"Anthologizing American Poetry in the 1990s"

Jed Rasula

Note: This is the opening section of an essay published in the Summer 1995 (Volume 7, Number 2) issue of American Literary History.

An interesting discrepancy now prevails in the world of contemporary American poetry: the activity that occasioned the most conspicuous scholarly attention during the past decade remains largely unacknowledged in other registers of the poetic community. Academic scrutiny of "Language poetry" is impressive, particularly for a small press movement of poets, now mostly in their forties, who have yet to win any literary awards. Despite this, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Barrett Watten, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman--to mention only a few--have become well-known and frequently cited figures along with Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, and Michael Palmer-- affiliates once removed. In the domain of poetry anthologies, however, they are all personae non gratae, despite the fact that ambitious anthologies have been appearing steadily since the mid-1980s. There are no Language poets to be found in the over 5,000 pages comprised by the following anthologies: New American Poets of the 80s, edited by Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten (1984); Singular Voices, edited by Stephen Berg (1985); The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, edited by Dave Smith and David Bottoms (1985); The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Helen Vendler (1985); The Direction of Poetry,, edited by Robert Richman (1988); The Longman, Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young (1983; second edition, 1989); Contemporary American Poetry, edited by A. Poulin, Jr. (fourth edition, 1985; fifth edition, 1991); The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy; and New American Poets of the 90s, edited by Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten (1991). Needless to add, they are not to be found in any of the omnibus textbook anthologies of American literature (where their contemporaries and ethnically appropriate juniors are favored). Yet this group of outre poets has been repeatedly and favorably singled out in prestigious scholarly journals (including Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, and South Atlantic Quarterly, American Literary History, and even The Southern Review), and they are routinely discussed in monographs on contemporary poetry.Marjorie Perloff and Jerome McGann, two of the most eminent scholars of poetry, are vigorous supporters of Language po- etry. So what is going on? Are we witness to an academic delusion? Or is there a conspiracy on the part of anthologists and publishers to deny the existence of Language poetry?

Understanding the limbo occupied by the Language poets entails examination of the rhetoric of contemporary anthologists, an exercise that requires a preliminary sketch of the institution al auspices underwriting poetry for some 40 years. By 1950 a sect of postwar American poetry was being canonized even as it was being published, institutionally supervised by New Criticism either directly through critical agency (Cleanth Brooks Jr. and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry [1938]) or under the auspices of its programmatic reading strategies routinized as "higher education?' By 1954 the group of poets who still constitute the core of anthologies today were already being canonized: Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Richard Wilbur, Galway Kinnell, James Merrill, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Eberhart, Howard Nemerov, and W.S. Merwin. These and other poets have long been anthologized as a matter of habit rather than estimation of worth. Perpetuation of the familiar is every bit as pervasive in the purportedly highbrow world of the poetry anthology as it is in the lowbrow one of sitcom; and I take this as evidence that poetry, despite its obviously peripheral status in the culture, is afflicted with the same constraints that ideologically inflect the patterns of domination evident in mass media.

The kind of community represented by the taste-making poetry anthologists masquerades as the spontaneous flower of market forces, frothing the cream to the top. In the canonic-heroic mode--ultimately fashioned on Virgil's Aeneid--this "cream" of transcendent individuality is the bonding agent of social will. As a canonical model, the image is that of an anticollective ascent to Olympian summits, on which a cordiality among peers predominates above and beyond the miasmic mists of the lower slopes, where the heathen bardic clans are astir. Our views of the imaginal resources of poetry are still under the sway of what MeGann calls "Romantic ideology," which privileges a poetry that obscures traces of interest and thus accommodates the critical view that poets want nothing more than election to a hall of fame. The kind of poetry favored in such an account is that which can be glossed without reference to ideology as such, because the ideological disposition of the canonizing institutions would otherwise stand revealed. To concede the existence of the canonical ideology is at the same time to admit that it may not after all be natural for everybody to crave 15 minutes of fame. Institutions--even ones as dominant as the canon--subsist in the aura of what seems natural. The moment the spell is broken, the culture that steps forth from the husk of nature is starkly ideological, and that ideology stipulates for poets the role of linguistic subalterns in the production of subjectivity.

Poetry in its institutional setting (the creative writing program) has become, to put it crudely, a subjectivity racket. The astonishing proliferation of poetry in the US since the 1960s cannot be innocently acclaimed as a surge ofcreativity without bearing in mind the institutional imperatives for the production of poetry. The situation resembles that diagnosed by Jack Gilbert, who complained in 1964 that "most poets in America today are concerned with their careers as poets far more than with their poetry" (106). The masthead of poetry careerism, the AWP Newsletter, has a circulation of some 12,000 and should really be regarded as an in-house corporate publication. The "creative" outlet of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) has generally been The American Poetry Review, the tabloid rounded by Stephen Berg in 1972. While there has been no official anthology, the hefty Morrow AInthology of Younger American Poets has, in its fidelity to the workshop mode, preempted the need for one. Edited by Dave Smith and David Bottoms, the Morrow volume is in Jonathan Holden's view the Pierian spring of contemporary abundance, "display[ing] the depth and strength of the mainstream, 'centrist,' realist mode" (48). Holden's claims for eccentrism are wily, but this "center" is, I think, merely demographic. Fifty years ago there were probably as many people writing mediocre poems; the difference now is that there is a national clearing-house, so we know more than before about this peculiarly industrious solipsism.


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