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am I an americanist?
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?