Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Editing articulates value by picking winners: a mass grave at Wounded Knee

Aaron Belz asked for my list of the “top 10 books of 2011” for something he’s writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch & I responded with a list of 18 titles, precisely because the entire concept of “top ten” (or, for that matter, top anything) strikes me as deeply problematic. Since then, even more titles keep popping into my head. Contrary to what one might hear from self-interested gatekeepers (think Vendler), we are living in a renaissance of English-language poetry, so much so that it is impossible for any critic – repeat, any – to read all that is deserving now.

Even in the 1980s, the national boundaries between different national brands of English-language poetry were becoming more tangled by the minute. What, after all, made Tom Raworth a British poet, Steve McCaffery Canadian, or David Bromige, Alan Davies or Anselm Hollo American? One might trace this intermingling back to Stein in Paris or even to Pound’s stint as Yeats’ secretary, but wherever one draws that line, the rise of the world wide web has obliterated such borders pretty much for good. In 2011, I think it’s safe to say that the only national literature produced in English that isn’t widely read in the United States is that of Nigeria. It’s just a matter of time before the division ceases to be national altogether – a world literature complemented by / balanced against multiple regional or metropolitan scenes, as well as a mind-numbing range of affiliational aesthetics, from ecopoetics to LGBT to crip poetry and beyond. Hybridity? Nomadism? You bet.

In my lifetime, the number of titles – of all kinds – published in English & available in the US over the course of one year has gone from 8,000 to more than 1 million. The number has more than quadrupled in just the past decade. If anything, the expansion of poetry over the past 6½ decades has been more explosive than these figures suggest. But if nobody can read even a fraction of what is being published, don’t gatekeepers serve a useful purpose? The answer may well be yes, but it’s not the function envisioned by the likes of the New Critics & their spawn.

The whole premise of whittling down a “best of” list into ten or 50 or even the 175 names posed by Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is that there is some transcendent single point-of-view from which the dozens, if not hundreds, of communities that engage with poetry can be represented by some single shared set of values. That is simply not true. It is insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest, for example, that Robert Lowell represents some pinnacle of literary value while Langston Hughes does not. But it is equally insane, if not overtly racist, to suggest that Hughes represents such a pinnacle & that Lowell does not. Any professor or critic who might argue either of those positions would be manifestly guilty of malpractice and intellectual fraud. At best.

The truth is that each represents a pinnacle of value that expresses the perspective of some specific community. One might argue about the nature of these communities, their size, their relative histories and power – Lowell doesn’t represent the 1% any more than Hughes does the 99 – but it is only when viewed through the eyes of their community that we can actually see the values in their writing rise “self-evidently” to the surface. And it is only when they are put into the far larger complex of conflicting communities that is the United States – let alone the English language – that we can begin to discover what is truly revelatory about all kinds of verse: the ways they lead us right back to real communities.

It is interesting to ask what community is represented by the poet who proposes him- or herself as the representative of some transcendent value (the way Jack Gilbert cast himself as the doomed spokesperson of beauty & inner nobility), but mostly it is very sad. The isolato in American literature is little more than a tribune for the most imperial and corporate of impulses, even when – as in Melville, as in Olson, as in Gilbert – he is conflicted & brilliant. If you are responsible to no one, you are in the exact same position that capital and profit play in the world economy.

What might be noble in such attempts at outsider independence – a resistance to being used by others for purposes that one might find repellant – nonetheless reminds me of the flaw at the heart of Timothy Leary’s old slogan: Tune in, turn on, drop out. There simply is no “out.” It’s as identifiable a location in the game of life as any other. We are all of us on this planet together. You can choose which side you are on, but there is no “nobody’s side” to pick. That one already belongs to Mr. Murdoch, the Koch brothers & their buds.

But even “represents a community” does not mean that we sing with the same voice, or to the same tune even. The problem with the Dove anthology is that of any “best of” collection. It is not that I’m in the book while Rae Armantrout is not, strange as that may seem, or Paula Gunn Allen instead of Judy Grahn or Sherman Alexie instead of Simon Ortiz, and it is certainly not that Dove actually included 175 poets. It is that she did not include at least 175 others for whom one can make at least as strong a case for representation. The Penguin anthology fails to represent America because the reality is far more complex than one book can articulate.

Anthologies that don’t suitably focus in on specific communities are impossible in the 21st century. As are top ten / best book lists. Such lists, like all the various book awards, perform a certain marketing function, calling attention to the mere presence of poetry in the world. It is not an accident that so many of these can be traced back to the industry of publishing – the Pulitzer & the National Book Critics’ Circle are transparent in this regard (one might choose to say “blatant”). But the trade publishing industry, like the academy, has relatively little to do with poetry as such. And when they do, it is to further their interests, not that of poets and their work.

Having said all of the above, there were books that impacted my reading that possess 2011 copyright dates. I’ll talk about them next.