Tom C. Hunley’s second blog post: American Hybrid (Part II)

Norton now has three Contemporary American Poetry anthologies in print. First, there’s their mainstream anthology (as if any American poetry were mainstream, as if we weren’t all living in exile within our own culture, some more gleefully than others), which is now the second volume of _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_. This anthology, according to its introduction, is “characterized by its pluralism, by its welter and crosscurrents,” including both “the raw and the cooked” (Robert Lowell’s phrase), Black Mountain poets, Beats, New York School poets, deep imagists, confessional poets, poets associated with the Black Arts Movement, and some poets from across the pond. One thing that binds these disparate poets, according to the book’s introduction, is the shadow of the big Modernist poets Pound, Eliot, Yeats, etc., which “loomed like a massive edifice over postwar poets, who sometimes worried that all routes to innovation had already been explored and exhausted.”

Next, there’s Norton’s anthology of experimental poetry (as if all serious poems weren’t experiments) _Postmodern American Poetry_, which actually appeared nine years before the revised _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_. The Beats are again represented, as are the New York School poets (two generations’ worth, as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett enter the Norton canon here); Deep Image poetry factors into this one too, in more breadth; there’s the Language poetry of Jackson Mac Low, Michael Palmer, and others; and there’s a nod to performance poets, represented by David Antin, John Giorno, Wanda Coleman, and others.

Though the rhetoric may have led readers to think that _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_ represented a kind of mainstream canon while _Postmodern American Poetry_ anthologized otherstream poets mounting a bold challenge, we can see that there’s a lot of overlap. Both anthologies start with Charles Olson, for one. John Ashbery made both books, as did Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, and quite a few others. It seems to me that all of those poets who are represented in both anthologies are “raw,” according to Lowell’s formulation. While the editors of Norton’s “mainstream” anthology made pains to include “experimental” poetry, the editors of _Postmodern American Poetry_ aren’t about to go anywhere near John Hollander, James Dickey, Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell himself, or anything that would have been on the Hall/Pack side of the 1960s anthology wars, rather than on Donald Allen’s side.

But a new release would reconcile the division “between the experimental and the conventional,” we were promised, and this year Norton released its hybrid (as if all serious poems didn’t arise from a mixture of styles and influences) anthology. I was excited about this at first, thinking the editors were sincere about pursuing their thesis. Unfortunately, reading the book was like listening to a compilation album that promised to fuse the best of mainstream and alternative music but that quickly revealed its mercenary purposes: the mainstream artists needed indie cred and the alternative artists wanted a larger audience. I didn’t get as much pleasure from reading the poetry as I had hoped, and I don’t believe it fulfilled its middle child promise of reconciling differences.

Like _Postmodern American Poetry_, this anthology seems to be skewed in favor of the “raw.” Okay, Robert Haas has made the trek from the mainstream anthology to this one; he’s married to Brenda Hillman, so he’s accepted into post-avant circles by association. Norman Dubie is also granted both mainstream and hybrid status, as are Charles Wright, Amiri Baraka, and Jorie Graham (a surprising omission from the pomo anthology). That’s five who appear only in the mainstream anthology and the hybrid anthology. The following poets appear both in _Postmodern American Poetry_ and _American Hybrid_ and not in Norton’s mainstream anthology: Rae Armantrout, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Paul Hoover, Ann Lauterbach, Nathanial Mackey, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, and John Yau. That’s twelve. Also, the younger poets in _American Hybrid_ seem to uniformly proceed more directly out of “raw” poets such as Michael Palmer and Gertrude Stein, say, than out of “cooked” poets such as Theodore Roethke and Louise Bogan. It seems to me that the very people who commandeered the word “experimental,” which belongs to all serious poets, have now also commandeered the word “hybrid,” which properly describes all serious poets.

Don’t think that I’m writing this to prop up “mainstream” or “cooked” poetry; I, too, dislike (much of) it. I think what we have here is something distinctly American: two parties (out of many) declaring themselves THE two parties, and then coming together in a mercenary bipartisan spirit of mutual backscratching, reinforcing their own power bases and leaving everyone else out. In my next post, I will write a modest book proposal for the anthology I would like to see Norton do next, one that defies these false binaries and the false compromise of their hybrid anthology.


Molly Gaudry said...

What a post!

Grateful for the read,

Joseph Duemer said...

I like sushi, but not every day. Lowell's raw / cooked distinction (borrowed from Levi-Strauss) remains useful.