Introduction to Best American Poetry 1990
I went to a reading recently—fiction and poetry. It was a warm Indian summer night. The man introducing spoke first about the novelist—her meteoric rise to the top along the fast track. Book awards. Movie deals. The person in question stood up and read wonderful, funny stories. I laughed out loud; listened to the sentences flowing by—their aggressive overtaking of the space. There was no silence, there was the run run of story over it all. It sprayed forward over the unsaid until it was all plot. People changed or didn't. You felt at home.
Then our host introduced the poet—one of our very best. The introductory remarks referred to the "dark times poetry is in." People resettled in their chairs. The man in question stood up to read, looked out at us over his glasses, cleared his throat. He tried to say something funny to put us at our ease, but we weren't. What was he going to do? Where did the wonderful warm sensation of story go? A poem began. Not a little story told in musical rhythms, but a poem. Oh, it had story. And it was music. But it seemed to begin out of nowhere. And it moved irrationally—by the standards the fiction had set. It leapt. It went too suddenly to the heart of the matter. Why was I feeling so uneasy? I didn't feel myself thinking anymore. I wasn't feeling lifted or entertained. My hands felt heavy. My body felt heavy. The air into which language had been pouring for almost an hour felt heavy.
Then I started to hear it: the silence; the words chipping into the silence. It felt loud. Every word stood out. No longer the rush of sentences free and unresisted into the air. Now it was words into an element that was crushing in its power and weight. I thought of Sartre's notion that prose writers tame language and that it's up to poetry to set it free again. I thought of the violence from within summoned up to counter the violence from without. I looked at the man and listened. His words cut into the unsaid and made me hear it: its depth and scope; its indifference, beauty, intractability.
Listening, I became aware of how much each poem resisted the very desires that the fiction, previously, had satisfied. Every word was clear, yes, every image clear—but the motion of the poem as a whole resisted my impulse to resolve it into "sense" of a rational kind. Listening to the poem, I could feel my irritable reaching after fact, my desire for resolution, graspable meaning, ownership. I wanted to narrow it. I wanted to make it into a shorter version of the other experience, the story. It resisted. It compelled me to let go. The frontal, grasping motion frustrated, my intuition was forced awake. I felt myself having to "listen" with other parts of my sensibility, felt my mind being forced back down into the soil of my senses. And I saw that it was the resistance of the poem—its occlusion, or difficulty—that was healing me, forcing me to privilege my heart, my intuition—parts of my sensibility infrequently called upon in my everyday experience in the marketplace of things and ideas. I found myself feeling, as the poem ended, that some crucial muscle that might have otherwise atrophied from lack of use had been exercised. Something part body, part spirit. Something the species should never evolve away from. Something I shouldn't be living without. The poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully, whispered Wallace Stevens.
Yet surely the most frequent accusation leveled against contemporary poetry is its difficulty or inaccessibility. It is accused of speaking only to itself, or becoming an irrelevant and elitist art form with a dwindling audience. And indeed, contemporary poetry's real or apparent difficulty has made it seem somewhat like an intransigent outsider—or perhaps a high-minded purist—in the vast, hungry field of American art. And this, in turn, affects how many poets conceive of their enterprise. For how often can we hear that "no one reads it," or that "no one understands it," without experiencing a failure of confidence, however inchoate? And how easily that failure of confidence converts to self-hatred, causing some of us to write articles about the death of poetry, or the horrors of creative writing programs, and others to turn on our own poems, prescribing rules, announcing remedies, saying narrative is all there is or should be, saying self should be ostracized, saying free verse is fatal, or all rhyme and meter reactionary, talking about elitism, about how poetry has failed to communicate to the common reader, until finally we cease to trust the power of poetry. We "accept the limitations" of the medium. We start believing that it is essentially anachronistic. We become anecdotal. We want to entertain. We believe we should "communicate" . . .
One problem might stem from the fact that poetry implicitly undertakes a critique of materialist values. It rests on the assumption that material values need to be seen through—or at least complicated sufficiently—in earnest or truer, or more resonant, more supple values. No doubt many of the attacks against poetry come from those of us who, uncomfortable with our slippery marriage to American materialism and its astounding arrogant excess, wish, however unconsciously, that poetry would avert its scrutiny. Or from those of us who turned to poetry at a more idealistic time in our lives and who now rage against it as we lose the capacity for idealism—dreamers turned insomniacs, accusing the dream of having failed them.
But, these basic issues aside, the difficulty of poetry, even for its most sympathetic readers, is a real one. Or rather it is both real and imagined. Much of it dissipates as one opens up to the experience of poetry. To comprehend poetry one must, after all, practice by reading it. As to "see" modern dance, one must at least know its vocabulary, its texture, what the choreographer chose not to do. As to understand good carpentry one must be able to grasp what the maker's options were, what the tradition is, what the nature of wood is, what the structural necessities were: what is underpinning, what flourish and passion, what decor. Of course, with woodworking or ballet, one can still enjoy what one barely grasps. And such pleasure would also be possible with poetry if intimidation didn't set in: intimidation created by its apparently close relation to the normal language of discourse; fear that one is missing the point or, worse, that one is stupid, blind.
Poetry can also be difficult, though, because much of it attempts to render aspects of experience that occur outside the provinces of logic and reason, outside the realm of narrative realism. The ways in which dreams proceed, or magic, or mystical vision, or memory, are often models for poetry's methods: what we remember upon waking, what we remember at birth—all the brilliant Irrational in the human sensibility. Poetry describes, enacts, is compelled by those moments of supreme passion, insight or knowledge that are physical yet intuitive, that render us whole, inspired. Among verbal events—which by their nature move horizontally, through time, along the lines of cause and effect—poetry tends to leap, to try to move more vertically: astonishment, rapture, vertigo—the seduction of the infinite and the abyss—what so much of it is after. "Ever more ancient and naked states" (Octavio Paz).
In fact, one could argue that poetry's difficulty for some readers stems from the very source of its incredible power: the merging of its irrational procedures with the rational nature of language. So that one mistake we often make is as simple as expecting poetry to be apprehended by the same reading methods and habits that "grasp" prose. While instead—mere practice and exposure to the art form aside—it's probably more a matter of avoiding the interference of fear in reading; more a matter of reading with one's most natural instincts and senses.
That's what is perhaps wrongheaded about the arguments often mounted today against poetry's alleged lack of accessibility to "ordinary" Americans. Aren't such accusations of elitism rather condescending to the people on whose behalf they are made? As if the non-literary men and women of America somehow didn't dream? As if associational logic were restricted to the educated? As if a portion of American readers were only able to read poems of narrative simplicity, having somehow—because of their work experience or background—lost all intuition and sensory intelligence? Isn't this line of thinking, in effect, another sympton of the distrust many of us feel regarding the very core of poetry, its inherent way of proceeding, its nature? I think of Umberto Eco in a recent radio interview: How do you explain that your books, so difficult, sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies in America? "Well," he replied, as if surprised by the question, "in my experience, people, ordinary people, like difficulty. They are tired of being treated like they can't get it. They want it. I give them what they want."
There is, however, another difficulty connected to the poetry of this historical (or post-historical?) moment. It might be best understood as the result of poetry's confrontation with certain aspects of the culture—particularly its distrust of speech and of what is perceived as the terminal "slowness" of speech in relation to the speedier verbal image as a medium for sales (of objects, people, ideas, of verisimilitude, of desire).
As visual imagery largely supplants speech as the language of choice for most cultural transactions (since most constitute a form of sales), it brings with it, in its shadow, new (fin-de-siècle?) attitudes for poets to contend with: a pervasive distrust of thinking people; a distrust of rhetorical power (of articulate speech in general); a disrespect for all nonlucrative activities; a general impatience with depth, and a shortened attention span.
Sound bites, shortcuts, clips, trailers, minimalist fragmented "dialogue," the Reagan-era one-liner on the way to the helicopter: the speed with which an idea must be "put across" is said to be determined not just by monetary considerations, but by the speeded-up, almost decimated attention span of the bored, overstimulated viewer who must be caught, bought, on the wing, as he or she is clicking past, "grazing" the channels, wanting to be stopped, but only momentarily.
As a collective emotion this distrust of language is, of course, one that each of us is free to subvert, override. But precisely because it is a collective emotion, it is one that much poetry inevitably incorporates, explores or enacts as not only an anxiety concerning its very reason to exist, but also as an anxiety concerning the nature and function of language, its capacity for seizing and transmitting. . .truth? Even that word seems tinged with regret, nostalgia, in such an atmosphere.
For isn't the essential characteristic of speech, and the particular virtue of its slowness, that it permits the whole fabric to be received by a listener—idea, emotion, fact, product, plot detail, motive—the listener having enough time to make up his or her mind?
Isn't to describe, to articulate an argument, to use language at the speed where the complexity and sonorousness of syntax and cadence reach the listener, to use it so that the free will of the listener is addressed—free will it is the very purpose of salesmanship to bypass? The genius of syntax consists in its permitting paradoxical, "unsolvable" ideas to be explored, not merely nailed down, stored, and owned; in its permitting the soul-forging pleasures of thinking to prevail over the acquisition of information called knowing.
That this is an essential aspect of the activity of poetry as we know it seems obvious, yet in an atmosphere in which the very notion that a reader might grasp or "receive" the poem written by the writer is questioned, on the one hand, and in which the much of the audience wants to be zapped, fast, as it clicks down the dial on the other, the whole enterprise becomes, in many cases, fraught with anxiety.
And though these concerns have been present, to some extent, in the poetry of the English language for some time, it is the vehemence (and in some instances the desperation) with which they creep into the formal, aesthetic and thematic concerns of our poems (and into the very writing process)—the incredible tension between the desire to return to "slower" uses of language and the historical values they still transmit, and an equally strong desire to rebel against the very nature of language—its slowness, its referentiality—that most vividly characterizes American poetry as I encountered it in 1989.
Sometimes the distrust of language results in the refusal to use words denotatively. There are "language-events," for example, that imply a need to rely on other media in order to restore to language the depth or wholeness it seems to lack. As they can't be reproduced in an anthology such as this one, some examples might be of use. A recent work by Leslie Scalapino, for example, whose "instructions" read: "done by four or five people as movements as if the words were music." Or the language-work done for the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company by a number of poets which is used as "music": a long liquid verbal text stretched out electronically, sometimes shattered, to make it suitable as a backdrop to dance. The newest "works" by Jenny Holzer consist of phrases and words (and it seems clear that almost any words will do) carved into granite, projected in neon.
Looking at other temperaments—and, more specifically, at some of the work represented in this anthology—we find a renewed fascination with very high diction, surfaces that call attention to themselves as unnatural in relation to ordinary human speech. This highly self-conscious use of language points fiercely to our distrust of the natural, the spoken—as if to insist that for us, now, the beautiful (the true?) is not in nature but in artifice. It points as well to the problem of subjectivity and the active struggle with Romantic and Modernist notions of reality and the self that so many of these poems enact.
Our so-called Language Poets take a different tack. In their work we often see the dismantling of articulate speech in an effort to recover a prior version of self, a cleaner one, free of cultural association—a language free of its user! In this volume numerous poems work toward the forcible undoing of the sentence, but they also explore for us the notion of right choice in diction, and the whole relationship of choice of word to choice in its broadest sense. In some of the more radical work, the word is privileged over the phrase and the sentence. One can see this as a corrective measure against the political and cultural excesses the sentence is a metaphor for; one can see it, too, as an attempt to redefine the nature of sense itself. In fact, in such poems meaning itself is often questioned as a cultural value, and chance and the inner laws of language are asked to reign as tutelary deities. In them, too, the silence is argued with most excitingly: a silence at times loud and deeply empowered, at times violently reduced to mere white space on a page.
Then there are those who fall, perhaps, under the heading of narrative poets. In them we see a passionate determination to reclaim the power of articulate speech via its more "traditional" methods: plot, cause and effect, the spun web of storytelling. These poems often refuse the swift association, deep economy, leaping of mind, and structural use of analogy which many of the "pure" lyric poets favor. It is as if these more strictly lyric methods were seen as being, in some manner, partially responsible for the breakdown of speech's powers: the holes they allow in the fabric of telling seen as having finally gotten too big, the net no longer able to hold the mystery, the swift prey.
The ambition to reclaim ground for eloquence and rhetoric is perhaps even more starkly visible in the sharp, urgent poems of sheer argument—the lyric essay, which seems to be flourishing, stark offspring of the more classic meditation, also in vogue.
One important formal development is the recent popularity of prose poems. We might think of them as, perhaps, the frontal approach; they are certainly—in many cases—the most extreme in their attempt to use the strategies of "normal" articulate speech to reach the reader. Their number, variety and sheer quality (and the extraordinarily different uses to which the form is put) caused me to think of this volume as, in part, a subterranean exploration of the form.
Yet another battle fought over the power and nature of articulate speech predates our current anxieties. For when we get to the work of some of our so-called minimalists, we are faced with a more historical (and American) distrust of articulateness: "inarticulateness" as stoicism, perhaps—the terseness we recognize in our Western folk heroes—as if to speak a full sentence, to yield to easeful speech, were a sensual activity one cannot, or should not, afford to indulge.
This is verbal reticence of a vastly different order from that caused by the fear or distrust described above. Rather, it is better seen as a metaphysical condition in which language is fully mastered but withheld. It dovetails, in some instances, with the symbolist sense of the alchemical power of each word, or Zen notions of restraint, or the objectivist desire to honor the resistance of the material world and attempt a suppression of ego (George Oppen: "It is necessary to be afraid of words, it is necessary to be afraid of each word, every word").
In most instances this distrust of eloquence is sinewed by the desire for sincerity. The longing for the "pure clear word," to use James Wright's phrase, expresses a deeply-held American belief that the simpler the utterance—the closer to the bone of the feeling—the better the chance of getting the self through uncontaminated by language: speech a vehicle that can "betray" honest feeling when it becomes too ornate or "articulate"; the self imagined as existing in some form prior to speech, inside, forced to translate itself out (a passage that can betray the "pure" self, can misshape, lie).
If we look at the Puritan conviction (still alive as a "law" among the Amish) that to use more words than required—more than the absolute minimum to get the thing said—is sinful, we can feel the dimensions of this belief. The Amish to this day can be shunned for such garrulousness—it being relegated to the level of promiscuity.
There is, however, another version of selfhood: Elizabethan, dramatic, created in performance, created precisely by acts of speech. It involves a whole other set of assumptions about the location and nature of selfhood—assumptions both more "primitive" (as in many native ritualistic dramatic ceremonies by which the self is "invented" or "invoked") and more "sophisticated" (the Language Poets, for example, share the notion of a constructed self—although they tend to regard it with suspicion).
At any rate the notion of a mask or mythic persona created by language competes with the tradition of "honest" speech on American soil, and there are many poets (this reader would argue that it is all the significant ones) who attempt to merge the two impulses: in most instances they marry, apparently happily, and the struggle goes underground; in some the tension between the two is carried out on the surface of the poem.
For others, minimalism of phrasing--or more precisely, decimated, sputtered phrasing--is not a question of reticence or stoicism. Rather, it is a mixture of inward abbreviation and the kind of speediness imposed on the language of someone who wishes to be heard (or to hear himself) above an assembly line. Phrasing fragmented as much by competition with the machine (whose purpose it is to silence the spirit?) as by mental exhaustion. There is an element in it, too, of the coding covert political activity requires.
In yet others, the fragmentation of phrasing would seem to be occasioned by the speaker's encounter with something in the silence that is spiritually overwhelming. One is reminded of Emily Dickinson's "I know that He exists / Somewhere--in silence."
Ultimately, how one extends outward into the silence—narratively, metrically, in fragments, in prose—involves the nature of how that silence is perceived. For it is the desire to engage the silence, and the resistance of that silence, that tugs at speech; silence the field into which the voice, the mind, the heart play out their drama. One cannot run out to play when the field has been replaced by a void. One stays away or walks back and forth at the edge of that void. Sometimes imagining where the field had been works for a while. But more likely one will give up, go home. As the field of genuine silence thins or vanishes for many of us—or is replaced with noise—an interesting thing starts to happen. We hear it most dramatically in the work of many of our youngest poets: the voice is raised; anger, rage, parodic manic energy, irony, violence, push back at the noise to create a space to live in, to think and feel in, the violence from within more violent than ever before perhaps because the violence from without, against which it pushes, is so great.
For some poets the poem is a critique of the powers of representation, so they seem more concerned with the possibility of saying something than with what is said. Such poems present themselves as investigations rather than as conclusions. Words—or the gaps between them—are used to recompose a world, as if these poets were looking for a method by which to experience the world once again. We might find ourselves being asked implicitly where the poem actually is: In the world? In the language? In the reader's interpretation or in the poet's intention? Or does it float somewhere between—and is that somewhere between chance or fate? The only thing we are left with, perhaps, the only bedrock, is the writer's commitment to writing. Notes, letters, journals, findings, memory patches, neo-impressionist accumulations, a distrust of direct statement and direct apprehension; the moral issue becomes, can anyone trust the world enough to write it down?
When we experience a loosening of setting or point of view, and a breakdown of syntax's dependence on closure, we witness an opening up of the present-tense terrain of the poem, a privileging of delay and digression over progress.
This opening up of the present moment as a terrain outside time—this foregrounding of the field of the "act of the poem"—can be explained in many ways. We might consider the way in which the idea of perfection in art seems to be called into question by many of our poets. On the one hand, some might argue today, the notion of perfection serves ultimately to make an object not so much ideal as available to a marketplace, available for ownership—something to be acquired by the act of understanding.
Perhaps more important, the notion of "conjuring up a form with words that resists the action of time" (to use Zbigniew Herbert's phrase) is put into question by the poetics of many of these poets (most radically by the "language" poets, but also by many others—the writers of prose poems, the poets who break their lines forcibly against syntax, the increasingly elliptical lyric poets) because the figures for a timeless, or eternal, realm we can summon up most readily are the nuclear winter, the half-life of radioactive waste, and extinctions of various kinds. Not "eternities" we would, or could, want our poems to exist in. Not the kind we would want to transcend time to inhabit.
A number of the poems in this book—and many others I admired but couldn't include—are longer than average. Perhaps in order to make themselves felt as the field of action, in order to bring to life, via digression and delay, a realm outside the linear and ending—dependent motions of history, narrative, progress, manifest destiny, upward mobility. Their length insures that the motion toward closure will be itself part of the subject. Will it be fought? Will it be earned? Much of the work here that uses of serial (i.e., constantly re-beginning) structures is looking for a sense of form that is not so ending-dependent. It asks, in other words, if perhaps we can no longer afford for Death to be the only mother of Beauty. . .
Finally, many of these works use devices that break the fluid progress of the poem, that destabilize the reader's relationship to the illusion of the poem as text spoken by a single speaker in deep thought, aroused contemplation, or recollection. These interferences force the reader out of a passive role and back into the poem as an active participant. I do not, by any means, intend that the reader become what is sometimes called the "co-creator" of the text. Rather, what I admire in these poems is the controlled way each poet has found to coax the reader into a new—shall we say awakened?—state without handing over the reins of the poem either to pure chance or to that embodiment of chance, the bored, barely willing, barely attentive, overstimulated (i.e., shut down) reader.
Indeed, one could argue that the poems in this collection that do not let us become comfortable with plot, point of view, setting, eventually force us to read in a different way; force us to let music take the place of narrative flow; force us to let our senses do some of the work we would "normally" be letting our conscious minds do. We discover, in the process, that we can trust a deeper current of our sensibility, something other than the lust-for-forwardness, with all its attendant desires for closure, shapeliness, and the sense that we are headed somewhere and that we are in the hands of something. We are forced to suspend these desires, to let the longing stay alive unsatisfied; forced to accord power to a portion of ourselves and a portion of the world we normally deem powerless or feminine or "merely" intuitive.
And then, lastly, throughout this volume, you'll find the undiminished, or unintimidated, eloquence of our classical believers—perhaps only apparently unperturbed by the desperate fray; poets in whom the repose of counted language is perhaps the highest form, today, of bravery.