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.
That said, the first thing we need to remember about the writing of the present moment is that there is a lot more of it—more writers, more books published, more ways to publish, more overlapping but non-coextensive audiences for more kinds of writing—than ever before in American history (even if the percentage of the population who care about “serious writing” has also gone down). I think it’s very difficult to tell a single useful story that explains most of the qualities in the contemporary writing I value. “The writing of the present moment” includes Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Jorie Graham, Terrance Hayes, Juan Felipe Herrera, Thylias Moss, D. A. Powell, Donald Revell, Kay Ryan, Liz Waldner, and Greg Williamson. No single story can explain them all; and those are just some American poets I like—if you add in American novelists, comic-book writers, playwrights, and essayists, or Canadians, Australians, and South Asians writing in English, et cetera, the picture becomes too big to see.
Poetry is now a minority art form, in some ways like contemporary “classical” music—fortunately, poetry is much cheaper to perform, distribute, and reproduce.
We sometimes hear that poetry is a protected sphere, one where production doesn’t depend on consumption, where the creators get rewarded for making something whether or not anyone wants it. In that sense, yes, poetry has become a protected sphere, but there’s nothing wrong with that—it just means that some select group of people who really want to make it can get paid to make it, and can therefore go on making it, thinking about it, and helping other folks make it, without having to keep an unrelated day job in order to pay for strollers, cribs, and health insurance (which is one reason why people stop making rock music). I don’t know that the discipline of the marketplace would improve the product, if that’s what “unprotected” means.
I can tell you a story about what status poets and poetry no longer have, but I can tell you only one useful story about what status most talented poets do have: most of them, once they have published a book or two, depend financially on institutions of higher education. That institutional dependence has certainly affected poets, but not in predictable or consistent ways. Kay Ryan, Donald Revell, and Joshua Clover all teach in universities, but academic culture has affected Clover and Revell very differently. I’m not sure if it has affected Ryan at all.
Almost all useful poetry criticism in this country since the ’60s has come either from academics or from people committed to “little magazines,” zines, websites, and so on. Neither source has diminished since the ’60s—both have expanded. “Successful” poetry books have much lower sales numbers than moderately successful indie-rock records, unless you want to confine “successful” to Billy Collins, Seamus Heaney, Sharon Olds, and about five other people (not counting poets who are famous for something besides their poetry, such as Jimmy Carter). How many copies did Houseboat Days sell? What about Lyn Hejinian’s My Life? C. D. Wright’s String Light and Tremble?
Again, the shape of everything seems to change in the early ’70s, after which university presses and small presses become more important, New York trade houses—for poetry—steadily less so, and the audience for the serious realist novel “tunes out” poetry more and more.
It seems to me that poets later responded by “tuning out” the contemporary novel, which is a gigantic mistake: when you’re quite young, you may need to read so much poetry, and so many novels by dead people, that you have no time left for novels by the living; by the time you’re 30 you should at least try.
Many poets don’t seem to read literary fiction regularly, and of course many readers and writers of literary fiction don’t read current poetry—sometimes they feel as separate as rock and jazz. Not only the audiences but the goals of poetry and fiction have diverged: the one increasingly resists, and the other remains defined by, the telling of stories. Conversely, there are particular fiction writers whom poets seem to read, and there’s a sort of subgenre of poets’ fiction (which often looks like an update on ’60s-style metafiction), such as Pamela Lu’s superb Pamela: A Novel. Laura Kasischke comes to mind as someone equally capable in poetry and “mainstream” literary-realist fiction, equally at home in both genres.
I think that a lot of poets and poetry critics feel some disappointment that various waves of culturally and politically ambitious poets in the modern United States did not obviously cause cultural change. There’s no Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 20th-century poetry. The closest you get for this country in this century might be Ginsberg’s Howl, or some portion of the Black Arts Movement, or Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck (published, not coincidentally, in 1973). But being disappointed that poets don’t have that kind of political efficacy seems to me almost as silly as being disappointed that your dentist can’t fix your car. It’s a mistake to look for poetry to bear political efficacy in that way.
What stalled sometime before 1973 was the habit of reading the literature of the past on the assumption that it held lessons for the present. Too many contemporary poets (especially those who are not also critics) act as if literature began and ended with the living, or else with William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. We’re now in our third generation of poets who either don’t know the premodernist past, or who know it in sketchy, autodidact ways. A whole lot of cool devices and formal precedents simply are not available to them.
Most poets need to get out more: not to write for a larger audience—I’m not recommending a “dumbing down,” an attempt at poetic journalism (such as British poetry undertook for most of the ’90s)—but to pay attention to more of the world. The interest in documentary, in nonfictional information, that has turned up in poets otherwise as different as Albert Goldbarth and Cole Swensen in the past ten years perhaps speaks to this need: we want something, anything, to counter the pressure that “theory” puts on “the self.”
What models do interesting poets now follow? In poetry: Wordsworth, Dickinson, W. C. Williams, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stevens, Moore, Stein, Bishop, Langston Hughes, the Federal Writers’ Project, Paul Celan, Ashbery, Creeley, Adrienne Rich, James Wright. Again, “today” begins around 1973. Influential models whose careers began later than that, and who seem to matter to talented young poets, include C. D. Wright, Harryette Mullen, Lyn Hejinian, Louise Glück, Denis Johnson, and Lucie Brock-Broido. James Merrill seems to have more fans all the time, and he deserves them; he’s one of my favorite poets. And yet he feels like the end of something, not the beginning.
Whom should more poets follow, or at least contemplate? Again, in poetry: George Herbert, Christopher Smart, pre-1937 W. H. Auden, Basil Bunting, Donald Davie, James K. Baxter, post-1964 Robert Lowell. Among living writers, maybe Thylias Moss, Juan Felipe Herrera, Laura Kasischke, Liz Waldner. In poetry criticism: William Empson, Donald Davie.
What current modes clog the pipeline and tire me out? (1) Quasi-automatic writing and a kind of comic quasi-surrealism, especially when the author wants to be winning, funny, “entertaining,” and shocking at the same time. (2) Slack free-verse autobiography; chatty anecdote without interesting form. (3) Endless xeroxes of ’50s formalist poems, copies of Anthony Hecht and Howard Nemerov. (4) “Spirituality,” which, pursued as a primary goal, tends to make poems sound like bad translations.
Most poets today are writing either for a coterie of readers they know personally, who want to participate in the social circulation of new work (rather than in the rereading of old work), or else (in part) for an academic market in which the more you publish (as long as it’s in semiprestigious venues), the better your chances for tenure and promotion.
Both paradigms encourage overproduction. Younger poets, in particular, seem to rush things, to make public ten pounds of cookie dough when, had they waited, they might have had five pounds of tasty cookies. I don’t know what any of us can do about that, and for certain poets whose work is supposed to sound “raw” (such as Kasischke and Waldner) that may not even amount to a disadvantage.
Anything you can do 100 times in 100 poems without learning a new trick isn’t worth doing more than twice. Sense is harder than nonsense; order is harder than disorder. But, as Stevens said, “A great disorder is an order”; as Dickinson said, “Much madness is divinest sense / To a discerning eye.”