In Defense of "Brooklyn": The Role of Scholarship in Contemporary American Poetry (pt 1)

by on Sep.02, 2013

I have finished with my blogging for the Poetry Foundation and in a week I’m going to Sweden to finish my Sugar Book/Sockerboken (it was either Skåne or Los Angeles, I chose to go home), and after that I don’t know that I’ll be doing much more blogging.

But before I go, I feel like I should throw out some ideas about academic criticism and its role in contemporary American poetry, because that’s a topic I have thought a lot about, and I hope this might lead to some interesting discussions. I have obviously very ambivalent feelings about this subject matter. What strikes me first about a lot of scholars is that they are very eager to critique MFA programs for creating homogeneity etc, but seem totally clueless about how their own PhDs have very similar effects.
I have written a lot about the prevalence of the rhetoric of “too much” in contemporary poetry. It is not surprising that it is critics like Steve Burt and Marjorie Perloff – critics who have actually ventured out of the ivory tower of academia to try to assess contemporary poetry – that have expressed this sentiment most consciously. They’ve seen the plague ground of the contemporary! But really, this rhetoric is incredibly pervasive in academia, and it’s just as pervasive among experimental or “avant-garde studies” professors as “traditionalist” professors.

The reason for this is very simple. Academia is based on the idea of “mastery” of a “field.” A “capacious” sense of the field, but mastery all the same (this is why the current incarnation of “the avant-garde” almost entirely coincides with the study of contemporary poetry, its’ a perfect fit, but more about that in a future post). In this case “the field of contemporary poetry.” To master this field, scholars need to have read the right texts (canonical poetry as well as secondary scholarship).

In some sense what scholars master is a “taste” – they learn to appreciate that Eliot – not say Harry Crosby – is a “major figure. They read a bunch of books that show why this is the case; they master a taste. Except, they don’t call it taste, because taste is not objective; taste is variable. So they say “this or that poet is major” or “important” – and the reason they can prove this is that he holds a certain place in the lineage of modern american poetry. I’m simplifying here quite a bit, but this basically is what’s going on.

But it’s not just the field-ness of the field that exerts pressure on scholars’ taste. Scholarship demands poems that can be *read* productively – ie that it is interesting to write papers analyzing. The poets have to show mastery – ie that they are in control (thus Daniel Tiffany’s discovery that kitsch is “excessive beauty”, not being in control of the art, being intoxicated by the poetry). As Donald Dunbar put it in his post on HTMLGiant the other week:

Most of the people who have taken most issue with this have Ph.D.’s. Ph.D.’s are wonderful things and I wish I had one, but a Ph.D.-ed poet who doesn’t think that their degree might give them special access to plenty of poetry today does not have much faith in their degree, and, given that, a Ph.D. who doesn’t acknowledge that some dedicated, smart people sometimes feel left out of the greater conversation of poetry–for lack of half-a-decade of time and specialized training, as well as a host of other things–seems kinda hegemonic. I also don’t understand, though I’ve heard the argument before, that four-ish years of intense study in a very specific environment (i.e. small-town mid-west) doing a very specific job (teaching comp to freshmen) does not seriously affect one’s poetry in a very specific way. It’s unfair to say that living that life and ceaselessly engaging in those dialogues makes one’s poetry hermetic, but does it make poetry more likely to be considered hermetic by those outside that lifestyle? I say maybe.


Well, of course *the contemporary* causes all kinds of problems. No wonder James Longenbach keeps demonizing “Brooklyn” for being “cool.” In Brooklyn there are a ton of reading series and presses (Ugly Duckling, Litmus etc), and perhaps even more threatening, in Brooklyn there are hipsters who don’t care about official lineage, but follows the latest literary fads (more about this in another post). There is “too much” American poetry to shape into a field.

This becomes even worse when Brooklynites start translating foreign verse, poetry which reveals that there are alternative lineages, according to which what is good poetry is very different. (In South Korea, Kim Hyesoon is a poet of huge historical importance, but in the US she’s a marginal figure, published by that marginal, horrible press Action Book which has no taste – in part because it comes from foreign sources.)


But in fact, at the very same time, scholars need there to be “too much” (there always has been since the dawn of industrialization, or at least since gaudy hipsters like Keats who, without the proper taste, published their tasteless verse and needed to be weeded out), because it is the presence of “too much” that gives the scholar/critic the important function of sorting the gold from the shit. It gives them their conservative function of taste-makers.

(In Brooklyn, people imitate each other (mannerism, the social, a horizontal axis), while true poets grapple by themselves with true poetry (vertical axis). Brooklyn has no named poets; just masses of groups.)

I read a lot of criticism, though not so much about contemporary poetry, this field is so incredibly narrow (there are only so many times one can read the same mantra about language poetry over and over). I’m not an anti-intellectual by any means, but I have a real problem with this narrowness of the “field,” and even more, with the sense that poetry IS a FIELD that you can MASTER.

Rather than pretending this master and repeating the same tired formulas/narratives over and over, I think the critics should wade out into the plague grounds of American Poetry.

In response to my last post about “The Importance of Taking Sides” (by which I meant more like acknowledging that you have a side), Steve Burt wrote this on his facebook page:

“Should I write more about present-day poets whose foundational assumptions are far from mine, *and* whose poetry I don’t much like? or about poets whose foundational assumption are close to mine, but whose work I don’t usually like? I do write about some poets whose foundational assumptions are far from mine but whose work I like anyway. (Responding to Don Share & Johannes Göransson.)”

I think this is an honest, good question to ask of oneself. (And I hope this post continues to open those questions up.)

This is what I wrote:

“OF course Steve should try to grapple with poetry he doesn’t immediately like!! He’s a scholar of contemporary poetry – shouldn’t he try to understand as much of it as possible? And also he’s a critic with a very unusual position: he actually gets to write for journals/magazines/newspapers with large circulations. Shouldn’t he try to portray many facets of poetry? And also: I think it’s really interesting to try to view American poetry in a more transnational perspective. A lot of other cultures don’t hold the same assumptions we do – a no brainer perhaps, but mostly american poets/critics act like we’re the only literature in the world. So: YES! Steve, you should definitely engage with works you are not immediately comfortable with.”

As I said, I’m not opposed to scholarship. I also think that those friends of mine who say that scholarship doesn’t matter to contemporary poetry are wrong: Scholars introduce a huge part of poetry readership to contemporary poetry, scholars write about contemporary poetry, and to a very real extent (poets tend to want to deny this) scholars establish a sense of “high taste” that very much influences contemporary poets. So I think it’s worth discussing.

In the meantime, please chip in with your views!


20 comments for this entry:
  1. matthew cooperman

    Johannes, all very wise and ecumenical, why is it a binary?! why is it scholars vs poets, or people in the midwest or elsewhere vs Brooklyn. I have a PhD AND I’ve been to NY. I write poems–four books, seemingly good and even published at hip places (Salt, Counterpath, Jaded Ibis)–and I write scholarship on such “academic” poets as Olson, John Taggart, Adrienne Rich, etc. I do all of this b/c I like all of it, and it informs my work and helps me consider poetry not as simply a contemporary eruption but a continuous conversation with history. Situating oneself in relation to the past helps one steer toward the future (and feel “committed” in the present). Rather, it seems to me, a problem less of PhD conservatism–at least they’ve read huge swaths of poetry–than contemporary hipsterism. Brooklyn’s an easy target, but it seems sufficiently large (and diverse) to speak only to itself. That ends up being style, and masturbatory. In an age where social media increasingly defines “taste” that seems deathly. I say read as much as you can of your own culture, others cultures, and others times, and try to have a little ethical agency in the process.

  2. Johannes

    Thanks for your comment. I also have a PhD and have written some academic articles (though not so much anymore because my sensibility is just not suited to the heavily convention-based 20-page essay, it comes out more right on the ephemeral blog), and I am not opposed to scholarship. However, I do think academia is inherently conservative, and will continue to be until we give up on these easy (and false) notions of mastery. You mention three poets – but they are all very canonized, white and English-language. There is obviously not objective “past,” but rather a “tradition” that has been made into a pre-requisie of the “field” of academic writing. Why should it be such a requirement than any discussion should come out of this lineage, this “field”? It is curious to me that supposedly radical avant-garde poetics has gone back and seemingly ignored the lesson of the canon critiques of the 1980s, returning instead to the Great Tradition (but now with more time to Zukofsky and Oppen).

    Why do you equate the contemporary with masturbation and “style,” while tradition is something beyond style. Why the pathologization of style? Why masturbatory – because it doesn’t have a “future” (reverse lineage)? (I”m references Lee Edelman’s queer classic, No Future, with its rejection of reproductive futurism). What is so threatening about this deathy, masturbatory, immoral “STYLE”? That really interests me – style that hasn’t been redeemed by lineage, by scholarly close reading.


  3. Leon Alirangues

    Hmmm, let’s see. I think you should just change the conversation for starters. Critiquing the academics or critics or trend-setters is part of the problem. Let them keep babbling to themselves. Let’s talk about the heart of poetry. How it brings us to despair, raises us to hope, hounds us to love, holds a mirror to our hate….bring poetry back to life. Academic discussions I am sure are fun for academics. I know, I used to do it myself. We amused ourselves and that’s it. Love the look of your blog.

  4. Johannes

    I hear what you’re saying, and a lot of people I know feel that way, but I actually find a lot of academic criticism interesting! And I also wish more of the poets would engage critically. / Johannes

  5. Donald Dunbar

    Matthew, with regards to PhD conservatism, my perception is that most of academia has not yet embraced a rhizomatic understanding of poetry and its traditions, and still considers poetry as a tree.

    There are attractive truisms that support the hierarchical model–the binary centrality of Whitman and Dickinson to the American tradition; the solitary genius armed only with a few Great Works producing the next Great Work because they found something so pure in their predecessors… And academia loves these truisms because they show students their professor Knows What S/He Is Talking About, and they allow the professor to know that s/he is letting the beloved students in on Something Important.

    –I’m speaking broadly here, and I realize there are plenty of exceptions, many of them reading this site–

    Poetry, like all things, adapts to circumstance. In hyper-social culturehubs of big cities, it probably trends towards focusing on one’s peers, who are the primary audience. When the primary audience is a tenure committee, or a certain set of scholars, or students trickling through the same teachers and classes, poetry adapts to that. When it’s born into high society Victorian England, it might speak of decorum and adornment. When it comes out of a refugee camp with open toilets, it should sound different.

    Part of the conservatism of academia I think you’re speaking to, Johannes, is that certain traditions–not all of them white and wealthy–are privileged over others. Confessionalism, Language, and High Modern are OK to study; Slam, Vis-po, and Cowboy, less so. When looking at traditions from other countries, what you’re saying about Kim Hyesoon rings true to me, though while I was in school my education about foreign poetries was mostly limited to the Vintage anthology of World Poetry…

    A biologist wouldn’t decide not to study certain reptiles because they were ugly, a physicist wouldn’t decide to ignore certain particles because someone else invented them, and a chef wouldn’t refuse to try a certain food because it wasn’t enough like the food they know; why do so many poetry scholars feel fine with excluding so much from their thoughts and conversation?

  6. Donald Dunbar

    ***errr, “discovered” not “invented” particles… Obvs I got a “D” in physics…:)

  7. Joyelle McSweeney

    Nothing’s permanent and tradition is a history of styles.

  8. peter richards

    Donald in response to your cogent and genuine exasperation–“..why do so many poetry scholars feel fine with excluding so much from their thoughts and conversation?”- because so many are gangsters.

  9. Johannes


    Great points. But it’s not just marginal groups like “cowboy” poetry that is excluded from academic discussion. It’s 99.9 percent of the poetry being written. Fence is arguable the most important press of the past 20 years – has a single academic written an article about Fence? How many academics – experts of contemporary american poetry – even know what what Fence is? How many of them know what Wave Books is? How many have heard of Peter Richards? Chelsey Minnis? Etc etc. To most academics: all these poets who are very important to contemporary poetry is just part of an unmasterable mass of “too much” that needs to be dismissed because to venture out into the muck would be to become part of it, to give up their mastery.

    But that’s what I want them to do.


  10. Johannes

    My thing is that I think academics could play an incredibly important role in a more volatile, inclusive contemporary poetry. / Johannes

  11. James Pate

    Really interesting post and discussion…2 thoughts come to mind. One is that I think a lot of the theory that goes behind academic writing on contemporary poetry is weirdly standardized. From reading a lot of the criticism you’d think Derrida is saying basically the same thing as Wittgenstein who is saying basically the same things as Zizek, etc. And of course it all goes to support the basic tenets of Language writing and/or Conceptualism, that sort of thing. But that always struck me as incredibly lazy. (Perloff to her credit makes an interesting distinction between Derrida and Wittgenstein in her Wittgenstein book, and I wish there was more of that..)

    An example: There’s a well-known Conceptualist who quotes Zizek all the time. I’ve never heard this person mention one of the foundational aspects of Zizek is his belief in the subject, which goes against everything this person argues…I’m not saying the poet should stop using Zizek. I’m simply saying it would be interesting if the poet said, Okay, I really disagree with the guy on this huge thing, but I think he’s wrong because of X Y or Z…

    The second point is that certain critics still cling to this old-fashioned notion of the avant-garde, one that is linear and singular and heroic (THIS truly represents the zeitgeist). And scholars latch on to it too, because they also want to be cutting-edge for all sorts of institutional reasons. But, to quote Marnie from Girls, “That is not of our time.” The heroic avant-garde is dead, just as it is in the art world. And music world. No more Pollocks and Picassos. No more Beatles. No more Eliots or Pounds. What’s left is a thousand different styles…


  12. matthew cooperman

    A great conversation, this. Was away for a few days teaching! And I like my job, because it allows me to teach creative writing to young, thirsty undergrads, and sophisticated grad students. And I get to teach lit courses too (ecopoetics, poetry of witness, etc. ) That’s a privilege of a thriving MFA program (Colorado State) which is to say a lot of the young(ish) critics I pay attention to most are also poets who–b/c they are lucky and well-read–teach in academia. And they teach lit courses and slam poetry, conceptualism and T.S. Eliot. The binary’s the problem. Johannes, your characterization of academia just doesn’t ring true to me. Doesn’t feel that conservative to me! I also write on Nate Mackey, Edmond Jabes, Edwin Torres. And Dorn as cannonical? He’s been duly cast out. No American publisher would publish his collected (it’s out in England, Carcanet). The point is, there’s always a radical edge to academia, and it’s increasingly taken up by poets who are diverse and well-read. That’s the American academy, of course, but i’m not burning up to read the latest Helen Vendler rehash. A lot of the poets I pay attention to have blogs–yours for instance–where critical engagement resides next to real contemporaneity. And they damn well know what Fence is, and Action Books, and 1913, and Les Figues, yadayadayada. I don’t equate the contemporary simply with “style,” goodness no, I’d be biting off my foot to save my face. But there is a social media aspect to a lot of “new poetry” that seems rather puerile. As if the cannon–and reading–is a priori bad, or unhip. It’s also the cult of the new, a rather perverse pleasure of the American scene. What’s masturbatory about this is the new speaks only to itself, Dubord’s spectacle writ large on twitter; what’s deathly about this is history does repeat. A lot of academics help people read Adorno AND Akhmatova; I’d trust ’em with my life.

    I feel deeply appreciative of my job, and one of the responsibilities seems like representing American poetries. That involves lineage AS WELL AS “the poetry scene,’ not to mention a general critique of the cannon and the creative writing industry (don’t get me started on AWP!). My grad workshop this semester is case in point, I hope: CA Conrad, Evie Shockley, Jorie Graham, Joseph Ceravolo, Roberto Toscano, Sarah Vap. And performance studies, and action painting, and memorization, and a review of a contemporary poetry book in any language. Just working to keep the and alive.


  13. Jake Levine

    I think it would be more interesting if scholars, instead of validating poets and poetry with awards and criticism, began to assess presses, reading series, journals, etc… If the curator is the new artist, then the editors and reading series hosts and publishing collectives are the real content generators in poetry. If there is so much that there is no field, how is it that certain presses create an aesthetic? Certain awards that I think held value in the poetry community are now viewed as less prestigious because they do not guarantee interesting or even popular work, the yale for instance. The fact that the big awards and institution jobs are being swallowed up by the avant-garde poets of 30 years ago means there is something broken with the system. This idea that conceptual-ism was somehow born out of LANGUAGE is like pretending poetry is some kind of connect the dots played by Perloff. What’s more distressing than uninteresting poetry or poets or Seth Abramson is that the mode of production, design, layout, quality of material of the book, page, paper, and the entire editorial process is somewhat cheapened by print on demand and start up internet journals. Does the cheapened process make the poetry less valuable? I don’t know. It is like I’d rather read some DIY rag made by scenesters than pick up anything by BlazeVOX for fear that the POD toxic glue they use in the spine might melt causing abrasions. Anyway, it is very exciting! I think we should start to look at not what people are writing anymore, but who is publishing good work and how editors like Janaka Stucky and Rebecca Wolff etc… are creating brands and models that open up poetry to people in qualitatively new and exciting ways. I think Donald’s article in HTMLGIANT sometime ago sort of was about this, this and sex I think.

  14. Johannes

    I guess I’m talking about a more strictly PhD-ish branch of academia. I agree with what you say about teaching, but my experience of the PhD crowd is that they are quite conservative (whether they study Susan Howe or Robert Lowell) in the way they approach the poetry: this idea of the field and mastery. And that attitude feels very foreign to me, and I don’t think it makes for interesting discussions.
    Steve Burt is an interesting case because he actually does seem to wade into the plague ground, but then he pulls back and creates these little models for what is American poetry (a field), which feels not only very narrow and moderate/temperate in aesthetics (nothing too out there), but also in this attitude of defining, mastering.
    In some way, I guess what I’m saying is that I want people to bring the disagreements out, have it be OK to disagree and to acknowledge the people you disagree with. Instead of saying, here’s a great poet unlike all those “soft surrealists” out there in “Brooklyn,” bring in examples of what one doesn’t like, allowing for differences to come to the front.
    I agree with you a little bit when it comes to social media – I hate all the buddy-buddying and back-stabbing that seems to have taken over actually having discussions with people (different than oneself for example). But I am very hesitant to create this “Brooklyn” where all e-things are bad and puerile.


  15. Johannes


    I think it’s a good idea to look at presses as curation, but I absolutely don’t think it should replace looking at poets or poems or even individual lines. One of the things I dislike about academic “productive” readings of poems is that they don’t actually interact with the poem, don’t actually read it, but theorize it. That’s one reason why academics like COnceptualism – you’re not supposed to read it, just use it to “think” about it (I dont’ actually believe this, but that’s the rhetoric). That’s already what scholars do!

    Most importantly, poets should not wait for scholars to do anything that is in the interest of poetry: POETS need to write about POETS, poetry, presses etc. I’m really sick of poets who believe in the model of the poet as one who just writes poetry and is too good to worry about actually reading other people’s poetry and writing about it. That’s a very “quietist” notion of the artist, and it doesn’t work.

    But also, poets should not feel the pressure to write according to the scholarly model of writing (the 20 page paper with sources etc). I hate that convention. It’s just like standardized tests – meant to show who can write it, and weed out those who cannot conform to the model.

    That’s one of the reasons why i think scholarship has become so conservative. Look at most academic presses that publish contemporary poetry. In order to be published it first and foremost has to comply with the genre conventions of academic writing. It can’t be for example “over-written.” Etc.


  16. Christian

    I love Spork as much as I love Tarpaulin Sky or Black Ocean or Action Books, et al, and I used to enjoy hand-binding TSky titles when I had the time, but your crack about BlazeVox seems a little below the belt. I, too, hate the look and feel and smell(!) of certain POD printers, but it’s also important to note that Geoffrey’s aim appears to be putting out as many titles as possible–a plague of poetry!–which is commendable in its own right, if different than Spork or TSky’s approach, etc. There is no way that Geoffrey could do everything he does while paying even for *small* runs. Also: Geoffrey’s taken a lot of shit already, for no good reason, which seems pretty cruel considering he’s done nothing but support poets and poetry from day one. (Also: a print run of 1,000 from China can smell every bit as bad. Caveat emptor!)

  17. Christian

    was responding to Jake, obvs. Sorry for lack of antecedent.

  18. Jake Levine


    I didn’t mean to give shit to the BlazeVox machine, I just think it is interesting how different their model of publishing is. Corrosive! Acidic! On-Demand! I even have some friends with BlazeVox books. The problem is we all have friends with BlazeVox books. (That’s not really a problem) I don’t know how it is possible to work with so many authors on so many titles, but props to Gatz for doing it. However, there is some kind of value-making in the poetry world between presses and products and aesthetic…. which organically produces some kind of synthetic hierarchy that has replaced the old award system. I think it is very interesting.


    I wasn’t suggesting we replace studying poems / poets completely with political economy, although it is worth a thought.

    The form and conventions of academic writing are really restrictive… I mean is the genre (?) of academic writing surviving because of the institutions that house it or are the institutions running on the power of the academy? I don’t know. I agree with you, I think academic-work / presses tend to be very narrow and focused on preserving ideas / aesthetics that have run their course. I think this all has to do with some kind of romantic notion of the scholar / critic / poet / publisher having some kind of relationship to one another like in a movie. I will write my poems quietly in my room and then Gertrude Stein will invite me to her chateau and she will line edit my poems by the fire and send it to Carl Van Vechten by post, who will have it published in the New Yorker. Then professors at universities will take note of my genius and read my poems at their universities. I think the rift here is that many professors of literature and graduate students of literature have very little interest in contemporary poetry. I don’t know how this is possible. It struck me as insane that I never saw any Lit PhD students at poetry readings at Arizona. Anyway, visiting Lithuania last week I met the poet Marius Burokas who has decided that the best thing to do is to make talking about poetry as inaccessible as possible. He suggested we make panels at literature festivals that were about sleeping, where panelists are required to sleep. I suggested a panel about disappearance where we burn books. We were thinking about calling our festival “The Art of Silence” and hosting it in Minsk. Anyway, like I said. I think right now is a very exciting time! That we are even having these discussions is great. The departure of old conventions to make way for new modes of thinking / expression is necessary. Maybe someone should work on making a journal that focuses on new criticism that is not review. I guess the Volta or poetics blogs / online journals do that. Sometimes blog entries sound like rants though, which is not a bad thing, just a little less cohesive than something by Burt for instance.

    Goodnight from Gwangju.


  19. Johannes

    I know – isn’t it weird about PhDs not showing up for readings! It’s been that way at every school I’ve been to. It’s so less perhaps at my current school, but it’s still a factor. I brought up that point when I was at U of Georgia, and one of the old professors ridiculed me mercilessly on the english dept list serve, afterall the stuff we were doing was just laughable. / Johannes

  20. john steppling

    very interesting post. Someone sent me a link because Ive written sort of related stuff …. I hate footnoting myself, but all this seems related somehow. And its useful tracing it back.