The Speed of Poetry
When I visit the Poetry Publication Showcase, an annual display of the year's new poetry books at Poets House in Manhattan, I feel as if I've been granted a precious audience with Poetry itself. Like the large golden bee in a James Wright poem, "drowning in his own delight" as he burrows into a juicy pear, I gorge, revel, wallow. In this year's version, on view in April in New York and displayed again this month at the American Library Association's annual conference in Chicago, the good, the bad and the trendy of the new millennium strutted their stuff side by side with the fabulous has-beens in the Library of America's two-volume anthology The Twentieth Century. Eccentrically produced micropress chapbooks danced cheek to cheek with the glossy offerings of trade biggies Knopf and Norton. The Language poet and the New Formalist bedded down together, alongside the spoken word artist in slightly muffled print guise (Listen Up! Spoken Word Poetry, edited by Zoë Anglesey [Ballantine]). I rediscovered Aleida Rodríguez, whose work I savored years ago in lesbian feminist lit mags, finally out with her first book, Garden of Exile (Sarabande). When I wearied of contemporary riches, I refreshed with a quick dip into The Selected Poems of Po Chü-i (New Directions) or The Selected Poems of Max Jacob (Oberlin).
I first encountered the Poetry Publication Showcase in 1992, the year of its inception, when I covered it for a writers' magazine. Then as now, the display was produced in tandem with a series of panels, readings and other events that offer one of the best available chances to assess the current status and immediate prospects of poetry in the United States. In 1992 the mood was feisty but beleaguered: "We few, we happy few, we band of poets" went the boast. Now there's a sense that poetry's making it, moving rapidly to the center(s) of our cultural life. Poets House executive director Lee Briccetti, who dreamed up the Showcase as a way to bring attention to a severely marginalized literary form, hopes the poetry world is poised to take advantage of what she terms "a moment of cultural readiness."
This moment was created by a range of phenomena by now so familiar in poetry circles that the Academy of American Poets' website matter-of-factly refers to "the 'poetry renaissance' of the 1990's." Among oft-cited indicators of the trend are the proliferation of Internet poetry sites and displays of poetry on public transportation; the rapid success of National Poetry Month, begun in April 1996; television documentaries on poets and poetry by Bill Moyers and Bob Holman; and US poet laureate Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poems Project. With the runaway popularity of slams and other spoken word events, poetry gets anointed as a star of popular culture ("Rap Is Poetry" proclaimed the lead story in the March-April Black Issues Book Review) even as it is being revived as a token of elite cultural capital (acting schools chancellor Harold Levy mailed poems by Wallace Stevens to members of the New York City school board this spring, in what the New York Times described as an effort to "raise the level of debate on education policy").
It's a moment of peril as well as one of opportunity. I keep thinking of a phrase from Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction": reception in a state of distraction. Benjamin associated this phrase with the loss of the possibility for a contemplative response to works of art. He connected that loss to the evaporation of "aura," the trace of art's religious origins that he claimed is destroyed by the reproduction of unique and stationary objects as ubiquitous, portable photographs. Distracted reception strikes me as an unavoidable consequence of the conditions under which today's poetry is produced and consumed--the general conditions of our wired lives as well as specific conditions of publication, distribution and so forth. It doesn't bode well for my commitment to poetry as a contemplative genre that I've actually been thinking of the Showcase as a chance to get up to speed with current poetry.
Poetry's new momentum clearly owes something to these yearly displays, which have enabled poetry advocates to take stock of, and improve on, mechanisms for what Briccetti calls "allowing the public to bump up against poetry." And it's a two-way street; Poets House has thrived on the increasingly poetry-friendly atmosphere. Founded in 1985 by Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Kray, the organization has occupied its present site, a comfortable SoHo loft space it is rapidly outgrowing, since the early nineties. Its browsing library, which is free and open to the public, has been built entirely by donation and now numbers some 35,000 volumes--more comprehensive, Briccetti contends, than the Library of Congress's poetry collection. Readings, talks on poetry and events such as Carol Conroy's "Poems by Heart" workshops (where participants recite memorized favorites) are held throughout the year.
This year's Showcase featured more than 1,200 books, including nearly a thousand full-length volumes of poetry and several hundred chapbooks. Scattered examples of other publication formats such as videocassettes, CDs and CD-ROMs also found their way to the shelves, along with prose books about poets and poetry. According to Poets House managing director Jane Preston, small and university presses produced about 90 percent of the books, a statistic that has remained relatively constant over a number of years. Trade publishers, she said, "are great at using marketing tools when it's a safe investment. The independents take risks." Briccetti added that distribution, always a stumbling block for small presses, has improved perceptibly since 1993 with the maturing of several independent-press distributors. (Attrition among independent booksellers, traditionally more receptive to poetry than the rapidly multiplying chain outlets, remains a worrisome trend.)
In August Poets House will publish a Directory of American Poetry Books, an annotated listing of titles from previous Showcases; an online version including this year's titles is already available at www.poetshouse.org. At the American Library Association conference, staff held a two-day training for librarians from across the country, a first-time effort to replicate at a national level the success of a program called Poetry in the Branches, which involves nine community libraries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Participants receive advice on how to boost the circulation of poetry titles, poets give readings and workshops in local libraries, and administrators develop dedicated poetry budgets so that the Jorie Grahams needn't compete head to head with the John Grishams for scarce purchasing dollars.
In observing many Showcase-related events, including public panels on "Anthologizing the 20th Century" and "Poetics Consciousness," I was impressed by the variety of aesthetic approaches on offer, a pluralism in keeping with the goal of welcoming and supporting the full spectrum of contemporary poetries. But I also came away confirmed in my opinion that creative interactions among these different schools or movements are nowhere near the ideal envisioned in metaphors like "ecology" and "biodiversity" with which Poets House staffers sometimes describe the current poetry scene.
Speaking at the event on twentieth-century anthologies, poet and editor Ray González painted a far less optimistic picture, in fact, noting that today's expanded poetry audience seems to be at its "most fractured ever." He illustrated that fragmentation by analyzing the makeup of four recent poetry volumes: An Anthology of New (American) Poets, edited by Lisa Jarnot et al. (Talisman House); The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology, edited by Michael Collier (University Press of New England); The New Young American Poets: An Anthology, edited by Kevin Prufer (Southern Illinois); and his own Touching the Fire: 15 Poets of the Latino Renaissance (Anchor/Doubleday). The three "American" volumes actually represent quite distinct tastes and tendencies (González pointed out that Jarnot's selection, oriented toward Language poetry, is "blessed by" Rosmarie Waldrop, while Prufer's more conventional roundup sports a foreword by Richard Howard); at the same time, however, they resemble one another in that all are weighted in favor of prizewinning white poets associated with prestigious academic programs.
González characterized the anthology as a basic tool of literary politics: It campaigns for the editor's aesthetic and establishes reputations, thereby helping determine which of today's poets will be read in the future. He said he'd managed to get an "outsiders'" anthology into the public eye by taking advantage of the "brief Latino boom." In contrast, fellow panelist Eliot Weinberger, who spoke bitterly of the criticism he'd received for the lack of diversity in his own American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (Marsilio), seemed to feel that universal standards of poetic excellence can and should govern anthology projects; he lamented what he called the prevalence of "demographic" selection criteria. Although the two editors never explicitly addressed each other's positions, the obvious divergence in their views strikingly evoked the fragmentation González referred to. It's a fracturing most poets take for granted by now, its effects observable in controversies over the editorial slant of this or that edition of The Best American Poetry (assembled each year by a different guest editor) and in the juxtaposition of important poetry events whose audiences scarcely overlap. (For instance, last year's People's Poetry Gathering, held in Manhattan, took place the same weekend as a Barnard conference titled "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women"; in a recent issue of Fence, the organizers of the latter admit that "if cross-pollination occurred as a result, it was mainly in retrospect and from afar.")
Fragmentation came to mind again during the panel on "Poetics Consciousness" as publisher and editor Douglas Messerli of the independent press Sun & Moon presented a detailed genealogy of North American poetics from Pound and Stein all the way down to his own affinity group, the Language poets--a litany so white that I kept checking my notes, thinking I must have missed something. (Didn't the poets of the Black Arts movement say anything worthwhile about their aims and methods?) Messerli's discussion was witty and provocative; I enjoyed his impassioned defense of poetics, which he believes get slighted in the United States because of what he calls our poets' "Calvinist" attachment to "the word unadorned." I also appreciated his exhortation to pay attention to poetry's international context, an awareness he promotes by publishing an anthology series of poetry in translation. That is a focus shared by Weinberger, whose work as a Spanish-English translator has helped build literary bridges between Latin and North America. Yet their perspectives left me thinking that what Briccetti terms a "new awareness of multiplicity" coexists with a pattern depressingly familiar outside the literary realm: Formal equality masks and justifies the lopsidedness of privilege. We're all poets now, but some are born and bred for Guggenheims, while others get to juggle the day job with teaching poetry to "at risk" youth and scribbling lyrics on the subway.
More claims of persistent structural inequality surfaced at the workshop on the current publishing market for women. Amy Holman of the organization Poets & Writers urged her audience to beware of presses and magazines with an antifemale bias, citing highly regarded outlets like Granta and Farrar, Straus & Giroux as laggards in the publishing community when it comes to supporting women poets. Her comments, like González's, recalled the recent uproar over the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the Academy of American Poets' board of chancellors. Last year the academy, which bills itself as the largest nonprofit organization supporting US poetry and which administers an impressive range of prizes, readings and poetry education programs, finally added a clump of more "diverse" chancellors--but only after chancellors Carolyn Kizer and Maxine Kumin resigned to show their sympathy with mounting criticisms of the self-elected board's narrowness. One wonders whether the reconstituted board (including Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück, Yusef Komunyakaa, Heather McHugh, Adrienne Rich and Rosanna Warren) will indeed promote cross-fertilization among poetic traditions, or whether, instead--like those who perennially dismiss insurgent poetic voices as saboteurs of literary meritocracy--the old guard will simply retreat into gated communities of the mind.
Two recent Manhattan readings offered intriguing hints that "outsider" literary ventures may provide significant occasions for poets espousing widely varied aesthetics to come within hailing distance of one another, maybe even converse. An event held at the New School celebrated first books by fellows of Cave Canem, a workshop for African-American poets founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. The striking range of the work--from Jamaican-accented narratives included in Shara McCallum's The Water Between Us (Pittsburgh) to the "asyntactic, non-narrative" poems G.E. Patterson has written since completing Tug (Graywolf) to Terrance Hayes's verbal variations on a theme by John Coltrane and Miles Davis (from Muscular Music, Tia Chucha)--hinted that Cave Canem must be the scene of energetic debates about poetics. And a reading at the Poetry Project at St. Marks in celebration of The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poets of the Next Wave (St. Martin's) included slamster Regie Cabico, Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy, "last of the New York School" poet Eileen Myles and Letta Neely (Juba, Wildheart Press), who read a moving narrative poem written in what she said some people call "Ebonics, but I just call it my first language." Is it possible that those poets who dwell in what Audre Lorde termed "the house of difference" are likely to be especially tolerant or even welcoming of formal variety?
What I've just described as the persistence of structural inequality in the poetry world persuades me that promoting cultural democracy is one of two major challenges facing poetry advocates. The second goes back to my point about the increasingly distracted conditions under which we receive and, let's face it, compose poems.
The speedup is ubiquitous, but one of its most striking manifestations is the proliferation of poetry on the Internet. Mindful of Amy Holman's advice that she who wants to be well published had better know what's out there, I've begun visiting Poetry Daily's website (www.poems.com/home.htm), which features a constantly updated menu of poems from current literary magazines. A few clicks will get you an embarrassment of riches, from R.T. Smith's excellent survey of decades' worth of books on writing poetry to poems by George Herbert and Thomas Hardy.
I'm quite ambivalent about this easy access. It lures me to read many things I might not otherwise see, but I find that poems read (or surfed) in this way feel alarmingly contextless--or, if you will, too fully contextualized. The individual lyric becomes an evanescent stanza, a floating portal to poems in general. On the Internet, a poem gets reconfigured as information.
Cultural speedup is, at bottom, an economic issue. A mass-market mentality is creeping up on the poetry world. As Jack Agüeros pointed out in a talk at Poets House, Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf, a bestseller in England, is repeating the performance here. The more Beowulf the better, one might think--except for the pressure on other poetry books to demonstrate their salability in compliance with the unpoetic rhythms of product cycles. The "news that stays news" suddenly has a shelf life. Like Ray González using the "Latino boom," poets must think increasingly in terms of exploiting narrow windows of opportunity. A fortunate few achieve a sort of brand-name recognition that feels very different from "reputation" in the traditional sense but is no less hierarchical.
I don't quarrel with Lee Briccetti's view that it's a good thing poets are becoming increasingly attuned to practical strategies for marketing their work. We are poets in this world and must cope with its limitations. But I worry about the impact on the writing of poetry. Shifts in cultural velocity are bound to reshape our imaginative lives, our relationships to metaphor and even the tangible structures of our language. For some, the new conditions offer attractive openings. "Her spare, short-sentence style is built for speed" reads an admiring review of Anne Carson's Men in the Off Hours. But what of styles built for slowness?
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of poetry's integration into the market is its popularity as an advertising gimmick. Talk about reception in a distracted state! A recent ad for a financial-services company uses passages from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The makers of an organic green tea on sale at my food co-op have actually registered the word "haiku" as a trademark and are using poems by the ancient Japanese masters as product endorsements. Jane Preston thinks that such appropriations are inevitable given poetry's new mainstream visibility. True enough, perhaps, but it strikes me that the poetry commercial is advertising more than a specific consumer product. It's touting commodification, period. For if a poem can be used to sell automobiles or sneakers, is there any creative energy left on earth that isn't shilling for capitalism?
I'm well aware that the fundamental political and economic questions I'm raising won't be resolved primarily in literary settings. Poets, editors, publishers, readers and arts advocates must keep scrambling to survive, make creative and principled use of the double-edged swords at our disposal (better marketing and so forth) and participate in movements for radical social change. My exhilaration in the aftermath of National Poetry Month owed as much to my attendance at political demonstrations as it did to my dip into poetry's flood tide. This spring's Manhattan and Brooklyn protests against police brutality and the Washington rally against the policies of the IMF and World Bank took on versions of the tasks that also confront our literature: achieving real democracy, resisting commodification, saying no to the pressure to gear our imaginations to the warp speed of markets.
What would it feel like, I wonder, to inhabit a culture that traveled at the speed of poetry?