Some pretty good polemical battles shaping up over at Dale Smith's habitat, what with John Latta parallelogramming & Kent Johnson slamming, & the objects of their vitriol holding fire for the moment...
Latta has an powr'ful sharp hawk's eye, & barbed tongue, and steady historical empiricism (let's look at the actual poem-stuff, folks), & very often it all hangs together quite effectively. I find the stentorian venting of A. Baraka & some of the quoted Dorn (& can see how it appeals to Kent & Dale) not to be such great poetry, however...
But that's not the main issue here, I guess. The poems & the macho-honcho neo-Pound/Olsonian attitude are imperfect, but what's under contention is the nature of poetry, poetic style itself, & the concomitant stance/role of the poet these days.
We are living in the after-years of an effervescent wave of 80s-90s savvy neo-formalism, as Latta points out. The epic-prophetic poetry of social conscience & public speech has always scraped against the grain of this mode.
The Language Poets had a certain political attitude, combined with a poetic style dedicated to a multiplex effacement : 1) the effacement of the logic of syntax and argument (individual words and paratactic/isolated sentences do not add up to a "statement" of any kind); 2) the effacement of the personal, of a poetry of individual testimony; 3) the effacement of the concept of world-tradition in poetry (this went the way of the other 2 effacements, like the baby with the bathwater). The academic poet-stylist-scholars who took up their methods merely instaurated & extended the "elliptical" formalism of this postmodern moment.
But these & like criticisms have been made by me & others many, many, many times before over the last 10 years. The problem of "groupuscules", the explicit definition of shared goals & methods, seems like one of the thorniest dang hornets' nests in US poetry. I keep thinking this morning that this whole thing needs to be looked at from a new angle. But what that angle is yet I'm not sure.
There does seem to be this inherent, inescapable Teapot Battle, in our poetry, between The Serious and The Blithe. How this happens & how it turns into a Battle is a very complex problem.
One factor is the constant ambient drone of mediocre poetry of every school : because facile, superficial verse lacks the depth & the subtlety to synthesize, to combine the serious & the blithe (or comic). So we have these vigorous noisy feather-fights between Queen Berenice & the Neanderthal, neither of whom are actually producing poetry of much consequence.
Another problem is Polemical Absolutism. It's a kind of one-eyed Cyclopean threat. Poetry is basically centered in the eye of the mandala... dialectics, context fade out. Manifestos are written. Soapboxes are erected. Complaints & caterwauls are registered on various websites. But they are raised up on stilts, which are planted in very thin air - since the threads binding poet to fellow poets to audience to tradition to culture at large seem very tenuous, amorphous, accidental. Poetry is taken too seriously or not seriously enough. We do not know where to draw the line (if line is necessary) between poetry as a profession, a vocation, a kind of public office, and poetry as a right & legacy & inner romantic artistic disposition of every ever-lovin' human being in the whole wide world.
Meanwhile we have a frail, tender kind of established path for professional poets, which leads from MFA training to the professional obstacle course - the struggle for publication, awards & recognition, the search for scarce teaching positions & grants... it's sort of like fundraising is to politics : after a while you wonder if you might not be losing touch with the public at large... & all the blogs (like this one) are out there chatting & babbling & reminding you that you are a poor weak worm of a professional academic creative writer, just tryin' to get along...
But I'm probably mulching over a non-problem, here - since the sifting, evaluating role of journals & magazines & poetry presses is still actual & real to some extent. Let's try to get back to what seems to be the main problem at hand. Let's assume we have contemporary poets who have achieved a certain level of skill - who are successful at getting some poems in print, anyway. I mean, let's focus on them. With these people in mind, we ask : is there a meaningful role for collaborative group dynamics, & the formation of explicit aesthetic goals & literary principles? If so, what should be the guiding, general principles of such activity?
I can't really answer these questions right now. I can only throw out a few ideas off the top of my head.
First, it seems to me that if a group were to form, it would have to form on the basis of an understanding that this is a group of individuals. Collaborative poetry - poetry written by more than one person - is a different kettle of fish. Obviously it's a legitimate & I suppose fun thing to do, but I'm more interested in defining the possible characteristrics of a group of poets with shared goals but individual practice.
Second, I think if a group is going to bother to agglomerate itself for some kind of public effect, it needs to take its didactic role seriously. It's not out there for pure self-promotion : rather, the purpose of its shared activity is to disseminate, by teaching, a certain way of understanding what poetry can be. So the goal would be, curiously, not to strive constantly for new & more powerful & more exciting forms of "attention" from others. The goal would be to clarify, with progressively greater accuracy and effectiveness, those specific principles of praxis and style which they value & admire. In other words, the group would be a critical and self-conscious project of literary development.
The historical record for such activities is not very promising. I think of the Florentine circle around Dante & his friends & predecessors - the "dolce stil nuovo" - which itself grew out of the troubadour tradition and Sicilian poetry. Or the Russian Acmeists, who stemmed from the Symbolists by way of Annensky's idiosyncratic difference. What I mean by "not very promising" is that the challenge of writing well is inevitably a process of differentiation and individuation. The principles of the group prove, eventually, to be not stringent enough - to be inadequate and even counter-productive to the poet (like Dante) who has outgrown them. The dangers of every group & group method are : 1) success breeds inertia; and 2) groups become ingrown, solipsistic - they write for each other rather than straining to reach the reader-at-large, Mandelstam's "interlocutor of the future".
Here in the US we seem to have a situation where, first of all, the organs & institutions of the writerly profession, such as it is, militate toward production and publication, rather than group analysis and critical development. Groups, as a consequence, fail to take themselves seriously enough; the investigation and modelling of basic praxis-principles gets muddled with public relations, turf wars, & petty gamesmanship. Groups remain amorphous, and pretty much dismissed & ignored by "successful" published poets. The American cult of the Individual casts suspicion and contempt on group efforts - they are merely "abstractions" and "verbiage". (For the most part, unfortunately, this is only too true.)
Again, it seems to me, if an effort at group-formation appears valid and necessary to certain poets, the essential preliminary effort would have to involve an honest search for truth : a careful, self-critical, patient examination of realistic goals, capabilities, principles, contexts. What seems valid in today's poetry? How do we want to go about trying to write it ourselves? What, if any, are the aesthetic-literary principles that we think undergird our practice? How should we go about defining and conveying these principles to others?
The total answer to all these is problems is, of course, AIEE! Poetry (just kidding).