Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Paul Hoover’s second edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology.


Undergraduates enrolled in a contemporary poetry course—the young man now leaving class to put in a shift at Chick-fil-A; the mother who will drive an hour in bad freeway traffic to pick up her 2-year-old at daycare—are in for quite a treat. On the syllabus is a poem from the second edition of Postmodern American Poetry (Norton; Paper $39.95), Sharon Mesmer’s “I Never Knew an Orgy Could Be So Much Work”:

In our orgy, the Mole Person took Saddam down to Moleopolis,
which is a gigantic ass vagina in the suburbs.
I got lots of noir work out of that one.
I got to orgy with a little monkey in a Mel Gibson movie.

In a solemn touch, an author’s note identifies the provenance of this poem as “Flarf.” According to the anthology’s editor, Paul Hoover, Flarf is a cyberpoetry practice that involves using search engines as phrase generators and assembling the results into poems: “With each copy and paste comes the cultural stain of the Web. This explains the tone of Flarf, a cyberpoetry noted for the outrageousness of its content.”

The distance between the Flarf mind and Gary Snyder’s “Riprap” is immeasurable:

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
   placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
  in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
   riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
   straying planets,
These poems, people…

The distance is immeasurable because there is a mind at work in “Riprap”—finding metaphor and metonymy between rocks, words, and the arrangement of them by men and cosmic forces. But both texts are forced to occupy the same poetic universe called “postmodern,” a contested notion that Hoover, in his almost thirty-page introduction, is at pains to define in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: “It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think about the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” What a claim to make in a poetry anthology that starts with 1953 and trumpets Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Any notion of history has been leveled by the internet”! What was it Keats wrote to Shelley: “Load every rift of your subject with irony”?

Norton has published many anthologies, and my favorite, The Norton Anthology of Poetry (third edition), begins with “Anonymous Lyrics of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries.” But if you wanted to get really thorough about it, The Norton Book of Classical Literature, starting with Homer, inaugurates Western poetry. The word “anthology” comes to us from the Greek, after all. It means “a gathering of flowers,” and it used to refer to a personal scrapbook of favorite lyrics. (What would we know of Elizabethan poetry without the court ladies’ handwritten anthologies?) The lucrative Norton anthology franchise, overseen by M.H. Abrams, is that other thing, a classroom staple and hegemon. Besides those two, I am also the ambivalent owner of The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms; American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry; The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry; and the first edition of the volume under review, published in 1994. At its plain best, The Norton Anthology of Poetry presents seven centuries of English poetry, a mere three pages of introduction and no bio fluff. Just a gathering of flowers.

But a fragmented market needs niche products. So is it any wonder that many of the poets dropped from the first edition of Postmodern American Poetry to make way for specialists in Flarf, “Newlipo,” “plundergraphia” and “Google-sculpting”—such as Paul Violi, William Corbett, Charles North, David Trinidad and August Kleinzahler—lack a marketable label? What seems clear is that the patchwork of incommensurable, often vulger and nihilistic styles forced under the rubric of “postmodern” is designed for adoption at the universities where these constituencies reside, “Conceptualist” and “postlanguage lyricist” alike. The traditional anthologist gathers good poems according to his sensibility; the postmodern anthologist, eager to jettison sensibility, has only fashion and popularity to guide him. Poets become mere representatives of their niche, with no relation to their neighbors in the table of contents. Pity G.C. Waldrep, “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish”: he’s sandwiched between Vanessa Place, whose Dies: A Sentence is one unrelenting 130-page sentence (only five pages of which are on offer here), and Catherine Wagner, who offers the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….” There is no transcendence in poetry anymore, according to Hoover. But I assure you, some Hells are real.

Why would you teach this textbook? Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you. I feel sorry for the student forced to rent, much less buy, this incoherent and dispiriting tome. I’m sorry he’s being handed even more processed meat; I hope the young woman with the kid finds “Riprap” on her own, or better yet Snyder’s wonderful “Axe Handles,” which ends on the hope of generational memory: Ezra Pound “was an axe,/ Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle, soon/ To be shaping again, model/ And tool, craft of culture,/ How we go on.”

Earlier this year, Ange Mlinko reviewed Adrienne Rich's Later Poems: Selected and New, 1971–2012.

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