Friday, May 29, 2009


My friend & colleague A. Papatya Bucak has a great little piece up at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the experience of getting tenure; I find my feelings on promotion are pretty much the same (tho I can't say I share her enthusiasm for Anthropologie).

It seemed that Eric Selinger was (alas!) deep-sixing his consistently lively & thought-provoking (if not consistently updated) blog Say Something Wonderful, but happily he's reconsidered & has resurrected the blog as what it was at its best, a sandbox for his own ideas-in-progress & reactions to the books & scholarship he's reading. Latest post is a read-thru of Eric Keenaghan's essay on Robert Duncan in the latest Contemporary Literature.

I realize now that I ought to read Ralph Maud's bio of Olson, if only as counterweight to Tom Clark's. See Alan Casline's assessment here.

Steve Evans's annual core sample of what people are reading, the "Attention Span," has taken shape on Third Factory. I'm delighted to see that four people reported reading The Poem of a Life, & two of them were generous enough to say write nice comments about it.
The poetry blogosphere all a-buzz at Stephen Burt's latest attempt at capturing the Zeitgeist in the Boston Review, "The New Thing: The object lessons of recent American poetry." (Many reactions, including this by Bob Archambeau & this by John Latta.) I was pleased to see the attention Burt pays to the press Flood Editions, & the Zach Barocas's consistently excellent website Cultural Society. (Also nice to see my own name appear, if only as a member of a list...)

What do I make of Burt's essay as a whole? Well, I'm not sure yet. I admire the impulse to try to make sense of the shifts in poetry that one feels around one, the sense one gets that the social organization of the art, & the art itself, is evolving as one ages. I've watched the "scene" changing over the past 2 decades with some interest – from my own callow youth, when the most visible insurgency on the scene was the highly vocal (& now largely forgotten, I guess) "new formalists" (the Language Poets, far more radical, were only an ugly rumor in academic & official verse culture circles), to my grad school years when I learned of an entirely new generation of poets (my own generation, I guess) who'd been reading the things I thought I was the only person alive reading, to the general dissemination of certain post-avant gestures thruout both academic & OFC circles (what Burt in an earlier essay calls "elliptical poetry), to Flarf & the new conceptual writing.

Once or twice along the way I've tried to conceptualize or theorize why people started writing in ways different from the ways they'd been writing in – or rather, why presses & journals were publishing things different from what they'd published – or rather, why critical & popular attention was being paid to the latest "new thing," so that suddenly yesterday's status quo seemed altogether, er, yesterday. But I've always given up after throwing out a half dozen hypotheses & outlines of ideas. This is I guess what I admire about Burt – that he's willing to set stakes into recent poetic movements & try to write real literary history, just as it's happening.

The problem of course is that when one tries to assess where we are – especially in a literary landscape as astonishingly varied, lively, & just plain densely populated as the first decade of the 21st century – one invariably ends up seeing only part of the picture. Literary shifts, shifts in writerly fashion, are incredibly overdetermined, & many of the causes contributing to the trends in poetry writing probably won't be evident for decades to come – if then.

That's not to say that one needs to just sit by George Bush-ly and let history be written by those who come after us. Literary histories written on the spot & for the first few decades after tend to be markedly partisan, devoted to establishing the legitimacy of a particular poetics or cluster of writers. Roy Harvey's Pearce's Continuity of American Poetry, for all its acute readings, really aims to establish American poetry as a long prelude to Wallace Stevens; Marjorie Perloff's "Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?" is in part a brief on behalf of the post-Poundian Language Poets; and heaven knows how many books were written between 1930 & 1955 showing anglophone poetry's hegelian evolution up to TS Eliot.

Perhaps more to the point, I'm not convinced that literary histories written decades after the fact are all that more insightful than on-the-spot assessments like Burt's. The historian's choice of which among an overdetermining variety of factors are most important shifts with intellectual fashion, & we never really get more than a partial view of what was going on at any given point, or what's going on now.

At times, I wanna say hey, it's really simple – poets get bored with what they're reading & writing, & decide to do something different. Other poets like what the first group's doing, & do something similar. Voila! A shift in the Zeitgeist. But that sounds like the School of Larkin Criticism, doesn't it? Kudos to Stephen Burt for trying to do something more, as Quixotic as the attempt may be; and wholly unreserved kudos to him for drawing attention to some very interesting poets & presses.

1 comment:

Tom said...

M - I found Burt's tone in the essay, or is it his voice? to be thoroughly irritating and I had trouble getting to the end of it. Perhaps his piece will serve someone or something, but I don't think I'll read anything else by him, ever.