I was supposed to be writing an essay on American poetry of the past 20 years—a synoptic essay commissioned by the poet and essayist Rowan Ricardo Phillips, whose own poems you should read, though I cannot officially recommend him without noting that he is a friend—but in these recent months I have found myself increasingly unable or unwilling to write such an essay.
I took a stab at such in 2012, when invited to Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, to give a talk on US poetry since the millennium. The topic of the conference, “The Rainbow of American Poetry,” seemed even then a bit Benetton-ish, shimmering hopefully with a neoliberal, multiculti Obaman glamour, or with a melancholy residue of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and a dash of Pride—not that this was the Czech organizers’ aim or fault. They were generous and sharp; the conference was stimulating, the incisive papers by Czech and Polish and Irish students and teachers illuminating.
I would have to consult my notes to be precise about who spoke, on what and whom, but my notes, like my books, are in my largely inaccessible office at NYU—so to write any kind of newly oriented, grounded essay, worked up from books and passages (how terribly old-school), is beyond me: though of course almost everything is on the internet, yadda yadda, so it’s not quite right simply to blame COVID-19 and remote books for this impasse.
In the notional essay that I am not writing on American poetry, I would likely and perhaps all too conventionally have begun by pressing on that wounded, wounding noun and adjective “American.” “What’s American about American Poetry?” is the title of a characteristically stylish lyrico-critical poem by Joshua Clover, whose book The Totality for Kids (2006) I invoked some eight years ago in Olomouc, alongside other work pressing on the political economy of literature and the question of the state. There I noted divergent registrations of the crises in and of finance capital in Clover’s work, and in Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation (2010), Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown (2009), and Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf (2008)—a book whose very title is a translation of a phrase from Goethe’s Faust: the heaven-sent leaf = paper money. In this essay I might have catalogued other poets I admired (e.g., francine j. harris, Harmony Holiday, Devin Johnston, August Kleinzahler, Anthony Madrid, Sara Nicholson, Linda Norton, Katie Peterson, Susan Wheeler, Fiona Wilson), noted some trends and deformations and impasses and energies, and surveyed a poetic landscape transformed, pluralized, and dynamized by workshops, retreats, collectives, and organizations like Cave Canem, CantoMundo, the Dark Noise Collective, Kundiman, Belladonna.
But I am tired of catalogues and catalogue poems, and of surveys and surveillance—though I appreciate a bird’s-eye view of the terrain as well as anyone.
But what is the terrain? And whose?
Which bird, whose eye?
The passenger pigeon went extinct in 1914.
I might have said that some of the most arresting American poetry these days is likely not to be in verse, nor lineated, that it is likely to shape itself along a prose axis.
But that wouldn’t necessarily be saying very much. Newsflash, note to self: not all prose poems, or poems in prose, are alike. Nor are “lyric essays.” The mordant essais and parables of Anne Boyer’s Garments against Women (2015); the disjunctive, resonant paragraphs of MC Hyland’s The End (2019); the dystopian fables in Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (2019); the reverberant philosoundings of Fred Moten’s All That Beauty (2019); the “scripts for situation videos” in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014); the spare, devastating scenes in Prageeta Sharma’s Grief Sequence (2019); the forensic-erotic inventories and ekphrases in Donna Stonecipher’s Transaction Histories (2018), or her entries in Model City (2015); the incisive anatomies of feeling and encounter in Yanyi’s The Year of Blue Water (2019): we could call all these “prose poems,” sure, but that won’t get us very far in considering the specificities and complexities of their work—
As in Boyer’s negations:
When I am not writing I am not writing a novel called 1994 about a young woman in an office park in a provincial town who has a job cutting and pasting time. I am not writing a novel called Nero about the world’s richest art star in space. I am not writing a book called Kansas City Spleen. I am not writing a sequel to Kansas City Spleen called Bitch’s Maldoror. I am not writing a book of political philosophy called Questions for Poets. I am not writing a scandalous memoir. I am not writing a pathetic memoir. I am not writing a memoir about poetry or love. I am not writing a memoir about poverty, debt collection, or bankruptcy. I am not writing about family court. I am not writing a memoir because memoirs are for property owners and not writing a memoir about prohibitions of memoirs.
Or Stonecipher’s flânerie and urbane diagnoses:
To a person, everyone she aimed her camera at would demur, “Oh, I’m really not photogenic.” Which, when she thought more about it, could only mean that everyone thought they were better-looking than they really were. The covert exhibitionists liked to hang out in banks, on subway platforms, and in front of embassies, sneaking glances at surveillance cameras with their sexy gray shoulders.
Or Yanyi’s economical devastations:
She tells me she feels guilty for giving birth to me. What I am—I’ve gone further than gambling, drug addiction, death—I’ve killed the image of her daughter. I tell her she must feel so much pain, that I understand what she’s going through. Then I hang up.
I might have said that the most compelling poetry in America is likely not written (only) in (“standard”) English. I might have invoked the work of Raquel Salas Rivera, his striking books of the past several years, including lo terciario / the tertiary (2018)—written in response to the PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act) Bill—and while they sleep (under the bed is another country) (2019), which refuses the logic of normative translation, of “home” and “target” languages, of delivery-for-consumption. Such work insists on opacities, differential access, on monoglot English-language readers having to just suck up not getting it. The poet pursues ferocious inquiries into sociality, intimacy, precarity, the Puerto Rican diaspora, the condition of Puerto Rico, the US federal “response” post–Hurricane Maria, and the ongoing disaster of state-sponsored dispossession.
I might have discussed Cathy Park Hong’s linguistically profligate, formidably inventive work (e.g., Dance Dance Revolution, 2007, and Engine Empire, 2012), her world-building, her exploration of globalization-as-differential-condition, her rewriting of expropriative, exuberant boomtown discourse—whether of the American frontier or of a fictional contemporary Chinese city or of a future city of data, “the World Cloud.” I might have noted her insistence that she is writing out of / from / into “bad English,” an insistence I resisted at first because I registered her work as virtuosic, and how could work committed to “bad English” be virtuosic?
How could this be?!
I might have thought a lot harder about “virtuosity,” whither and whence and whose, and assessed by whom. Not to mention “bad” and “English.” I might have thought a lot more about im/migration, inheritance, futurity, affiliation, hierarchization, reparation, invention, alienation, provocation.
There are many questions I have been brought to pose to myself, other questions I have needed to abandon or reframe.
I might have written more extensively about Rankine’s work, as many have and will continue to, about Rankine as perhaps the most prominent public “national” poet since Robert Lowell (see her recent poem on the cover of the New York Times Book Review), a writer whose Citizen was, among many other things, a work of “publicly listening,” of disquietingly forensic civic (and transnational) listening, as well as transmedial inquiry and critique. Rankine puts extraordinary pressure on the terms “an American lyric,” the subtitle of two of her recent books. Eight years ago, in Olomouc, I invoked her Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004): a ramifying weave of observation, critique, brief essay, telling anecdote. I might have further explored its interest in depression, affect, the seepage of post-9/11 discourse into the mind’s atmosphere; its alertness to impasses in family and social life, to glitchings, botchings, breakdowns, and media static: well, that is a book that has more than held up.
I might have considered how various critical descriptors and tags from 10 or 15 or 20 years ago now seem very much of another moment—e.g., the “elliptical poetry” identified by Stephanie Burt, or my own passing notice of an early 21st-century “idiot-savant” trend, or the long hangover of “neoformalism,” a poetic club no one wished to join (as A. E. Stallings put it). “Hybridity,” “Conceptual poetry”: next!
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It’s long past time to rethink or retire the often-unthought tag “formalism,” which until recently meant “invested in dead white male forms.”
In revolutionary times most people do not want ellipticism. They often don’t want games, wit, whimsy, elusiveness, allusiveness—unless it’s pop allusiveness. They don’t want a hybridity that evades or sidesteps antagonism. They don’t want a conceptualism based on racialized extractivism, dispossessive appropriation, violently de- or recontextualizing logics.
They don’t want a formalism unless, say, it’s to be found in Terrance Hayes’s astoundingly inventive work. Or in Harryette Mullen’s ceaselessly dynamic work. It’s long past time to rethink or retire the often-unthought tag “formalism,” which until recently meant, for far too many people, “invested in dead white male forms.”
Hello tanka (e.g., Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, 2013).
Hello haiku, renga (e.g., in Tonya Foster’s scintillating, remarkable Swarm of Bees in High Court, 2015, an experimental “biography of a place,” Harlem; and in Brian Teare’s Doomstead Days, 2019).
Hello dozen (e.g., in Danez Smith’s “how many of us have them?”).
Hello duplex (Jericho Brown’s invented form).
Hello “Golden Shovel” (Hayes’s invention “after Gwendolyn Brooks,” gone viral among poets as a template for poetic homage and recombination).
Hello epigram (A. E. Stallings’s “Aegean Epigrams,” on refugees in Greece).
Hello all the intriguing forms and procedures pursued by, yes, some Conceptual poets: Craig Dworkin’s Parse (2008) and the brilliantly minimal Motes (2011); Christian Bök’s Eunoia (2001)—though he’s Canadian (more on nationality later). And hello to all those nonce forms, procedures, and elected constraints pursued so differently, and with different stakes, as in Hong’s formal-conceptual wagers; or Stonecipher’s droll inventories and generative rubrics (as in her latest series, “The Ruins of Nostalgia”); or Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015), which pointedly displays and reconfigures the poetics and politics of racist curatorial labels and inventories; or Srikanth Reddy’s extraction of counter- (or alter-?) texts from Kurt Waldheim’s memoir in Voyager (2011); or Edgar Garcia’s Skins of Columbus: A Dream Ethnography (2019), an experiment in which each night, before sleep, the poet reads Columbus’s journal entries from his first voyage to the Americas—launching a kind of counteroccupancy, a hypnagogic rewriting of colonial space-time.
And so on. And so much more.
I take it for granted that “we are surely living in revolutionary times,” as historian Rebecca L. Spang observed in April in The Atlantic; I don’t take it for granted (yet) that we are in a revolution. (Clover, in 2006: “I do not think the revolution is finished.”) Nor do I take it for granted that what people want (aesthetically, erotically) is what they (we) should have. Politically, OK. Unless, again, they (we) want fascism. This exceeds the bounds of the essay I am not writing.
What is “want”?
What is “need”?
Who are “we”?
Who or what arbitrates?
In his final lecture series, Roland Barthes noted: “Poetry = the practice of subtlety in a barbaric world.” The polymath playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac suggested last year in the New York Times Magazine that subtlety is itself barbaric, or at least a privilege: “Subtlety is a privilege. And so when I go to the theater and I see people being subtle, I’m like: Oh, great, what do you [expletive] want? What are the stakes? What are you risking?”
Here I think Mac may be throwing out the subtlety baby with the privileged bathwater.
Though fair enough, in terms of theater, gentility, the mandate to keep your mainly white bourgeois audience comfortable, or to disturb it in assimilable ways. Fair enough, in terms of poetry. The bracketed [expletive] in the quote above tells you a lot about the policing of “subtlety”—or is it “vulgarity”?—through institutional norms (call it house style). Yet it’s worth noting that in a mediascape and ambient environment often suffused with yells, asseverations, and hot takes, subtlety is itself at times a risk, a delicate stake planted in a damaged field. But there are subtleties and subtleties, no? Kara Walker: A Subtlety.
Communicability and memorability—even memorizability, that old hallmark and promise of the poem—seem more prized in recent years; the ambient buzz of, say, a John Ashbery poem has pleasures perhaps fewer wish to seek. This gets into complex territory about the historicity of pleasure, questions of emergence and emergency. The ratios of the Horatian dictum about poetry—that it should delight and instruct—fluctuate. To offer (or seek) delight can seem grotesque; some want their poems bombs, others balms.
I might have mentioned the work of notable poets who, in their seventh and eighth and even ninth decades, keep publishing new work at a high level.
One might think of John Cage: “A need for poetry.” A need, not the need. Whose need? Many kinds of need, many kinds of want. And also, indifference.
One might register a breezily melancholic poetics of permeability, a mode of extended lyric as attestation, reportage, confession, contestation, reclamation, elegy, both memorious and surfing the now: as in Tommy Pico’s dynamic quartet (culminating in Feed, 2019) of queer indigenous careening consciousness, ecocritical, erotic, sociable, tragicomic, open, whiplashing.
One might register a new ferociously inventive documentary poetics arising in the past decade, one not about testimony per se but about fiercely incisive critique, counterhistories, counterreadings, countermappings, critical fabulations, speculative histories and futurities, polemical reportage: as in (to cite very different works) Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony (2020), Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue (2015), Layli Long Soldier’s instantly canonical “38,” Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus. Or, in a simultaneously intimate and historically alert key, Natalie Diaz’s reconstructive, riverine, erotic postcolonial poetics of the Southwest (Postcolonial Love Poem, 2020).
I might have saluted poets undertaking a kind of new poetic philology in their rigorous inquiries into language, politics, sexuality, gender, a kind of making-through-reading: Paisley Rekdal’s meditation on sexual violence via Ovid and Keats and the Philomela story in “Nightingale: A Gloss”; Monica Youn’s “Blackacre,” which precisely and devastatingly reads Milton’s “Sonnet 19” as a hinge for meditating on the female body, fertility, expenditure. Or I might have noted, in another key, Aaron Kunin’s procedurally exacting, cool work in Cold Genius (2014), or the essays of Love Three: A Study of a Poem by George Herbert (2019). Or (to turn up the temperature, and toward narrative) I might have noted Srikanth Reddy’s large-hearted, time-traveling, translational, metempsychotic catabasis (and portrait of a professorial “sad dad”) in Underworld Lit (2020).
I might have mentioned the work of notable poets who, in their seventh and eighth and even ninth decades, keep on keeping on, publishing new work at a high level—Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Ed Roberson, Rosmarie Waldrop, Jay Wright; or Louise Glück, who broke her style into a newly choral mode in A Village Life (2009).
I might have thought about how new and alternate genealogies and conjunctures have come more precisely into focus, largely through the work of signal poets: viz., Boyer’s Rousseau and Wollstonecraft, Burt’s Callimachus and Kitty Pryde, Anne Carson’s anyone (e.g., Catullus, Euripides, Mimnermus), Hayes’s Wanda Coleman and Etheridge Knight, Hong’s Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Richard Pryor, Susan Howe’s Margaret Fuller and Wallace Stevens, Harmony Holiday’s Miles Davis and James Baldwin, Fanny Howe’s Giorgio Agamben and St. Francis, Devin Johnston’s and Peter O’Leary’s Ronald Johnson, Jennifer Scappettone’s Italian futurist Amelia Rosselli. I might have thought more about affidamento, about horizons of feminist and queer affiliations and mentorship; I might have invoked Maggie Nelson’s knockout tribute to Eileen Myles.
I might have thought about a new or revived or ongoing mysticism or “mantic disposition” (Fred Moten) in work by (e.g.) Will Alexander, Fanny Howe, Moten, Ariana Reines. I might have turned more centrally to Nathaniel Mackey’s decades-long unfolding project, Song of the Andoumbalou.
I might have thought more about US poets living and working and writing from elsewhere: Alice Lyons in Sligo, Kathryn Maris and Suji Kwock Kim in London, Erica McAlpine in Oxford, Alice Notley in Paris, Stonecipher in Berlin, Stallings in Athens.
And I might have noted that among the books that have most stayed with me in recent years are translations: Lindsay Turner’s of Stéphane Bouquet’s The Next Loves (2019), with its propulsive, sinuous, and gritty erotic poems of a queerly mapped Paris. Don Mee Choi’s of Kim Hyesoon’s scarifying body of work, not least Autobiography of Death (2018). Susanna Nied’s of Inger Christensen’s intricate, cosmogonic books, including alphabet (2001) and it (2006). Robyn Creswell’s of Egyptian poet Iman Mersal’s work. Kirill Medvedev’s poetry and essays, translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen, with Mark Krotov, Corey Merrill, and Bela Shayevich. Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s poetry, translated from the Irish by some 13 poets in The Coast Road (2017). Rachel Galvin’s and Harris Feinsod’s electrifying translations of 20th-century Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo’s work in Decals (2018). And from the Czech, Irish poet Justin Quinn’s versions of Bohuslav Reynek, and Jonathan Bolton’s rendering of Ivan Wernisch. Chris Daniels’s Englishing of Brazilian poet Adelaide Ivánova’s muscular The Hammer (2019), with its dramaturgy of rape, jurisdiction, desire.
And in the essay I am not writing, I would eventually have to reckon with the fact that I misremembered the commission for this essay: Phillips invited me to write “a profile on these first 20 years into 21st-century poetry.” Telling indeed how I converted this in memory to an essay on the situation of American poetry. Decolonization begins at home! Or should. Oh, the mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall frightful, and that exceptionalism, that American provincialism, is the loom on which my mind too often unthinking weaves.
I might have thought of the loom breakers in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, of the Luddites.
I might have thought of looting, its etymology. And spolia.
In this time of endlessly announced and denied climate change, I might have noted the expansion of ecopoetics.
I might have reflected that by some lights 21st-century poetry began, in the US, on 9/11. I might have said that I truly hated the Adam Zagajewski poem much circulated after 9/11: “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” Did I hate the poem or the use of the poem? Some friends love the poem. I hate mandates to praise, even if couched as a difficult attempt. The disaster is always already here, right? For whom? I might have said that I have been more interested in poems that say No. Poems that negate, that undo, that hold up a brilliant, refusing, critical, pushing-back, rebarbative hand: work by Anne Boyer (“Not Writing”); Morgan Parker (“Now More Than Ever”); Juliana Spahr’s hilarious, melancholic, complex salutes to “Non-Revolution” in That Winter the Wolf Came (2015).
Not that one might not get overattached to refusal.
Not that I haven’t loved and occasionally written a poem of praise, salute, etc.
And then, too, there is the work that refuses refusal: Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” which even for curmudgeonly me redeems catalogues.
And in this time of endlessly announced and denied climate change, I might have noted the expansion of ecopoetics—and pointed to work that seems to me more than merely conservationist or genially inventorying, palliative “nature poetry”: Brian Teare’s propulsive “Toxics Release Inventory (Essay on Man),” which continues his project of geophysical positioning via lyric reckoning, charting the vulnerability and intimacy of bodies assembled in specifically distressed environs. Or all of Spahr’s work, which has long sounded out the politics, sonics, erotics, and violence of differential permeability—as in This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005); or Cecil S. Giscombe’s sustained poetic mappings, his train routes, prairies, weather systems, regionalisms, and border towns (Ohio Railroads, 2014; Prairie Style, 2008); or Michael Dickman’s deceptively dreamlike suburban dystopian incantation “Lakes Rivers Streams” (2018), which locates us “just upstream from a can of Red Bull and a pollen allergy,” “upstream from a can of Aqua Net and a Pepsi.”
I might have noted that I find myself returning in recent years to two essays, one by Margaret Ronda, the other by Nathaniel Mackey. Ronda’s “Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene” (2013) discusses “impossible elegy” and the complexity of poets’ reckonings with our postnatural world—the world persisting after what some have called (following Bill McKibben) “the end of nature.” Ronda tracks how some poets find themselves unable to subscribe to the generic norms of elegy—refusing or unable to posit “nature” as a repository of value, as unchanging background for solace, or as the figure of persistence and consolation per se. In her view, “nature” isn’t going to do this conceptual work for us anymore. Instead of elegy—with its protocols for the psychic and social reintegration of loss—we have been thrust into a world of interminable melancholia, unresolvable mourning. Ronda, herself a poet, offers a powerful, almost unbearable, work of ecocritical poetics, and en route she offers a dazzling and disquieting reading of Spahr’s poem “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache.”
Mackey’s “Breath and Precarity”—first given as a lecture, in 2016—tracks and détournes mid-20th-century poetic orientations to “the breath” (e.g., in Charles Olson and his epigones). Mackey maps the relations between “black music” (e.g., of Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra) and a “radically pneumatic poetics,” in which breathing and breath are not assumed but, rather, become “an object of attention … no longer taken for granted.” Mackey’s thought reverberates (as he recently put it in the Paris Review) with the stakes of “‘I can’t breathe,’ Eric Garner’s last words, and the entire spectrum of vulnerabilities they bring to mind and that African American art and culture have built an aesthetic on.”
I might have begun another kind of essay on community, how some find it in or through poetry and others don’t. I might have meditated on the many possible dimensions and nuances of community—political, social, artistic, religious, sexual, intersectional, etc.; and in another universe I might have mentioned that when I hear the phrase (or is it a brand?) “poetry community,” I reach for my toy gun. I might have then thought that I can do this in rhetoric or in life whereas others cannot and not risk being killed.
Whose life had stood.
I might have noted the obscenity of all this—but is this obscene, as in off-stage? Not right before our eyes? What is “this”?—and not finished not writing this essay.
This article was commissioned by Rowan Ricardo Phillips.
Featured image: Sheets of Layered Colored Paper (2020). Photograph by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash