Outclassed, Outsourced: American Poetry at the Present (Part 1)

Frank Guan

Though not exactly lacking for variety in age, race, “sex,” or gender, American poetry, like the American academy and literary world of which it constitutes a minor sector, remains consistent along at least one line: it remains, all but exclusively, a playground for the conceits, whether glad or sullen, dull or acute, moribund or vital, of a “middle class” undergoing a drastic and probably irrevocable decline. All perspectives, characters, mentalities, and moods available to members of this class are reproduced, accurately and in miniature, within the confines of American verse, including:


1. an inchoate, baseless vanity and its attendant miseries and raptures

2. an arid and hermetic pseudo-technicism whose condemnation of emotion—allegedly for its complicity with capitalism—is more accurately rooted in misogyny and arrogance

3. a colored awareness too mollified by institutional tolerance to level with the white world

4. a bien-pensant blankness too busy marveling at the virtue of its pity to imagine how the colored folk it patronizes and objectifies think or feel—let alone think and feel—about them

5. a preference for the cleanliness of philosophy over the embarrassments of history

6. a belief that others should be automatically as fascinated by one's dreams/sex/life as oneself

7. a vacuous, corrosive whimsy whose subtext is invariably Because we can afford it

8. a belief that simply citing elements of (popular/image/capitalist) culture constitutes a substantial critique of said culture

9. an inability to speak with validity and confidence beyond one's own social grouping

10. a political inertia directly corresponding to said inability

11. the affirmation of injustice directly corresponding to said inertia

12. an equation of foreign languages, indirectness, and/or inaccessibility with higher ethical/aesthetic value

13. linked with and driving all of 1 through 12, a physical and moral squeamishness without apparent limit1


Poetry's marginal status in relation to American society does not detract from the clarity with which it represents class predilections: middle-class poets are members of the middle-class long before they go to college and decide to make careers out of poetry, and the post-Sixties emphasis on explicitly personal content ensures that, in so-called mainstream poetry, very little complicates the identification of the poet with the speaker of the poem, while the connection between the hollow provocation and obscurantism of so-called post-avant poetry and a hipster “buzz”-mongering and evasion of critique grows stronger by the Day: what we see (or are kept from seeing) is what we get, and what's been gotten—even in the hands of brilliant critics—hasn't been much.

Gardeners, Gatekeepers, Wardens


The trio of major critics born in the Depression years shared more than just a birth date in the early Thirties. Helen Vendler, Harold Bloom, and Marjorie Perloff all began their critical careers in a similar fashion: writing books about Yeats. And not just because there was so much to write about or because they loved Yeats: of all the poets canonized by the neoclassicist New Critics then prevalent in the American academy, the Irish master proved most amenable to their (wildly different) Romantic sensibilities. Sensibilities which, as New Critical hegemony faded in the Sixties, each found themselves at liberty to openly express: Vendler refurbishing the old school's traditionalist, isolated mode of reading to match her retentive, apt, completely personal aesthetic; Bloom expanding/exploding it by indulging his taste for Freudian, monumental, mystical, and egocentric rhetoric; Perloff, animated by the romance of a vanished avant-garde, venturing out from the established Anglo canon into alternative and foreign traditions.


Given such pronounced particularity on the part of each, it would hardly prove surprising that the three found little common ground in poetry more contemporary. Yet, even taking this into account, their lack of consensus was glaring. Not a single poet born after 1933 has been championed by more than one of the three critics, and even among the poets immediately following the Modernist generations, only Ashbery and Ammons occasioned unanimous enthusiasm, all the rest leaving at least one critic frigid: Bloom dismissive of Lowell, O'Hara, and Plath, Perloff scoffing at Bishop and James Merrill.


Vendler, attentive to all of the poets named above, seemed to compensate by overlooking nearly everyone else. While Bloom fired blurbs off left and right and Perloff sealed with her approval the numerous Language poets worthy of a closer reading, the younger poets that Vendler proposed to treat as classic were few: of all the poets born after the Thirties, only Jorie Graham and, perhaps, Louise Glück received her full approval. Yet the former's work, known for its blinding excess, rendered commentary pointless while the latter's, known for its austere, sharpened personal authority, often left it redundant—especially commentary of the sort that focused, as Vendler's invariably did, on the figure of the poet's self and poem at the expense of all other perspective. With each new book and essay it grows more clear that Vendler's a contemporary poetry critic in name only: between her writing on poets safely embalmed and her work on living Americans (with the glaring exception of Graham) the gap in curiosity and quality can only be described as prodigious. Since the Sixties, and especially since the Cold War's end, the cultural environment in which the culture of poetry is inscribed and the culture of poetry itself have altered greatly; it's hard not to suspect she is, or at least perceives her work as, simply too great to change.


A similar problem besets the other members of the troika. If Vendler's mode of quiet, measured approbation conceals, to some extent, its basically custodial and backwards-looking nature, Harold Bloom, long seen (or misread) as some kind of clumsy hybrid of a dinosaur and blimp, seems to have permitted no one to forget how peculiar his models of influence and canon—both too big not to fail—have grown. Bloom's said to have been recycling his insights for the past two decades, and leaving aside for now the truth or falsehood of that perspective, what's beyond doubt is that, unwilling to renounce either his democratic politics or his hierarchical aesthetic yet equally unable to bring the two into a credible alignment, Bloom, during culture wars demanding that, between liberalism and canonical status, one be subordinated to the other, left himself exposed to polemical assaults from multiculturals and reactionaries both.


What tends to get elided by the surrounding strife (and by Bloom's own inability to not make polarizing statements) is the progress—incomplete and flawed for sure, yet still significant and all too rare—that he's made in a worthwhile, little noticed—yet much-needed—endeavor of post-Sixties culture: bringing questions of aesthetic quality and major status out of the academy without any degradation of respect for the essential force, autonomy, and durability of literature. One can and very much should argue with the means by which Bloom proceeds—an arcane, anarchic mysticism entirely dependent on his personal authority hardly seems the basis for a progressive solution to the issue—but he does deserve his fair share of non-academic credit, even after taking into account how his taste, like Vendler's, has been calcifying since at least the early Nineties and how, like Vendler, afflicted by cultural and historical myopia, he has next to no idea why poetry of the sort he treasures most can no longer be produced.


Near-sightedness regarding culture and history may well be the least of Marjorie Perloff's concerns. A daughter of Vienna's marvelously tasteful Jewish upper class raised, post-Anschluss, in the Bronx, she retains a keen awareness that a world more distant and refined exists—or, rather, existed.2 The exiled grandeur of the albatross and swan of Baudelaire were her familiars and, fluent in countless Continental literatures, she had no need of aid in recognizing the affinity. Bloom's aesthetics and career are based upon the “struggle for stature,” a stature which Vendler, safe in the chambers of the canon, can afford to take for granted; conservational and intimate, she selects her own society in such a way as to allow her to devote maximum attention to the “integrity” of poet and poem. Yet Perloff's criticism encompasses both concerns—for thirty years she's been a dedicated promoter of experimental poetry and poets in their struggle for institutional status and aesthetic validation while at the same time maintaining, for the most part, a strong emphasis on the essential coherence of the poem as art object—but it possesses a range and sweep to which Vendler never aspired and at which Bloom could only gesture.


A world beyond America existed! Perloff could appear to be the only critic of contemporary US poetry who understood this as a truth and not mere data. Reading the personalized lyrics that predominated in America after the Sixties from the perspective of world literature, she found the work unbearably petty, and may well have been right to do so—who, given knowledge of a greater world where poetry could be formally revolutionary and politically dynamic, would batten on the boring, flattened solipsisms of a Pinsky, a Hass, or, indeed, a Graham? (Perhaps the most valuable, and certainly the rarest, quality of Perloff as a contemporary critic has been her readiness to name who she considers bad poets by name.) When the Language poets, with their strident equations of radical poetic form with radical politics, rose to her attention in the Eighties, as a pioneer in academic studies of the avant-garde she was uniquely well-equipped to, in every sense of the word, appreciate their value.


Which was wonderful—after all, first-generation Language poets and their associates, especially the women, were superior to their mainstream competition by a significant margin, though not by a margin as colossal as the Language poets themselves were fond of claiming. It's worthwhile to recall how, now safely institutionalized, the Language poets required nearly an entire generation's length of time for their poems to enter the academy as objects of study and for they themselves to secure academic positions. While Bloom and Vendler's interest in contemporary poetry waned somewhat following the Eighties, Perloff kept at least one eye fixed on the present, devoting, in the Nineties and the first half of the Aughts, tremendous labors to legitimizing Language poetry by setting it in the tradition of older European and Russian avant-gardes already certified by the academy. Her efforts, combined with those of other academics and of the poets themselves and with acceptance from a younger generation of poets, proved successful; with its techniques in general circulation, its polemical maneuvers a source of spirited conversation, and its leading poets the recipients of major honors and awards, Language has, for all intents and purposes, fulfilled whatever mandate literary history intended for it3. Like the leopards in the Kafka parable, their transgressions against ceremony have themselves become a ceremony—indeed, so lively has the discourse and community surrounding the movement become that it can now afford, apparently, to manufacture its own parodies.


Fine Racket, Meaning Finished


Leaving the poetry aside—the option's been kindly extended, so why not take it?—the most interesting, or at least least incoherent, approach to so-called conceptual poetry would be, I feel, as a meticulously plotted caricature of Language poetry. If “elliptical” poetry has, as Charles Bernstein put it sharply, the bark of Language poetry without the bite, “conceptual” poetry bites the mannerisms, or “face,” off of Language poetry (and with scarcely a bark from the bitten). The rush to be anthologized and self-anthologized, the public provocations and disruptions, the blanket dismissals of “personal” poetry, the blanket dismissals from “personal” poets, the persecution complex, the relentless cross-promotions, the over-eagerness to be absorbed into postmodern academic discourse—all features of the elder movement, to be sure, but now re-staged with the punitive, flattened excess typical of farce. Though kept dormant by a kind of ethical rigor—which, however cryptic, was nonetheless very “personal”—on the part of the Language poets themselves, the potential for a casual, sadistic nihilism had always been present in the avant-garde aesthetic of relentless interference. The distance between disturbing the reader's expectations for the sake of “raising her awareness” and mocking her for ever having been so naïve as to believe in “truth” or “art” or “feelings,” though real, had never been especially broad. Given a knack for publicity (especially for vacuous internet boosterism), a lack of scruples, and five to ten credit hours in Modern Art History, any crew of enterprising poets could activate that latent cruelty and pass it off as the latest advance in poetic technology, and two did just that; the poets of Flarf, hampered by vestigial civic tendencies and with fewer credit hours, have faded from the spotlight, but the conceptual Antiques Roadshow keeps forging on—to the next campus, to the next pack of suckers.


The theorists of Language had tended to perceive the general population as inert processors of state and capitalist discourse, but their end, however high-handed the means and whatever their success, had always been to awaken corporate subjects and aid their transformation into active citizens. The conceptual rhetoricians retained trace levels of democratizing rhetoric—in American discourse, even the oligarchs have to kiss the public ring—yet proved particularly incoherent when it came to the civic implications of their art. Even if all language is remixed and appropriated language and all language is, at least potentially, poetry, it hardly follows, given the highly institutionalized milieu of American poetry, that any uncreative writer is a poet. Type up the entirety of a TV Guide from March 1973 or selectively copy and paste as many online comments from The Daily Mail as you please, but a “poet” one is not without certificates from at least one established poet, publisher, publication, institution, or academic critic—and preferably from all of the above, and many times over. The conceptual poets know this—know only this, it seems. Their personae and their discourse have been carefully tailored to appeal not to a popular audience but to the inspectors and gatekeepers of Poetry, with an especial emphasis on young academics, who have more incentive to grant the poets validation than the others, since they too can promote their careers by promoting the “movement.”


Such professional validation requires more than just broadband access. They cost immense amounts of work, time, and social and financial capital, and are consequently available only to that minority that can afford it. The least an art already funded by material and spiritual theft can do would be not to reproduce and reify the crimes through tendentious Theory and vacuous Art: so much energy and pain condensed into those eight art history credits, and so little to show for it! Money may well be a kind of poetry—and empire certainly is—but such poor return on investment is, even by the standards of capitalist nihilism, cowardly and trifling. True conceptual poetry would be a murder, truer still a suicide bombing, most true of all a simple suicide, decisive, yet so civilized and quiet as to go completely unnoticed.


An avant-garde so craven as to aggressively and instantly seek recognition by, and absorption into, official discourse advances nothing—unless discrediting the concept of the avant-garde itself counts as an advance. The conceptual use of dated innovations in the service of reactionary (capitalist pseudo-democratic) ends reflects a shift or “sea change” in the constitution of mainstream poetics—less capable of boasting of material comforts than their boomer or even yuppie forebears and more sensitive to ridicule, poets of the hipster generation look more likely to deploy radical techniques of disorientation as a means of attempting to recuperate, by laying claim to avant-garde “indie cred,” their loss of currency in other fields: of financial capital from paltry work and student loan payments, of social status from the slow, inexorable devaluation of white skin—but it is, as the toneless, paralytic status of the movement's texts imply, mere reflection lacking any hope of transformation, let alone relief. “Avant-garde” has always been, to some extent, a marker of middle-class status, but it also, once, connoted a “populist” political orientation, whether fascist or communist or anarchist, devoted to the active shattering of class barriers. Absent this political dimension, the aggressive sloganeering of the avant-garde becomes indistinguishable from commercial/screen culture at large and the avant-garde itself is reduced to another tent at the county fair, another set of carnies sucking in whatever rubes they can.


Some of the original Language poets have been hard to charm: Armantrout's descriptor of Vanessa Place's poetry as “terminal” could be taken in many ways, at least some of them negative, while Silliman, never one to mince words, saw fit to title his latest book Against Conceptual Poetry. But this didn't matter so much, and could even be spun profitably—conceptual poetry's so advanced that even the old garde couldn't stand it! The conceptual poets could afford to care less. And they could do so for no greater reason than because Marjorie Perloff, high priestess of the temple of the avant-garde, was, quite emphatically, on their side. How strange it must have been to see, not so long ago in the Boston Review, Perloff, the critic, one hardly known for being unafraid to call derivative experimental poetry derivative, not merely tolerating conceptual poetry's po-faced advertisements for itself, but actively promoting the movement as aesthetically (and implicitly morally) superior—indeed, as a tonic for everything that ails the US poetry of today.


Strange, but only at first. For what became more clear in the ensuing wave of intelligent ripostes to conceptual poetry and her promotion of it—from Kent Johnson, Keston Sutherland, Matvei Yankelevich, but especially from Eileen Myles—was the essential harmony between Perloff's mode of criticism (high-minded, prone to sweeping conflations, curtly dismissive of “hybrid poetics” and undisciplined displays of feeling) and conceptual polemic (mentalized, prone to sweeping conflations, loudly dismissive of all other poetics and all displays of feeling); here, it seemed, truly, was a marriage of true minds between which no impediment could stand.


Not Our Class, Dear


It was Myles who pointed out how Perloff's aesthetic was based not only in considerations of style, but of class as well, that the prophylactic surfaces and auras of conceptual poetry resonated with her (Perloff) not least of all because they neatly fit her preexisting conceptions (made in Vienna and maintained against crude American provincialism, both real and perceived) of art as High Art, as a signifier resting at least as much on a (social) sense of discrimination and restraint as on the bodily sensations—feelings—available to everyone, refined and vulgar alike. It's remarkable to note the similarities in tone between Perloff's Boston Review polemic, occasioned partially by the publication of Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry, and Vendler's review of the same anthology in the New York Review of Books: in both cases, in spite of rather cursory attempts to be polite, a fastidious disdain entirely out of proportion to the demerits of the book soon makes itself apparent. Even if, for various reasons, some in Dove's control, some not, the anthology (meant for high school students, not undergraduates) isn't what might be called ideal, it hardly needed to be questioned like a maid about a missing piece of jewelry.


It's not just Harold Bloom; in both Perloff and Vendler's reviews there's a careless assumption of totally self-evident standards of poetic excellence and the corresponding outrage that such standards have been sullied by the special pleading of “identity politics.” It “may” be true that, in post-Sixties literary culture, the various women's and minority rights movements have yet to produce poets likely to endure, and that those movements, motivated by extra-textual reasons, clamor for “their” poets' inclusion into the canon not by defining new aesthetic grounds so much as by interrogating the social neutrality of the canon. And yet even if these poets, based on whatever criteria one likes, haven't yet attained the level of a great white whale like Wallace Stevens, the reasons for that disparity would nonetheless deserve to be explored in full, both at the level of the text and of politics and history—an exploration for which, it seems, neither Perloff, nor Vendler, nor Bloom, nor any other critic looks willing and able to plan, let alone commence.


It is unjust that women and minority poets should shoulder the majority of blame4 for a decline, real or perceived, in the quality of poetry—in case you haven't noticed, the straight white males who still predominantly represent “Official Verse Culture,” whether “avant-garde” or “mainstream,” have hardly been deserving of ecstatic approbation either. In no case can the standards and authority of a canon be assumed as neutral any longer, not even by critics as dedicated and incisive as the members of the troika. Not when Vendler so dubiously aims to canonize Jorie Graham and Perloff so speciously proclaims that Kenneth Goldsmith is the poet to watch, and especially not when each one (to say nothing of Bloom) thinks so very little of the pet poet of the other. Animated by the inequality and violence of its formative exclusions, a canon necessarily implies a hierarchy and a politics, and given the regressive and oppressive ends to which all former canons have been put to use, it only seems fair that the burden of proof should fall on any contemporary critic who would set forth a canon to clearly articulate the judgment of society—and range of acceptable activity in response to that judgment—that the aesthetic preferences that shape her canon necessarily imply. Critical sensibility, no matter how abstract, inevitably corresponds to5 a political orientation and a record of personal history. It's no accident that the world that Bloom's literary aesthetic evokes resembles a space as garrulous, rebellious, claustrophobic, and chaotic as the South Bronx of the Depression era, nor that Vendler's mode of strong yet stringently measured appreciation strongly corresponds to the restrained atmosphere of a New England Catholic middle class determined to maintain a more dignified mode of expression than that of the underclass which it rose out of, and defined itself against.


Whereas Perloff's cosmopolitanism, aerial perspectives (even with poets she likes she doesn't inhabit their mentality so much as she swoops down to raise their concepts to her level), and, often, snippy tone can make readers feel like part of a family of cultured exiles too proud of its former distinction to readily blend in with the vulgar new world into which it has, unconscionably, been thrown. Her being terrifically well-versed in European history, politics, and literature has always stood in sharp contrast to her distaste for, it seems, everything in the United States aside from a handful of artists; it's this contrast which enables her at times to sound as if, after over seven decades in America, her true home, immeasurably more elegant and pure, were elsewhere, in some space of luxe, calme, et volupté properly sanitized by avant-garde technicism. America's bigotries, the fundamental social awkwardness of its literature, its absence of an arts heritage prior to capitalism, the peculiar early 20th century origins of its arts institutions in capitalist initiatives and funding6, its capitalism, the weird, marginal centrality of its universities which renders them such magnets for pretentiousness and resentment—none of these factors, which so often dominate and limit a native artist's range of discourse, seems to have left any great impression on her sensibility. Perloff's blind spots as a critic came close to amounting to the entire vulgar nation—how else could she have overlooked what even the simplest critics of American conceptualism seemed to recognize without difficulty, its complete subordination to free-market ideology? The flaws in post-Sixties American poetry are failures of tone, not form, and these failures spring from image culture, race/class/gender insecurity, an incestuous proximity to academic discourse, and plain old sonic ineptitude, not because poets dumb or poor enough to still believe in feelings haven't paid to upgrade to a conceptual-ism which suffers from every last one of the flaws mentioned above. It's true that poets, being at least as helpless as the words that they inhabit and enmeshed in a professional environment that leaves little room for sharp, let alone honest, critique, can't often trace what limits and deforms their language to its source. But the critics, especially major critics as intelligent as they are tenured, should know better—know better even at the cost of purity. It's for that, if nothing else, that they exist.


So one can't help but feel that the huge and varied achievements of the big three shouldn't obstruct the fact that each of them, though of a stature unrivaled by the critics of the two generations succeeding them, have had gaps in their vision large enough for entire schools of poetry to live and die in, nor that their indifference to recent history came to manifest itself, early or late, as an profound ignorance of contemporary poetry which left them, whether blatantly or subtly, preposterous. When excellent poets emerge in spite of all the obstacles—and several already have—it's my hope that they'll have critics, whether in this magazine or elsewhere, who, instead of reducing them to functions, no matter how elaborate, of only a personalized class aesthetic, can resonate with their poetry from any distance, regenerating them, through a clear and complex series of integrations and differentiations, within a context which itself can aid in clarifying and developing their concerns—extending them further into the world, perhaps a future one, for which they were intended.

1(but also, albeit in smaller proportions, “things” like compassion [not just pity], generosity [not just condescension], conscience [not just self-awareness], intelligence [not just cleverness], divinity [not just piety], consideration, judgment, and a rather cryptic kind of justice)

2Bloom, raised also in the Bronx (the South Bronx, not Riverdale) by Jewish immigrants, had no such luxury of remembrance, his parents having fled the somewhat less refined ghettos of the western Russian Empire.

3It is, of course, true that Language and Language-affiliated poets still constitute a minority in MFA programs and poetry publications, but, seeing as they cluster more towards the “peaks” of the academy, they are by no means an oppressed minority. Penn and Brown may not be Yale or Harvard, but they're “up” there—certainly further “up” than, say, the University of Nebraska Omaha or Oklahoma State.

4And it's somewhat dismaying, if not quite unexpected, that Vendler and Perloff, two great (two greatest) female US poetry critics who once had had to win their authority in and against the entirely WASP male-dominated academy of the Fifties and Sixties, should now be the ones leveraging that authority to, entirely voluntarily, strive to keep in line the undisciplined squads of minority and feminist feelings.

5Without reducing to, one has to add.

6In a world with a tradition in the arts predating capitalism, “the politics of form” is all but inevitable. Too much, and not just money, has been invested, for too long, in the prominence of certain forms of art for their violation not to become a site of public contention. But in a world like this that knows, and has known, nothing but liquidity, the politics of form can only be impermanent and situational, the brief, calculated stillness of a wave-collision at best, and at worst a facile and essentially conservative mirage distracting from the politics of politics, the form of form.