Essays by Michael McIrvin
For all poets who refuse to give up on the possibility
Copyright 1998 and 1999 by Michael McIrvin
Printed in the United States of America
All rights reserved
Also by Michael McIrvin:
Love and Myth,
Lessons of Radical Finitude,
The Book of Allegory
Please see the Preface for acknowledgments.
Cedar Hill Publications is dedicated to the rejuvenation
of American poetry and to that end publishes the very
best poetry and criticism currently being written.
Cedar Hill Publications
3438 Villa Terrace
San Diego, CA 92104-3424
Bottled up for days, mostly
in great sweat of being, seeking
to bind in speed—petere—desire,
to construct knowing back to image and
God’s face behind it turned as mine
now is to blackness image shows
herself, desire the light
speed & motion alone are, love’s
blackness arrived at going backwards the rate
reason hath—and art her beauty God the truth
Charles Olson, “Maximus of Gloucester”
WHITHER AMERICAN POETRY
THE WRONG TURN
THE POET IN A NONSENSICAL AGE:
STEPS IN A HEALING RITUAL
THE TALE OF THE POSTMODERN TRIBE:
NOTES TOWARD CONTEMPORARY VERSE EPIC
PREFACE: A FIRST VOLLEY
What passes for poetry criticism these days tends to fall into only a handful of categories, but it ranges from the naively nostalgic to the apocalyptic. On the one hand are those critics who assert that in order for poetry to be poetry we must revert to the forms of old, and hence that most of what presently passes for poetry isn’t; and on the other end of the spectrum are those who maintain that language itself is inevitably hegemonic and must be taken apart, one brick at a time or wholesale in a kind of bricolage of negation, which is meant to explain the disfigured syntax and near absence of subjective assertion in much of contemporary American poetry. This is, of course, the conservative and liberal long and short of the current situation in poetry criticism, but then there is also the voice in the wilderness, from either stage right or stage left (to further convolute the metaphor), decrying without adequately critiquing the loss of poetry’s readership, its purportedly former central location in the culture, and its imminent death (i.e., Joseph Epstein and Dana Gioia).
This last stance may be emblematic of poetry criticism generally in recent years in as much as it derives from a single simplistic binary opposition that seems to be the bottom line for all extant critical stances: poetry or no poetry. That American poetry has severe problems is a given in the critical community. As William Logan, who by temperament tends to the conservative side of the scale, says in All the Rage,
Most American poetry now consists of tract housing:
the personal narrative is a trim backyard, a little swimming pool for the household
Narcissus, and no second story. No poetry can long survive without history,
without ideas, without a hidden psyche… . [T]he generation of Pound and Eliot
and Frost and Stevens and Moore was greater than the generation of Auden and
Lowell and Bishop, which was in turn greater than the generation of Hecht and
Ashbery and Ginsberg and Merrill, which is a generation greater than ours
Such an assertion of degeneration is in fact the premiere premise underlying the essays contained herein; however, for the critics of the present it is as if the poem’s demise as purveyor of truth happened in a literary/philosophical/cultural vacuum, as if this demise were asymptomatic of some larger cultural malaise. It is also not much of an extrapolation from the underlying despair in their writing to assert that these critics believe the situation beyond repair, except of course for those who would, naively, have us retreat in the direction of the sonnet and the sestina, toward strident iambs and overbearing trochees in our age of chaos theory and existential randomness.
This is not to suggest that poetry has not lost much that must be reachieved if the poem is to be a tool of culture change as well as critique, which is also a major underlying premise of this book: that poetry can and indeed should be a tool, a weapon in the service of our cultural health, which is to say our freedom. This is also not to suggest that concerns regarding the efficacy of language to achieve either critique or change in light of its hegemonic past and present, the language’s capacity to even include the other in civilization’s oeuvre, are groundless either. In fact, one of the primary assertions imbedded throughout this book is that regaining something of what has been traditionally the provenance of poetry must be balanced with the concerns that have grown out of deconstructive theories of language and power. However, this book is also as unabashedly prescriptive in places as it is unapologetically a work of commentary overallin short, balance is not to be construed here as simplistic synthesis or equivocation. These essays are meant to be strident, meant to engender discussion that borders, ideally, (and only borders, of course) on physical violence, because the stakes are so high and the current discourse too genteel when not merely stunted. Which is not to say that I necessarily take specific aim at the icons of the mainstream (although a few will certainly be named and taken to task) or anyone else, but, rather, that this book’s intended purpose is as (inflammatory) heuristic, an opening volley that raises questions that should have been asked long ago, but that also broaches tentative answers that exceed the above sad dialectic to the questions critics have been acknowledging as primary at least implicitly for some time. Such as: How can language be revivified in the face of poststructural revelations of indeterminacy and the consequent problematization of everything from being to truth, in the face of media’s dark intentions for the word and the image, in the face of all the numbing but manipulative noise on the airwaves?
Although critics at present seem to be avoiding (or denying) the larger, more problematic issues of contemporary poetry, some versions of criticism are obviously more helpful than others in any real attempt to understand the current situation, and such critical work has been a touchstone, albeit a limited one, for this collection. Real literary criticism has always been an ongoing argument, of course, an attempt to inflect our pangeneral understanding of the task of the writer and the viable range of the text. The best of criticism as polemic remains true to that traditional desire to clear the ground for the kind of poetry the critic deems “good,” deems the poetry most representative of our age. As opposed to the other forms of criticism discussed below, most of which take as their goals and frames of reference much smaller (nearly incestuous) purviews, this is a frequently unpleasant task in as much as the critic must deal with the dreck as antithesis. If the critic is to offer up something other than a picture of his/her own aesthetic in reverse, however, the poetry in question must be located relative to the overall poetical melange and discussed in terms of its larger tendencies.
Fred Chappell, for example, in his recent A Way of Happening, begins one essay railing at the “sloppy purple” of Alfred Corn’s most recent collection, “the mumble of [his] disjointed abstraction.” He subsequently correlates Corn’s book to another poet’s work he believes shares the same egregious aesthetic (Michael Burkard), then declares them Ashberians, whose poetry he indicts as desiring “above all else to avoid critical stricture. Whatever complaint is brought against it is opted by its partisans as a strength. ‘This stuff is boring,’ you say, and are told that it is meant to be boring; the fact that it is boring says something about poetry in our time. Silliness, lack of logic, disjointedness, sameness of toneall those qualities ordinarily noted as indices to bad poetry are referred to as symptoms of social and spiritual and literary conditions.” As insightful as this observation is, he does not go the next logical step, however, and locate this poetics within the larger enterprise of poetry generally, let alone as a symptom and product of forces in the culture at large. If these poets are consciously enacting the status quo, aren’t they complicitous in its perpetuation? In other words, he too fails to step beyond the impasse these poets map by simply implying that poets must adhere to traditional notions of what a poem is supposed to do.
At least Chappell has the audacity to make value judgments within a dynamic ongoing discussion about what a poem should or should not be. Too much of current criticism is not so much about the shape of the poem and the current situation of poetry generally as it is a shameless act of self perpetuation within the microcosm that is the “poetry biz.” The critical act, so-called, becomes an act of self-aggrandizement-by-association. Only poets of reputation, that is of the mainstream, and books from “reputable” houses, which is to say the powerful ones, are critiquedif the word is still valid in so diminished a usage. The vast majority of the poetry terrain, including the most interesting and vital environs, is either denied existence or dismissed as a wasteland.
At best this criticism, which is never negative, is vapid. Helen Vendler says of Jorie Graham in The Given and the Made for example, in a kind of lit-pop-psycho-babble: “In these knottings and loosenings, slowings and quickenings, ending in, stopping on, a word, Graham finds the only linguistic and imaginative equivalents for the self as she now understands it.” But more often than not such criticism carries an air of promotion, self promotion by/of the critic by virtue of how smart he/she is, which we know because the poet whose work is being explained to us so eloquently is so very smart, which we of course know because the critic, in an act of self serving boosterism, tells us so:
The real power in the idea of the poetic self conceived as matter emerges in
Graham’s intense and lavish transcriptions of the material world, in which all her
formidable energies of description and kinesis are engaged. Graham’s attempt to
describe the material world with only minimal resort to the usual conceptual and
philosophical resources of lyric…and to make that description a vehicle for her
personal struggle into comprehension and expression, is harder even than it would seem.
At worst this brand of criticism dissolves into tabloid assertions about the poet’s life as it is supposedly manifested in the poem. J.D. McClatchy admits in his introduction to Twenty Questions, for example, “I have tried to lay out the terms of a career, the topography of an imagination… .” He is referring to his essays on James Wright, Merwin, Larkin, Heany, Wilbur, and Merrill; but the juxtaposition of the words “career” and “imagination” is telling in terms of his own intentions as they are manifested in the limited scope of these essays and their tenor of mostly uncritical praise. At least McClatchy tends to avoid the most pathetic version of this brand of criticism. In his recent review of Randall Jarrell’s Selected Essays, Alfred Corn resorts to speculations about the dead poet’s “latent homosexuality,” and does so as if it were gossip, never relating that possibility to any larger assertions about the work or the age in which it was produced. In short, when such criticism is not serving merely as a meal for the critic’s own undernourished cachet, it is offered up as titillation of the variety Americans expect as regards their celebrities. Only accidentally does it ever attempt to categorize and explain let alone to navigate the larger issues now facing poetry.
One major exception to such a limited purview is the criticism informed by the work of Foucault and Derrida and Barthes. Although the tenets of poststructural philosophical systems make for a very narrowly programmatic discussion, critics like Marjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein at least attempt to locate the problems of poetry within the larger cultural milieu, albeit in abstract terms and with too little critical venom in their voices as if the present situation were either inevitable or innocuous. Because the poetry that is informed by the same premises as the criticism is by definition against the grain of the status quo, which is to say of mainstream poetry that still traces its roots to Romanticism, these critics are frequently defensively explanatory, which seems understandable; but their matter-of-fact defensiveness also seems merely a reflex, an automatic acceptance of one’s alterity that is almost precious. As Perloff says of a poem by John Ashbery,
the opacity of “Europe,” its resolute refusal to relate meanings, is not attributable
to its excessive disjunctiveness as Harold Bloom, who calls the poem a “fearful
disaster,” seems to think. I would argue that it is, on the contrary, too one
dimensional, which is to say that it is not “disjunctive” enough.
Worse, however, too often these critics succumb to the very philosophical tenets that are the basis for their criticism. The result is a linguistic razzle-dazzle that is by turns laced with poignant assertion, that is nevertheless so dense that only a handful of people can understand it, or which refuses to be anything less than indeterminate. To be certain, the situation of poetry is complex, and the collection in your hand is more dense in places than I am comfortable with as a result, but the limitations of subjective assertion should by now be a given and thus dealt with in some active fashion. My expansion of Chapel’s complaint about the Ashberians holds for these critics as well: it is time to transcend the impasse. Charles Bernstein can assert in My Way:
I am conscious that an ideological poetry, insofar as it may dismantle whatever
self or group identities we may have already developed, risks making us more
atomized and so more passive. In this state of “postmodern” paranoia, all
collective formations—real or imagined—are ironized or aestheticized…debunked
as arbitrary codes, with fashion and market ascendant as the arbiters of value…
and go on to suggest that a poetry of resistance is possible, only to undercut that assertion by telling the reader it isn’t possible: “poetry is the most necessary form of language practice after the wars: but a different poetry than we have known. The task of creating this poetry is impossible and for that reason takes place.” In other words, the race is caught in a feedback loop of desire and failure to achieve that desire. If the above quotation were not the last sentences of the essay in question, it would be less disturbing; but as it stands critics like Bernstein are obviously caught in their own devices and cannot escape to say the world, let alone escape to help the rest of us say the world via some reactivation of the subjective.
Thus too much of the poetry criticism of the present, like too much of the poetry, is complicitous in the way-things-are. Critics are either caught up within the bases of their own assertions, like so many self-programmed rats in a maze, or using criticism as the vehicle of ascendancy within a poetry establishment madly self-replicating, seeking to steal prestige from the chosen while ignoring the majority of the real poetry being written in America, poetry that at least aspires to be more than present circumstances seem to allow. It is within this malaise that I have attempted a book that is not complicitous. Whither American Poetry seeks to locate poetry as a whole in the culture at large, and to locate the more egregious aspects of the genre in terms of their manifestations as force and product, frequently among the practices of poets and critics as well as in the world-out-there, and to cover some small portion of the poetical ground not currently granted the status of existence by most critics. Although my aim for this collection is to raise questions, it also attempts to answer some as well, to balance the heuristic with the polemical. Presently, it is as if those few critics whose purview is poetry-at-large are stuck and can at best only map the problems poetry faces. Although his analyses are frequently accurate, in his latest collection of criticism Bernstein repeats the phrase “the problem is…” like a mantra, without ever offering any but the most abstract of assertions for solutions, if these. And a writer as in the middle of the conservative/liberal critical scale as McClatchy says in the preface to his latest collection, “this is a book of questions, not of answers.” The questions are important only to the degree that we actively seek to resolve them, only to the degree that they spark vigorous discussion, only to the degree that they incite change, which is the task, now more than ever, that poetry criticism must undertake.
There are a variety of reasons so much of American poetry at present is lamentable, a complex of reasons, all interacting in sundry ways specific to the “brand” of poetry under discussion. I do not pretend in my prescriptive analysis to understand the whole dynamic in our complicated age, but a few egregious tendencies that cross brand categories bear remark precisely because they are pandemic, which suggests a causality larger and deeper than simple aesthetics. A recurring theme in the following essays is pastiche, the making of copies that has become an unconscious replication born of neither a desire to satirize or to pay homage, let alone as a creative extension of a particular vision of the poetic enterprise. This pathetic mimicry is the Xerox version of a feedback loop. Poststructuralism has warned us that nothing is really new, but in the final analysis there are degrees of not newness, and what is being produced now is all too often lifeless, empty, a mere copy of a copy of a copy, the print getting successively lighter and harder to discern, all of the original’s energy rung out of it. Which is to say that poets no longer have a connection to their poetical progenitors except as replicators of what said progenitors did considerably better. The current situation is not what Bloom labeled “misprision” in the seventies, the purposeful misreading of the poetry of the past in order to clear a place for one’s own sense of the poem. Although I argue that the current crop has misread certain major premises of the moderns and the poststructuralists, and thus carry some of those tenets to illogical extremes, contemporary poets in general tend to passively repeat what went before without either understanding or questioning their own poetical impetus, the set of premises out of which one’s art grows. And the phenomenon is visible in all endeavors in our culture, from popular music that sounds like it was made by some previous group before they had practiced much to second rate reproductions of movies from our youth.
Equally egregious is the diminished subject in the current incarnation of the American poem, the poem seemingly intended by its maker to be as innocuous as is possible. Poems rarely say anything at present, either in the largest or most pedestrian sense of the assertion. Not only has the poem as a vehicle of cultural criticism given way to suburban ennui, the effects of the mundane “real” on the egoistic “I,” but even a viable speaker is missing from most poetry, in some cases as if the poem were the random product of a computer program designed to hook up signifiers (in the loosest definition of the word). Consequently, contemporary American poetry lacks referential depth and subjective gumption, any fire, any fight, any desire. At best, contemporary poetry is a snapshot of the current impasse in the culture’s intellectual life generally: the inability to act, to have ideas, to bring one’s subjective desire to bear upon the world, to move forward.
The ultimate result of these tendencies is not so much a dying poetry, that bleak pole of the implicitly dyadic premise underlying most present criticism, but, like all products of the culture whether they be artistic or political or from the marketplace, a somnambulant one. I have no doubt that MFA programs can fill all the seats in the house for some time to come, but in the absence of a more active paradigm, one that allows for subjective assertion and the inclusion of a dynamic meaning beyond the merely egoistic or the stolen as part of the poetical project, the same dreck will be passed from poet to literary magazine to publishing house, boring the reader, and alienating any potential reader outside the loop of this little cottage industry, at every turn. I have no doubt that poetry will “live” in the absence of a revivified sense of what a poem is and what it can be, but in the same diminished guise as at present, without cease but without much verve either.
Although this book refers to the necessity for a reconstructive poetics, the agenda is not nostalgic. Reconstruction is defined as part of a larger dynamic principle that, inevitably, entails more than simply recovering what has been lost in terms of poetry’s traditional role for the race. The previous version of the poetry community as the closed club of what is referred to as the mainstream, the monolith of unscalable walls whose only members were born inside, the bastion of poetical exclusion where the rules are composed in order to keep certain versions of the world out (in spite of Walt Whitman’s injunctions to the contrary) is not to be hungered after as some vision of our innocence before the fall. Although peopled occasionally with poets whose very existence was denied previously, the mainstream still exists, of course. However, these poets are too often tokens of diversity whose realities as they are captured in language are not overly disconcerting, and are sometimes even comforting, to the dominant reading audience. Hence, the mainstream is still a force to be reckoned with: of stasis, which is to say of control and exclusion and death.
But the mainstream vision of what a poem can and cannot be is no longer the only one available. Admittedly, the current decentered version of the poetry community is chock full of bad writing, which only suggests the dark affinities between the outriders and their more sanctioned brothers and sisters, affinities that require a broader critical perspective if we are to get a handle on the present situation. It is true, the current chaotic world of American poetry sometimes seems overwhelming. The side effects, however, are well worth what we have gained: more voices of every hue and orientation and class are heard, reaching out to people who previously did not visit the poetry section at the library because they were not represented in poetry, their experiences having been deemed less than real, perhaps even aberrant. I offer this observation in part to suggest that there is indeed hope to balance the despair over the current literary malaise, albeit a product of picking wheat from chaff. American poetry is at least straining toward polyvocality like no other medium of expression. But I also want to suggest via this observation that any criticism that ignores vast chunks of the poetry landscape is incomplete.
Thus, the eponymous essay offers a broad interpretation of the poetry situation in America by looking at its various strains. Such categorization allowed for generalizations I could not have made otherwise for getting bogged down in the particulars of individual versions of praxis. Given the size of the project, I make no claim to an absolute completeness in my assessment, but I have attempted to be categorically complete, including as many representations of various types of poetry operative in America at present as occurred to me. The picture is not a very cheery one, it is true. The egregious tendencies described above, in concert with others specific to the individual strains under discussion, suggest an art (and a culture) in distress. However, the underlying premise is one of hope nevertheless, given the chaotic breadth of the poetry community and the few excellent examples of poetry magazines currently serving as oases of quality that have risen out of the morass.
As opposed to Logan’s seemingly unidirectional decadence, overall the current situation in poetry is offered as a potentially dynamic decay, as the morass out of which American poetry must be reborn. And rebirth, revivification, renaissance, is put forth as a transcendent third to the vacuous and oversimplified dialectic of present poetry criticism: poetry or no poetry. In fact, throughout the book the journey into the underworld and back is offered up as a relevant metaphor for the process that poetry and the culture generally must undergo if we are to escape the current morass wherein language and meaning and human existence are no longer covalent.
In an early work, Kora in Hell, William Carlos Williams recognized that creativity and decay are, as a wheel, continually cycling:
When the wheel’s just at the upturn it glimpses horizon, zenith, all in a burst, the
pull of the earth shaken off, a scatter of fragments, significance in a burst of water
striking up from a base of a fountain. Then at the sickening turn toward death the
pieces are joined into a pretty thing, a bouquet frozen in an ice cake.
The image of the ephemerality of art, truth captured only momentarily, until it transubstantiates to a more primary form, is illustrative of a further underlying premise of Whither American Poetry: creativity is inevitably cyclical in as much as decadence follows creation. However, its twin premise is that an upturn toward active creation is not inevitable, relying as it does on the will to action, on subjective gumption. In William’s epic, Paterson, the protagonist imitates the fate of creativity in time through his decline toward decadence and parody and his preoccupation with death. This seems an accurate representation of where we are as a culture presently, poetry but symptomatic and emblematic of our pangeneral downturn. But, at the end of Book Four, the hero ultimately walks away from the sea (symbolically from the morass that threatens to swallow all heroes) “renewed in his creative energies, ready for another descent that will lead to another ascent” (Peter Schmidt). This is the role Whither… encourages poets to be willfully cast in, with emphasis on the necessity of will. The current situation of poetry, its stunted and impotent incarnation, is certainly a reflection of our cultural malaise; but in its traditional role as a function of ritual and translator of experience into values, and in its modern and postmodern role (mostly dormant at present) as vehicle for cultural critique, the trace of all these functions still visible in some poems of the present, poetry can potentially serve as a means to a renewed sense of our generalized being.
The first two essays in the collection chart our current malaise. The initial overview of the American poetry milieu is followed by a further assertion of loss in the second essay, “The Wrong Turn”: the death of what I term subjective gumption. The essay locates that loss not only in the poetry of the present but also in the culture at large as the death of critical consciousness and, worse, in our collective explanation-unto-rationalization of that death and the servitude it entails. The format of the third essay, “The Poet in a Nonsensical Age: Steps in a Healing Ritual,” serves loosely as a model for the structure of the book itself, the descent that will be followed by ascent if we desire and if we act.
After offering a description/definition of our nonsensical age, this essay outlines the first tentative steps in a healing ritual for poetry that is an attempt to reachieve what the culture and poetry have lost and to suggest a reinvention of what poetry is for the culture as well. Broadly, the steps are as follows: First, poets must steal back the image and the word from mass media and politicians and any others who not only demean (all puns intended) our primary poetical tools as vehicles of truth but so inundate us with inane signs that the majority of the populace has shut down against the onslaught. Poets must again use language as a sensual gateway to the imagination, the ground upon which the poet and the reader and language dance together in a dynamic of signification. To signify poignantly is to draw the reader onto that ground, even against his/her will. Second, as the book as a whole attempts to map the situation of poetry, and to map a way out of the current impasse (to move from culture critique, a la deconstruction, to praxis), the poet must be the mapper of our collective terrain, both the inner and outer. Given our tendency as a culture to deny the existence of what James Hillman calls our psychic underworld, our darkness has been perversely projected outward into the everyday. The culture cannot escape a labyrinth it denies exists, cannot escape without a map, and consequently the poet’s job is to chart both the terrain of our psychological malaise and its representation in the world: prisons, poverty, madness, to name but a few of its manifestations. But it is also the poet’s job as mapmaker to chart that in us which transcends the darkness, to sing of love and our children and hope. In spite of the projection of our fear and self loathing outward, that is not the whole of the human condition. Much is to be said for potentiality, for an imagined forward that transcends the labyrinth without denying it. Third, the poet must again seek the mystery at the center of our being and attempt to convey it via the poem as myth. The search in this section of the essay is for a method that does not recreate the old hegemonies in the form of outworn metanarratives, that translates individual human experience relative to history. Poetry-as-myth seeks to integrate consciousness into action, to achieve meaning on the largest of scales: the human relationship to the great what-is as it transmutes before our eyes.
This is the poet’s traditional role as the speaker of the nearly unspeakable, the individual life as it is confronted with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as it is translated in the panhuman; but poets have always been the tellers of “The Tale of the Tribe” as well, and the last essay explores what such a work would look like in the absence of modernist hieratic claims to high culture and (in the case of Pound and Eliot) a frustrated retreat to authoritative paradigms. The overarching assertion is that this epic would both self consciously locate itself in history and recognize its own failed claim to inclusion, to being encyclopedic in scope and therefore complete. The poet would attempt to give a picture of this time and this place relative to personal experience, as it impinges upon and forms the everyman/woman who is the inevitable postmodern hero. And, by the very nature of a decentered discourse, within which no claim can be made for privileging certain experiences over those of others, the epic would aspire to be polyvocal and multivalent. It would aspire to be a portion of the tale that, along with the other portions and variations, creates a mosaic of the human experience as it evolves, one to stand in opposition to the current leveling and controlling metanarrative that enters our households and our consciousness over the airwaves.
Perhaps the ultimate assertion of this collection is that the healing ritual described in “The Poet in a Nonsensical Age…” must be never ending. At present, poets and the people of the culture generally seem to have abdicated any larger notion of human meaning than the one prescribed by media and the market. Certainly, the deconstructive move that has been the reaction of many poets is ongoing given the continuing assault upon our senses and our sense of self, given the tendency to hegemonic acquisition of all assertion, the inevitability that our weapons, words and imagery, will be turned on us. However, reconstruction is a necessity if we are to again feel human, mysterious and meaningful and dynamically connected to the substrate of our being. This book makes big claims for the possible role of poetry in the rebirth of the culture as well as large claims for the revivification of poetry itself. Throughout I am self conscious of the criticism such assertions will bring. However, I can never forget that Orpheus, that prototypical versifier, failed to bring Eurydice back from the underworld. In Rilke’s most heart rending version of the tale, she cannot come back because she has forgotten, because she has been too long in the dark:
She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.
She was already root.
And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around—,
she could not understand, and softly answered
(“Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes”)
There are possibly others who would traverse the dark to bring us all back, but if the poet is forgotten, the poet who is the traditional keeper of “the first element of our existence that expresses the disorder of our soul’s song…[and] the breaking down of the modes of harmony” (C.K. Williams), indeed if the poet no longer knows the way out of the chaos, then who?
I would like to acknowledge those without whom this collection would either not exist at all or at least would be something other than it is: Christopher Presfield of Cedar Hill Publications for requesting I write it in the first place based only upon the first essay and book reviews I have written that he has run across in the last few years; Leonard Cirino who publishes Semi-Dwarf Review and requested the eponymous essay for its pages, an essay which garnered much attention for yours truly as well as much critical discussion with poets across America, and the reason Christopher was inspired to publish such a collection at all; Vincent Bator of The Pannus Index who will publish another of these essays in a different form; all the editors of the other magazines who are at this moment considering the essays in spite of the fact that they will appear in book form (many refused on these grounds alone) before credit for publication in those other venues can be given properly here (and I apologize for the short turn around time: Christopher grows impatient); and especially William Doreski of Keene State University and Doug Reitinger of the University of Wyoming for their invaluable comments on early drafts. Thank you all.
WHITHER AMERICAN POETRY
When initially asked to write an assessment of American poetry as we near the millennium, I expected to produce another diatribe against the general creative writing program tendency to poems that make form an end in itself, one more rant against the gentrified mainstream, one more middle finger raised in lugubrious salute to the captains who control what we read (and, therefore, think) as the ship we are all on continues to list hopelessly in the heavy seas at the end of history. However, and in spite of my occasional despair, my notes for this piece revealed something quite unexpected: hope for the future of American poetry…and hope in a certifiable cynic must certainly ¬¬mean somethingand a discussion of meaning, that much maligned and assaulted creature, is precisely where this essay will lead eventually.
My hope, however, is hope in the truest sense of the word, since it is premised upon possibility, potential in our current circumstances that will effloresce or die because of our (poets’) actions or lack thereof. In the words of a recent poem, and at the risk of sounding apocalyptic, as a culture generally we are at that strange point, the dialectical fulcrum/ between renaissance and ruin… (“Prelude,” Dog) where the choice to act is not an option but a necessity if we are to survive. Paradoxically, however, the former must grow out of the latter and hence the pun in the title of this essay and my unanticipated discovery of hope in the situation of American poetryit is probably a discredited archetype in the post-structural milieu, but nothing grows unless fed from the roots by the decaying corpse of what went before it.
Railing against creative writing programs and their generally banal products may be in vogue in some circles, but not merely so. In fact, that content has been sacrificed on the altar of form in the mainstream, period, might almost be a truism now. However, even form has de-evolved in most academic poetry to a mere semblance of its former self. Staunch rhyme and meter have given way to some chimerical, flickering thing that vaguely resembles an archmodel of a poem in its overall rhythm: it does one thing at the beginning, another in the middle, and something to resemble closure at the end, as if it were put together on an assembly line. These products are not the result of a constraint against which the poet must move creatively (not Berrigan’s sonnets or Yeats’ masterful use of rhyme) as a great chef works in the mode “soufflé” or “sauce,” risking failure even as he/she reaches for success, but little squares of pasty nothing. Not ambrosia on the tongue, but not shit either; certainly not fortifying, but not exactly nauseatingjust fast-food-sameness, as Donald Hall has referred to them: McPoems and McStories.
Much has also been made, in those same circles, of the neo-confessional inflection of the bulk of workshop poetrypoems frequently so private, so solipsistic in their imagery that they are virtually meaningless for any reader except, in some poems, the voyeur at the window box with his hand in his pants. At least in this version, however, there is someone breathing under the cardboard printout, some small flavor in its consumption even if the reader gets little more than a slight prurient buzz from the experience.
Although there are probably good programs somewhere, and although there are certainly good teachers/writers struggling in bad ones, by-and-large the fin de siecle version of the creative writing program poem is compost for two further reasons: 1) the format itself has led to program saturation. That is, enough generations have been bred to replace their teachers so that the gene pool now approaches absolute banalityno mutation, no innovation, and too great a remove from real literary lineage, which is by definition multivalent, fecund. And 2) Over the past few decades there has been a decay of English departments generally as places where anything interesting (read creative and/or as regards ideas) happens; which is to say that, not that long ago, to declare your critical/poetical allegiances was to have enemies, however collegial, with whom to argue with conviction over the shape of the discourse. Presently, however, critical decisions are merely menu choices determined by whatever will best serve one’s chances of publication, and those critical decisions are offered as just that to students as wellno commitment, no fire in the belly required.
Likewise, however, those poets who generally consider themselves the creative writing program’s antithesis are also compost, albeit for different reasons. These are the neo-beat/neo-Bukowski-ites who have seized upon much of the masturbatory adolescent rant of the former without either their political and social commentary or the latter’s cynical wit. Although this movement as abreaction is understandable given the new conservatism and its mirror image, political correctness, now loose in the land, which together are more effective at stifling individual assertion than any uniformed protector of the status quo, these poets’ attempts to out-Buk Bukowski (and there are exceptionssome of Ron Androla’s work comes to mind) are usually as self indulgent as the neo-confessional. Worse, their intention seems to be merely to shock in an age when nobody gets shocked by much of anything, and consequently these poems tend to be vignettes of human suffering that are rarely poignant and too often boring, which is a paradox of some import.
This is not to discount the vox populi, the voice of the people, the American idiom as Williams called it, the syntactical beauty of vernacular American English; but when both diction and subject become merely a pose, an ersatz stance toward the world offered up for effect, an affectation, that voice becomes self-parody, pastiche that is neither homage to a way of life or ironic, just ridiculous. So-called spoken word poetry is a premiere example. The best of it is truly a reflection of the emotional life of the speaker as inflected by his/her political and economic reality, and it is shared in a community that uses language nearly as tribals use it, as a way of establishing and maintaining social bonds. Frequently it is also a way of establishing an identity in contradistinction to the larger culture that has marginalized the speaker. However, too often (especially in a slam environment, that strange conception of poetry as competition, which seems truly, and ironically, American), each poet seems merely hell-bent on blowing the audience away, concerned with effect that is only effect. The ultimate result is too often, unwittingly, parody.
Likewise, although the etiological premises that underlie poststructuralism and the poetry it inflects seem valid, the poets who work in this mode may have done as much as any to bring us to our current state of poetical malaise. At the very least the opacity (Ashbery’s term) of much of that work is as meaningless as the neo-confessional and, at its logical extreme, kills communication altogether.
That our language carries the taint of its patriarchal origins and context is probably nearly another truism, and that it at least can be hegemonic certainly is true (and perhaps the best of poets have always existed to counterbalance this tendency). But to so endlessly displace meaning so as to achieve meaninglessness, to reduce language to amorphic cipher (and this pun, in spite of the fact that poststructuralism’s great gift to poetry is the heightened awareness of the multivariate possibilities in every word to subvert the established and generally accepted order, here works against the poststructural agenda), to understand that the subject of the poem is the same entity subjected to power but not that this entity is also potential change agent, has led in its most extreme incarnations (in much L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry) to dead graphemes on the white void of the page and the murder of the subjective speaker.
Such poetry has not only eviscerated meaning and embalmed the subject but is egregiously elitist. The limitations of language to achieve meaning for segments of the population seems valid, but how does anyone who is not steeped in critical and philosophical esoterica, Derrida and Barthes et al, understand the assertions in a poem in which certain premises are presented as a given? The paradox in Barthes is, of course, that the reader seems more subjectively alive than the writer, but if so the writers of such poetry are at least conscious enough to assume a small but “enlightened” readership, as if their work were an inside joke or the answer to a koan shared with a sneer among adepts. Worse, however, is the tendency among these writers, including those poets whose work has been self-consciously inflected by poststructural assertions but who do not fit neatly into the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school, such as the Jorie Graham of The End of Beauty, to use what seem to be canned devices. Although I assume the intended effect, if such non-poststructural language can be excused, of the blanks Graham uses throughout that book is to enact certain of poststructuralism’s premises, such as offering up the possibility of infinite word choices and therefore potentially infinite interpretations in her use of elision/omission, at best such devices are overused; but mostly these poets seem to ride a one trick thematic pony. Even the reader who is steeped sufficiently in esoterica to understand frequently wants to howl, “OK we get it…now what? Please, step beyond these tired assumptions and do something new with words.” Which is of course exactly what those assumptions preclude.
In short, these poets have taken arguably valid philosophical assumptions as regards the relationship of language to power, and control and privilege, and replaced language itself with a silence to equal death. The most thanatos-ridden civilization cannot long stand such dark self-consciousness, such absolute quiet, and these poems are emblematic of the withering-away out of which America’s poetry, if it is to survive, must be reborn.
And these tend inward to me and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.
In the imagination we are…
locked in fraternal embrace,
the classic caress of author
and reader. We are one. Whenever
I say “I” I mean also “you.” And so,
together, as one, we shall begin.
William Carlos Williams
So, rather than turning our backs and walking into the nearest wilderness, if one can still be found, to live out our days on trout and snow melt, what must poets do if poetry is to grow again out of its own decayed carcass? How can the dead grapheme give way to the well placed phoneme and, ultimately, flower into loaded morphemes? How can American poetry not only be reborn but transcend its elitist former incarnations, those before it composted so utterly, without losing the best of what that poetry was?
Before these questions can be broached, however, account must be made of that other, much-less-discussed participant in the poem, the reader; and here I must admit we will swerve dangerously toward despair. For one thing, I am a poet and thus open to accusations of sour grapes (and I readily admit to that part of the poet’s condition: whining about not being understood), but this part of the interaction that is a poem is difficult to evaluate more because of the complex psychosocial scope of the exchange than my vested interestbut herein lies what is at stake if poetry is allowed to die away completely.
In the bad old days, the poem’s meaning was assumed to be fixed and only “experts,” critics and professors, knew for sure what the thing meant. Although there was much lively critical discussion among the New Critics themselves, too many of their academic disciples tended to view the poem as equation: tone + figurative language + rhetorical situation + etc. = specific theme. Happily, that exercise in official reality gave way to what conservatives would characterize as idiosyncratic readings that were all somehow relevant, even if many veered toward the irrational, since any “true” reading was of necessity encyclopedic. Obviously, although decentralizing and democratic in the extreme, communication suffered since all but the most psychotic interpretations (and why not these?) were viewed as valid within the constraints of the individual interpreter’s personal experience.
However, synthesis of these dialectical extremes has yielded something far darker than mere convolution of meaning. The suppliant reader who once sat at the foot of the professor or critic for an exegesis now hears only pandemic noisethe poem as noise as well as its interpretation. That is, if those potential interpreters of the poem even bother to speak. Hence teachers who don’t teach poetry except as the strange artifact of an age and the virtual extinction of the contemporary poetry critic, especially as strident interpreter of the poem in relation to the culture at large. Consequently, the reader him/herself is silent before anything that remotely resembles a poem.
To some extent of course poets are to blame. Poetry that is solipsistic and banal and masturbatory (i.e. seems to assume no reader, no other, and speaks to little beyond the poet’s own tiny life) demands at best a voyeuristic reading or, more likely, a completely passive one in which no meaning is achieved for anyone except, maybe, the poet. The words just flow by for the reader like words across a screen.
But in an age in which information is entertainment, in which music is a vehicle of corporate pandering, in which the image especially is omnipresent as an adjunct to advertising, to trap us in that bleak simulacrum, in which all realities are mediated and thus vitiated and consequently our being attenuated, it remains to be seen whether we have merely transcended the limitations of interpretation (i.e. all is, merely, noise) or if our readers have lost the capacity for empathy and critical reason that any real achievement of meaning requires.
Therefore, the first logical objective for a reborn American poetry is to steal back what mass/capitalist culture has stolen from us: namely, music and imagery that enacts meaning for our readers. That is, we do not want to regain the “tyranny of the metronome” or end-rhymed lines for their own sake (mostly because strident form reflects a more ordered universe than we can believe in and thus is inadequate to contain what we must convey), not technical facility of any kind for its own sake. Nor do we wish to canonize any stand toward the world. But poetry needs sound wedded to sense in order to awaken the higher cognitive faculties of readers, to open the doors of perception for them via a sensual engagement with the work. Like the moderns and some of the post-moderns, we need to sing, to paint pictures; but neither for its own sake. Our readers, once awakened, must be inspired, inflamed, saddened, truly sexually aroused, goaded to action…something. Robert Bly laments in a recent essay for the literary magazine Black Moon that “maybe none of us, now that the language has been worked over so incessantly, by advertisers or evangelists, can create something that is consistently brilliant, golden, resonant,” but one thing is certain: art for art’s sake won’t cut it, or art as effluvia of the tiny alienated self, or there will be no art, period. Noise untranscended remains noise.
Which brings us to the purpose for poetry and the promised discussion of meaning. It is conceded that any act of communication is an attempt to control discourse. Writing is, poetry especially (or at least it should beso curse me for being prescriptive), an act of violence, even if the aim is beauty (another discredited concept, ringing as it does of Platonic idealismall puns intended here too). It is an act of violence against the pathetic way-things-are, against exclusion and control, against the average citizen’s complacency as he/she sits vacant eyed before the bizarre remnants of civilizationlong an old bitch gone in the teeth, as Pound said, but now one of the walking dead and “living” off the blood of conscripted others.
In short, American poetry must also be far more than sensation and emotion; it must contain ideas again. When Williams said, “No ideas but in things,” he did not mean that poems were merely to be the containers of objects, but enactments (as in to make active, a la Charles Olson’s assertion in “Proprioception”) of ideas through the constituents of the work, the object being to momentarily reify ideas rather than to wax abstract, to leave room for the reader in this dance to interpret meaning as it is inflected by his/her own reality, their own being, to argue with other readers, to argue with the poet about what his/her poem says or does not say, to achieve some dynamic and provisional consensus, then to re-read the poem and start again.
And the poem must be inclusive, the poet a Whitmanic cannibal swallower of all the speakers he/she meets in order to give them voice, especially the utterly voice-less. The self no diminished oversoul, of course, not the diametrical opposite of the current tiny creatures who only ambivalently occupy our compost, but a real product of human joy and suffering that must be sung, must be shouted, must be enacted to save us all from mechanomorphisis, to save us all from the willing slavery of market place and media that the masses, no longer even suffering in quiet desperation, seem sometimes to have already entered.
I can hear the voices of exasperation already: poets once more the unacknowledged legislators of the real? Who do they think they are? Poetry, the salvation of democratic individualism and the rebirth of real discourse? Right, and Grandpa Ezra was a fascist and some Romantics wrote opium-induced paeans and Rimbaud gave up poetry for gun-running (which is part of his celebrity but false) and the author of arguably the most widely read poem of the last half of the twentieth century proudly announced in that very poem his pederastic appetites and old so-and-so got scandalously drunk at his reading in our town and had adulterous sex with the hostess/her daughter/son/pets….
In her essay, “A Leak in History” (What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, 1993), Adrienne Rich diagnosed what America is lacking as sensual vitality and pointed out how that lack leads to amnesia, the forgetting of our past as devastation in our present, and anomie, the personal that exacerbates the societal that deepens and reinforces the personal. Poetry has the potential to arouse all six senses (mind, as in Buddhist thought, being the sixth), and, thereby, to help us in some small way to retain/regain our humanity. Just maybe, if readers feel breath (spiritus) rising from their bellies, through their chests and shining in their vocal chords, feel the buzz of creative attention deep in their brains, perhaps the species can again achieve an active connection to the universe, to life, can again belong here. And if we belong here, perhaps some notion of community, of shared identity, of individual identity that stands in opposition to all that is negative about what the species has wrought (please note the pun ) thus far, renaissance is not so far fetched an idea.
That said, I am no utopian and have few illusions about the future of the culture or about poets as extra-human, which would of course only be an admission that we are extra-flawed (as I said, I am a cynic, certifiably), but a poem is potentially, as Williams said, the ground of the dance, where the poet and the reader can do the reality two step…and, right now, too few are dancing. However, some few poets and their courageous publishers and hungry readers are dancing, which brings us to that assertion of hope I made at the outset.
Although chaotic, and death always isthe final dissolve, absolute decadencethe current poetry scene is at least multivariate, filled with voices of all persuasions. The mainstream remains monolithic, exclusionary and elitist and conservative, but in truth educated, upper-class white males are no longer the only arbiters of what poetry should be in America. In fact, part of our conundrum is precisely that fecundity, that mad complexity, which inevitably yields a widely disparate perception of what good poetry is; but that fecundity also reflects our desire to be inclusiveand not just in that Whitmanic version mentioned above, but in terms of who gets to speak, whose experiences are as valid as anyone’s experience. However, my overall assertion here is that most strains of poetry, however vibrant when initially sprouted, have become static at best, if not destructive, have declined unto being compost, albeit a nutrient rich compost.
And out of this luxurious chaos the first tentative new growth can be witnessed in the form of literary magazines like Black Moon, which promotes a poetry of imagination that rises out of South American and East European Surrealism (as opposed to the mostly frivolous French variety), and Semi-Dwarf Review which offers up a mix of the same in combination with authentic spoken word poetry that reflects the working class reality of the poets who produce it. Likewise, Cedar Hill Review publishes poetry of depth, of ideas, frequently political work that dares to be didactic but that is never simplistically so; the Pannus Index attempts to explore the very difficult terrain of American literature in thematically focused quarterly issues; and a brand new publication, The Raw Seed Review, launched its inaugural issue recently with the most authentic poetry its young editor could solicit.
This is obviously a very short list, but the whole list is, sadly, not much longer. However, that these few exist is indeed cause for celebration. The editors have managed to attract writers, and readers, whose sensibilities have not been numbed by media saturated American life, who have not yet succumbed to meaninglessness, but, on the contrary, who stand in opposition to it. A cause for hope, indeed.No Comments »