Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cole Swensen & David St. John, eds., _American Hybrid_

LAST SUMMER, AS I was reading Against the Day and wondering how many people still actually read 1000-page literary novels, I also started in on this (finishing yesterday), which made me wonder how many people still actually read 500-page poetry anthologies. Surely I am not the only one, but there can't be many of us. I don't imagine poets read them, save for skimming the introductions and tables of contents to see whose oxen have been gored. They must be mainly purchased by libraries, with a few bought by non-poets like myself, but how many of those copies purchased, in either category, actually get read?

Most anthologies have a purpose -- the idea of American Hybrid is that there are two broad tendencies in contemporary American poetry, the relatively traditional, comprised of poets whose work maintains a discernible continuity with the poetry of the past, and the relatively innovative, comprised of poets whose work breaks away from the techniques and assumptions of the poetry of the past.

(This is a much-argued point; is there really such a division, or not? I'm willing to grant there is -- even though there is many a murky precinct between the two tendencies, and attempts to define one approach as against the approach deconstruct themselves in seconds.)

American Hybrid is devoted to work that is innovative/experimental in some respects, traditional/conventional in others. The implied argument is that a lot of vital, worthwhile poetry is emerging from the murky precinct between the two broad tendencies.

Part of me -- the Steve Evans-influenced part, I might call it -- wants to say, "make up your mind! Be one or the other! Quit trying to have it both ways!" If you try to steer between Scylla and Charybdis here, aren't you likely to end up with posing, untheorized gestures towards the avant-garde, or pandering gestures towards the traditional without the honest commitment to craft that would make them work? Aren't you avoiding the challenge of pursuing the logic of your poetic, whichever it may be?

But as we read along, it turns out the work here tends to be good. I didn't like everything -- but I found everything was worth the reading. Just about all of it is by very-well-known to moderately-well-known poets with long publishing histories, and the quality of the work tends to be high. I could not figure out what exactly is experimental in James Galvin or traditional in Alice Notley, but 5-6 pages of either tend to be pages well worth reading, so why complain?

Still... anthologies tend to be more memorable if they are synecdoches of a tendency or movement. The feeling that the poets gathered share a poetic -- even if they would never agree to any explicit statement of what that poetic is -- can make an anthology feel greater than the sum of its poems. American Hybrid is a synecdoche, let's say, of a tendency to blend tendencies. But to appreciate how a traditional poet is embracing innovation, or how an innovative poet is embracing tradition, you have to read a lot of that poet's work. A 5-6 page selection of his or her work does not suffice, even if the poems are excellent. And the poems don't speak to each other, quite. If the goal of an anthology like this is to announce, "something's going on," then American Hybrid leaves us with no idea of what that something is, other than that a lot of strong, interesting poems are getting written these days.

Maybe that's enough. This is a Cole Swensen project, after all. It's hard to imagine her being off base about anything.

I hope neither she nor St. John had anything to do with the author bios, however, which are written in the most dreadful blurb-ese. "Their intense musicality links them to the Romantics and their seventeenth century precursors, while his use of collage, rupture, and fragmentation position his work firmly within postmodernism and its critique of the consolidated subject, which dovetails with his interest in the Middle English notion of the lyric as public song." Oh, does it now? That's a fine thing, indeed, the dovetailing. And thank goodness the musicality is so intense -- were it less so, it might remind us only of the Romantics, without quite evoking their seventeenth century precursors (and who would that be for fuck's sake, Traherne? Milton?). There's a gem like this in almost every bio. If the anthology goes to a new edition, I say out with 'em.

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