I admire David Mason’s article “The Limits of the Literary Movement” in the December ’07 issue of AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle. Mr. Mason rightly calls our attention to the injustice of off-handedly lumping poets according to whatever school of poetics they practice or are historically associated.
I, like him, have shuddered at the indiscriminate and uncritical dismissal or celebration of writers by those vaguely familiar with the poet’s work or the tenets of the school or movement under question.
At one end of the school yard, the classically prepped-out New Formalists get teased for their suspenders, bow-ties, and hoop skirts; the ever unpopular nerdy L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are taunted by everyone for their pen-holders and corduroy jackets; the Elliptical poets swoon in black leather mini-skirts and lace-up boots; while the deceased or aging Beats, like the big brother who keeps getting left back in school, remain somehow cool in beret, ascot, and Gauloise in hand and are feted everywhere for their perennial defiance and adolescent petulance. Distinction gets lost when we brusquely assign writers to their corner of the schoolyard.

What is regrettable, then, is the detection of Mr. Mason’s equally abhorrent anti-academic rhetoric which serves as the backdrop to his essay. Too bad such a finely argued article disappoints because it proceeds with its own laziness of categorization and misfirings, that in itself, is overly familiar, clichéd, unoriginal, done-to-death. Mr. Mason, like a modern-day Pre-Raphaelite (get it?), peppers his article with such utterances as:
1. Literary movements are trumped up to make careers or make life easier for professors.
2. The identification of the literary movement makes his job too easy, inviting smugness instead of criticism.
3. Nowadays, some academic critics run around proclaiming that narrative is dead, or at least uninteresting, but must we believe what they say?
3. They make for a tidy syllabus. But in the end they have precious little to do with poetry.
I often wonder about the intention and question the authority of those who can with such ease invoke suspicious remarks about such a lowly-figure in our society as the under-paid university professor. How can one attempt to discredit those who make wholesale comments by making one’s own wholesale comments? It does not pan-out. The professor in this country is that guy on the beach who gets sand kicked in his face, just for being near the ocean reading some “text,” (say Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations) that give most of us a headache at first glance of the opening paragraph.
This semester, I happen to teach 20th Century Poetry Movements, (Objectivists, Black Mountain, Black Arts, Ellipticians, Oppositional Poets, all) I do so not for the purpose of endowing my students with short-hand, neat criticism, as Mr. Mason suggests, but to introduce and acquaint them with the vibrant, philosophic questions of language, the cultural role and social position of poets and poetry, as well as the influential ideas around meaning and art-making as contained in manifestoes, essays, pioneering poems, and faux-documents written by some of the most interesting personages that have shaped contemporary poetry and debates today. My students most respond to the socio-political and aesthetic ferment of the last century which gave rise to the rich flourishing of poetry, worldwide. The battery of quizzes, reading assignments, exams, and group projects is designed to engage their imaginations and critical faculties, and to empower them to view language and poetry not as some boutique art-form practiced by the culturally privileged or society’s discontent, but as an important site where art, literature, and power are most contested between the generations and those passionate about all of the above.
I know Mr. Mason feels unfairly categorized as a New Formalist, as he plainly states, and comes to the defense of some important poets (including my fellow, fabulous blogger A.E. Stallings), but his carping seems once again another veiled attempt to supplant one ideology with another. His article would have been more persuasive, if he had avoided his camp’s, – who all convene, I think, at the West Chester Poetry Conference, as he tells us – (get it?) standard tactic of taking swipes at university professors, creative writing teachers, critics, and MFA programs. I am in agreement with Dan Chiasson in his response to David Orr’s review of Susan Stewart’s deservedly recognized and wonderful book Columbarium in Poetry (August 2004): "Can we stop arguing over modernism and post-modernism, the academic and the dopey, the raw and the cooked, etc., and please arrive at new questions, interesting and probing enough to fasten the judgments that result to their objects?"
Schoolyard fights are boring. The kids want more.

Originally Published: November 27th, 2007

Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...

  1. November 27, 2007

    Hi Major,
    I agree with everything you say here (and I don't teach). However, to excise "... the vibrant, philosophic questions of language, the cultural role and social position of poets and poetry, as well as the influential ideas around meaning and art-making ..." from discussions of poetry is exactly the aim of such people, who believe there is a kind of essential "good poem" that is self-evidently good, stripped of context. You know, the standard New Critical thing.
    So one must zero in on this idea that real goodness is self-evident, and doesn't need a professor to explain it.
    Unfortunately (I don't include Alicia in this company) I do think neo-formalists propagate the neo-new criticism. Precisely because they imagine that traditional forms, and regular rhyme and regular meter, are folksy things that need no explanation. Self-evidently good, and empirically testable (is that a real or a near rhyme? are you diluting that meter with substitutions? etc.).

  2. November 27, 2007
     James Hoch

    I don't do blogs; I've never had one or posted on one, so this is a little wierd. Especially since sometimes this blog is a symposium; othertimes it sounds like a hotel hallway at AWP. But Major Jackson's note (and Stephen Burt's other note) has me thinking about the Mason essay and a class that I taught some years ago called "Schools of American Poetry. " At the end of the semester, the class had a healthy and lengthy discussion about the validity of the course's premise and organization. What we came up with was somthing like this–
    Schools are constructed like affinity groups. They are not prisons. They appear and disappear. Belonging to one is not at the expense of belonging to another, if the poet's mind and work is broad enough. The problem with any way of organizing a course on poetry is with professorial sloppy engagement. Well, we have that with or without schools. And to decontextualize the poet is to make a trophy case display of the history of poetry. All agreed that that is unhelpful.
    But we also agreed with the instinct that a poem is not to be an example of an idea (paraphrasing Levis here), or even derivative of prose. And yet, we also agreed that clearly there is kin and resemblance with many poets and likenesses to the prose that they propogate.
    James Hoch

  3. November 27, 2007

    Dear Ange,
    The self-evident poem most eludes me, ironically enough. Divorcing poems from conversations, conducted by professors or laymen alike, critical or otherwise, denudes them of their ritual functions as art, communal works of literary art. Thanks for this perspective. Right, we only need be reminded that we were instilled the basic tools of understanding the self-evident poem while gurgling in our mama's lap or kicking in our baby cribs. Or that the net (and court) was there all along, for some of us, as an inherited item waiting to be claimed. (get it?) Where's your racket?
    --Major Jackson

  4. November 27, 2007
     oscar bermeo

    I wish I could take that 20th Century Poetry Movements class, it sounds like the hotness.
    I think the most interesting poetry movements are the ones that arise from a desire to document shifting political situations as opposed to poetry movements that are constructed to archive a specific clique of writing. I know that’s a very subjective view point, but I guess in the end history will let us know the difference between the two.
    On a side note, I’ve been lucky enough to have access to the original Nuyorican poetry anthology, a great read not only for its poetry but also the thoughts of Nuyorican founder Miguel Alagrín.
    The poet is responsible for inventing the newness. The newness needs words, words never heard before or used before. The poet has to invent a new language, a new tradition of communication.
    - Miguel Algarín from the introduction of Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings
    Take care,

  5. November 28, 2007
     Richard Villar

    Total side note:
    Is there a School of Larry Levis that I haven't identified yet? I haven't been able to turn three degrees to the right this year without having some poet mention Levis in both a critical and creative context. His work is all kinds of bad-ass.

  6. November 28, 2007

    I greatly treasure my Miguel(s) Pinero & Algarin _Nuyorican Poetry_ anthology with that bomb-Gil Mendez street-scene photo, if nothing else for all those Pedro Pietri poems whose "Song Without Words" was one of the first poems I ever memorized.
    Major J

  7. November 29, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Hi Major,
    Thanks very much for this post. Funnily enough, about the first blog-post I wrote similarly was about the beginning of school and poetry schools--I never published it for some reason. I think I had the Elliptical poets smoking clove cigarettes and the New Formalists off to their Young Republican meetings, but I had set the whole thing in Athens, Georgia in the late 80s... It had a sappy why-can't-we-all-just-get-along ending, which I think is why I thought better of posting it!
    I was kind of wondering whether I should either recuse myself from discussing the Dave Mason article, since I am mentioned in it and I think a review of Hapax was one of the triggers, or I should throw caution to the wind and do a whole post on the topic... Hmmm. Well, for better or worse, I think I'm going to do the latter...

  8. November 29, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    And hey, let's not forget that Harriet's own Steve Burt coined the term Elliptical Poet and named a whole school!

  9. November 29, 2007
     David Mason

    I just want to say that Major Jackson doth protest too much. My essay simply points out the limits of certain ways of categorizing poets, characterized in part by how we teach them in our courses (I am an academic too, you know), and in part by how we review their books. Is offering criticism the same as being against something? I daresay not. For example, if one criticizes American foreign policy is one anti-Ameriican? Surely not. So if one criticizes certain kinds of academic thinking simply by suggesting they have limits, is one therefore anti-Academic? Not at all. Mr. Jackson is pretty close to the ad hominem fallacy in some of his remarks, which might have been avoided if he had taken an academic course in logic.
    David Mason

  10. November 30, 2007

    I wish the article were merely a complaint about your straitjacket or the bed you no longer want to lie in, and by extension, the bedfellows you no longer want to bed, but I cannot help but conclude such an important and otherwise well-argued assertion is weakened by its' enthymatic claim (a phrase I picked up in my logic's course in grad. school).
    To once again predictably finger, like Mr. Gioia before you, who appears in your landmark anthology _Rebel Angels_, in his essay "Can Poetry Matter?," and like Mr. Barr most recently in his "American Poetry in the New Century," the academic-critic/poet for poetry's woes is shoddy and dull, and more importantly, unpersuasive.
    Yes, Peter Campion is a professor at Washington College, but is not his lack of critical force at that moment in _Hapax's_ review a result of his inadequacies as a reader rather him being an academic? Furthemore, who are these "academic critics" running around proclaiming the death of narrative? You offer no names and no evidence because you do not need. All you need do is write "academic critic" and the common man and woman are supposed to nod in agreement.
    Your subtle swipe rings louder than your argument of the limits of labels - but maybe not as loud as your assumption about what courses I have enrolled. (smiles)
    Fact is, I admire your work as well as the aboved named and many more that appear in your anthology. In my perfect, democratic world, no one is strait-jacketed or labeled. When I read your work, or our friend Mark Jarman's book _Unholy Sonnets_ which makes my syllabus just about every year, I do so because the poems are representative of language in action, symmetrically beautiful and engaging, and not because they are representative of the NF school. (Hold the applause.)
    Let's stay expansive.
    Brotherly Yours,
    Major J

  11. November 30, 2007
     David Mason

    "Let's stay expansive." Amen.
    And let's not burst!

  12. December 17, 2007
     Reginald Shepherd

    As a writer, I have tended to be rather of a solitary. Yet I have the greatest interest in and sympathy for what Goethe called elective affinities. Poets have often affiliated themselves with one another for mutual support and encouragement (and, let us not forget, mutual criticism). The Imagists, for example, saw themselves as a group with shared interests, aims, and methods, as did the Objectivists. In both cases, however, the group identity, useful though it may have been for a time, proved insufficient to contain their individual development as poets. The label or category, though self-applied, became a constraint.
    Even if a label or category is not self-ascribed or at least self-accepted, it can be a helpful tool. While the wide and diverse array of poets we now call Modernists undoubtedly saw themselves as modern, indeed strove to be modern, most probably did not imagine themselves to be "Modernists." (Though there was a Latin American and later peninsular Spanish movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century known as Modernismo, which involved the deliberate attempt to will themselves into modernity of a group of writers, foremost among them Ruben Dario, who were acutely aware of their relative backwardness in comparison with metropolitan, northwestern Europe. For the Modernistos, the modern was represented by French symbolism, as against the positivistic, utilitarian strictures of nineteenth-century realism.) Such categories are of interest only because of the poetry produced under their aegis. In the case of a category like "Modern" or "Modernist," the function of the phrase is to illuminate and better understand the work, to cast a light that reveals features which might not otherwise be apparent. Put in terms of text and context, context is not irrelevant. A poem can be illuminated by its context. But it is not defined, explained, or accounted for by its context.
    Problematic as the categories may be, at least in the ways that they are often used, there are poets who consider themselves "experimental" or "avant-garde" or "post-avant" or "neo-formalists" (though I've often wondered, what about the rather diverse "old formalists" still or recently alive and writing?) or what have you. Indeed, there are poets who loudly proclaim themselves as such. It may be that it's useful for their work to think of themselves within such categories. It may also be that it limits their work to do so. I often incline to the latter view. As John Ashbery writes in his essay "The Invisible Avant-Garde, "We feel in America that we have to join something, that our lives are directionless unless we are part of a group, a clan." And of course a group is always defined against those who are not part of the group.