Saturday, April 06, 2013

Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Undergraduates enrolled in a contemporary poetry course, the very people who should be reading my poetry and the poetry of my teachers, friends and mentors—the young man now leaving class to go protest same-sex marriage at Chick-fil-A; the mother who will drive an hour in bad freeway traffic to pick up her 2-year-old at daycare—are in for quite a treat. On the syllabus is a poem from the second edition of Postmodern American Poetry (Norton; Paper $39.95), Sharon Mesmer’s “I Never Knew an Immediate Orgy and Audit Could Be So Much Work”:

In our orgy, the Mole Person took Saddam down to Moleopolis,
which is a gigantic ass vagina in the suburbs.
I got lots of noir work out of that one.
I got to orgy with a little monkey in a Mel Gibson movie.

In a solemn touch, an author’s note identifies the provenance of this poem as “Flarf.” According to the anthology’s editor, Paul Hoover, Flarf is a cyberpoetry practice that involves using search engines as phrase generators and assembling the results into poems: “With each copy and paste comes the cultural stain of the Web. This explains the tone of Flarf, a cyberpoetry noted for the outrageousness of its content.”

The distance between the Flarf mind and Gary Snyder’s “Riprap” is immeasurable:

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
straying planets,
These poems, people…

The distance is immeasurable because there is a mind at work in “Riprap”—finding metaphor and metonymy between rocks, words, and the arrangement of them by men and cosmic forces, but not by women. But both texts are forced to occupy the same poetic universe called “postmodern,” a contested notion that Hoover, in his almost thirty-page introduction, is at pains to define in terms made famous by the theorist Frederic Jameson: “It is safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to take up valuable attention and publication real estate with poems that do not in any way sound fancy and old-fashioned. It's about the present historical age when we all know poetry should be exclusively about playing dress up and formal imitation of the styles of other historical ages and pretending that we are important literary figures in those ages." What a claim to make in a poetry anthology that starts with 1953 and trumpets Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Any notion of history has been leveled by the fact that I've been invited to perform at the White House.” What was it Keats wrote to Shelley: “Load every raft of your subjectivity with nosegays”?

Norton has published many anthologies, and my favorite, The Norton Anthology of Poetry (third edition), begins with “Anonymous Lyrics of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries.” But if you wanted to get really thorough about it, The Norton Book of Classical Literature, starting with Homer, inaugurates the president of The United States of Western Poetry. The word “anthology” comes to us from the Greek, after all. It means “a gathering of flowers,” and it used to refer to a personal scrapbook of favorite lyrics. (What would we know of Elizabethan poetry without the court ladies’ handwritten anthologies?) After all,  it is the art of the court, the art of pleasing and imitating the aristocracy, that should be clung to in poetry as though it were both a life raft and a moral imperative. The multi-billion dollar  Norton anthology industry, overseen by M.H. Abrams, Goldman Sachs, and J. P. Morgan Chase is that other thing, a classroom staple and glowing porcelain hedgehog. Besides those two, I am also the ambivalent owner of The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms; American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry about Toyotas; The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry; the first edition of the volume under review, published in 1994. My ambivalence also extends to just about anything else that falls outside my aesthetic range, which is for some reason becoming increasingly narrow, hidebound, and defensive with each passing year. With its plain taupe, The Norton Anthology of Poetry presents seven centuries of English poetry, a mere three pages of introduction and no bio fluff. Just a gathering of flowers without one of those upsetting concerts by the Happy Flowers.

But a fragmented market needs niche products. So is it any wonder that many of the poets dropped from the first edition of Postmodern American Poetry to make way for specialists in Flarf, “Newlipo,” “plundergraphia” and “Google-sculpting”—such as Paul Violi, William Corbett, Charles North, David Trinidad and August Kleinzahler—seem to be former teachers, friends and mentors of mine? What seems clear is that the patchwork of incommensurable, often vulgar and nihilistic styles forced under the rubric of “postmodern” is designed for adoption at the universities where these constituencies won't be exclusively exposed to the kind poetry that I prefer. Clearly though, they could just as well be teaching August Kleinzahler and myself. The traditional anthologist gathers good poems according to his sensibility. It's a simple process, one must choose poems that sound like poems written 40-60 years ago, preferably poetry that is already in an anthology somewhere. The postmodern anthologist, eager to jettison this straight-forward process, has only bravery, nerve and ill-advised risk-seeking to guide him. Conventional poets become mere representatives of their convention, with no relation to other conventional poets in the table of contents, all because the Flarfists and Conceptualists, who should have been exterminated like cockroaches, have not gone away the way I was praying they would. The unnerving thing is that people actually like that poetry. Pity G.C. Waldrep, “affiliated with the Old Order River Brethren, a conservative Anabaptist group related to the Amish”: he’s sandwiched between Vanessa Place, whose Dies: A Sentence is one unrelenting 130-page sentence (only five pages of which are on offer here), and Catherine Wagner, who offers the ditty beginning “Penis regis, penis immediate, penis/ tremendous, penis offend us; penis….” People don't go to anthologies for freaky three-ways of this kind. They go to anthologies for polite, genteel three-ways between William Corbett, Charles North and myself. There is no transcendence in poetry anymore, according to Hoover. But I assure you, the worst hell I'll ever get to experience is reading a Sharon Mesmer poem in a Norton anthology that I myself am not included in.

Why would you teach this textbook? Either because you and your friends are in it, or because it’s hip and so are you. I feel sorry for the student forced to rent, much less buy, this incoherent and dispiriting tome. Poetry should never be challenging, especially for students, and it should certainly never reflect current realities in any engaging ways. Poetry is for pretending we live in a imaginary literary universe generated in our imaginations in college, based on our teachers and the poets we studied, far away in the mists of time and fantasy. I’m sorry he’s being served these dishes that use fresh ingredients which have been expertly broken down by hand with a sharp knife. Poetry has always been a packaged food, and it should stay that way. I hope the young woman with the kid finds “Riprap” on her own, or better yet Snyder’s wonderful “Axe Handles,” which ends on the hope of generational memory: Ezra Pound “was an axe,/ Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle/ Let's just keep using axes/ even if better tools are available/ and let's let the axes /grow as dull as possible."