Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Mark Tursi proposes what he calls a final question:


We’ve talked a lot about past poetic movements and current poetry, as well as your own poetic process. And this is, of course, the primary subject of your blog. But, I was wondering if you could speculate and conjecture a bit about the future of poetry in America – imaginatively, intellectually, critically—in whatever way you want. That is, where do you see us in 10 or 20 years? What will the poetry look like then? Where are we headed?


I’ve been wrong about this before, and in a big way too. When I was the editor of the Socialist Review, we published a feature of new poets & poetry which I prefaced with a note that remarked, in passing, that one reason why, in the late 1980s, so few poets of color had become involved with what I now think of as the post-avant was both social & historical. That economic & social marginalization placed people of color into a position in which it was more important to hear their stories told, even if they were the same old stories that had been told before for decades by other groups, the Irish, say, or the Jews of the Lower East Side, than it was for them to explore what story itself meant, what identity meant, etc. That was, I think, generally accurate in a crude way, but what I did not understand then was the degree to which a middle class of color had already risen in the United States & the impact that affirmative action was already having in educating a new generation of writers. For whatever I said circa 1987 was completely erased as a set of concerns one decade hence. And if I look around, I see that for every young post-avant poet of color who comes out of a class background not unlike my own – Linh Dinh or Rodrigo Toscano, for example – there are quite a few others who are the children of professionals, doctors, ambassadors. And the identity politics for people with that kind of family setting are extraordinarily complicated. Complexity around one’s own identity is, I think, the greatest predictor of what kind of poet one is likely to become, or at least sensitivity to that complexity. What I was suggesting then was already becoming obsolete & irrelevant at a rate much faster than I could ever have imagined. That makes me approach this question from a humbled position.


So rather than say what poetry two decades from now will be like, I think it makes much more sense to suggest the dynamics that I think will go into creating the new poetry, at least in the United States. Because it is clear that certain forces will have some kind of impact. The most obvious one is the absolute number of poets – and I mean competent, often brilliant writers – we live in a time of unequaled riches when it comes to poetry in the United States & the demographics are such that this should only expand. But there is a tipping point here, one that we may already have reached, where abundance transforms itself from being a good thing to something far more problematic.


I have at this point a good half century’s view on the history of poetry up close & personal, & the changes that have been wrought as a result of the sheer increase in the number of poets are several. In the 1950s – a time when the absolute number of books published in this society was only one-twentieth of what it is today – the number of poets was relatively minimal. I know I’ve remarked many times on Anselm Hollo’s comment that you could buy any small press book published in the United States in that decade in London, in good part because there were so very few. The Allen anthology represented the first major non-School of Quietude collection since Zukofsky had brought out the Objectivist Anthology nearly 30 years before. The 44 poets of the Allen anthology changed poetry forever – the benign neglect with which the SoQ had simply bypassed the likes of Pound, Williams, Stein et al for decades was now countered by an engaged position for which there was a substantive response among readers. This split was a phenomenon that can be traced back to the 1840s, when the Knickerbockers of New York dished Edgar Allan Poe because of his proximity to a group then known as the Young Americans, with the former attempting to replicate British models & the latter seeking something intrinsically new. And while there was continual potshots over the border over the years – think of Pound, for example – the first substantive, collective response doesn’t occur until 1960. We owe the poets of the Allen anthology an enormous debt for standing up to the status quo & changing it. Yet, of that group of 44, there are maybe a dozen who either did not go on to have substantial literary careers, or who only became very niche players. Bruce Boyd, Kirby Doyle, Richard Duerden, Ebbe Borregaard, Stuart Z. Perkoff, Edward Marshall. This is not a criticism of their poetry, necessarily, some of them just made life choices that took them away from publishing, if not writing altogether. Yet it gives you a sense of exactly how deep the roster was from which Allen had to choose. I mean there were obviously poets one could have argued should have been included & were not, but they tended to at the extremes with regards to age, either older & already more well known (Rexroth, Zukofsky, Rukeyser, Williams) or younger & just getting going (Joanne Kyger, Kathleen Fraser, George Stanley, James Koller, Bev Dahlen, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett). But if you accept Allen’s rationale for excluding the older writers on the grounds that, being already established, they were not by definition “new,” and that the younger ones hadn’t really started to assert themselves as much as yet as would happen a few years hence (Berrigan was a major presence at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, for example), then you realize that that revolution of the 1950s was really brought about by somewhat less than three dozen people. Three dozen, top to bottom. It’s an amazing number. On my weblog today, I have links to over 450 other poets, most of them American, most of them associated in some fashion with the post-avant world that grew out of the New American framework of the 1950s. And for every poet with a weblog, there are at least ten without. In one half century we have gone from less than 40 to several thousand practicing post-avant poets – not to even mention the School of Quietude, which itself has grown over the past fifty years, tho not I think quite to the same degree.


For a young poet, having a life or career in writing – for me at least those terms are really indistinguishable – is something very different if you plan to be one in one hundred, not one in five thousand. And if the rate of growth over the next two decades is anything like what it has been over the past three, then the problem is going to be far worse circa 2025 than it is today. You’re going to be a young poet looking at being one in 15,000. The chances of your work finding its best possible audience in such circumstances will be reduced to chance – or worse, to who you know, not what you can do. That tells me that this dynamic simply has to give.


Now obviously if you read around for awhile among today’s younger poets – those still under 40 – they are patently not all doing the same thing. Any possible combination of influences out of the New Americans & every other phenomenon since then is going on, in a variety of different ways. But it tends to be rather undifferentiated overall. You don’t find, for example, a collective like the poets who publish as Subpress advocating a particular aesthetic position. They’re by no means alone in this. And partly, because this particular cluster of folks represents an older subsegment of “younger” poetry, that may be a reaction to the bitterness that played itself out as the poetry wars of the late 1970s & early ‘80s, when the idea that change was constant came as a psychic body blow to a lot of then-younger post-New Americans. But it’s a stance that, long term, will not serve any of the writers who adopt it well, tho it may be a generational trait they’re just going to have to live with.


But I expect younger poets – the ones who are now only ten years old, who don’t even know they’re going to be poets yet – not to prove so passive in terms of their fate. Somebody – and somebody fairly soon – is going to have to stick a stake in the ground that has a terrific polarizing effect. It will reconfigure everybody’s sense of what it is that they’re doing & how this person’s work relates to that person’s, & how both of these poets relate to their own work, etc. I really have no idea what this polarizing event is likely to be, nor where it might be coming, tho it certainly won’t be coming from anybody born in the 1940s like myself. Will it be a new lyricism? Will it be a new anti-lyricism? I have no idea.


For what, really, is the alternative? If this doesn’t come about, then what we have is an increasing balkanization of poetry. The rise from 30 post-avant poets to 3,000 has been accompanied by a huge increase in the number of readers of poetry, but not, however, in the number of readers per book. It may be a post-geographic balkanization – the internet really changes the role of geography, so we may not only have a gazillion little local scenes, tho we certainly shall have a lot – but it will be a balkanization nonetheless. Everybody will have their one hundred readers & for some that will be just fine. But that kind of scenario really will cast the role of poetry in a person’s life in a very different way. That would be a far more private, almost conspiratorial kind of poetics. It will be hard if not impossible for a younger writer to come along & take from the best of a lot of different kinds of poetry, simply because it will be almost impossible to find out about most of them.


Now I have a bias in all this, towards a tradition the Provençal poets called trobar clus, the idea of a poetry that spoke to the very best in poets & readers alike, that was composed with the idea that readers are no less sophisticated than are other writers, a writing that never ever dumbs itself down in the name of communicability. This gets trashed from time to time by outsiders as a mode of deliberate difficulty, but obviously – at least I hope it’s obvious! – difficulty for the sake of difficulty is ultimately not what it’s about. That sort of intellectual preening is really a form of vanity & is characteristic neither of the best, nor even the most complex, modes of writing. Such poetry tends to be entirely on the surface, where I think the best work always involves every possible layer of writing, which is why, say, Frank O’Hara turns out to have been a far better poet than Gerald Burns.


From my perspective, the best writing in any generation is always that which most clearly adopts the stance of trobar clus. Zukofsky & Olson & Ashbery & Hejinian all have this in common, tho they share very little elsewise between them. I don’t think that you can have a trobar clus in a world of infinite balkanization, so I tend to think that the polarizing moment in poetry – when it comes – is most likely to come from exactly that perspective. Which doesn’t mean that’s necessarily where we will see it first – Ginsberg had a broad readership in the 1950s long before Olson or Creeley, for example – but if you look at Ginsberg’s writing during that decade, the cross fertilization between Williams, Whitman, Burroughs & even Olson during that period is really fascinating. A trobar clus is a collective phenomenon, first & foremost.


So my gut tells me: look for the trobar clus, look for the polarizing moment. And try to be open to this when it shows up.


Now I should mention one other important element, which is that this cannot happen in a social vacuum. The phenomenon the New Americans in the 1950s & language poetry twenty years later were very specifically reflective of larger transformations going on in society. A major reason why we have not had this sort of transformative moment in poetry over the twenty years, tho, can be traced directly to the long rightward movement of North American society over that time. Richard Nixon, we must remember, was well to the left even of Howard Dean – we have come a long way since Nixon was driven from office, very little of it good. The right is counting on the idea that this can go on forever, but even the most cursory examination of history suggests that this is bunk & that we’re going to have some very interesting times ahead. It’s related to that where I expect to find the next new polarizing moment in poetry. I hope I’m still around to see it.


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