Why? What for? What is the point of all this style? This choreography of lingual feints and parries, gorgeous and energetic form without a drop of blood drawn?
Open many of the books published by younger poets since the late 1990s and you will find much to delight the eye and tease the palate: like elaborately decorated cakes in a supermarket refrigerator, such books promise sensational tastes that in the end amount to light confections, dissolving at the tip of the tongue. What I can (and often do) admire about such poems--lingual beauty--doesn’t linger long after turning the page.
I’ve been wondering for a while how much of the poetry of my generation got into such a state of affairs. First and foremost, it seems to me, there was a very real exasperation with the decadent end of the Confessionalist movement, which has informed much contemporary poetry for the last fifty years. By "decadent," I mean the inevitable excesses that befall aesthetic movements in their waning days of influence, when their strengths and fresh approaches have become predictable, indulgent and stale. By the 1980s, Robert Lowell’s revolutionary decision to "tell what happened" had splintered into little camps of disclosure. What the poems of these camps--poems of identity politics, poems of familial violation and abuse, even what Stephen Burt calls the "tiny epiphany poem"1--had stylistically in common was a narrative autobiographical approach where exposition of subject matter often took precedence over imaginative shaping of language and form.
In response to this prevailing aesthetic, some, and then later many, poets became sick of the self overt on the page, tired of poems privileging direct expression (and emotional and sociological content) and yearned to foreground language--its music and typographic materiality, its malleability in service to intuition, chance, and verbal gaming (puns, etc.), the pleasure (and necessity, depending on one’s literary politics) of making it the subject of poetry. For some, the arrival of Language poetry, with its interest in language-as-material and its decentralization of self-as-speaker, provided a necessary and energizing counter to Confessionalism’s by-then tired modes.
Yet this real hunger for corrective, as it plays out in the poetry written by today’s younger poets, is affected by two insidious anxieties. The first is the inevitable anxiety of being one of hundreds (maybe thousands?) of MFA graduates driving for a place, if not in the canon, then at least in Fence magazine. The second anxiety, putting tremendous pressure on the first, is a product of the American tendency to fetishize the new.
True inhabitants of the New World, we have always prized invention and "firstness." Even its more recent (twentieth century) and troubling forms--celebrity and youth worship, the "new and improved" lures of consumer advertising and media hype--distract, entertain and outrage us. For artists, this cultural preoccupation with the new is complicated by the fact that American art in the twentieth century was defined in large part by its newness: by the ways it subverted precursors, whether that be Modernism’s turn away from nineteenth century (Euro-centric) social-realist narratives and Romantic verse or Warholian provocations as to what could be termed "market" and what could be termed "art." In a 2002 review called "The End of the Experiment," Joshua Clover writes, "The 20th is the century in which experimentation became the central fetish of artistic production." And now "it’s to the point where all contest-winning versifiers, but for a few stray formalists and identity politicians, fancy themselves experimental."2 Which is to say, safe.
In a milieu where aesthetic valuation is inconstant and suspect and modes of expression are politicized, "experimentation" can seem the only tradition steady enough to embrace--both because it offers young poets a by now time-honored and culturally approved position (since 1910 we’ve been a nation of avant-gardists) and the possibility of stumbling upon the authentically original. Yet, the drive to "make it new" also propels many a young poet into, as Clover describes it, "at best repeating the once new gestures of last century, and at worst a sort of labored idiosyncrasy."3
True innovation, of course, is impossible without experimentation--those usually intuitive operations that counter or skew prevailing methods of making. Yet the earmarks of today’s "experimental" styles--fragmented narrative, random jumps in space/time, multiple voices and points of view, disrupted syntax and abrupt shifts in diction, to name a few--are century-old gifts. Once truly new tools for Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and other Modernists, these methods often seem now to be appropriated as much for how they seem new (after fifty years of plain-style narratives) as for how they might aid poetic composition--assuaging authorial anxiety at the expense of accessing what makes a poem, in Wallace Stevens's words, "say the little thing it says,//Below the prerogative jumble."4
For today’s emerging poets, Pound’s exhortation to "make it new" has become a kind of whip, with stylistic "originality" becoming the test of a poet’s mettle. Yet, ultimately, "new" and "experimental" tell us little about the quality and character of an emerging writer’s work and the context in which it is made. The terms are too capacious, and, at this point in American culture, come with such a ready set of associations and valuations as to fog whatever clear apprehension might be had of a poet’s weaknesses and strengths.
Am I saying that we must forego surprises and splendors of style? That we must abstain from stylistic play? Never. What I want to advocate to younger poets is to question style, at every step of the composition, publication and reading process. For, whether in the literary media or in the self, it is a lack of questioning the stylistic choices a generation makes that keeps writers and readers from really accessing an individual and essential voice. When Pound tells us to make it new we shouldn’t first ask how--we should first ask why.
1"New Poets on the Block," Boston Review, April/May 2003. Burt defines the weaker examples of contemporary style as being as "deadeningly replicable as the tiny epiphany poem that preceded (them), being exactly the opposite of that poem: the tiny epiphany poem didn’t have to sound good as long as it finished the right kind of mini-story; the comic or ‘challenging’ poems of the present generation, at their worst, need not finish, make or decide anything at all."
2Village Voice Literary Supplement, Fall 2002.
4Wallace Stevens, "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together," Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose.
Copyright © Dana Levin. Appears courtesy of the author. An expanded version of this essay appeared in American Poetry Review.