.#2: The School of Schoolishness
Ron Silliman’s Blog is an enormously useful tool, enabling even the least-known of us to gain an impression of what’s going on with poetry and small press activity around the country. The amount of time required just to check out and post hundreds of relevant links for the benefit of the larger community is prodigious, and as a whole Silliman’s Blog demonstrates a terrifically good reason why a free-form, range-fed Internet does and should continue to exist.
In the face of such awesomeness, it may seem counterproductive to venture forth with any criticism, but I can’t help but remark the quirkiness that abounds whenever “schools” of contemporary poetry are mentioned. In a recent post in July, Ron identifies them as these: Beat, Deep Image, Projectivist, Modernist, Surrealist, Actualist, New York School, Black, Gay, Feminist, Visual, Brutalist, Flarf, Hybrid or New Formalist.
Three of these I should think are now largely historical (Beats, New York School, Modernists —if Modernism is meant); three of them appear to concessionary to 70’s-80’s identity politics; surrealism seems too far-ranging and trans-historical to be designated any more as a separate school; and neither I nor Wikipedia seem to know what the Brutalists are up to. I’m guessing that “Hybrid or New Formalists” must be whatever it is that langpo turned into, but somebody help me here.
My problem with these “schools” is that they simply don’t do what schools are supposed to do, namely bind together a group of artists who engage interactively (i.e., eyeball-to-eyeball) to advance a topical agenda in their writing, who adopt certain methods or styles of writing poetry, or, in realization of the form-content dialectic, attempt both at once.
But sorting contemporary poetics into schools represents instead a larger, political function, because facing them we have the vast swamp of the “School of Quietude,” a term popularized by Ron and described very nicely here by Scarriet.
Although the term seems somewhat baroque—at the hands of Edgar Allen Poe perhaps even gothic—the idea is basically that we, practitioners of the above-mentioned schools, are confronted with an overwhelming majority of poets who devote themselves to more conservative positions.
At this point Ron’s visionary grand-theory-of-everything begins to make a certain amount of sense. Personally I would prefer to call it the “American Standard” school, named not exclusively after the toilet manufacturer, but referring also to its position as the standard mode of poem production found acceptable by the American middle-classes, and of course employing American Standard English as well, which last I knew is the official designation of the language most of us write in.
The American Standard School accounts for (say) 90% of contemporary poetry, is faithfully transmitted in the organs of the middle-class media, in academic journals, in collegiate writing programs, on YouTube and PBS. Except for an occasional cynical reference, it excludes transgenderism, radical politics, anti-Establishment tyrades, moral bankruptcy, drugs, criminal activity, strikes, masturbation, religious visions and many other more exotic human behaviors, and it characteristically excludes language and imagery which is difficult to understand.
Without really advocating or insisting upon middle-class lifestyles, it is nevertheless fond of family life, heterosexual courtship rituals, the daily back and forth of middle-class life, the celebration of the quotidian, poems that are easily intelligible, wistful, nostalgic, sometimes lighthearted, and it is safely sanitized from any alien or threatening influences.
The American Standard School is the only one which is certified and approved by capitalism and is accordingly the single recipient of its favors, which regretfully may include nothing more remunerative than a cash gift here and there, a few hotly contested college teaching positions, the odd poet laureateship or presidential inauguration invitation, or in very rare instances a contract with a mainstream publisher. These favors are the carrots dangling before the eyes of many poets, like dollar bills in front of M.B.A candidates.
The output of the A.S.S. is of course staggering, and there is surely no single person alive with an overview. A good way to run along with it a certain distance is found at Poetry Daily or Verse Daily, where afterwards you can sign up for a class with the advertised writing programs so you too can emerge as a successful poet.
For me, just at the moment, A.S.S. is epitomized by a poem which has been repeated to the point of mental stultification on KQED-TV, during that interstitial period at ten minutes before the hour, when they apparently can’t find anything else to run.
It’s a poem called The Lanyard, by our former U.S. poet-laureate. If you don’t know it, you can read it at the Billy Collins mega-website right here—and don’t forget to go shopping later for the products linked to in the right-hand column.
It’s a clever poem, expressing sentimentality by pretending not to, and I have no doubt that its author, whom I've heard read twice on Garrison Keillor, is in many respects a remarkably clever person. But thanks, I prefer to read a poem by Rae Armantrout or Bob Perelman or Ron Padgett for my minimum daily verse requirement—even if I don’t understand what schools they presently adhere to.