Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Poetics of the Mongrel

Whoever it is that has accused Ron of obsolescence sounds deeply threatened by any but the stiffest of poetics. And, I can say that, except for Tate, I can't think of a year in which a deserving poet won the Pulitzer; it seems to be virtually a guarantor of irrelevance, a Trojan Horse if you will.

Now, I love Ron as a poet and a critic and I can't think of a piece of critical writing as powerful, unpretentious and rigorously logical as "The New Sentence." Reading it changed the way I think about poetry, about Stein, about grammar. But for a long time now, I've been troubled by the rather easy opposition he sets up between the "School of Quietude" and "The New Americans." I do prefer it to the default distinction--mainstream vs. avant-garde/ post-avant, etc., which seems blatantly pejorative and reads the poetry market wrongly. It seems obvious, but it must be said: any binary distinctions drawn between something as complex as 20th-century poetry are going to ignore the complex, imbricated and multivariable lineages that make the poets we like to read the poets we like to read. The term "New Americans" seems to literalize as a self-conscious school what was the ex-post-facto work of an anthologist, and at times "School of Quietude" seems to impute to certain poets an almost conspiratorial cohesion. Certainly the Pound-Williams--->Zukovsky-Oppen--->Olson-Creeley-Duncan lineage is a coherent and powerful genealogy that kept important aesthetic and poetic views alive. But I find it important to remember that Ashbery, for instance, is as much the child of Stein as he is of Stevens and Auden. What, exactly, is genteel and corseted about Berryman's The Dream Songs? It's about as noisy, shocking and formally experimental a work as I can imagine. Sometimes, I feel that with such binary distinctions poets get judged more by their associations and friends than the actual qualities and characteristics of their work. This is the danger of an overly historical perspective. Rae Armantrout, a poet I admire deeply, is not really all that experimental--on the continuum Quiet/New American she's probably right about where Jorie Graham is. But it seems as if her lineage, and her associations, causes people to read the poems differently.

Such distinctions are going to be useful at lining poets up into rows only to a certain point--we could divide writers depending upon the orientation to the self, to reverence, to form, politics, etc., and each would prove useful to a certain point, more useful for some poets than for others. But to continue to reify the political meaning of a certain group of poets' stance to another group of poets decades after the continental plates have shifted is to fight an invisible enemy. It's been said before and I'll say it again: avant-garde practices don't carry the same meaning today that they did forty years ago, and the best writers, I think, are aware of the ways in which their poems' iterability frustrates any kind of complete meaning in them, or so says Derrida. There are always going to be, thank god, interesting writers who frustrate these categories. And the poetic world today--where one can inherit both Merrill and Clark Coolidge--seems to laugh off such an easy distinction. This is why I admire the way that Jordan reads, with an aesthetic receptive to the accomplishments of people from all across the spectrum, however inadequately you choose to frame it. Most of the best poets these days are mongrels. Toward a poetics of the mongrel, the bastard, the orphaned!


loveandsalt said...

Thank you for that thoughtful addition to the debate (which doesn't really need to be a debate as you say, and I agree.) And yes, let's be mongrels, bastards, orphans.
(I claim all three designations, literally...)

Gabriel said...
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