Thursday, May 07, 2009

Younger poets are ignorant

Seth Abramson has a post up on Steve Burt's piece in the Mayday Parade. Which led me to think about the general treatment of "the young" in a lot of the writing of older poets. I read a lot of little statements and reviews by these older, established poets who seem driven by some kind of defensiveness to attack younger poets. What is remarkable is that these older, established poets seemed to see themselves as victims of these younger, unestablished poets - they write from the position of heroic resistance.

In the latest Gulf Coast, David Wojahn makes several statements that seem to fit in with the general trends of these defensive older poets:

"We're in a somewhat preposterous situation right now. It's not simply that readers don't know the tradition, they don't even know recent literary history. There are a lot of pretty articulate and well-read people who are clueless about the crucial poets of the middle generation. They draw a blank when you mention Oppen or Rukeyser or Roethke, or even Berryman, Lowell and Bishop. Admittedly, those writers aren't easy models - they're militantly self-confronting, sometimes self-lacerating, sometimes self-humbling..."

"Sadly, I think in our post-modern, theory-inflected climate, the very notion that self-representation can be authentic and sincere - can in fact be an essential goal of poetry - seems to a lot of people a little passé. I find it maddening when students in graduate workshops write obscurely not for any abiding aesthetic reason, but for mere self-protection... And so "confessional" has become an unjustly pejorative word like "liberal" or "community organizer," so vastly out of fashion that it seems like it's never going to rise again.'

"Tony Hoaglund has a withering label for the way we've almost all started to write - he calls it "the skittery poem of our moment." Don't get me wrong: I find some of the Language writers very compelling. Rae Armantrout's new collection is brilliant... Nevertheless I think the current period has replaced self-confrontation with slipperiness, with various strand of irony... I'm tired of irony being our lingua franca. We've become brilliant at cannibalizing the trappings of contemporary culture, but I sometimes worry that it's all a form of solipsism... I know a lot of the Language poets really talk up Marx and in an oblique way they want to emphasize the social responsibilities of the poet, but I've had it with Skitter-ism."

Sorry about the long quotes but believe me there's more. The thing I think is important is that he is very good about bringing up names of people he admire (Lowell etc), he's even good at naming Language poets (or at least Rae A.). But he doesn't want to name the Skittery Poets. They are the ones who upset him the most. Why? Who are they? They're not the Quietist establishment and they're not the Language Poets (he apparently respects them, they are officially poets).

Answer: They seem to be his students (or are they "The American Hybrid"?). And part of the reason he doesn't name them, I suspect, is that they are not well-known, not holding down nice teaching jobs, not winning big awards.

So how can they be the Poem of the Moment?

I suppose they can be the poets of the moment in that he sees a lot of students who are interested in other things than he's interested in, who resist his attempts to change their interests. So on one hand I think this is a problem of pedagogy. Perhaps Wojahn's pedagogy should not be so resistant to the students' ideas? They may not simply be deficient (cowardly, ignorant); they may just have different perspectives. You don't have to agree with your students, but you should make some effort to understand where they're coming from.

Actually, I think the key about Wojahn and his crew is: They hate jouissance...


Blogger mark wallace said...

Wojahn seems to be doing something else a lot of writers are doing lately: to decry some problem that is supposedly ruining, on a massive scale, contemporary poetry or poetry criticism but then not providing a single example of who specifically might be part of the problem. I mean, not only is there not a list of names, there's not even a single name. Just in case I be accused of doing the same thing, a recent article by Matthew Zapruder online at Poetry Magazine lodged its complaint this way. Does Hoagland mention the names any of these so-called "skittery poets" either, or provide a reading of their work? I'm not sure he did.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Joe H said...

Ugh. This guy. Wojahn said the same thing when he received the O.B. Hardison, Jr. Award which (huh)recognizes "a poet's teaching as well as his art."

Out of his hazy cloud of crappy, young poets, he did single out Joe Wenderoth in his lecture. Probably because it was a lecture and not in print. And the audience was 80% over forty.

8:51 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Joe Wenderoth is his example of writing obscurely? I mean, like Wenderoth's work or not (I don't, not that much), but the guy writes little poems about Wendy's (and others, I know, but still) that are pretty transparent. Huh. I don't get that at all.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I like Joe Wenderoth's poems (particularly the ones about Wendy's), but I think this is a good comment. In many cases, what these folks object to are things that appear too overt, grotesquely overt I might say. Obscurity is an opponent Concerned Teachers of Writers Workshops are very eager to deal with because it fits into a cliche criticism that goes way back to Romanticism. But the "overtness" is perhaps more problematic. Moderation is important.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Wenderoth and C.K. Williams share an interest in brutal Dostoevskyan tests of the reader's capacity for shock and empathy. It sells elsewhere in the culture, it sells in poetry. (Speaking of "show your work," Wenderoth is one of the few writers whose work published with Wave is livelier less modish than what he's done before.)

I don't know Wojahn's work as well as I ought to. I'm among the legions of fans of his late wife, Lynda Hull.

To get to Johannes's last point: fear of jouissance. I want to agree with this naming (defenders of the phenomenon prefer the term restraint) but I have always been unclear about the DMZ between jouissance, joy, and psychopathy -- jouissance gets to be this monolith of irruption and aporia. Is that what it is?

9:56 AM  
Blogger my name is Jason Bredle said...

This is an interesting post. My interpretation of Hoagland's use of the word skittery, which is second hand and could very well be wrong (I haven't read his essays myself), is not pejorative, but a way of describing the voice, and many of his contemporaries might fall into the category as well. It would be like a mixing of voices in one poem - say, didactic at one moment and colloquial at another.

Probably the reason no one lists actual poets who aren't well read is because how does anyone really know? It's easy to say so and so's poetry makes him seem like he hasn't read anything, but the only way you know is if you ask him, and you're probably not going to point fingers after you've taken the time to have a conversation with the person.

I was an undergrad student of Wojahn's and in terms of guidance toward poets, he was fantastic. In grad school, I was surprised by how much poetry no one had ever read or even heard of. But I also don't think that experience is any kind of testament to any poet who's publishing now. I have no idea what people have read and wouldn't assume anything about that.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Michael Theune said...

In response to Mark's first response:

Hoagland does offer examples of skittery poems. They include Rachel M. Simon's "Improvisation," G.C. Waldrep's "Watercooler Tarmac," and Kevin McFadden's "Variations on the Fell of the Fall." And Hoagland connects such poems to Burt's "Ellipticism."

However, Hoagland himself isn't really that tough on the skittery poem. (He calls the poems he refers to, among other things, "witty"--a compliment from anyone, but especially from Hoagland!) The worst thing he seems to say about them is that they are the current fashion, noting, "Yet every style has its shadowy limitation, its blind eye, its narcissistic cul-de-sac. There is a moment when a charming enactment of disorientation becomes an homage to dissociation. And there is a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness, inadvertently, commits itself to triviality."

What Hoagland (frustratingly) does not do is try to sort out the "charming enactments" from the "trivialit[ies]."

For me, agreeing, in a way with Mark, this is one of the big problems in this kind of conversation (Hoagland's in that essay, and Wojahn's): a real hesitancy to cite negative examples. But this, it seems, is now really becoming systemic. I've read numerous comments in the various discussions of reviewing in the past couple days where people say that they've been told not to say critical things about others if they want a career in poetry...! (Seems Kent is right about needing those anonymous reviews!!)

10:48 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No, Hoagland seems to be pretty obsessed with his criticism of "the poem of the moment" (aren't there many??). Steve talks about this in his new essay in Boston Review as well.

I maybe was not clear: I don't know what the poetry is that Wojahn is critical of - because he won't name it. But it seems to be coming from his graduate students.


10:52 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think his "even-handed-ness" in dismissing the "skittery poem" in a very thinly veiled rhetoric of dimissal.

GC often reads this blog. Maybe he has some feelings about this?


10:55 AM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

I was also a student of Wojahn's and though, too, that he was a terrific teacher.

On the subject of Wenderoth: Wojahn told one of my classmates that he thought Letters to Wendy was "sheer genius."

About the Wojahn you've quoted in this post: no comment

11:28 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

It looks like things are getting complicated. Good.

I don't know much about Wojahn other than that interview and some poems I've read.

I'm sure he's a good teacher: but I totally disagree with these statements from the interview.


11:47 AM  
Blogger Laura Carter said...

I think Jordan's question about jouissance is a good one.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Also, I think it's too reductive to equate the violence of Wenderoth with the violence of "the rest of culture." As if Joe was Rambo or something.


12:41 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

"I know a lot of the Language poets really talk up Marx and in an oblique way they want to emphasize the social responsibilities of the poet..."

Since when have the Language poets talked up Marx? Last reference I saw was ca. 1989, I think.


1:28 PM  
Blogger François Luong said...

For reference, the Wojahn interview is here.

Tony Hoagland was also a terrific teacher. It didn't stop us from disagreeing on the majority of things, from Dada to Language poetry and French theory.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Thanks for the link, Francois.


4:20 PM  
Blogger John Gallaher said...


I'm guessing you read the Hoagland essay in Gulf Coast as well? It doesn't help much, but it does show that he's trying to come to terms with the "New Poetry."

Wojahn. I remember years ago how many poets of his generation used to fight against Lang-Po, and kind-of say Ashbery's OK, because they felt that they had to.

I think what's happening is that they are finally "allowed" their fight with Ashbery, as they see this new generation as one that likes him more than it likes them. And it's OK to fight these young writers.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Brennen Wysong said...

When I read -- "It's not simply that readers don't know the tradition, they don't even know recent literary history." -- I can't help but think this is only one history, and one history that has gained privilege over others, simply rallied around by figures like Wojahn.

5:12 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Johannes -

I hope it's not too reductive to compare Wenderoth to an accepted mainstream forebear (CKW) to an unquestioned canonical author (Dostoevsky).

I actually think this brimstone-peddling is much more prevalent in poetry than in the rest of literature, just as it's far more common in literature than it is in the rest of culture. But there's an undercurrent of ledgerkeeping that is hard to miss in the culture at large: the supersize combo comes with a happy pop song, a senseless horror film, and a half an hour of fake news. If you're feeling virtuous, have an hour-long drama on cable.


7:25 AM  
Blogger Steve Halle said...

Isn't Wojahn (not naming names, naming names, whathaveyou) doing what Bourdieu would say an aging, consecrated poet ought to do: protecting his place in the field and using that places (poet, teacher, critic) to attempt to arbitrate what's important within it?

Too, Wojahn protects his "authentic, sincere" poetry by saying the skittery poem/poet is a skitterist only to protect that poet's (inauthentic, insincere?) poetry.

11:07 AM  
Blogger John Philip Johnson said...

Jouissance? You mean, these old fuddy duddies don't want the kids to have any fun? Is that it?

11:27 AM  
Blogger Matt Walker said...

hoagland totally looks like matt frewer

(i'm not matt frewer)

12:26 PM  
Blogger Richard Greenfield said...

This part of the Wojahn interview was left out:

"For there have developed, in recent years, whole schools of verbalizers, nerveless, slick and often macabre; squeezers of the obvious, vulgar jostlers with words; cerebral gibberers and wild-eyed affirmers; helter-skelter impressionists and frantic improvisers; pip-squeak euphuists..."

"The trouble lies in the age the [poets'] willingness to seek refuge in words rather than transcending them. The language dictates; they are the used. The cohabitation of their images is, as it were, a mere fornication of residues. One can say that the poetry of the future will not come from such as these."

Or is it? Actually, this is by Theodore Roethke (mentioned by Wojahn as one of those major figures forgotten by young poets), from the January 1946 issue of Poetry, speaking of young poets writing within the lineage(s) of Modernism(s).

5:49 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Good one, Richard.


6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kent—a search of "Marx" on Silliman's blog brings up 18 posts mentioning Marx (not all substantive) which appeared over the past 5 years. More or less a factoid, but....

More generally, after reading this conversation between Wojahn and Marjorie Perloff, in which they skewer Lowell, sneer at Sharon Olds, condescend to Adrienne Rich, and toss around intellectualoid tags like "discourse radius," I lost respect for and interest in both writers. Oddly enough, they seem to have their noses are out of joint over "confessional" writing, in which the self is treated as if it might have a larger significance—or at least be a lens though which a poet might offer a coherent view of the world. And yet here Wojahn is, arguing for self-revelation....

7:42 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

So, skewer Lowell and you're voted off the island?

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might read the whole comment, Jordan. My point is that Wojahn skewers Lowell for the very same qualities he's now stumping for.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That's an interesting discussion, Joseph. What I find disagreeable about it is this sense that we should make stable a canon etc.


7:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm opposed to a "stable canon," too—it smacks of unthinking consensus—and didn't mean to suggest otherwise. I also agree with Mark that the whole "refusal to name names" is problematic. It's really an elitist tactic—the implication being that (in this case) "skittery poets" are beneath serious consideration, good only for broadly defining "us" vs. "them." One feels the wagons of consensus forming a circle to fight off them savages....

8:44 AM  
Blogger anon said...

well, this was a great posting. i don't think hoagland can name names because that would be an "assault" (unless of course he provides a throrough reading to back himself up).

but let's be honest, the ones he is talking about, in my understanding, are the younger generation of quasi-language poets... mannerists of lang po who populate a great deal of writing out there (particularly on the web). they usually, after silliman, have a knack for cute lines of declarative coyness.

but even so, i'd prefer that to new england blue-bloods crying about their psychiatric problems in iambs. yet, there is a comment preceding mine that gets at the point that the "skitterish" poem protects its inauthenticity. heck, the idea that authenticity is discounted by the old language poets really has spread the manure for an "anything goes" poetry that the rachel simonses and "new-american-writing" kids have grown to love.

whether authenticity is real or not is of no concern to me, but it works as an appropriate, if impossible, ideal to guide a poetics... or else you end up online googling and mad-libbing flarf (basically wasting time until your heart stops).

thanks for the thoughts.


10:09 AM  

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