Joan Houlihan is back for more of the same at Boston Comment, with “How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem, Part IX.”
The argument against responding to these type of articles is compelling – that in a shameless world any form of publicity is good, hence the best way to hasten marginal publications to their doom is to ignore them. However, Joan’s column rather mysteriously enjoys a readership that’s all to willing to comment on it.
Joan’s written nine articles in the past four years for the Boston Comment. The first began with a questionable analysis of the division between poetry and prose as occasioned by her reading Best American Poetry (BAP) 1999. This was followed by an analysis of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (Langpo) which while it parroted some of the basic chestnuts, completely missed the boat. Actually, I was rather horrified to see many of the stock arguments and analyses I used for critiquing lyric/narrative poetry (including some of Joan’s own) in her Langpo article – horrified because such relative arguments designed to specifically critique the standards of one aesthetic ought not to be applied to a mode of expression which consciously holds itself to completely different standards.
(A rough thumbnail sketch of Langpo; it consciously subverted the expected narrative expectations in poetry by foregrounding the language itself in an effort to create a mode of expression which by its very nature would critique the conventions of bourgeois society, rather than using the traditional poetic modes to mobilize various substantive arguments against elements of that society. More broadly, such writings were seen as challenging and undermining the traditional western conception of communication as a speaker communicating an (often written) message to a listener through a neutral and apolitical medium (language); the language poets would argue that in actuality a large number of assumptions and social conventions entered into the process to shape our understanding. By consciously undermining these assumptions, Langpo was thought subvert the hierarchy of the (meaning controlling) writer and the passive (influenced) reader, not through a metaphysical act of “making the poem/communicating a message/destroying meaning”, but by challenging/frustrating the reader’s assumptions about how language and narrative works, how meaning is generated.
It can be argued (I have done so) that Langpo has failed to achieve its goals, and that its analysis of narrative structures and cognition leaves something to be desired. However, to critique the entire project of Langpo without understanding its basic premises is simply poor analysis. One ought not to take a Langpo poem to task for not having a coherent narrative, if by design it’s not supposed to have a coherent narrative.)
Since then I’ve raised objections to Joan’s arguments in several public forums – Joan can hardly fail to be aware of them. Disappointing then that she’s availed herself of none of them for her latest article. Let’s turn to that latest article, in which she critiques the 2004 BAP, edited by Lyn Hejinian, a langpo and experimental poet.
The problem with Joan’s analysis lies in the assumptions that it rests on. To explore these assumptions, it’s important to understand exactly what the BAP is. As I’ve pointed out innumerable times (so it seems), the BAP is a privately published anthology of poetry which selects poems which have appeared in journals from earlier calendar years. Each year the BAP has a new guest editor who works with David Lehman.
The BAP has, so far as I know, no mission statement. It may seem reasonable to assume that any publication calling itself “The Best American Poetry” ought to contain “the best American poetry” per some sort of standard or method or scheme. To an extent. Once one makes a cursory examination of the BAP, you’ll find a wide variety of difference between each issue, depending on who the editor is. Harold Bloom and Adrienne Rich’s cross anthology sniping was a fairly well known event in the poetry world, and should have laid to rest any idea that the BAP was a neutral survey of the best American poetry that equally accounted for the different schools and modes.
Were we to state what BAP contains more clearly and retitle the anthology accordingly, it might read, “An Anthology which Contains Poems from a Small Range of Restrictive American Periodic (Mostly Print) Publications Published Over (Roughly) the Past Year which David Lehman and our Guest Editor Found Enjoyable. In essence the taste of, say, 75 editors filtered through the sensibility of one editor. But that wouldn’t sell books. Hence, “The Best American Poetry.”
Joan quotes Lehman in a different context in her article, but I think this passage indicates that the BAP itself is quite up front about its role in the contemporary American poetry scene:
Anthologies are selective; they project an editor's taste, but they are also exercises in criticism. Their job is not only to reflect what is out there but to pick and choose among the possibilities. Whether they set out to reinforce the prevailing taste or to modify it, they sometimes end up doing a bit of both.
Given the nature of the poetry world, often the largest publications like Poetry are well represented in the BAP, so too are the poets who garner most of the major prizes, as are a significant number of poets who have “name” status. Other spots will probably reflect the dominant aesthetic or passing interests of the rotating editor. The reasons for this shouldn’t be a mystery at all.
Hence I find it remarkable that on the face of it, Joan’s article assumes that the 2004 BAP ought to contain the “best American poems” measurable by some objective standard.
She begins her critique by juxtaposing excerpts from two poems which, on the most cursory examination, seem to fall well within the orbit of Langpo. Joan’s critique of these poems is that she cannot compare them because she cannot understand them, neither, apparently, on a narrative level (on which the poems are clearly designed not to be “understood”), nor on the level of poetics. In many ways, the poems accomplish their mission, frustrating Joan’s rather bourgeois obsession with “rank.” Which of the poems is “best” she wonders? Not being able to discern this via her usual modes of apprehension is problem. Yes, indeed.
The argument (one from ignorance) which I like best in this section is: “Consider the riddle another way: how do you determine the better, if not best, passage of Greek or Latin when you don't understand the language?” The answer, rather obvious to my mind, is that if you want to judge between the passages, or critique someone else’s judgment of the passages, you ought to learn the languages. Or you ought to begin to assess the question you asked – can one in fact choose a “better” or “best” passage from two such radically different languages, each with their own individual aesthetic parameters (to say nothing of the literary modes the passages would participate in).
However, frustration of narrative “meaning” does not in fact imply the poems are incomparable. Joan’s implied argument that there is but a single touchstone (narrative coherence) for evaluating poems should be approached suspiciously. One, could in fact, analyze a poem in many ways absent narrative meaning – the texture of the sounds, the vividness of the imagery, even how well the poem resists, subverts, or toys with traditional narrative structures. However, I doubt Joan is interested in analyzing the poems on these terms. She’s simply dismissing a mode on the hoary content/from split.
Joan declares what Jeff Bahr and others describe as “elliptical writing” as “critically immune” – but does this simply show a failure to critically engage the writing beyond a rather wordy “I just don’t get it” complaint?
In the second section of her article, Joan bases her critique on the assumption that the task of the editor is to “delimit the space of American poetry” – which strikes me as a rather large burden to lay on anyone. A bare reading of the passage (from the introduction) Joan quotes to establish this duty is best understood as Hejinian simply pointing out that American poetry is in a state of constant flux and that there is no clearly drawn outer limits around it. This seems like a pretty obvious and commonsensical statement to me:
Dynamic, ever-changing, poetry (and American poetry in particular) is a site of perpetual transitions and unpredictable metamorphoses, but there is no end point in poetry. Indeed, American poetry has always been so full of energy and inventive that it is impossible to define poetry once and for all or to delimit its space. What is or isn't a poem? What makes something poetic? These questions remain open.
After tasking Hejinian with this phantom responsibility, Joan then switches tracks and condemns her for shirking this responsibility by writing the following:
Certainly no single poem in this volume is definitive, nor is any single volume in The Best American Poetry series—not of “bestness,” nor of what's “American, “ nor of “poetry”. . .and if this particular volume is in any way typical, none of the volumes are even definitive of their guest editor's aesthetics or poetics nor even of his or her “tastes”.
Again, this seems a perfectly straight forward (albeit elided) passage. Hejinian is simply cautioning the reader against the very assumptions that Joan is eager to make, eager to have Hejinian embrace – that the volume contains ““The Best American Poetry” per some sort of easily identified standard or method or scheme.
Tastes and aesthetics change over time, sometimes rapidly, and it would be (perhaps) a poor poet/editor that could not reach outside their own compositional sensibility to include poems which are in ways somewhat alien to that aesthetic. As Hejinian includes more mainstream poems in the anthology than she herself writes, I think it’s safe to say that some of the poems do not reflect, or are encompassingly “definitive of” her own “aesthetics or poetics nor even of. . .her “tastes”.
Joan then leaps off this into a rather convoluted argument that because Henjinian did not lay out her criteria, there:
1. There are no such standards.
2. Her standards can only be known by other members of the church of new writing.
3. She doesn't believe in standards because there is no “best”—one poem cannot be better than another.
None of which logically follow. It’s quite possible, likely in fact, given that other editors in this series have not explained their selection process, that Henjinian had standards for selection, but that she simply did not choose to articulate them in her introduction. Undaunted, Joan seizes on the absurdist argument that Henjinian should have included everyone in the anthology – perhaps largely because Henjinian writes, elsewhere in her introduction, “I don’t believe in “bestness.””
However, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that Hejinian might well believe some poems are “better” than others in the sense that they discretely accomplished something within their modes of composition relative to other poems. Indeed, Hejinian might simply be pointing out that excellent poems might have been excluded from the anthology on the basis of space, or non-publication, or through simple oversight on the editor’s part (we couldn’t expect an editor to survey the entire body of American poetry written in even a six month span.)
Joan then argues that Hejinian should have declined the position of BAP editor on ethical grounds. But given that Hejinian did in fact put together an anthology, and that no one is forced to buy such an anthology, this argument seems to have no value, especially considering that none of Joan’s prior arguments are of particular interest. I’d say the same for the article and series as a whole, but it did manage to distract me for an hour and a half.
As a final irony, Joan breaks out the trumpets and accuses Hejinian “and her fellow practitioners” of “dispensing with the craft required to achieve their best, and instead promoting a cult-like worship of the idea that everyone and everything is equal, that no poem shall be left behind.” I always find it fascinating when the true biases of an argument creep forth in the flourishes – for who are these “fellow practitioners” but other experimental poets? The charge is not that Hejinian has selected poor poems, or poorly selected poems, but that she has “dispensed with [her] craft” – a charge most likely leveled against Heninian as a poet, not as an editor. The equation of such poetry to a fundamentalist church and the Bush administration is particularly noxious as traditionally the Langpo poets have been found on the very far left of the political spectrum – indeed, some of the most politically active, intelligent, and compassionate humans I’ve know have been Langpo/experimental poets.
The thought in this article is consistently sloppy and finally reveals itself to be little more than a thinly disguised screed against experimental writing in general. While I tend to be highly critical of the claims of such writing, I think the proper thing to do is to meet it on its own merits, something noticeably lacking here. Ultimately, I think this lack of honest inquiry is corrosive to poetry as a whole, fostering factionalization and reactive squabbling amongst the various aesthetics and schools. As Coleridge noted long ago, it’s a rare critic who will address what a poem has accomplished, who can show exactly why a poem should be valued despite its flaws; most critics simply compound the error of wasting paper condemning things they think not to be print-worthy. A sin which at this moment I feel quite guilty of.