Saturday, December 31, 2011

Michael Leddy’s Brooklyn


The prettiest girl I ever saw
was sipping Hoffman's through a straw, give or take
a word.  Right from the can.

A tree grows from that can, in the nervous house
I live in, it's transparent as soda.

In a nearby city,
make that nearly.  Kids, it's nearly dinner.

That’s a poem by Michael Leddy, which we published in the old Samizdat magazine a dozen years go.  I really liked it then, and I really like it now.  I think I know why: you can read this one as casually or as intently as you want, and be happy with it either way.  Read intently, it makes for a very interesting set of propositions — about language, about poetic tradition, about the association of ideas in the stream of consciousness, and about the passage of time.

If you are the sort who thinks, with Wordsworth, that “we murder to dissect,” or who wants interpretive certainty, rather than the exploration of a set of interpretive possibilities invited by the text, you might want to go do something else instead of reading the rest of this post, which will just make you want to type an angry comment, perhaps in capital letters.

Okay then.  Let’s start at the beginning, which is to say, let’s start with some very traditional poetry, since the poem begins with rhyming iambics, slightly disguised because the second rhyme word isn’t at the end of a line, and because the metrics invite a little play in how one performs them:

The prettiest girl I ever saw
was sipping Hoffman's through a straw

We’ve got the full rhymes, and a scansion which is almost:


“Prettiest” is three syllables, of course, but depending on where you’re from, it’s likely to elide either a little or a lot, “prit-yest” being sort of clipped and Britsy, and “prit-ee-est” being flat-footed Nebraskan.  Take it any way that makes you happy.  I like to take it as a little stutter in the smoothness, thrown in there to make us conscious of what’s going on, and maybe to show us that Leddy doesn’t take the iambic line for granted.

Already there’s a lot here: the whole long tradition of iambic rhyming poetry about women, and about innocence, and about nostalgia, is all sort of packed in there, evoked suddenly and quickly.  And then something really cool happens.

With “give or take/a word”  we move from talking about the girl with the soda to talking about the representation of her in language.  She was sipping Hoffman’s soda “give or take a word,” a very odd statement, difficult, even impossible, to take literally.  I take this turn in the sentence, in all of it’s casualness, to make a statement something like “my poetic representation of the girl is close, but words distort, you know it and I know it — but let’s not make a big deal out of that, we can make communication work.”  I like the statement about language, and I really like the sudden elision from the girl to language, from memory to medium. The enjambed nature of the sentence, which leaves us hanging for a moment between “give or take” and “a word,” helps the shift from scene-painting to metalanguage come as a nice little surprise, I think.  And since the opening is so thoroughly, yet subtly, traditional, I like to take this little elision as making a kind of statement about the tradition of lyric poetry: that it distorts, but that, for the moment, we’re going to be okay with that.  This is what I’d call an interpretive possibility, held open by the text, but not as anything firmer than that.

And then suddenly, with “Right from the can,” we’re back in the little memory-scene, as if nothing had happened.  Except that we might not be.  That is, we might be back to seeing the girl sip from a straw that’s in a can, but the language is ambiguous, and possibly contradictory — we can take it to mean “the straw went into the can,” (though why would we need to hear that?) but we can also take it to mean “she was drinking from the can,” which would contradict the earlier statement about how she was drinking her soda from a straw.  Everything that seemed so accurate, right down to the obsolete, mid-Atlantic-specific brand of soda, is thrown into a bit of doubt.  But it doesn’t really cause any huge interpretive crisis, since so little is at stake, this being just a little memory.  We’re in the realm of  “language is wobbly, but workable,” the realm of “give or take a word.”

In the next stanza, we get something that looks a little surreal: “a tree grows in that can.”  It’s here that the title becomes important, because in a poem called “Brooklyn,” the phrase “a tree grows” brings to mind A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the 1943 novel turned into a move by Elia Kazan two years later.  But so what?  So this, I think: firstly, we get a kind of Proust’s madeleine effect: Hoffman’s soda becomes evocative of a whole world of early 20th century New York immigrant struggle and perseverance (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn deals with Irish immigrants in the then-squalid tenements of Williamsburg), so there’s a kind of sense to the bizarre phrase “a tree grows in that can.”  But there’s more than that.  One of the main themes of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the importance of bending the truth: the protagonists can succeed only if they lie about where they live to get a child into a better school.  So the poem’s theme of the distortable nature of language is re-enforced here.

Another thing I like about the poem is how rapidly it starts to accumulate a little catalog of all the kinds of things a poem can do: it gives us meter and rhyme, and the tradition of the poem about the glimpsed but distant female, it gives us the tradition of nostalgia for innocence, it gives us metalanguage, and now it gives us intertextual allusion.  I especially like that the text to which it alludes is never named, and that it’s impossible to know if it is the movie or the book that is being invoked: this, again, adds to the “give or take a word” theme of language that distorts, but that’s good enough to work.  I mean, the allusion works whether it’s the movie or the book that comes to mind.

What about the whole couplet, though, beyond the subtle, oblique allusion?

A tree grows in that can, in the nervous house
I live in, it's transparent as soda.

A tree, it seems, grows in the nervous house in which the speaker lives.  It’s not an image that demands to be taken literally, especially not after the image of the tree growing in the can.  So let’s not take it literally.  Me, I like the notion of the tree being like the tree in Elia Kazan’s movie, which is a symbol of endurance despite travail.  Taking things this way, we move from the innocent world of the speaker’s memory, where he saw a girl drinking soda, to a more difficult, tense present world — but it’s not a desperate world, not entirely, there’s hope if, like the characters in the novel, one holds on and does one’s best. 

This takes us as far as “the nervous house I live in,” but then there’s “it’s transparent as soda.”  Here again we’re in the realm of ambiguous or distorting language, the world of “give or take a word,” since the referent for the pronoun “it” is unclear: does it point us to the tree, or to the house?  If it’s the tree, then we could say that the hope that redeems the nervousness is invisible, is something not readily apparent.  But if “it” refers to the house, we’ve got a special kind of “nervous house,” one in which all of the nervous unhappinesses are on display to the world — as they would be in the tightly-packed tenement world of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  The issue is undecidable, as the old deconstructionists would say, and I like having it that way, which really means having it both ways, since both possibilities are suggested.  And, of course, the soda image brings us back to the girl and her world of innocence, so distant in tone from the fallen world in which the speaker now lives.

“In a nearby city” starts to launch us on a new narrative, moving us in space, but then there’s a little slip, moving from “nearby” to “nearly.”  I like that the speaker is correcting himself: he puts us once again into the world of approximation, the world of “give or take a word.”  And what follows shows us that we aren’t going to move in space, we’re going to move in time: to dinner time, in fact.  But the fact that the speaker now is clearly a father shows us that the real movement in time has been through decades, as the speaker grows up.  Hoffman’s soda hasn’t been around since the 60s, and this poem was written in early 2000, so we’ve gone from the childhood of the speaker to his adulthood.  His role has changed, and now he’s looking after his own children.  Which is wonderful for the poem, since when we begin with a memory of lost beauty and innocence and end with an adult who is accompanied by those who still experience the world innocently we’ve walked right into the heart of Romanticism, into Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”

What I really like about the poem is that it doesn’t just give us the life-cycle of the speaker, from youth to age.  It also gives us something like the poetic history from Romanticism to now: it gives us the rhyming, iambic, nostalgic invocation of innocence gone by — but then it gives us everything since Romanticism.  It gives us interpretive suggestion, rather than definiteness, such as we had in late nineteenth century symbolist poetry (“to suggest, that is the dream,” said Mallarm√©), it gives us complex allusion, as the modernists did, and it gives us postmodern-style metalinguistic playfulness.  It’s a hell of a lot to put into an old soda can, but it fits.

You can find the poem, along with another little piece by Leddy, over at the still-incomplete Samizdat archive.

Friday, December 23, 2011

10,000 Poets: The Problem of the Multitude in American Poetry

Not long ago the poet Alfred Corn noted that “Year’s Best lists are strewn all over the print and electronic media. One publication I saw asked three perfectly plausible deciders to list the top ten poetry books of 2011. They did. And there was not a single overlap. The same thing happened to me years ago when myself and two other poets more or less in the same ballpark were asked to judge an annual prize. We each submitted ten names. There were no overlaps.” Corn then went on to ask a deceptively simple question: “What to make of this?” It’s tempting to answer by saying something about the infinite variability of taste, to sort of shrug and mutter "de gustibus non est disputandum."  It’s even more tempting, if one is in a foul mood, to say that the differences probably have their root in the different tribal loyalties of the poetry demimonde, to shrug and mutter something about the folks at Foetry, with their documentation of poets giving prizes to their students and lovers, having been right all along. But neither shrugging-off of the question really takes it seriously enough. What are we to make of the lack of consensus about the best books of poetry? What does it say about the conditions under which American poetry is produced and consumed?

The dissensus about poetry is linked to another phenomenon people have been talking about lately: the sheer bulk of American poetry. Two of the most voracious poetry readers I know, Stephen Burt and Mark Scroggins, have both noted the enormous bulk of contemporary American poetry and the chatter—promotional, critical, gossipy—that surrounds it. “Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines… to be au courant, I should keep up. And I can’t keep up” says Burt on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. “It feels like there’s been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it,” says Scroggins on Facebook. And it’s not just people I know who’ve been feeling the enormous weight of America’s poetic output. When I attended the ALSCW conference in Boston this fall, Mark Halliday gave one of the best-attended talks, a lecture called “10,000 Poets,” in which he addressed what we might call American poetry’s problem of the multitude. The term (mine, not Halliday’s) shouldn’t be taken to imply that it is a bad thing that so many poets are writing and finding their way to publication—only that this particular cultural situation, like all others, presents its own unique set of challenges and conundrums, along with its positive qualities. And I believe some of the problems Halliday outlined give us a way to answer Alfred Corn’s question.

Halliday began his address to the crowd in a big, dark Boston University auditorium by noting that Alexander Pope’s England had some five million inhabitants, while the United States of our own day has some 300 million people, half of whom had MFAs in creative writing. He was joking, of course, but the point was made: those of us concerned with American poetry today must deal with gigantism of scale in both population and education. Defining a poet as someone who has published a book, or aspires to do so, continued Halliday, we might conservatively estimate the number of American poets at 10,000 (“or,” he added, “30,000 — when I’m in a bad mood”). But is the number of poets really a bad thing? Isn’t it an embarrassment of riches? So what if no one person could possibly read all of the worthwhile poetry? From one point of view, this isn’t bad at all—and what would one do to change it? Repress poets? “But this isn’t an ambitious poet’s point of view,” said Halliday, “and I have been ambitious since 1971.”

Ambitious poets, according to Halliday, are bothered by the multitude of poets, and those who say they are not are merely pretending to a serenity they do not in fact possess. But what is the response of the ambitious poet to the problem of the multitude? What do poets do with their agitation and frustration? According to Halliday, the situation generates five behaviors among ambitious poets:

1. A Proclivity for Ignoring. If there are too many poets with whom to keep up, one response is simply to rule out whole swathes of the poetry landscape. Online poetry? One can tell oneself it’s not serious stuff. Journals with small readerships? Not worth reading. Alternately, one might tell oneself that journals with large readerships are compromised and unworthy of attention. Or one could simply label whole schools of poetry as unworthy of attention, kicking them into the dustbin with a hostile label (“School of Quietude,” anyone?). It’s not just poets who do this: when Helen Vendler recently opined that there can’t possibly have been 175 American poets worth reading in the entire 20th century, she was revealing a fairly strong proclivity for ignoring. [The examples here, I should note, are mine and not Halliday’s—I was taking notes quickly in a small notebook in a dark room, and didn’t manage to get all of his explanatory detail down].

2. Dependence on Mutual Praise Networks. Whether it’s the crowd with whom one went to graduate school, or a group with stylistic affinities, or just a set of people with a habit of blurbing one another’s books, there’s a strong tendency for poets in the age of the multitude to seek not safety, but recognition, in numbers. People in the tribe are bound to end up editing a decent journal, or a magazine review section, or heading a writing program, or handing out prize money, or editing an anthology. Best, thinks the ambitious poet, to stay on their good sides, and praise the other poets proleptically and profusely. If you’ve ever been at the AWP convention, you’ve actually seen these networks in their re-enforcement phase, like some primitive mating ritual. And if one combines this network-oriented way of operating with a good dose of ignoring whole swathes of American poetry (see item one, above), one can begin to think that recognition from one’s tribe is the recognition of the world. “Corruption of the soul,” said Halliday, “lurks for the writer of blurbs.”

3. Buzz Susceptibility. In the great deluge of poetry, one comes to passively accept the importance of some other poet simply because of the publicity buzz his or her work has generated. “Jorie Graham, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Seamus Heaney—even if you don’t care, or have ceased caring, for their work, we desperately want someone to be famous,” said Halliday, and we’re willing to take it on faith—faith in publicity buzz, rather than our own judgement, since judgment implies comparison, and there’s no way of comparing any one poet with the whole of the enormous poetic field.

4. Quickie Responses. When confronted with new poetry, one relies on email or brief conversations to make a judgment: there’s no time, in the great deluge, to give any broad selection of new work our serious consideration. Under these conditions much bad work gets praised, much good work ignored, and much subtle work misunderstood.

5. Self-Mythologizing. “If you love the idea of greatness and are ignored,” said Halliday, “self-mythologize. Suppress any sense of humor about yourself. You may imitate self-deprecation, but you may not mean it in earnest. Act like someone whose greatness is about to be recognized. This will create an aura for you and, much more importantly, for your favorite students, who will be young enough to believe it.” These students will then bear your name out into the world and onto the syllabus, where others among the young and naive will come to see you as a great poet. [In the margin of my notes to Halliday’s talk I have scribbled something that looks like “Warhol’s ‘famous for 15 minutes’ is now ‘famous to 15 people.’”]

So, to return to Alfred Corn’s question about dissensus: “what to make of this?” With the exception of buzz susceptibility, the behaviors Halliday describes can all be seen as contributing to the critical dissensus Alfred Corn noted on prize committees and “best books” lists. When there is so much to read, many people will simply tune out certain presses, journals, styles, schools, forms, or even generations. With no way to keep track of the multitude of new books, many will come to rely on their own closed networks for advice. Fast responses will lead to a failure to appreciate complex or subtle work outside one’s own network, further reinforcing closure to voices outside one’s own idiosyncratic network. The self-mythologizing process, which sends acolytes into the world to create more acolytes—in the manner of the critic F.R. Leavis, who literally kept a map with pins indicating where he’d planted disciples—creates little cults of personality, invisible from the outside. All of this adds up to individual insularity, to a world of top-ten lists without overlap.

Of course many things have led us to this place. Technological changes make publishing more accessible and books more affordable; the spread of education has created a huge number of people who want to write poems, and can (we are only a few decades beyond a time when the big disputes in American poetry were disputes among Harvard classmates).  I believe that overall, the scale of American poetry is a good thing. But it does create certain problems for the kind of poet who wishes for recognition. Such poets (the ones Halliday calls “ambitious”) react to the situation with a set of defensive behaviors that have as a side-effect the sort of critical dissensus described by Corn. We see this across the poetic spectrum. If Helen Vendler, with her refusal to believe there could possibly be 175 poets worth reading out of the untold thousands of 20th century American poets, suffers from a kind of “proclivity for ignoring,” so also does Kenneth Goldsmith, who has argued that his kind of poetry is more “relevant” (to what, one wonders?) than other forms, which presumably no longer have any claim on our attention.

The multitude is the condition of American poetry in our time. The problem of the multitude, though, exists only for poets ambitious for recognition, and readers who wish to feel they can read everything worth reading.

*Update December 28: D.G. Meyers at Commentary magazine takes a different view of the issue.

*Update January 3: Johannes Göransson takes yet another view of the issue.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Rita Dove Anthology Dust-Up Continues!

Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry continues to generate controversy.

Here are a couple of articles that mention my own contribution to the contretemps: one from The Chronicle of Higher Education and one from The Guardian.

*Update, Dec. 23:

Michael Leong has some interesting thoughts on the anthology at Big Other.

My original post is here.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"It's Too Much": Norman Finkelstein and the Poetics of Contemporaneity

One of the most notable things about contemporary poetry is that there's so much of it.  If one were tempted to keep up with it all, one might say there's so damn much of it.  This is the starting point of Norman Finkelstein's "The Poetics of Contemporaneity," a long reviw of Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher's book The Monkey & the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, a review just now out in Contemporary Literature.  It starts with reference to a little Facebook discussion in which I played a part:

In a recent post on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog entitled “It’s Too Much,” Stephen Burt declares, only half-jokingly (I think), “Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines… to be au courant, I should keep up. And I can’t keep up.”  Burt continues in this vein for another couple of paragraphs, and though he keeps it light, he manages to touch a nerve.  In my little corner of Facebook, Robert Archambeau linked to Burt’s post, eliciting twenty-eight more-or-less anxious comments.  Mark Scroggins picked up the post and responded at some length on his blog, Culture Industry: “Man do I sympathize. With the expansion of the internet as the primary medium of poetry, & of the endless chatter of poetry-promotion & poetry-discussion – of pobiz, in short – it feels like there's been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it.”

Finkelstein's review goes on to discuss how the various pieces in the book address, or fail to address, the contemporary situation.  Finkelstein has some particularly kind words for my own contribution, and I'm not above repeating them:

…the two best essays, by, as it happens, Robert Archambeau and Stephen Burt, take the longest view and are most fully informed by an acute literary historical awareness. Archambeau’s “The Discursive Situation of Poetry,” which leads off the collection, alone is worth the price of admission.  Archambeau is one of our smartest poetic sociologists, and in this essay, he tackles the biggest problem facing poetry in our time: the dwindling of its audience and the growing divide between poets and a mainstream literary readership, however the latter may be construed.  Archambeau considers an ideologically varied group of critics, including Dana Gioia, Joseph Epstein, Charles Bernstein, Thomas Disch and John Barr, all of whom complain about poetry’s loss of public attention as poets gradually migrate to academia and graduate-level creative writing programs proliferate.  A corollary to this complaint is the notion that at some time in the not too distant past (say the 1940s or 1950s), poets were more responsive to the needs and desires of a middle-class readership, editors published them more frequently in general interest magazines with wider circulations, and market forces, rather than the rarefied aesthetic views of a literary elite or bohemian coterie, determined poetic success.  Archambeau demolishes these notions, but at the same time, identifies a period further in the past—the mid-Victorian period—when the “discursive situation of poetry—that is, the conditions of writing, publishing and reception” (13) was such that poets really did speak to, of and for the values of a growing middle-class reading public.  “This class,” notes Archambeau, “growing into unprecedented political and social dominance in a rapidly changing and industrializing society, felt understandably dislocated” (15).  The British middle class found the guidance for which it sought in “men of letters” such as Ruskin, Thackery, Mill or Tennyson, “because men of letters, including poets, were drawn from, and remained a part of, the same social class as the reading public, and as such they articulated that class’s own views, anxieties and values” (15).  The preeminence of these figures, however, proved relatively short-lived, as on the one hand, literacy spread to the working class, and on the other hand, the middle class itself, intermarrying with the aristocracy, formed “a newly confident class that developed an ethos of self-interest, utilitarianism, and conspicuous consumption….They were decreasingly in need of buying what the mid-Victorian poets were selling” (19).  By the end of the nineteenth century, the poets had moved from middle-class drawing rooms to the garrets of bohemia, which they bequeathed to their modernist heirs.
Unfortunately, Archambeau never explicitly links the situation of Victorian England to that of the United States, where the class structure, without an aristocracy in the European sense, developed along somewhat different lines.  Concomitantly, the figure of the poet as cultural arbiter differed as well.  Perhaps the Fireside Poets played a similar role to the British men of letters, but the advent of Whitman and all he came to represent proved a definitive break.  In any case, Archambeau is still correct: when the utilitarian and consumerist values of the middle class solidified, and the poets moved first to bohemia and then to academia, the loss of a general readership for poetry was inevitable.  As Archambeau puts it, “Professionalized literary studies and bohemianized poetry were close cousins, both products of broad shifts in economics and culture that took poetry and the broad reading public in different directions” (20-21).  Furthermore, the changes that might realign poets and average readers are not particularly desirable.  Where, after all, does poetry really count in the modern world?  Basically, under conditions of political oppression.  Thus, “just as we would not wish to return to mid-Victorian levels of literacy and social development just to see the rise of a new Tennyson, we would not wish to fall victim to colonization just to have our own Celtic Revival.  Those of us who live with discursive conditions that keep poetry unpopular may count themselves lucky” (24-25).  Meanwhile, as Archambeau observes, “the encroachment of market values on the previously semi-autonomous academic system is well under way, and is probably irreversible,” a development that is bound to affect “[t]he oversupply of academically credentialed poets” (25).  How many unemployed or under-employed MFAs in creative writing do you know?  Unfortunately, I know quite a few.

Finkelstein is completely right about my failure to address the American situation in the late 19th century.  And he's onto something when he says the Fireside Poets (Longfellow, Whittier, et al) played an important role, analogous in some ways to the role of Tennyson in England.  But I haven't really done enough research in American poetry to say much more than that.

If you have access to Project Muse at a university library database, you can check out Finkelstein's article online.

There's a pretty spirited discussion of my own essay, and related issues, at John Gallaher's blog.