Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Is This the Best American Poetry?

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Is This the Best American Poetry?

Article excerpt

The poetry avant-garde continues insisting that it doesn't get enough respect from the mainstream scholarly apparatus, when in fact it has been seamlessly absorbed into the academic machine. In the case of Language poetry, one reason for its proliferation is that this is the ideal correlate to the poststructuralist theory fashionable in the academy since the early seventies. Poetry which takes language itself as the arena of political action, without any ideological content in the old sense, is perfect fodder for critics claiming to take the bourgeois world by storm. There has been no shortage of critics defending the vacuities of experimental poetry as the cutting edge of human creativity.

Marjorie Perloff, in Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media and other texts, has become a key defender of avant-garde poetry. Her argument is that artifice, in the sense of poetry that is clearly derived from playful language games, in the supposed Wittgensteinian sense, is the only acceptable form of poetic expression in the modern age of media. Our selves are fabricated by the tissue of language games the media daily enact, and to engage with our selves means to play with these languages. Does this "procedural" poetry not become the ultimate legitimation of media manipulation of the consuming body, however? Why can't there be an authentic oppositional self not deriving meaning from forms of discourse and meaning aside from media languages? Perloff's answer is that disruption of the language routines is itself the most revolutionary act. She is rather vague on how the reader's discomfort after defamiliarization leads to any sort of political change.

The Best American Poetry 2004 anthology reveals how badly things stand. This volume has been edited by Lyn Hejinian, one of the prominent practitioners of language poetry for the last thirty years, and an assiduous manifesto-producer, as is true of other leading exponents of this variety of the avant-garde. A key characteristic of language poetry manifestos is to insist on this school's marginalization from the mainstream. In fact, legions of journals and small presses exist only to promote this and other forms of avant-garde poetry, and their editors look down on poetry that accepts a stable subjectivity as fascistic trash. Yet like any ingrained establishment movement, the avant-gardists can function only by opposing themselves in Manichean terms against the traditionalists who won't admit their existence. Hejinian has argued, in well-known essays like "The Rejection of Closure," that the open form, "paratactical poetry," or what Ron Silliman has called "the new sentence," puts the reader at the forefront of producing meaning, rather than the old-fashioned authoritative poet himself. Bob Perelman has explicated the critical postures of Robert Grenier, Bruce Andrews, and Ron Silliman, each enacting various forms of openness. Yet after what point does production of meaning become purely arbitrary? If sentences follow each other in random order, making any sort of meaning out of them becomes as easy as the writing of such poetry itself. David Lehman, of the New School and the New York University writing programs, founded The Best American Poetry anthology in 1988, and has been series editor since its inception. His apologetics reflect the same self-positioning as Hejinian in her role as a leading spokesperson of the mainly West Coast language school articulates: the New York School is also marginalized, ostracized, not supported by the establishment, and in constant danger of annihilation through cooptation and compromise by watered-down schools.

The Best American Poetry series is one of the key legitimating tools of the poetry establishment; once an emerging writer lands on its pages, the path to critical acceptance is much clearer--not to mention the lucrative rewards of security in the teaching world. The series is an accurate barometer of the poetry being published in the majority of the nation's many little magazines, particularly the MFA-affiliated ones, and by extension of the state of poetry itself. …

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