Monday, October 15, 2007


A word about naming. Naming really matters. When the Declaration of Independence stated some 231 years ago

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed,

Thomas Jefferson and his fellow framers may even have intended the word men to include, as my grade school teachers insisted in the 1950s, all people without regard to gender, color, age or property. But it wasn’t an accident that African-American men were commonly addressed as “boy” regardless of their age well into the 20th century, or that women did not have the right to vote until 1920. Using man as the unmarked case for person did a lot to obscure all the ways in which men generally, and white male heterosexual property owners more specifically held a monopoly on state power until well into the 20th century. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all white male heterosexual property owners are created equal” doesn’t have quite the same lofty ring as the original document, but it is in fact what Jefferson’s words meant in practice. An awful lot of pain & suffering would occur over the next two centuries as that one “unmarked” word, men, got itself unpacked, socially. The problem of the Declaration is just this – in the way in which Jefferson used this phrase, there is no such thing as men. Mistaking a subset for the category of the whole – people – distorts everything. There are real consequences.

In an almost parallel, if less critical, mode, there is no such thing as a poet. There are only kinds of poets. The idea that a visual poet, a sound poet, a conventionalist who writes in rhyme & meter, a soft surrealist, a post-language poet, an identarian of any specific ethnicity or sexual orientation, a slam rapper or a cowboy poet, are somehow doing “the same thing” is so vague & confused as to be ludicrous. Yet there is one coterie of writers who insist they are just poets. They are, they contend, the unmarked case. Everybody else is marked in some fashion: gay poet, language poet, NY School, haiku poet, flarf poet, Southern poet, Filipino poet, whatever.

I realize that there are many poets, most in fact, who prefer to think of themselves as poets, period, rather than as this or that type of poet. I’m sympathetic, since I’m really no different in this regard. But I’m reminded of Marx’s adage that people make history, but not as they please. This is precisely the point where our lives as writers intersects with the social. So it’s not surprising that whenever I bring this topic up, I can always count on some response such as the quasi-anonymous Jason last Thursday, so angry that their words in the comments stream are positively sputtering. If they can just kill the messenger, they must think, this will all go away. But it won’t.

This past week’s National Book Award nominations for poetry are a scandal that should get somebody fired, not so much for the poets who were chosen – most are credible examples of the same small school of writing – as for the selection of the panel who did the choosing. Charles Simic, Linda Bierds, David St. John, Vijay Seshadri, and Natasha Trethewey may be diverse in terms of gender, race, even age, but all five represent the same neophobe movement in American letters. There is not one post-avant, not one third-way, visual, slam or other kind of poet. Imagine a National Book Foundation panel that included, say, Jack Hirschman, Antler, Diane DiPrima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti & Janice Mirikitani, all poets associated in some way with the Beat scene, and that they chose a list of possible recipients that included Eileen Myles, David Meltzer, Jack Foley, Michael Rothenberg & Amiri Baraka. There would be howls of outrage, as there were in 1979 when the National Endowment for the Arts attempted to redress that agency’s historic neglect of “marked case poets” of all kinds all at once. If there are not screams & speeches before Congress at the output of this year’s panel, it’s not because the panel represents a broader spectrum of the world of poetry, but only because it represents that tiny sliver that fancies itself as being “just poets.” This panel’s selections reflect not only aesthetic sameness, but all are white, four are published by big trade presses, all but Ellen Bryant Voigt have Ph.D.’s and teach for a living. Voigt, obviously the rebel in this scene, got her MFA at Iowa City. Oh, she too teaches.¹ At 57, Linda Gregerson is the baby of the group. As a cross-section of American poetry, this doesn’t stretch even from A to B.

For the past five years, my response to situations like this, and to the underlying conditions that permit such blatant favoritism, has been to systematically mark the unmarked poets, to name them. The phrase I’ve chosen, School of Quietude, is a term that has its roots in the correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe, who had to deal with the direct ancestors of this very same cabal of poets back in the 1840s & didn’t much appreciate the experience either. But whether I call them the SoQ, conventionalists, neophobes, “cooked” – a 1950s word borrowed from the anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss that was used during that decade to distinguish the likes of Donald Hall, Robert Pack, Louis Simpson, Robert Lowell & Richard Wilbur from the “raw” New Americans – the one term that shouldn’t apply is “mainstream.” They are no more mainstream than anyone else – that is like calling the Bill O’Reilly Show a “spin-free zone.” It’s calculated to misrepresent the facts.

Historically, the most salient features characterizing this literary movement, from the days of Poe to the present, is a backwards-looking approach to aesthetics combined with a fiercely held monopoly of the major institutions relating to poetry.

The clearest example of this monopoly is the Poet Laureate program of the Library of Congress. In its seventy year history, there have been 47 people invited to serve as the laureate or, in its early days, as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The number sometimes is given as 48 since Louise Glück served two discontinuous terms, one of them as part of a three-person “shared” laureateship during the Y2K celebration. 46 of the 47, a mere 97.9 percent, have all been card-carrying members of the School of Quietude. Indeed, you’d be better off as a traditionalist who is only marginally an American poet, such as Stephen Spender or Joseph Brodsky, than to be anywhere along the Pound-Williams-Stein-Zukofsky lineage, even tho that is also the Whitman-Dickinson lineage & indeed has been the site of most of the important poetry in American history. In reverse order, the following writers have been invited to be our poets laureate:

Charles Simic
Donald Hall
Ted Kooser
Louise Glück
Billy Collins
Stanley Kunitz
Rita Dove, Louise Glück and W.S. Merwin
Robert Pinsky
Robert Hass
Rita Dove
Mona Van Duyn
Joseph Brodsky
Mark Strand
Howard Nemerov
Richard Wilbur
Robert Penn Warren
Gwendolyn Brooks
Reed Whittemore
Robert Fitzgerald
Anthony Hecht
Maxine Kumin
William Meredith
Robert Hayden
Stanley Kunitz
Daniel Hoffman
Josephine Jacobsen
William Stafford
William Jay Smith
James Dickey
Stephen Spender
Reed Whittemore
Howard Nemerov
Louis Untermeyer
Richard Eberhart
Robert Frost
Randall Jarrell
William Carlos Williams
Conrad Aiken
Elizabeth Bishop
Leonie Adams
Robert Lowell
Karl Shapiro
Louise Bogan
Robert Penn Warren
Allen Tate
Joseph Auslander

Only one individual ever invited to serve has declined – William Carlos Williams, the one non-SoQ poet on the entire list. So in practice, our laureates have been 100-percent neophobes now for seventy years. Williams was offered the position in 1952, at a point when his health was already deep into the 15-year cardiac slide that would eventually kill him. His correspondence at the time shows him to have been ambivalent about the program at best – in his mid-sixties, he’d already suffered a lifetime of condescension and neglect from his generation’s traditionalists, the very same New Critics who took over the academy in the 1930s & ‘40s.

One might argue that Gwendolyn Brooks borders on the post-avant, or that Rita Dove doesn’t show the same Anglophile traits that are the commonest denominator on this list. Their presence here, however, demonstrates one of the least attractive neophobe traits, akin to plantation liberalism: African-Americans (but only African-Americans) are given greater leeway to stray from conventionalist writing styles. It’s not, as a result, any accident that two of the most recent post-avants to be nominated or win major literary awards should be Harryette Mullen & Nate Mackey. They richly deserve the accolades, but their selection is consistent with the most cynical of interpretations about the governance of these institutions.

But it is true that, as the number of publishing poets in the United States has grown from a few hundred in the 1950s to over 10,000 today, neophobes have lost their stranglehold on some literary institutions. Not only have counter-institutions grown up, such as the poetics programs at New College and Naropa, but a number of degree-granting institutions – from SUNY Buffalo to Mills to Brown to Bard to Penn to UC San Diego – have become known as sites of the post-avant. Even Iowa City – never quite comfortable with the Anglophile New England scene that dominates the trade presses & awards – now has a diverse faculty. Over the past 18 months, The Nation has begun to publish poets like Rae Armantrout, Jordan Davis & Jennifer Moxley. This year's Lenore Marshall prize went to Alice Notley . . . without a single post-avant on the selection committee.

It’s not that there are no great neophobe poets – Robert Hass, one of this year’s NBA finalists, & Wendell Berry are as good as any post-avant alive, as were Elizabeth Bishop & Thom Gunn. But the School of Q is just one scene among many and for it to exercise the kind of hold it has had on an institution like the Poet Laureate’s slot should be embarrassing to everyone. As for the National Book Award process, this year’s honey pot simply reveals the degree to which the National Book Foundation is just a marketing tool for the major trade publishers & distributors, who have always been the captive of one this little scene. The name of this game isn’t who picks the winner, but rather who picks the judges.


¹ Keep in mind that if each of the 450 degree-granting writing programs employ six poets as professors – a number that is certainly high – fewer than 3,000 of the 10,000 publishing poets teach in such programs. At least seventy percent do something else.


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