I want to deal with 2 main arguments made by RS (quoted in previous post).

The first argument (to paraphrase) is that American poetry bifurcates into two paths, lines, traditions, models - the Romantic/Amer. Renaissance/Modernist/avant-garde/post-avant, on the one hand, and the "School of Quietude" traditionalists on the other.

The 2nd argument is that the traditionalist camp exerts an inordinate power & influence over the cultural scene, through control of major awards, publishers, etc.

In order to accept the 1st argument, one must, at all costs, put aside any detailed sense of the flow, and the particularities, of American literary history. But it's not that hard to retain a sense of such flow, such particularities : all you have to do is open up what is probably the best-selling, mid-20th-century poetry anthology, re-issued decade after decade, used in countless classrooms, bought & read by thousands : the Mentor Book of Major American Poets, ed. by Oscar Williams & Edwin Honig. Here you will find "avant-garde" moderns (Cummings, Pound, etc.) side by side with Frost, EA Robinson; Whitman & Longfellow and Dickinson & Bryant; Stevens & Marianne Moore & Auden. Of course it's not inclusive - the poets are white, & mostly male. It's from 1950 or so. But you can learn a lot more about the variety & vitality of "central" American poetry - even from this dated collection - than from Ron's historical dichotomy.

Ron wants to pretend that the vital midstream of American poetry history never existed. Why? So he can use his reductive labels to exaggerate the importance of his chosen canon. If you can somehow deny the impact of mid-stream, "populist" poets of the 20th century - the powerful careers of (just for example) Auden, Berryman, Lowell, Merwin, Dickey, Bly, Wakoski, Piercy, Rich, Gary Snyder - I'm thinking of the standing-room-only crowds at their readings, the big sales of their books, 1950s-1970s - if you can somehow pretend those things never happened - then you can present a simplified version of that history, which is really an insult : both to the intelligence of readers, and to those dynamic & resourceful careerist-poets themselves. They didn't depend on some cabal of old white guys at Lofty Publishing Houses to make themselves well-read, famous & influential. But... but... if they never happened, then look how Important the "New American Poets" (Olson, Beats, NY School, post-avant) suddenly seem to be!

And I haven't even begun to dismantle the simplifications involved here. The idea that American poetry somehow subtends like a spider from either the early American experimentalists (Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville) or from stuffy old Anglos (Tennyson, Housman, Kipling) is just utterly ridiculous. Where do you place Eliot in this scheme, and where do you place the New Critical dominance of mid-century poetics, which one could quite seriously argue developed out of Eliot & Pound by way of Frost & Stevens (or vice versa!)? The fact is, American poetics developed a dynamic of its own, filled with crosscurrents & dichotomies & contradictions, drawing both on Eliot's notion of "tradition" and on Emerson's notion of "invention" (see Langdon Hammer's wonderful book Janus-Faced Modernism, on the interplay between Crane & Tate, and the consequences for the academic poetry establishment, for just one example of the "particularities").

What irks me no end about Ron Silliman's conspiracy theory of American poetry is the odd image of a displaced "canon" or "prestige" which haunts the background of his polemic. It's as if his theory is built on a single primitive, unrecognized ideal image : that of a mythical Avant-Garde Classic Period, when people like Pound & Eliot could be both heroic, iconoclastic innovators, and supremely prestigious cultural authorities, at one and the same time! Thus the strategic thrust of his complaint : if only we could break down the walls of that whitened sepulchre, the SoQ Establishment, why, then we - the New Americans! - we will be the arbiters! It's a dream of power (oddly parallel to some of Poe's late-career fantasies, when he wandered drunk down Benefit St., here in Providence, trying to woo a bride/benefactor for his projected Great American Literary Magazine...).

As I have tried to imply, the best antidote to a-historical conspiracy theories and fantasies like this, is simply to read 20th-century American poetry, in all its ample complexity and capacious contradictions. And why do we need such an antidote? So that "future American poets" can work in an atmosphere of openness and possibility, rather than within such melancholy, theoretical corridors, dank with the perspiration of resentful struggle - rank with the odor of imaginary, puzzle-palace stratagems.

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