Monday, November 20, 2006

Alternapoetry I'm resistant to talk about this "post-Graham poetry world," in short, because this book was not by any means a shot across the bow it's played up to be. The whole point of bringing up the Graham book, to me, is ignoring whole schools of poetry that have been affected by what Burt accurately describes as a merging and commingling of schools. If I had to point to a particular moment, some general; readership-friendly tipping point in which the American poetry world looked as if there was some kind of glasnost/watermark/new day, it certainly would not be Jorie Graham's third collection. The book's release may have had an effect on Harvard undergrads at the time or shortly thereafter (Burt), her champion Helen Vendler, and perhaps an academic poetry coterie that didn't go far past Boston/Amherst and Iowa City.
I'm trying to think of alternative examples, rather than keeping on bitching on Burt for using that one. OK. For me, off the bat, I'd point to three events:
1. the success of James Tate's 1995 book Worshipful Company of Fletchers; followed by 2. the period leading up to Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe winning the National Book Award in 1994; as well as3. the first issue of Fence in c. 1996, edited by Iowa peoples (assumedly Graham students).
Whether one thinks slam/performance poetry sucks or not, slam poetry forced the elbow patch posse into the light and out away from the view, as expressed by Graham herself in a 1992 interview, of poetry being a 'dying art.' And the time around Fence's first issue, its first editorial which expressed exactly my views of the poetry world in general being segregated and awful. And Tate's book, for many poets, reminded us that poetry could be joyful and funny and, yes, sublime.
That kind of critical dreariness from, say, 1970 on, forced American poetry into experimental cul-de-sacs, some that are still shrouded with world- and life-saving importance, emboldened by tenure-track salaries, followed by a EuroWorship of manifesto movements from earlier on in past century, imbued with good ole American Pragmatism. Ug. How boring all this is, you might say. Yes it is boring, I say, and so it most of the poems from those strains of American poetry, but they were and still are presented to poets and undergraduates as the only valid paths to sublimity.
Meanwhile, over those decades, yes, there were all kinds of suck-ass narrative poetry written, outmoded lyrical poems by other overrated poets who won too many of the prizes. But I wouldn't say that Jorie Graham had us sit back as poets or readers, and learn to think outside of our schools, and learn to love John Giorno, Allen Ginsberg or Dara Wier for that matter. I'd give our current generation of poets much more credit than that. I think we just learned to not listen to any of our mentors because they all fucked up the same as anyone else. And we don't choose academia because it's simply not a career option, at least until a lot of people die. And most of us don't think in terms of getting a shitty job at a community college for health insurance.
What a laughable example that last alluded bit was in The Believer article -- a poet cited as being somehow non-mainstream -- I don't know the dude or his work, but Burt frames his life like it's pitiful -- he went to an art college not a creative writing program (OK, that's interesting, and I guess he infers creative writing programs are not the only place poets are created) this poet has been writing poetry for 20 years before his first book (boo hoo, cookie or merit badge?), and teaches at a community college in Florida (after beating out probably 200 candidates, no doubt). Compared with many other poets, this dude's got it good -- what's the problem? And what makes him so alternative? Not going to a creative writing program? Oh please. Can we please get past whether creative writing programs have ruined poetry? [Queen Victoria voice here:] A community college? My word. Someone please give this man a grant!
At the end of the day, articles like this get me depressed, because I see that poet-critics are just like any other magazine writer or writer cursed to write for newspapers -- the editors who hire them are from the same caste, the art they respond to is not the kind that is outside of the same caste. The only way a critic can approach being exemplary these days is to approach the idea of the poem rather than the examples, and stay away from comparing to the current Zeitgeist. Poetry has its own zeitgeist, it doesn't need some corresponding universe, let alone indie rock references, to help it.
For a truly exemplary Burt article in which is his razor-sharp mind is put to better use, I'd read his piece in Jacket, which I've re-read with much pleasure just this morning.


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