Monday, January 17, 2011

Let's Hear it for the Boys, or: The Plinko Theory of Poetry

“Let’s Hear it for the Boys” is not a title I expected to find on a review of my book Laureates and Heretics, but I think I see why Brian Reed chose it for his piece on the book in the latest issue of Contemporary Literature: my book does, after all, treat a bunch of white guys as they make their way through the cultural politics of the sixties, seventies, and eighties — the very decades when the hegemonic cultural position of American white guys was starting to break apart.  There have been other bright things said about the book (notably by Henry King in the English journal PN Review) but Reed’s the first guy to make much of the way the book treats how people from the old dominant group react to the changes they live through and try to understand.

Here’s how Reed’s review opens. It had me a bit worried, really:

Robert Archambeau’s Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry begins by offering a reassessment of the irascible, archconservative poet-critic Yvor Winters. It then proceeds to discuss several poets from the“last generation of students” to work with Winters at Stanford University, all of whom “arrived in Palo Alto around 1962” and were later featured in the Carcanet Press anthology Five American Poets (1979): Robert Hass, John Matthias, James McMichael, John Peck, and Robert Pinsky. Each of these figures receives a chapter that summarizes his career, comments on his principal publications, and accounts for his reception history. Described in this manner, the book might not sound promising.

But then things warm up:
Despite these obstacles, Laureates and Heretics turns out to be a compelling meditation on the mechanics of canonization. Building on the work of David Kellogg, Alan Golding, and Jed Rasula, the study focuses on the institutional and social dynamics that produce different levels of popular and critical success among authors active during the same time period.

And soon thereafter Reed turns to the business of the effect of identity politics on “the boys”:
No longer could white men speak unreflectively “of, for, and to a presumably general community.” A comparative study of Winters’s students proves to be a new and inventive means of supporting this last proposition. Hass, Matthias, McMichael, Peck, and Pinsky all came of age in an era of intense ideological demystification. They did not, however, respond to that challenge in the same way. Just as the counter- cultural poetries of the period were internally diverse and mounted a variety of critiques of entrenched authority, so too the elite-educated individuals with easier access to prominent venues for publication, employment, and promotion likewise exhibited a range of behaviors. To understand the literary system of the later twentieth century, Archambeau contends, one has to set aside reductive accusations of sexism, homophobia, and racism and understand that the establishment, too, was a mercurial, complex, self-contradictory entity, fitfully and unpredictably responsive to shifts in the larger poetry field.
Reed's got it, dead-on.  After the rise of identity politics and feminism, you really couldn't go around acting like "Robert Lowell, National Voice of Poetry" or even "Allen Ginsberg, National Voice of Rebellious Poetry."  Things were different, and you had to figure out how, and why, and what to do, not from above or after the event, but during the changes as they happened.

Soon after this part comes my favorite image in the review: the depiction of The Plinko Theory of Poetic Reputation, which is actually a pretty good way to hold in one’s mind the nature of poetic reputation-making, which isn’t primarily about the quality of the work, but about how your trajectory happens to intersect with the various forces at work in the cultural field (this does not mean that bad work gets rewarded, or good work shunted aside, only that one’s work will be popular if it has affinities with cultural imperatives, and finds its way to light through channels that happen to serve large or powerful or coherent constituencies):
Laureates and Heretics offers a theory of canonization that resembles the game Plinko on the television show The Price Is Right. A contestant drops disks from different possible starting points and then watches how initial conditions affect their paths as they descend toward more or less lucrative possible outcomes. Pinsky and Hass could never have predicted that their specific swerves away from Winters would lead plink-plink-plink to their selection as poets laureate. In retrospect, however, one can see that the “poetry field” of the 1970s and 1980s tended to reward certain moves while penalizing others. This kind of experiment could easily be repeated, perhaps with a more eclectic group. What would it be like to read a book that devotes a chapter each to the likes of Agha Shahid Ali, Mary Jo Bang, Charles Bernstein, Rick Kenney, Dana Levin, Eileen Myles, and Tupac Shakur? Would it be chaos, or a way of gaining a more comprehensive overview of poetic production in the late twen- tieth century? Archambeau has shown that there is now enough historical distance on the post–Vietnam War era that one can fruitfully approach its poetry with the cool gaze of a sociologist.

From now on, I’m going to refer to the Archambeau-Reed Plinko Theorem as if it were the General Theory of Relativity or something.

Anyway, here’s the grand finale, which I think gets me exactly right, depicting me as a man aiming at disinterested objectivity and almost but not quite getting there:
One senses that Pinsky and Hass interest him primarily as literary-historical riddles (how did they come out on top?).  He writes well about McMichael, but Peck appears to intrigue him more, and his admiration for Matthias is patent. One suspects that, if pressed, he would admit that his money is on modernist ambition and seriousness as the true route to lasting achievement. The beauty of Laureates and Heretics is Archambeau’s ability to restrain himself from making such pronouncements. He takes the tools of practical criticism and puts them in the service of a relatively unbiased literary history. No matter who their favorite poets might be, others will be able to build on his arguments. The field needs more books like Laureates and Heretics.
And I can't resist ending with this, a celebration of Brian Reed's title (I couldn't quite bring myself to post Deneice Williams' "Let's Hear it for the Boy"):