by Johannes Goransson on May.04, 2011
A few days ago I wrote a post about Steve Burt’s confession that poetry had become “too much,” that he could no longer keep up. By which he meant, I suppose, could no longer maintain a sense of Mastery over poetry, could no longer taxonomize poetry, could no longer, on a very fundamental level, read it all. It had become, as Joyelle called it in her talk “The “Future” of “Poetry””, a “spumey” “plague ground.”
It’s not lost on me that this confession was published on the Poetry Magazine web site Harriet; Poetry Magazine which has as its main goal to maintain a sense of “center,” to counteract the de-hierarchizing energies of the Internet. The Harriet web site is one obvious example of this: pay some poets of some different stripes to blog regularly in order to direct traffic through the Poetry Foundation, making it a kind of center of Internet poetry discussions.
Exhibit 2: A recent mailing I received from Poetry Magazine. In the letter and a reprint of a not-so-impartial article by reactionary poet-critic Adam Kirsch, the mailing keeps repeating its arguments over and over: we are the center, we’re the center.
And its second point: We are populist, going outside the corrupted/ing aesthetics of the classroom. These two come together in their overarching rhetoric: we are where it’s at because we are open to everyone; we are popular.
Nevermind that they’re the only poetry journal I’ve ever come across that could afford to 1. send out mailings and 2. maintain the whole Internet hub they do. Thanks of course to their super-million endowment they received when that rich lady died the other year.
Interesting paradox: investment in genre purity, “Poetry,” despite this supposed “open-ness.” We always know that we’re looking at poetry. Even when it’s “visual poetry” it’s “poetry.”
The antithesis of their populism is of course “academic” poetry, poetry of the classroom. Nevermind the huge irony (or hypocrisy) that their fundamental taste (and to some extent rhetoric) comes from New Criticism, and that a whole lot of their contributors are indeed professor and/or graduates of colleges, PhD and MFA programs. (For more thinking about the anti-kitsch rhetoric of people attacking “the MFA student,” see Joyelle’s post from a while back.)
I think it’s important to point that out: Like the anthology American Hybrid, Poetry Magazine is constantly pretending to be “open” to all kinds of styles and aesthetics; they even have a special translation issue (where they publish poetry that doesn’t challenge this aesthetic in a nice little quarantine issue). But fundamentally: their idea of poetry is 1. “Poetry” and 2. An aesthetic based on New Critical “close readings” and the aesthetic that comes with that. Accessibility for the college-educated, like I noted in my post about Billy Collins.
They include poems by Charles Bernstein because he’s now a canonical figure; and fame is being established is almost as important to Poetry Magazine as new critical aesthetics. Because it allows them to claim that “center” they so desperately want to claim for themselves. They include a special on “Conceptual Poetry” complete with little cliff-notes explications by Kenny Goldsmith. Ie “process” as the new wellwrought urn. They include representatives of the Official Experimental Verse Culture because they’re invested in a stable model of New Critical vs Experimental poetry. Again: Taste can be dual, as long as it provides a center.
Just as the New Critics’ had as one of their aims to remove the “excesses” of 1920s modernism/avant-gardism, so Poetry Magazine’s aim is to create a center, to create order out of the current “plague ground” of poetry (with its corrupted MFA students, gothic melodramatics, decadent dandies, overheated neo-beatnicks, “soft surrealists,” tasteless Romantics, etc etc.)
Here are some quotes from the letter I received [CLARIFICATION: this is from Christian Wiman’s letter, not the article by Adam Kirsch]:
“W’ere the oldest, boldest, and most widely respected magazine devoted to poetry in the English-speaking world.” [Key point: in the rhyme old-bold we have the crux – linearity as both Timeless Inheritance and Cutting Edge]
“We find great work before anyone else.”
“Discovering new voices… remains our primary commitment today…” [As if it’s just a matter of discovering these new voices, surely an objective task]
“You’ll discover poems before they are “literature” and will have the chance to experience them outside of any classroom or anthology.” [Ah the corruption of the classroom.]
“The scope of work in Poetry has never been broader.”
“We are dedicated to presenting new work in translation with an annual Translation Issue and regular contributions from the foremost trnaslators in the English-speaking world.” [Even the translators have to be hierarchized.]
“No other literary magazine has a more devoted or discriminating audience.” [Taste]
“Our readers are highly intelligent but not specialized, passionately engaged but clear-headed and judicious.” [Who are these un-clear-headed poetry readers? If you’re going to create these straw(wo)men – at least have the guts to come out and say who you mean.]
“In our magazine you’ll find not only work by the most well-known poets and critics, but also by people outside the “poetry business.” [By which he means articles by “novelists…. journalists and musicians.” Ie not “specialized’ and over-“passionate” MFA students.]
“You too can express your views in our pages.”
Throughout the mailing, there’s this dual sense: Poetry magazine is both Taste and common-ness, both anti-kitsch and populist, refined and “adventurous”, “oldest and boldest,” both wide “open” and “central,” both new critical and populist, both democratic and champion of/by New-Criterion-Helen-Vendler-Harvard-educated supported Adam Kirsch.
Against this rhetoric of timeless-yet-bold, Tasteful-yet-experimental, I might propose corrupted, too “passionate” Carina Finn’s “plague-ground-embracing” comments to Joyelle’s post about genre:
“I’m beginning to wonder if the becoming-genre is not itself a tense, a continuous-present suspended inside of a restricted temporality which is a becoming. then all of these various tenses, non-identical mimics, accrue and begin to look dangerous. they pile up & rupture time/tense and emerge as a sort of congealed present stepping into the future, an always-already anachronism? perhaps so many people insist on defining genre in singular, palatable terms because the contagion of multiplicity poses a threat to what James notes above as “the constraining humanist need for ‘voice.” “The Voice,” attached to a body which has a lifespan, can be easily made safe via an act of canonization, like J says — classics are dead. I wonder, then if one can take a sort of fossilized genre and bring it back into a state of becoming through decay, radioactivity. what’s the difference between reanimation and straight-up becoming? is a “dead” text with a potential multitude of voices really dead, or just sleeping?”