[i received a request to post the entire review of american hybrid from rain taxi, so here it is]
A Norton Anthology of New Poetry
edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John
W.W. Norton ($25.95)
by Johannes Göransson
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 supposedly forged out of two different styles; representative practitioners include such prominent contemporary poets as Lyn Hejinian, Jorie Graham, Peter Gizzi, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Donald Revell, and Michael Palmer. (So many of the contributors have taught or have studied at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop that it appears an Iowa connection gets one automatic 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 writing 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.
An essential feature of this kind of “middle-of-the-road” rhetoric is that it needs to caricature a multiplicity of styles as two extremes. Ignoring the incredible sophistication and cosmopolitan influences of the Beats and the New York School, Lowell lumped them together as simplistically “uncooked,” while defining the New Critical poets (of which he was the darling) as too sophisticated. Given that choice, a reasonable person will go for the middle of the road every time. In Swensen’s and St. John’s version of this rhetoric, there is on one side a traditional poetry that is emotional but simplistic, consisting of imagery and clear narratives; and on the other side a history-less avant-garde poetry of total indeterminacy and fragmentation. From the first “camp,” these hybrids take an idea of poetry as authentic and emotional, able to capture human consciousness. From the avant-garde flank, they take a fragmented style that makes for a more sophisticated idea of that consciousness. The resulting poetry is “oblique” but emotional and “carefully crafted”—it is “complex,” a word that is repeated like a mantra throughout the book.
Curiously, the fragmentation that poets in the book take from the avant-garde seems to run absolutely counter to the fragmentation —or “shocks” as Walter Benjamin famously termed it—of the historical avant-garde. As Benjamin noted, these “shocks” were meant to jar the reader/viewer out of the “contemplative immersion” of 19th-century bourgeois humanism. The fragmentation of American Hybrid, however, demands a contemplative immersion—the reader must pay attention to subtle imagistic changes. Hybrid poetry then brings the indeterminate fragmentation of the avant-garde back into the real of the human through the epiphany, thus avoiding the monstrous and grotesque. (This may explain the startling prevalence of Christianity among the anthology’s poets, who clearly want to bring the literary epiphany back to its original meaning.)
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 logic of hybridity seems to pave the way for language poetry to fit smoothly into this anthology—the work of Rae Armantrout, for example, can be seen as a kind of model for the new lyric that American Hybrid espouses. However, it is important to note that the representation of language poetry is very limited here—poets such as Bruce Andrews or Leslie Scalapino are not included in the anthology, nor could they be. These poets are not about detailed “attention” but rather what Benjamin called “distraction,” and they are excessively political, rather than sophisticated. This anthology is only interested in language poetry as “the poetics of indeterminacy,” as Marjorie Perloff has dubbed it—language poetry as High Modernist Tastefulness, not as political and “hysterical.”
This may also explain why there is very little trace of the influence of Surrealism, Sylvia Plath, the Beats, or the New York School in American Hybrid. 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. Likewise, the Harryette Mullen section includes none of the wonderfully crude, sexual and political cut-ups of S*perm**k*t, and the Laura Mullen section focuses solely on the Steinian elements of her work, ignoring the crass heap of bodies in her murder-book Murmur. Everything must be made tasteful before it can be a hybrid.
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.
In her introduction, Swensen mentions that the original idea for the book was to make an anthology of younger poets, but that the editors changed midway through and made it mostly about the preceding generation. There may be many reasons for this, but one possible reason is that much of the most interesting poetry written by younger poets is patently excessive and in bad taste—whether crass flarf, hysterical gurlesque, angry political slogans, or aestheticist panic attacks—a radical move away from Quietism that has been fomented by the proliferation of small presses and Internet journals. A fuller look at American hybrid poetry would have to account for this phenomenon. Meanwhile, American Hybrid merely proves that “indeterminate” poetics has shaped the tradition, leaving it as high-minded and ambiguous as ever.