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am I an americanist?

By Stephen Burt

Odd encounter at a conference today (not the one Ange’s been blogging, but a much smaller one):
Scholar of contemporary culture, film and fiction #1 (pointing at me): “Is he an Americanist?”
Scholar of contemporary culture, film and fiction #2: “He’s a poetry person.”
Was that a version of “No”? If not, what was it?


Now socc&f#2 was right: I am a poetry person, both in the sense that term carries within academia– most of the prose I publish concerns poetry– and in the sense it might have in the wider world– I like poetry and read a lot of it; sometimes I even publish it myself.
But socc&f#2 raised a question: if an Americanist is someone who studies and has ideas about American culture, or someone who tries to decide what has made that culture the way it is, can you be “an Americanist” and be a poetry critic these days? Can you be an Americanist and be a poet?
50 years ago the answer might have been “of course”: Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, and LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka, who agreed on almost nothing else, appear to have agreed for much of their careers that American poetry could do something to and for some politically significant slice of American culture– indeed, they sometimes described their mission as poets in ways that conflated the making of poems with the useful analysis, the diagnosis or the exorcism of something called America. (Lowell, I think, eventually changed his mind.)
150 years ago the answer would have been (had the term “Americanist” been around) “aren’t we all?”: poems– not the ones we read now– were everywhere, and some of them were bestsellers.
These days critics who do not define themselves primarily as poetry critics usually ignore poetry entirely; people who ask big questions about the direction of American culture-in-general don’t usually look at poetry.
Should they? If they do, what poets should they seek? What poets– this is a different question from the two before it– seem to want to describe something called America, the way Pinsky once did? Does it work? What poets– could it be most poets, these days?– view an Explanation of America as too ambitious to be practicable, or too general to be of much use, or too far from any project we might want our own talents, now, to undertake?

Comments (10)

  • On October 27, 2007 at 1:55 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Being an Americanist today is not only too wide a task, it is also too narrow. It depends, no matter how you cut it, on the idea of a national (ist) poetry. For an outsider, one of the biggest problems with a lot (not all) of American contemporary poetry might be the unthinking persistence, even in some of its supposedly subversive tendencies, of its self-important, taken-fo-granted, inward-looking, even unironic Americanness. The fact that others might be listening is quickly forgotten. It’s hard for me to think of this mode as anything but a subconscious imperiousness. It is the palimpsestic notion of America as a kind of beacon.
    “English” English poetry, on the other hand (I wonder if you agree) has already taken a beating it cant recover from. An explanation of England could only be conducted in the harsh, self-conscious and intricately specific way that Geoffrey Hill conducts it.

  • On October 27, 2007 at 1:27 pm Ange wrote:

    I don’t know if I have anything to add to Vivek’s comment, but I have to say I completely agree with him — both as a first-generation American mutt and as a former expat. For even so brief a time as I spent living in the Middle Atlas Mountains, it was hard to escape the realization that, indeed, others are listening, and judging.

  • On October 27, 2007 at 2:38 pm Don Share wrote:

    Just as Vivek, in another Harriet comment, pointed out the difficulty in assuming such a thing as “Indian poetry,” it seems too easy to talk about even “a lot” of American contemporary poetry. Moreover, lots of people living in the U.S. are from elsewhere (or their ancestors were), and the least imperious among us worry, and perhaps not enough, about the effects across nations of what we do here. It’s perilous to assume a uniformity of American culture, politics or, to use Brian Phillips’ term with trepidation, “taste.”

  • On October 27, 2007 at 4:18 pm Andrew Shields wrote:

    “Lots of people living in the U.S. are from elsewhere”—and lots of Americans are not in the U. S., including, of course, one of the current Harriet bloggers, A. E. Stallings. As an American writing poetry in English in Switzerland, where I have now lived for 12 years (and I was in Germany for four years before that), I often wonder whether I really still count as “an American poet.”

  • On October 27, 2007 at 9:20 pm Steve wrote:

    Vivek makes good points about American poetry, and about the inward-turned attentions of so many people who think about American literature and American poetry as categories. But I don’t think he’s being fair to the English: indeed,he’s encouraging the American tendency to dismiss English poetry (except Hill) without having read any (except Hill). are Denise Riley, David Constantine, Carol Rumens, Michael Hofmann, Alice Oswald, R. F. Langley, Lavinia Greenlaw, John Stammers, and Patience Agbabi all hopelessly unambitious and un-self-critical? (Granted, Riley is technically Scottish, but her growth as a poet took place in England; Hofmann likes to say that he’s German– but that may speak to the international attentions you can find, if you look for them, within English verse.)

  • On October 29, 2007 at 9:24 am Tom Thompson wrote:

    I too agree with Vivek on how the conjunction of Americanist and poetry person creates a slippery-feeling slope sliding toward nationalism. But interesting to note that Whitman (his name inevitable here) wrote in a time of greater political, spiritual and social upheaval & sectionalism than we have now. His “Americanist” tendencies, including the imperialist, were aspirational, not reality-based. Perhaps the difference is that no one much cares to aspire to such nationalism anymore. The aspiration is out-moded, pretty much intolerable given the political climate and the likely uses it would be put to (if anyone bothered picking it up). And yet, Whitman’s writing (which I’d written off for most of the last 20 years, but whose 1855 Song of Myself is worth returning to for the ways it constantly redirects assumptions of meaning) creates such a useful space for thinking about nationalism versus me-ism.
    I think the Americanist/poetry-person divide is a live question. Could the most profitable Americanists writing poems now be building senses not within borders (as Whitman tried to, his encompassing reaches), but across them? Thinking here of more recent books by Cathy Park Hong or Claudia Rankine… Or maybe even, Juliana Spahr’s “Connection of everything…” These writings, each with an “I” that constantly crosses the nation’s geographic and poetry’s stylistic borders…

  • On October 29, 2007 at 9:36 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Yes, Americans, like many other nationalities, have a problem with chauvinism, self-aggrandizing narcissism, and ignorance about the rest of the world. American global power tends to exaggerate these problems.
    But one gets bored with this typical mea culpa of American shortcomings – so familiar now, so fashionable.
    Perhaps someone could do a comparative study of the successes & failures of contemporary multicultural and multi-ethnic coexistence within particular societies. The United States might not fare too badly by such a measure (though we display, of course, deep historic failures in that area, too).
    I don’t simply want to defend “Americanism”, though. What I would like to point out is that the US, like every other country, has its own distinctive history of development and change – its own cultural ecology, so to speak. If one wants to understand our literature, past and present, one should read it within the context of that particular history – rather than dismiss it, reductively, as a parochial epiphenomenon of “global English”.

  • On October 31, 2007 at 9:01 pm Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Steve–
    I feel like you maybe caught the opposite of what I was saying. I wasn’t dismissing contemporary English poetry at all– I was saying just the opposite, that English poetry can no longer afford to be grandiosely pre-occupied with its own Englishness (unless in the fascinating, complex and self-conscious way of Geoffrey Hill, a poet I admire very greatly, intensely particular but somehow anything but parochial, shot through with global–including, for instance, African– history in a powerful way). The poets I do know on your list– Hoffman, Agbabi, Riley, Langley, Greenlaw– and others like Prynne all, without exception, seem to challenge and subvert the idea of Englishness in so many ways that it seems slightly ridiculous for them to come under the purview of “English Studies”. None of them, I think, would be so foolish as to unironically embark on the next Great English Epic. The only person who is doing something sort of like that is Hill, which is why I brought him up as the exception that proves the rule. In fact, a recent link off Silliman’s blog linked to a bizarre essay that lamented the lack of “English poets”. This, I take to be reflective of the fact that the sun has indeed finally begun to set on the British raj–though the decline is not yet complete and may yet take a few more decades.
    I don’t mean to romanticise the English poetry scene. It’s parochial and inward in its own ways–as all national poetry scenes still are– and personally I find the poetry coming from Manchester on north to the Scottish revival far more interesting and exciting (with a couple of exceptions like Hoffman, Prynne, Riley, etc). But just to say that England cannot make a national mythology for itself anymore, nor would there be many English poets to participate in that project.
    Henry–
    You say the US, “like every other country” has its own cultural ecology– but do you take “country” for granted? Why should national boundaries necessarily circumscribe and describe cultural ecology? Why can’t we think about the cultural ecology of places or towns or cities, for instance as opposed to nations? That would certainly have a less abstract, grandiose character. Or indeed, what do we make positive use of the placelessness of the net? It seems to me that different kinds of non-national cultural ecologies have now become possible but have not been fully realised, or have been played out in lopsided ways because of the persistence of the nation, and of empire. It’s strange to see thousands of American poets come online just to have a dialogue with other American poets– though it’s nice to see this at least sometimes subverting the previous dominance of the coasts.
    All I’m saying is that our relationship to boundaries, especially national boundaries, should change. And it is changing, even as I type. Kent Johnson and Joshua Clover strike me as examples, only examples, of two American poets who, in different ways, seem somehow inter- or trans-national in their approach. There’s Fulcrum, a journal which (full disclosure) I am connected with. Stephen, for instance, you are directly in touch with up to the minute contemporary movements in English poetry in ways that would have been fairly rare for earlier generations of American poets (am I right?); the pages of Poetry and other magazines register this first stage of the shift, the rapprochement across the atlantic. Silliman stated last year that he couldn’t “hear” much British poetry, but I wonder, reading between his links, if that’s starting to change. Don Share, from the American South, is editing Basil Bunting for the English– how did they let him do that! Just kidding. So this is something. But hopefully the rapprochement across the atlantic ought to be just the first step. Perhaps next it might be useful to just peek over the border to see what’s been happening in Mexico all these years after Paz….
    I’m not saying that we can wish the nation away, or that we are not all products of national histories in some ways. I’m just saying we should be self-conscious about this and try to imagine the next step after national poetries.
    I’m not saying, of course, that nationalism is only a disease that affects the Americans. India is on the rise as a colonial power (the orange juice i drink comes is harvested in nepal by the local branch of an indian company; “we” have an air base in Tajikistan, etc.) and I am extremely wary of anything like an Indian national poetry– the flows that would suppress, block or obscure. The Indian press goes to ridiculous extents to tell the narrative of the rise of Indian literature– even cooking up a whole competition between India and Pakistan for the Booker prize! ( see http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2007/10/more-from-journalistic-hyperbole-dept.html and
    http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/oct/17booker.htm )
    But none of this takes away from the fact that it is still possible for some to conduct the business of American poetry and Americanism without reading anyone from anywhere else, while poets from the rest of the world, regardless of what language they write in, will most certainly be reading large chunks of poetry by Americans. When I first came to the US, my dorm-mates would express amazement about how much I knew about American culture, despite having grown up in Africa, with the subtext that they knew nothing at all about where I came from. The answer was simple: I grew up watching TV.
    Very sorry for the over-long length of this comment.

  • On November 1, 2007 at 12:07 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Vivek,
    I agree with much of what you’re saying. Obviously, languages, cultures, nations & borders have always been hybrid, shifting, changing. & the U.S, does have a special, and glaring, problem with parochialism (cf. the widespread ignorance about other languages, other geographies). & on the other hand, as you say, some of the most interesting poetry in English draws on a curiosity about distant and differerent literatures.
    All that being said, however, I remain skeptical about arguments which try to link fine-sounding general ideas about internationalism, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, etc. etc. with the concrete and distinct practice of poetry-making. There can be a downside to “globalism” in literature just as in economics. A flattening-out, a sameness : an erasure of the unique by the glib, the superficial, the sophisticated. When global writing is premised on a shallow set of ideologies and inter-cultural rivalries, rather than on a felt knowledge of one’s own particular past and traditions, then the stage has been set for more bland “global” art and literature, more translations of translations. Furthermore, it seems to me that a work of art or poetry should be approached and evaluated on its own terms – that is, the language which is its medium of expression, and the aesthetic-thematic materials which are thus expressed – rather than within some current ideological framework of vast global implications (though the particular work may ndeed manifest just such implications).

  • On November 2, 2007 at 10:58 am Don Share wrote:

    I wonder what folks make of the recent remarks made in answer to Stan Apps on the subject of avant vs. rear garde over on Tony Tost’s blog, e.g.:
    “If a contemporary writer believes (as I do) that we’re currently in a moment of a vast dilation of American cultural and political and economic assumptions via the process of multinational capital, where what was once taken to be difference will now (and always as a ‘now’) be seen as a hodge-podge of particular present instantiations of globalization/Americanism (re-framed as an example of the vast buffet of stylistic options available to the contemporary consumer, and that globalization of the marketplace alone makes possible), I don’t know how one can’t see the rejection of the authority of precedence as not being symptomatic of this larger tendency. If American consumerism owns the present, and seems intent on owning the future as well, a refusal of precedent, or of tradition(s), seems to be a really strong home field advantage for this particular type of standardization.”


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, October 26th, 2007 by Stephen Burt.