Hybrid Poets Exist

The landscape of American poetry is littered with schools and movements that no one claims to be a member of. Confessional poets don’t like the term “confessional,” the name “New York School” was slapped on Ashbery & Co. by the Tibor De Nagy gallery, and the official name of the Language poets seems to be the “So-Called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets.” I think it would even be difficult to find a poet from the pages of The New Yorker who wanted his or her poems to be filed under such innocuous labels as “mainstream” or “lyric-narrative.” Why do we have these labels that no one wants to wear? Because aesthetic conflict, contemporary and intergenerational, has been a central trait of American poetry since the publication of The Waste Land, and we are continually sorting it out.

Rather than two distinct lineages, I see American poetry as a history of conflicts that have given shape to the poetry produced by the opposing sides. For instance, the playfulness of the New York School is a way of standing in opposition to the seriousness of the confessional poets. Resistance to the lyric “I” in Language poetry (one of the defining traits of that movement) is a response to the use of the lyric “I” in mainstream poetry from the seventies and eighties. Binaries are inevitably going to be part of a discussion of an art form that is so often subject to conflict. But when those conflicts settle into long-standing camps, binary thinking becomes unproductive.

The dominant binary of the moment—lyric-narrative / experimental-avant-garde—has settled into a two-camp standoff, and one that I think most people are weary of. Those poets and critics who haven’t given up the fight tend to carry some serious misconceptions about the other side. The most frustrating of these for me is the imagined divide between “difficulty” and “heart.” This proposition, which I’ve come across more in the classroom than in print, asks us to believe that accessibility and ease are necessary conditions for one to feel something. Does anyone really think that the intellect alone is what guides us through the pages of Paul Celan’s Breathturn or the poems of Emily Dickinson? In addition, I suspect that the two-camp standoff leads members of Camp A to advocate for poets whose main contribution is not being a member of Camp B, and vice versa. For instance, I can’t help wondering if Tony Hoagland doesn’t actually admire Robert Pinsky and Louis Glück so much as he dislikes Ted Berrigan and Lyn Hejinian.

What to do? Crossover. Having written books that fall on either side of our imaginary line in the sand—one was described as “a world refracted through distracted consciousness” and the other “vicarious ruin porn”—I can tell you that hybrid poets do exist. That’s just not a good name for them, because hybrid implies predictable cooperation. A and B are only going to equal C if you know how A and B will react. But I think that the crossover between these influences is a far more volatile experience: a conflict on the page that can lead our next poems in—thankfully—unexpected directions.