Sunday, August 1, 2010

What’s wrong with modern poetry?

#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.



  1. American Standard School seems to be the best terminology yet for what we normally get. Thanks.

  2. I'll chime in that with "American Standard" you have gotten almost exactly to exactly perfect.

    However, I can't agree that the subject matter of a poem *entirely* takes it out of the "American Standard" school. I also put into it a set of habituated forms and especially a degree of surface-ness (lousy word there), a level of intensity or complexity that just doesn't sustain repeated readings.

  3. Amen to that, brother. I'm uncomfortable with Silliman's term "School of Quietude" because it seems *too* pejorative (even though he swears it isn't, or at least isn't necessarily). But as I have increasingly chosen to read Silliman, Armantrout, Perelman, etc., over the likes of, say, anyone who has ever been poet laureate of the United States, I do feel, like you, that I sort of know what he's talking about. I called it "the MFAs" for a while, but that's clearly unreasonable in a world where Sharon Mesmer teaches creative writing--MFAs vary so much depending on who teaches. "American Standard School" is a pretty good term (though it's quite a snarky acronym) for the nonthreatening, exquisitely okay poetry I seem to read every time I pick up a magazine in Barnes & Noble. I'm young, much of what I've written now strikes me as appropriately filed under that name, but more & more I'm bored with the version of the personal lyric that seems to only stick its tentacles deeper & deeper into people's basic assumptions about what a poem is & can be.

  4. Although, for the record, when Silliman's excerpt from Revelator has appeared on Poetry Daily, I feel like something's going right with the world. Sure it had to appear in Poetry before that happened, but it still fills me with warm & fuzzies.

  5. I'm in total agreement with my friend Allen Edwin Butt.

    Perhaps a better term would be the Eat, Pray, Love School of American poetry. The very experiences the American Standard School refuses to legitimize—namely, non-normative behavior—it also seeks to co-opt by *exoticizing* it in the first place. Of course, this doesn’t hold true all the time, but it does do so enough of the time to be a serious problem. The poems of Collins (“Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty . . .”) or Carolyn Forche, to pick on just two, only validate the presence of the other, which we are assured in countless essays that they respect, by housing the subject in their own work without regard for its autonomy. We need hardly wait a week before Forche serves us up some new poem about some non-Western country’s invasion or terrorist attack in central Asia in the precious vocabulary of witness. That prodigious A.S.S. has become a machine of lyrical “experience”-reporters, plundering life (typically their own, though not always) without out thought to consequence or form, offering up transcendent echoes of real life, true-to-events narratives without any apparent thought to what is lost (or gained) in the transference in the first place. This often takes place in a sentimentalizing form, as it relies on a language that is already second-hand to whatever is described. But it is the “pretending not to” that gets to me most. Your term is apt because it clearly explains the directive of any majority group: a desire to standardize, and thereby enforce, any code that protects itself. And in light of this code, those of us who do not play by their rules are merely “specialists” in an already “low-stakes” (according to the New York Times) subculture.

  6. Of course you cannot be a king without dilineating some borders for your kingdom.

    Did you not know that?

    All the same, you have it right. Such kingdoms create not only dynasties but heirarchies, rivalry and war. And then, walls.


  7. Oh, as far as one of your questions goes: Hybrid is a reference to that anthology Cole Swensen edited, American Hybrid, where she tried to make the case for a poetry that offers a "third way," drawing on the techniques & ideas of the avant-garde and the A.S.S. (or SoQ or mainstream, or whatever you want to call it). And am I right in assuming that by New Formalist Ron means what's also called Neoformalist, i.e. poets that insist on writing in rhyme and meter under the assumption that the last hundred years of American poetry represents some sort of failed experiment?

  8. Bah. This is a well-written non-issue. Whatever exactly is gained by coining mediocrity with the term "American Standard School," besides a straight shot at a pithy acronym, is lost on me. And all shots at Billy Collins are cheap. One either likes him or does not, but appreciating him doesn't necessarily point to a taste for the mundane and not liking him isn't an indicator of fine discrimination.

    What is this gripe about? Not enough love? Ugh. Or was someone's subconscious moppet not allowed to rebel?: "More people should read poems about masturbation and moral bankruptcy!" Well I am, for one, with ya, but every river's got a mainstream and ranting about mediocrity is itself mediocre.

    Finally, as to your point about the middle road being "safely sanitized," I seriously question the assertion that *any* school, or that anyone in or out of the mainstream, readily embraces that which is truly "alien or threatening." Those looking for novelty -- or, more generously, something new under the sun, however they imagine they might recognize it as such -- will head directly toward what strikes them as challenging. But everyone's got something lurking at the outskirts of what they regard as acceptable. Hey, here's an idea: why don't you try writing a poem in the style of Billy Collins? Why don't you try making it good?

    Ah, my ears are flooded with imagined retorts.