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Individuality vs Individualism: Coteries, Affiliations, and Loners


As a poet born in the United States of America in the middle of the last century, I grew up amid the conflicting messages of my traditional education (e.g., I took Latin in high school), my working-class family (with middle-class values and aspirations), and the emerging pro- and countercultural messages filtering through the television set, the magazines and journals my dad subscribed to (Jet, Ebony, Essence, Reader’s Digest, and Life), and my friends. On the one hand, my formal education instructed me in the virtues of cultivating an individual self. After all, as my teachers pointed out, we were children of the Civil Rights era. We could do and be anything we wanted.

I became an inveterate reader. I loved the physical sciences, especially physics, and was fond of math. All of this was encouraged by my dad, who read voraciously, and my mom who bought me the books and magazines I wanted to read. And then, of course, there was the school library and, later, the public library. Even in college I spent long afternoons in the humanities and science libraries on the campus of Wayne State University. This was toward the “end” of the Black Arts Movement (the early to mid Seventies), though I didn’t know, in my youth, that that was what it was called. Since I hadn’t really known anything different I assumed it was perfectly natural that black poets and playwrights, musicians and novelists, were plastered on billboards, could be heard on radio, and could be read in many of those magazines listed above. I understood instinctively that there was some tension between the civil rights workers and the black power advocates, but both groups had worked in my neighborhood without apparent conflict. Both sides modeled a life in service to something larger than the individual self I was dutifully forging. And because it was the militants in particular who railed against “individualism” in their flyers, broadsides and newspapers, I began to feel guilty. I assumed my individuality was equivalent to the individualism they decried.

I bring up this personal history as just one instance of the variegated social formations of poets in the United States. I’m thinking about the varied, complex career trajectories of several of the Language writers as depicted in The Grand Piano series. Some began as poets working through a traditional MFA program (Barrett Watten), some began as college graduates doing things other than academia (Steve Benson), and despite the myth of careerism defining the movement, only a few have gone into academia (Watten, Harryman, and Pearlman, for example) while others have careers in other fields (Silliman, Benson). This past summer an article appeared in The New York Times suggesting that geographical location was a stronger predictor of economic mobility than other factors we might assume have greater influence (gender, race, class, etc.). The fact is, despite our sense of poetry “movements,” that somehow they have been artificially manufactured, the fact is chance plays as much a role in the appearance of poetry movements as anything else. We don’t choose to whom or where we are born, and the choices we make as we mature often have little sense of future outcomes (this is one reason the assessment craze permeating our educational system from elementary school to graduate school is useful in terms of accountability but virtually useless as a predictor of student “success,” however defined…).

Of course, from the point of view of those outside a specific aesthetic/social formation, it may appear as artificial and deliberate as a television commercial. Because the “po’ biz” (to use Nathaniel Tarn’s dismissive phrase) automatically creates insiders and outsiders from the point of view of outsiders, if not insiders too, the oft-repeated mantra of aesthetic “merit” can sometimes seem like a red herring. The chimera of this bait-and-switch is a direct result of the MFA system which creates mentors and protégés, an apparently impermeable line of royal succession, and so it’s not surprising that every prize-winning book is immediately scrutinized not for its aesthetic quality but for its author’s connection to a particular judge, MFA program or what have you. When scandals break out—e.g., the University of Georgia Press contest scandal involving Bin Ramke (a nice man as far as I can tell) a few years ago—suspicions that the fix is always in can appear confirmed. In this environment the appearance of self-conscious movements—from Language Writing to Flarf and Conceptual Writing—can only be greeted with suspicion if not outright hostility. Apparently, the only thing worse than the begrudgingly accepted vice of self-promotion is promotion by one’s aesthetic allies and friends. Hence the hostility that rains down when a member or member of a group enters an institutional setting, though there are obvious differences between, say, the Poetry Foundation, a research one university, and community college.

At stake in all these actions and reactions is the question of the individual and individualism. Rebelling with others against the perceived aesthetic hegemony is fine as long as one doesn’t attempt to go off on one’s own. The individual who does so risks the diagnosis, with apologies to Susan Sontag, of individualism. Behind this view, quite often, is a nostalgic view of poetry, a Golden Age before history (capitalism, industrialism, the division of labor, etc.). The belief in a poetry untainted by market values crosses the usual political lines and thus can make for strange bed-fellows and -gals. Though many small presses situate themselves as supplements to a perceived aesthetic hegemony, many others position themselves as oppositional sites to the major presses. Today, in the United States, one could probably count on one hand the major presses still seriously devoted to the publication, distribution, and promotion of poetry (W.W. Norton, Alfred Knopf, Penguin, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). Even the midsized houses—Graywolf, Beacon, White Pine, etc.—struggle in the economic and cultural climate of the information age.

Obviously I am not discounting the actual careerists, users and megalomaniacs among us (though I have to say that my experience has been that musicians top the list in megalomania and paranoia). I’m thinking about an incident many years ago. I’d moved back to Detroit temporarily in order to finish (okay, start) my dissertation. I sent out feelers for articles and essay publication and got a chance to publish something in Kofi Natambu’s Solid Ground, an important cultural arts journal throughout the eighties. A few weeks after the publication a letter appeared in the alternative weekly Detroit Metro Times, claiming that Solid Ground only published people Kofi knew and “we”—the people he published—had essentially closed ranks against anyone who didn’t think the way “we” all did. I was indeed friends with Kofi but I’d had pieces rejected by him before. More important, I knew he published people he didn’t know and, just as important, pieces with which he didn’t agree. Yet, for this letter writer, from the outside all these differences and nuances were lost. He or she could see a forest, not the trees. I guess I remember this minor incident because it keeps me on my toes. Like a lot of poets, I too tend to see blocs, especially around magazines or presses that have rejected my work.

Final story. Before Jocelyn Saidenberg and her cohorts at Krupskaya Books published my first book of poetry, Norman Finkelstein, my colleague, and I were entertaining Donald Revell who was in town to give a reading. He asked me how things were going and I expressed my frustration at not being able to get a book published. Since I saw him as the consummate insider, I asked him if he could help. He responded, “It’s hard for me too. I have to sell every book.” His point was that having a track record didn’t make publishing the next book any easier. Now, to be fair, I’ve discovered that isn’t exactly true. My Krupskaya book did indeed open doors for me. I’m now an insider. I admit it: it’s easier seeing the trees from inside the forest.

Originally Published: October 10th, 2013

Poet Tyrone Williams was born in Detroit, Michigan and earned his BA, MA, and PhD at Wayne State University. He is the author of a number of chapbooks, including Convalescence (1987); Futures, Elections (2004); Musique Noir (2006); and Pink Tie (2011), among others. His full-length collections of poetry include c.c....