Anthologies, poetry, and postmodernism.
Gertrude Stein, "Composition as Explanation" (1926)
Several new anthologies provide an occasion to think through a number of thorny pedagogical and theoretical issues concerning postmodern American poetry. The three anthologies which I examine in this essay provoke various questions concerning the representation of postmodern American poetry.(1) First, is "postmodernism" a chronological term or an aesthetic term (or a mixture of both), and what is the relationship of post-modernism to modernism? Second, a series of questions and choices revolves around the different functions and intents of anthologies, particularly the pedagogical implications of such collections: Do these books represent "the full range" of recent American poetry or (self-consciously) a specific segment of that output? What relationships are suggested between poetry and poetics, between the activities of poetry and criticism? To what extent do these anthologies allow poetry teachers to examine and teach the particular conflicts, arguments, and flash points in contemporary American poetry?
The three anthologies that I consider - Paul Lauter's The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry, and Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 - are quite different in scope and organization. The Heath volume is a more general American literature anthology, but it does include nearly four hundred pages of poetry written since World War II. For this essay, I wish to make use of the Heath as representative of current attempts to define and put forward postmodern poetry within an increasingly multicultural framework of American literature. Hoover's book - in keeping with the publishing traditions of W. W. Norton - looks like a typical anthology: a substantial introduction that maps the various movements represented; concise critical-biographical introductions for each poet; a chronological arrangement by poet's date of birth; and few selections by many poets - 411 poems by 103 poets in 701 pages. Messerli chooses to give more space to each poet - approximately 600 poems by 80 poets in 1135 pages. Though he does include a short introduction, Messerli's approach to anthology making is to do away with nearly all explanatory frameworks, and thus he includes no headnotes for any of the poets or footnotes for any of the poems.
Before considering the more focused anthologies of Hoover and Messerli, I would like to examine the second edition of the Heath anthology of American literature (1994). I choose this particular anthology because the project of reconstructing American literature taken on by the general editor, Paul Lauter, has had a huge impact on all competing American literature anthologies as they have responded to the seemingly groundbreaking multiculturalism and class diversity of the first Heath anthology (1990).(2) Within academic circles, the Heath has the reputation of being the most radical and innovative of the American literature anthologies; in light of such an assessment, I wish to focus attention specifically on Lauter's representation of modern and contemporary American poetries. The introduction to the section of the Heath called "Postmodernity and Difference: Promises and Threats" concludes:
Unfortunately for most readers, because women and ethnic writers have been less often anthologized, coming to know their work - and to understand its significance, especially if it deviates from what have become accepted patterns of literary representation - has been difficult. This anthology includes a number of comparatively young writers, many of whose books have been published only in the past decade. Our expectation is that the excitement to be found in new literatures expressing fresh themes and new understandings will be contagious to our readers.
But deviation from accepted patterns of literary representation is precisely what is not present in the Heath poetry selections (nor in any of the "major" American literature anthologies).(3) Oddly enough, the Heath does include a fair number of adventurous writings in prose and in drama, but in poetry - where, except perhaps for the issue of multiculturalism, many American literature professors seem to have lost interest - the range of representation does not constitute what might rightfully be called "diversity" or "difference." In Canons and Contexts, Lauter explains much of the theoretical and practical groundwork for the Heath anthology.(4) Lauter's project, Reconstructing American Literature, which led to the Heath anthology, is "designed to present and to validate the full range of the literatures of America" (Canons 37; emphasis added).
Like other writers about canon, marginalization, and representation, Lauter is aware of the competitive and snarly nature of making literary history.(5) As he explains, once we have established a literary canon, it is "from this limited set of texts we project standards of aesthetic excellence as well as the intellectual constructs we call 'literary history.' And once we have developed such constructs, we view other works in these terms, whether the works originate from that initial text milieu or from outside it" (Canons 54). Lauter concludes that what is at issue (in the construction of a canon) is "survival," but he refers not to survival so much of "these works in themselves, but to the knowledge they make accessible and the experiences to which they give expression and shape - experiences which better enable new generations to comprehend themselves and their world" (59). In this sense - of works of literature as modes of consciousness and as modes of interpretive experience - Lauter's conception is, oddly, akin to Charles Bernstein's definition of poetry as "epistemological inquiry." As Lauter concludes, for reasons of diversity and validation of different modes of consciousness, "we must begin by considering seriously the nature of the experiences we select for the classroom" (102).
But when we look at the Heath's offerings in poetry, particularly postmodern poetry, we find a significant selection of multiculturalist poetry but an extraordinarily narrow range of modes of representation. This is not to say that all of the work is formally uninteresting. There are some exceptions to the mostly flat poetry of plainspoken personal experience: the bilingual poems by Victor Hernandez Cruz and Tato Laviera, where the movement back and forth from Spanish to English foregrounds the conflicting contexts of the individual word; and a prose-poetry hybrid by Simon Ortiz, where "fact" and lyricism are placed in a productive crossfire. But for the most part, the poems that are put forward in Heath - as presenting difficulties, or as "the full range" of American poetry, or as deviating from accepted patterns of representation - are anything but innovative modes of representation. Lauter and the other Heath editors have simply substituted different subjects (meaning both speakers/voices and subject matter) for different modes of representation.
The Heath anthology provides a narrowly authorized version of the multicultural, one that smacks of an imitativeness of dominant white modes of representation. Many of the elect in Heath have been trained at conventional academic programs in creative writing, a large number at UC-Irvine or under the tutelage of one of the most conventional and highly awarded academic poets of our time, Philip Levine. Though the subject matter and subject position are different, the poems themselves are remarkably the same as their white counterparts in form, in voice, in diction, and in the manner of narrating experiences within the dominant mode of the personal narrative as crafted and developed over the past thirty-five years. An irony worth pondering is that under the rubric of diversity and difference, we are presented with poetry that extends the hegemony of a predominantly white, mainstream, highly professionalized and intensively regulated writing practice. Here are some passages from poems that typify the multiculturalized version of the postmodern according to Heath:
Last time I saw her, Grandmother had grown seamed as a Bedouin tent. She had claimed the right to sleep alone, to own her nights, to never bear the weight of sex again nor to accept its gift of comfort, for the luxury of stretching her bones. She'd carried eight children, three had sunk in her belly, naufragos she called them, shipwrecked babies drowned in her black waters.
(Judith Ortiz Cofer, "Claims" )
So, when it's bad now, when I can't remember what's lost and all I have for the world to take means nothing, I go out back of the greenhouse at the far end of my land where the grasses go wild and the arroyos come up with cat's-claw and giant dahlias,
where the rivers of weather and the charred ghosts of old melodies converge to flood my land and sustain the one thicket of memory that calls for me to come and sit among the tall canes and shape full-throated songs out of wind, out of bamboo. . . .
(Garrett Hongo, "Something Whispered in the Shakuhachi" )
Above, in the rented rooms, In the lives I would never know again, Footsteps circled A bed, the radio said What was already forgotten. I imagined the sun And how a worker Home from the fields Might glimpse at it Through the window's true lens And ask it not to come back. And because I stood In this place for hours, I imagined I could climb From this promise of old air And enter a street Stunned gray with evening Where, if someone Moved, I could turn, And seeing through the years, Call him brother, call him Molina.
(Gary Soto, "The Cellar" [3046-47])
Instead of the avowed poetry of difference, we get a deadening sameness of writing style under the auspices of the multicultural. Many of the Heath's "postmodern" poems - in the plain-style mode of the personal anecdote - begin like this one:
There was always something that needed fixing, a car on the blink, a jinxed washing machine, a high-strung garbage disposer. His life was one of continual repair.
(Cathy Song, "The Tower of Pisa" )
It is, regardless of the ethnicity of the poet, the standardized American poem of the past twenty-five years: simple declarative syntax; the illusion of a craftless, transparent language; a simple, speechlike singular voice in the service of a poem that ends with a moment of epiphanic wonder and/or closure where all parts of the poem relate to a common theme. Clearly, there are alternatives. For example, among Chicano poets, why not include the genuinely challenging and difficult work of Alurista? Or among African-American poets, why not Nathaniel Mackey, Lorenzo Thomas, and Erica Hunt?
By contrast with the poems and passages I've quoted from the Heath, I present the following selections from Messerli's anthology as samples of alternatives which depart from a single-voice, personally expressive, plain-style, anecdotal poetry:
superhighway elegy in a pink convertible / It was 1956 / Sexy Propertius & his gal Cynth / Living Green Exotica / Quaker Oats / First Chinese Dictionary (40,000 characters) circa 1450 BC / Comes moon 1st fat, then skinny / seasons skinny fat / as the world turns I blow my nose / uniting commonplace and cosmic / / Cosmi-comics: a woman in a tattersall shirt is breaking & entering / "Poetry as breaking and entering," he tossed over his left shoulder as he left / over / Where were you all this time, damn you?
(Joan Retallack, WESTERN CIV 4 )
an infinite statement. a finite statement. a statement of infancy. a fine line state line. a finger of stalemate. a feeling a saint meant ointment.
a region religion reigns in. a returning. turning return the lovers. the retrospect of relationships always returning. the burning of the urge. the surge forward in animal being inside us. the catatosis van del reeba rebus suburbs of our imagination. last church of the lurching word worked weird in our heads.
(bpNichol, "Scraptures: 7th Sequence" )
Beside our bed a bowl of ready water, though we dance upon the graves of the yet-to-be born.
Awaiting birth, by which or in which a potter-god could wet what clay would catch the flow of our endangered blood.
Here where the feuds root some unsunned angel of loss ekes out its plunder.
Possessed, we lick the salt of each infected wound's unyielding rhythm's wordings.
"Whipped on, preached at, kicked. Made a christ of.
Whipped on, preached at, kicked. Made a christ of.
Whipped on, preached at, kicked. Made a christ of . . ."
(Nathaniel Mackey, "Song of the Andoumboulou: 7" [1033-34])
To return, though, to the Heath anthology, aside from the problem of aesthetic xenophobia it exhibits toward experimental work, I am equally concerned with the model of the poet put forward. The Heath is genuinely excellent when it comes to representing the Harlem Renaissance. Writers such as Langston Hughes and Alain Locke are presented as thinkers and cultural critics of depth. In other words, we get selections of political poetry; of equal importance, we get intellectual prose. When the Heath turns to the postmodern, the editors settle into the paradigm of the poet as intuitive artist. Where, for example, are the intellectually challenging essays of poets such as Audre Lorde (or Adrienne Rich or June Jordan)? Poets such as Amiri Baraka, whose poetry has gone through a number of difficult and transgressive stylistic forms, tend to get represented in simplistic ways. Both omissions result in a diminished sense of a poet's capabilities as an intellectual and as a cultural critic.
In the section called "New Communities, New Identities, New Energies," it is precisely the new energies that are missing. One can have little quarrel with the fact that Adrienne Rich's poetry is of immense significance. But what happens to the "other" new energies of feminist poetry? Where are Susan Howe, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Wanda Coleman, Erica Hunt, Beverly Dahlen, Kathleen Fraser, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, Joan Retallack, and so on? What happened to the entire realm of Language poetry? (Consider, for example, that Charles Bernstein has published twenty books of poetry and two major collections of criticism, received a Guggenheim, and is translated and read in over twenty other countries. His work is not in the Heath nor in any of the "major" American literature anthologies.) What happened to the writings of "senior" innovative poets such as David Antin, Jerome Rothenberg, and John Cage? My quarrel is with the narrow range of "new energies" and "new representations" that are allowed between the covers of the "new" American literature.
Unlike the Heath, Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 does not claim to represent all American literature, nor even all recent American poetry. It is an anthology devoted to the range of recent innovative poetries, and as such it is both a treasure and a confusion. Messerli is aware of some of the difficulties and liabilities of the entire enterprise of anthology making. He acknowledges explicitly the ghost or heroic model behind the current wave of anthologies of new poetry, including his own: Donald Allen's 1960 New American Poetry. Messerli contends that "we" need a new anthology that would have a similar excitement and impact as the Allen anthology. He criticizes other anthologies as being either too limited in the selections made from poets' work (and that is, in my opinion, a problem with Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry) or as falling prey to an editor's overly personal agenda. Messerli acknowledges that all anthologies are personal, though he claims that his goal has been to represent a range of aesthetic choices. To his credit, he has done so.
The poetry in Messerli's book begins oddly and provocatively with work by Charles Reznikoff, whose marvelously flat, realistic story-poems point, by implication, to the many varieties of poetry to be represented in Messerli's anthology. While Reznikoff's use of paste-up methods (as in Testimony) does link his work with modernist and postmodernist collage practice, placing his work first is but one example of the thought-provoking richness of Messerli's book. Unlike the Norton/Hoover tendency to give the reader predigested, carefully introduced examples, Messerli's book - which does not include any notes or introductions - can and will provoke thinking (in ways that are excitingly unpredictable). The range and richness of writings in Messerli's book will offer both confusions and surprises to any reader, no matter how well-read he or she may already be. Whereas Norton/Hoover errs on the side of overly authoritative framing remarks, Messerli - who presents only an enigmatic, brief introduction and a concluding list of publications by the poets - fails to provide a helpful (or pedagogically considerate) context for the poetry in his anthology.
In his introduction, Messerli discusses some elements of his anthology making. He consciously chooses to avoid certain well-known poems, thus turning his anthology away from a "golden oldies" or "greatest hits" format. But for teaching purposes, certain touchstone poems ought to be there; otherwise the anthology becomes a book principally for readers already familiar with the touchstone poems of the era. I think, for example, of poems such as George Oppen's "Of Being Numerous" (1968), Robert Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" (1960), John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (1975), and John Cage's mesostics and chance-generated poems, all of which merit representation in Messerli's anthology and all of which are omitted.
Each anthology, implicitly or explicitly, serves particular functions. In Messerli's version of "a good anthology" the anthologist focuses on "poets who previously had not been extensively anthologized" and those poets who "extend and challenge the tradition of innovative American poetry beginning with Emily Dickinson" (32). Considered in tandem, the Hoover and Messerli anthologies mark, among other changes in the volatile literary futures market, the continued ascendancy of Dickinson, Olson, Stein, and Cage, along with the decline of Williams, Eliot, and Stevens.
Messerli tries to give some sense of group accomplishments and relationships among poets (and thus he follows Allen's lead) in order "to illuminate some specific issues and concerns" (32). His anthology, while organized around individual accomplishments (and indexed and arranged by individual poet), attempts to guide readers to issues, conflicts, concerns, and poetics. But Messerli's mode of grouping is coy. His book presents groups of poets - four of them - but he refuses to name them, but then he sort of does name them in spite of pointing out the fluidity of such groupings. He has one group concerned with cultural issues (including myth, politics, history, place, and religion); a second group focused on self, social group, urban and suburban landscape, and visual art; a third group revolving around language, reader, and writing communities; and a fourth gathered about performance, voice, genre, dialogue, and personae. Messerli's key guiding principle for the anthology is that "above all else, the poets in this volume are all extremely attentive to the ways in which language determines meaning and experience both for reader and author" (34). Messerli acknowledges some of the limitations of his anthology: writers "whose writing has more to do with cultural, social, and political subjects than the more formally conceived poems in this volume, must recognize the specific focus of this anthology" (34). But such a remark, which underscores Lauter's opposition of form and subject matter, presents a false opposition (between "politically concerned" poets and textually innovative poets). Such issues - particularly the issue of where and how a poem is political - are not best served by presenting half of an argument. An anthology might provoke more useful debate by presenting side by side poems/poets which take opposite approaches to the political. The political dimensions of formally innovative poetry might best be understood in juxtaposition to formally conservative, somewhat didactic poems where the politics is manifest as "content" or theme or "message" or sentiment.
Messerli offers his book "as a travel guide" (34), not as a final destination. He attempts to provide helpful information about publishers and books by the various poets in the anthology, though a number of errors (such as having John Cage dying in 1933, for example) undercut the value of even this minimal informative framework. But particularly with regard to pedagogy, there are some significant drawbacks to Messerli's mode of making an anthology. For example, by not having a selection of poetics - Hoover's anthology has a few, often short and quirky, samples of poetics - Messerli inadvertently truncates the range of poetic thinking provided and reinscribes a narrowed version of the genre of poetry and poetic thinking. As noted earlier, Messerli also chooses not to provide the somewhat standard Norton-like critical/biographical introductions to individual poets, nor does he make any attempt to provide a general introduction to the major movements of American poetry from 1960 to 1990. While these latter omissions may have an oddly beneficial pedagogy to them - that is, "if you're interested, go find out for yourself" - I do think that some guidance would be appropriate. If Messerli did not wish to write such an introduction himself, he could have pointed readers to excellent introductory books and essays by a range of critics and poets such as Marjorie Perloff, James Breslin, and David Antin. The end result is a massive volume - truly a great accomplishment - but one that offers little articulated context and almost no map or guide. As a collection of poems, the book is superb; as a pedagogical device, the book is lacking.
For the Norton Postmodern American Poetry, Hoover, in a remark that points to precisely what is missing in Lauter's anthology, claims, "This anthology shows that avant-garde poetry endures in its resistance to mainstream ideology; it is the avant-garde that renews poetry as a whole through new, but initially shocking, artistic strategies" (xxv). Hoover's book keeps true to his aim of presenting postmodernism as many modes of writing: "This anthology does not view postmodernism as a single style with its departure in Pound's Cantos and its arrival in Language poetry; postmodernism is, rather, an ongoing process of resistance to mainstream ideology" (xxvi). Even so, two complaints must be made: 1) How can a reader know what that mainstream ideology is without its representation in the anthology? 2) In spite of "our" rhetoric against "the" mainstream, is the mainstream in fact a singular practice or ideology (or is that not the rhetorical straw man of the [similarly multiple] avant-garde)?
In his detailed introduction, Hoover addresses some of the key conflicts, issues, and concerns within the plural practice of the avant-garde. He points out, for example, an allegiance to "a constructionist rather than an expressionist theory of composition" (xxvii), but he does not really delve into the ways in which a constructionist practice - that of Ron Silliman or Bruce Andrews, for example - also carries with it important political dimensions (and thus Hoover can, at times, reinforce the formal versus political binary that Lauter and Messerli fall prey to). Hoover also points to an interesting split in the 1970s between poets (principally the Language poets) whose work "challenged a speech-based poetics" and poets whose work "extended spoken poetry into performance poetry" (xxvi). Such a split, as the recent poetry of Jack Foley demonstrates and as critical writing by Dana Gioia suggests, is at the heart of current debates over directions and new practices in poetry.(6)
Most importantly, Hoover points toward a changing notion of meaning:
As Robert Creeley has written, "Meaning is not importantly referential." Quoting Charles Olson, Creeley continues, "'That which exists through itself is what is called the meaning.'" Thus the material of art is to be judged simply as material, not for its transcendent meaning or symbolism. In general, postmodern poetry opposes the centrist values of unity, significance, linearity, expressiveness, and a heightened, even heroic, portrayal of the bourgeois self and its concerns.
My chief complaint - and it is one which I direct at my own criticism as well - is that we have repeated again and again such declarations of different assumptions and different writing practices, but we have not yet been able to create credible or teachable new models of reading and criticism which take up such realizations of shifts in the nature of meaning-making. Most critical writing on the avant-garde still tends to be bound up in New Critical models of (theme-based) close reading. The attentiveness of close reading is appropriate to the reading of new poetries, but the habitual reversion to theme and/or subject matter (for the purposes of unification and a sense of mastery) is not.
Hoover proceeds openly and helpfully with his identification of important groups and movements in postmodern American poetry.(7) He describes contributions of the Beat movement, the New York school, the second generation of the New York school, projectivist/Black Mountain poetry, ethnopoetics (Rothenberg), the deep image, aleatory poetry, prose poetry, experimental feminist poetry, Language poetry, and performance poetry. Hoover identifies John Ashbery as, since 1975, playing the leading role in American poetry. One could argue that an equally important position has been occupied by Adrienne Rich, who, interestingly, is not represented by either Hoover or Messerli. Hoover, quoting David Lehman, offers a provocative suggestion in putting forward Ashbery's preeminence: "'Ashbery's poetry points toward a new mimesis, with consciousness itself as a model'" (xxxi). Perhaps a representation of consciousness, linked to a new realism, is "our" central project. Indeed, many varieties of poetry claim to represent a contemporary consciousness, and these poetries, as the Hoover and Messerli anthologies demonstrate, go about the task in very different manners.
Hoover correctly notes the importance in postmodern poetry of collaborative writing projects. One might ask, does such collaboration challenge the hegemony of individual authorship? More pertinently for this essay, why is it that the anthologies do not represent collaborative poetry at all? Collaborative writing would fit in ideally with Lauter's perspectives on community-based cultural production and equally well with an avant-garde position of writing not as personal expression but as constructivist deed. The absence of such writing points to the powerfully conservative organizing function of the traditional anthology, which is decidedly based on individual accomplishment (even if those accomplishments, as in Hoover and Messerli, are contextualized by introductory remarks that point toward the individual's participation in broader group movements).
The case of John Cage provides another interesting litmus test for the anthologies and the representation of American poetry. It is gratifying to see his writing well represented in both the Messerli and Hoover anthologies. In fact, Hoover goes so far as to call aleatory poetry the "essence of postmodernism" (xxxiv). I can only note with disappointment and amusement the omission of Cage's writing from all the "major" anthologies of American literature. While it would be hard to think of a poet more thoroughly American or political in his writing of poetry - I would be hard-pressed to think of a case which better illustrates the intimate relationship between form and politics - the narrowness of Lauter's thinking about "the political" lands writing such as Cage's (which challenges the tidy definitions of genre and the bourgeois notion of heroic individual expression) outside the bounds of the acceptable.
One function of an anthology, particularly one devoted to the "new" in poetry, is to attempt (implicitly) an assessment of what innovations and directions are noteworthy and generative. Hoover argues that Language poetry and performance poetry "have become increasingly the dominant postmodern modes" (xxxv). Anthologies of the avant-garde inevitably confront the problem that David Antin noted in the early 1970s: the present is a difficult place to be or to describe, for the present, particularly in poetry, is always open at one end. Hoover's principal goal, though, is to represent a "variety of experimental practice" (xxv); in this regard he does a good job. He seeks to counter the risk "that the avant-garde will become an institution with its own self-protective rituals" (xxv). It is precisely this risk of wagon-circling self-enclosure that Messerli's anthology does not overcome.
In both the Hoover and Messerli anthologies, Language poetry assumes a central position in representing the vitality of experimentation in contemporary poetry. Hoover notes the way in which Language poetry necessitates a substantial involvement with - indeed a rereading and rethinking of - literary precursors. Language poets such as Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, and Ron Silliman - along with literary critics such as Cary Nelson, Marjorie Perloff, Peter Quartermain, and Jerome McGann - offer a vigorous new reading of literary modernism, one which extends and pluralizes our understanding of what modernism was and is. Hoover points to Gertrude Stein, Velimir Khlebnikov, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Jackson Mac Low, and Clark Coolidge as important foundations for Language poetry. He concludes:
Seeing a poem as an intellectual and sonic construction rather than a necessary expression of the human soul, language poetry raises technique to a position of privilege. Language poets see lyricism in poetry not as a means of expressing emotion but rather in its original context as the musical use of words. Rather than employ language as a transparent window onto experience, the language poet pays attention to the material nature of words. Because it is fragmentary and discontinuous, language poetry may appear at first to be automatic writing; however, it is often heavily reworked to achieve the proper relation of materials. This approach is consistent with William Carlos Williams's definition of a poem as a "small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental about a poem I mean there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant."
As is inevitably the case, such generalizations oversimplify and homogenize a more complicated and conflicted literary practice. But Hoover's introductory remarks do point toward valid and engaging topics. For example, detailed investigation of the place of the "lyric" or "lyricism" in and of itself would make for interesting thinking about the postmodern.
In one of his somewhat oversimplistic generalizations, Hoover claims that "Language poetry, too, rejects the idea of poetry as an oral form; it is written" (xxxvii). It seems to me that this issue - poetry as speech versus poetry as writing - underlies both the Messerli and Hoover anthologies (and is why a writer-performer such as Jack Foley belongs in both anthologies). The ramifications of such an ostensible split, particularly as we move toward the end of the era of the book, will reverberate for some time. Oddly, even anthologies of the avant-garde take on a conservative and nostalgic function as the book itself becomes reformatted by means of electronic modes of presentation.(8)
One troubling tendency of conceptualizations of the avant-garde has been its frequent manifestation as yet another domain of white male accomplishment. That is one reason, for example, that the overturning of a reductionist version of high literary modernism - Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams - in favor of a pluralized modernism which includes Langston Hughes and the range of accomplishment in the Harlem Renaissance (including Alain Locke's groundbreaking anthology, The New Negro ), Gertrude Stein, H.D., and others is significant. Messerli does not directly address the issue of ethnicity or multiculturalism in the making of his anthology. But his book includes a significant African-American presence, including important writing by Amiri Baraka, Lorenzo Thomas, Clarence Major, and Nathaniel Mackey. The presence of women poets, particularly in the range of writings covered by the term "Language poetry," is significant. Textual feminism, including the work of Kathleen Fraser, Susan Howe, Joan Retallack, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and Carla Harryman, is absolutely critical to an understanding of the significant innovative poetries of our time. These poets are well represented in the new Hoover and Messerli anthologies (but not in the Heath or the other "major" American literature anthologies).
Hoover concludes with remarks that have been implicit throughout the making of his anthology (and Messerli's too):
The fin de siecle position of postmodern art suggests to some that it is in a state of exhaustion; in Has Modernism Failed?, art critic Suzi Gablik argues unpersuasively that "innovation no longer seems possible, or even desirable." In fact, the poetry now being produced is as strong as, and arguably stronger than, that produced by earlier vanguards. As history remains dynamic, so does the artistic concept of "the new." The period since 1950 will be seen as the time when the United States finally acquired its full share of cultural anxiety and world knowledge, and thereby its most daring poetry.
In different ways, the Lauter, Messerli, and Hoover anthologies make the case for the vitality and sweep of twentieth-century American poetry. But each begs the question of whether or not postmodern poetry differentiates itself (or whether or not it is even necessary that it differentiate itself) from modernism.
Many innovative poetries and Language poetry in particular make a claim to an altered relationship between reader and writer where the "reader [is] to participate actively in the creation of meaning" (Hoover xxxvi). Hoover explains that "A poem is not 'about' something, a paraphrasable narrative, symbolic nexus, or theme; rather, it is the actuality of words" (xxxvi). Such an oppositional truism pertains to most of the innovative poetries included under the heading of the postmodern. But such a truism, which has certainly been reiterated for twenty years or more, only begins to do the needed work of developing and demonstrating new reading/meaning paradigms that can be differentiated from the persistent New Critical paradigms. It is one thing to claim, via Stein, that innovative poetries return our attention to the word as such: "Such a view disinvests the language of metaphysics and returns it to the physical realm of daily use" (xxxvii). But how do we articulate and write such a reading experience? Perhaps the Hoover and Messerli anthologies are launching-off points for the development of new reading and critical paradigms. But at present both anthologies are weakened (as pedagogical tools) by the lack of a demonstration of what such new modes of reading and meaning-making might look like.(9)
Why do we need and make anthologies in the first place? A principal claim is economic: individual books of poetry are expensive, and if universities are to teach contemporary poetry responsibly, one financially feasible way to expose students to the range of choices available is through an anthology. (Of course, to use an anthology in a class does not preclude the use of individual books of poetry. I would guess that most professors use a mixture of an anthology and individual books.) But all three anthologies - the Heath, Hoover, and Messerli - miss a great teaching opportunity: the chance to teach the conflicts. The key arguments, questions, and flash points exist by implication outside the covers of each of these books. For instance, if I want to teach the vexed question of where we locate politics in poetry, I do not have the fully conflicting examples in any one anthology. It would be nice to be able to teach Philip Levine, Carolyn Forche, June Jordan, Judy Grahn, Robert Bly, and Adrienne Rich, on the one hand, versus Ron Silliman, Erica Hunt, Bob Perelman, Bruce Andrews, James Sherry, and John Cage, on the other. If the claim that poetry's politics is something that is subject- or theme-based - as in the more conventional, somewhat plainspoken examples of Levine, Forche, Jordan, Grahn, Bly, and Rich - is to be challenged by another assumption - that poetry's politics comes as much from reader-writer relationships, from material choices of publication and distribution, and from the social relations that inhere in stylistic choices and embodiments - how much better and more instructive it would be to have the most fully conflicting modes of writing/thinking side by side in the same book. Or, to pick one other example, if the mainstream privileging of personal voice and personal expression - as in poems by Sharon Olds, Robert Lowell, and Gerald Stern - is to be challenged directly by a poetry of many voices and a poetry of sustained difference - as in poems by Susan Howe, Clark Coolidge, and Charles Bernstein - why not have an anthology with examples from both aesthetic domains? The widespread poetry of the personal, individual voice - the personal lyric - is virtually missing from Messerli's book, and from Hoover's too. Such an omission denies the partisans of the avant-garde the opportunity to find out that poetry of the personal voice has its own elements of variety and self-interrogation, as in Rich's work. Such writing hardly exists in Hoover and Messerli, just as the more formally innovative poetries are banned in Heath.
I am suggesting that an anthology begin to represent - somewhat democratically? - precisely what Messerli advocates, a range of aesthetic choices, and what Lauter claims to present, "the full range of the literatures of America." As a pedagogical tool - which is one recurrent claim for anthologies - how better to get the job done? Without the examples that are truly in conflict with one another, anthologies reinforce the fragmentation of the poetry world and, wittingly or unwittingly, reinscribe the nonconversation at large. Though it is possible to teach the conflicts by using two or more anthologies, the lack of a single anthology that includes some key oppositions and a substantial conflicting aesthetic range is a deficiency reflective of segregated writing practices and mirrors conditions within and without academia. I am not arguing that, with a little tinkering, one anthology could or would cover everything of significance in contemporary American poetry. Anthologies will inevitably (and, at times, constructively) be partial. But I truly believe that one way to restore poetry to a position of importance in the contemporary curriculum would be to make an anthology that allowed for a heated teaching of the conflicts present in contemporary poetry: issues such as the nature of a sell gender in poetry, politics in poetry, reader-writer relations, the conflicts between a written and an oral poetry, written text versus performance, manifestations of ethnicity and community in poetry, the rhetorics of lyricism and sincerity, and thematic versus textual feminism.
We also should give some thought to the timing of these anthologies. Are they not perhaps among the last such books, anthologies appearing at the end of a book culture? As Heath and others move into on-line discussion groups and computer-generated syllabi and supplements, shouldn't books of innovative poetry be looking toward new organizations of printed matter? Messerli's anthology is outstanding in its representation of different visual/oral texts - see for example the work by Tina Darragh, Fiona Templeton, Hannah Weiner, Joan Retallack, John Cage, and Steve McCaffery. But won't the anthology - as it is digitalized - become a more malleable entity, subject to reorganization by students/readers/users? No doubt the next wave of poetry anthologies, of poetry which is post-postmodern, will mark a departure from the fixed medium of a traditionally bound book culture.
University of Alabama
Special thanks to the Poetics Group (poetics @ ubvm.cc.buffalo.edu) participants. A lively discussion (June-August 1994) of the new anthologies proved stimulating and instructive for the writing of this essay.
1. Two other recent poetry anthologies of note are Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders: An Anthology (New York: Marsilio, 1993) and Dennis Barone and Peter Ganick's The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets, 1994).
2. While I am highly critical of the Heath anthology, especially as it relates to twentieth-century American poetry, I have immense respect for Lauter's overall project. In fact, I have taught from the Heath for several years, and I successfully advocated its adoption at the University of Alabama for core courses in American literature.
The competing American literature anthologies that I have in mind are the Norton (4th ed., 1993), HarperCollins (2nd ed., 1993), Prentice Hall (1991), and McGraw-Hill (8th ed., 1994).
As I go on to say later in this essay, all of the anthologies (by themselves) are unfit for teaching the range and intensity of conflicting assumptions and practices in contemporary American poetry. My own choice as a teacher (for a fall 1994 graduate course in American poetry since World War II) has been to teach side by side two anthologies, Messerli's and A. Poulin's Contemporary American Poetry, along with several individual books of poetry.
3. For a more detailed treatment of the relationship between multiculturalism and innovation, see my review essay "The Politics of Form and Poetry's Other Subjects: Reading Contemporary American Poetry," American Literary History 2 (1990): 503-27. The quotation from the Heath also raises the question of what makes a literature "new": a "new" writer? "new" subject matter? a "new" form?
4. Paul Lauter, Canons and Contexts (New York: Oxford UP, 1991). Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.
5. See, for example, Ron Silliman's "Canons and Institutions: New Hope for the Disappeared," in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Roof, 1990) 149-74, and Alan C. Golding's "A History of American Poetry Anthologies," in Canons, ed. Robert von Hallberg (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984) 279-307.
6. See, for example, Jack Foley, Adrift (Berkeley: Pantograph, 1993), especially "Words & Books; Poetry & Writing" (69-75), and Dana Gioia, "Notes toward a New Bohemia," Poetry Flash #248 (Dec. 1993): 7, 13-14.
7. As for the term "postmodern" itself, Hoover's anthology begins with Charles Olson's "first" use of the term postmodern:
The poet Charles Olson used the word "postmodern" as early as an October 20, 1951, letter to Creeley from Black Mountain, North Carolina. Doubting the value of historical relics when compared with the process of living, Olson states: "And had we not, ourselves (I mean postmodern man), better just leave such things behind us - and not so much trash of discourse, & gods?"
Though Hoover cites Olson, Olson certainly was not the first to use this term. As Jerome Mazzaro points out in Postmodern American Poetry (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980 [viii]), Randall Jarrell, for example, first used the term "postmodern" in regard to American poetry in a 1946 review of Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle. There are, admittedly, several overlapping and imprecise terms that may be employed: "postmodern," "avant-garde," "experimental," "innovative." Of the three editors, Hoover does the best job of explaining his choice of terms and his decision to use the term "postmodern":
Over the years, the term has received increasing acceptance in all areas of culture and the arts; it has even come to be considered a reigning style. As used here, "postmodern" means the historical period following World War II. It also suggests an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the narcissism, sentimentality, and self-expressiveness of its life in writing. Postmodernist poetry is the avant-garde poetry of our time. I have chosen "postmodern" for the title over "experimental" and "avant-garde" because it is the most encompassing term for the variety of experimental practice since World War II, one that ranges from the oral poetics of Beat and performance poetries to the more "writerly" work of the New York School and language poetry.
While many academic debates over postmodernism pivot on Fredric Jameson's much-heralded 1984 essay "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" (New Left Review 146 : 53-92), the concept and the term "postmodernism" had already been given a sustained and provocative treatment in David Antin's extraordinary 1972 essay "Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry" (Boundary 2 1.1 : 98-133). In addition to offering a challenging view of modernism and postmodernism, Antin warns us of the extraordinary difficulty of representing the present:
Clearly the sense that such a thing as a "postmodern" sensibility exists and should be defined is wrapped up with the conviction that what we have called "modern" for so long is thoroughly over. If we are capable of imagining the "modern" as a closed set of stylistic features, "modern" can no longer mean present. For it is precisely the distinctive feature of the present that, in spite of any strong sense of its coherence, it is always open on its forward side.
8. As an aside, one consequence of my survey of current anthologies is a deep conviction that their shortcomings serve to point out the exceptional nature of the thirty years of anthology projects by Jerome Rothenberg - particularly Shaking the Pumpkin (1972), America a Prophecy (1973), and Technicians of the Sacred (1968, 1985). (Rothenberg, along with Pierre Joris, is currently completing a two-volume anthology of twentieth-century poetry.) While even the Hoover and Messerli anthologies, and especially all of the American literature anthologies, fall prey to an unreflective, habit-worn conceptualization of the anthology and the book, Rothenberg's anthology work, from the very beginning, has been innovative and fresh. For example, the Heath's "bold" move of integrating American literature with Native American material and with exploration narratives was already fully accomplished in Rothenberg's and George Quasha's America a Prophecy. The somewhat innovative acceptance of visual poetries in Messerli's book was also already presented in America a Prophecy where, for example, the mound constructions of southern Ohio Native Americans stand as a kind of visual or concrete poetry beside Hopi poems and poems by William Cullen Bryant.
9. Perhaps the dominance of Understanding Poetry, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (New York: Holt, 1938; 2nd ed. 1950; 3rd ed. 1960) as an academic textbook can be explained, in part, precisely because as a textbook it offered many detailed examples of the kinds of reading and critical responses advocated by Brooks and Warren.
HANK LAZER is professor of English and assistant dean for the humanities and fine arts at the University of Alabama. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989 (Segue, 1992) and Three of Ten (Chax, 1995), and a critical book, Opposing Poetries: The Cultural Politics of Avant-Garde American Poetry (Northwestern, 1995).
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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