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The hybrid-way or the highway
The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “hybrid” comes from the Latin hibrida – the offspring of a tame sow and wild boar. There are lots of citations of Darwin, but we won’t go there; now, I’m not the guy who just finished reading the entire OED, but it looks to me as though the word has fewer citations from poets than almost any other I can find. It’s quite curious, then, to find Cole Swensen disputing the notion of a fundamental division in American poetry, and proposing that “the model of binary opposition is no longer the most accurate one and that, while extremes remain, and everywhere we find complex aesthetic and ideological differences, the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized, and that hybridize core attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unprecedented ways.”
She says this in the introduction to the forthcoming anthology, American Hybrid, from Norton, whose mention with regard to a recent book of sonnets did turn polarizing on Ron Silliman’s blog. Anyway, she chronicles what happened between The New American Poetry (we miss you, Reginald!) and its 1982 sequel, The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry and concludes that by the time Donald Allen (with George Butterick) assembled the latter, “the opposition had all but joined him.” Opposition to this new mainstream came from so-called neo-Formalists and anti-New-Critical Language poets alike. We can quibble about nomenclature here; you can dig out stuff Cleanth Brooks said about the complex unity of poems that I’m sure still haunts work by the languagey folks – and on the other hand, hardly anybody actually owns up to being a “neo-” Formalist. Swensen argues, at any rate, that the old opposition, though it has not evaporated, has broken down: “The products of contradictory traditions, today’s writers often take aspects from two or more to create poetry that is truly post-modern in that it’s an unpredictable and unprecedented mix.”
I think she’s right (except about the unpredictable part, unfortunately). Poems written today are “hybrids” – they “might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions.” This strikes me (I see a lot of poems, needless to say) as empirically true. Yet I’m pretty sure everyone’s going to resist the notion of a hybrid poem. Partly it will be because if you spend years grinding an ax, you’re not just going to hang it up for good. And partly it’s because readers will search this new anthology (co-edited, by the way, with David St. John), for evidence, and will discover Robert Hass (I will never understand why those who think there is a “School of Quietude” think Hass is not at the head of the class), Albert Goldbarth, and Mary Jo Bang being placed alongside – uncomfortably, I’d say – Alice Notley, Norma Cole, and Etel Adnan. Perhaps unavoidably, the book includes poets who would turn up in almost any old contemporary anthology: Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Barbara Guest, Dean Young, C.D. Wright… Even Reginald Shepherd is included, he who in a way, beat these new compilers to the punch with his own anthologizing.
But we shouldn’t let the table of contents obscure the larger argument. It really is hard to find categories that either stick or mean anything anymore. If the proof is not in the pudding here, it’s because… well, no matter what your views are of metaphor, poetry isn’t like pudding! In the October issue of Poetry, the Canadian poet Jason Guriel asks why the great American poem is so hard to write. He picks up where Camille Paglia left off in her own recent anthology Break, Blow, Burn, when she said that “we have come to respect [poets] for their intelligence, commitment, and the body of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive, self-contained poem.” He looks at a clutch of recent books and has trouble finding distinct, let alone distinctive, poems in them. That poets favor process over result, he says, helps explain why.
Maybe it illustrates something Ron Silliman says: that there is “no such thing as poetry, only kinds of poetry.” Now, that’s a pretty striking thing to say, and Silliman adds: “This discussion – where is poetry going? – needs to occur right now, and we need it to be passionate and detailed and committed.” Yet it seems to me that the discussion has been going on at least since Pound’s 1919 version of Fenollosa’s essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium of Poetry” which, as Robert Von Hallberg recently put it (in Lyric Powers) “changed American poetics by undermining the authority of prose syntax.” Poetry was brand-new at the time, and it’s amazing that, far from making things new, here we all are still debating this. As Von Hallberg says, “The shock of Fenollosa’s or Pound’s ideogrammic method is gone… Poets and their readers commonly understand that intelligiblity is not limited to what can be concisely stipulated. Some poets urge their art into the gap between what conventional discourse comprehends and what readers of poetry may apprehend. As they do so, intelligibility is inevitably spoken of in the subjective mood. One asks, poem by poem, how unintelligibility brings gain, and of what kind.” Such is Guriel’s challenge as a reviewer, an editor’s challenge selecting poems for publication in a magazine, and, of course, the reader’s challenge. For as Swensen acknowledges, our post-Poundian (post-Modern?) hybridity does not guarantee excellence, and in making consensus and critical criteria unstable, more responsibility is put upon individual readers: they have to “become aware of and refine their own criteria.”
As it happens, Harriet always acknowledged that, as Whitman put it, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” Maybe it’s hard, now, to believe in such things as great poets or great poems- but great audiences are still around. And so… over to you.