series has, of course, already been accused) -- and incredibly it is sticking one's neck out that tends to provide the fodder for others' vulturistic tendencies.

Juliana Spahr once argued that it was MFA programs that have encouraged political apathy among the nation's young poets; that's not so -- it's the sociology of poetry itself, which is what I started this blog by writing about back in 2005 (I ran an essay series called "The Sociology of Poetry") that produces that effect. And the sociology of poetry is, in the simplest terms, the sociology of poets: the bare fact that you just can't make a viable and healthy community -- one that encourages passion and energy and integrity and earnestness and bravery -- out of a population of people, myself included, who spend such a significant percentage of their time on Earth indulging their worst selves. The same sort of woundings we give and incur in our personal lives due to that abiding lack of commitment to honor and compassion we also give and incur when we enter the public square as (in our various roles) activists, wallflowers, snarks, or leeches.

Every once in a while I activate this blog to try to do something Good, to make up for the things I know I've done that were Bad; to aim High, having trolled Low on too many occasions, and put my energies into things that really didn't deserve them. And every once in a while, after I've activated the blog, I return to that same sort of non-participation Juliana Spahr decries, and which I in the abstract decry, because I have seen the soul of a poet -- in the mirror, across a pillow, at a gathering, in a conference setting -- and I really think it's something none of us should be exposed to for too long. It is, finally, -- not ill-intended, no -- but both pretty and poisonous all the same. I love poetry, and I think careful positivism in both scholarship and reviewing is the way of the future; that doesn't mean interacting with poets is something I love (though on occasion I certainly do). I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. I'm sure some day I'll return.

{NB: None of this is aimed at anyone or any group of persons in particular; it's just a present-sense impression of how I feel.}

On the Power of Positive Poetry-Reviewing (Part I)

{ADDENDUM: In the comments section below this post, I address some of the confusion this post has caused. The most important items are these: First, every review bears the responsibility of telling you exactly why a series of poems is doing important work, and exactly what that work is; second, blurbs and reviews can by no account be confused, for many reasons, but primarily because two absolutely essentially ingredients in the sort of reviews I'm speaking of are a) the reviewer has no substantial personal connection to either the poet or the work under review, and b) the reviewer is selecting work for review out of an enormous archive of submitted and unsubmitted work, rather than being solicited to write on just one book without in any sense comparing it to hundreds and hundreds of others. There are many more/other distinctions drawn in the comments section, below.}

Also, A Plan to Put a Poetry Review Column in Every Media Outlet in America and Bring About a Golden Age of American Poetry

[Find Part II here].

We've heard the case made, again and again, that poetry reviews offering unqualified praise of the books they consider are without merit. Most recently, noted academic Marjorie Perloff observed, with evident disdain, that these days "[f]ew poetry books get reviewed at all, and when they do they are almost always given unqualified praise." So what's the opposing case? Is there any justification for this avalanche of positivism (in both senses of that word)?

Imagine, for a moment, that driving a car is one of the most important things in your life. It's not actually that hard to imagine, as in certain respects it's probably already true for many of us. Now imagine that we live in a world in which -- for whatever reason; say, because the lifespan of cars just dropped dramatically -- purchasing a car is a monthly necessity rather than something you do every five to ten years. Now imagine, finally, that there are 70,000 individual car models to choose from in the United States. Under those circumstances, how much use could or would you make of a prancing, prattling idiot who only told you which cars not to buy, two or three cars at a time? You might well tell such a person, "Look, telling me not to purchase a Ford Flex or a Honda CRV still leaves me with 69,998 car models I know nothing about, and I need and want to buy a car now, so how is this helping me?" And you might well add to that admonishment, "Can't anyone out there help me figure out which cars I should buy?"

There's reason to believe that, in the 1940s and 1950s, 5,000 or fewer poets were regularly publishing their work in the United States. The number of venues in which such work could and did appear was very small; Ashbery has said that when he started publishing it was basically Poetry or nothing. (And while much of the best work of the time was, we now know, appearing in tiny magazines sold only in certain locales, a poet-critic in New York City advising a poet living in Tulsa to read some obscure 125th Street rag entirely inaccessible to Oklahomans only carries us so far.) It's also true that in the 1940s and 1950s literary studies departments were dominated by New Critics, which meant -- in other words -- that literary scholarship was heavily invested in what now would be termed "mainstream" poetries (i.e., poetries whose rhetorical schema lay squarely within the classical lyrical tradition). So if it happened that you were reading Poetry in 1955, and saw in its pages a few "positive" reviews but also some pretty historic takedowns, it was neither a surprise nor a disaster -- as you could pretty well wade through the poetry then being published yourself, and if you couldn't you could still use the parallel discourse happening on college and university campuses to augment your knowledge of the vast middle swath of American poetics. As to the liminal spaces of poetry, those could be talked about to death in the press (not that they were) but without the Internet it hardly would've mattered to you, as you wouldn't have been able to get your hands on their limited-edition press-runs anyway unless you lived within a few blocks of the shabby apartment those hundred copies were issuing from. (Most of which went to friends and family and well-networked Others, anyway.)

Today, there are over 70,000 working poets in America, countless thousands of online and print literary magazines, and no possibility whatsoever that anyone could have a handle on what's out there. Being told what not to read is an increasingly pointless proposition, as "What's actually out there?" has replaced "What are people saying about what's out there?" as the most pressing question on every poetry-reader's lips. The poetry reviews of the 1940s and 1950s were appropriate for their time; not just for the reasons stated above, but also because the close connection then evident between literary studies and working writers -- as this was before "creative writing" would drive a permanent wedge between the two -- meant that poetry reviews in Poetry actually were contributing to the then-extant scholarship on American poetry, creating a unified (if contentious) discourse that had multiple access-points for average poetry-readers.

The poetry reviews of the 2010s are being asked to meet very different demands. For instance:

1. Increasing competition for the dwindling and/or overextended pecuniary resources devoted to American poetry, and the diminishing audience size for individual publishing efforts (simply because there are so many) provides additional incentive for cronyism to replace the sort of "subjective objectivity" normally at the heart of public literary assessment. Consequently, a worthwhile poetry review series has strong policies in place to prevent books being reviewed by friends of the authors assessed.

2. The increasing diversity of American aesthetics and poetics means that poetry-readers' tastes are (likewise) more diversified now than at any other point in American history. Consequently, a worthwhile poetry review series is also one that reviews a large number of books of varying aesthetics and poetics -- the better to reach a panoply of audiences and to speak to myriad tastes and predilections.

3. A good literary critic is one whose real-time access to a wide range of literature is significantly greater than the average reader, thus ensuring that the critic is serving the vital "culling" function most poetry-readers cannot adequately meet themselves due to time, inclination, and monetary constraints. Consequently, a worthwhile poetry review series is one whose submission and eligibility policies are broad enough to ensure that books are being compiled from every available source, not merely selected sources (for instance, as would be the case with, say, a poetry review series which only accepted work from publishers, or only reviewed work published in the last thirty days, or exhibited clear favoritism toward one particular type of press -- independent, university, or trade -- or one particular geographic region, like New York City or California).

4. Given all of the above phenomena, the average poetry reader has less time and capacity to determine what's worth reading than ever before -- not because of a lack of critical faculty (in fact, the ubiquity and range of critical faculties has probably been raised, on average, by the rise of "creative writing" in America) but, as noted already, a lack of time and energy and resources and the impossibility of coming into direct contact with even a fraction of the poetry being published today. Consequently, a worthwhile poetry review series offers advice on what's worth reading and why, and which views the critical function as operating at the level of selection-for-review, rather than at the level of the book (the former methodology being one which implicitly contains the latter in any case). Another reason this development is an important one is that an ever-increasing percentage of poetry-readers are also (often MFAed) poetry-writers, and if there's one thing poets feel qualified to determine under their own steam, it's what they don't like. Most poets are far more invested in finding the next big thing they're going to absolutely fall in love with (for the obvious reasons, but also because most poets I know secretly admit to getting "bored" with poetry faster than a non-poet might) rather than rehashing -- or butting heads over -- their personal tastes and distastes.

5. Given the hundred-year process of specialization and marginalization that American poetry has undergone, a worthwhile poetry review series is also one that makes a conscious effort to reach the broadest possible audience. We have more resources at our fingertips now than ever before to broadcast any message across the widest possible spectrum of listeners, so there's no excuse any longer for poetry -- or poetry criticism -- to self-ghettoize in its selection of which media and media outlets to employ.

I can appreciate the wariness with which one naturally approaches any form of poetry criticism whose economy of scale is at the level of the archive rather than the level of collection -- even if it's this sort of attention to "the archive" that distinguishes today's most exciting and well-received avant-garde movements and first principles. Still, we historically have imagined critics as ornery so-and-sos, and not spirited, experienced, (possibly) trained or educated enthusiasts who've simply done so much reading of contemporary poetry (helped along by superlative access to recent works in the genre) that they might well be able to start winnowing down those 70,000 contemporary poets to an entirely non-exhaustive yet still more manageable list of (say) sixty or seventy per year. If there's one thing we've learned from macroanalytical criticism like Franco Moretti's -- an Italian scholar who imports quantitative methods from the social sciences to analyze literary phenomena on a historical spectrum (rather than entrenching, instead, the New Criticism-inflected obsession with the [single] book) -- it's that certain data, such as the number of practicing poets, the number of presses and magazines, the number of graduate creative writing programs, even the number of scholarly dissertations written on generally "mainstream" poets today as compared to 1945, is absolutely essential to deductively acknowledging localized phenomena. With the literary studies sector of the academy now broadly retreating into consideration of only a very small number of avant-garde movements, poets and other poetry-readers are left without any bona fide opportunity to receive assistance in culling down their reading lists even a bit. If today's poetry critics choose to indulge their egos rather than serve their communities -- and make no mistake about it, it's far more satisfying (and far more consistent with the native temperament of the poet-critic) to skewer a colleague's work -- today's poetry enthusiasts will not be better-served, but worse.

But there's one other aspect of poetry-reviewing that hasn't yet been noted: It's almost entirely online, now. Even print publications are publishing their reviews largely or exclusively online.

And here's another (related) thing: America now has the largest population of aspiring poets and writers willing to do poetry-related stuff for free -- witness the flowering of new small presses, poetry-in-the-schools volunteer programs, state-prison poetry workshops, and so on, many of which are staffed by MFA students who've learned through their programs that poetry is as much a community as an art-form (something the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation also believed) -- which means that America now has the largest population of potential poet-critics in its history. (Because these days poetry-reviewing is hardly ever paid for, and those who insist on payment either don't review for long or else receive mail addressed to "William Logan").

And here's one final (also related) thing: Most media outlets are now online, and are desperate for content. So someone tell me, why aren't thousands and thousands of MFA graduates querying the San Jose Mercury News, the Houston Chronicle, the Arizona Republic, the Tampa Bay Times, or the Detroit Free Press offering to write, for free, an online poetry review column for these websites? Any of those media outlets would, if they ran a poetry review series, immediately become one of the most visible media outlets in the nation to consider contemporary poetry on a regular basis -- as right now their competition is largely comprised of well-intended but variously obscure entities like Bookslut, Coldfront, Ron Slate's personal blog, and several even smaller venues. So what does the editor of the Detroit Free Press have to lose if a terminal-degree-holding MFA graduate with a few literary publications under her belt says to herself, "Hey, I haven't yet figured out what to 'do' with my MFA, and I'm still working on becoming the best poet I can be, but in the meantime why don't I give back to my community by bringing writing about contemporary poetry to an audience of millions? I have the time, the love of poetry, and the ready access to contemporary works, so why not?" The worst the editor of the Detroit Free Press says to that poet is "no." Well, so what if she does? Our hypothetical MFA graduate just moves on to the 3,000 other newspapers in the U.S. which would constitute more visible venues for poetry criticism than the ones we presently have.

And if even a handful of MFA graduates take up this call -- which taking-up, need I point out, would benefit them as much as it does their community and the poets they advance in their archive-attendant criticism -- suddenly contemporary American poetry might just have its first Golden Age. Not too shabby.

A Poetics

Marjorie Perloff just asked me on Facebook what makes texts she considers merely "lineated prose" eligible for the category of "poetry." She proposes "sound" as the singular marker of a "poem." As this is the same question asked me -- and generally speaking, the same "answer" offered to me -- by my students in the introductory creative writing courses I've taught over the years, I genuinely believe I've misunderstood Perloff's question. But several people have nevertheless messaged me on Facebook asking whether I have seriously discounted her question, or am I just avoiding it? I'm kind of a foolish person, no doubt, but I don't have much reputation for "avoiding things," so I figured, okay, I guess I do need to write a response to that question after all, even though this may or may not address what Perloff was actually getting at with her query. In the course of this essay, I also address my own "poetics" as a working poet.

First, I'm deeply disappointed in the Dove anthology, as is Perloff, and agree with most of what has been said about it by detractors. I also think, however, that it's intended for a high school audience, and there's an argument to be made (though not one I'd necessarily concur with) that at that age Kenneth Goldsmith's Day (or The Weather, which I've been theorizing in preparation for prelims) would simply turn off young people to poetry rather than open a door for them they'll tentatively and maybe one day confidently walk through in college or thereafter. (That said, the emphasis on the Romantics that we saw in high school curricula when I was a kid, in the early 1990s, was equally or even more damaging).

That aside, I'm surprised at the intimation that "sound" is (or could be) a singular marker for the sensation of "poemness" certain texts arouse in their readers. When I studied with Cole (Swensen), she often spoke of each poem having a different "engine" -- an element which, while not defining or circumscribing the whole, may nevertheless operate as either an origin-point for the poet herself or as an entry-point for the reader. Yes, sometimes that's a self-consciousness as to sonics that the average text in other genres -- if we pretend, for a moment, that all genres are on see-saws rather than a spectrum (which is naive of us) -- does not exhibit. But in broader terms what we're looking for is an internal rhetorical schemata that is evident, active, and self-aware -- essentially, what de Man hoped scholars would seek out and pursue in their scholarly criticism of texts is just the sort of work a poem has already begun to do in some fashion, though the same could be said of many of the foremost texts now denominated "experimental fiction."

Traditionally, that internal rhetorical schemata has been of the most literal sort -- the classical "lyric" is quite literally comprised of technical rhetorical gestures that presume the transparency of language and are in many instances thousands of years old. So while we find metaphor and simile in all kinds of texts, for instance, a text achieving the quality of "poemness" is likely to have made a system out of what otherwise might be merely gestural: The "poem" looks within itself, and is constantly speaking to itself, in a way that connects individual compositional elements traditionally associated with lyric speech in a potentially traceable schemata. That schemata might be sonic, or rhetorical, or image-based, or conceit-based, or syntactic, or any one of a number of schema that are evident, active, and self-aware wherever an author has placed a certain kind of pressure on language's capacities and incapacities which, when taken in context (a whole other consideration), aims beyond the colloquial.

So say the New Critics. Who (as I think Marjorie is suggesting is proper, which surprises me) absolutely refused to look outside the four corners of the page. But historicist readings, as just one example, permit the treatment as "poetry" of certain texts which, in their historical context, were either intended to be condensed artifacts of language producing "effects" associated with the lyric (like an emotion, or the experience of instrumental -- say, political -- persuasion) or which, in being named by their author as "poems," served some immediate or distant historical function which would not have been served if the document had been described (let's say in seventeenth-century England) as participating instead in the "libel" genre.

Conceptual poets would take yet another tack, and criticize the New Critics and historicists for uncritically treating Derridean "marks" (or collations of such marks) as entirely-reliable transparent language when taken in the aggregate. They would say that a "poem" is that which reifies a concept in the terms of its execution or (as with Goldsmith) its alleged non-execution. Tzara was a Conceptual poet inasmuch as the very refusal of his poems to engage in an internal conversation among and between their many elements -- in other words, their jubilant denial of all internal rhetorical schema -- was what made them a condensed, language-based statement of principle lying forever outside the bounds of traditional prose discourse. Tzara could have, of course, "described" his theory in prose, but the Conceptualists were right in the 1910s, and are right today, to note that we have to have some sort of term for the reification of a theory or value which is not expressed in demotic language -- and "poem" is as appropriate a term as any, though we could equally have come up with a different one (Duchamp, another Conceptualist, spoke of the "readymade" and the "readyfound"), so little do such exercises partake of any of the elements of the classical "lyric." That said, as I believe the definition of "poem" must change (and expand, and flex) to remain viable and generative, I am in no way whatsoever uncomfortable with calling Conceptual poetry "poetry." I wish some of it had appeared in Dove's anthology -- the twentieth-century variety of Conceptual poetry, I mean, which is larger in breadth and more provocative in execution that the tenth-wave Conceptual poetry we're getting now (but which, in any case, also deserves our attention). After all, if we merely call Duchamp's urinal a "poem" -- and I'm game -- we've already got Kenneth Goldsmith's Day, which would have been as or more effective (in reifying its first principle) re-envisioned as merely a newspaper tossed on the floor, a fact Perloff does not acknowledge. (Yes, Goldsmith's also interested in transcription and plagiarism, but given that all poetry which is not "the thing itself" -- in the most literal terms: a urinal; a newspaper -- is a form of transcription and plagiarism, I'm not sure how interesting I ultimately find this.)

I think the Language writers took yet another tack to develop an "engine" for poetic texts, that being that they determined (per Derrida) that the subject of all written or oral speech must necessarily be language itself -- there is no avoiding it, the thinking goes, as it lies between us and transparent "meaning" and thus all texts definitionally must deal with that element of human communication first and foremost. It's a valid theory. And it permits any text whose primary "subject" is language itself -- not in the topical sense, but in the sense of granting "materiality" and "immanence" to language and its many incapacities -- to be considered a poem. And I'm on board with that view of "poemness" also. There should have been a lot of Language writing in Dove's anthology, no doubt.

Like any poet worth his salt -- or any critic worth her salt -- I don't restrict my sense of how the epistemological phenomenon known as "poemness" can be invoked or evoked to how I myself write. In fact, as a poet (someone self-tasked with producing such phenomena) I'm not at all satisfied with any of the above technologies.

What I'm more interested in is pre-Aristotlean thought -- i.e., the Sophists and the Monists -- than a view of rhetoric which falsely states that the only purpose of language is to illuminate truth (be it the New Critics' truths or the Language writers' anti-truths), and that language deployed to any other purpose is pernicious. I disagree, moreover, with Adorno: I don't think poetry is either "instrumental" (i.e., Aristotlean speech) or "autonomous" (the boogeyman known as "art for art's sake"). And that's because I believe, instead, that the oldest tradition in human communication is a belief in (a non-spiritual, non-New Agey) philosophical Oneness, in a Singularity that creates and destroys all -- e.g., to use the best-known example, Zeno's paradox both "creates" such a Monistic "singularity" while also destroying, implicitly, all matter now extant by declaring it indistinguishable from all/anything else. Yet it's not merely Zeno's thought experiment that tells us that Monism ought still have some contemporary purchase; the Judeo-Christian tradition, as intermingled with modern physics, tells us that all matter came from a Singularity and that all matter will return to a Singularity. We see this as much in God speaking from the mountain to the Israelites and saying merely a single Word -- "I" -- as we do in the theory that the universe is still expanding (presumably, into a singular nothingness where physics definitionally does not and cannot reign, thus raising the possibly that if there is a Supernatural it is there, running away from us) and will eventually collapse in upon itself, leaving once more that Singularity which preceded us before the Big Bang, and in which physics does not and cannot reside, and which therefore (possibly) is where the Supernatural can and does reside.

As to Adorno, we could see Singularity in a combination of his terms "instrumental" and "autonomous"; as presently constituted, that dialectic leaves no room for autonomous persuasion -- an idea I developed that the original purpose of poetry, just like the original purpose of God speaking from a mountain and speaking only the first-personal singular, is simply to persuade a listener that he or she is experiencing the feeling of persuasion. Not persuasion "to" something, or "of" something, but simply of the fact that we live in a world in which the spirit can be aroused to a desire for action even when it hasn't yet figured out the universe and therefore doesn't know which actions are wise or possible or "real." The Voice of God -- and I say this as an agnostic more interested in theorizing God than worshiping a god -- is the great Singularity I believe poetry was meant to emulate, and this would still be understood and accepted if Aristotle had not slandered the Sophists right out of the history-books.

So when I write poetry, I'm thinking (small-m) "monistically" and (in a non-Aristotlean, non-lyric poetry way) "rhetorically" -- i.e., about Jung, and Campbell, and legal terminology, and classical rhetorical structures, and creation myths, and that special (now lost) tense certain pre-Greek civilizations had which was considered to contain within it the power to compel. None of the poetry in Dove's anthology speaks to my poetics; nor does Kenneth Goldsmith turning poetry into a conversation-piece little different than a new vase. Nor does the quaint obsession of Language poets with human language, when the only language that pre-exists us, or will post-exist us, is a language defined not by physics or culture or Derrida's deconstructive technologies or even by Judeo-Christian theology but the simple fact that the spaces in the universe in which physics does not reign are much larger than those in which it does -- because what, after all, is the universe presently expanding into if not such spaces; what was the universe in the beginning if not this; what will it be in the end if not this; is not everything between Beginning and End something humans have already witnessed or "know" in some cellular way, and therefore is not all such matter and content and process unworthy of our repetition or deconstruction in poetry? -- which means, then, that our job as poets ought to be the exploration of something entirely Unknown to anyone: the Voice of Singularity. That's why I write almost entirely without metaphors, similes, received forms, or any kind of description: Those uses of language don't interest me, because they're no longer (if ever they were) traceably operative speech-acts.

The best compliments I've ever received with respect to my poems are these: "I was entranced by it, but I can't seem to figure out why"; "I was moved by it, but I didn't fully understand it"; "It was compellingly familiar, even if I can't point to its influences." Those sorts of reader-response paradoxes are what I write for, but in this I'm no different from any other poet: We develop a poetics and we hope that, in time, we will see the receipt of that poetics in our readers and audiences even when/where a full understanding of that poetics has not been offered by the poet or digested by the reader or discussed by academics or acknowledged by anthologists or rewarded by prize tribunals or condoned by any college hiring committee. There are many poetries, of course, and thus many ways of identifying when a reader or audience member has experienced (or when a reader or audience member has otherwise acknowledged, even against their better judgment) the sensation of "poemness." That's what I think.

But hey, I have an MFA, so I don't even know what poetics is, right?

A Response to Perloff's Response to Yankelevich's Response to Perloff's Response to Dove's Anthology

Obsession With "the Academy," Prizes, and the General Public Is Just Killing Literary Criticism of Contemporary American Poetry

Noted academic Marjorie Perloff wrote this. Then Matvei Yankelevich, a poet, wrote this. Then Perloff wrote this. And now I'm writing this.

Perloff first alleges that "there's almost no real debate or argument" among poets about the direction of American poetry. That's not been my experience. I can't thinking of many working poets who would say it's been their experience. So let's put that aside, it being clearly off.

The bigger question is, "What does 'academic mainstream poetry' mean anymore?" And how can it form, as it implicitly does for Perloff, the very foundation -- the pushing-off point -- of a critique of the national poetry scene? Isn't "academic mainstream poetry" the sort of terminology whose usefulness ended twenty-five years ago, and which in no way recognizes or engages the complexity of contemporary American poetry and its culture and communities? Peter Gizzi, cited by Perloff, graduated from the Brown University MFA, has a hybrid academic/non-academic doctorate from SUNY-Buffalo, and teaches in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst MFA; Charles Bernstein, placed in the same group as Gizzi by Perloff, has aggressively opposed any iteration of "creative writing" (including the creative writing MFA) but also founded the first of the three hybrid doctorates -- those intended equally for creative writers and scholars -- now extant in the United States. Srikanth Reddy, plopped into the same camp as Gizzi and Bernstein by Perloff, has a creative writing MFA from the University of Iowa, an academic Ph.D. from Harvard University, and now teaches (I presume both creative writing and literary studies) at the University of Chicago. Natasha Trethewey's biography looks even less "academic" than Reddy's or Gizzi's or Bernstein's by comparison -- despite being aligned, by Perloff, with "academic mainstream poetry" -- as she graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst creative writing MFA and now teaches creative writing in the Emory undergrad program. Not to mention the fact that the "confessionalists" (a dubious bit of critical terminology, in the first instance) who Perloff speaks derisively of and links up to "academic mainstream poetry" were none of them academics -- and were never embraced by literary studies scholars, post-New Criticism -- but the Language writers lauded and even lionized by Perloff in many instances were (as to both their categorization as "academics" and their treatment by literary studies scholars).

Why don't we just put aside all the language regarding "the academy" and say what Perloff really means: This is just about prizes. Laurels. Money. Fame. Period.

The sort of prizes, laurels, money, and fame that almost no one in poetry gets and therefore almost no one seriously invested in poetry really thinks about much. The 99.999% of poets who will never win a Pulitzer, a Guggenheim, be deemed one of the seventy-five most important poets of last century, or be named U.S. Poet Laureate must be absolutely amazed that it is these inaccessible, unimaginable laurels which somehow are treated by critics and working poets alike as the most immediate basis for starting a conversation about what's happening in American poetry. As we all know, most of the major prizes and non-prize laurels in American poetry are handed out not by rank-and-file poets but by non-poets or poets who owe their successes to non-poets, so such bounties will always go to those whose poetry is most "accessible."

Now can we have an actual conversation about how varied and exciting American poetry is?

Perloff writes, "[Y]ou can’t very well oppose the Penguin canon by bringing up the names of what [sic] are, outside the world of small-press and chapbook publishing, wholly unknown poets." But the thing is, we can, because only working poets are reading any of these essays anyway -- the general public doesn't choose what to read based on either scholarship or working poets' protestations, they elect champions (where they do) based on which poets most remind them of work in the genres they actually enjoy (fiction, television, movies, comic books, &c) -- and as all the poets who Yankelevich wants to speak of are widely known in the poetry community, it really is time to broaden the conversation to include (say) the MFAed but also theory-conscious poets congregating at Montevidayo (McSweeney, Goransson, Pafunda, Glenum, et. al.). Likewise, Perloff's "I am not convinced that the 'ever-growing margin on the sidelines of mainstream poetry' is as rich and fruitful as Yankelevich suggests" is a statement which can/should only be credited when the scholar who authored it writes her first essay intelligently addressing such poets and poetries, thereby proving she is aware of what they're doing and is in a position to dismiss them wholesale. Until then, it's the worst sort of off-hand erasure of thousands and thousands of poets whose work and ideologies resist easy categorization.

Speaking only for/of myself for a moment: I graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, am a doctoral candidate in one of the three "hybrid" doctorates I mentioned above, am strongly associated with "creative writing" due to my research on MFA programs, and yet my fourth book is almost entirely comprised of modified readymades inspired by Duchamp -- a man explicitly championed by Perloff in her response to Yankelevich -- and is intended to theorize and reify the hybridization of lyric and academic discourses in a way I've not seen done before. I'm also an obscure poet, true, but if I'm trying to push boundaries, despite my "academic" credentials and my ample involvements with "creative writing," certainly there are thousands of others doing the same who are completely whitewashed by narrow conversations such as this one between Perloff and Yankelevich (though the latter is clearly trying to broader the conversation, at least). In a community in which -- contrary to Perloff's claims -- dissent and disagreement is typically the order of the day, we deserve better and more informed and more subtle dissent and disagreement than this.

So let's ditch the "academy" talk, ditch our unnatural and perverse obsession with prizes and other laurels, and start talking not merely about those poets who somehow seem iconic figureheads for some more or less now-irrelevant taxonomy of American poetics, but about the wide range of work evident among the 70,000 or more working poets now publishing today. Sure, it'll take certain scholars and poet-critics a) putting aside their Quixotic quest to "educate" a public that isn't listening to such conversations and never will be, and b) reading much more broadly than they currently do -- perhaps even finding new poets (i.e., those not party to the present stunted dialectic) -- to ask for reading recommendations from, but we have to do something. These conversations about Conceptualism (as if that's new? Dadaism was Conceptualism) and Conservatism (as if that means anything?), or about "academic mainstream poetry" (meaningless!) and the "avant-garde" (ever-shifting!) are not going anywhere or advancing our understanding of poetry in any way. And I bet I'm not the only one who's sick of it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Disintegrating Quality of Avant-Garde Discourse (Pt. II)

[NB: Read Part I of this essay here].

In this essay, Jake Berry uses two terms coined by Bob Grumman in the 1980s, "otherstream" and "knownstream." Grumman himself defined the terms as follows in March of 2011:

"'Otherstream' is my adjective for works of art the great majority of arts academics, well-known critics, commerical publishers and commercial magazine editors know little more than the names of, if that. A brief definition: art of a kind that's not taught in college courses. For me, it means approximately, but only approximately, the opposite of 'mainstream.' What it's the exact opposite of is 'knownstream.' That's because some art is knownstream, like certain kinds of very formal verse--the sestina, say, is well known to most literature professors but is not what you'd call a kind of 'mainstream' poetry."

Well, the definition is what it is, I guess, but we need to point out from the outset that it's not at all functional, for five reasons:

  1. "Arts academics" (my emphasis) is not restricted to (and definitionally cannot be restricted to) English departments, so it could include a lot of people Grumman couldn't possibly be speaking of. Yet there are also many within English departments who we wouldn't term "arts" academics, so it doesn't include them either. Then there are those outside "the academy" who consciously and consistently and conspicuously "academicize" discourse on and surrounding poetry (particularly avant-garde poetries) through the use of specialized terminology (often misuse, like the avant-garde's bastardization of the term "parataxis"). Like Grumman himself. Are these folks "arts academics" also? No one knows.
  2. That term "great majority" is what we used to call "weasel words" in law school--meaning they're so open to interpretation you can make them mean whatever you want. How do we measure how many "arts academics" (whatever that term denotes) know about a certain poetry or poetries? And if we could measure that, what does a "great majority" mean? Now, I'm not just trying to be cute here. One aspect of my research has been to try to divine, through data, how many working poets are now living and writing in America. Ron Silliman always tried to keep that figure very low (~10,000; I got him to grudgingly change his estimate to ~20,000) because the lower that figure is, the more cultural capital individual critics--like Silliman--can accrue by seeming to "have a handle on" what's happening in American poetry. The problem is, every piece of available data suggests that there are between 70,000 and 100,000 working poets in America, meaning that no one can claim cultural (literary-critic) capital because no one can access a comprehensive understanding of what's happening in poetry. Though he was writing in the 1980s, Grumman's aim is clear: To posit an entirely transparent, microcosmic community of poetry institutions that someone (say Grumman) can not merely theorize but even quantify--for instance, by asserting (from what could only be his own paltry anecdotal knowledge) that he (Grumman) is certain that Poet X is "only" known by "a small minority" of "arts academics." In other words, no one can ever quantify which poets or poetries or poems are "otherstream," so all cultural capital accruing to that term stays with Grumman, just as it does with Silliman and "Quietism" or Bernstein and "Official Verse Culture." These terms are poorly defined on purpose. And quite possibly Grumman designed his terms that way--and with that intention--also. Anyway, I'll put aside now other "weasel words" in Grumman's definitions, like "well-known"-- we all use such words on occasion, we just usually avoid putting them in definitions.
  3. I don't know what a "commercial publisher" is. A trade press? These days, the folks at Black Ocean are outselling nearly everyone else, and they're a small independent press from Boston which (I presume) makes a little money but surely is not motivated by monetary gain. Likewise, while trade presses can and do publish poetry, almost none of them make money on it, so how are we alleging there's any segment of the poetry-publishing community--the full roster of publishing institutions that comprise that "institutional" wing of the literary arts community--that is "commercial"? Again, the term isn't functional, but it seems to be deliberately non-functional: Only Grumman gets to decide who's commercial and who isn't, even when (by any normal usage of the word) nobody is.
  4. The "brief definition" of "otherstream" art is "art that's not taught in college courses"? Isn't that a tautology? (Q: What's the "otherstream"? A: Art that's not taught in college courses. Q: How do you know it's not taught in college courses? A: Because it's the "otherstream," dummy!). I don't think anyone kids themselves into believing Bob Grumman knows the curricula of more than a handful of academic institutions; that's particularly true if his aversion to discussing the academy or investigating the academy or really knowing anything at all about the academy is as strong as that of his acolytes. But more importantly, does this mean that the only innate quality of the "otherstream" is a negative quality? So, like, if everyone starts teaching a certain poet, and nothing about that poet or her poetry changes, she's suddenly not "otherstream" merely because she's become popular within and among a certain (poorly-defined) "academic" community? Does that sound flimsy to anyone else?
  5. The term "knownstream," like the term "otherstream," depends entirely for its definition upon a term Grumman does not define--the "mainstream." The "mainstream" is defined in a you-all-know-what-I-mean kind of way, yet that's hardly good enough -- as if we look at high-school level instruction (at least up until the mid-1990s) we'd probably say that received forms like sonnets are exactly what high school teachers teach. So when did the sonnet become non-mainstream, if it's still the form of poetry most Americans are familiar with (I'd rankly speculate) as compared to any other? Whose mainstream are we speaking of?

Jake Berry speaks in his essay of "the academic system, with its university presses, creative writing degrees and workshops." The problem is that creative writing degrees are non-academic fine-arts degrees, university presses are unaffiliated (in many if not most instances) with university English departments, and the "academics" in academic-institutional spaces -- literary studies scholars, i.e. -- aren't considered by Berry at all, even though they've been the life-blood of the avant-garde's continued relevance for decades, and even though, before them, the creative-writing-averse New Critics (also "academics") kept the then-avant-garde (High Modernism) in the public view quite intentionally and dramatically. "Creative writing" -- as admittedly comprised, in part, by "creative writing degrees and workshops" -- is such a newcomer to the scene that for anyone to associate a specific phenomenon with it they'd have to prove, too, that that phenomenon does not pre-date the late 1980s. Possibly the mid-1990s.

Berry is equally invested in cooking up some kind of notional book-buying public which actually doesn't exist anymore. He notes that trade presses and university presses often see their books sold in bookstores, but fails to add that bookstores really don't exist anymore and that the most avid book-buyers -- working poets -- do next to none of their book-shopping at the sort of brick-and-mortar buildings Berry somewhat fancifully imagines. And it matters. Because if Berry is equating cultural capital with institutional visibility in a space that doesn't really exist anymore -- and that has far less cultural capital in contemporary poetry, that is, among contemporary poets, than, say, SPD -- he's headed for a world of confusion.

And yet it's precisely that world he leaps into with both feet. Here's how Berry describes the dissemination of poetry in contemporary society:

"[T]he limit [of knowledge of poetry] for many poets [is "browsing the local bookstore or online bookseller (for poetry)...or order(ing it) online"]. Though they may be aware of poetry on CD, tape and LP, Internet magazines, journals and blogs as well as videos and audio recordings online, the dominant notion, and validation, of poetry remains in those books with the greatest distribution [i.e. trade and university press publications]....If one goes online and does a general search for poetry (*) one will discover that not only is a great deal of poetry available, but that an overwhelming amount of it is very current...the usual reaction is to appeal to an authority on the subject in order to get some idea of where to start, and that authority remains major publishers with the addition of academia. They are the gatekeepers."

* = What working poet searches for poetry this way? --S.A.

This is going to sound a little strange, but doesn't Berry's description of how the poetry community works sound a little... um... unhip? Obviously I'm not hip myself, never have been, but is the above really an accurate description of how anyone serious about poetry discovers new poets or poetry? I smell a man stuffed with straw and slowly smoldering at the elbows, here.

He continues, a bit further on:

"To become deeply involved with poetry is to unsettle our broad cultural assumptions and even throw the nature of individuality in doubt. Poetry creates an ache that can never be healed, but only relieved by a lifelong experience of those conditions that only poetry can provide. No gatekeeper can make absolute determinations on such a personal level. Both the gate the keeper have become irrelevant."

A little New-Agey for me, but okay -- to a point. Berry is describing pretty accurately my own engagement with/by poetry, but a famous poet once admonished me for forgetting that people come to poetry for different reasons. As this particular poet put it (I paraphrase), "Some come to poetry merely to see their own world reflected back at them in more vivid terms than they experience that world on a day-to-day basis; and then there are others who come to poetry to be constantly surprised and shocked out of their complacency, out of their day-to-day understanding of their environment and themselves." Berry is presuming that only the second part of that sentence is true, even though for some -- not me -- that first part is a much more accurate description of their engagement with/by poetry. And if one is looking to write or read poems with the most vivid images and metaphors and similes and descriptions (none of these being things I'm much interested in as a poet), well, it probably is true that those devices are "measurable" to a degree, and therefore one probably could use a gatekeeper to discover that Amy Clampitt wrote better descriptive poetry than, say, Mattie J.T. Stepanek.

After dismissing commercial publishers as gatekeepers because they're motivated by profit margins -- though where those profits are coming from, I'm sure I don't know -- Berry turns to academic publishers, who he says focus almost exclusively on two types of poetry: "the poetry that originated and developed from the Iowa School and its workshops and Language poetry -- also a development largely within the academy." So, first, anyone who's read anything about the history of the Iowa Writer's Workshop will know the following:

  1. There is no "Iowa School," both because the IWW had a habit of hiring idiosyncratic cranks as professors, and because the program was simply too large (at its height in the late 1940s there were two hundred and fifty students in the program) to accommodate a singular aesthetic vision.
  2. The IWW did everything imaginable to take nothing from the UI English department but money. They had their own professors, their own physical plant far away from the UI English building (and indeed even Paul Engle derisively referred to the UI English department as "the hill"; the Writers' Workshop was then located in Quonset huts on some crappy swampland on the banks of the Iowa River), and a curriculum entirely distinct from the English department curriculum -- including dramatically variant pedagogies.
  3. Language writing did not originate "largely within the academy." But I'm glad Berry claims otherwise, because it illustrates, I think -- for old-school Language poets like Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein -- that their movement's place in history is going to shortly be decimated by young avant-gardists like Berry who've not been handed down any functional terminology by either their college courses, their Language poetry elders, or any as-yet-underdeveloped  body of scholarship in Creative Writing Studies. Loose lips sink ships; loose language sinks poetry movements. Language poetry deserves better than this shoddy armchair taxonomizing.

Where Berry falls off the map, and where I probably have to stop reading his essay because I have other things to do, is here: "In both cases [the 'Iowa School' (sic) and Language writing] the idea was to create an authentic alternative to the poetry that was taught and published in the 1960s -- usually the deviations and derivations of modernism." Wow. Not sure where to start. Is Berry saying that the "Iowa School" of poetry-writing actually developed somewhere between a quarter-century and thirty-five years after the founding of the Workshop? Which faculty member leapt into the fray in Iowa City to accomplish this? But perhaps I'm being too generous here: If the "Iowa School" was a response to the "poetry that was taught and published in the 1960s," doesn't that mean that the "Iowa School" arose in the 1970s or 1980s? Again, at whose direction/oversight? Moreover, didn't the poetry championed by the New Critics -- and therefore the poetry most susceptible to "close reading," and therefore the poetry most likely to be taught in high schools -- include quite a lot of High Modernism, all "deviations and derivations" aside? Was Richard Wilbur ever more commonly taught than T.S. Eliot? Really? Or is Berry speaking, instead, of the poetry taught in graduate creative writing programs in the 1960s? If so, he's in for even more historical obstacles -- because as late as 1967 only one university in the world had ever graduated a class of creative writing MFA students, and no more than two dozen graduate creative writing programs of any kind (MFA or MA) were operating in the 1960s. I'd say Berry's history is murky, but honestly this isn't so much history we're dealing with as fanciful musings about what would have been an interesting and easy-to-understand way for history to have unfolded.

The problem is that this disintegrating discourse compounds over time. As Berry moves to a discussion of postmodernism, he offers this: "If industrialization and the move toward urban centrism is modernism, then the collapse of industry and city centers is post-modern." By which logic the San Francisco Renaissance, which was deeply informed by its urban roots -- and the New York School (ditto) -- are modernist movements, not postmodernist movements, and even the Language writing cabal (which had well-delineated spiritual headquarters and real-time haunts in New York, San Francisco, and D.C., if my history is right) would be considered modernist. We just can't work with -- can't do anything with -- that kind of bizarre terminology or taxonomy.

Thus far Berry's inaccuracies are locatable merely because they're historical; it's when he moves to discussing an institution that I actually attended -- whose operations I saw first-hand -- that I can say anecdotally that his claims are fully preposterous:

"[T]he Iowa school has, very generally speaking, sought authenticity in the discovery and development of an individual voice and a sense of place based on individual experience. It was and is welcomed as a reprieve from the difficulties of modernism and the abstractions of post-modernism. The voice is clear, the imagery and actions are precisely articulated. A deeply personal experience has been communicated."

He must be very generally speaking, because nothing in the paragraph above is accurate. Most of the kids in Iowa City when I was there were reading Taggart and Berrigan and O'Hara and Duncan, and the things they were producing for workshop often had to be specially copied because they included diagrams, graphs, experimental uses of the page-as-field, and so on. I don't know what Berry's on about, here. He must have read it from some gatekeeper.

In any case, I really am bowing out of this essay now, and it's without scholarly merit, IMHO. It's the same hip-shooting we've been seeing out of the avant-garde for a long time now; hopefully, I've unpacked a bit of it -- some of the disintegration in terms of definitions and histories -- in a way someone reading this will find helpful. I gotta get back to... I know it sounds crappy to say it, and I actually don't mean it so haughtily, but... actual scholarship that's at least halfway right empirically and historically and methodologically.

The avant-garde is, as ever, where the future of poetics and poetry lays: It deserves much better than this.

[Addendum: Here's Marjorie Perloff's response to Berry. I feel as though she is accepting many of his assumptions even as she seems to challenge them; for instance, she doesn't so much allege that the "Iowa School" doesn't exist as that university presses actually publish many poets who don't fit that mold.]

The Disintegrating Quality of Avant-Garde Discourse (Pt. I)

I have "Part IV" of the "There's a War On" series almost ready, but I was distracted today by a conversation now happening amongst some European (and possibly Canadian) avant-gardists regarding the essays I've been posting on this site (and many other issues besides). The confusion these folks have about those essays is concerning to me, particularly as to their specific critiques of this essay/note-taking exercise:

  • "[This essay] is really not about poetry so much as academic politics."
  • "When [the essay] is about poetry, it's only about academic poetry. The guy seems totally out of it -- not at all current with what's going on in poetry now, and now what I'd call cogent about the poetry he seems to know something about."

The confusion here is a pretty foundational one: The fundamental premise of all these TSE essays/note-taking exercises, and my research presently, is that the entirety of the history of contemporary American poetry (say, from 1912 to 2012) has been miswritten because we had our data and consequently our history (and consequently our terminology) entirely wrong. And that it may well have been a well-intentioned yet nevertheless propaganda-driven/agenda-driven conspiracy that set us on our current path in Contemporary Poetry Studies. My prelims reading list -- and I'll emphasize again that all of the essays here on TSE have been billed as "pre-prelims note-taking exercises" -- has 90 books of poetry on it, out of 150 total books. Most of those 90 books hail from the twentieth-century "avant-garde" tradition. So this blog will be featuring a lot of discussion about individual poems and poets and poetries, but for now it's emphasizing literary-historical and sociological research which is not about academic politics but something much greater: the historical reliability of anything any of us have read about contemporary poetry in the last half-century.

I'm reading some of the top scholars in Contemporary Poetry Studies right now, and not one of them has yet escaped having entire sections of their treatises deemed erroneous or misleading on the basis of the historical research I've been on about since at least 2006. That's not a boast; I've been extremely frustrated and saddened (hokey, I know, but I mean this seriously) to be not at all sure how to interact with these texts now that I see much of their scholarship as suspect. I don't want (and I think nobody wants) for us to be treated to another ten or twenty years of avant-garde discourse of conspicuously disintegrating quality.

So, to dive right into this ancillary issue, here's the note that recently appeared on the Argotist Online (I've made notes between paragraphs in bold):

The Academisation of Avant-Garde Poetry

Jake Berry's essay, "Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)" deals with the issue of certain types of avant-garde poetry as not yet having found favour within the Academy, or with poetry publishers of academically "sanctioned" avant-garde poetry. The damaging aspects of this exclusion, and the concept of an "approved" versus an "unapproved" avant-garde poetry, are also examined in the essay. And these things could well be described as "the academisation of avant-garde poetry."

TSE: This is a good example of the increasing incoherence of avant-garde literary criticism. In the paragraph above, "Academy" is used as a catch-all to include both literary studies and "creative writing" -- two forces that have been at war for approximately 75 years, that generally have sanctioned and promoted entirely different poetries, and that are now administratively segregated at most colleges and universities due to the decline and fall of the academics-oriented creative writing MA (and the subsequent rise of creative writing MFA). So when the above author speaks of "types of avant-garde poetry...not yet having found favour within the Academy," no one reading that phrase could possibly have any idea what's being discussed. Are we speaking of passive receipt -- and translation into scholarship -- of avant-garde literary mateiral by literary studies professors, most of whom are now suffused in literary theory, but a few of whom are historicists or New Historicists or (even fewer still) neo-New Critics? Or are we speaking of whether or not these "types of avant-garde poetry" are being taught by working writers in creative writing workshops -- most of whose faculty and students have minimal to no familiarity with or interest in literary theory, historicism (or the New Historicism), or even (though they may have had some "training" in it in high school) the New Criticism? 

In other words, precisely who is excluding whom? And from where? Who is doing all this "sanctioning" -- of what, and where, and when, and how? Who is doing the "approving" -- and of what, and where, and when, and how? Nobody in these discussions amongst avant-garde poets and critics really knows. But we do have the boogeyman of "academicisation" brought out from under the bed yet again, the only problem being that the term is not (of course) being used literally here, or anywhere, as the above author is neither claiming that avant-garde poetries are increasingly being written by literary studies professors ("academics"), nor that avant-garde poetries are now being produced primarily in literary studies degree programs ("academic degree programs"), nor even that the only evident consumption of avant-garde poetries is now happening on college and university campuses (broadly, "the academy," though as noted this includes both the scholarship-oriented fiefdom of "literary studies" and the "creative writing"-inflected spaces delineated by creative writing workshops -- even if all the students in such workshops are also, to complicate things further, taking traditional literary studies courses to complete their MFA degrees).

Academic poetic output is operating to a healthy extent in the US, where university creative writing departments are flourishing. The University of Pennsylvania has its Kelly Writers House programme, its PennSound website and its Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, all sympathetic to academic avant-garde poetry. The University of Pennsylvania also edits Jacket2, an influential online poetics website, which was formerly called Jacket, and which was edited by the independent John Tranter before he passed it over to the university. And similar things are happening in the UK, with various institutions such as the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre at Birkbeck University, and the Poetry and Poetics Research Group at the University of Edge Hill, both promoting academic avant-garde poetry.

TSE: We must put aside that the only university referenced here -- Penn -- is one that does not have a graduate creative writing program (which maybe, depending upon our working definition of "Academy," puts it outside the "Academy"?), just as we must put aside the author's minimal awareness of what's happening at any of the 200+ American universities which do have graduate creative writing programs. No mention is made here of the evident and notable avant-garde sympathies of the MFA programs at Brown University, University of Notre Dame, University of California-San Diego, Temple University, California Institute of the Arts, Mills College, Cornell University, Columbia College Chicago, Naropa University, The New School, Saint Mary's College of California, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Montana, University of Utah, or any of the other avant-friendly universities even the greenest MFA applicant in America would be aware of. No -- we get none of that. We get no such acknowledgments here, because -- as noted already on this blog, in previous essays -- the avant-garde, of whose various poetics and poetries I consider myself both an admirer and a student (and sometimes an adherent, poetics-wise if not often aesthetically) seems fixated on discussions of "the academy" despite not understanding its contours in the slightest. It is no coincidence the author of this brief piece mentions Penn, one of the only universities in the United States to have a conspicuous non-degree-granting avant-garde outpost -- as no other presence of the avant-garde in the academy is cognizable to these avant-garde poets and critics. It seems their distaste for academia is so virulent they're unwilling to even "know thy enemy." 

A greater issue is this new coinage, "academic avant-garde poetry," which bears the same ills of easy misinterpretation (or even meaninglessness) as does its originary term "academicisation." What does it mean for an "avant-garde poetry" to be "academic"? Again, the discourse of these fellows is designed to create the appearance of a mutual understanding of terms when in fact no such consensus does -- or could -- exist.

Consequently, one could say that the term "avant-garde" has now, essentially, been appropriated by the Academy, and, as such, has become associated with the sort of poetic writing practices that could be fairly said to represent "establishment" poetry, to the extent that the historical resonances of the term "avant-garde" have become meaningless. In contrast, Bob Grumman’s term, “otherstream”, which Berry uses in his essay to describe poetry that is marginalised by the Academy, can be seen as a more apt replacement for the term “avant-garde”, which has now become obsolete as an appropriate description for poetry that isn’t anecdotal, descriptive or prose-like.

TSE: We see here that the author's use of the term "Academy" has suddenly switched; as "poetic writing practices" are being discussed now, we must assume we've now returned to "creative writing" spaces within the academy, and literary studies scholars -- all of them; their entire institutional history -- have suddenly been divorced from any working definition of "the Academy." (For surely we could not include those scholars, else we be forced to admit that the avant-garde was "appropriated by the Academy" just as soon as prominent avant-garde poets started storming the academy -- via the acceptance of teaching positions -- in the 1980s. Indeed, we might then be forced to note, too, that literary studies scholarship adopted the avant-garde during that very same period, meaning that "creative writing" spaces in the academy are now -- assuming the author's claim of "appropriation" is true -- either experiencing a generative "bleeding-over" of their peers' work in literary studies -- a phenomenon which would be worthy of study, if identifiable -- or else that the avant-garde has found its way into "creative writing" via other means -- which might suggest, to the horror of all these fellows, that there is something inherent in "creative writing" that is amenable to, susceptible to, conducive to the introduction of avant-garde poetries and poetics). 

In any case, if "the historical resonances" of the term "avant-garde" have become meaningless -- per this author's contention -- we would need to say, also, that the term "establishment" (used by this author) has likewise been rendered meaningless, as the avant-garde historically used the term to denote the hegemony of the New Criticism, then once the New Criticism was gone it used it (per Bernstein) to denote Official Verse Culture (which the data now suggest did not originate in the academy), and now... well, now we've simply no idea what the term "establishment" means to these guys. Except to say that it's a murky term all of whose myriad valences we're presumed to disapprove of instantly.

I'm no New Critic, but I'll note also how generally shabby a job of "close reading" avant-garde critics often do when they choose to avail themselves of the tools of their oppressors. The fellow writing the above paragraph defines "establishment"/"Academy" poetry -- produced by whom, and where, and when, we don't entirely know, but surely somewhere on some kind of campus at some time by somebody -- as "anecdotal, descriptive or prose-like." These three terms historically have nothing in common. "Anecdotal" poetry could well be used to describe the highly-social "walking-around" poetries of the New York School, or the literary tradition of the Black Arts Movement, unless the author means "epiphanic" poetry, in which case we're speaking of those same Romantics "mainstream" poetry has lionized and the avant-garde has merely adopted wholesale as to their theories of "creative genius." 

As an anti-descriptive poet -- I almost never use metaphors or similes or "describe" anything in my work, which is quite intentional (I read rather a lot of Dorn in Iowa City) -- I know that those who feel otherwise could as easily claim the avant-garde Imagists as their direct predecessors as anyone else. And "prose poetry" was, of course, an avant-garde creation entirely. So the aesthetic engagement of the essay-introduction above is minimal; we might even say it's only gestural. Which would be less of a problem if the article weren't entirely grounded in a study of aesthetics.

This Argotist Online feature presents Berry’s essay, the responses to it from poets and academics it was first shown to, and an interview with Berry where he addresses some of the criticisms voiced in these responses. Many poets and academics (including those most famously associated with Language Poetry) were approached for their responses but declined. Other poets and academics that had initially agreed to respond ultimately declined. I mention this not as criticism but merely to explain the absence of people who one would normally expect to have responded and taken part in such a discussion.

TSE: Here we encounter the old "poets and academics" canard. You know, those "academics" -- the ones every other paragraph implies work in creative writing programs and are themselves working poets and not academics. Or does "the Academy" now mean only literary studies programs, and we ought to presume that no one in a literary studies course could possibly be a working poet -- even though almost every creative writing MFA and definitely every creative writing MA and definitely every creative writing doctoral program requires literary studies coursework from its working poets? (The last form of program even requires, too, the same preliminary examinations as English Literature doctoral candidates take.) 

The point I'm making is hopefully an obvious one: Discourse in the avant-garde community has become so sloppy in part because there's been no one pushing at it from the other side, as Ron Silliman has long noted. That is, scholars of "creative writing" -- whether or not they write in that alleged vein or rather an avant-garde one -- are needed, men and women who know that their brethren in the avant-garde community have gradually lost all definition of their terms. And if those conversations held between and amongst members of the nominal "avant-garde" are to have any meaning or resonance or relevance to anyone else, those terms have to be defined.

Anyone who uses the phrase "poets and academics" has absolutely no handle on what's happened in American poetry over the past 125 years, because the myriad forms and methods of juxtaposing those two roles -- most of which forms and methods were invented from whole cloth by the avant-garde itself -- are such that a dramatic realignment of terminology is needed before we even have the conversations alluded to above. 

One reason I've engaged in this research is because I believe (as I've written in the next essay shortly forthcoming on this site) that this research benefits everyone: literary studies scholars, "creative writing" students and faculty, neo-New Critics, avant-garde poets and scholars, even the "Otherstream" folks discussed in the essay-introduction above.

In the second "part" of this essay I'll address the article itself (the one by Jake Berry).