Poetry

I do think there is a sharp historical boundary between postwar or midcentury American writing and “contemporary” writing, what we have now. The boundary is about 1973, the year of the oil shock, the beginning of the Watergate scandal, a time by which the civil rights movement and the New Deal Democratic Party had definitively dissolved into a collection of narrowly focused movements and interest groups, and the utopian and antinomian impulses of the ’60s had lost their credibility and momentum.

Before about ’73, you have clearly defined generations in opposition and a clearly defined “mainstream” whose poets and novelists command public attention, a liberal consensus both in literature and in political life. Afterward you have none of those things—instead, you have a broader range of stylistic and cultural options. Few writers of consequence after 1973 think there’s a powerful cultural “center” in the way that there seemed to be in ’55 or ’65. Even fewer people think that there’s one unified thing called a “counterculture” that can turn the world on its ear. Race changes in American writing, too. The early 1970s give you more visible self-conscious groups of Asian-American and Latino writers, and debates about black writing emerge more easily from an authentic-inauthentic dipole, in part because so many more black writers get published.

It’s a commonplace that postwar readers considered Robert Lowell the incarnation of their cultural “center,” the guilty liberal continually surprised by the inutility of inherited forms. John Ashbery represents contemporary (post-’73) literature about as well as Lowell represents ’45 to ’73. He doesn’t think he’s going to change the political world, he doesn’t give art a consistent ethical mission (though he understands that other people do), he doesn’t compete with the novel or film, he envisions the limitless circulation of limitless information, and he doesn’t mind that not all that many people understand him.

The Ashbery era includes the present. I’d still tell readers to start with Houseboat Days, but he’s as representative now as he was in the 1970s—otherwise he wouldn’t be the hidden hand, the stylistic innovator, two or three paces behind half the young poets of consequence I read. We’re still a culture where poets feel marginal but encouraged by the coteries they form (when I say “we” I mean writers and readers of poetry), still a culture opposed to sharp, durable value judgments, and still a culture in which information circulates faster than we can process it. All those preconditions show up in Ashbery. As they affect poetry, I’m tempted to say that the cultural changes of the Reagan era and the dot-com boom, the differences in stylistic possibilities between 1979 and 2005, are small potatoes compared with the differences between 1966 and 1974.

More from Issue 4

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Like Oedipus, we flout the warning, and we’ll act surprised, even outraged, when we find out what we’ve done.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Every now and then he looked up to ask what Evo was saying, since at his seventy-two years of age, Hugo Blanco is nearly deaf.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

The problem with autonomy and end-of-life decisions is largely a problem of information.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

It is not possible to be a German. If it were, hardly anyone would like to be one.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

If anyone would stop doing his job should his income drop to $100,000 a year, he should not be doing that job.

Issue 4 Reconstruction
My Life and Times in American Journalism
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Short Story & Novel
Issue 4 Reconstruction

Literature is only an art. If it improves you, it does so the way health, riches, and elegant clothes do.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

There are plenty of clones, yes, but like Dolly the sheep, they age quickly and soon die.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

In the age of BookScan, only an unpublished writer is allowed to keep his dignity.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

It is in an aroused consciousness that the solace and excitement of literature are to be found.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

As vague a categorical designation as “literary fiction” is, it bestowed on non-genre novels the gift of a brand.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

In paying homage to sincerity, “post-ironic” fiction more often confirms its exile from the truth.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Our generation seems far too aware that reading is safe and fun, that literature is spectacle.

Issue 4 Reconstruction
Why Repeat These Sad Things?
Issue 4 Reconstruction
The Mystery Guest
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Afternoon of the Sex Children
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Two Stories
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Melodramatic Installations
Issue 4 Reconstruction
Three Stories
Issue 4 Reconstruction
The Joy of Edge Tools
Issue 4 Reconstruction

You, dear reader, are also supposed to be a clone among clones. And really, who’d be the wiser?

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Never trust a man who insists that he is sincere. How does Vollmann intend to be helpful, to save a life, to benefit someone?

Issue 4 Reconstruction
Letters