Alan Golding


New, Newer, and Newest American Poetries


published in


The Recovery of the Public World: Essays in Honour of Robin Blaser, His Poetry and Poetics.  Ed. Ted Byrne and Charles Watts (Talonbooks, 1999). 339-50.


          "KOALA--To survive you have to be willing to do anything.  Anthologies!  That's where the money really is, or might be.  At least so I imagine from my fuzzy animal distance.  Reprint the material!  Dominate the gene pool!  Rise like Godzilla and make them read you for fucking ever!"--Bob Perelman, "The Manchurian Candidate: a remake"


          The avant-garde, we're told, is, at least in theory, dead.  Meanwhile, the poetic "mainstream" is commonly argued to have become so diverse and democratically inclusive as to be unlocatable, unrecognizable as a mainstream.  This same historical moment, however, with its purported all-inclusiveness that would render the notion of an avant-garde meaningless, has brought the publication of four self-consciously avant-garde anthologies of American poetry within a year of each other: Eliot Weinberger's American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993); Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990; Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology; and Dennis Barone and Peter Ganick's The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets (all 1994).[i]  What especially interests me in our current situation, and in these texts specifically, is the apparent re-emergence of a version of the late '50s and early '60s anthology wars, as anthology editors are once again unapologetically using terms like "avant-garde," "center," "mainstream," and so on.

          Does the return of anthology wars rhetoric that I'll discuss here represent merely the flogging of a dead socioaesthetic horse?  Jed Rasula, for one, argues that it does.  He finds Weinberger and J. D. McClatchy, editor of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, for instance, "waging a massively retrospective combat"--a combat centered on "nostalgic invocations of the 1960 anthology wars, with the editors cavorting about in period dress like history buffs reenacting the battle of Gettysburg" (449).[ii]  Rasula has a point here; it's no longer 1960.  But if this debate is so outdated, why has its rhetoric returned to anthologies of innovative poetry in the mid-1990s?  What function does that rhetoric serve now?  Aside from maintaining a good deal of historically descriptive power, it is being used by contemporary editors to further the development or construction of a New American Poetry tradition derived from Donald Allen's influential 1960 anthology of that name.  The construction of that tradition via recent anthologies--especially the rhetoric or self-presentation of these texts, rather than their structure, contents, and so forth--is my subject in this essay.[iii]

          Rasula is right to point out the limitations of what I would call the center-margin model that shapes both my chosen anthologies, in their different ways, and to some extent my analysis of them.  One such limitation is the risk of a too-easy and falsely stable binarism.  Weinberger and Hoover, for instance, both tend to assume that mainstream poetic practice and ideology is monolithic and that "we" know it when we see it.  As Hank Lazer suggests, however, this reduction of poetic variety to an allegedly monolithic mainstream is itself a "rhetorical straw man of the (similarly multiple) avant-garde" (374).  Nevertheless, if we think of "center," "mainstream," and "margin" as cultural locations that are in process rather than fixed, these misleadingly topographical metaphors can retain some analytic usefulness.  If I seem both to suggest the inadequacy of a center-margin model and also depend on it for understanding patterns in recent anthologies, my point is that this model is growing more complex rather than collapsing completely.  Further, in defense of these texts, a cluster of alternative anthologies, demanding more attention than isolated collections, can more effectively counter an otherwise pervasive anthological inattention to innovative work.  The discrepancy between the level of scholarly attention to Language writing and anthologists' bypassing of it, for example, has meant that commentary on that writing has often been more widely available than the writing itself.[iv]  But with experimental poetries now anthologized in such bulk, not only such inattention but also aesthetic tokenism--the mainstream inclusion of some aesthetically challenging work as a marker for that which can be ignored literally as long as it is represented symbolically--should also become much harder to defend.[v]

          Among the editors of these recent anthologies, Weinberger and Hoover especially apply a center-margin model in their representations of post-World War II American poetry, in a way that openly derives from Allen's New American Poetry.  Weinberger begins his preface: "For decades American poetry has been divided into two camps."  He rightly describes the relationship between these "ruling and opposition parties" as "full of defections, unaligned members, splinter parties, internecine disputes and ideas stolen across the aisle" (xi). Nonetheless, his governing metaphor explicitly invites a replay of the old anthology wars.  Thus Weinberger's concluding historical essay on the post-World War II period consistently pits the avant-garde against the Establishment, upper-case E and all.  He distinguishes "middlebrow" producers of "Official Verse Culture" from "anti-establishment" "bands of rebels" (397).  Again echoing Allen, he also pits the avant-garde against the academy, although this move later becomes problematic when he wants to make "avant-garde" and "academic" synonymous for the purpose of critiquing Language poetry (406).[vi]

          A similar rhetoric of avant-gardism pervades Paul Hoover's introduction to his Postmodern American Poetry--a rhetoric that itself can be seen as one defining feature of the particular anthological tradition deriving from The New American Poetry.  Hoover explicitly makes the "postmodern" of his title synonymous with "avant-garde": "Postmodernist poetry is the avant-garde poetry of our time" (xxv)--a debatable equation, perhaps, but I am less concerned here with the equation's accuracy, and more with the fact that Hoover makes it.[vii]  He frames his introduction with assertions of the continued relevance and vitality, aesthetic and political, of avant-garde practice: "This anthology shows that avant-garde poetry endures in its resistance to mainstream ideology" (xxv), he notes early on, and ends by dismissing those critics who argue "unpersuasively that 'innovation no longer seems possible, or even possible'" (xxxix; my emphasis).  In fact, Hoover operates on a thoroughly progressive model of avant-garde writing, a model that seems driven by a certain anxiety: "The poetry now being produced is as strong as, and arguably stronger than, that produced by earlier vanguards" (xxxix).

          As a Norton publication aspiring to avant-garde status, Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry complicates any debate over center and margin even as it occupies a particular position within that debate.  But Hoover barely touches on the institutionalization of the avant-garde that his anthology could be seen to represent.  Nor, although he mentions it, does he respond to Frederic Jameson's implication that the "postmodern" is synonymous with "mainstream," or at least can be seen as a symptom, rather than a critique, of mainstream ideology--the opposite position from Hoover's own.  For Hoover, as I've said, postmodernism is "an ongoing process of resistance to mainstream ideology," employing "a wide variety of oppositional strategies" (xxvi-xxvii).  Thus he organizes his introduction around familiar contrasts: on the one hand, terms such as "postmodern," "avant-garde," "oppositional," "transgressive," "resistance," "revolt," and on the other, "centrist," "mainstream," "bourgeois self"--terms that mirror Weinberger's sense of "camps," his "opposition," "outsiders," and "ruling party."  Not surprisingly, given this terminology, the mini-history of post-World War II American poetry that Hoover provides has a familiar founding moment: "In analyzing American poetry after 1945, it is traditional to point to the so-called battle of the anthologies," Hoover argues, and even goes on to contrast the "model poet" of each side in that battle.[viii]

          What sense of the "margin" and of New American anthological tradition operates in Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century?  His volume had been brewing, Messerli notes, since 1984, and in this sense it is the project that his 1987 "Language" Poetries interrupted and wanted to be.  As his anthology's Other, Messerli puts forward "the academized bastion of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry" (31)--interestingly, at a point in time when Norton is publishing one of the two texts, Hoover's, that compete with Messerli for a similar textbook market.  He too begins his editorial introduction, then, by implicitly invoking the anthology wars between Allen and Hall, Pack, and Simpson's "academized" New Poets of England and America.  Though Messerli generally leaves unanswered his own question as to "the role of anthologies in general," he does claim that "no major volume has served our own generation" (31) as The New American Poetry served Allen's, and implicitly presents his own text to perform that service. 

          Messerli is not alone among this group of editors in perhaps trying too hard to replicate the impact of The New American Poetry under different historical circumstances that make it impossible to do so.  Marjorie Perloff has argued that recent anthologies of innovative poetics are characterized by two recurrent features: belatedness and buttressing.  They suffer from a kind of anxiety of lateness in relation to The New American Poetry, that is; and they serve to buttress an already established tradition rather than exploring new avenues.[ix]  This view helps put any claims to newness in perspective.  At the same time, however, it provides only a partial description of these anthologies' projects.  For Weinberger, Hoover, and Messerli, unlike Allen, are engaged not just in presenting new work but in historicizing its precedents.  Thus buttressing involves far more than the mere repetition that Perloff seems to imply; it involves maintenance and preservation, yes, but also rearticulation, addition, and critique.  Taken as a group, and allowing for differences in editorial emphasis, these collections go beyond a buttressing of The New American Poetry in numerous ways: in their revival and representation of the Objectivists (in Weinberger and Messerli); in their use of generically hybrid texts and what Stephen Fredman calls "poet's prose"; in their use of visual texts; and in their representation of an experimental women's writing, especially in The Art of Practice, the only one of the group that is fully gender-equitable.[x]

          One way in which Messerli rearticulates the New American Poetry tradition is in his representation of Robin Blaser; Messerli's is the only anthology of those under discussion to reprint Blaser's work.  At the same time, Blaser's career helps illustrate the differences in historical circumstances between Allen's New American Poetry and the contemporary anthologies.  In The New American Poetry, Blaser is one of nine poets (nearly a quarter of those represented) who had not published a book at the time of his appearance in the anthology.  Allen, then, could genuinely claim an introductory and informative purpose for his book.  The New American Poetry gave twenty-seven of its poets, including Blaser, their first anthology appearance.  Today, however, it is highly unusual to find an anthology with such a high proportion of unpublished poets as Allen's, and even rarer for such a text to succeed as his did. 

          The example of Blaser also reminds us how anthologies can serve to highlight affiliations among writers.  In The New American Poetry, Blaser appears appropriately side by side with Spicer,[xi] but Robert Duncan is placed in the Black Mountain section of the text.  Allen and George Butterick's updating of the volume, The Postmoderns (1982), is organized chronologically by birth date, severing the connections among its poets.  But in Messerli, Blaser's work is placed, even more appropriately, between that of Duncan and Spicer--for as Robert Creeley suggests in his foreword to Blaser's The Holy Forest, it was Blaser "who kept the bridge between Duncan and Spicer secure, though it was always precarious" (xii).  Blaser's biographical note in The Postmoderns suggests The New American Poetry as a kind of watershed event in his writing life.  He describes himself as "building a single work since 1960 [the year of The New American Poetry], which when completed will be called 'The Holy Forest'" (383).  For Creeley The New American Poetry served the function of a "first meeting place" for himself and Blaser, and he recalls Blaser's "Herons" as a poem in the anthology that "made actual where we were and had to be" (xii).  For Blaser's own part, he concludes The Holy Forest, which otherwise is chronologically organized, with his New American Poetry poems, as if to suggest that his end--or at least his current resting point--lies in his anthological beginnings.  Indeed, when Donald Allen writes to Blaser that "your reading of 'The Chinese Nightingale' turned me on poetry forever," there is a sense in which we can say that Blaser himself lies at the heart of The New American Poetry.[xii]

          The construction of this New American anthological tradition is furthered and complicated by Dennis Barone and Peter Ganick's The Art of Practice, which both extends New American poetic practice and critiques its predecessor anthologies.  This is one sense in which it can be seen as an anthology, in Daniel Barbiero's term, of "post-Language" poetries.[xiii]  While Practice's 45 poets is close in number to Allen's 44, the earlier text does not seem to be a model.  Rather, in the editors' words, "the impetus for this anthology was two [other] previous ones," Silliman's In the American Tree and Messerli's Language Poetries.  There are deliberately no overlaps with either of these collections.  At the same time, Barone and Ganick share with Allen, Silliman, Hoover, and Messerli a sense of resistance to the institutionalized poetics of their own historical moment: they construct an anthology "opposed to the so-called natural free verse poem," on the assumption that "poetry is not the place for expression of common or authentic voice" (xiv, xiii).  (The fact that The New American Poetry helped promulgate a poetics that, in the debased form of the notorious workshop lyric, became a later version of the "academic"--that the collection generated both its own tradition and that tradition's antithesis--is the subject for another essay.)[xiv] 

          While Barone and Ganick describe their organization as "somewhat democratic (not chaotic or autocratic)" (xv), it's hard to tell exactly what these terms mean in context (the volume's admirable gender equity being an issue of distribution rather than organization of space).  Beyond local appropriate juxtapositions, such as placing the work of co-editors Jessica Grim and Melanie Neilson side by side, the principle of organization remains largely submerged.[xv]  A "democratic" organization does show up, however, in the refusal to elevate any one poet or group of poets to accrediting or originary status.  Indeed, Practice begins and ends with anti- authoritarian tropes.  In an implied critique of the Allen-Weinberger-Hoover privileging of the notoriously phallocentric Olson and of U.S. writing, this anthology of North American writing begins with a Canadian woman poet and editor, Susan Clark, and ends with a barely published younger Canadian poet and editor, Louis Cabri.  The editors appear as the second and penultimate selections: close to (but, importantly, not actually) framing the collection, but still not pretending disingenuously to merge or hide.

          In one sense, however, Ron Silliman becomes an accrediting figure in the text, by having the last word--an afterword--and historicizing the collection.  Reversing the anthology's title in his afterword, "The Practice of Art," Silliman places Practice in the New American Poetry tradition without precisely connecting it to Allen's anthology.  He describes the collection as "a survey of the broader horizon of the progressive tradition in North American poetry," and on this basis differentiates it from his own and Messerli's first anthology, which did not "set out to represent the big picture of what we might think of as Post-New American Poetry" (372).  If "margin and center have shifted over the past decade," that shift has occurred partly within the margin itself, in the form of "a critique by example of a narrowly configured (and macho) language poetry" (372).  Thus a "critical response to language poetry becomes an unspoken unifying principle of Practice" (375).  This critique is precisely what I think the notion of buttressing cannot accommodate.  At the same time, in this consciously historicizing and canonizing afterword (one half of a framing context that also consists of the editors' more aesthetically oriented introduction), Silliman devotes much of his argument to constructing a New American Poetic lineage.  He argues that "Practice's passionate relationship to the New American Poetry of the 1950s and '60s may be more visible than that of the Tree only because of the lower level of militancy in editorial focus"-- more visible, note, but not more genuine.  Then he turns to a specific example from Practice to reinforce this construction of a lineage: "[Norman] Fischer's work offers the quintessential evidence for the argument that language poetry (so-called) embodies a direct extension of the New Americans, albeit an extension that transforms and problematizes its own understanding of what came before" (374). 

          Repeating his gesture from In the American Tree, where his list of exclusions is longer than his list of inclusions, Silliman goes on to name 93 writers who could have been included in The Art of Practice.  He concludes, collating inclusions and exclusions across both texts, "that more than 160 North American poets are actively and usefully involved in the avant-garde tradition of writing is in itself a stunning thought" (377).  Stunning indeed, though not in an entirely benign sense.  This statistic has various possible implications.  From one point of view, such numbers make the avant-garde robustly unassimilable simply because of its size.  From another, they intensify, even necessitate, the tendency to reify the avant-garde in the work of a selected handful of writers (Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Michael Palmer are some of the current popular choices).  There is by now a substantial, if short, history to the critical trope that invokes "so-called" Language writing (it's always "so-called") and then "explains" the label by trotting out a list of paradigmatic names: "the so-called Language poets, such as . . ."  From yet another perspective, the idea of an avant-garde becomes meaningless once it refers to at least 160 writers in a single historical moment.  That avant-garde is close to the size of its mainstream Other.

          If we are to see recent anthologies of innovative writing as engaged in the ongoing construction or buttressing of a New American Poetry tradition, what kind of consensus on that tradition do they achieve?  Despite the different purposes, criteria, and to some extent periods covered by Hoover, Weinberger, and Messerli (to turn to the more historically inclusive collections), sixteen poets appear in all three texts.  Of 287 selections from these sixteen writers, however, not a single selection appears in all three anthologies.  Further, out of that 287, only 9 poems overlap between even two of the anthologies.  The closest these texts come to consensus is that they each reprint sections (though different ones) from Clark Coolidge's At Egypt.  (Also, regarding the writers they agree on, there's only one minority, Amiri Baraka, and one woman, Susan Howe.)  Is this fruitful difference?  Is it tradition as heterology?  Is it sensible marketing strategy, with each anthology seeking to differentiate itself as it covers somewhat similar ground?  Or is it incoherence?  Given such differences, what might the notion of a New American tradition mean?

          These are questions beyond the scope of this essay, but it seems crucial at least to raise them, and to relate them to others: to what extent do such terms as "margin," "avant-garde," "mainstream" remain critically viable, especially when none of them can be monolithically defined?  How will we continue to negotiate aesthetic and socio-cultural definitions of the "marginal" that are frequently at odds with each other?[xvi]  In a recent interview, Lyn Hejinian acknowledges how the anthologies that I have discussed complicate relations between "mainstream" and "margin":

My career's ended up so much better than anything I would have dreamed could possibly happen, that I could never complain about being excluded.  So much good has happened.  I don't have any justification for being pissed off.  As we're looking at the end of this century and these huge anthologies that are coming out, this correspondence [among poets] with complaints about being marginalized is going to look pretty ludicrous.  The language poets, for instance, are being taught all over the place.  It's not maybe the mainstreaming of the work, but it's not by any stretch marginal. (21)

"These huge anthologies" do indeed render complaints about marginality a little silly.  But they also represent less a mainstreaming, as Hejinian says, than the latest resting point in an ongoing upstream swim against the dominant current--the current represented in a comment from Robert Dole, Senator from Kansas, front-page news on the day that I travelled to deliver the talk from which this essay derives: "The mainstreaming of deviancy has to be stopped."



[i] Although it appeared too late for discussion here, I should also mention in this context Joseph Donahue, Edward Foster, and Leonard Schwartz' Primary Trouble: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (Hoboken: Talisman House, 1996).

[ii] Meanwhile, neither anthology represents exactly what it seems to.  American Poetry Since 1950, self-consciously an anthology of historically marginalized work, programmatically excludes one major grouping within its own tradition of "innovators and outsiders," the Language poets.  Conversely, McClatchy's Vintage Book, in many ways the quintessential mainstream anthology of recent years in its choice of Bishop and Lowell as founding figures, excludes almost all examples of the scenic lyric that for most readers constitutes the contemporary U.S. mainstream.

[iii] For further discussion of Weinberger's and Hoover's anthologies specifically, and for further detail on how other later editors variously modelled their anthologies on The New American Poetry, see my From Outlaw to Classic 30-35 and 179-81.

[iv] Rasula observes that although Language poetry "has been repeatedly and favorably singled out in prestigious scholarly journals" and "routinely discussed in monographs," "there are no language poets to be found in over five thousand pages" of nine of the most visible and widely used poetry anthologies published since 1984 (458-59).

[v] Compare Jane Gallop on tokenism in a feminist context as she quotes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's remark that "'the . . . center welcomes selective inhabitants of the margin in order better to exclude the margin.'"  As Gallop adds, the selective inhabitant "is also there as a token of, a marker for, all the  . . . excluded" (45).

[vi] The self-conscious oppositionality on which Weinberger's anthology rests also seems directed at Helen Vendler's Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, if we read as a polemical gesture his starting with Pound and Williams and ignoring Stevens just as Vendler does the reverse.  This contrast serves as yet another reminder of how larger debates within literary culture--in this case, the thoroughly fruitless and oversimplified argument over modernism as the Pound or Stevens "era"--get played out in anthologies, often in unacknowledged ways.

[vii]  In a further canonizing move, the anthology's jacket blurb--not necessarily authored by Hoover himself, I realize--makes "postmodern" and "avant-garde" synonymous with the category of "major poetry."  The blurb describes the text as "the first anthology since Donald Allen's groundbreaking collection to fully represent the movements of American avant-garde poetry."  This claim is followed by the far more generalizing and less tenable one that the anthology "offers a deep and wide selection . . . of the major poets and movements of the late twentieth century" (my emphasis).

[viii] The alleged characteristics of these opposed "model poets" are familiar enough that they do not need reiteration here.  On a related issue, however, the "battle of the anthologies" is usually taken to refer to the differences between Allen's New American Poetry (1960) and Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson's New Poets of England and America (1957), with Hall and Pack's 1962 second edition a kind of follow-up entry in the debates.  In framing the "battle" as one over Allen's collection and the 1962 edition of New Poets, Hoover grants The New American Poetry a chronological primacy that it did not in fact enjoy.

[ix] For a thoughtfully skeptical reading of the belatedness in Weinberger, Hoover, and Messerli, see also Rasula 461-65, who argues that they anachronistically "perpetuate the sectarianism that was manifest" in The New American Poetry's oppositionality and display "a nostalgia predicated on a 'recuperation' of New American poetic dissidents, but the logic is flawed because they've come too late to get in on the fruits of first acclaim" (461).

[x] It is also the case, however, as some commentators have pointed out, that none of the collections radically reconceives the genre of the anthology itself.  See, for instance, Lazer 379 n 8.  Richard Kostelanetz criticizes Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry for excluding what he considers a whole range of avant-garde work that might also have forced rethinking of the anthology's nature: "It completely omits sound poetry, visual poetry, neologistic poems, minimal poems, site-specific poems, video poetry, poetry holograms, computer poetry, and comparable experimental forms" (17).

[xi] Similarly, Clayton Eshleman concluded A Caterpillar Anthology with two selections from the magazine's twelfth issue--eight Blaser poems placed next to poems and letters by Spicer

[xii] The quotation comes from an Allen letter to Blaser read at the "Recovery of the Public World" Conference, Vancouver, B.C., June 2, 1995.

[xiii] Barbiero's review of The Art of Practice is much occupied with issues of lineage and with what is to follow Language writing.  It begins: "The 45 poets included in this collection can all be seen as extending an open-form tradition that runs, roughly, from Pound and Williams through 'language' poetry via Surrealism, Objectivist & Projectivist verse, and points between and beyond."  Thus, "although much of the work can legitimately be thought of as post-'language' poetry," it is also "very much part of a tradition" (7, 13).  While the term "post-Language" does not appear in The Art of Practice itself, publicity materials for the volume described it as containing "over 400 pages of poetry generally considered 'avant-garde' or 'post-Language.'"  For collections that also articulate various forms of a post-Language poetics, see the double issue of o-blek, # 12 (spring/fall 1993),"Writing from the New Coast"; and Spahr et al, A Poetics of Criticism.

            In his afterword to The Art of Practice, Ron Silliman stresses that "it's essential to recognize what this book is not: In the American Tree: The Out-takes or Language Poetries: The Next Generation" (371).

[xiv] Compare Ron Silliman's historicizing of Language writing as involving a "complex call for a projective verse that could, in the same moment, 'proclaim an abhorrence of "speech"'--a break within a tradition in the name of its own higher values" (American Tree xv; my emphasis).

[xv] Barone and Ganick describe their editorial procedure as follows: "We asked each poet to choose his or her work for the anthology, but we asked for more pages than we planned to use.  We then made a selection from each author's work.  We hope that our anthology has some collaborative trace to its presence" (xv).  One appeal of this approach is that it allows the poets significant input into the anthology's contents.  But it remains unclear how one would locate the "collaborative trace"--how a reader could tell in what ways, or even if, a selection was shaped by dialogue between editors and contributor.

[xvi] For a thoughtful recent discussion of these issues that successfully problematizes the aesthetic-vs.-sociocultural or avant-garde-vs.-identity-politics binary, see Lazer.  For anthologies that do so, see Lew and Phillips.