Tuesday, July 22, 2003

I know Henry says that his proposals have nothing to do with a return to "some standard stereotypical model of conservative poetics." I'd like to believe him. But one reason I guess I've gotten so exercised over some of his comments is that it's hard for me to distinguish, at times, what makes his "new" poetics that different from some of the most restrictive examples of the "old."

I was in a bookstore yesterday and saw that there's a new edition of the Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy. I remember the first edition of the book being something like a bible for me in high school--my copy is dog-eared and water-damaged--and was regarded as absolutely authoritative when I was in college. Looking back at it I'm amazed how narrow it was--McClatchy was at least gracious enough to give Olson's "Kingfishers" a nod, but it was clearly the odd one out.

I picked up the new copy hoping that, over a decade later, McClatchy might have broadened his scope a little. Too much to hope. In fact, reading the new introduction makes you realize why people were getting all upset in the '80s about "official verse culture," and makes you wonder how much has changed, at least in some quarters.

Beyond the bounds of this book, the hollow wars continue. The less talented extremists of any persuasion will always whine, and too many pages are still taken up by loopy Language poets, dry-as-dust New Formalists, or New York School clones. Still, an encouraging and practical cross-fertilization has occurred over the past decade…Preconceived and thumpingly defended ideologies of the right or left have less glamour and weight nowadays…Poets like Michael Palmer and Jorie Graham, thought by some to be the advance-guard, will in time seem to have written narratives of the mind similar to Ellen Bryant Voight’s…The best younger poets haven’t purused the stridencies of angry politics or raw confessionalism that animated their elders…Is poetry today too permissive? Should we approve of a broader perspective, a wider range?…

While McClatchy may seem to herald a new era of being beyond ideology, the tone is in fact identical to the one he struck in 1990--"thank goodness we are beyond all that polemic and struggle and can settle down." I mean, even confessionalism--still!--is seen as too "raw."

There's almost too much to go on here about, but my point at the moment is what happens when you want to occupy a position that dismisses "extremists" and "ideologies" of all stripes, and are deeply suspicious of that which is pronounced part of the "advance-guard" (Jorie Graham??). Don't worry, McClatchy tells us; in time, however exciting Palmer and Graham and other writers may seem to us now, they will ultimately be seen as exactly the same, just like Ellen Bryant Voight. Indeed, McClatchy suggests that we might actually want to suppress further aesthetic variety--since of course, he knows exactly where we ought to be going. And it looks an awful lot like nowhere.

I hope that Henry's call for a return to "perennial human concerns, passions, longings, breakthroughs" doesn't end up being anything like this.

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