Scattered thoughts toward an essay I will probably never get around to writing :
Pity the critic trying to make sense of contemporary poetry in the United States (as a single, whole object of study, that is).
We don't usually pity critics, rather we commiserate with the objects of their criticism; but in this case we might want to make an exception.
I can't really take on such a study myself, since I have trouble sustaining the necessary amount of interest in reading so much verse...
but I'll toss out a few partially-formed ideas here, anyway...
One thing that strikes me about this "field" or phenomenon is that it is somehow lopsided or asymmetrical. It resembles a tilted cone or gibbous moon. In order to explain this, I would, in turn, rotate (90 degrees) Ron Silliman's much-remarked distinction between "school of quietude" and "post-avant".
At one end of this ovoid ellipse I would place the QUIET. At the other end I would place the LOUD. But I mean to apply these adjectives, not, as in Ron's sense, to a certain manner or set of traditions, but rather, to the actual volume of critical discussion, gossip, debate, promotion, talk-about, etc.
The LOUD end of the spectrum might be described as the "range of aspiration" (or exhalation).
Who lives at the quiet end? Established, successful poets, for the most part; also a wide range (though not all, by any means) of the modest workers in the field of academic writing programs.
Axiom # 1 : there is an inverse ratio between a U.S. poet's level of professional success and the amount of talking or writing they do about poetry in general - ie., criticism. (I guess I myself am the most perfect example of this fact.)
What are the reasons for this situation? I'll have to do some more pondering about it before answering : but off the cuff I can think of a few possible reasons :
1. the traditional reticence of artists and craftspeople with respect to explanation. Some artists actually believe this is not their business.
2. professional prudence. The less you say, the less you rock the boat, the less enemies you make, the less you offend.
3. the great difficulty in saying anything useful or true about the field as a whole (not only because of its great diversity & its many mutual antagonisms & jealousies - & not only because characterizing the art of an era requires a high degree of taste, knowledge and acumen - but also because of this very quiet/loud asymmetry itself!).
It seems to me that this quiet/loud divide fosters and promotes other divisions - such as between "progressive" and "conservative", "experimental" and "traditional", etc. Because of the paucity of a general criticism, these tendentious, partisan bracketings and brandings spread like weeds to fill the void.
There are poets who are "quiet" merely out of prudence & caution, or lack of imagination. There are others who are quiet out of necessity : because they have no words to explain what they're doing. This is not always a weakness or a fault.
In fact, again contra Ron Silliman's "quietude/experimental" binary, I would suggest that deep in the shade of the "quiet" end of the spectrum or cone I have been describing, there are poets undergoing the quiet labor of refinement, of refining their art. & I would here re-emphasize something I noted in a recent post : poetic excellence is anachronistic. Literary development is not chronologically progressive; it is logically metamorphic. It is a flowering, not a development in time. Why? Because excellence in art is the conjunction of 2 things : the individual artist's inner growth with the perennial resources of the chosen medium.
This kind of "quiet" can appear really at either end of the literary scene, viewed in its social aspect. Which is why the really good poets seem always to destroy the neat categories set up by commentators to explain them. They have of necessity outgrown their origins, their parochialism, their "school".
The trouble is, there is so much QUIET at the established end, and so much aspirational NOISE at the chatty end, that a sense of our era, of the poetry of our time, is shrouded in a kind of a-symmetrical, highly-professionalized & heavily promoted, haze...
... or maybe it's just me - my own fog...