Friday, June 30, 2006

I don’t teach that often, maybe once every five or six years, save for one-day deals here & there. Over the years I’ve turned down a couple of tenure-track positions – they always assume you’re willing to take a 50 percent (or more) cut in pay – as well as a number of adjunct and one-semester or one-year positions. So when I actually do run into a class of bright, energetic, talented individuals, especially at the graduate level (thus having thought enough about what they want to do for writing to be more than a distraction in the undergrad hookup scene), I get a great rush of enthusiasm. These folks are great and a few of them have the chops to do something serious with writing.

But they’re so unread! This was an observation I made with my first grad level class at San Francisco State in 1982 & it really isn’t any different today. If anything, the sheer fragmentation of literary communities as the number of published books of poetry have expanded each year has made the problem far more daunting. When I was at SF State, I passed around a list of 25 author and 25 book titles – typical examples would have Ed Dorn & Sylvia Plath, Gunslinger & Ariel – asking my students to connect names to the titles. Nobody in that class got more than a quarter of the answers right. At Naropa, I’ve run into students – not all of them, thankfully – who had not previously heard of Charles Olson or Robert Duncan, let alone all that has happened in the 40 years of American poetry since the New Americans reigned pretty much unchallenged over the post-avant landscape in the 1960s. Don’t even get me started on who had heard of the Objectivists.

These folks are not dunderheads, not in the slightest, but unless you’ve had John Taggart as a teacher (one of my students has), studied at one of a handful of identifiable schools like SUNY Buffalo, Brown, Bard, Temple, Penn, Mills, Wayne State or UC San Diego, or are some kind of manic autodidact, your chances of entering a graduate school program with even a remote understanding of the history of American poetry over the past half century are pretty minimal. (High schools, where poetry is routinely taught by people who don’t even read it for pleasure, are of course a million times worse.)

Think for a moment of just what the problem is. If you read two books of poetry per week, you will fall behind in your knowledge of what exists and is out there to the tune of 3,900 books a year at minimum. Another way of putting it is that, at two books per week, you could read the poetry books published in the U.S. just in 2006 by roughly 2045. If you read a book a day, however, you can get it done by the end of 2014 or thereabouts. And then you could begin on 2007.

This is obviously where canons, anthologies and selection comes in. You really don’t want to read all 4,000 titles that will be published this year, regardless of what your allegiance is to aesthetic camps. Indeed, you can’t possibly read just the post-avant texts that will be published this year, just because it’s probably the largest single semi-coherent grouping of those titles today. It would not shock me to discover that, of the 4,000 titles, as many as 1,500 can be identified as post-avant, either some kind of poetry that grew out of the various traditions once represented by the New American poetry or some other postmodern tendency (Stein, dada, surrealism, sound poetry & vispo, for example, were all noticeably not a part of the New American scene). Perhaps 500 books out of that pile of 4,000 can be traced likewise back to the School of Quietude, itself an ensemble of different tendencies wedded toward a view of poetics that shuns ongoing formal development. Maybe another 500 are involved principally in some kind of identarian practice. And the last 1,500 have no allegiance or connection really to anything. Some of these are fiercely independent isolatos, but the bulk are no more well read than are my students this week. These authors are disconnected because they really are disconnected.¹

Now I may have my numbers wrong here – there may be as many as 2,000 post-avant books, for example – but if you want to challenge the numbers, I suggest you put up some alternative ones of your own, thank you.

The culprit here no doubt is undergraduate curricula, which sees no need to teach contemporary poetry, or does so ahistorically, without reference to the shape of the landscape. You can call that educational malpractice – and it surely is – but the real question isn’t what to call it, but rather what to do about it. I would presume, for example, that even the sleepiest of MFA programs² confront the same problem with each incoming class.

I do have a suggestion. Two actually. One for students, another for schools. For students I would seriously recommend taking a year off between your undergraduate education & any MFA program you might be thinking about. Use this year to read voluminously and historically. I would start with Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry. Of the 44 poets in that volume, there are least 30 whose work you should know pretty much in its entirety. You should also be able to trace at least three of the groupings – the Projectivists, the New York School and the Beats – to their current manifestations. How do you get from Robert Creeley to Graham Foust? From John Ashbery to Laura Sims or Catherine Wagner? From Charles Olson or Ed Dorn to Dale Smith? From any one of the Beats, say, to Lee Ann Brown? Then take your favorite contemporary poets and trace their lineages, their influences, back to the 1950s. Does it take you to the Allen anthology or lead elsewhere? For example, is Philip Lamantia the only connection you can find in the Allen for what Linh Dinh is doing now? Is there any evidence that Dinh has even read Lamantia? If not, what common sources elsewhere might these two very different writers have?

There are more recent anthologies, of which Paul Hoover’s Norton Postmodern is almost certainly the best, that attempt to give a sense of the broader contemporary landscape. How do these poets fit into those same historic lineages? Then take an anthology devoted to new poets – such as Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics – and conduct the same exercise. If you can get through all this in one year, ask yourself why there has not been a good anthology of Objectivist poetry – the generation that comes after Pound & Williams, but before the New Americans – since 1932. Read all of them & then work your way back to the modernists.

That would be a year of excellent reading, and it would give you a foundation to build upon as a poet. The choices you made for your own poetry would be based on some perspective, not simply because you don’t know better.

For schools, my recommendation isn’t so different. Rather than simply admitting students to MFA programs if they have a remotely decent manuscript (or simply the dollars necessary to pay the tuition), grad programs should require prospective students to write a critical or historical paper. For prospective poets, that paper would take the Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, as its starting point. Students would have a large number of options including tracing on grouping in the anthology up to the present, identifying major new poets and formal evolutions along the way, analyzing the relationships between one another (and between the poetry of one another) of one or more writers from each of the different sections of the anthology, writing about the absence of people of color from the anthology and the relationship of a particular identarian poetics to the poetics of the Allen anthology as it has developed from the 1960s to the present, writing about the relative absence of women from the anthology and doing pretty much the same thing there, writing about a new trend in American poetics and how it relates to (or contests) the poetics implicit in the Allen anthology, writing about a particular kind of poetics or poet (vispo, deep image, performance poetics, chance poetry, W.S. Merwin, Robert Lowell, Robert Bly, James Wright, rap poetics etc.) that is absent from the anthology, analyzing why that is and what that means, and tracing the influence of that alternative poetics to the present. All of these essays would require prospective student finally to position themselves with regards to whatever they’re writing about, and to write about their hopes for this line of development going forward and how they fit into that.

This is not, you might have noticed, so terribly different from the questionnaire that Jack Spicer used for his own Magic Workshop back in the 1950s, where he asked prospective attendees to choose one of two models for literary inheritance (one looks like a genealogy chart, the other planets in outer space, some larger, others smaller, some central, others not) and to fill in the boxes. Spicer’s Magic Workshop was not only a seminal event in the history of U.S. poetry in the 1950s, it should be noted that some of the successful applicants went on to become significant poets of a kind completely unlike Spicer, such as Jack Gilbert.

I don’t imagine that this exercise would beget a generation of students who sought to write like the next New American Poetry, only that it would help generate a cohort of MFA students who were not illiterates when it comes to American literary history. That way MFA programs would not have to spend at least half of their two-year programs on remedial education. And it just might cause a few more undergraduate programs to look at what they’re doing when they teach contemporary poetry.


¹ These numbers also suggest that the quickest way to become famous as a poet is to become a School of Quietude writer. There aren’t as many of them, they have almost bizarre dominance over the Big Six trade presses with all the distribution that implies, and you don’t have to be very good to be one of the very best. It’s exactly this same logic that has enabled Clarence Thomas and Condi Rice to become historic trendsetters in the African-American community, without ever being even remotely close to being the best or brightest. This strategy does mean that you’ll have to play at the shallow end of the pool all your days, but some folks find that to be their comfort zone.

² And wouldn’t it be fun to have contest identifying those.