Filters, Canons

by on Nov.23, 2010

[I cut-and-pasted this a bit but I hope this makes sense.]

One often hears to complaint: There’s too much poetry being published, how will I know what to read?

Joyelle wrote about this a while back in “The Future of Poetry,” coming to the conclusion:

“The future of poetry is the present, and it has already arrived. The present tense rejects the future. It generates, but it generates excess without the ordering structures of lineage. It subsumes and consumes pasts into its present , erasing their priority. It’s self-defeating; its rejection of survival into a future may be infanticidal.. Without a concern with past or future it necessarily negates many of the values which come with Western literary tradition, including stability, well-craftedness, elegance, restraint, timelessness, humanism. It is concerned with the media through which it moves, flimsy concerns and flimsy conceits, superficiality, errata and (likely) ephemera, flexibility, instability, unevenness, but it also partakes of a non-productive productivity typified by bombast, excess and overproduction. This art often involves failure and ‘bad fits’—the ‘bad fit’ of one genre into another, the bad fit of one media into another. Its modality is violence, frequently a self-violence against the text itself, so that text is something that explodes, exhausts, breaks down, flounces around, eats and/or shits itself, is difficult to study or call a text at all.”

A lot of folks have reacted very defensively against this moment of “overproduction,” longing for that previous time when there were fewer books and influential professors picked their favorite students (students who reinforced their aesthetic mostly, who didn’t threaten the status quo) and those were most of the books that made their way around. People who long for this era tend to be defensive of any kind of criticism as well; they want poetry to be “just the thing” without any of the discussions surrounding the poetry. They want to depend on authority, if only it would re-assert itself so that we would know what to read.

Other people harken back to a mythical era of raw-vs-cooked, a binary way of filtering this massive influx of publications. Unfortunately this was a simplification to begin with (used by Lowell to position himself as the “hybrid” choice).

Part of my frustration with Cole Swensen’s The American Hybrid was that it wanted to move away from such a filter but ended up just reiterating it – as if the only way to move away from the two-sides filter was to propose a unified view of poetry. It avoids taking a real poetic stance, and it avoids an institutional critique. Of course the anthology does have a very definite aesthetic (a postmodern quietism, largely Christian neo-lyrical poetic that excludes extreme emotion, viscerality, comedy, hysteria etc). Here’s my review from Raintaxi of that anthology.

Another frustration: Doesn’t it seem that this binary dynamic has increased significantly over the past 10-15 years? When I was in college I read all this stuff – Eshleman’s Sulfur, the Mpls journal Distrubed Guiliotine, John Colburn’s Spout, things were all over the place – and now everything has to have the hell binaried out of it. “Experimental poetry” is not just a label but it’s a way of ghettoizing a lot of different writing, and in the process homogenizing it.

In a related post on Big Other web site, Adam Jameson turns what could be a pretty formulaic discussion Wallace Stevens (the most canonical poet in the US) into a discussion of canonicity in terms of noise and information.

(Adam) Jameson is very aware of the Internet and the age of the digital publishing and tao lin etc: nobody can read all this stuff! How do we make sense of it? How do we find a good filter for figuring out what to read, where to look for it etc.

Presses are of course a kind of filter. Action Books don’t publish the same books as Roof or Flood.

Franz Wright and many others bemoan the excess – there is too much poetry being published! ie just being published isn’t enough of a filter anymore. People have to start coming up with interesting readings of texts they like. Or nobody will read them. I can understand why Wright is nervous – he comes out of an MFA tradition that has been dismissive of critical discussions, that often rejects critical discussions as beside the point or even dangerous. This comes from the naive idea that we come naked to the text, that we can just appreciate the text for what it is, without critical frameworks. A suitably status-quo enforcing stance for a system that was for many years very much invested in status quo maintenance. (And in many cases still is.)

One of my perpetual frustration is people who are interesting poets but who have a hangover of the MFA tradition – they want to be poets, not critics, don’t want to soil their hands. They want to be Artists in the grand Quietist Tradition. This perpetuates the status quo. Talk about dirty hands. Very frustrating.

Traditionally, the “canon” has served as one important filter – it has told us what to read, to teach, it has given us a context for understanding some pretty weird texts (through “tradition”, modernism etc). The canon has of course been bruised over the past couple of decades. But not so bruised that it isn’t still being dragged out as the uber-filter.

John Gallaher created a post over at his blog, asking “Who would you put in the canon”:

“It’s a question poetry readers like to ask each other. If you were the king of Parnassus, who would you invite to the anthology table? Or, to be a little less bombastic about it, if you were putting together the next big contemporary anthology, what poets would you include? Who are the best poets writing today?”

I often read Johns blog (he’s certainly not one afraod to get his hands dirty) and appreciate the fact that he is really using this question to jump start a simple discussion about what poets the readers of his blog likes. And so it’s not entirely fair to attack the premise. But I have fundamental problems with the very concept of this question. And if John is being kind of jokey here, I think a lot of people still think of poetry in these terms – like poetry is some kind of place they’re trying to seek admission to, that it’s something that needs to be settled, that we can agree on a set of poets and a set of reading strategies.

Canons are interesting only if they are seen as a space for discussions (which is how I think John was partially meaning it), but totally soul-killing if it amounts to (as John also writes) something agreed upon: we have, according to John, agreed on “the case” for Rae Armantrout etc. Why this need to find agreement?

The key is: we have all this poetry being published, but unless people actually discuss what they like and think about why they like things, most people will just fall back on authority and read the U of Whatever books or whatever books win the Poetry Foundation/Establishment/Organization’s big awards. The worst possible filter.

(But I still love Patti Smith!)

But I have two holes in my back and I don’t know what they are from. I might have been an assassin but I can’t remember a thing. Maybe I’m being chased by the CIA. Maybe I was in a Christmas pageants (the shards, the glitter, the melted doll heart). Oh no, I think I was an immigrant. Or running around on late-night TV in somebody else’s clothes.

Also: On Wednesday there’s the gurlesque panel at Uppsala University. So if you’re around there, go listen to Aylin throw down.

26 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I wanted to add: the hybrid thing avoided any kind of institutional critique.

  2. Johannes

    Addition number two: I don’t know where I picked up the word “filter” but it does suggest something quite different from “criticism”; I like the idea of moving through the texts, not so much staying “stop!” lets evaluate. Perhaps this is why I just can’t stand academic conferences about modern/contemporary poetry: they have this way of killing the poetry, making it seem like the “object of study”, rather than something you interact with in a less stable way.


  3. Johannes

    Here’s Lorraine Graham’s notes on new media and literature:

  4. Ryan Sanford Smith

    I see and agree per usual with mostly everything here, I just continually wonder because there seems a disconnect between these two ideas:

    1) There’s a lot of stuff being published–basically everything is, no matter what you write there is a press for you. (agreed)

    2) There’s still too much binary-thinking, mass lack of acceptance of non ‘normal poetry’, etc. (agreed but somewhat less so)

    I say somewhat less so because if 2 was true wouldn’t we see less of 1? Not that they’re mutually exclusive, I’m just interested in more discussion of that ratio, how much you think #2 is affecting #1. I’m not necessarily in any disagreement here, it just feels like more needs to be talked about here; that excess of presses / books that some seem anxious about (I’m not one of them, I say publish literally everything and let people find what takes their head off) shows the ‘hold’ of the #2 stuff is dwindling, so aren’t things moving toward a better landscape?

    The only real disagreement and issue I take here is this:

    “This comes from the naive idea that we come naked to the text, that we can just appreciate the text for what it is, without critical frameworks.”

    I think this is problematic and potentially even insulting. You and I have gone back and forth many times about statements like “It’s boring.” “It’s gibberish.” Or the equally problematic “I just like it.”

    Yes, elaboration is helpful, these are very simplistic responses, but no matter how simple they are (or ignorant they are -perceived- to be) they are critical frameworks, even if you’re not satisfied by the work their doing (admittedly very little by way of their simplicity).

    My whole point being that I don’t see how ‘appreciated the text for what it is’ isn’t a valid approach / framework / whatever to a text. Obviously there’s a critique going on here of the New Criticism approach, etc., and everyone will always be disagreeing over these different frameworks, I just wonder at calls for fewer / zero filters / gatekeepers while also criticizing some or all of them because that idea itself is paradoxically a filter. Even calling for complete excess in publishing everything is a choice, is a kind of filter, so there isn’t really an advocating of no filters just filters that you find most satisfying, which is still a kind of subjective gate construction.

    The stance should acknowledge that no gatekeepers means ‘the market’ will still buy whatever it enjoys, that publishing everything means publishing the Quietest geniuses along with the excessive whoevers but I feel like you’d rather see less of the former, which means filtering.

    I feel like I’m articulating this poorly but to use a metaphor it’s like the folks that clamor constantly over free speech / the constitution but want to make flag burning illegal. Maybe that’s not what’s actually being presented here but my gut tells me it might be, and that is just my concern, I’d love to be told I’m wrong.

  5. Johannes

    Not sure if I get what youre saying, but certainly the “no framework” is a kind of framework. It is however one that pretends that it doesn’t exist.

    I am *absolutely* in favor of filters. Filters is absolutely not the same as gate-keeping.

    Without any filters, I wouldn’t know what to read. THere would be too much.

    For example, I read Ronaldo Wilson because I like Future Poems’s other books. So I checked out this one and I liked it and I got his other book etc.

    Montevidayo is a kind of filter for example. Hopefully not just evaluative (5 stars for Ronaldo Wilson etc).

    But of course I don’t agree that all filters are good, as I noted I”m opposed to quite a few of them.

    But I am certainly not opposed to the publishing of anybody. I think it’s a good thing that the “gatekeeping” situation has been changed (a little).


  6. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Ahh yes, much clearer, thank you. Also clearer because of my won rereading of this post.

    I 100% agree that regardless of what someone likes or perhaps even how they discuss why they like something (or hate it), it’s entirely better no matter what aesthetic investments are involved that more poets (and readers who aren’t poets, however few there are) should be doing more reviewing in some form, should be involved in some discussion about what they like and dislike, and that this is indeed a kind of filter but one I do think the majority can agree on, though not all, the same old-school status quo’s also of course hold views i.e., you’re not educated enough to be in those discussions, etc., you don’t have an MFA / PhD / etc., I’ve literally heard (very recently) that anyone without a PhD in Literature has no business having any real opinions on it; this is the idea I’ve encountered in younger grad. students in my time at ND and it almost literally makes me nauseous.

    I had just gotten the impression you were stating contradictory ideas RE: filters and what they should be, when you weren’t, which was my bad.

    These discussions-as-filters are great and important and more are needed, because if nothing else it makes one think about what one likes / dislikes, even if those evaluations never change at least you had to articulate it.

    Of course I’m not sure I’m ready to agree everybody should be doing it, some people (I include myself here, though I try my hand at reviews anyway) are simply not going to be good at those discussions, though I suppose even poor attempts are better than nothing, are better than certain books not getting discussed at all.

  7. Johannes

    No, there is no entry exam! you’re qualified!


  8. Tom DeBeauchamp

    It’s a funny dilemma, isn’t it. Too many poems are published, there are too many poets. It’s like a jungle. Wild proliferation of radical differences, imitations (like the amanita/not-amanita, or the coral snake and its wannabes), just production production production. It’s beautiful in its own way, right? You can step back and look at the whole–what do you call it, “industry”? “machine”? “market”?–and admire its shape, and its wiggle, but it’s not the satellite image of the Amazon you’re talking about Johannes.

    You’re after a better, a closer view. You’re already on your expedition. Days in the future and by foot from the nearest old boy camps. Filters out here keep you free from poison, keep you fed. Keep the water in you wet.

    The canonical filter was a much different filter. It told you which fork to use. It was, functionally, of a very similar order. It dealt with a more polite, more aristocratic industry-machine-market (or whatever, I’m not happy with the term).

    So we argue different aesthetics, carve out different territory, etc.

    What I’m saying makes sense, but I can’t help but notice the genitals and soft parts of this extended jungle metaphor. Rather than drop it, let me ask:

    Is this filtering a type of tribalism? I also make a class distinction. Is that it? I’d argue yes and yes, but with more and more and more.

  9. adam strauss

    I LOVVVVVVVE Wallace Stevens! He’s so hillarious, and so magnificently Orientalist–so much exoticism (whether domestic U Of A variety, or actually goin’ “majorly” abroad via Celon and Uruguay etc. I dig the weird/ridiculous lecturer mode, and he is that mode’s epicenter. And as an added plus even if there’s majorly problematic elements–and there are–at-least, unlike with the more “realist,” documentary mode of a Williams, the problematic figures are already less problematic because Stevens doesn’t really, to my mind, write real people–they’re word people, figments, fabulous fictions, which don’t–I’d argue–make a clear claim towards establishing actual existence; this may be totally personal, but I find his use of the word “nigger” much, much less scary than Pound’s. And his women are so unreal that it renders the condescension, to my mind, less icky, whereas “nothing” in Cummings, for example, seems saturated with the Elizabethan nothing. I’m tempted to call Stevens a monumental minorist…and yah this message is not-on-topic and a bit absurd and I fully understand if it’s deemed unworthy of posting. I hope all’s well for all ya’ll!

  10. Monica Mody

    Johannes, your recasting canon as a space for discussions reminds me of Samuel Delany’s suggestion that genre is a way of reading! Canons as genres. Canon as a genre. Canon as genre literature.

  11. Franz Wright

    No, dim boy–there is too much BAD POETRY BEING WRITTEN. Is that clear?FW

  12. Johannes

    You seem hellbent on proving my points over and over; you act precisely the way I would expect an insider to act, ie oppose any discussion that – by mere fact of existing – challenge the absolute authority of the literary establishment. As for dimness: you have managed to make no arguments. You write decent poems, but you seem incapable of actually thinking critically about poetry.


  13. Johannes

    I’m not entirely opposed to the tribal metaphor; it does make some sense; people enter into conversations with each other and that leads to a certain kind of “tribe.”

    But this makes me think of the devotion to “community” so prevalent in contemporary poetry, which is OK, but leads to a lot of insularity and in-club-ness, which I don’t think is so great.

    I’m interested in something somewhat more mobile, less hierarchical, less centralized, less “natural” than the tribe analogy implies.

    As you note, “class” does play an important role in a lot of filters in American poetry (and race etc). That’s why we need better filters. And critiques of filters.

    Thanks for your comments.


  14. adam strauss

    No, dim boy–for real? Meanness/stuckupness ought to be clever/delivered with verve. I guess the dim/clear pairing qualifies, but it sure ain’t nothin’ comes from nothin’ speak again; this is a bit unfair of me: one shouldn’t expect every cook in the kitchen to be Alain Ducasse.

    I hope all’s well for all of ya’ll

  15. Tom DeBeauchamp


    Tribalism is one of the dangers to be avoided. Though there’s still a dominant canon, and we can talk about decentering it, there are plenty of new, non-dominant poles today, and most of these do follow the same dance moves as the dominant. Like you mentioned, these tend to be insular, clubby, hierarchical scenes. Maybe better filters can provide a kind of third way, one emanating from multiple points.

    Filters of course work on all texts, not just poetry. The broader aesthetic thought will get a little muscle from better filters as well. You could have a kind of aggregate theory, newly created with every discussion of every work, unique to the work and its context. One of the roles of filters then is to crystallize the discussion. The parameters of this new crystal change with each admission of a new filter. Each new filter changes the shape.

    Franz’s comment is a kind of filter as well. It’s a phase of slowed development, a pause, a rest. Because of the way we like our filters to taste, we say it isn’t that there shouldn’t be so much bad poetry, but that there should be a way to more easily find the sort you can interact with. We say, what do you mean by BAD POETRY. To our standards of what a filter should be, we say one person’s taste is not adequate for a filter all by itself.

    I think about color and how, while the perception of color is incredibly subjective on a variety of fronts, its discussion–to be at all useful or meaningful in a social way–must be more objective. Saying something is bad poetry is less meaningful than calling it green poetry. What is bad poetry and how is it related to the fast poetry around it?

    One quality of a better filter might be that it’s aimed at particular texts, with text understood in the large. Don’t misunderstand this as New Critical Myopia. I’m talking about focusing on the flower, but I’m not talking about ignoring the garden, or its genetics, or the hornet come to pollenate, the bumblebee, the earthworm, the garden sheers, etc. Use those other pieces as needed, but focus.

    Another question I have on all of this is: what do you do with opposing filters? Is there an element of struggle in all of this? Certainly, we can see another’s filters and say after trying them out that they don’t work, but do we also say, Your filter is wrong. See my filters? Clearly, your filters don’t measure up?

  16. Aaron

    How weird that Franz Wright commented and called you “dim boy.”

    I’m guessing his contention is that the Pulitzer Prize Board should be the sole arbiter of what constitutes good and bad poetry.

  17. Robb

    I was looking through old review sections out of Sulfur the other day. That was lively. And it was an effort, as the title said, to get the Whole Art into one place. But Sulfur, even for its being all over the place, needed its others. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, for some time. Temblor. Though they drew from a lot of the same people, there was writing in Temblor that I could never imagine in Sulfur. Ditto with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. And the tone of the reviews and critical work between these is radically different too. Filters are awesome, because they help distinguish a field; there’s no Eden to reach back to. A canon is an argument about what filters make the most sense for a given purpose. The idea of a definite article there is ridiculous–apologies to John Gallaher. But we need the notion of canonicity–or something very much like it–to fuel that argument (which is _the_ argument about aesthetic values). Filter doesn’t quite do the same work (I understand that this was not a post about substituting terms).

    Franz Wright called his most recent book “Wheeling Motel,” but…unlike Franz, I’m from Wheeling. I know his dad’s poetry pretty well. But it’s an Inn, man. Not a motel. There is no Wheeling Motel, and in my living memory there never has been. The Wheeling Inn is the worst hotel on Earth though.

    In the title poem, Franz writes:
    “The wind will die down when I say so;
    the leaden and lessening light on
    the current.”

    You really can’t see the current in the Ohio at that part of the river. Unless there’s a flood. Or you’re watching the wake off a coal barge. Also, you can not control the wind.

  18. Johannes

    Yes, I like to read those old journals too. Sulfur was amazing.

    I’m not sure what work canons do. I think “poetry” provides a kind of location for arguments…

    Are you concerned – like Tom above – that we just devolve into little circle-jerk tribal clubs?


  19. erika moya

    Robb says:

    Franz Wright called his most recent book “Wheeling Motel,” but…unlike Franz, I’m from Wheeling. I know his dad’s poetry pretty well. But it’s an Inn, man. Not a motel. There is no Wheeling Motel, and in my living memory there never has been. The Wheeling Inn is the worst hotel on Earth though.

    In the title poem, Franz writes:
    “The wind will die down when I say so;
    the leaden and lessening light on
    the current.”

    You really can’t see the current in the Ohio at that part of the river. Unless there’s a flood. Or you’re watching the wake off a coal barge. Also, you can not control the wind.

    This type of thinking makes me happy to have dropped out of 2 MFA programs…Who cares if there is no current in Ohio or if there is no Wheeling Motel…To me it is about the mood set by Wright’s words, the narrative coming not from the precise details, but via the picture constructed for the reader. If we are going to pick at poetry the way we would a story or a piece of non-fiction – I feel that we are not allowing ourselves to have at all the possible interpretations of a piece of work.

    Now I’m not bashing the MFA Industry nor critical readings of poetry…just dropping in my .02
    here at Montevidayo.

  20. Johannes

    I actually think Robb was making a point about Franz’s constant appeal to monolithic authority.


  21. erika moya

    I can think of a lot of poets who make those sorts of appeals. It’s a style more than an assumption that their work can make those sorts of appeals over the work of others if that makes sense. Jack Gilbert is fond of the same.

  22. Allen Edwin Butt

    Very astute post—I think I agree with the majority of points you make.

    Another problem with the concept of “hybridist” verse is that is proposes the binaries it reinforces as internally unified. Experimental poetry is enormously diverse in its strategies, and “mainstream” verse is diverse as well, though maybe less so. I don’t approach poems by Joseph Massey and K. Silem Mohammad with the same expectations, though they both fall on one end of Hybridism’s Grand Divide. Nor do I approach poems by, say, Robert Hass & Jorie Graham (when I approach them) with the same expectations. There are reasons why the two poets in either sentence sort of clump together when we look at the politics of the current poetry scene, but that’s not the same as saying that both pairs of poets represent a shared set of tactics or techniques that a “hybrid” poet could cherry-pick (in a way that seems necessarily superficial) from the two as he or she pleases.

  23. Robb

    I’m not really concerned about devolution into circle-jerk tribal clubs, but that’s because it will happen anyway. It always has. It’s also not like there isn’t contamination across tribes, anyway. I guess I don’t get much mileage out of the tribal metaphor, because that sort of thing seems to make conflict less visible through its conceptual atomization. I mean, see Nancy on these kind of atomized bodies: they’re always/never touching.

    But I’m more interested in (and writing about Action Books for something related to this, actually) the ways that canons, as arguments about what filters make sense, are arguments about visibility. What the argument-canon does, as work, is to produce a range of the visible. Whether we mean that in terms of something like “letting in” (as though it were ever so simple) people of color, or “repressing” experimental or labor poetics (looking at you, Cary Nelson), these arguments are important because they are the form antagonism takes in aesthetics. That’s one of the things that’s great about something like the review section in Sulfur. If you read Bernstein’s reviews of, say, university press books about Derrida (thinking of the review that comes right before Don Byrd’s review essay about the so-called Language writing), the level of animosity couched in his irony is palpable. It’s as if to say, but without saying (and this is itself somewhat galling to me, but only because of the side of the table Bernstein is at, at this point), _this stuff is ridiculous—you’re paying attention to the wrong things_. And that’s the essential argument about canons—what emerges as visible. I think it’s a deceptive notion of plurality (something on the order of Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance”) to disengage from that argument. So I think that the concept of filters is good, but that canonicity is actually an argument about what filters count. I don’t think that poetry, as a term, quite does the same work, because—unless I’m misreading you—it feels like the substitution of one term for the other. What counts as “poetry”, etc.. Or is that misunderstanding what your intention is by “poetry?”

  24. Johannes

    No I see your point. And it seems that this really galls people like Franz Wright: that other options become visible. And that’s why he has to try to shut down those things made visible. It’s actually a very astute observation. I’d like to read what you write about his issue.


  25. Tom DeBeauchamp


    “I think it’s a deceptive notion of plurality… to disengage from that argument.”

    I appreciated this line and the way you addressed the antagonism inherent in canons very much.

    I’m imagining the coming organization of filterers. Maybe vocational educations in the subject–somewhere between journalism and marketing. Footsoldiers in the new war of all against all.

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