Wednesday, June 24, 2009

American Hybrid is an important book, but also a very curious one. The anthology, edited by Cole Swensen & David St. John, is an attempt at a comprehensive anthology of “Third Way” poetics by poets representing both of the major traditions that feed into the hybridization process. This fact alone ensures the book’s historic importance, not only for the effort at codifying what hybrid poetics might actually be, but also because one of these two traditions has been historically shy about announcing its collective identity in the form of movements, wings, tendencies, whatever you might wish to call the collective formation of like-thinking writers.¹

The last significant instance of a Quietist movement, as such, was New Formalism, which was a lot like the Old Formalism, only younger, rising up about 20 years ago after the Iowists & Leaping Poets had taken the quietist mode of free verse lyric & confessional monolog about as far as they could go. Not unlike the New Coast / Apex of the M uprising at the same time amongst post-avant poetics, New Formalism saw itself as a corrective, a return to core values of a literary tradition that had been abandoned by their elders in a postmodern time. In parallel mode, Apex of the M noted that Language Writing, as such, had neglected Christian mysticism, which was true enough if you ignored the front-and-center-presence of Fanny Howe, the role of religion in the work of poets as diverse as Rae Armantrout & Alan Davies & all these connections that many langpos had to other spiritual traditions, from Zen to Judaism. New Formalism noted that the Old Formalists had come up empty – one anthology of formalism in the 20th century had not a single contributor born in the 1930s, as so many Old Formies had become apostate Quietist rebels, from Bill Merwin to Adrienne Rich to Donald Hall to Robert Bly & James Wright.

Hybrid poetics operates on very different principles. Rather than representing a revolt from within either literary tradition, it seeks to ameliorate the borders betwixt the two, to operate perhaps as if no chasm in aesthetic & cultural values gave rise to these traditions, as if, in fact, they didn’t always already represent something very real.

Cole Swensen admits as much right at the beginning of her very smart introduction:

The notion of a fundamental division in American poetry has become so ingrained that we take it for granted. Robert Lowell famously portrayed it in the 1950s and 1960s as a split between “the cooked and the uncooked,” and Eliot Weinberger updated the assertion over thirty years later in his anthology American Poetry Since 1950 (1993) when he stated that “For decades, American poetry has been divided into two camps.” Were the poetic landscapes of 1960 and 1993 as similar as these two statements might imply? And where are we in relation to them today, at the end of the first decade of the new millennium? This anthology springs from the conviction that the model of binary opposition is no longer the most accurate one and that, while extremes remain, and everywhere we find complex aesthetic and ideological differences, the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of previous “camps” in diverse and unprecedented ways.

I don’t know about 2009, but I do know that this is a position very close to the one that Cole Swensen took as my student in 1982 at San Francisco State University. It’s a belief long & deeply held. And she was already an awesomely talented young writer, capable of adapting from one form to the next, regardless of the mode’s origins. Much of what we did in that class was read through the books that would form the core of an anthology I was then in the process of editing, In the American Tree.

American Hybrid is not a take on the Tree, nor even a dissent as such, although it does very much remind me of one of its predecessors, Robert Kelly & Paris Leary’s underappreciated 1967 masterpiece, A Controversy of Poets. Kelly & Leary did not attempt to bandage over the gulf that separated the New American poets of the 1960s with the old school anglophiles of a self-styled mainstream – in fact, they wanted to highlight the differences. Each editor got half the choices in the volume, although both picked Robert Duncan (who in turn refused to participate in any anthology that had quietists in it). It was in a discussion of the Kelly-Leary anthology that I first invoked Edgar Allan Poe’s School of Quietude.

Yet Kelly & Leary didn’t do what might seem obvious: divide the book into two warring sections – 42 years later you would have been able to tell what kind of readers the book had by which pages were more worn. Rather Controversy shuffled them alphabetically, which muted the effect. That organizational principle – editors bringing their own kind to the collection & but then intermingling them A to Z – appears to be exactly what has happened with American Hybrid. One might go so far as to call this A Controversy of Poets, Vol. 2.

Which, I think, is where the curiosities start. For one thing, American Hybrid is a vast collection – although it has 100 fewer pages than Tree, it holds 74 contributors, dwarfing the 40 that appeared in my volume. Hybrid accomplishes this by holding everybody to roughly seven pages (a one-page intro/bionote, followed by six pages of text). No according influential elders, such as Barbara Guest, a broader sweep so as to underscore her enormous impact on women poets (and younger poets generally) over the past 25 years. And then there is the question of having a Barbara Guest, a John Ashbery, Etel Adnan, Charles Wright, Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop or Kathleen Fraser – all poets on the high side of 70 – in a collection of new poetry. Two of these writers were in The New American Poetry, the volume that, more than any other, engaged Quietism openly in 1960, challenging the conservative claim to being “mainstream.” And Fraser, whose first book did not appear until 1968 (when it was published by a follower of Robert Bly), has long insisted that she could have been included in that volume as well.

The inclusion of these older poets is an interesting decision, not only because I can recall coming to the opposite conclusion with Tree, deciding not to include older writers with fixed public identities prior to the rise of language writing – I thought it would blur the distinctness I was trying to highlight – but also because Hybrid’s incorporation of septuagenarian (or older) poets tells us something interesting & new about American poetry. When I was editing Tree in the early 1980s, the likes of Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Larry Eigner et al were not yet 60. Among the prior generation, the Objectivists, Zukofsky & Niedecker were dead, Bunting & Oppen were slipping back into silence, & Rakosi & Reznikoff were not a part of any discussions of then-contemporary poetry that I ever heard. Poets in their 70s & 80s were not having an important impact on shaping new poetry. Twenty-five years later, this is no longer the case. Hybrid is the first anthology I’m aware of to recognize & acknowledge this shift.

This does, however, have exactly the impact of blurring distinctness that I worried about with Tree, which Hybrid then exacerbates with alphabetical organization, the weakest editing strategy known to humankind. Actually, it’s not an editing strategy at all, but a marker of the abdication of one.² There are influential figures here – Guest, Jorie Graham, C.D. Wright, Robert Hass – but organizing the volume around such power centers would have led to a very different book. And possibly some real contentiousness amongst the editors & contributors, tho that could have been a good thing rather than a bad one if handled right. But it might have made clear that the answer to a typical question about contributors to this volume – say, What do Laura Moriarty or Juliana Spahr have to do with the poetry of Norman Dubie? – is in fact: nothing. But there are poets here presumably for whom Dubie is an important figure, or else his presence & the absence of another adventuresome Quietist (Frank Bidart, say, or Mark Doty) might raise eyebrows.

And it’s at the level – a given for any anthology – of looking at who got included, and who did not, that American Hybrid is perhaps at its quirkiest. If it’s hard to fathom why, for example, Dubie, Arthur Vogelsang or Charles Wright – standard off-the-shelf Quietists – are here; the same is true for Juliana Spahr, Harryette Mullen or Rod Smith, poets who are forever pushing boundaries. If Spahr, Mullen & Smith are here, why not Jena Osman or Kevin Davies? If Dubie, why not Robert Pinsky? Why so few poets out of the New York School (Ashbery, Guest, Alice Notley, John Yau) and so many language poets (Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, the sisters Howe, Michael Palmer, Stephen Ratcliffe, Mullen, Moriarty)? Why aren’t Maxine Chernoff,  Elaine Equi, Leslie Scalapino or Beth Baruch Joselow included? Or many, many younger poets who seem entirely enscribed within hybridism, from Jasper Bernes to Donna Stonecipher to Thalia Field? Why Dean Young & not Kevin Young? And why not Bob Perelman or James Tate, poets who have had a shaping influence on Dean Young’s work, and are certainly not outside whatever circle could include both Spahr & Dubie? Those are exactly the sorts of questions that an actual editing strategy would have raised up & forced the editors to more concretely & explicitly address. (In fact, taking American Hybrid & editing it would be a terrific assignment for a graduate poetry seminar.)

There are, of course, limitations. But what jumps out at least for this reader is that, with 74 contributors, this collection is much, much shorter than it could have been. Further, there seems to be an overwhelming emphasis on poets who teach creative writing. Over 50 of the poets included currently teach writing, a number that would have been higher had there not been several emeritae faculty and two dead poets in the collection.³ Schools with multiple faculty included are UCLA, UNLV, Berkeley, Mills, San Francisco State, Bard, Brown, U. Mass Amherst, the University of Denver, Princeton and the University of Iowa. Twelve of the poets here either currently teach in the Bay Area, or have done so in the not too distant past. In a world with at least 20,000 English-language poets & some 808 degree-granting writing programs, there simply aren’t enough jobs in colleges for poets for this to be a statistical accident.

This I think points to the problem that underscores this collection. It would have made far greater sense to have focused not on some of the questionable choices here, but on the writing of the next generation – their students. If there truly is an American hybrid poetics, it is not in some mythic place where Lyn Hejinian & Norman Dubie are in any sense “the same thing” or even part of a larger confluence, but in the work of their students, people conceivably influenced by both. This would have left you with a very different book – the average age of the authors would not be, as it seems here, on the high side of 50 – with many more contributors than we find in the Swensen-St. John collection. And you could have done it without shifting the aesthetics of the book one inch.

So is there an American hybrid writing? Surely, although it is not so clear the degree to which it exists as a self-aware literary tendency, the way language poetry or slow poetry (I prefer the rubric “developmentally challenged”) have been. To the degree that we see Quietists actually articulating some sense of a literary movement, it can only be a good thing. To the utopian notion that hybridism will somehow, some day, heal the broader cultural and political rupture between aesthetic conservatives & progressives, I’m much more skeptical. Asking William Logan to write as though the 20th century has begun (let alone the 21st) is like recruiting Rush Limbaugh for your MoveOn group. A more comprehensive (& adequate) set of questions might form around an issue such as what is it that younger writers can take from both traditions, and why is it that so many younger writers are conflict averse in a world in which conflict itself is inherent? What is the attraction to not taking a stand?


¹ It’s not the first anthology to focus specifically on this group of writers. Reginald Shepherd’s Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries covers much the same ground. Sixteen of his 22 contributors are included among the 74 in American Hybrid. One could read American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, edited by Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell, in a like vein, although it has a broader reach , and just four of its 13 contributors show up in Hybrid.

² This abdication is an echo of the worst of the poltical tendencies of the left in the 1970s, groups that protested the misuse of power by major institutions &, so as not to do likewise themselves (as had the New Left in the 1960s, especially where issues of gender were concerned), refused to exercise power themselves, creating organizational vacuums that simply compromised the effectiveness of several different movements while rendering the actual power politics of the group invisible to all but a handful of insiders.

³ Poets included in American Hybrid & their current or listed teaching affiliations:

Etel Adnan
Ralph Angel, University of Redland
Rae Armantrout, UC San Diego
John Ashbery, Bard
Mary Jo Bang, Washington University (St. Louis)
Joshua Beckman
Cal Bedient, UCLA
Molly Bendall, USC
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Michael Burkhard, Syracuse
Killarney Clarey
Norma Cole
Gillian Conoley, Sonoma State
Martin Corless-Smith, Boise State
Stacy Doris, San Francisco State
Norman Dubie, Arizona State
Lynn Emanuel, Univesity of Pittsburgh
Kathleen Fraser, emerita, San Francisco State
Alice Fulton, Cornell
James Galvin, Iowa City
Forrest Gander, Brown
C.S. Giscombe, Berkeley
Peter Gizzi, U Mass Amhest
Albert Goldbarth, Wichita State
Jorie Graham, Harvard
Barbara Guest, deceased
Robert Hass, Berkeley
Lyn Hejinian, Berkeley
Brenda Hillman, St. Mary’s (Moraga)
Paul Hoover, San Francisco State
Fanny Howe, emerita, UC San Diego
Susan Howe, emerita, SUNY Buffalo
Andrew Joron
Claudia Keelan, UNLV
Myung Mi Kim, SUNY Buffalo
Ann Lauterbach, Bard
Mark Levine, Iowa
Nathaniel Mackey, UC Santa Cruz
Stefany Marlis
Mark McMorris, Georgetown
Jane Miller, University of Arizona
Laura Moriarty
Jennifer Moxley, Maine
Harryette Mullen, UCLA
Laura Mullen, LSU
Alice Notley
Michael Palmer
D.A. Powell, USF
Bin Ramke, U of Denver
Claudia Rankine, Pomona
Stephen Ratcliffe, Mills
Donald Revell, UNLV
Elizabeth Robinson
Martha Ronk, Occidental
Mary Ruefle
Reginald Shepherd, deceased
Eleni Sikelianos, U. of Denver
Rod Smith
Carol Snow
Juliana Spahr, Mills
Susan Stewart, Princeton
John Taggart, emeritus, U. of Shippensburg
Arthur Vogelsang
Anne Waldman, Naropa
Keith Waldrop, Brown
Rosmarie Waldrop
Marjorie Welish
Susan Wheeler, Princeton
Dara Wier, U. Mas Amherst
Elizabeth Willis, Wesleyan
C.D. Wright, Brown
Charles Wright, Virginia
John Yau, Visual Arts, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers
Dean Young, U. Texas, Austin