Monday, March 21, 2011

Project for a History of Poetics at Buffalo

Literary history is dead, or so says one of the crowd of villains with whom I hung out at the recent Louisville literary conference. Me, I'm not so sure.  In fact, I'm so ready to believe that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated, I've started making inquiries about the possibility of putting together a group to work on a surprisingly under-examined piece of literary history: the story of poetry and poetics at Buffalo.  There's been plenty of talk about the various poets who came through Buffalo from the days of Olson and Creeley to the Bernstein era, and the critical literature about their works has been growing steadily.  There have even been a few attempts to discuss the deluge of small-scale publishing that was so characteristic of the culture of the place (Peter O'Leary's remarks on Apex of the M in the most recent Chicago Review being a case in point).  But there's been no large-scale attempt to trace the history of the single most influential institution in several decades of American poetry.  When I shopped the idea of such a history around at Louisville, everyone I spoke to was excited about the idea.  So I followed up recently with a message to several people I thought might be interested in shaping the project, and the backchannel response has, so far, been overwhelmingly positive.

Here's the message I sent, outlining a very preliminary version of the project and asking for comments.  I'd be glad to know what you think — bearing in mind that this isn't going to be a set of studies of particular texts, but a history of an institution and its influence.



Some of us were recently at the Louisville conference, where we discussed the idea of a possible history of poetry and poetics at SUNY-Buffalo.  I’m writing to follow up on that discussion.  I’m sending this to those of you who weren’t in Louisville because I rather wish you had been there for the discussion, and because I’d very much like to know what you think of the project outlined below.  If this message is an imposition, I apologize, and I’ll remove your name from this mailing list on request.  I understand all-to-well what it’s like to be too busy to get involved in yet another project.

The idea discussed in Louisville, which I’m calling the Project for a History of Poetics at Buffalo, is this: to put together a book that will constitute a comprehensive socio-aesthetic history of the major activities in poetry and poetics from the days of Olson, Creeley, and Albert Cook, to (to pick a convenient terminus) the departure of Charles Bernstein from Buffalo.  This is not to be a series of statements of poetics, nor a series of essays about the works of the major figures associated with Buffalo.  Rather, the idea is to tell the story of the remarkable rise of poetry at Buffalo, which is one of the most important stories in postwar American poetry.  Such a project would be social and institutional as much as literary, detailing the congruence of events that allowed a provincial state university to become the most important institution in American poetry in the late twentieth century.  Topics to be covered could include:

The chronicling of the arrival, achievements, and departure of poets and theorists.

An examination of particular social and aesthetic bonds established at the institution and their later importance.

The position of the Program in the university and the influence of the material conditions on activity in poetry and poetics.

The history of the various publications — both established and ephemeral — associated with the Program. (The special knowledge of archivists will be of great importance here).

The larger discursive conditions in the academy and the literary field that allowed for the Program and many of its faculty and students to become prominent and prolific.  (Work informed by sociological theory could be particularly important here).

A possible format for the project would be a book consisting of three parts: a general narrative history, possibly by several authors; a series of essays on specific topics (I do not think interpretive readings of particular texts would be right here, but essays on larger, and more social and historical, issues); and a section reprinting, possibly in facsimile form, selections from the publications that poured forth so abundantly from those associated with the program.

I should note that it is probably not a good idea for the preponderance of the book to be written by people with close ties to Buffalo: the Vatican’s history of Catholicism is never the one to embrace.  I should also note that while I very much wish to contribute to this project in whatever way I can, I in no way consider myself qualified to edit the volume, though I do think I could co-edit it if need be.  At this point all ideas about possible publishers, funding sources, and the like are welcome.  I do not anticipate great difficulties in these realms: if the early responses to the idea at the Louisville conference are any indication, this is a project people are excited to hear about, and if it results in a book, it will be a book people want to read.

At this point, everything about the project is up for discussion: whether it should be a book, or a special journal issue, or an electronic resource; to what degree the specifics of the above preliminary notes on format and topics should be changed; who should be contacted, etc.

I’m looking forward to hearing back from you, even if it’s a simple statement to the effect that you’re interested in being kept in the loop as the project develops.

All best,



  1. Anonymous1:12 PM

    This sounds like a great project, but why cut it off just at the point when women became prominent in the program? I'm thinking of Susan Howe, who took over the Capen Chair when Bob Creeley left Buffalo, and who recently won the Bollingen Prize. And Myung Mi Kim, who is still at Buffalo, and bringing an important new voice to its history. I'd recommend that you extend the timeframe of your project to include this "new day" in Buffalo Poetics. Buffalo has changed a lot since the days when Charles Olsen wouldn't allow women students into his seminars.

  2. Not a bad idea, Anonymous. But in the end it'll be up to the editor -- who will be someone other than me. You sound like you know a thing or two: why not get involved?