Monday, June 22, 2009

American Hybrid review in Raintaxi

[Readers of this blog are probably sick unto death of me talking about the American Hybrid anthology, but here's an excerpt of my rather longish review of the anthology in the new Raintaxi. I did cut it down a bit for the blog-level of concentration.]

American Hybrid

A Norton Anthology of New Poetry

edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John

W.W. Norton ($25.95)

You might think that an anthology called American Hybrid would collect the increasingly prevalent work that questions genre boundaries and explores intermedia possibilities; or that it would feature the writings of immigrants or minority culture, or that it would be aimed at subverting the national culture asserted in the title.

Sadly, this new anthology edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John is in many ways the precise opposite of these inclinations. “Hybrid” here refers to a kind of poetry forged out of two different styles, and it includes such prominent contemporary poets as Lyn Hejinian, Jorie Graham, Cal Bedient, Peter Gizzi, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman and Michael Palmer—so many of whom teach, have taught, or have studied at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop that it almost seems like a requirement for inclusion. This anthology, the editors claim, displays a group of poets who have rejected the “two-camp” binary and embraced a mixed aesthetic, one that includes both the traditional poetry some have termed “Quietist” (the institutionally-established style of the workshop, with its restrained use of language and emphasis on epiphany) and the “poetics of indeterminacy” brought into contemporary poetry by the Language Poets.

There is a strange paradox at work here, however: in order to have a “hybrid” of two kinds of poetry, you must subscribe to the two-camp structure; viewing the proliferation of styles and aesthetics as more complicated disturbs the attempt to create a synthesis. In her detailed and well-researched introduction, Swensen quotes Robert Lowell’s famous claim from the 1950s that there is “cooked” and “uncooked” poetry. Swensen is trying to show how far back the “two-camp” mentality reaches, but she seems to miss the most important point in this reference: Lowell made this statement as a way to defuse the oppositionality of the poetry scene, to set himself up as a compromise between the raw emotionality of the New American poets and the overly nerdy sophistication of the New Critical poets. In other words, the ideal of the “hybrid” goes back as far as the “two-camp” system. This idealization of the middle ground can be traced back to the New Critics themselves, who aimed to clear away the “excesses” of the experimentation of the 1920s while retaining its advances.


Moderation is thus not only more sophisticated, it is also, apparently, more human. After reading the entire book, however, one might conclude that it’s not so much a moderation of traditional and avant-garde poetics, but a moderation between too much and not enough, excess and lack. The “too much” in this case is not the over-the-top sentimentality of the 1970s-style workshop poem, but the grotesque and the political. The only politics mentioned in American Hybrid involves the struggle for “the integrity of the language” against the forces of base mass culture. This is, of course, the politics of New Criticism as well.

It is therefore not surprising to see the New Critics’ idealization of “ambiguity” replayed as “complexity” in American Hybrid. In what might be a signature moment, the editors praise Iowa student-turned-teacher Mark Levine for writing poetry “balanced right on the edge where sense becomes non-sense,” and for “imagery that lets us always feel that the world we know is not far off. And yet he refuses simple meanings, preferring high ambiguity and open ends.” Levine nearly errs by offering “too much” (i.e. potentially grotesque) image, but saves the poem by rendering it indeterminate.


The anthology does include a brief selection of Anne Waldman’s work and a very strange, almost criminal, selection of Alice Notley’s work. Notley is perhaps the great Hysteric Poet of our age, excessive in every way, but in this selection she comes off as a lyrical, sentimental, and almost religious poet. In the selections from The Descent of Alette, there is no reference to the TV imagery of “the Tyrant,” no poems about the hellish encounters in the underworld subway train of Reagan’s America; such selections would render her grotesquely imagistic and crassly political.


Admittedly, there are many attitudes toward tradition in American poetry. While the idea of the “hybrid” goes back to modernism and the New Critics, it is not the only reaction to various alternative aesthetics to take hold in American poetry. Over the past three decades years, representatives of the Quietist aesthetic—who, need I mention, hold most tenure track jobs in Creative Writing and edit most poetry series and journals—have been digging in their heels to defend “traditional poetry,” by which they mean a watered-down version of Robert Bly and James Wright’s “deep image” poetry of the 1960s. These poets, writing increasingly dull and out of touch poetry, have used their positions of power to control and defend “traditional” poetry against perceived plots and excesses, publishing and rewarding the least offensive poetry available. The summit of this “tradition” is the famously homogenous Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. For all its faults, American Hybrid is certainly a step forward from that morass.



Anonymous Anonymous said...


This, a much anticipated review, really strikes a cogent cord, especially in how ambiguity is being replayed as complexity. I am excited for the entire review to arrive snail-style. I feel that by trading the once-spoken-of ambiguity in for complexity a more distant space is created between writing that is not complex and writing that is, making the "is" appropriated by a touchstone form of intellectualism, or a finality of sorts, when the "not" is also secured in a more tendentious reading of poetics as movement. Additionally, I was particularly plugged in an ugly-face response with the chosen Notley excerpts, as I believe them to be a damaging misread and dangerous strain of a poet's work we ought always to speak of more freely than any editor will. Thank you for sticking that point.

What I'm worried about is that the arch of the hybrid anthology seems to, with its specifications, clamor for unity, making what was once separate and because-it-overlaps-enjoyable turn into yet another signified space for pudgy, uncollected discourse. Somehow another gated arena for this work has been founded, when the work itself (most of which is quite solid and progressive on its own)arrived away from, if not averse to such gates. Either way, I am glad such a thorough review has been written and I hope it gets people talking.

Cheers, Tyler

2:11 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

You're absolutely right, Tyler. A way of not having to read differences.


2:18 PM  
Blogger troylloyd said...

"There is a strange paradox at work here, however: in order to have a “hybrid” of two kinds of poetry, you must subscribe to the two-camp structure; viewing the proliferation of styles and aesthetics as more complicated disturbs the attempt to create a synthesis."

damn good point.

that's it for me, case closed.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

I'm insulted that you think you had to cut down this entry for- hey, is that a squirrel in the window???

10:27 PM  
Blogger Max said...

What's wrong with being "dull" or "out of touch"? I think more poetry should be these things, though not necessarily in the way that's been set forth in American Hybrid. The only problem I have with some of your criticisms, Johannes, is that they seem to stem from this central idea that things should always be original and exciting, or that there is no purpose for them to exist at all.

And honestly, I thought the bit at the end about the Quietists trying to retain power, etc. was kind of cheap. I don't think there's anything ideologically different about Quietists or Avant-whatevers when it comes to rewarding those who are like them, and withholding from those who aren't. That's just economics at work. You're going to perpetuate success among those who are like you, because if you do, you have a better chance of retaining your own place in the structure. You are essentially affirming your worth by doing so. Give all the teaching jobs and Avant-whatevers and they'd be doing the exact same thing. And I think you'll find that, where they do have power, they are already engaging in that kind of behavior, so...

4:36 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I was not saying anything about Post-Avant, and on this very blog I've criticized the Buffalo Establishment of those very kinds of things.

However, you too easily fall into equivalences. No, it's not true that all professors (if that's who you mean by people in "power", people in "powerlessness" is more like it) are monotonously propandistic (whether explicitly or via "hybrid" ideas).


7:41 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, yes I believe poetry should be exciting. I don't like boring things. I like fascinating things.


7:42 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

And one more thing: Just because you think it's natural that poets in power should want to maintain power, that doesn't mean that I don't want to change that dynamic.


8:18 AM  
Blogger anon said...

i have to say i read probably 70% of the book and it is a little bit dull. it felt like a chore in parts.

i think a lot of the post-avants i've read are quite boring as well... we shouldn't kid ourselves about that because "post-avant" doesn't automatically imply fascinating.

for me though, the notion of hybridity has always had a post-colonial tinge to it and regards more social factors as opposed to the purely aesthetic ones. sure, language poetry has added a new dimension to the "quietists" and in a way that is what i saw happening while reading through this anth. more than anything else. i may be way off, but i actually wonder if the "mainstream" poetics will just absorb the post-avant/periphery or outsider poetries into their fold in the same way any significant movement is absorbed and appropriated by the mainstream for mass-production.

anyway. just adding a few cents.

12:52 PM  
Blogger thehauntedtooth said...

Max, do you have an example of this "dull" or "out of touch" poetry that you like? I can't grasp that opening sentence.


2:16 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Well, then stop using the fact that they went to U of Iowa against them. You went there, too. Did you mention that to the readers?

I'm not saying that there aren't perfectly valid arguments to make against the "hybrid" idea, or even that you fail to make some of these arguments. But trotting out U of Iowa and who gets the prizes/publications, even in passing, just seems kind of cheap and petty, coming from somebody who went to U of Iowa, and who happens to publish just fine.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Just read Ron Silliman's take on this anthology. And in the comment stream Steven Fama makes a very very good point, which I did not make in my review: This is a Norton anthology; it's all about teaching.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Max said...

So you're not going to let my last post through? I don't understand what I said that was "out of bounds" in it.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

For some reason some of the most recent blog entries did not get to my email. Your comment wasn't out of bounds.

But I don't quite know what your argument is here.

I did mention that many of them were teachers at Iowa, which I did to suggest a certain institutional context for the book.

I've never hidden the fact that I went to Iowa.

Could you explain your argument a little, so that I know what I'm responding to?


8:14 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think that's the danger. Everything becomes just another stylistic toolkit.

However, I don't think that's all langpo has been (even if it has been that too); it has made an institutional critique I think.


9:35 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

As for boring, dull, out of touch poetry. What a boring idea. That's all people have calling for for decades. Slow poetry, authentic poetry, deep poetry, uncreative poetry etc.


9:36 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

I just got back from ten days gone in the Grand Canyon, pretty astonishing place, where nothing much post-avant can be found.

But this is our world, so there is this long piece yesterday from the UK on the post-avant/hybridity issue, with take much worth reading (it does mention my last book, so just full disclosure there-- but the essay mentions lots of things in our scene).

I'm in early process of doing something with Keston Sutherland right now, editor wtih Andrea Brady of Barque Press, amazing poet, where we'll be talkig a bit about these topics-- some UK poets way ahead of us in these matters in various ways, I believe.


10:37 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That's a good post. I recommend it.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Okay, I can see the "institutional criticism" in what you're saying there. But still, you have to admit that it is kind of absurd to read an argument that essentially says "This book is brought to you by the Iowa Writer's Workshop," when the very argument itself comes from the Iowa Writer's Workshop as well.

It just seems like the kind of thing a reviewer would divulge right there on the page, since it compounds the silliness of the scenario by a significant measure. I'm not saying you're trying to hide it, but at the same time, when I take your attendance at U of Iowa into account, it gives me an entirely different reading of the argument than I would have had were you not a U of Iowa alumnus.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


So your argument is that I should have divulged that I'm a graduate of U of Iowa? I really don't see how that changes anything.


6:04 PM  
Blogger Max said...

No, my argument is that it's absurd to bring up the "Iowa Writer's Workshop" bit as part of a critical framework, because it brings us full circle. The U of Iowa grad picking on the book made up of U of Iowa grads. What makes it absurd is that the implied paranoia of your argument (that U of Iowa has its fingers in everything) actually extends to the very review in which the paranoia is exhibited.

So your best bet would have been to just leave that part out altogether, not to divulge the source of your MFA.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

While it's true that I didn't develop that strain of thought (Ron Silliman did a much better job, pointing out that everyone's a teacher and giving their affiliations), I do think it's worth mentioning.

For one reason: it explains why some poet gets into the anthology (say Dean Young) and not any number of other writers with New York School influence etc.

(Perhaps the most wrong part about the anthology is its incredibly narrow focus, which does not allow for barely any O'Hara/NY School- influenced poets.)

Also, I would like to call attention to a couple of small details: I said Iowa faculty, not Iowa grads (though there are a lot of grads as well); and also, I didn't mean to suggest a paranoid theory that Iowa has its "its fingers in everything", but that faculty position is a guiding criteria for inclusion. This has to do with Stever Fama's argument about the teaching-focused nature of the anthology, and also the idea that this anthology is a canonizing effort not so much based on poets but teachers.

It's also hardly paranoid, if it's so blatantly true: I think all recent faculty and visiting faculty except Marvin Bell and Heather McHugh (who seemed to be a shoe-in) are in fact in the anthology. Even poets like Jim Galvin and Mark Levine who have exactly zero to do with language poetry (and in Galvin's case who has a great deal of animosity towards them). The only criteria for which they are included seems to be that they are on the Iowa staff.


7:27 AM  
Blogger Matt Walker said...

I don't know why people associate Dean Young with Iowa. Just because he taught there for awhile? So what? He's taught at other places too. Oh and he got his MFA at Indiana, not Iowa. Why blame him for taking a job there? We all gotta feed the monkey.

I never blamed Greg Maddux for taking a job at Atlanta. Work is work. He was always a Cub to me.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I didn't blame him. I merely stated that he taught there and he's in the book.

Just because you're in the book doesn't mean that you suck. (I like plenty of writers that are in it.)


10:45 AM  
Blogger Max said...

According to your excerpt, you said "have taught, or have studied at." Your argument is that being associated with U of Iowa seems to have been a prerequisite for inclusion in the anthology.

How does this not constitute a paranoid argument? I'm not saying that you sit in your house all day, tweaked out, waiting for the arrival of the black helicopters. But there is this pervasive idea that Iowa has its fingers in everything--that it's a sort of Skull & Bones society for the MFA world--and I think your argument draws on and plays into that idea.

And that's all fine and well! But ... you went to Iowa, too. Was having gone to Iowa a prerequisite for getting your review published in Rain Taxi? I'm sure a good many U of Iowa graduates have published things there, so isn't it a fair question?

3:23 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I guess you're just going to have to write a review about Raintaxi claiming everyone who writes for Raintaxi went to Iowa.

As for me: no I don't think IOwa is a skull and bone society. I do think it's a very central institution in an institutional web. Unlike you, I have no dream about poetry suddenly moving outside this web, going off the grid. I do think we should analyze the web, so we know what we're part of.


7:03 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Wait, so you think poetry will remain centralized at the universities for good? What an absurd notion. The MFA community is a big bubble just waiting to burst. The institution itself can't possibly harbor even a significant fraction of those who wish to reside within it, professionally speaking. You don't think people are going to catch on to this sooner or later and begin to avoid MFA programs entirely?

8:51 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I don't have any predictions for the MFA programs. What I do think is that it's totally simplistic to merely think that shedding them will lead to some kind of instant utopia. There will always be various interfaces.

But if I had to predict somehting, I would say these programs will be around for a long time. Hopefully various critiques of the insitution will lead to improvements.

I also have a slightly different attitude toward academia than you do. You seem to think that the MFA is a professional degree for getting a college job teaching. I don't really think of it like that. I think it can be a very useful degree (it was for me) in that it helped me become a better writer. When I was getting my MFA I had no aspirations to get any kind of teaching job. I was just there to be a writer. Thus I am less hung up on this aspect of the MFA programs than you are.


9:13 AM  

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