I have finished with my blogging for the Poetry Foundation and in a week I’m going to Sweden to finish my Sugar Book/Sockerboken (it was either Skåne or Los Angeles, I chose to go home), and after that I don’t know that I’ll be doing much more blogging.
But before I go, I feel like I should throw out some ideas about academic criticism and its role in contemporary American poetry, because that’s a topic I have thought a lot about, and I hope this might lead to some interesting discussions. I have obviously very ambivalent feelings about this subject matter. What strikes me first about a lot of scholars is that they are very eager to critique MFA programs for creating homogeneity etc, but seem totally clueless about how their own PhDs have very similar effects.
I have written a lot about the prevalence of the rhetoric of “too much” in contemporary poetry. It is not surprising that it is critics like Steve Burt and Marjorie Perloff – critics who have actually ventured out of the ivory tower of academia to try to assess contemporary poetry – that have expressed this sentiment most consciously. They’ve seen the plague ground of the contemporary! But really, this rhetoric is incredibly pervasive in academia, and it’s just as pervasive among experimental or “avant-garde studies” professors as “traditionalist” professors.
The reason for this is very simple. Academia is based on the idea of “mastery” of a “field.” A “capacious” sense of the field, but mastery all the same (this is why the current incarnation of “the avant-garde” almost entirely coincides with the study of contemporary poetry, its’ a perfect fit, but more about that in a future post). In this case “the field of contemporary poetry.” To master this field, scholars need to have read the right texts (canonical poetry as well as secondary scholarship).
In some sense what scholars master is a “taste” – they learn to appreciate that Eliot – not say Harry Crosby – is a “major figure. They read a bunch of books that show why this is the case; they master a taste. Except, they don’t call it taste, because taste is not objective; taste is variable. So they say “this or that poet is major” or “important” – and the reason they can prove this is that he holds a certain place in the lineage of modern american poetry. I’m simplifying here quite a bit, but this basically is what’s going on.
But it’s not just the field-ness of the field that exerts pressure on scholars’ taste. Scholarship demands poems that can be *read* productively – ie that it is interesting to write papers analyzing. The poets have to show mastery – ie that they are in control (thus Daniel Tiffany’s discovery that kitsch is “excessive beauty”, not being in control of the art, being intoxicated by the poetry). As Donald Dunbar put it in his post on HTMLGiant the other week:
Most of the people who have taken most issue with this have Ph.D.’s. Ph.D.’s are wonderful things and I wish I had one, but a Ph.D.-ed poet who doesn’t think that their degree might give them special access to plenty of poetry today does not have much faith in their degree, and, given that, a Ph.D. who doesn’t acknowledge that some dedicated, smart people sometimes feel left out of the greater conversation of poetry–for lack of half-a-decade of time and specialized training, as well as a host of other things–seems kinda hegemonic. I also don’t understand, though I’ve heard the argument before, that four-ish years of intense study in a very specific environment (i.e. small-town mid-west) doing a very specific job (teaching comp to freshmen) does not seriously affect one’s poetry in a very specific way. It’s unfair to say that living that life and ceaselessly engaging in those dialogues makes one’s poetry hermetic, but does it make poetry more likely to be considered hermetic by those outside that lifestyle? I say maybe.
Well, of course *the contemporary* causes all kinds of problems. No wonder James Longenbach keeps demonizing “Brooklyn” for being “cool.” In Brooklyn there are a ton of reading series and presses (Ugly Duckling, Litmus etc), and perhaps even more threatening, in Brooklyn there are hipsters who don’t care about official lineage, but follows the latest literary fads (more about this in another post). There is “too much” American poetry to shape into a field.
This becomes even worse when Brooklynites start translating foreign verse, poetry which reveals that there are alternative lineages, according to which what is good poetry is very different. (In South Korea, Kim Hyesoon is a poet of huge historical importance, but in the US she’s a marginal figure, published by that marginal, horrible press Action Book which has no taste – in part because it comes from foreign sources.)
But in fact, at the very same time, scholars need there to be “too much” (there always has been since the dawn of industrialization, or at least since gaudy hipsters like Keats who, without the proper taste, published their tasteless verse and needed to be weeded out), because it is the presence of “too much” that gives the scholar/critic the important function of sorting the gold from the shit. It gives them their conservative function of taste-makers.
(In Brooklyn, people imitate each other (mannerism, the social, a horizontal axis), while true poets grapple by themselves with true poetry (vertical axis). Brooklyn has no named poets; just masses of groups.)
I read a lot of criticism, though not so much about contemporary poetry, this field is so incredibly narrow (there are only so many times one can read the same mantra about language poetry over and over). I’m not an anti-intellectual by any means, but I have a real problem with this narrowness of the “field,” and even more, with the sense that poetry IS a FIELD that you can MASTER.
Rather than pretending this master and repeating the same tired formulas/narratives over and over, I think the critics should wade out into the plague grounds of American Poetry.
In response to my last post about “The Importance of Taking Sides” (by which I meant more like acknowledging that you have a side), Steve Burt wrote this on his facebook page:
“Should I write more about present-day poets whose foundational assumptions are far from mine, *and* whose poetry I don’t much like? or about poets whose foundational assumption are close to mine, but whose work I don’t usually like? I do write about some poets whose foundational assumptions are far from mine but whose work I like anyway. (Responding to Don Share & Johannes Göransson.)”
I think this is an honest, good question to ask of oneself. (And I hope this post continues to open those questions up.)
This is what I wrote:
“OF course Steve should try to grapple with poetry he doesn’t immediately like!! He’s a scholar of contemporary poetry – shouldn’t he try to understand as much of it as possible? And also he’s a critic with a very unusual position: he actually gets to write for journals/magazines/newspapers with large circulations. Shouldn’t he try to portray many facets of poetry? And also: I think it’s really interesting to try to view American poetry in a more transnational perspective. A lot of other cultures don’t hold the same assumptions we do – a no brainer perhaps, but mostly american poets/critics act like we’re the only literature in the world. So: YES! Steve, you should definitely engage with works you are not immediately comfortable with.”
As I said, I’m not opposed to scholarship. I also think that those friends of mine who say that scholarship doesn’t matter to contemporary poetry are wrong: Scholars introduce a huge part of poetry readership to contemporary poetry, scholars write about contemporary poetry, and to a very real extent (poets tend to want to deny this) scholars establish a sense of “high taste” that very much influences contemporary poets. So I think it’s worth discussing.
In the meantime, please chip in with your views!