by Johannes Goransson on Dec.23, 2010
For a week I’ve been thinking about the persistent models of insiders-vs-outsiders in American poetry. It seems to be a very crude model but all the same an incredibly persistent model.
It came up again in the goth-thread, where Adam pointed out that Sylvia Plath was in many ways a “mainstream” poet – hardly an obscure outsider. To this I replied, that I wasn’t really interested in terms like “mainstream” (or outsider, avant-garde) but with the way she was discussed. But of course I am interested in the term “mainstream” and the term “outsider” – I despise the terms and think they perpetuate themselves; perpetuate a static, a conservative model of literature.
American literary history seems based on this dynamic. You have the iconic outsiders (Beats, Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman, Spicer etc) and the iconic insiders (Donald Hall, Jorie Graham etc). I say literary history because the present never fits into such easy molds.
The interesting thing is that in the present it seems like everyone feel like outsiders. Even Tony Hoagland, sitting on his mountain of influence and institutional power, tends to position himself as an outsider. This is certainly true of his essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” The interesting thing is that he seems to be an outsider to the MFA students, the very group he teaches! And which – as Joyelle pointed out recently – have very little power. Hoagland writes:
“The energetic cadres of MFA grads have certainly contributed to this milieu, founding magazines, presses, and aesthetic clusters which encourage and influence each other’s experiments.”
These students are writing the “poems of the moment” in Hoagland’s essay – not him, not the professor who gets to write the essay, but these nameless graduate students. Well, actually nameless is not entirely correct. He mentions two good poets (Mark Haliday, Matthea Harvey) and some – in his estimation – less successful poets (Rachel Simon, Kevin McFadden). The notable thing here is that the good poets are the successful poets; the bad poets are less successful. Hoagland even brings in Lorca and Aragon, heavy hitters of literary history, as an antidote to these MFA students who merely follow shallow “fashion,” oblivious to the “deep structures.” (Not surprisingly, these skittery poets are attacking identity.). It seems name-recognition is a key to being a good poet, to standing out from the masses, to being outside of those masses.
Sometime ago, Hoagland published an essay somewhere where he praised Lyn Hejinian, and this was considered surprising news in the blogosphere. I think the key here is: she’s famous. She’s part of literary history. She’s not part of that nameless group of MFA students starting journals and being fashionable. She’s a bonafide established Poet. She’s not the masses of MFA students being “churned out” (as Dana Gioia put it on an essay linked in the discussion of Joyelle’s piece) like so much inhuman meat.
This is also the anxiety I hear in Franz Wright’s diatribes in favor of Great Poets (such as himself), against these unknowns. Like Hoagland, Wright positions himself as an outsider because he’s an award-winning poet, though one would think this would make him feel like an insider. But in fact it’s the un-famous, frequently maligned, fairly powerless MFA students who are the insiders due to their own mass identity. They create a mass that is hard to differentiate (In job interviews, people always ask me: how do we grade these students? How do we know which ones are the good ones? As if this was a question of dire importance.) And the anxiety is of course that we won’t know who’s Great and who’s Not.
In my experience, grad students are hardly “churned out” either. They tend to be people who are very invested in poetry and are looking for some guidance, some network of exchange, some form of the social that they cannot find outside of the academy.
I admit I tend to see myself as an outsider, reminded at every turn of my immigrant identity. And this is certainly true of the poetry world and my experience in MFA school, which I felt really alienated from. But all the same I kept coming back because I found in the academy a kind of social structure that I couldn’t find outside the academy (my last job was as a landscaper, which left me so incredibly bored and exhausted I went back to get my PhD in just sheer desperate attempt to get some time to write a poem). And now I’m a teacher in an MFA program. And I still feel totally weirded out by the academy (I go to department meetings, I fill out forms, but I can’t really figure either out.)
It might be that the MFA program (and academia as a whole ) could be seen as a kind of heterotopia – in line with juvie or movie theaters – a space that can both be used to repress subversiveness (or insist that Kate’s novel should have “psychological realism”) and serve as the breeding ground for it.
But most of all there’s the threat of kitsch: how can we have schools “churning out” “fashion” rather than True Art? What if that kitsch poetry somehow drown out the Truly Important Poets?
I’m thinking of how in response to (or seemingly so) Joyelle’s piece on unnatural motherhood, in which she said we’d have to “wade through the plague grounds” of contemporary poetry, Stephen Burt had to set up Rachel Zucker as THE abject poet, to establish some kind of order, the order of literary history.
Either you have the plague grounds or you have Literary History (whether it’s written by Marjorie Perloff or Tony Hoagland or Helen Vendler). Here’s a piece from Joyelle’s post:
8. Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.