Friday, February 27, 2009

Lashing out fearlessly against the "mainstream"

Hey, you guys aren't outlaw enough for Jeffery H. Gray, who has spent the past few years "editing a large reference work on American poetry":

Most poets today are magnificently oppressed, lashing out fearlessly against the "mainstream," which consists of everyone except the poet in question. Their biographies make them seem to jockey for the best of both worlds: Gerald Locklin (1941-), for example, is "an outlaw, underground poet, and college professor who has published more than 100 books of poetry and prose." How underground can he be?

Indeed, marginalization is hard to sustain in a milieu of instant absorption. Everyone is or would like to be outside the system: "Throughout his career, Bill Knott (1940-) has maintained outsider status in American poetry. This is largely due to the fact that no literary camp can adequately house ... his body of work." Michael Burkard's writing "does not fit comfortably within either of these categories [i.e., confessional and Deep Image poetry]." And Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's works "defy easy categorization." The assumption is that the rest of the poets are easily categorized — far from true, especially if one asks them.

Most of the hyperbole of our time concerns not so much craft or language as identity, an issue seldom invoked in poetry discussions before the 20th century. For Miguel Algarín, "to be a Nuyorican ... is to negotiate a hybrid identity." Jessica Hagedorn "writes from a postcolonial, diasporic aesthetic." "Chrystos is a Menominee poet whose commitment to both North American and queer identities has produced a distinctive and compelling body of poetry." "Minnie Bruce Pratt's identity as a Southern queer poet is at the forefront of her works and their significance. She speaks the often unspeakable." "Outspoken, politicized, and prolific, Eileen Myles ... offers an energetic, anarchic, and inventive lesbian voice that has helped free many gay women writers to gain access to details of their lives." Naomi Shihab Nye's poems reflect "both her ethnicity and ethnicity in general" and "are windows into other worlds that invite empathy and healing comparisons."

There are far fewer language-related assessments among the many encyclopedia entries, though there are some. Lyn Hejinian's texts "focus on the discursive construction of knowledge and subjectivity." But even here, modes of discourse are seen as inextricable from questions of identity. Thus, Carla Harryman's work "is concerned specifically with challenging and undermining hierarchies of gender and genre."

In short, where everyone yesterday seemed dispensable, today no one is.

OUCH! (Full article here.)


Jordan said...

300,000 poetry web sites can't be wrong.

the unreliable narrator said...

Well, to be fair (albeit after a kind of scraping-the-barrel fashion), I guess Locklin's outsiderism consists in his having mostly self-published or werry-small-press-published his (chap)books: in other words, he's not gonna be on the NewsHour reading Frost anytime soon.

That mild observation aside...yup, I think OUCH about sums it up nicely. Ouch, ouch, ouch. That and last night I read Jason Guriel's deftly written (I thought) set of negative interviews, and his justification thereof, and felt as convicted as a potsmoking teenager at a Baptist revival. So both these have me in a mighty reflective mood this morning. Cheers for the salutary whacks over the versifying head, dear!

knott said...

what a moron . . . if he knew anything about the po biz he would know that i didn't write that nonsense on the back cover of my book nor did i authorize it——

the publisher puts whatever stupidity they want on books, and the poet has no say or control over it——

(just one of the many reasons i've moved to vanity pubs)

. . .

Anonymous said...

Well, gee whiz, insofar as poetry's concerned, that Foucault guy may have been onto something, in that essay with the question mark at the end...

I mean, Jeffrey Gray concludes the piece: "We may have to wait till the next world economic collapse, or the next ice age, to have a poetry that is not magnificent." (For "magnificent" read "Author-centered," which is what he's really talking about.)

But why wait for the next ice age to bring forth in poetry some measure of the humbly marginal, the resistantly obscure, even the mysteriously apocryphal? Through his heteronyms, Pessoa showed, ninety-some years ago, that authors can fully exist outside those etiquettes of authority and property to which today's Poets--and of every stripe--find themselves so much in thrall. We need a good few Alberto Caeiros, I'd say, a few literary movements, even (and why not?), untethered to standard biographical function and classification. No reason they couldn't be in the reference works, too. And with laconic, unassuming entries... Or not.

I realize it's entirely quixotic to propose such in this climate, when even poetry's most prominent "avant-gardist" (member of a movement that once proclaimed the "I" and "Self" as constructs to be vanquished) is an outspoken and shameless defender of "Authorship as *brand*," a notion which seems doxa, now, to younger post-avantists.

But anyway, here and there, little by little, things will get more interesting, I do believe.


knott said...

Rain Taxi did an interview with me in 2000, and one of their questions dealt with this very labelizing——

They asked me what I thought about Stephen Dobyns calling me an "outsider", and this was my answer:

I assume Doybns intended it as praise, and I appreciate the kindness of that intent. But I don’t aspire to be an “outsider”—besides, sociologically, as a Euro-American male, I couldn’t be one if I wanted to. The English critic John Bayley says the difference between contemporary English and American poetry is that the former has outgrown Romanticism, whereas the latter “has continued to reach out its arms, back to the original Romantic movement. . . .” (Poetry Magazine, July 1985). Our Academics and our AvantGardes are both committed to a self-indulgent Romantic Americanism. As Harold Bloom says, Emersonism is the American Religion. American poets love to play the outlaw, the maverick: hell, even the New Formalists called their anthology Rebel Angels! This is absurd, especially when you consider the samizdat conditions Eastern European/Russian poets so recently suffered under, not to mention the current situation of how many Chinese, African, Asian, etc poets. We play at being dissidents, at being underground, but for many outcast poets on this planet such ostracism is no role but real. By comparison, we American poets have no right to put on such airs. —But we have to, it seems, because it’s traditional to be a rebel don’tcha know (Bloom says the motto of every Modern poet is the same as Milton’s Satan: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”)—rebellion is required. Everybody is an outsider! No insiders allowed in US Po-Biz:— I’m sure our most successful poets, you name ‘em, they all consider themselves “outsiders.” (The term is meaningless.) But this compulsory role—this Romantic-Emersonian egoist mantle—is why many days I would defect to England. Their poets—Carol Ann Duffy is a good example—enjoy a freedom we Amer poets lack.

knott said...

i'll bet a thousand bucks that none of those "biographies" Gray quotes were written by the actual poets themselves,

and I would bet that Gray knows that fact,

and is disregarding it and falsely presenting those quotes as if they were the poets' own words . . .

Poets have no control over what others label them as——

Michael Robbins said...

Bill informs us on his blog that he turned down Jonathan Galassi's offer to have FSG publish a 240 pp. edition of his selected poems. He proudly bills himself on his blog as the worst living poet, collecting all the nasty things that have been said about him over the years (sometimes wrenching them out of their positive context). He scours The New Yorker for poems whose lines resemble something he wrote twenty years ago, accusing their authors of stealing lines from poems they haven't read. Then he says he doesn't want to be an outsider. Fair enough. But better an outsider than a crank & a buffoon.

Anonymous said...

THis is the first time I've ever posted a comment on any blog anywhere, but I just found this blog of yours with a section of my article "Poet's Puffery" (the Chronicle gave it that title, not I), so I thought I'd better answer, albeit late: No, of course I'm not quoting the poets--the article makes that clear. I LIKE these poets; it's the critics' remarks I'm quoting, as they came to me in entries for the encyclopedia. Somehow, Bill Knott and another commenter thought I was repressing the fact that these weren't the poets speaking of themselves. Of COURSE these aren't the poets being quoted. The fact simply struck me while we were editing that NOBODY has anything but superlatives for contemporary poets, whatever their ilk, whereas distance somehow allows us to see 19th c. poets, say, with more disdain (or, if you like, more realism). That's all the article is meant to point up. I did worry about it offending, but I thought the issue of general cultural inflation was a good point, as applied now to poetry, where the ante keeps getting upped, in this case not in blurbs but in critical bios.--Jeffrey Gray

Don Share said...

Thank you for responding here, Jeffery: I'm very grateful.

As it happens, negative reviews are all the rage, so to speak, in contemporary American poetry, so perhaps you can rest a bit easier about some of the inflation you characterize in your piece.

Mayday magazine will soon feature a roundtable on this; see also my previous post on the subject - (click here).