Thursday, November 26, 2009

I have become accustomed to pausing to say thank you whenever this blog reaches a new milestone. Today, eleven months & one week after having passed the two million visit mark, we – you & I together – pass the 2.5 million threshold. Thank you, thank you, thank you. That it should happen today is one of the great little ironies of life.

2,500,000 feels quite amazing to me. To be honest, the 50,000 mark felt stunning when I reached it in August 2003, not quite a full year into this project. If you told me then what the numbers would be now, I would not have believed you.

Which brings up a good point someone on the comments stream, I think it may have been Johannes Göransson, made the other day ( not, I should note, Monday) – that my binary opposition of the two literary traditions, quietism and the post-avant, has become ludicrous. I’m of mixed minds about that criticism. When I look back, as I did Monday, at 28 straight years of quietist Pulitzers, a string still unbroken, I think the empirical evidence is flat out overwhelming. And when I think of Johannes' impluse (see Monday's comments stream) to read literature ahistorically, my instinct is to be distrustful. But when I look at my own blog, and at that list in the left column of more than 1,200 other blogs, 98% of which are likewise discussing poetry, day in & day out, I think Johannes is quite right. The old model of doing business has been irrevocably broken. Something completely new is afoot. If anything, the old binary could make it harder to see clearly just what that is.

How can both of these be true at the same time?

Partly I think the answer is generational. If you came into poetry in the mid-1960s as I did, when poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery & Larry Eigner were still in their thirties, as were Donald Hall, Bill Merwin & Robert Bly, when the Allen anthology was still a new book, Howl less than ten years old & the newly published Naked Lunch something that could be found in relatively few bookstores, the cleavage between the Raw & the Cooked – as Robert Lowell once characterized the two traditions – was a gulf. To anyone who is in their sixties now, or who (like The New York Times) primarily gets their information about poetry from people that age or older, that’s still pretty much the map on which all the pins must be placed. American hybrid? Hybrid of what, pray tell, if in fact that old binary isn’t operating just beneath the surface?

But I’ve made that mistake before, so maybe I shouldn’t make it twice. In the late 1980s, I proposed a model of poetry that suggested that the post-avant tradition was disproportionately white through the social function of narrative within different communities. Never having held the subject position, I suggested, people of color might find a need to explore that while others, having held it for centuries, might well be more interested in exploring its fissures & contradictions.

I caught hell for that, initially from Leslie Scalapino, but ultimately from a much wider range of poets, most of them people of color. What they were noticing that I had not was that the composition of younger poets had already changed not only on American campuses, but in the key metro areas that serve as incubators for so much that is new. You might in turn explain this by noting that the middle class itself had already expanded beyond the white enclave one sees, say, today in Mad Men’s recreation of the Sixties. The 1980s were not the 1960s & I was wrong for not noticing.

Still, my outdated vision might have led one to expect that one day we would find a list of finalists for a major prize, such as the National Book Award, divided neatly between white post-avants & black conservatives – exactly the circumstance this year. (And, I might suggest, not the last time we’ll see that particular configuration.) Yet already Nate Mackey has won a National Book Award, so the historical narrative of all this comes as it does in real life, jumbled. The reality is that we live in a transitional period in which all of these phenomena can occur pretty much in any sequence at any time. There is not a right or wrong position here, tho there might well be a “less interesting” or “more interesting” one, which will vary depending on the position of the reader.

But it’s more important to recognize that while 1980s were not the 1960s, the teens of the current century – which get under way in less than 40 days – will not even remotely resemble the 1980s, and may even be more different from the first decade of the new millennium than this old fart is ready to concede. To be a young poet today is to come into a scene where there are already more than 1,000 blogs talking about poetry. I can’t imagine that world, even as I see it right here on my own web page.

So Johannes is unquestionably right. The old binary is just that: old & binary. It’s entirely inadequate to describe the scene of today, even as the inertia of that binary continues to drive some of the phenomena & some of the behavior. The old model will prove even less adequate tomorrow. The real question is, or should be, what models better characterize what is going on now, and what will be going on tomorrow?

Thus my own goal, going forward, will be to get my head out of the 1980s, the 1970s (the focal point, after all, of The Grand Piano project) & the 1960s, at least into the 21st century. Not that I won’t note the inertia of the past as it plays out in the present when that seems appropriate. But because I think the readers here deserve a response, however tentative & groping it may be, to the more interesting question: What’s next?