In Burt's book, it's in the very title: for poetry to be good it has to come "close" to "nonsense", but refrain from going all the way into nonsense. And - as you can see in the quote from yesterday - he likes poets who are "at once innovative and traditional, alert both to the troubles of modern language, and to the resources of centuries past."
Likewise in Hybrid, the Editors keep repeating (for pretty much every poet) that it is very fragmented and indeterminate, but still human.
Now the importance of the "human" is I think the same old humanist schtick. And it has the same old problems. To put it in crude terms, (referring to the post two snippets below), Peterson is more "human," more *real* than those "metropolitan" dandies with their cool journals (that's you Jordan Davis!).
But what makes it interesting to me is the opposite pole, nonsense. In both books, "nonsense" is defined as fragmented and - importantly - amnesiac. Is there any poetry that is in no way uses "resources of the past"? But this myth is important it seems to both of these books, since they keep repeating it over and over.
My first knee-jerk reaction was that it was a defensive gesture toward Language Poetry and such. Giving Langpo a human face. But that's of course too reductive. Afterall, if all they wanted was to keep Langpo at bay, all they would have to do would be to set up another pole, another "avant-garde", another non-human. But they are both clearly quite enamored of Langpo and I think it's precisely because Langpo offers this illusory pure nonsense.
Because I think that's ultimately what "nonsense" represents for both of these books, a kind of illusion of formal purity. The idea that there is poetry that is so "pure" that it's not about anything; it's just pure language. I think that's a very important point. Both books pretty much focuses entirely on "formal" analyzes. American Hybrid mentions nothing about politics, except the very retro-New-Critical notion that by purifying the language we resist the contaminating influences of mass culture. Other than that, the book only discusses poets in terms of the relative levels of fragmentation. It mentions that some poets use narrative and/or images, but in those cases such lowbrow techniques are undermined by some kind of fragmentation that gives such poets "high ambiguity" (see my post about the Mark Levine entry a while back).
Burt does do some analysis that includes ideas and politics. For examples, he mentions that for some poets he likes, the self is a work of artifice. But he doesn't delve into these matters; using the "content" merely as a reassurance that beneath the formal play, there is a content. He spends most of his essays analyzing the formal features: Look at the way so and so uses adjectives or question marks.
Both Hybrid and Close Calls emphasize that recent American poetry thinks narrative is too simplistic. They don't explain why. I would like to know because I only write narrative poems with a whole heap of imagery.
But then I am crass.
Both Hybrid and "Close Calls" begin with histories of post-war American poetry. And both histories are almost entirely formal. Poets change positions because they are drawn to new formal qualities. Little mention of gender trouble, Vietnam, etc. People like the Language Poets because they are "difficult."
So "nonsense" seems to be a pole that pushes "innovation" toward greater complexity and "difficulty". Strange thing indeed - as Cole Swensen notes in her intro - that we're back in New Critical land after a detour in simplistic poesy. That simplistic poetry seems to be in part, yes, the quietist workshop, but also the Beats, anti-war poetry and feminism of the 1960s etc. Ie poetry that deals with sexuality, the body, mass culture: a lowbrow political poetry in other words.
In addition to New Criticism, I think we're in Greenberg/Pollock land: a hatred of kitsch, the heroic individual, the beauty of the complex surface. And of course the connection with Marjorie Perloff's language poetry of indeterminacy, in which indeterminacy is a kind of radical formal ambiguity. Perloff in a recent interview (which is somewhere on the web) describes herself as a High Modernist with a hatred for kitsch.
There are many problems with this emphasis on formal qualities: what Jed Rasula has called "The American Poetry Wax Museum." We admire the lifeless things encased and protected from the world. Though we like to pretend that it's a heroic escape from the instrumentality and crassness of mass culture.
And I think both books realize that (to their credit). That is afterall why the poems should be "close" to "nonsense" but not all the way there. Why they should be hybrids of purity and non-purity.
Behind the overt quietism vs langpo model for the hybrid, I think there's a more fundamental idea of the poetics of moderation, of hybrids between crassness and pure formalism.
One of the reasons I like the framework of "gurlesque" is indeed that it moves away from this obsession with formal purity and progressive innovation. I like how it lines up with discussions about sexuality and the body (see Dodie Bellamy's piece on the Gurlesque in Action, Yes) and queerness etc. For the Opposite of the American Hybrid's "high ambiguity" and Perloff's "high modernism", see Lara's article on Aase Berg in last issue of Action, Yes.
One more thing: there is of course no such thing as "pure nonsense". It's the myth of this that matters. That's my point more than anything. No language exists in a beautiful vacuum. Perhaps a more fitting "pure nonsense" than language poetry (which is afterall richly included in American Hybrid, thus not it turns out pure nonsense, but quite human afterall) is foreign poetry.
Or Marxism. Afterall, as anyone who was alive in the US during the 1980s, movies about the Soviet Union was always a struggle against the inhuman other; also why I can't seem to remember which movies were about communists and which ones were about lizards/robots/martians.
One final thing: Jordan is right, there are big differences between Burt and American Hybrid. I'm merely pointing out the similarities. Certainly Burt has a populist streak in him which informs the very concept of the book. Another day for that post.
End of transmission.