Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry
University of Nebraska Press, $45 (cloth)
Poetic Culture: Contemporary American Poetry BetweenCommunity and Institution
Northwestern University Press, $17.95 (paper)
Thomas Gardner's and Christopher Beach's recent books about contemporary American poetry differ markedly in analytical approach. In Poetic Culture, published in Northwestern University Press's Avant-Garde & Modernism Studies series, Beach argues from the conviction that one can no longer treat poetry as "an aesthetic production with a secure status independent of historical, social, and economic contingencies." Proceeding sociologically, he maps a sprawling landscape of poetic institutions (like academic writing programs, "structured by some force outside the immediate control or jurisdiction of the poets") and communities ("poets with shared interests, goals, orientation, or background," like the Beats or performers at various spoken-word venues). Gardner focuses, in contrast, on the poetry itself, historicizing his discussions of John Ashbery, Robert Hass, Jorie Graham, Michael Palmer, and the hardly "contemporary" Elizabeth Bishop only in the sense that ideas have histories. While Beach briefly acknowledges debts to Theodor Adorno and Pierre Bourdieu, Gardner draws heavily on Stanley Cavell's arguments about "the truth of skepticism"—that our human (linguistically mediated) relation to the world is inherently uncertain. Rather than provide for the contingencies of literary and cultural value, Gardner identifies and explores a recent self-consciousness among poets about the very notion of contingency.
By bringing Cavell's ideas to bear on contemporary poetry, Gardner all but guarantees Regions of Unlikeness an interested audience; indeed, the premise is brilliant. Best known for his empathic explorations of Emerson, Thoreau, the post-Tractarian Wittgenstein, and Shakespeare's tragedies, Cavell has re-conceptualized the crux of skepticism. It is not merely a philosophers' puzzle—about how we can know whether things are as they seem—but a reflection of a common human refusal to acknowledge the limits on what we ordinarily call knowing. In Must We Mean What We Say? (1969) and frequently thereafter, Cavell argues that such acknowledgment ought to be recognized as a legitimate kind of knowledge—often, as when one tries to relate to another's apparent pain, the only kind available. As Adam Kirsch's imaginatively stingy review of Jorie Graham's oeuvre in the New Republic last March demonstrated, an interpretive strategy that treats knowledge as strictly referential, apt as it may be for penetrating Eliotic allegory, is fated to disappoint (or miss the point) when the poet has conceived of her communicative act as more broadly expressive. Many of the most innovative and challenging American poets of the last several decades have done just that, and ask their readers to recast their notions of understanding accordingly.
Gardner has keenly discerned as much, and in his opening pages he exemplifies how poetry may "tak[e] place within, and be brought to life by, an acknowledgment of the limits of language" with a reading of Hass's "Spring Drawing." Admitting that he "can't find his way to a sentence" allows Hass to discover "the interval created by if," which then "become[s] habitable space, lived in beyond wishing." Later, we learn that the wind-up horse and dancer in Bishop's seemingly simple "Cirque d'Hiver" "dramatizes a confrontation with its limits." In Ashbery's sixty-page, twin-column "Litany," the left side "calls attention to, over and over, the limits of writing and form. It is the voice of acknowledgment." Meanwhile, the right side "describes the landscape opened up in the pause or gap in language, showing the new sort of alertness possible in that breakdown." Gardner's overview of the Guardian Angel series in Graham's The Errancy notes that each of the group's six poems is related from the point-of-view of its eponymous angel, each an "expert in the implications of various human responses to finitude." Turning to Michael Palmer's First Figure, he finds in Palmer's next book, Sun, "a more charged analysis of linguistic finitude. Sun shows the poet as more aware, perhaps, of the political failure of language in our time and thus more acutely struck by what he terms language's rotting and death."
Even from these brief examples, however, it is easy to see how Gardner, in his devotion to Cavell's everyday terms, skews or dilutes their context-dependent meaning, as well as the sense of his own phrase "the limits of language." And in opting for comprehensive coverage—nearly fifty poems by Bishop, forty by Ashbery, forty-something by Hass, and so on—he has short-shrifted too many individual pieces. The introductory paragraph of his Bishop chapter ends: "Her strongest poems are like 'Jerónimo's House' in her first book—structures of 'perishable / clapboards' or 'chewn-up paper / glued with spit,' which, when looked at closely enough, are seen as splintered by 'writing-paper / lines of light' swirling and torn with life." It's not clear what he wants us to see in those lines of light. And he doesn't return to the poem to direct our close looking. In the following chapter, on Ashbery, he contends that though the poems of Some Trees "seem convinced that, as 'The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers' has it, 'only in the light of lost words / Can we imagine our rewards,' most do not go far with such imagining." Again, end of paragraph. How do "lost words" illuminate the imagination? Is this Ashbery's spin on Wallace Stevens's "flawed words and stubborn sounds"? An anticipation of the "crypt words" that critic John Shoptaw has traced throughout Ashbery's work? A pleasant tip-of-the-tongue deferral of the fixity of naming?
Cavell's essay on "The Availability of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy," to which Gardner alludes, opens as a negative review of an early monograph; what Cavell finds "most remarkable" about the monograph is "the pervasive absence of any worry that some remark of Wittgenstein's may not be utterly obvious in its meaning and implications." Gardner does not pretend that reading the works of his poets is a straightforward affair; indeed, he notes early on that their "uses of language are the source of current poetry's difficulty." That being so, and given his professed intent to explain contemporary poetry, I find it troublesome how often he assumes that his readers will see what he sees between the lines of his excerpts. As Ashbery writes in "The Skaters," "calling attention / Isn't the same thing as explaining." So, too, by attributing agency to language itself, Gardner blurs crucial distinctions between conventional grammar's inability to articulate certain ideas and the poetic use of such language to acknowledge such failures in ways that redeem them.
Ironically, given that his Augustinian title advertises "unlikeness," Gardner's specialty is detecting likeness. One of the most rewarding features of his critical chapters is how he has grouped poems together. Of Graham's non-consecutive "Self-Portrait" series in The End of Beauty, he writes that each "tries to describe what the charged gap between knower and the world feels like and then asks what can be made of that space, and each is surrounded by a cluster of poems set within the tension or process it establishes." He then identifies these clusters to eye-opening effect. Gardner also recognizes that what linksThe Errancy's aubades is that they "quite literally, awake, stirring before the glance asserts itself." But his zealous seeking out of likenesses serves him best in the book's interviews, conducted with Graham, Hass, and Palmer between 1987 and 1991. Each is superlative, and many felicitous echoes resonate between between them. Palmer, shuttling frenetically from Wittgenstein to Vietnam, from Ashbery to Zukofsky, speaks of "trust[ing] a kind of errancy" as he writes. Graham remarks on Ashbery, Bishop, poetic difficulty, the reader as a bored God, and the poetic need to "undertake an act which you know is essentially futile, to suffer the limits of description." Steered deftly by Gardner from religion to politics, Hass paraphrases Ron Silliman—"Making mediation invisible and 'natural' so that the ruling class owns mediation and it seems to be the order of things—that's what history is, constantly"—then suggests that a poet like Louise Glück may be no less preoccupied with language as a material medium than someone like Susan Howe. Which, as it happens, brings us to the domain of Poetic Culture.
Having picked up Beach's book on the strength of his anthology of Language poetics, Artifice and Indeterminacy (1998), I was initially taken aback at the degree to which poems and poets had become for Beach mere data-bricks in a road. If poetry is what's lost in translation, then Poetic Culture is over the rainbow. For Beach, Language writing's experimentalism and "the energy of new multicultural poets" are currently the most valuable sources of previously unarticulated perspectives and "innovative formal and cognitive structures." His main objects of analysis are not these perspectives and structures, however, but the Iowa Writers' Workshop and its several hundred colonies at other universities, anthology introductions and tables of contents, diatribes about the demise of poetry, and several performance-oriented programs. His only substantial quotations and critical analyses appear in the later chapters, which are devoted to spoken word at the Nuyorican Café and Bob Holman's "The United States of Poetry" television series—that is, where the textual excerpts are least able to represent the work—and in a chapter that compares Stephen Dobyns and Lyn Hejinian "in cultural context."
Even if one plays along and puts on the ruby slippers (I suppose J. D. McClatchy would be the flattened witch to Charles Bernstein's encouraging Glenda), much of Beach's book is a trudge. It's consistently lucid, but nearly devoid of the lingual delights and challenges that draw enthusiasts to poetic culture, of any form, in the first place. As advertised, his first chapter "Discuss[es] the Death of Poetry to Death." (Devoting page upon page to essays like Dana Gioia's "Can Poetry Matter?" merely perpetuates the unfortunate perception that such articles are culturally valuable when all we can say for sure is that they are prone to elicit further discourse.) Similarly tiresome are the detailed misfortunes of Bill Moyers's production values and interviewing style in his PBS series, "The Language of Life." And I grow simultaneously weary and wary of repeated, lightly veiled disparagements of the poetic "mainstream"—not because I disagree with Beach's argument that an oppositional, avant-garde poetics remains salient and relevant, but because a passing acknowledgment of the reductiveness of the category "mainstream" is inadequate. In his preface to Artifice and Indeterminacy, Beach argues forcefully against whatever perceptions might exist that the postmodern poetic avant-garde is monolithic. But although he is fair-minded in many other respects—acknowledging, for example, that "United States of Poetry," which obviously fascinates him, may be perpetuating passivity by "providing such an unrelenting commentary on the poems"—he downplays the so-called mainstream's fluidity and width. Having Dobyns represent this veritable ocean is like having Hejinian represent not just that stretch of accretive shoreline called Language poetry but the entire business of circumference.
To my mind, Beach's most intriguing conclusion (which happens to come early) is that "poetry cannot retain its charismatic privilege, its unique symbolic capital, within the institutional structures of the American university." Maybe so. Fortunately there remain a good number of grammatically innovative poets whose work, despite their investment in various institutions, remains charismatic enough to help spawn communities of enthusiastic readers and talented writers. I am thinking of poets like Hejinian, Bob Perelman, and Harryette Mullen, yes, but also of Bill Knott, Lucie Brock-Broido, and especially Gardner's contemporary foursome, who mainly slip through the cracks of Beach's study. Perhaps this is because their poetry places unanticipated pressure on his title, because it probes whatever lies between the regions of knowledge that a sociologist can chart, between those acts of acknowledgment we too glibly classify as either "aesthetic" or "political." Moreover, the cultural capital of their work depends largely upon its setting up shop there and inhabiting those faults.