Friday, February 06, 2009

American Hybrids

So Cole Swensen and David St John have amassed a new anthology called "American Hybrid." You can find Cole's introduction here.

Apart from the apparently necessary "American" in the title I thought this would be some kind of interesting inter-media, inter-lingual, inter-genre business, but it turns out that the hybrid in question is hybrid between two "camps" of writing - basically language poetry and Iowa Lyric (almost all recent Iowa Faculty are in the book - Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, Mark Levine, Jim Galvin, Dean Young, Claudia Keelan, Donald Revell, Claudia Rankine,Brenda Hillman, Susan Wheeler etc - wow they are all in there except Marvin Bell! It's almost like the purpose of the book is to read Iowa faculty together with language poets).

Its purpose may be a bit like Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr's anthology from a few years ago about women poets. I don't get this need to try to erase differences.

It is interesting that this book reads like the official list of the "contemporary canon" promulgated by U of Iowa. Hybrid can mean a number of things, have a number of effects. One negative effect is when it becomes an attempt to stop or cover up antagonisms and conflicts, to create what Swensen in her introduction calls "mainstream verse" (a stream that she notes is constantly changing, absorbing oppositions etc). To make an official canon which is very liberal and tolerant, with no threatening outside. (of course it's precisely enterprises like this that creates outsides.). In some sense, the very word "hybrid" makes static, freezes antagonisms into a kind of compromise.

This is what the intro says: "... fifteen years later, American poetry finds itself at a moment when idiosyncrasy rules to such a degree and differences are so numerous that distinct factions are hard, even impossible, to pin down. Instead, we find a thriving center of alterity, of writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits developed by everyone from the Romantics through the Modernists to the various avant-gardes, the Confessionalists, Allen’s margins, and finally to Language poetry and the New Formalists. The product of contradictory traditions, today’s writers often take aspects from two or more to create poetry that is truly postmodern in that it’s an unpredictable and unprecedented mix."

[Can you really have a center of alterity? Is the center ever "thriving"? What does even "thriving" mean? In some sense the center always "thrives" I suppose because they're in charge of things.]

One of my major problems with the rhetoric of the introduction is the liberal ideology as aesthetics: These poets are superior to more extremist poets, poets who stick to their agenda, because by reading across camp-lines these poets have more "tools" at their disposal. And more is better. More formal tools, fewer considerations for politics. Or as Cole writes: "hybrid poets access a wealth of tools." They're rich with poetic tools.

Swensen makes a good point that sometimes the language poetry's formal concerns brings them in line with New Criticism. This is of course the intersection that has been much discussed on this blog: Marjorie Perloff's canonization of language poets as high modernists.

One might expect that this "Iowa-language-poetry" should intersect with the formal language poetry of Perloff. But it is interesting that this langpo and that langpo has very very little in common. This is true not only of the proper language poets included (no Silliman, no Barret Watten, Bernstein etc) but also of their descendents (Spahr over Kenny G for example). The mildly interesting thing about this is that the view of langpo presented here is that it reallly is a kind of cliche Iowa/personal narrative version of language poetry - language poetry that can be brought more easily into line with the Iowa-style "lyrical I" (of course that's a really annoying and simplistic paradigm - Ron is obsessed with his I - just take note of all his autobiography).

Perhaps the elephant in the room is politics: These poets believe that poetry has a "social obligation" and that is to use language that "avoid[s] echoing the canned speech that has become so prevalent in this age in which fewer and fewer people control more and more of the media. While political issues may or may not be the ostensible subject of hybrid work, the political is always there, inherent in the commitment to use language in new ways that yet remain audible and comprehensible to the population at large."

This is a very strange quote where Cole tries to create a tent big enough to include everyone, but ends up recreating a kind of pat Quietist politics (derives largely from New Criticism): the mass culture and politics is dirty; we critique it by being poetic, by offering a different kind of language. This is maybe the definition of the Iowa lyrical I: opposed to the unrefined language of mass culture, the lyric creates a space for contemplation. "Avant-gardism" is just another way of countering the shallow language of mass media (a claim that absolutely runs counter to the work of the historical avant-garde with their ad posters, megaphone poems, movie manifestos). When I argue against "indeterminacy" I think this is on the whole what I'm arguing against: how it becomes another justification for "negative capability".

I guess I'll have to read it before I say anything of real value here. I mean I like a lot of the poets here, but I am doubtful about the enterprise.

One more thing: One of the reasons why I've always disliked Ron's idea of a "third way" - a notion this anthology echoes more or less exactly (strange that Ron's ideas about poetry should be so prevalent in the intro and yet his poetry is not in the anthology) - is that it sees only language poetry and the personal lyric and a compromise of the two. That leaves out a lot of folks (most importantly, the REST OF THE WORLD!!!)

Addition: Perhaps it would be interesting to see this anthology not as a unified group but as an anthology that want to bring together a group with a lot of tension. Ie perhaps Swensen's introduction is too persuasive and I'm overlooking the fact that this group is very motley. For example, the idea of Jim Galvin in the same anthology with Lyn Hejinian is quite unusual.


Blogger françois said...

I think this is yet another proof of the insularity of American poetry, not because of the presence of "American" in the title or because it only features American poets, but because it sees poetry as this isolated activity.

When I think of hybrid works, I think of the intersection between poetry and architecture in Arakawa and Gins, or between cinema and poetry in Pierre Alféri.

9:10 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Hi Johannes:

A lot to say about this, but for now, a few quick points.

The concept of a "third way" is not Ron Silliman's. It was a term used and promoted by the late Reginald Shepherd, who used it in an anthology he edited a few years ago, with a lineup that looks not dissimilar from the lineup of this new anthology. So Ron is using Reginald's term and in fact frequently seems to question whether the concept has any validity.

I'm going to be posting on my blog, in a week or two, a review of Shepherd's third way anthology published a bit back by an interesting young critic and scholar, Michael Theune, who has payed closer attention to that anthology and concept than I have. But I think you're right that there's a connection to an "Iowa Poetics" in both anthologies.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Interesting post. Part of the problem is this perpetual desire (among poets in academia, it seems--but also elsewhere) to taxonomize. Though I don't always agree with you, I admire your willingness to take on this practice and undermine its assumptions and foundation. If we argue about who's this or that (post-avant, School of Q, elliptical, etc.), we legitimize the framing of the debate. So it's good to reject the debate itself if you think it's built on false taxonomies.

Back in the 90s, I was very interested in "post-Language poetry" (as outlined by Mark Wallace in a self-interview), partly because I'd had to find and read the Language poets on my own (they were conspicuously absent from the MFA curriculum then), partly because I was interested in what poets only a little older than me were doing, and partly because I was looking for ways to work against the lyric-"I" poem that formed the basis of my entire formal c.w. experience. But that was more than 10 years ago, and though Mark's piece was useful and important then (as was the Talisman anthology of these kinds of poets), things have changed. So this kind of project seems unnecessary--or worse, it's looking to capitalize on a moment (without caring that the moment has passed). Of course, this is a Norton anthology. So the moment is officially ossified. A new wing in the wax museum.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I agree with the sentiments here offered.

Where is Theune's review published?


9:25 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Hi Mark! I didn't realize you'd commented just before I did.

One difference between AH and Reginald's anthology (or both of his anthologies, actually), is that his can be seen as an expression of personal taste/aesthetics. And his own poems started moving--toward the disjunctive and fragmentary--back in the late 1990s, and to me, his anthology seemed like an extension of his own practice.

You might remember that back then I was working on an anthology of 'younger American poets', to come out of that special issue of Verse. My anthology was going to do some of the same things that Reginald did, but I ended up abandoning the project (though I could've easily published it with Verse Press) because I became uncomfortable with (and suspicious of) the anthologizing impulse itself, and I also realized that the more work I read, the more I needed to read, such that any final selection would always be suspect (to me, anyway).

9:26 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I think there can be something actually quite good about anthologies - offering interesting new frameworks for reading various writers, calling attentions to new writers that have things in common etc.

Not having read this new one, I'm not sure what it does.

9:34 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Hi Johannes:

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

It'll be up on my blog in the next week or two.

Hey Brian, it's good to hear from you. You're THAT Brian. Hard to know sometimes in blog land.

The Shepherd anthology, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, is definitely in many ways a personal vision. But Shepherd also makes claims for it as a defining some of the most significant terrain in contemporary poetry, which is one of the issues that Theune takes up in his review.

For me, there's a big difference between building a bridge across difference aesthetic and political impulses, as for instance your Verse anthology did, and claiming that one has found a sort of overarching concept that reconciles--and therefore masters--those same differences. I think Shepherd fairly clearly and consistently claimed to be doing the latter, which I take it is what Johannes is concerned that this new anthology may also be doing.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, I have a big problem with this rhetoric that defines and makes static a whole "poetry." So for Reginald to say, I'm going to pick some younger poets that I like and explain what they have in common is quite different I think from making a grand claim to represent American Poetry That Matters (assign this book!). Which I ultimately think books like American Hybrid is all about. I haven't read any of these anthologies you mention, so I can't comment more specifically.

All in all I think anthologies can be used interestingly in the same way journals can be used interestingly, providing interested frameworks for reading and calling attention to poems and poets. But if all that framework is is "Great Contemporary Poetry" that just isn't very interesting.

That Talisman anthology was perhaps interesting in the way that it made such a canonical claim but with a set of poets not normally seen as canonical.

6:30 AM  

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