12 October, 2009Issue 10.1LiteraturePoetry

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A Space Filled With Moving

Stephen Ross

americanhybridCole Swensen and David St. John
American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry
Norton, 2009
560 Pages
£18.99
ISBN 978-0393333756

Nearly 60 years ago, Randall Jarrell observed the onset of a bizarre phenomenon in American letters: the rise of the poetry anthology. In the “verse chronicle” of his 1953 collection of critical essays, Poetry and the Age, he presents this development as a kind of dopey Cinderella story:

This is so much the age of anthologies that it is surprising that poets still waste their time on books of verse, instead of writing anthologies in the first place. If you are about to print a book of poems, don’t: make up a few names and biographical sketches with which to punctuate your manuscript, change its title to Poems of Democracy, and you will find yourself transformed from an old pumpkin, always in the red, to a shiny black new coach.

In spite of Jarrell’s mocking directive, a flurry of anthologies appeared in the late 1950s and early 60s, all vying in their own way to be the most influential showpiece of the new American poetry. The subsequent “anthology wars” divided the lines between what Robert Lowell dubbed “cooked and uncooked poetry”—the elegant, “traditional”, formalist work of poets like Philip Larkin, Richard Wilbur, and James Merrill and the slangy, “experimental”, free verse poetry of then-marginalized writers like Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Frank O’Hara.

The mainstays of these opposing camps were two anthologies: the (cooked) New Poets of England and America, edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson and the (uncooked) New American Poetry 1945-1960, edited by Donald Allen. Meanwhile, other “new” anthologies began appearing like clockwork, and the battle continued to rage well into the 90s.

For better or worse, Cole Swensen and David St. John have cast American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry as the final battleground in the anthology war. They do so by arguing that the battle was fought out years ago, as signaled by the emergence of “hybrid poetry” over the last two decades. Hybrid writings, according to Swensen and St. John, bridge and blur the distinctions between “cooked and uncooked” poetry, cherry-picking from both and thereby defying easy classification.

The resulting species of poem is not beholden to categories like formal or free verse, traditional or experimental, but instead accommodates an infinite degree of cross-breeding among forms (free verse with occasional rhymes, sonnets that don’t rhyme, etc.). As Swensen notes in her excellent introduction, hybrid poetry is not an entirely new formulation but roughly corresponds to other critical rubrics such as Ron Silliman’s notion of “third-wave poetics”, the “post-avant”, and Stephen Burt’s “elliptical” poetry.

Swensen’s introduction is in a perverse sense the centerpiece of the anthology, outshining in its artfulness and vision most of the poems it proposes to discuss; it should be required reading for anyone interested in American poetry. Beginning with a recap of the cooked/uncooked debate, she traces the roots of contemporary American poetry to two main sources: British Romanticism and the 19th-century French avant-garde (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire), both wellsprings of high modernism. She then provides a short and sweet guided tour of the last 60 years of American poetry, from Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, the birth of Confessional poetry, and the rise of the Beats, the Black Mountain school, and the New York School, to the later Deep Image movement, New Formalism, and Language (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) poetry of the late 1970s.

By the 80s, Swensen asserts, the old binary was beginning to break down—thanks in part to the changing faces of publishing and academia and the rise of the Internet—and has continued to do so ever since. Accordingly, we find ourselves now in a “thriving center of alterity”, a “laterally ordered network” in which writers “inherit and adapt traits” from various traditions, and increasingly from the visual and fine arts.

So what does a hybrid poem actually look like? Here’s an excerpt from Etel Adnan’s “In/somnia”:

………………………XVIII

1. altered epi/fanny. zzzz
nerves—neurves.
in symmetry. for dormmant
lady in lace. in diamond

2. now transient horizon-
tal life. Buttes. slough
(slow, low) over . . .
?????

Or Forrest Gander’s “Poem”:

…. Some
. we say we..
know go
like a window
…..dark.
..Pathetic
any remark
…..then.
They leave
..us, what
we call
….them.

And here’s the beginning of Dean Young’s “Speck”:

What I have in common with the people of the future:
they don’t exist either.
What I have in common with people of the past:
Mother forgets me, I’m late for work.
Oh exquisite hammer, you liar.
The monkey do be loop da loop
in orthopedic shoes. Down monkey, down!

What do these poets have in common with each other? Nearly half of the hybrids have some California (often San Francisco) connection, while many others are or have been associated with power centres of the experimental American poetry scene like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the SUNY Buffalo Program in Poetics. Many of the poets hold academic posts, and only poets with three or more books were eligible for inclusion.

Inevitably, readers will find commonalities among the hybrids wherever they can. This reader, for instance, painstakingly observed that 60 of the 74 hybrid poets have poems in American Hybrid that are in some way about birds. The list begins with Etel Adnan, “The certitude of Space is brought / to me by a flight of birds,” and ends with Dean Young, “But hey, take it easy,/ little bird of fire.” The reason for this hy-birdiness is unclear, but it is fitting nonetheless. Many hybrid poems are themselves like birds: chirpy, flighty, annoying, inscrutable.

Some hybrid poems rhyme; most don’t. Some are typographically outrageous, others arranged in neat lines and stanzas. One hybrid poet uses hand-drawn football diagrams, while another makes a kind of shining poem-sun composed of single lines emanating from a circular core of white space (following a tradition of concrete poetry itself emanating from Apollinaire’s Calligrammes). Two hybrid poets, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Laura Mullen, write poems that extend horizontally across the page so you have to rotate the book 90 degrees clockwise, or read sideways. (Incidentally, another hybrid poet, John Ashbery, did this 47 years ago in The Tennis Court Oath.)

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

Another hero of the hybrids, named by two separate poets in this anthology, is Velimir Khlebnikov, a prominent member of the Russian Futurist movement and one of the originators of Zaum. This influence is palpable, for instance, in Michael Burkard’s obsessive reiteration of the title word of ‘The Rearranger” (“The rearranger rearranging the rearranged…”), which calls to mind Khlebnikov’s treatment of “laugh” in his “Invocation of Laughter“. And then there’s Gertrude Stein, whose radical experiments with the English language in the first half of the 20th century have underwritten the projects of countless hybrid poets, from Lyn Hejinian to Juliana Spahr. It was Stein who called America “a space filled with moving”, as Lynn Emanuel tells us in her poem “In English in a Poem”. “But I hate being moving”, Emanuel adds, and so many hybrids would agree.

So what does a good hybrid poem look like? Here is Rae Armantrout’s “Generation” in its entirety, a fairy-tale-gone-wrong told with magical concision:

We know the story.

She turns
back to find her trail
devoured by birds.

The years; the
undergrowth.

Or Paul Hoover’s “Haikuisation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56”:

Love, renew thy force.
Thy edge should blunter be than
tomorrow sharpened.

Or finally Brenda Hillman’s “Styrofoam Cup”, a clever, environmentally conscious adaptation of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (note the caesura):

thou still unravished…….thou
thou,……..thou bride

thou unstill,
thou unravished….unbride
unthou...…..unbride

In an act of editorial egalitarianism that belies the unevenness of the writing in Hybrid, Swensen and St. John have chosen to arrange their anthology in alphabetical order with a one-page biographical blurb and exactly six pages of text for each poet. A better choice might have been to include more writing from fewer poets (would 20 be too few?). While six pages is probably enough space for a balanced sampling from the strongest writers of short-medium length lyrics, such as Jennifer Moxley and D.A. Powell, it’s simply not enough for Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian, whose book-length projects really demand to be read in full. Even experienced readers will need time to find their bearings in this alphabetized “thriving center of alterity”.

Whether or not American Hybrid marks the end of the “anthology wars” (and it couldn’t matter less), it certainly marks an important moment in the history of experimental American poetry. In a recent interview that suggests her ambitions for Hybrid, Swensen speaks to the issue of experimentalism:

Experimental is not only still a useful term, it’s always a crucial term in poetry…Poetry has to keep trying out new forms of being in order to fulfill its mandate of “purifying the language of the tribe”, as Mallarmé put it, of keeping the tool that is language sharp enough to keep cutting into more of what was previously the unsayable.

This statement jibes with the achievement of American Hybrid, which, like most groundbreaking collections of experimental writing, proves, with notable exceptions, that the previously “unsayable” quite often turns out to be the unmemorable. We can blame this outcome on the hybrids’ widespread commitment to malleability and indeterminacy; many of the poems simply blend into each other because they seem to be pointlessly eccentric. In this amorphous anthology, cutting into the unsayable often proves a stale and programmatic exercise, a matter of putting words in unusual arrangements, using caesura, writing about birds.

This is not to sell short the achievement of the poets included in the anthology—the best of whom will be read for many, many years—but to note the degree to which the over-determined, totalizing influence of the hybrid model reduces them to a democratized mash-up of experimental parody. Poems of Democracy, indeed.

The question of linguistic purity, implicit in “Mallarmé’s mandate”, reveals a telling discrepancy in American Hybrid’s structure: whereas Swensen closes her introduction by invoking the mandate, St. John concludes his, rather pompously,  by stating that he is “persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based on plurality, not purity.”

And so the battle between “purity” and “plurality” begins, and we discover that Swensen and St. John were spoiling for an anthology war all along.

Stephen Ross is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.

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