March 6, 2009KR BlogUncategorized

Thoughts of a Puppy in the Tillages of Modishness and Doubt

The poet Alice Notley lives in Paris, and I live in St. Louis with a magic English puppy and a basil plant, but last week she reached across the Atlantic to modestly twist my head off. I’d spent the afternoon reading contemporary poetry criticism, with a taste in my mouth that was high-learned and indeterminately nasty, when I read her essays (collected in Coming After) called “Voice” and “Thinking and Poetry.” She writes:

One tends to tell a modish truth…. There are truths one has sometimes told oneself but has never bothered with in a poem because no one else was writing that kind of poem and therefore they didn’t sound like the kinds of things to be said in a poem.

Ka-boom! So. The criticism I’d spent that afternoon reading was all about hybridization. Lest you hadn’t heard, there’s a new rainbow of acceptability in poetry, a “third way” between epiphanic, personal, image-derived poetry and ruptured, skeptical, language-aware, open-form poetry– a poetry between, like, Louise Gl??ck and Charles Bernstein. The late poet-critic Reginald Shepherd called this turf “post-avant-garde”; the poet Cole Swensen calls it, simply, hybrid poetry.

It should be the poet’s business to test, continuously, current assumptions, rather than assume them.

“Hybridization” and “post-avant-garde” are consciously broad, friendly, and liberal-minded terms. They also seem to exemplify how contemporary poets live and die in an landscape of self-defined programs. As AWP demonstrates yearly, we thrive by our big talk; we’ll be more successful if we can articulate our project, even if, in formulations about exposing process, mating traditions, indulging in hypertextuality, or showing our associative mind in action, we sound like all our MFA or journal and anthology colleagues.

The “I” I most prefer sits serenely and somewhat numinously behind my personality; behind a sort of window, watching the chaotic and distressing events of the world.

How does Alice Notley come into this? I asked my magic puppy what she thought, and this was her reply:

Thanks for the thought, little friend! Further reading: Here’s a review by Michael Theune of Reginald Shepherd’s anthology Lyric Postmodernisms, an early attempt to categorize “third way” poetics. Here’s a very violent poem by James Tate and a fable by Russell Edson. Here are some poems by K. Silem Mohammad, and one by John Olson, who the puppy mentioned. Here’s the new issue of the wonderful online quarterly Action Yes.