Storming the Museum of Irrelevance
Can the manifesto matter? Or is it an outdated weapon in the arsenal of the poets, a rusted blunderbuss only to be displayed under glass in the museum of cultural oddities? Questions like these seem to lurk just below the surface in “Eight Manifestos,” a special section of the February 2009 issue of Poetry, introduced by Mary Ann Caws, the unquestioned dean of manifesto studies. On the one hand, the section gestures toward the idea of the manifesto as a museum piece, both ﬁguratively and literally: a note tells us that the section commemorates the centennial of F.T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto,” and if we read all the ﬁne print we ﬁnd that several of the poets who wrote items for the section presented them at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. On the other hand, what we have aren’t essays on the nature and history of the manifesto (with the exception of Caws’s informative introduction): they’re manifestos proper, or seem to be. If the manifesto is indeed an old blunderbuss, the poets seem to have pried it out of its display case and ﬁred off a few live rounds.
Even a cursory look at the nature of the manifestos collected in the section, though, raises some doubts about how much faith poets place in the manifesto nowadays. By and large the manifestos are either parodic, dead-set against the historical roles manifestos have played in history, or elegiac about the death of the manifesto. Joshua Mehigan’s contribution, “The Final Manifesto,” parodies the Oedipal struggle inherent in the writing of manifestos by stripping away any speciﬁc theoretical content and offering only such statements of naked generational ambition as “You are a museum of irrelevance,” “We are here now,” and “History will forget you and salute us.” It really doesn’t matter what poetic program a manifesto offers, Mehigan seems to say: they’re really just a means for young poets to slay the old monarchs and make names for themselves. Much of Thomas Sayers Ellis’s contribution seems more sincere, but he raises some doubts about this sincerity with comments about how followers of his manifesto’s program adhere to it in part to keep their “professional opportunities (in publishing and employment)” open. In the end, he makes a case much like Mehigan’s, highlighting the barefaced careerism of some manifesto writers. Other poets in the section reject the ideas of progress and innovation so dear to the hearts of most manifesto writers in history. Ange Mlinko, for example, argues that when it comes to styles, “the pendulum swings back and forth,” and she rejects the prophetic, authoritative role of the manifesto writer, saying at the end of her piece that she “can’t really say anything more deﬁnite for the time being.” A.E. Stallings actually does speak in the voice of assured authority, but does so not in the name of a break with the past, but in the name of continuity, tradition, and unabashed rhyme (“Rhymes do not need to be hidden or disguised,” she declares, “they are nothing to be ashamed of”). She takes the bullhorn voice of the manifesto to argue against the content of a thousand experimentalist manifestos. Another set of poets argue, in different ways, against the idea of group action inherent in the idea of the manifesto. “Shouldn’t there be a greater variety of life, a greater variety of art, a greater variety of poetry than what gathers in schools?” asks D.A. Powell; while Michael Hofmann assures us that “there are no plurals” in poetry, except for mere “functionaries” and “hacks.” Even Charles Bernstein, the poet in the “Eight Manifestos” selection most likely to be associated with a group, denies the possibility of group action. Midway into his manifesto he pauses to deﬁne Language Poetry as “a loose a∞liation of unlike individuals.” Finally, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr (writing, a note tells us, “on behalf of Hate Socialist Collective”) lament the demise of the manifesto. They admire many of the things manifestos stood for—innovation, social criticism, and as the moniker “Hate Socialist Collective” indicates, group action. But everything in their contribution is anger and elegy. They feel keenly the loss of a time when, in their view, the openness of political possibilities fostered an openness of poetic possibilites. “The manifesto is dead,” they declare. “We will not celebrate the end of that era with you.” Poor Marinetti, my dead king!
Taken as a whole, the manifestos (or anti-manifestos) amount to an implicit statement of the exhaustion of the manifesto. Some relish this situation, others decry it, but it does seem to be as close to a consensus as you’ll get in a gathering of poets.
So why this sense of exhaustion? Have the conditions that brought about a ﬂourishing of manifesto writing a century ago really changed? Is there really nothing left at which to carp? To arrive at any kind of an answer, we need to remember just what motivated the writers of manifestos in the heyday of the genre. Broadly speaking, writers of poetic manifestos in the early decades of the twentieth century aimed at one of two kinds of things: to challenge the marginalization of poetry in society, and to challenge the center of poetry from the margins of the art. Dada and Surrealism provide examples of the ﬁrst kind of challenge. If there’s any generalization one can make about such unruly movements, it’s this: that they set out to break down the barriers between art (including poetry) and life. Poetry had become marginal to society because it had been cordoned off by the institutions of literature, by journals and anthologies and professors, and the febrile manifestos of Dada and Surrealism claimed that dissolving those institutions, and the very idea of art and literature as distinct areas of human activity, would return poetry to the broader life of the people. Other groups had the more modest (but still, when one thinks about it, rather grandiose) goal of reforming literature, challenging moribund orthodoxies from the margins and making literature new. Imagism is a good case in point: its well-known dicta (“Go in fear of abstractions,” “Don’t chop your stuff into separate iambs”) were meant to clear away the dominant modes of Georgian verse and elevate the taste of a small group of neophytes into a new literary standard. The center, hoped the Imagists, would not hold, and their aesthetic would be loosed upon the world.
At least one of the conditions that led to the ﬂourishing of manifesto writing still obtains: poetry is certainly somewhat marginal in our society. But what about the idea of a central style in need of reform? There’s really no single dominant poetic school in American poetry. Think of some of the most prominent poets, and immediately we see a range: Robert Pinsky’s discursiveness, John Ashbery’s and Jorie Graham’s elliptical verse, the formalism of Kay Ryan or Donald Hall, the Surrealist-inﬂected work of Charles Simic, the identity politics of Adrienne Rich or Rita Dove, the experimentalism of Charles Bernstein. Their work can’t be said to constitute a single dominant style in any meaningful sense. Certainly there are kinds of poetry (and kinds of poet) that are excluded from prominence, and we should remain sensitive to this and alert to the inequities of the current institutional arrangement. But we really don’t have an official culture like that of the old Soviet Union, nor do we have the narrow establishment taste of, say, France in the age of salon painting.
Still, we can roughly discern the shape of a center in American poetry—but it’s a center deﬁned less by style than by institutional considerations. It’s signiﬁcant, I think, that Jed Rasula begins The American Poetry Wax Museum, his study of poetic canonization, not with a survey of stylistic possibilities but with a parodic representation of the institutions that make or break poetic reputations. He imagines:
An American Poetry Wax Museum, operated by the MLA and subsidized by the nationwide consortium of Associated Writing Programs. Special galleries would be dedicated to corporate benefactors, including the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, Poetry, and American Poetry Review.
Access to the prominent journals, publishing houses, and the syllabi and faculty appointments of academic programs (one’s own access, or that of one’s supporters) makes for prominence and centrality—which is not to say that such prominence and centrality correspond entirely, or even approximately, to the quality of any particular poet’s work. An excellent (and prominent) young poet-critic clariﬁed the idea of centrality-by-institutional-access for me one night after a literary conference. I’d been going on about how a certain older poet was down in the dumps because he wasn’t as well-known as he’d like to be. “Look, he’s great, but he’s as prominent as he can be,” replied the poet-critic, “without a New York publisher and elite grad students.” Unlike some earlier, less plural eras in poetry, you can become a prominent poet by working anywhere across a fairly wide spectrum of styles, but you can’t become central without access to the complex apparatus of publicity, recognition, funding, and canonization that has grown up around American poetry over several generations.
It’s here, with this notion of a poetic centrality deﬁned less by stylistic conformity than by institutional access, that we begin to see the reason for the relative dearth of manifestos in contemporary poetry. As Pierre Bourdieu argues in The Field of Cultural Production, when an art form becomes divorced from institutional support—when it is without, say, a ﬁnancially sustaining market niche, or a set of aristocratic or ecclesiastical patrons—the battle for position becomes a matter of innovation in style. If there are no court-sponsored positions to fill, no market from which to gain riches, no state ministry of culture grants available, then an artist or poet will seek position by challenging existing formal orthodoxies. What we end up with in such conditions, says Bourdieu, is an ongoing “revolution of the ‘young’ against the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ against the ‘outmoded.’” This is exactly the sort of struggle for position Joshua Mehigan parodies in his “Final Manifesto,” but it’s important to note that this sort of revolution needn’t be merely cynical on the part of the young: in fact, it tends to be all the more sincere when motivated by material necessity. And conditions in the early twentieth century, when manifesto writing ran rampant, were certainly difficult for unestablished poets: it was a time when the old aristocratic patronage system had all but disappeared; the emerging book market didn’t support poetry any better than it does now; and the complex system of grants, prizes, residencies, and academic appointments we take for granted existed only in nascent form. Things have changed. While the plight of the adjunct writing prof scraping together yet another contest entry fee is real enough, fewer poets starve in garrets than was once the case, and we can afford a certain laissez-faire attitude toward style. There’s room at the inn for Rae Armantrout and Billy Collins, Amiri Baraka and Gjertrud Schnackenberg—just as there’s room in Poetry for Thomas Sayers Ellis, Charles Bernstein, and A.E. Stallings. Manifesto writing, it turns out, is a symptom of a climate of institutional scarcity and aesthetic exclusivity.
None of this means that manifestos won’t be written, and it certainly doesn’t mean that literary innovation has come to an end. It’s just that our current pluralism, which rests on a large and complex network of support institutions, doesn’t make for an environment in which manifestos can thrive. At least for the moment, there’s less of a burning need to shoulder aside old and established orthodoxies. And for that we may count ourselves lucky.
Storming the Museum of Irrelevance