Thursday, March 12, 2009

I was reading Marjorie Perloff’s interview with Hélène Aji and Antoine Cazé, and in it Perloff discusses – and for the most part dismisses – anthologies. It made me stop and think about how the role of the anthology, as a project, changes not just with the book, but over time as well.

Consider for example the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, published in 1960, and still the most successful volume in the genre nearly 50 years later. It included 44 post-avant poets at a time when no contemporaneous account of the total number of publishing U.S.poets estimated more than 100. In hindsight, I think those estimates were low and that a more reasonable figure in 1960 would have been somewhere between 200 and 500, but certainly not more than that latter tally. Whatever the actual count, the Allen anthology represented a substantial portion of the publishing poets in America, somewhere between 10 and 40 percent of the entire spectrum. What Allen was doing was gathering together and foregrounding a particular part of the spectrum of what was being done. In doing so, he repositioned the spectrum itself, which could no longer pretend that there were simply competent American poets and the rest.

A half century later, there are well over 10,000 poets publishing in English in the U.S., a sum that is at least 20 times – and conceivably 100 times – the number active when Allen pulled together his book. One of Perloff’s complaints is that “anthologies have gotten narrower rather than broader,” but this is looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope. The narrowest of the three examples she gives, “experimental women poets,” is today a category so large that an anthology – there is more than one with this focus – represents an attempt to sort through the hundreds, if not thousands, of poets who might legitimately seek to be included. The New American Poetry had four women poets: Helen Adam, Barbara Guest, Madeline Gleason & Denise Levertov. Even when one acknowledges the other women writers who should have been included – e.g., Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Kathleen Fraser, Hettie Jones – the number is tiny. Indeed, the first anthology of post-avant women’s writing, published in 1962 by Totem/Corinth Press & with an introduction from the then-LeRoi Jones, was entitled Four Young Lady Poets, and included Barbara Moraff, Carol Berge, Rochelle Owens & Diane Wakoski. In 1962, this is not a category that appears to have inspired double digits. That title tells you just how far removed from the present day that epoch was.

So it is not that anthology editors have become more narrow in their conception over time, but rather that the field itself has become so large & diverse that new tools, and new levels of specificity, are required to make sense of it. For someone like Perloff, who is anxious to preserve the role of the critic as gatekeeper – as she says elsewhere in the same interview “I like to pick the winners” – the recalibration required just to stay in focus when going over a constantly (and rapidly) expanding field presents an enormous challenge. The whole idea of seeking “to see who ‘the great ones’ are” requires a stability of perspective that may in fact not stay stable when the terrain expands by an order of magnitude, and then does so again.

Plus Perloff is certainly smart enough to see that arguing, instead, for “timeless values” is the same old con invoked by Official Verse Culture when it lamely attempts to pass off the likes of an Andrew Motion as a serious writer. As she herself notes in the interview¹, English-language poetry in the 19th century, especially in the U.K., was the expression of the culture of Christian white males. Power – political and economic – was close at hand. As we enter the 21st century, poetry instead has become the domain of outsiders – subalterns are everywhere. In the U.S., even among the more conservative poets, you will find relatively few committed Republicans with major corporate backgrounds a la Dana Gioia. Many more are gay or lesbian, and more than a few are immigrants a la Charlie Simic. Indeed, one of the most interesting moves by Official Verse Culture in the U.S. has been the adoption of several successful Irish quietists, such as Paul Muldoon and Eavan Boland, who both represent the “center” over there that some factions within the School of Quietude seek to preserve, while themselves being literally ec-centric from a strictly Oxbridge perspective. And the posties? We’re as motley a crew as one can find on these shores.

But just tracking the evolution of even one strand of oppositional poetics from its location in the 1950s – four women in an anthology of 44 poets from a field that did not exceed 500 – to large anthologies of “experimental women poets” will demonstrate the transformation. Mary Margaret Sloan’s Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, a volume that is already demanding escalated rare book prices just eleven years after publication, has 50 poets, tracking the transition from the New Americans in the 1950s up to the early ‘90s. Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv, edited by Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace & Lesley Wheeler, has 259 contributors, the bulk of whom could be called innovative as well. Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics has over 100 poets – the “San Francisco Renaissance” section of The New American Poetry had just 13.

Both Bay Poetics and Letters to the World aren’t focused precisely on post-avant poetics, tho it would be easy to read them that way as that segment of the spectrum has expanded at a faster rate than any other over the past half century. But – and this was the point I set out to make when I sat down to write – the expansion itself is by far the more important process. We are rapidly reaching the point where one’s relationship to the overall map is less important than one’s relation to how the map is changing as it grows.

In the poetry wars of the late 1970s & early ‘80s, the primary objection that some poets had toward language writing was that it changed the map to which they’d sworn allegiance. They were committed to their reading(s) of the New American Poetry and the idea that it no longer was an Eternal Truth as to how poetry existed was considered heresy. Today we are twice the distance from that era than it was from the New Americans. It is all but impossible to even characterize the map of poetry today. If this were the 1950s, a quarter of America’s poets would be producing flarf, another quarter conceptual poetry. What we have is a much bigger pie, and one sliced into many more fairly narrow slices. And it’s up for grabs as to the order in which they fit.

That’s very bad – very nearly fatal – for the process of “picking the winners.” But it’s actually very good for poetry, which is far richer today than it has ever been in its history. What we need, however, is for our critical thinking to catch up.


¹ “There is no question that Modernist and Postmodernist literature is by definition an exile literature. Think of the Romantics and Victorians in England—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning and the novelists Jane Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens—they were all English writers, with English names and they were all Christian. In the 20th C, this changes. Think of the ‘French’ poets Apollinaire and Cendrars, both of them pseudonymous poets who were not French at all. Think of Tristan Tzara (Sammy Rosenbaum) or the Czech Jewish Kafka writing in German or in the U.S., the various African-American poets. By the later twentieth century in America, exile has become the aesthetic norm from Black Mountain (founded by Joseph Albers) to the absorption of French poststructuralist theory and the Frankfurt School.”