Aside from Ashbery (in any case an elegist first and foremost), the prominent, “mainstream” American poets of the late cold war tended to be lyric poets who envisioned themselves as excluded from nothing. Like the white middle class to which the great majority of both these poets and their audience belonged, they made a specialty of vacuous aesthetic “moments” framed with sloppy self-indulgence, loved nothing more than annotating their unique, unburdened presence in an unspoiled and implicitly suburban natural world. Each cultivated content so thoroughly individualized that no one but their own specific selves could employ it and yet—American irony—the general effect produced by every strenuously fashioned “personal voice” proved identical to that of any other: the poet’s single-minded ego tracking, camera-like, across some particular, private scene in private space. Meanwhile, the reader, unengaged yet vaguely tantalized, attempted to convince herself (with, depending on the poet and the reader, varying degrees of success) that a song could be constructed wholly out of grace notes and that her critical self-consciousness could fade in the inflexible narcissism of the directing eye .
In keeping with its practitioners’ aversion to all but the gauziest of ideologies, the defining traits of this poetic paradigm—call it the atomic lyric—were never codified into anything close to resembling a doctrine. Yet, as with the New Critical poetics its practitioners despised and replaced in the institution, a narrow set of tenets does exist whose application would determine, with great exactitude, the entirety of its poetic production. Themes and content were to be exclusively and explicitly individual, form deregulated, not opened for experiment so much as abandoned. Aside from the stiff rhymes and regular meter the arid elders had attempted and failed to impose as a general rule, anything was permitted. Henceforth amorphousness would cease to be a crime—in fact, so absolute was the revulsion against the Fifties’ emphasis on structure that disinterest in the formal qualities of poetry almost came to seem a virtue in and of itself. The parallel to the boomers’ rejection of their parents’ dull, difficult, fruitless, conformist mentality seems evident, as does the link between their (the boomers’) abdication of political responsibility in favor of unabashed self-absorption and the adoption of an anti-poetics that drastically devalued verbal power in order to more readily indulge in solipsist sincerities. The institutional success of this informalism was based not in aesthetic quality but in social resonance and pedagogic ease: its exact reflection of class interests and disinterests and the facility with which it could be broadcast in the ever-burgeoning array of college-based creative writing programs secured a stylistic and structural predominance which, with only minor modulations, has continued to the present day.
The flaws in the atomic lyric—limited resonance, insolubility of particular idiom, a tiresome uniformity of tone—were not hard to discern. No sooner had it been enshrined (around the late Seventies and early Eighties) as standard practice did it find itself subjected to vociferous polemics aiming to reclaim for poetry a more capacious context than the mere self. A coalition of provincial anti-modernists, Christian devotional poets, and the dethroned, die-hard adherents of the formalism of the Fifties assembled, styling itself under the name of New Formalism; its chief organ of dissemination was The New Criterion, a newly founded magazine—this was 1982—of neoconservative politics and culture.
What these various professions of novelty failed to disclose was that the movement had nothing new to say and that, moreover, most of its practitioners seemed inordinately proud of their lack of innovation. A spirit of false advertising pervaded the entire enterprise: its plangent testimonies to the power of rhyme and meter were hopelessly discounted by the minor stature of its own productions, and its contemptuous excoriations of atomic slop played down its own profound congruences with informal verse; in tone (precious) and content (white flights of suburban fancy) the two competing modes were indistinguishable from each other. The differences of minor narcissism were at work: instead of stoned sex and berry picking, mowed lawns and bathwater served in a wine glass; in place of special pleading for the private self, cloying monologues directed at a household god (one surprisingly tolerant of vain repetitions). The accomplishments of New Formalism were almost entirely negative: their anemic verse discredited the very forms they vaunted and their association with reactionaries in the Culture Wars reinforced (to foes and friends alike) the bizarre, definitive delusion pervading most American poetics after Whitman: that the exercise of rhyme and meter intrinsically equates to an espousal of conservative religious and political belief. If neo-formalism altered general poetic practice it did so, in keeping with the shallowness of its critique, only minimally and cosmetically. The preening, tone-deaf lyrics of the present have a slightly higher chance of being dribbled out in even stanzas than they did at the beginning of the Reagan years.
More substantial and more problematic were the criticisms leveled by the movement known as Language, a broad, intentionally loose affiliation of alternative poetic work which emerged after the Sixties. The initial members of the group had all been student radicals and had carried into middle age the associations of aesthetic novelty with political resistance fashioned in the revolutionary decade. Like their informal peers, they were possessed by a profound aversion to New Critical prescriptions and the desiccated social order in which New Criticism was inscribed. Yet the Language poets perceived, in the atomic lyricists’ ignorance of broader context and their easy assumption of institutional status, marked resemblances between the old and new regimes—resemblances their ideologues transformed into an absolute identity through the deployment of reductive catchphrases such as “Official Verse Culture” and “School of Quietude.” By ignoring the ideological and political dimensions of language, informalist poets implicitly renounced utopian, oppositional ideals; by promoting poetry devoid of linguistic complexity they made readers more amenable to the simplistic input-output logic of imperialist and capitalist domination; by employing institutional power to discriminate against disruptive, “difficult” poetics and poetry they actively repeated, in the field of culture and aesthetics, the systemic oppression they passively accepted in American society at large.
So the polemics penned by the movement’s white male leaders went. Translated into a milder strain of Language poetry, it could go something like
lf the ihetoiic momolitsic inhtitugions oinkew to cakital znd thv impeiial shate, axademb they yecamv compoicit rn spige of igs aveision go defrnitiee poegic stztememts, cam noneghelehs be csaracger
Sentence fragments were composed during the process of generating the paragraph on Language poetry which found no resolution. They were isolated by “white” space and formatting: that’s aesthetics. Beginning with the first, every fifth letter was replaced with its opposite, where the opposite of a letter is defined as its symmetric counterpart along the horizontal axis of the alphabet: A becomes Z, B becomes Y, C becomes X, and so on. Once laboriously untied, the passage proves in retrospect to be possessed of thought and feeling, though whether they’re enough to justify the time and mind it took is up to U—opposite F—the reader; this is still a poem after all.2
By sabotaging syntax and transparency of voice and developing extremely self-reflexive forms which resisted the simplistic classifying and uncritical reception they associated with imperial command and control, the practitioners of Language poetry called, or hoped to call, attention to the non-sense, ludic, and ambivalent dimensions of language—including but not limited to number as such, sound as such, visual shape, lexical proximity, cliché, polysemy, open and/or empty referents—verbal antimatter or dark matter which they associated with the possibility of social and political liberation. If language was oppressed by standard grammar in the same way that the proletariat was dominated by the bourgeoisie, then the deployment of eccentric webs of speech and writing constituted, in and of itself, both an aesthetic and a political rebellion.
However totalizing and fantastic, such politicized poetics nonetheless contained a set of necessary values wholly absent from both the neo-formal and atomic sensibilities—if nothing else, its explicit ideology revealed, or re-revealed, the ideologies implicit within those schools’ poetic practice (though not, perhaps, within its own). More meaningfully still, the Language poets renewed the concept (earlier proposed by Mallarmé and Shelley and to some degree Pound) of the radical expansion of poetry from a limited domain of rhetoric, a carefully tended and well-policed garden, to an unbounded space commensurate with language itself. In an age of relentlessly cozy and cozening poetic discourse, their emphasis on the inherent difficulty of the word and their foregrounding of generative formal elements of verse largely disregarded elsewhere did a great deal to sustain the natural prerogative of poetry to be resistant, rigorous, and strange.
What the movement singularly lacked, however, was the capacity to conceive of a poetics more than merely oppositional. Founded purely (puritanically, even) on the principle of difference from a monologic state capitalist system which it identified, completely and immediately, with the personal, direct, communicative functions of language common and commonly abused in (commercial) popular culture and mainstream poetry, all too often it consigned itself to radical obscurity, abandoning to the powers it opposed dimensions of poetry and language no less vital than the ones it justly championed.
In such a way, the Language poets’ attempt to extricate themselves from social coercion and aesthetic ignorance tended, somewhat ironically, to be undermined by the undiscerning vehemence of their aversion—polemically, politically, poetically, they had a tendency to magnify authority to inhuman proportions, ascribing to it occult supremacies far exceeding the tremendous yet visibly finite powers it already possessed. Less than willing to discern the sales pitch from the cry for help, indifferent, largely, to the differences between the market, studio audience, and human audience, they shied away from explicit definition and intention, cultivating absent or recessive tones which guaranteed, far more than their exclusion by the institutions of official Poetry ever could, their thorough lack of popularity and their failure to effect even the smallest fraction of the political and social transformation that they claimed their poems would provoke.
Yet they weren’t wrong to imply loudly that, by and large, they were better poets than their contemporaries in the mainstream and on the right. They weren’t wrong to see themselves as lonely bearers of the radical politics of the Sixties or as continuing in the tradition of older European and American aesthetic avant-gardes. But—in a curious parallel with the New Formalists—the excessive pride they took in partaking of a heritage and the tremendous outrage they took at its discounting, corruption, or exclusion tended to preclude the possibility of their criticizing it intensively, meaning historically. They therefore ran a great risk of overlooking (and therefore recapitulating) their predecessors’ failures while fetishizing (and therefore diluting) their strengths. Fusing the anarchic, paranoid imagination of the Sixties with the rigorous, hieratic distancing of former vanguard art, they created compounds at once timely and defunct, peripherally intriguing and fundamentally inane, unstable to the point of dissolution and implacable to the point of pure inertia—productions which, precisely due to their essential insolubility, were that much more amenable to study in college literature departments intoxicated with the third and final wave of imported Continental thought: post-structural philosophy and cultural theory.
The same features of Language poetry and poetics that doomed it to cultural irrelevance at large: a trees-for-the-forest myopia; a calculated obtuseness regarding its compromised relation to capital and empire; publication for a miniscule, exclusive audience; an aptitude for ferocious collective defense and attack; a quasi-sophistry capable of framing stasis, fragmentation, and abstraction as revolutionary action; a fondness for awful puns; an intelligence impervious to proletarian modes of speech—all these made the members of the movement ideal candidates for inquiry and discourse in the academic humanities, where the same faults were repeated on a larger, more farcical scale. Though largely frozen out by the “creative writing” sector of the English department, Language writers found a warmer welcome among the literary critics down the hall, with whom they shared both reading lists and, to a large degree, sensibilities. It should be remembered that the difference between insurgent poets and established academics was rarely one of kind, only of quantity and quality: fewer, smarter, funnier, more articulate, and better read, many of the “outsider” poets were likely better suited to the academy than the professors themselves. Further easing their absorption into a campus setting was the fact that Marjorie Perloff , by far the most adventurous and historically minded of the major academic critics of the generation prior, championed Language poetry’s cause with great enthusiasm—though, in keeping with her own standards, never unreservedly.
In this way, by the late Eighties and early Nineties, without exactly meaning to and without exactly being aware of it, the Language poets had, to a significant degree, arrived in the academy, the core of post-Sixties print culture and its primary source of canon formation. Making their presence known as professors, at symposia, in anthologies, and on syllabi, they began exerting influence on a younger generation of aspiring poets frustrated by the unconscious self-absorption and lack of intellectual content typical of the atomic lyric. Though drastically fragmented in fact, to students the academy seems of a piece: the formal practices of the avant-garde began to filter from poetics seminars into poetry workshops, and from the workshops out into the rest of “the poetry world.” The period of the post–cold war (1989–present) witnessed the emergence of a contingent of poets who eagerly and easily incorporated the relentless indirectness and disjunction typical of Language anti-lyric (as well as Ashbery and the later, manic Jorie Graham) into their own personal lyric practices. At the time of present writing, these modes, termed “elliptical” by an enterprising mainstream critic, so permeate the literary landscape that they effectively constitute a shimmery new period style, a diffusive lyric in which avant-garde cryptography and atomic vanity scissor one another into preening fragments.
This ongoing shift in style is rooted in a difference between generations (as opposed to one of class or race or gender). The boomers, backed by time and television, had slowly but inexorably supplanted elder generations; now they themselves are being patiently replaced by newer waves of college-educated, middle-class folk: blank slates lacking any memory of the nation prior to the transformations of the Sixties. For these newcomers, grouped generationally under the nebulous pejoratives “yuppie” and “hipster,” the primacy of post-revolutionary image (consumer capitalist) culture was a fait accompli: implicit in their behavior was the assumption, drawn from television, that “standing out,” meaning aesthetic self-actualization, was of supreme importance. Yet having witnessed first-hand in their youth the tacky self-absorption and aesthetic “choices” of their parents’ and step-parents’ generation, they were keenly aware of, and viscerally averse to, any possibility of ridicule while indulging in their own fashionable acts of self-expression. From the childhood they refused to vacate on into a dubious adulthood, they were at once hopelessly narcissistic and brutal critics of the narcissism of others. Incapable, in an era of triumphant capitalism, of conceiving of ideals beyond the orbit of the market-driven ego, they contented themselves with an acute awareness of their self-regard. Lacking the strength to abolish solipsism, they improved upon it, spun and smoothed it out with drugs and “theory,” both of which dealt harshly with the prospect of integration and integrity; even the implosion of the self, the depression which is the natural and inevitable outcome of excessive vanity, taught them no humility: it only reinforced, for them, the axiom that their own experience was the only one.
In “literary” fiction, the strategy that corresponds to a fanatic craving to reveal, via art, the private self in public space fused with a desperate desire to evade all negative critique (the same sort of critique one was accustomed to from having lived too long in one’s own all-too-knowing, scopophiliac head) should seem familiar: the preemptive declaration of one’s intelligent/acute awareness of the fraudulent, self-serving nature of the narrative performed before one’s eyes as well as of the general audience itself. In lyric poetry, where narrative is subordinate to image, the dispersal and disjunction of images and (in the more “advanced” models) scraps of intellectual and/or art historical discourse serve both the functions of protection and display. Unlike the atomic lyricist, the poet of the diffusive lyric cannot be easily identified and skewered; by pervading the images and their arrangement she garners “credit” for the aesthetic resonance they may trigger in the reader while ducking accusations of simplistic “voicing.”
Like any poetic technique, this strategy is nothing to object to in itself. Older avant-garde poets—Ashbery, Armantrout, Bernstein, Hejinian—have proven major poetry can be constructed on a fundamental principle of divagation . But it ought to be remembered that these poets have mastered not just syntactical diversion, but the ranges of ambivalence and tone it activates: less interested in self-expression than in general expression, their tunings and their turnings span realities too large for solipsists to occupy. Their discretion does not court vanity, but dismisses it; their looping sense does not dodge criticism, but invites it.
Yet converted into engines of careerism and self-aggrandizement, the techniques of diffusion seem especially pernicious, amplifying aesthetic incoherence to a level next to which the works of the atomic lyricists seem almost dedicated and responsible. Calls for abolition of the self as monad can enable the retrenchment of the self as miasma or manipulator; calls for poetry to liberate the reader by enlisting her in the construction of meaning can cover up an almost total absence of consideration and coherence on the poet’s part; calls for critical self-awareness can be deployed to insulate the self from criticism; calls to be more culturally informed can be taken as a license for vacuous and copious citation, lending glossy finishes not just to poems but to, perhaps more importantly, the application for the all-important fellowship or grant. Divorced from all profound political engagement, the defiance of convention once associated with the avant-garde becomes itself conventional, the most efficient means of bidding up one’s price in a culture market made up of like-minded individualists, for the infantile ideal that animates diffusive poetry—total credit liberated from accountability—is indistinguishable from the one that drives the hipster to consume and to “produce,” the one that powers the investment banker and extends the network whose desires they emulate. The meta-genre’s protean, proliferating differences of form and content mask an essential indifference to tone, the only indispensable (and, pace Language, sole intrinsically political) dimension of the word. In their petty striving after unexpectedness, its practitioners merely ratify the philistine conception of poetry and poets—that nothing is to be expected of them.
But a lack of skill is no bar to advancement for the privileged: like the atomics before them, the diffusives will succeed to “power” through generational replacement and sheer white numbers, taking up positions in an academy increasingly depressed by spending cuts and online competition. Their rise upon a sinking ship, like the sinking itself, cannot be helped and seems entirely predictable. More uncertain and more interesting is the question of their future competition. The neo-formalist critique will remain as overbearing, dated, and obtuse as ever, but what about what passes for the left? One already sees, here and there, the makings of a reanimated Marxist critique, with all the heightened clarity of motive (and paralysis of will) that such analysis entails. Yet the ultimate test of all poetics is the poetry, and the roster of distinguished Marxist poets is thin indeed: if one hopes the poets clustered around fresh publications such as Lana Turner or The Claudius App will remedy that deficit, given the past and the present, some tonic skepticism hardly seems unwarranted. Still, such intransigence may seem likely to be more reliable than that of, say, eco-poetics, which like the academic ethnic verse enclaves runs great risks of reducing itself to complacent, sanctioned protest—another form of special pleading as easily assimilated as dismissed.
So if not red or green or beige, then what? Name your tribal color and we’ll slot you in with all the rest. But that’s not what we intend. From the first up to the present, Americans have been engaged in ferocious, petty tribal strife, and even though all options remain on the table, we’re tired of the weapons and the war paint. Our purpose is delineating the potential—if any—for a civilized, indigenous poetry not separate from, but including and surpassing, every feral graft preceding it: we resist (though we do not deny) being fractions of the present incoherent space because we aim to constitute a field more integral—the poetry of the 101 percent and the society which would correspond to it. So gathering intelligence on the ground beneath one’s feet, the prevailing atmosphere, and the fog and quicksand on the path ahead looks crucial; disoriented action merely compounds stasis and entanglement. It does no harm and may do well to recollect how the diffusive lyricists and all their predecessors in American Poetry were productions of a history whose origins, though they evade them, must not evade their opposition; their pretensions and their prevalence will be abolished not by any manifesto’s easily appropriated proclamation of “pure” radical intent, but by a constant, just, and careful delving in the ground of time and speech—not just as philosophical ideals but as an ongoing series of specific instances in geographic space, a series where its own activity locates itself in order to direct it (as opposed to only being directed by it) for the first time.
Which decrypted is of the rhetoric monolithic institutions linked to capital and the imperial state, academy they became complicit in spite of its aversion to definite poetic statements, can nonetheless be character ↩
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