Question: What's the Deal with "Factionalism" in American Poetry

by on Aug.15, 2011

I see a lot of criticism of what apparently a lot of people see as a problem of “factionalism” in American poetry. There are too many groups – “tribes,” “camps,” “movements,” “cliques” etc – in American poetry. What’s the problem with this? What’s the alternative? Why is it that this criticism is so pervasive? How much of this goes back to the cold-war two-camp model of the 1960s “anthology wars”? Is “American Hybrid” (an establishment based on a model of compromise) the only solution? Is it even a solution? Do we want a solution?

17 comments for this entry:
  1. Ryan Sanford Smith


    Interesting question, could you maybe elaborate with some recent examples of this being criticized? I’m sure it is all the time but maybe having some concrete quotations to poke at would be fruitful. I know it’s something I’ve had discussions about before–at least for me it’s not necessarily a criticism so much as an observation, it can be interesting to wonder at how these factions in and of themselves affect things. I don’t think anyone would / could argue it’s anything new, people have been ‘traditional’ or ‘Beat’ or ‘Black Mountain’ or ‘American’ or whatever, well, forever.

    I’ve used the ‘infinite landscape’ metaphor many times before and I think this is chiefly where that idea is important — the criticisms I see tend to be rooted somewhere in an idea that Poetry is a finite landscape and too many factions or ‘bad’ factions will take it from the hands of ‘good’ factions, or that the land will be soiled. It’s all nonsense–there’s room enough for all. More and more factions (with more and more diversity) to my mind is a Good Thing, as it can only really mean more people having more ideas about poetry, what they like or don’t like in it, what they want to see more of, which means more potential for different and more people to find a plot in Poetry that they like, want to settle, expand, etc.

    This concept of a finite space also tends to breed lots of strange zealotry akin to religion or band fandom–that is to say what becomes most strange to me is a live and let live perspective doesn’t seem good enough for many, they need you to like it too, or more so that if you don’t like what they like they have to figure out why, what’s wrong with you that you don’t, they make assumptions about you, etc.–like the tribe, nobody likes an outsider, no one wants to be one…I think personally when I criticize the tribalism in poetry it’s less that there are tribes and more that I am often confused by the behavior of some tribes / some people in some tribes.

  2. N. Chaplin

    This notion of ‘factionalism’ is something that has puzzled me over the past fifteen years of writing and studying poetry. I’ve personally never seen any one ‘faction’ of American poetry as being disrespectful or in direct opposition of any other and haven’t encountered many American poets who aren’t influenced by writers from across the spectrum. The fact that there has been such a variety of concepts explored in American poetry, in and of itself, seems an appropriate and distinctly American concept. (The cliche of the ‘melting pot’ comes to mind.) In any field, there will be individuals who are stubborn and narrow minded, who exalt the ‘traditional’ and discourage deviation from it. I find those folks are best left to the comfort of their rigid academia, misty morning coffee klatches and musty backroom library meetings.

  3. Ryan Sanford Smith

    If you’ve never seen someone being disrespectful in a way that clearly symbolizes some expression of ‘factional opposition’ you can’t be looking terribly hard. I don’t think a week on this blog has gone by there Johannes or some other poster didn’t more or less call someone out for doing precisely that (rightfully so) — usually from someone in a place of ‘traditional’ comfort, and of course the corollary of those frustrated by being attacked by those that are comfortable.

  4. Meg Ronan

    I have *just* been thinking about this, because I was thinking about literary “communities” (in a way that feels positive/important to me) and trying to figure out if this is just a positive way to think about “factionalism” (which feels problematic).The apparatus of tribe-hood/community & the apparatus of factionalism seem the same to me: little magazines & blogs & readings & poetics & salons & presses & mission statements & workshops. So, maybe we shldn’t be hybridizing, but hoping & finding more things that motivate more communities?

  5. Kent Johnson

    Yes, but could there be a deeper set of shared institutional interests (like a kind of sociological Unconscious) beneath much of this apparent aesthetic factionalism?

    In fact, I wonder if flag-plantings of factional identity by this or that micro-caucus within the bigger “Post-Avant” Party (which now sits, it’s clear, quite securely on one side of the Academic Senate) aren’t at this point importantly driven by–to some “deep grammar” extent–protocols and rituals of the Bigger Game that stay mainly repressed and unspoken? And one of those unspoken clauses in the Rules of the Bigger Game is, I would say, that the system must sustain the appearance of an “opposition” even when there isn’t one.

    Sort of like Democrats and Republicans, you could say…

  6. Henry Gould

    Then there are the hack journalists & networkers & web aggro-gators, who promote the herd instinct in literature, who are more interested in news and the scene than in any actual poetry, who don’t have time to respond adequately to particular poems because they are too busy running to the next crowd event.

  7. James Pate


    Interesting comments…but it strikes me as fundamentally Romantic to believe that there is some sort of “opposition” wholly outside of power structures and institutions. Truth and poetry don’t exactly come out of caves and the forest (unless it’s the forest in van Trier’s Antichrist, a vertiginous and cinematic forest).

    Instead “truth” and poetry come from whatever discourse we happen to be entangled in at the moment. The discourse can be pushed, but there is no pure, utopian space outside of it (and what a boring space that would be anyway).

    Also: I have to disagree with some of your metaphors: “Bigger Game,” “sociological Unconscious,” “deep grammar.” I tend to distrust the fetishization of the “macro-view” that holds sway in some parts of academia: the idea that the so-called sociological view is objectively right. Foucault would consider such thinking a mode of normalization, and Deleuze argued that thought which focuses on the general resembles too strongly the figure of the General (obsessed with order and regimentation). The exception, the places where categorical thinking splinters, places of momentary hetrotopias instead of a static utopia–to me, that seems like a more fruitful line of thought for these questions of practice.

    That said, you always raise interesting points…I just disagree with such supposedly objective “sociological” arguments…


  8. Kent Johnson


    That is a great reply. And I don’t disagree with anything you say! Yes, absolutely, no one is beyond that gravitational pull of the center. I’ve said this numerous times, really. My point is we have “factions” that like to be seen as being “outside” when in fact they are not outside at all. Or at least they are more “inside” and in tight institutional orbit than they would wish to acknowledge. I don’t blame anyone in saying that: as I said, this is part of the way things work, it is part of the system’s operation. It’s why Charles Bernstein is still there, hilariously wagging his finger about Official Verse Culture.

  9. Joseph Hutchison

    I am guilty of having used the word “tribe” as a pejorative for the various factions in American poetry, although it was Eliot who used the tribe metaphor first (“…speech impelled us / To purify the dialect of the tribe”—which tribe, I’ve always wondered). I’m afraid that my use of “tribe” constitutes an unintended insult to tribal peoples, whose cultures are rooted in a deep knowledge of particular places and an extensive, venerable matrix of communal story, song, and ritual. What I have called “poetic tribalism” is based on comparatively superficial differences in favored linguistic and/or philosophical theories, accidents of acquaintance, the choice of culture heroes, and the laughable notion that cap-P Poetry can somehow progress. Poetic tribes, as Kent points out above, are more like political parties than tribes, and I regret using the tribe metaphor when it’s really the party metaphor I’ve always had in mind.

    That said, there’s nothing wrong with poetic parties per se, especially when they express themselves in the form of committed publishers, open and creative dialogue, groups that provide their members a generous and helpful audience, etc. When poetic parties express themselves as career development programs, gatekeepers before the law, gurus of self-improvement, or purveyors of aesthetic salvation—well, they ought to be exposed and rejected. I am old enough to remember a time when Formalists and writers of Free Verse would refuse to sit together at poetry conferences. Is there anything more inane?

    Let me add that Harriet Staff (who is she, anyway?), whose post entitled “‘Factionalism’ in American Poetry” led me to this one, plays poetic party politics of the worst kind when she (is she really a she?) says that Johnannes’s question is aimed at “poets and blog reactionaries.” Reactionaries? Evidently to question the validity of any poetic clique has become a crime at the Politburo. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

  10. James Pate

    Hey Kent,

    Clearly we’re on more of the same page on this than I’d realized…and I completely agree about Bernstein’s finger wagging…


  11. Johannes Göransson

    Kent, as recently as your HTML Giant interview you said that conceptualism and Montevidayo were merely superficial alternatives, while your use of heteronyms were “the final frontier” – real, authentic alternatives, and certainly “outside” (outer space!).

    Also, b/c James says that there is not True Outside of everything, doesn’t mean that everything is hunkey-dorey. I think Bernstein’s “official verse culture” was a very important way of calling attention to the dynamics of the literary culture.


  12. Kent Johnson

    Johannes, I see this post is getting lots of play (Jordan Davis commenting, Harriet, other places).

    To respond, and I really want to make the clarification:

    In advocating a greater volume of authorial experiment, I have always been careful to stress that such does NOT mean some kind of call for the replacement of more conventional modes of poetic presentation and circulation. I have said, rather, that it would be healthy if there existed a kind of parallel economy of poetic production *outside* the main, general one–orbiting it, so to speak, its practitioners moving fluidly back and forth between the two, in various manners of creation. To say that something is the “final frontier,” a relatively unexplored space, does not mean that the “familiar world” is more superficial or less authentic! There is no need to say one is more legitimate, useful, or ethical than another (I’ll leave that to Charles B.); no, they are complementary. Or I should say they *could* be complementary, as we haven’t gotten to such a take-off point yet. (That said, I will say that I go overboard in the interview with Bill Freind that is linked to in the HTML Giant one–the use of “authentic” there is too extreme and I regret much of the hyperbolic phrasing, even if most of it was in the self-conscious vein.)

    As to Charles’s coining of the term Official Verse Culture being a good way of calling attention to a certain reality, I would just say that reality, of course, is in constant transformation, including what is “Official.” And if Charles Bernstein and the institutionally backed and legitimated poetics he represents is not “Official,” I don’t know what is. This is not the 1980s anymore.

  13. Arthur Durkee

    “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced.”

    —Adrienne Rich

  14. Henry Gould

    James Pate writes : “…it strikes me as fundamentally Romantic to believe that there is some sort of “opposition” wholly outside of power structures and institutions. Truth and poetry don’t exactly come out of caves and the forest (unless it’s the forest in van Trier’s Antichrist, a vertiginous and cinematic forest).

    Instead “truth” and poetry come from whatever discourse we happen to be entangled in at the moment. The discourse can be pushed, but there is no pure, utopian space outside of it (and what a boring space that would be anyway).”

    This seems like a standard contemporary (postmodern) view, held by both James & Kent, apparently. Poetry’s essential (OK, romantic-utopian) otherness is declared an impossibility. But here’s another (dialectical?) way of looking at it : poetry is engaged with & mixed-up with wider social discourses BECAUSE it is utopian, romantic, “pure” & “other”. It’s a both/and situation. It’s – in archaic terms – a shamanic/prophetic situation.

  15. Jared Randall

    It seems to me fruitful to bring in an economic critique of factionalism. I see this already lingering below the surface of the present conversation but I am prompted to bring it out in bold and with italics.

    Under capitalism, we’re obsessed with the winner, with the right idea vs the wrong idea, with the profitable vs the less profitable (we have to be, or at least we think we do, in order to survive). We fetishize winning and reify every outcome along the lines of the win/lose narrative. Corporate giants “win” over other corporate giants and the two end up “merging,” building ever larger conglomerations that exhibit smooth exteriors despite all kinds of internal and external conflicts of (self-)interest. The dominant narrative normalizes all of this under wide banners like profitability, respectability, and common sense.

    Increasingly we’re seeing the cracks in this narrative exposed by all kinds of failures in the “system” and by protests, insurrections/riots, and the like resistance against what have long since become oppressive structures. We’re seeing (though not all are admitting it) that the smooth surfaces of the twentieth century are not smooth at all and that the large edifices once held to be untouchable (exemplified by the United States itself, its bogged-down military, its ready to collapse and in-denial economy, and its AAA credit rating) are inherently capable of crumbling under the weight of their own inconsistencies. We’re seeing the same in the poetry world, I would say.

    With all of this in mind (and you all have basically said it already, I’m just excitedly pulling the lines of thought I’m seeing together) I think that one task of poetry today (and that we’re talking about) is to move beyond these smooth surfaces, beyond the normalizing narratives, first by exposing them in the world of poetry itself (as the overall problem is one of what we call things and that we call things what they are not and assume that our labels stick and are *finally* definitive and *ultimately* useful for organizing all of human society once and for all). The problem is in how we talk about “reality,” but can we even talk about “reality” or should we call it something else? In other words, as soon as the inherent subjectivity of our understandings is admitted, domination flies out the window, no longer psychologically tenable. (Try getting our politicians to see it this way!)

    Just like in politics, as has been pointed out with the dems/repubs constantly fighting in a show that mostly enforces the status quo of behind-the-scenes power structures, poetry can be said to have had its factions engaged in status quo/ruling class infighting (and this infighting tends to be off-putting in the poetic and political spheres alike, so that the death of poetry and the uselessness of politics are proclaimed with repetition).

    The difficulty is that any impulse to “fix” the situation from within ends up in a new faction taking the priority of place of an old faction (I think this has been Ken’s point, or one of his points) as somehow a superior infighter against the other existing faction, so that debates change on the surface but the situation remains essentially unchanged. We are still trying to “win” by giving the “right answer” to the invisible school teacher’s question (to God, ultimately? the god-idea within?), to silence all opposition thereby (because we think this is what God would do/will do? post-apocalypse?), as if that is even necessary, as if it is anything but madness.

    I propose that a true evolution from this state (in both politics and poetry because in society in general the same things are at stake) is not something like a Tea Party taking over one faction’s interests (again, this is only a half-coup, a changing of the guard and not a removal of the guard), but is instead a move toward complete democracy of writing (and also in living, not just in the too-limited way of voting politically), the equality of every voice saying its piece in the way that voice says it and aligning or not aligning with what is said, without the necessity of agreement (I immediately think of Joyelle’s post on genre-less writing being composed of all genres, a mashup with no payoff). The rare quality of agreeing to disagree, to move beyond the mental anguish of disagreement we inherit as part of our culture, which only results in domination of one over the other after inevitable disagreement, not the banishment but the making obsolete of parties.

    This might be called a kind of fractionalism, the continual fragmenting of societal structures in all directions (as opposed to what we’ve seen, the normalization and central influence/control of societal structures), a quantum social mechanics, indeterminate, the “silencing” of myriad essentializing modernist projects by allowing their self-contradicting voices to explode and disseminate, to live and die and give birth.

    At stake here is, I think, a model of evolutionary fragmentation as opposed to one of progression (as someone already indicated), and I think bringing in the idea of tribalism as opposed to partyism is a fruitful model for how to “organize” this fragmentation (complete anarchy being an absolute state that is as unachievable as complete organization). Instead of one chief dominating another and taking control, in the tribal system two vying chiefs/ideas can also lead their followers in (dis)agreement into new spaces where they will be able to flourish and eventually fragment once again. This is not just a death but is also offspring, fertility.

    Rather than a smooth-textured society (poetic or otherwise) built of inseparably nuclear “families” (which is a misnomer, as poets like children grow and make their own lives and circles of relationships) we see a society of intermingling and even competing tendencies but with space for every point of view beyond a few necessary and very basic social norms, all exchanges perhaps characterized by the maxim “do no harm.” So this is maybe not tribalism proper, but a particular and idealized tribalism. And in that lies, no doubt, a problem all its own.

    Broad strokes, sorry for the wordy length of this! Great conversation!

  16. Henry Gould

    p.s. I agree with Joseph here :

    “Let me add that Harriet Staff (who is she, anyway?), whose post entitled “‘Factionalism’ in American Poetry” led me to this one, plays poetic party politics of the worst kind when she (is she really a she?) says that Johnannes’s question is aimed at “poets and blog reactionaries.” Reactionaries? Evidently to question the validity of any poetic clique has become a crime at the Politburo. Don’t say you weren’t warned.”

    Harriet’s little put-down marks its gated-community boundary between bloggers (the Great Unwashed) and Magazine Websites (ie. Official Verse Culture). A line of distinction drawn with spite.

  17. Lucas

    I really enjoyed Jared Randall’s comment, above.

    In. re. Joseph Hutchinson’s citation of Eliot and “…speech impelled us / To purify the dialect of the tribe,” I wanted to mention that I thought it was Stéphane Mallarmé who came up with that formulation first, with “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de
    la tribu.” Eliot, I think, was just being kitschy.

    irregular Lucas