The Grolier Poetry Bookshop, located a block or so from Harvard Square since 1927, reminds me of the late lamented Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. It's a splendid little store, full of poetry books you can't find anywhere else. It's also a sort of miniature poetry museum. The walls are covered with old b-&-w photos of literary eminences & locals who visited or gave readings there. A comfortable, welcoming place - yet there's a certain air of literate acuity, articulate awareness. Intellectual. Most of all there's a bookish whiff of time & history - of local knowledge, memory, tradition. Sort of a rare thing - a remnant of old weird America, in the midst of young, amnesiac weird America.
Last Friday evening I took the train up to Cambridge for a panel discussion on a fascinating, though inherently impossible theme : "Poetry : What's Next?" I feel for the 3 writers corralled to be saddled with this incorrigible subject. But each of them - Robert Archambeau, Stephen Burt, & Ben Mazer - was up to the task, in his own way. The passionate iconoclast Thomas Graves was also there, sitting next to me (mild-mannered poète maudit) in the back row, and he has issued his own report on these talks.
Archambeau's talk is replete with self-deprecating charm & Gallic wit. It's a sort of spoof on the whole idea of a pompous lecture on a profound topic (Archambeau in person radiates jovial good humor). His pseudo-argument is a scaffold of bold propositions to which "I know you will object" - & then, because he knows we will object, he revises them or shifts to a new dyad of different bold propositions. It becomes a sort of refrain. But there seems to be a common thread to the parade of assertions. He sets poetry within the framework of cultural history, the long view ("the past is hard to predict," he propounds at one point). And the long view is a gradual but inexorable constriction of the role of poetry in culture at large. We go from the poet as culture hero and universal sage (Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare)... to the poet as middle-class Sunday fireside companion (Tennyson, Longfellow)... to the poet as maker of difficult autotelic "art objects" (Modernism)... to the poet as merely a member of one among a near-infinite assortment of "special interest groups", subcultures, hobbyists... all of them equal, all of them equally marginal.
This is a familiar story. Archambeau gives it a twist by describing how past, seemingly passé, modes & techniques - rhyme, allusive symbolism, etc. - have become pervasive phenomena : in rap, hip-hop and spoken word verse, and in the high-symbolist, elliptically-referential methods of commercial advertising jargon. He does this to underline the obvious difficulty in predicting the "future of poetry" - and also to suggest that the ineluctable constriction of poetry's social sphere may have reached a tipping point... or maybe a moment of dialectical reversal, a Viconian ricorso. But that's as far as he takes the subject. Archambeau's underlying message, perhaps, is that there exists no simple avant-garde/Darwinian system of "progress in the arts" - no foundational/revolutionary break with the past (so dear to the hearts of manifesto-writers). As Eliot put it, "Someone said, 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so
much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are what we know."
Stephen Burt's presentation was more ambitious and serious. Burt is a rarity in this country : a real poetry critic, and an enthusiast for the new and the little-known. He honors the poets he discusses, by way of the sheer energy and passion he brings to "unpacking" them - tracing their lineage, interpreting their "near-nonsense" for ordinary readers. Burt is also something of a taxonomist. He classifies scattered species of poets and comes up with resonant family names for the trends they represent (see his essays on "the Ellipticals", or "the New Thing"). This is also a way of foregrounding the oft-unremarked vitality of what's happening now, of the very contemporary American scene. Burt is quite gifted and discerning in pursuit of these aims. He can frame in a few paragraphs, for example, the philosophical viewpoints influencing the incursion of "Language Poetry" in the 70s and 80s; their effect (as models for both imitation & resistance) on the innovative poets of the 90s and the past decade; and the socio-cultural forces which impel the emergence of the very latest styles. True to form, Burt concludes this talk with a taxonomy of four very new and distinct stylistic-technical trends among young American poets, which he reads as growing future influences - because they address, with originality and energy (as Hamlet says they should), "the form & pressure of the time" - giving to "airy nothing" a "local habitation & a name."
Ben Mazer's talk was quite different, as Thomas Graves has already pointed out. His lecture was a species of what they used to call "poet's prose" - creative, evocative, impressionistic. As if in light mockery of Archambeau's and Burt's enumerations and categories, Mazer proposes "eight points" which seem to dissolve into cloudy ether at the end. Yet he issues a categorical challenge - a sort of high-Romantic toss-down of the gauntlet - to any reductive intellectualizing or sociological bracketing of the poet's exalted mission and role. For Mazer, poetry is both spiritual vocation and craft tradition. If you don't know and absorb the incarnate, embodied, and unitary tradition of Poetry - a mode of encompassment and renewal which only a bona fide poetic Genius can accomplish - then you have missed the essence, the quiddity, the soul of poetry - and all your pedantic critical intellectualizing about it is pettiness and vanity, is bound for the dustbin.
It is kind of refreshing and incredible to listen to Ben Mazer's resonant poet's voice proclaim such unseasonable articles of faith. In an age of the populism of creativity - everybody is a star - such quasi-elitist views are going to meet with much scorn. Yet there is a certain logic to Mazer's position, too. Poetry is the in-breaking of the ecstatic and supernatural. It is the voice of the Muse - of an inspiration which cannot be rationalized or paraphrased. On these grounds the vatic Druid, the sage-mage-shaman, lurks just beneath the surface of the poet's incantatory charism. There is something definitely archaic and slightly liminal about Ben Mazer's way. Here it peeks up from beneath the shelves of ye olde Cambridge bookshoppe, like a corpse-flower, or a skunk cabbage, a lily-of-the-valley, or some other shy New England sign of spring.
My own two cents on "What's Next" - which I tried, unsuccessfully & pretty inarticulately, to formulate as a question to the panel that night - is as follows. I think it's too soon to write off poetry as a marginal hobby or irrelevant throwback. And I think it's a mistake to solder the Balkanization of contemporary poetic trends onto the Babel-like diversity of contemporary American culture. This is ultimately based, I think, on a very American, yet also very parochial, attitude toward history. America's wonderful rainbow-like infinitude of ethnic & cultural & psycho-social identifications is folded within what I believe is a more global and, and yes, universal human history. The mother of the Muses was Mnemosyne - Memory. The poet's vocation is to gather up the common threads of our history - what binds us to past generations - and to make sense of them.
We live in a polarized nation : the Right is possessed by a nostalgia for the certitudes of the past, combined with a fundamentalist/Puritan suspicion of the arts; the Left is suffused with an idealism and a passion for social justice as a set of abstract principles - which often unites with a petty scorn and hatred for its political "other" which exactly contradicts the very ideals so cherished. Such is today's red/blue and very stale purple stalemate.
I think the poet is the dissatisfied one. She cannot abide the brackets & distinctions of the minor trends in style : she sees them as more of a problem than an opportunity. The great poetry of the past inherited the narrow trends & techniques : and transmuted them by an uncanny, irreducible process of alchemical synthesis (we call this "making poetry").
What's next? I look toward a future for poetry without so many qualifying adjectives. I look to a poetry which is passionately drawn to what we hold in common, as well as to that which is irradicably unique, personal, & unrepeatable.