Welcome to the plague ground: There is still "too much" American poetry

by on Jan.03, 2012

Over at his blog, Bob Archambeau has weighed in on the discussion about there being “too much” of American poetry – the argument that there is so much poetry being written and publish in the US that there is a loss of hierarchy, loss of a standard (ie how do we know what is good? Such a scary situation), loss of “greatness” (if we can’t all agree on a Robert Lowell, how can people become “great”?) etc:

Of course many things have led us to this place. Technological changes make publishing more accessible and books more affordable; the spread of education has created a huge number of people who want to write poems, and can (we are only a few decades beyond a time when the big disputes in American poetry were disputes among Harvard classmates). I believe that overall, the scale of American poetry is a good thing. But it does create certain problems for the kind of poet who wishes for recognition. Such poets (the ones Halliday calls “ambitious”) react to the situation with a set of defensive behaviors that have as a side-effect the sort of critical dissensus described by Corn. We see this across the poetic spectrum. If Helen Vendler, with her refusal to believe there could possibly be 175 poets worth reading out of the untold thousands of 20th century American poets, suffers from a kind of “proclivity for ignoring,” so also does Kenneth Goldsmith, who has argued that his kind of poetry is more “relevant” (to what, one wonders?) than other forms, which presumably no longer have any claim on our attention.

It makes sense that this state of affairs should trouble a Mark Halliday who wants to maintain a conservative hierarchy, or Steve Burt, who is an academic and thus constantly making charts and models representing “American Poetry.” It is interesting that someone like Goldsmith should be opposed to the “plague ground.” You would think someone who champions appropriation would be open to the proliferation of poetry, but indeed in a response to the Burt post agonizing over the proliferation, Goldsmith suggested that “conceptual poetry” was a kind of filter against the noise; ie he still believes the “plague ground” is a problem to be solved.

What is interesting is that so few people seem to want to embrace the new age of proliferation. Archambeau has a moderate view, but mostly people of every persuasion seem to consider it problematic. A problem to deal with. As I always say: Go to a conference on experimental writing, and you’ll find at least a couple of experimental poets wring their heads over the standardless “shit” being published on the Internet.

Archambeau maintains a kind of even-handed distance to this state of affairs, which is admirable – if not exactly breaking new ground – since scholars tend to be very lineage/narrative-obsessed: it’s in their fields. They cannot admit the entire plague ground into their study so they make hierarchies and lineages, stories of American poetry that builds a bridge over the morass.


The two best things I’ve read about this state of affairs are still Joyelle’s two pieces, “The “Future” of American Poetry” and “Bug-Time.” In difference to the detractors, Joyelle doesn’t see the current state of “too much” as a problem but instead theorizes and engages with it. But the theorizing does not take place from the scholarly, sense-making distance (as Archambeau), it’s from the plague ground, it’s from Art.

From “future,” which she gave on a panel with Burt (it probably influenced his identification of this issue) and where she came up with the catch-phrase “plague ground”:

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.

From “Bug-Time”:

2. What model of literary time is provided by this mutating field time, this bug time, this spasming, chemically induced, methed up mutating, death time, this model of proliferant, buggered, buggy, moist, mutating, selecting, chitinous, gooey, bloated, dying time, a time defined by a spasming change of forms, by generational die-offs, by mutation, by poisoning, a dynamic challenge to continuity, and by sheer proliferation of alternatives, rather than linear succession? How would T.S. Eliot’s golden lineup of genius allstars, constantly reordering itself but still male- and human- and capital-assets- shaped, be affected by this swarm of ravening pissed-off mutant bugs out-futuring them by dying six times a summer, by having no human-shaped future at all?

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Archambeau

    Thanks for the comments on my post!

    I really don’t see the situation as a problem, as you say I do, though (“In difference to the detractors as well as Archambeau, Joyelle doesn’t see the current state of “too much” as a problem”). I mention at the end of the piece that some people see it as a problem, but I don’t want what they want (recognition, or a sense that I can master it all), so it’s not a problem to me.

    Looking forward to reading Joyelle’s piece.

    All best,


  2. Johannes

    Yes, that was poorly put. As I wrote before that, I note that you’re quite different from the typical hand-wrinigng.

  3. Johannes

    But what I meant here is that you also keep a kind of even-handed distance. That’s the difference I was getting at.

  4. Mike Theune

    Is Joyelle’s “The Future of American Poetry” published? I’d love to read it in full.

  5. Dan Hoy

    I think Mark Halliday and Kenny G should set an example for the rest of us and stop writing poetry. I think that would help the world a lot. I think Kenny G could stop existing and that might help too.

  6. Johannes

    Michael, I posted it on Exoskeleton, my old web site, a few years ago: http://exoskeleton-johannes.blogspot.com/2009/12/future-of-poetry-by-joyelle-mcsweeney.html

    It’s also part of her book of criticism that is still not quite completed (but which includes a lot of the posts on this blog and some essays published elsewhere and a 40 page essay on Bolano and Art’s evil eye and some other stuff).


  7. Jared

    I think it important to emphasize (as is briefly mentioned above) that it’s not just poetry that is a plague ground, but what we call society has become, at large, a plague ground. Not just too much poetry (which is maybe just a reflection of the general state of affairs), but too much everything until we are now slowly coming to see that presumed consensus is no longer a way to organize society and only serves to point the energies of society in directions desired by those doing the pointing (war, for instance). Since there is decreasing consensus of ideals and since more and more we distrust the very idea of such a consensus, instead, love the plague ground, hug the zombies, kiss the vampires, and let the werewolves lick your toes. The plague ground and everyone’s ultimate involvement with it is the new normal, a commune of monsters. A new gothic age is upon us, as the comic books have been warning us for decades…