Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. by Paul Hoover. W.W. Norton. $35.00.
When it was published in 1994, the first edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, edited by Paul Hoover, ran to 744 pages and included 411 poems by 103 poets. Nearly two decades later, the second edition runs to 982 pages with 557 poems by 114 poets. The number of poets has remained relatively stable while the number of poems has increased by over 35% and the number of pages by nearly a third. This thing is a phone book. “You review it!” is, I think, not an unreasonable critical response. But I didn’t make it this far by being reasonable, so here goes.
Some millennial fever in the nineties led to a number of attempts to extend and codify the putatively alternative tradition of poetics gathered by Donald Allen in 1960 under the rubric The New American Poetry, 1945–1960. As Marjorie Perloff notes in a canny review of this anthological zeal:
In the two-year span 1993–1994, no less [sic] than three major poetry anthologies appeared that featured the poetry of what has been called “the other tradition”.... These three anthologies are, in the order of publication, Eliot Weinberger’s American Poetry since 1950: Innovators & Outsiders (New York: Marsilio, 1993), Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry (New York: Norton, 1994), and Douglas Messerli’s From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960–1990 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1994).
Allen himself had got the jump on these bouquets with The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised in 1982, but that collection, which cut five and added nine poets to the original roster and revised the selection of poems, was a modest affair. The original anthology was an Historical Event, and these new anthologies were clearly — sometimes explicitly — offered as Allen’s successors. Messerli even smuggles Allen’s title into his own.
Well, From the Other Side of the Century has been out of print for years. You can get a used copy in “good” condition for thirty cents on Amazon, a “very good” copy for thirty-one. Weinberger’s text is still in print but seems to have had little impact. Hoover’s Norton is the clear victor, the anthology that will define, for better or worse, classroom dissemination of “the other tradition” for a long time to come. It’s hard not to read in its reissue a riposte to the controversial Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, who has come under deserved fire for her exclusion of Allen Ginsberg, Louis Zukofsky, and a great many more representatives of the other tradition.
But let’s consider this tradition a bit more closely. A good deal has been written about the sociology of canon formation and literary anthologization — the best examples are John Guillory’s Cultural Capital and Alan Golding’s From Outlaw to Classic. I don’t want to recapitulate this work here, but it’s important to note that the premise from which each of these post-Allen anthologies proceeds is flawed. The editors imagine that what they are doing is collating the productions of alternative traditions that already exist within the poetic field, that subvert and threaten the field’s dominant modes of writing and thinking. Each of the above projects is explicitly predicated upon the notion that there is a “mainstream,” an establishment, usually figured as “academic,” against which the anthologized poets are bravely swimming. Hoover tells us that “this anthology hopes to assert that avant-garde poetry endures in its resistance to dominant and received modes of poetry.”
In fact, it is closer to the truth to say that this anthology, and others like it, have created the “other traditions” of “postmodern American poetry,” “avant-garde poetry,” “outsider poetry,” “new American poetry,” and the like. If the avant-garde historically represents a struggle against the institutional forms of cultural domination (in the case of “dominant and received modes of poetry,” these must include the major journals, English and creative writing departments, and publishing houses), what must we conclude about an “avant-garde” that is completely absorbed by and into those very institutions? Both Guillory and Golding argue persuasively that canons are made in and by the university — their mode of transmission is the syllabus. And these days you’re as likely to see Rae Armantrout as Mary Oliver on a course syllabus in contemporary poetry (or in the pages of the New Yorker).
As Peter Bürger has shown, the failure of the historical avant-garde (Dada, surrealism, etc.) to abolish the distinction between art and life can obscure the fact that it succeeded in changing the institutional conditions of art practice, such that no real avant-garde movement can be said any longer to exist at the level of style or form:
The historical avant-garde movements were unable to destroy art as an institution; but they did destroy the possibility that a given school can present itself with the claim to universal validity.
You will note the absence of a Norton Anthology of Mainstream Poetry. Today’s “mainstream” is a construction of today’s soi-disant “avant-garde,” which is a construction of poets in love with their image of themselves as perennial outsiders. That image requires embarrassing contortions to maintain when you’re granted (or burdened with) the imprimatur of W.W. Norton & Company. Hoover writes, with a touch of self-directed irony: “History determined that Rae Armantrout, an experimental lyric poet and close observer of human experience, won the Pulitzer Prize for 2010.” It’s easier to joke about teleology than to consider what the conferring of Official Verse Culture’s highest honors on the rebel faction should tell you about your categories.
Indeed, Hoover’s introduction is a farrago of received wisdom. If you can think of a cliche about postmodernism, the avant-garde, or critical theory that Hoover has not regurgitated, please e-mail him in time for the eight-volume third edition. Obviously a consideration of postmodernity will require a responsible overview of its major figures, movements, and concepts, but Hoover simply quotes and rehashes where critical engagement is called for. You get the impression he’s ticking off items on a list: Fredric Jameson, check; The Waste Land, check; Tristram Shandy, check; Walter Benjamin, Finnegans Wake, Borges, Baudrillard, Dada, Derrida, John Cage, Mallarmé, the transcendental signified, check, check, check. After quoting from Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Hoover writes that “with the loss of originality as a value, nature, the art of painting, heroism, originality, and the lyric poem begin to lose their savor, replaced by a Heraclitean stream of Internet words and images.” I don’t know where to begin. You know, back when originality as a value was lost? Around the time that nature lost its savor? When heroism was replaced by internet words? (I must admit I rather like how the loss of originality as a value leads to originality’s losing its savor.)
Because Hoover is so eager to reduce concepts to bullet points and arguments to gestures, you’d never know from his discussion that, for instance, Benjamin’s analysis of the changing conditions of art production and reception in modernity is political, directed precisely toward the “formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” For Hoover, it’s just a way station on the way to ... well, to Flarf, if you must know. The anthology proper begins with Charles Olson’s “In Cold Hell, in Thicket,” and ends, infinite pages later, with the words “Flarf is life.” (If, armed with such knowledge, you still want to purchase this book, we probably shouldn’t have lunch.) I really don’t want to write about Flarf, in part because there’s nothing worth saying about it — it’s just there, a dumb but harmless fad — and in part because its practitioners get off on being slammed in prestigious journals by reactionaries like me. But Hoover has bought into it wholesale, along with Kenneth Goldsmith’s so-called conceptualism, Brian Kim Stefans’s “cyberpoetry,” and the whole boatload of vacuous bullshit.
Well, this is what happens when the avant-garde ceases to function as a historical category and becomes a fetish object. Hoover, like so many of the poets who fill up the last half of his anthology, has confused posture for position. Anthologies necessarily break down as they approach the present, since it is impossible to judge the worth and durability of contemporary production. Still, to peruse the pages of Postmodern American Poetry devoted to poets born since 1960 is an alternately depressing and comical experience, like reading an updated Stuffed Owl.
At least Flarf flares up into flair on occasion, and Goldsmith (who seems unaware that poststructuralism’s historical moment has passed) recognizes that his poems don’t need to be read. For the most part, though, poem after poem by contemporary poet after poet are so drearily negligible that it seems unfair to pick out a few representatives. Edwin Torres, for example, is not really any worse than most of his compeers:
danger is the birth of anglesshazz’d; lettroin; marved; eldenticing; the shape beckonsrip in sky; throat opens
when ungorged; a curvefeatures formless, out of reshaped voweletteryellow vegas bundesbähnwelcome to the four-eyed boys
zizz’d; mreckt; taon; vevvedshell-shocked leather-clad; mad punkttakes over soundpakt; easier to listenif you take away; fear; peligrøtz
A headnote informs us that “in a panel discussion [of course!], Torres commented” that poetry is “‘an already daring motion to undertake in this society.’” Well no, it isn’t, and Torres’s rebel-without-a-clause performance stakes rather too much on an overly familiar dynamic, skating away from sense while eroticizing danger — it’s just The Wild One as a subpar Godard knockoff.
Torres’s poem crashes because, beholden to played-out notions of vanguardism, it seems hopelessly retrograde (the lines quoted above were published in 2007). But many of the poems here are simply dead — nonresponsive, flatlined, toe-tagged, rotting. Take Noah Eli Gordon’s “An approximation of the actual letter” (capital letters in titles are so mainstream):
I died in a book
& couldn’t touch the ink around me
it was autumn
I died in a book asking
the word for leaf for leave
I died in a book on the eve of music
in the distance, another distance
I died in a book, indeed. This appears to be a reheating of Michael Palmer’s “C (‘called Poem of the End’)”:
called Poem of the End
four evenings in a rownow with a bridge in the distance
I came upon by chance
called Poem of the End
blue seven like thishazed: nothing but the printed lines
It’s called Poem of the EndI found it beside me where I slept
and called it Poem of the Endwhose name was crossed out
I found it in a letterand recalled writing from it
in broken sevens like this
This is one thing in 1988, quite another as inept ventriloquism twenty years later. Laynie Browne works a similar aesthetic to identical purpose:
To lose one must first possess
To possess one must bind matter to matter
With loss as guide, one desires to be matterless
The matterless guide resides in a borrowed form, contains no loss.
Residing within a body, this bodilessness is not confined to theinvisible structures of any given form.
Rapid soiling of hands, linens, hangings of rooms, hollows of lungs.
The self possessed form — abandoned
upon departure from the matterful hemisphere.
... I’m sorry, I must have drifted off, you were saying?
I don’t mean to single Gordon and Browne out: their poems are typical of a particularly lethal period style, one that is amply represented in this anthology. The problem is that an anthology like this should lead us to be able to state the difference between Palmer’s gorgeous, evocative lines and Gordon’s inert ones. But Hoover’s anthology doesn’t know the difference, because its principles of inclusion are programmatic rather than aesthetic. It’s not interested in teaching us how to read these poems, or in discrimination or judgment; it’s hardly interested in the poems themselves at all. It amounts to a lobbying push.
This is one reason the headnotes are essential reading — the disconnect between their self-satisfied posturing and the utterly safe and mild exercises they introduce is often hilarious:
Linh Dinh’s poem “The Death of English” ends with the lines, “It’s all japlish or ebonics, or perhaps Harold Bloom’s / Boneless hand fondling a feminist’s thigh.” He challenges every politically correct instinct with a knowing wink, as if to say, “Discuss that with your Introduction to Poetry class.”
I did. Somehow my Introduction to Poetry class managed to keep their shit together.
Still, not only do I not doubt that Dinh and Gordon and their confreres have noble, or noble-ish, aims for their poetry; I rather insist upon it. Who could be against resisting the dominant ideology? As Barthes wrote, “whatever the imprecision of the term, the left always defines itself in relation to the oppressed.” Count me in. More’s the pity, then, that the urgent political necessity of a revitalized left in this country is met by so many poets with recycled assertions about their brave defiance of “mainstream verse” (with its — shudder — “given forms”) and rote disavowals of “totalizing claims.” (One reason the left is in disarray is that totalizing claims give it the willies. Always historicize — but don’t overdo it.)
So if the poems collected here do not, at the ideological pole of reality, oppose the dominant ideology of American verse, is it the case that the anthology is simply an empty signifier? By no means. For one thing, as I suggested above, insofar as the “postmodern American poets” share an aesthetic, it has become the dominant one, as a careful reading of the most prestigious journals and mfa workshops reveals. Armantrout’s much-deserved acclamation is merely a symptom of a broad shift toward the postmodern as the new normal. The techniques of postmodern verse — to generalize: a displacement of the subject and of narrative, expression deemphasized in favor of fragmentation and constructivism — are mimetic of what its practitioners take to be the real operations of language and selfhood. These operations are distorted at the level of ideology; postmodernism is therefore realist, as Ron Silliman recognized when he subtitled his anthology of Language poetry Language, Realism, Poetry. This new realism is the old realism by now, institutionalized to such an extent that talk of its oppositional value is wishful thinking. Or, more precisely, it is ideology.
However, I am concerned not to give the impression that I am simply reversing the polarities of the standard mainstream/experimental division. Because the aesthetic(s) designated “postmodern” can, in fact, constitute one term in different binaries, ones not imagined by Hoover & Co., that have the advantage of retaining or deepening the complexity of the poetic field without mystification. To limit myself to an especially penetrating one, for the purpose of exemplification: Oren Izenberg, in Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life, has proposed an opposition in ontological, rather than aesthetic, terms — terms which have the benefit of making sense of many of the confusions I’ve already noted. Briefly, Izenberg, ironically drawing on Harold Bloom, makes a distinction between “poetry” and “non-poetry.” He does not mean by this (as Bloom does) to imply a hierarchy. His reading is neither prescriptive nor evaluative, but descriptive and historical. The term “non-poetry,” which the Romantic Bloom deploys in order to dismiss “weak” poets (and it’s telling that for Bloom this includes both Eliot and Pound), becomes, for Izenberg, a way of describing a different kind of intention behind the composition of poems. Bloom’s “strong” poets — Whitman, Wordsworth, Ashbery, Bishop — simply intend a different thing than, say, Oppen or Lyn Hejinian intend. In fact, on Izenberg’s reading, Oppen and Hejinian do not intend a thing at all. Noting that
so variously fragmented, occulted, difficult, and silent; so assertively trivial, boring, or aleatory are the types of poetry on the “experimental” side of the critical divide, that critics who champion the work have gone to great didactic and theoretical lengths to imagine, explain, justify, and market alternative species of pleasure and interest to compensate for the loss of traditional aesthetics,
Izenberg argues that “what the poet intends by means of poetry is not always the poem” (italics his). That is, the poem — a verbal artifact, a series of marks on paper or phonemes on breath — is not the end of the poetic process, is not the aim of “non-poetry.”
Izenberg is not claiming that experimental poets don’t have intentions for their poems or don’t care about their final shape. They sit down and write stuff that gets published in anthologies. Nor is he denying that some of these poems are compelling, beautiful, interesting, cool, masterful, or what have you. But they remain a secondary consideration (in a purely descriptive sense). What is primarily at issue for these poets is their “philosophical (indeed, their ontological) commitments rather than their strictly formal and ideological ones.” Izenberg is indebted to Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” here, which begins by positing a distinction between poetry “in a restricted sense” and poetry “in a general sense.” By the latter, Shelley means an idea of poetry as nothing less than “the expression of the imagination,” no matter what form that expression might take. Izenberg locates the commitments of poetry in this general sense in conceptions of personhood rather than of poetic style. To be a poet of this kind is to act according to a concept not simply of what a poem is (the end result of poetic composition or a provisional marker of more radical commitments) but of what a person is. There are obvious consequences for poems — what you think a person is, on this reading, determines what you think a poem is — but for the poets of “non-poetry,” the most important commitment is to a conception of poetry that is much broader than the one whose aim is to compose verse that pleases and instructs. These poets — “insofar as [they] intend poetry” — do not intend “to produce that class of objects we call poems, but to reveal, exemplify, or make manifest a potential or ‘power’ that minimally distinguishes what a person is.”
To follow Izenberg’s argument further would take us too far afield, but I hope that this précis at least indicates that rich alternatives to the mainstream/experimental rift exist, and that some of them might more fruitfully describe the conflicts and contradictions within literary production. None of this should be taken to imply that there are no aesthetic differences between (to grant the terms for argument’s sake) the mainstream and the avant-garde, or that Hoover doesn’t occasionally get some of them right. Izenberg’s poetry/non-poetry divide can exist alongside (in accounts) or cut through (in practice) the more familiar categories. But Izenberg’s opposition can provide an alternative explanation of what “postmodern” poetry is up to, and, for me at least, his way of looking at the poetic field contains more use value than Hoover’s.
There is an especially insidious reason that the particular binary mainstream/avant-garde should be retired, at least insofar as it informs the syllabus through textbooks like Postmodern American Poetry. “Advocacy masquerading as description” — as Izenberg put it to me in a recent e-mail —
such anthologies are bad literary history and facilitate bad poetic pedagogy. By creating a walled garden out of the avant-garde, they project the close horizons of the poetic present onto a past in which poets read widely and were influenced broadly. These anthologies are aimed at relieving people of reading, as much or more than they are at giving people things to read. Considered as tools for writers, they turn the narrow-minded past they (falsely) describe into a (true) description of the present.
That the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry simply proves that the soi-disant avant-garde has no monopoly on falsely describing a narrow-minded past. Izenberg writes in Being Numerous that these distinctions “have cut poets of whatever kind off from fully half of their art.” In what universe are Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Frederick Seidel not indispensable postmodern American poets? The one in which George Oppen, Sylvia Plath, and Jack Spicer are not indispensable twentieth-century American poets, I guess. But it tells against Hoover’s logic that Dove’s anthology contains so many of the postmodern poets of his own book, including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Ted Berrigan, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer, and Ron Silliman.
And for what it’s worth, my own experience has been that it is students of poetry who identify strongly with the avant-garde who take the lessons of what not to read most to heart. They read less deeply in the tradition, less broadly among their contemporaries. I once tried to explain my admiration for Paul Muldoon to a young poet I know, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I opened a book to Muldoon’s poem “Yarrow”; she immediately balked: “I don’t like poems that look like that.” She meant poems written in regular stanzas. This isn’t anecdotal evidence; it’s an anecdote. Everyone I know has one.
I’m not denying that there’s a great deal of good poetry in Hoover’s anthology (as there is in Dove’s). From Olson and Duncan and Spicer and O’Hara through, say, Harryette Mullen and Susan Wheeler, it’s almost worth wading through the Clayton Eshlemans and Michael McClures. And, yes, there are some terrific younger poets gathered here as well — Lisa Jarnot, Ben Lerner, Jennifer Moxley, Eleni Sikelianos, among others. Nevertheless, Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology is a mean, small-minded venture that facilitates a sadly impoverished conception of American poetry. Hoover and Dove deserve each other. The rest of us can do better.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014), as well as a book of criticism, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his...