Postmodern American Poetry

I've been ploughing through the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, more out of a sense of obligation than anything. I am surprised, however, by the amount of pleasure I received. Sure, there were many things that I would not care to read again, but the poets that I would sue to know better were not a few.

I still think Charles Olson is over-rated. John Cage I read with anthropological interest rather than aesthetic delight. Robert Duncan's mysticism is too hand-wavy for me; I am more for Denise Levertov's "ecstatic Protestantism," as editor Paul Hoover puts it. "Illustrious Ancestors" and "Where Is the Angel?" bear re-reading. I am also drawn to Barbara Guest's lyricism. Her "Red Lilies" begins so practically: "Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;/they have taken the accident out of the stove," and ends with magical flight: "The paper folded like a napkin/other wings flew into the stone." Robert Creeley I find thin, despite of his musicality.

The New York School has weathered very well. They are fun to read. James Schuyler's "The Crystal Lithium" is a beautiful and convincing nature poem. "Letter to a Friend: Who Is Nancy Daum?" is terrific, as is "Korean Mums." Kenneth Koch is sharp and funny. Jack Spicer I find pretentious, but I did enjoy his re-writes of the tales of Arthur's knights, Gawain and Percival. Frank O'Hara is a joy. John Ashbery I don't get most of the time. He gives me the feeling that I have been had.

Larry Eigner's poetry is very spare, Japanese. He wrote what he observed from his wheelchair. Ed Dorn's "On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck" is very moving. Gregory Corso is a wild thing; witness "Last Night I Borrowed a Car." I have always liked Gary Snyder's "Riprap," and like here his homespun wisdom in "Hay for the Horses," "The Bath" and "Axe Handles." Amiri Baraka, who died this year, is all ideas.

I enjoyed Susan Howe's This That but the poems in this anthology, not as much. The extracts from Lyn Hejinian's My Life drift pleasantly but do not seize nor excite. Nothing to hold the attention from Joan Retallack to Wanda Coleman. Ron Silliman cannot forget that he is a critic even in his poetry. I got more out of re-reading Mei-mei Berssenbrugge than the first time.

The Language poets bore me to tears.

Bin Ramke's long poem "The Ruined World" is compelling. I'd like to read more of his work. I don't like Eileen Myle's way of breaking lines into one or two words. I enjoyed John Yau's cinematic poems, and was tickled to read his poem about Singlish called "ing Grish." Myung Mi Kim's poetry does nothing for me, does nothing to me, whereas Mark McMorris' does. I like the tone of intimacy in his Letters to Michael. Yes, he does talk about grammar and the torque of syntax, but his poems are one person speaking (or writing) or another: "The wound cannot close; language is a formal exit/is what exits from the wound it documents."

Of Kenneth Goldsmith and conceptual poetry, let me quote one avant-gardist against another. Drew Gardner, one of the "founders" of Flarf: "Conceptualism repeats gestures that were vetted and digested forty years ago in the art world and displays them in the poetry world virtually unchanged: it is a remake. Poetry is too out of it to notice. And thus Conceptualism hits an intellectual pitch. The intellectual pitch, it could be noted, of the art history professor" (in "Why Flarf Is Better Than Conceptualism").

I like what Elizabeth Willis wrote in her essay "The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric": "The language of progress tyrannizes poetry. . . . What's new is obsolete within seconds." Her poem "The Witch" is sexy, challenging and self-aware, permanent qualities of lyrical poetry. I hope she outlasts the noisy K. Silem Mohammad. Linh Dinh is another poet who turns his imagination to critical use. "Continuous Bullets Over Flattened Earth" is terrific, as are "Vocab Lab" and "Body Eats." They may sound didactic outwardly, but their inner voice is discovery.

And I certainly want to read more Eleni Sikelianos.

Christian Bök is one ingenious dude. Drew Gardner's Flarf poetry is good for a laugh, which is more than you can say for most of the poets in this anthology. "Chicks Dig War" is clever pastiche.

The Black Mountain poets have their Black Mountain college. The Language poets have their University of California, Berkeley and their SUNY-Buffalo. There is a coterie formed of the alumni of Brown University too. Now, every avant-garde must develop from a coterie, if only for mutual support and encouragement. But I prefer the coteries that are not based around institutions like universities and do not transmit their doctrines in a classroom, but are rather informal networks of friendships. Whether they are the New York School or the Flarf group, a ridiculous joie de vivre survives in their verse.


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