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Where Stands Postmodern American Poetry: Is Paul Hoover's Anthology the Final Word?

06/24/2015 10:12 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

There is a rich context for this update of the now-standard anthology of postmodern American poetry, the one Paul Hoover first compiled in 1994, and which now, at nearly 1,000 pages, seeks to be the definitive reference for those seeking a comprehensive overview of the state of experimental American poetry.

The fuss in 2011 over Rita Dove's misguided rewrite of the American poetry canon for the twentieth century is still fresh in our minds. In her Penguin anthology Dove excluded many key figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and so on. The anthology was heavily weighted toward traditional lyric poetry of a certain type favored by the Iowa Writers Workshop and its innumerable writing program offshoots around the country. It included a number of mediocre poets at the expense of the exclusion of many of the innovators of American poetry. Clayton Eshleman, for example, pointed out some of the most shocking omissions; Eshleman's list is so extensive that it utterly disqualifies the Dove anthology.

Dove's explanation that Penguin was unable to pay hefty licensing fees to other publishers rang hollow then and still does. It was an attempted canonization of late offshoots of the lyric tradition, a tradition many would say suffers from rigor mortis, hence the very effort to bring vitality to it is marked by incoherence.

Enter Paul Hoover, then, into this fray, and though the postmodern anthology is explicitly not going up against the value system of the Dove anthology, fears about charges of exclusion cannot have been far from his mind. This anthology, if anything, leans too closely toward including nearly everything. The Beats are heavily represented, as postmodern poets, though some would question if that's what we really mean by postmodern poetry. There is an enormous chunk devoted to flarf and conceptual and procedural poetry, perhaps more than necessary.

As much as that last major anthology of American poetry was a misfire, the new major anthology--the second edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology--is a resounding success. For a young writer wanting to get a complete flavor of what's exciting about American poetry today, there can hardly be a better guide. While the Dove anthology looked to the past, Hoover's anthology looks to the future. This is an indispensable guide for every poet, opening many portals onto avant-garde poetry, an exhaustive resource that never becomes boring or pedestrian.

Hoover, an accomplished experimental poet himself (and who modestly excludes himself, unlike Dove in her anthology), offers informative, relatively detailed summaries of each poet's work, considerably more sophisticated and substantive than these things usually are. He either sums up the poet's career in the larger context of postmodern poetry, pointing out affinities and forebears, or lets the poet's own words speak for her work, whenever those are particularly succinct.

As a result, this anthology is not a series of disjointed entries, by way of checking off a preconceived list of x number of poets to include. Rather, it can be seen as an extended essay with individual poets' chosen pieces illustrating the bigger conversation Hoover never loses track of. It is actually something, despite its heft at 900-plus pages, one can read from cover to cover as though it were an unfolding dialectic between the forerunners of postmodern poetry in the immediate postwar era and the latest manifestations today.

In his introduction Hoover notes Peter Bürger's remark that vanguardism is always in danger of being institutionalized. He goes on to explain that indeed, since the publication of the first edition twenty years ago, much of what used to be considered most outré has become institutionalized in the academy:

The leading language poets hold endowed chairs at leading universities, and their practice has become so historicized that, since the turn of the millennium, critics have referred to a "postlanguage" generation.

To cover the Beats, the New York School in all its reincarnations, Projectivist verse, procedural poetry, language poetry, and postlanguage poetry (Newlipo, conceptual poetry, and cyberpoetry, which includes the popular practice of Flarf) is to chart a progression that has sometimes reached a dead-end, sometimes retains marginal possibilities for advancement, and sometimes beckons to an open road.

Though the major anthologies of new poetries of the sixties and seventies were more concise--and certainly less chaotic--they could not have offered this wide perspective, which is only available now.

So for example a major new tendency, as Hoover notes quoting Kenneth Goldsmith about conceptual poetry, is toward uncreativity:

Unoriginality, illegibility, appropriation, plagiarism, fraud, theft, and falsification as its precepts; information management, word processing, databasing, and extreme process as its methodologies; and boredom, valuelessness, and nutritionlessness as its ethos.

It remains to be seen how well conceptual poetry holds up over the long run, but there is no question that "plundergraphia" (Hoover uses Jason Christie's term here) has become a major practice.

Hoover's discussion of Flarf, in the context of forerunners like Dada, is illuminating, and suggests its resistance to definition--as is true of all avant-garde poetry. This, in fact, may be Flarf's major contribution to avant-garde poetics:

Flarf enjoys the controversial but strategically advantageous position of presenting what seems to be a new low in poetry. But its daring has opened new fields of reference and recuperated a populist, content-centered writing that had been missing during the comparatively theoretical reign of language poetry.

Indeed, a couple of decades ago, the transmutations of language poetry could not have been foreseen in the way they have occurred, and as this anthology makes amply clear.

Perhaps the best way to justify this anthology is to provide a broad selection from the prefaces attached to each poet's sample, to give some sense of the intensity of internal conversation going on amongst avant-garde poets today.

On Gary Sneider:

"My political position,"...[Snyder] has said, "is to be a spokesman for wild nature." Snyder seeks continuity with the "paleolithic" through the figure of the "shaman-dancer-poet" who sees beyond the illusions of class structure and modern technology. Snyder's shaman is the source of an expressly spoken poetry, for it is through speech, or "mother tongue," that poetry achieves its "gleaming daggers and glittering nets of language."

On Ted Berrigan:

The Sonnets (1967) remains among his finest work. Using cut-ups from a variety of sources, including his own writing, he renewed interest in the sonnet form. Berrigan's sonnets may also be seen as a key development linking Dada and proceduralist practices of today. The everydayness of Berrigan's work, which he openly appropriates from Frank O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems, balances and counters his natural tendency toward elegy.

On Rae Armantrout:

In her essay "Poetic Silence," Armantrout reflects on her desire to use silence, which, due to the "media barrrage," exists only as an ideal or aesthetic effect. "Words no longer come from silence, but from other words.... And there is the impulse to call a halt, the impulse to silence." In her view, the nonnarrative, declarative sentences of many language-oriented prose poems leave little room for the experience of silence.

On Bob Perelman:

Perelman holds that, just as Virgil's The Aeneid justifies empire, much contemporary poetry exists for "a sort of Monday-morning Emperor," the bourgeois reader, who can feel "in the exquisitely disposed syllables, the pain of repression that comes with the territory of world domination. Perelman calls instead for a "defamiliarization of poetry by removing it from the comforting aegis of the oral": "Unlike the oral poet, who is reinforcing what the community already knows, the didactic writer will always have something new, and, possibly, unacceptable to get across."

On Bruce Andrews:

His is a politics of radical dissent. He believes that change can be accomplished through a systematic disruption of the language. "There is no 'direct treatment' of the thing possible, except of the 'things' of language," he writes in the essay "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis." "Crystalline purity--or transparency--will not be found in words. That classical ideal is an illusion." Instead, radical praxis calls for "an infinitizing, a wide-open exuberance, a perpetual motion machine, a transgression."

On C. D. Wright:

Wright has written, "If you have any particular affinity for poetry associated with the South, it is with idiom. I credit hill people and African Americans for keeping the language distinct. Poetry should repulse assimilation; each poet's task is to fight her own language's assimilation. Miles Davis said, 'The symphony, man, they got seventy guys all playing one note.' He also said, 'those dark Arkansas roads, that is the sound I am after.' He had his own sound. He recommended we get ours."

On Tan Lin:

Tan Lin writes: "The best poetry is really not what was said but what was almost said without thinking or feeling. It seems everyday conversation revolves precisely around ephemeral things like that. Call it gossip of the mind, or an interambient kind of talking that never actually takes place. Such talking has the same effect for me--especially when I hear it in the cathode-ray tubes and the invisible gasses of color, and the hum and drone of voices on TV--as being in diurnal meadow."

On Sharon Mesmer:

I'd been collaging text material in poems almost since I started writing, in 1978, and had always been drawn to running funny, vulgar, non-poetic language--the beef-tongued, stockyards parlance I grew up with on the south side of Chicago--up against 'beautiful' words.... It seems like a generous wabi-sabi kind of poetry that could inhabit bodies very different from the poet's own and allow them to speak.

Finally, on Brian Kim Stefans:

In the case of cyberpoetry, bad naturalization occurs when radical artifice such as software is used to traditional ends such as lyric poetry. Cyberpoetry should seek noise rather than silence, interference and discontinuity rather than a smooth, unimpeded progress. "The terms of engagement are changed when power shifts hands to the machine, and one's identity as digital pilgrim, as a 'data cowboy,' becomes banalized if the promise of the link does not produce a significant sense of self-creativity, or (in Situationist terms) 'spontaneous creation.'"

The anthology--because of course it must end somewhere--shortchanges some younger poets, especially females, those born in the late seventies and early eighties and now beginning to do really interesting work. Many such exciting young female poets come to mind. The book ends a bit abruptly with Noah Eli Gordon, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and Ben Lerner. Nonetheless, contrast this with the traditionalist weight of Dove's anthology, among whose concluding poets are Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich, Elizabeth Alexander, and Sherman Alexie.

For a student of poetry, one of the appealing features of this anthology is the inclusion of some of the most important manifestos of avant-garde poetry of the postwar era, including those by Charles Olson, Barbara Guest, Frank O'Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Susan Howe, Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Will Alexander, Leslie Scalapino, Nathaniel Mackey, Steve McCaffery, Charles Bernstein, K. Silem Mohammad, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Drew Gardner. Of course many more could have been included, but these seem to me to capture the essence of the dialectic.

Hoover is right to begin with Olson's manifesto on projective verse from 1950, almost a founding document for much that has followed. As Olson puts it:

From the moment the projective purpose of the act of verse is recognized, the content does--it will--change. If the beginning and the end is breath, voice in its largest sense, then the material of verse shifts. It has to. It starts with the composer. The dimension of his line itself changes, not to speak of the change in his conceiving, of the matter he will turn to, of the scale in which he imagines that matter's use.

Olson is arguing for a different kinetics of the poem, a different physics, a different field, that which distinguishes postmodern poetry from the modernism of Ezra Pound, the other great founder half a century prior to Olson. The debate since Olson has been all about what this kinetics, this field of energy, might consist of, how it might shape the postmodern poem.

Allen Ginsberg, for example, offers his view on how to sustain the energy of the long line:

It's natural inspiration of the moment that keeps it moving, disparate thinks put down together, shorthand notations of visual imagery, juxtapositions of hydrogen juke-box--abstract haikus sustain the mystery and put iron poetry back into the line: the last line of "Sunflower Sutra" is the extreme, one stream of single word associations, summing up. Mind is shapely. Art is shapely. Meaning Mind practiced in spontaneity invents forms in its own image & gets to Last Thoughts.

One of the most interesting dialectics amongst the manifestos is that between O'Hara's "Personism: A Manifesto"--the most delightful manifesto of our era--and the response by K. Silem Mohammad called "Excessivism." Here is an excerpt from O'Hara's tongue-in-cheek 1959 "manifesto":

Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody yet knows about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry. Personism is to Wallace Stevens what lapoésie pure was to Béranger. Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it's all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet's feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.


To which Mohammad reacts half a century later:

This is all part of a movement, which I have seen through the multitudes of books I receive from publishers, to capture a picture of Jesus that is so totally opposed to computers in chess that it is verging on technofeudalism--one of my pet hates. Georgetown is to Catholic as Pepsi is to Wallace Stevens. It has nothing to do with philosophy. It's just a style of music like zydeco. The long streams of uninterrupted music have nothing to do with philosophy.... I am increasingly annoyed with blatant excessivism (is that a word?). It puts the poem in the sound hole. About. Every morning I take something I wrote on paper the day before and I put it in my guitar. It puts the poem in another language. It puts the poem in perspective and it's different.

This is an optimistic anthology--as befits an accounting of the avant-garde--and it is this attitude of Hoover's which makes it a delight to read and a source of inspiration, even when one doesn't necessarily agree with any particular strains of postmodern American poetry. Here is the vitality, the sense of risk and indeterminacy, so vacant from Dove's staid reckoning.

The avant-garde is always a political project: each individual poet may not get the politics right according to our own bearing, but at least the instinct is in the right place. The force of change in poetry is always from the outside in, yet this also leads to the paradox that there is never really an avant-garde since it is--if it means anything at all--already being pacified and assimilated.

The avant-garde is instantly in danger of becoming a practice, mere repetition, procedure rather than anomaly, and the greater the critical mass it acquires, the greater the failure it becomes.

The selections from each poet in this anthology are just extensive enough to bear out this point. The word praxis indicates hard theory put into practice but it also includes the meaning of custom or convention.

Thus the avant-garde is always at war with itself. It's a good thing we have so many interesting warriors putting themselves into fragile boxes of straw and filament, the kinds of boxes that are invisible to those standing right next to them. That's how it should be.

Just as twenty years ago the moment of language poetry was the climax that was bound to recede, so is the moment of flarf and conceptual poetry already receding before our eyes.

Anis Shivani's recent books include Karachi Raj, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, and Anatolia and Other Stories. Books forthcoming in 2015 include Soraya: Sonnets and Literature in an Age of Globalization.

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