Wednesday, November 18, 2009

course texts / anthologies

It's that time of year again – well, it's actually rather past that time of year, but I'm finally getting around to ordering books for this spring's classes, among them a grad seminar on postwar American poetry. Man, this one was tough. In the end, even tho I'm normally pretty allergic to using anthologies rather than actual books of poetry, I've decided to teach primarily out of 4 anthologies: Donald Allen's New American Poetry; Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry; Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry Since 1950; and the recent Cole Swensen-David St. John American Hybrid – along with, of course, the usual range of xeroxes, PDFs, & internet resources.

Here's the logic: I want to teach the course with an emphasis, not on a half-dozen or dozen or 20 "major" figures, but on group-formations, "schools," filiations of influence. Allen here is I suppose the inspiration, with his initial (& still to an extent valuable) groupings of San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain, Beats, New York Poets; one can cobble together interesting tours of various more recent groups out of Hoover & Weinberger (Language Writing, Analytic Lyric, 2nd generation NY School, etc.); Weinberger is good on the isolatoes, & provides some useful stuff by earlier (2nd & 3rd) generation modernists – precisely the folks who slip thru the Allen chronological cracks – late WCW & Pound, the Objectivists; & there are plain just a lot of interesting poets in Swensen-St. John (if a fair number of duds, as well).

We'll see how this all works out. I suppose in some circumstances I would anticipate objections from some quarters for not really doing anything at all with "official verse culture" post-1945: "where's Robert Lowell, where's Anne Sexton?" On the one hand, I rather snidely feel that including those folks, even as "mainstream" baseline against which to talk about poets I find really interesting, would be rather like including John Williams's Star Wars soundtrack in a course on contemporary "classical" music, just to show what most people were listening to. On the other hand, as lovely & bright & lively as my students are, they seem to have almost no sense whatsoever of literary history, of the immediate past (or even the more distant past) of their own art (I speak here of the MFAs, but the MA students are just as innocent). That of course isn't their fault, tho one might fault them for a lack of consuming curiosity. But it makes for an opportunity, I think: to present some of the really vibrant aspects of postwar American poetry with almost no reference to the "grey flannel" formalism of the 1950s, the histrionics of the confessionals, the quotidian sludge of the 1980s workshop industry.

Every anthology presents its own narrative of literary history, of course: heroic embattled outsider experimentalists in Allen & in Silliman's American Tree, heroic isolatoes in Weinberger, unruly wilderness of unsponsored creativity in Hoover. I'm interested, tho ultimately still unconvinced, by the salvific closure of Swensen & St. John's. After decades in the wilderness, all of the experimentalisms of the '60s, '70s, & '80s have finally found a place at the table, in the form of the new "hybrids" springing up all over the country (mostly, it seems, in MFA programs). A cynic sees this as the belated institutional "consecration" (Bourdieu) of the avant-garde, but in a significantly denatured form: more tonic in that drink please, much less gin. The parataxis is groovy, but could we please slip the central subjectivity back in?

Swensen's intro takes the mainstream v. opposition model – one version of Ron S's "school of quietude" v. "post-avant" distinction – as a given, but claims that while it was accurate in its day, it just isn't valid anymore. Hmmm. True to a certain extent, I suppose – but Swensen, taking Allen as her baseline here, elides the very real fact that Allen never presented "two camps" (the New AmPoets v. the Mainstream): he presented 4 loosely defined groups, plus a grab-bag of uncategorizables from which one could construct at least 2 or three more. The story was never quite as simple as "us against them." What's missing from American Hybrid is any sense that group formations, personal associations, shared journal affiliations or publishing houses matter anymore. If you're interested in such esoteric matters, you have to divine what you can from the rather skimpy author's bios.

I suppose, once again, I'm hankering for a better map of where we are, a richer sense of relationship among the denizens of the now. Literary history, in a word: someone write the history of Flarf, of the Flood Edition writers, of the Brown University avant-garde.
Struck by Kit Robinson's computer industry metaphor in Grand Piano 8: the "tech" guys "wrote the building blocks, a tool set called PeopleTools, and were responsible for the software architecture"; the "apps" guys used this architecture to write the specific software programs that enabled companies to do stuff (payroll, accounting). The first-generation Language writers, then, were techies, opening up & tinkering with fundamental working of language: for them, "the infrastructure space was the interesting place." But then – ominously? –
They did not anticipate all the uses to which their work would be put by later writers for whom Language writing would serve as a technical platform for writing that also embraced narrative, character, identity politics, satire, drama.


Vance Maverick said...

One problem with including Lowell would be that he's kind of intermittently interesting, and wouldn't convey the dulness of the field in which he was a star -- rather as the genuine if uvula-tickling catchiness of Star Wars misrepresents the deliberate vacuity of movie music in general.

I thought about this reading Mayhew's Lorca book: he spends a chapter on Deep Image without quite being able to bring himself to quote a selection, so I never did figure out what the movement was actually like.

Archambeau said...

What the? You don't like John Williams' "Star Wars" sound track? Come on! You must not know the lyrics to the main theme:

Wookies! Look at them dancing!
Look at the wookies!
Dancing so fine!

Star Wars! It's full of wookies!
Them wookies is dancing!
All in a line!

I mean, it's hard to beat a Barrett Watten libretto like that.


Vance Maverick said...

BTW, "PeopleTools" is a sublimely creepy name, sci-fi enough to merit John Williams or at least Vangelis, but it was apparently the real name given to the common framework at PeopleSoft.

And about the analogy: does he mean (as you imply) that langpo provided an infrastructure on which the next generation could build apps -- or rather that prior language practices are already analyzable into infrastructure and apps, and the equals-sign crowd chose to make poems that play on the infrastructure?

Vance Maverick said...

Oops, misread that. It's Robinson, not you, and he's clearly saying the former of my two interpretations, which won't really wash (except as a facet of a larger argument).

Norman Finkelstein said...

I'm teaching a six week summer grad course on Contemporary American Poetry, so this post is very illuminating. I'm not as committed to mapping the terrain, though of course, I want to provide a sense of history. What I'll probably do is an in-dept look at 3 or 4 major figures (I'm considering Bronk, Oppen, Creeley and Howe) and then a few recent volumes by young to mid-career figures. I guess I want my students to learn about the style and ideas of contemporary figures, and be able to extend their analytic skills to the wider map. Because, yes, these students don't know much about literary history--but they don't know how to read [modern] poetry either.

Ed Baker said...

should be
'right up your alley'

for this "teaching" event:

The Gist of Origin

especially since...

Mark Scroggins said...

I sympathize, Norman -- tho I wonder about the "knowing how to read [modern] poetry" bit: ie, many of my students are every bit as much at sea with pre-modern poetry as they are with 20th century work. What would it mean to introduce them to, say late Ron Johnson or Susan Howe as the norm for the reading experience, & work from there?

I love Corman's Gist, Ed; it's the kind of anthology that reflects the astonishing care only an editor of great talent brings to his task (helped of course by the fact that CC's building on his own editorial work on the magazine). Alas, so out of print it's not even on the radar screen.

Vance, KR's comment is pretty much an offhand remark near the beginning of his GP contribution; I was struck by its combination of self-aggrandizement (we laid the foundations!) and generosity (ie, other people did interesting stuff with it, as opposed to other people diluted and perverted it).

Bob: damn you & yr earworms!! (I hear wookies dancing somewhere in the back of my head...)

Unknown said...

I am nearing the tail end of an undergrad modern poetry seminar, in which I used two anthologies that I presented as subtly opposed to each other: the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (I skipped the Contemporary volume) and Poems for the Millennium. I too wanted to emphasize movements and filiations, wanting to give my students not just a map but hoping to stimulate their map-making abilities. In fact, I'm thinking of asking them to draw a map of modern poetry as part of their final exam.

Still, there are vast lacunae. You mention Lowell: just yesterday in introducing the students to the New York School I had to give them a thumbnail sketch of the confessional poets that the first-gen NYSchoolers were in part reacting to. The only one they'd heard of was Sylvia Plath, and the two students who'd actually read some Plath had only read The Bell Jar. So it's an uphill slog no matter how you slice it.

Ed Baker said...

"they" don't know because

well, just look at theire teachers!


JUST give em



"give"' em just one poet to explore ( ?)

say ALL of:

or Bob Kelly
or Ted Enslin
or Lew Welsh
or Larry Eigner
or Philip Whalen
or Frank Samperi

Oppen, Rakosi

steer 'em towards ANYTHING but the boring trite drivel that is the usual 'bill of fair' in these kinfs of , I betcha, required courses..

and, just maybe you will provoke one 'someboddhi' to drop out and

"take the path less traveled"

the non-credentialed way!

E. M. Selinger said...

I've done a few courses recently where we've read an anthology (i.e., Nelson's Oxford American) cover to cover, with no explanatory scheme or structure from me to group the poets into schools or rank them in importance.

Much is lost, of course--but by god, they've read a lot of poems by the end, and they've done it without being told that someone was "mainstream" and someone else was an "outsider." Interesting results.