The s and the early years of the 21st century have muddied the waters of experimental poetry in the United States. Language writing continues to be both a complicated legacy for younger writers and a significantly diversified poetry of the present. Some would claim that Language writing has now been absorbed by academia, that many of its key practitioners hold academic appointments and that their poetry is discussed in scholarly articles, books, and conferences. But such claims really do not take into account the divided and specific nature of American academic culture.
For the most part, American poetry is still divided between the mainstream, with its MFA programs in creative writing, and the experimental, which remains a weak force in such programs and is excluded from nearly all the structures that support poets, including awards, grants, fellowships, and major presses. The more complicated and intriguing issue about the evolution of Language poetry is not its relation to the academy but rather the increasing diversity of literary production by the major figures of Language writing.
It has become virtually impossible to provide any sort of coherent or axiomatic description of Language writing that adequately represents the present. For example, although Susan Howe is often mentioned as a key Language writer, this label hardly captures the scope of her work.
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Indeed, her writing falls within an American antinomian tradition and can be seen as an act of sustained radical revisionist historiography. What may have passed into the mainstream, perhaps merely as technique or another element of craft, are certain stylistic features associated with Language writing: fragmentation, radical collage, and the absence of a singular plainspoken sensitive voice. But what is missing from this assimilation is the earlier oppositional, charged cultural context of these gestures. Perhaps the most common claim among younger writers of both mainstream and experimental poetry is that they are learning a wide range of styles and techniques, and that they are attempting new fusions.
Those who claim to be in no particular camp have come to form their own, perhaps dominant, camp. For younger writers, many of whom have grown up with access to a bewildering array of modern and contemporary writings, it is a particularly difficult time to establish a new direction.
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For writers of the generation of Charles Bernstein i. The challenge for an immediately next generation of post-Language writers is to make use of the Language poetics as a means toward new modes of composition. While the Freud-Bloom model of generational conflict, a series of oedipal struggles and successions, may not be applicable, it is nonetheless hard to determine what this next generation seeks to overcome, or correct, or enhance.
Their poems often exhibit a sassy, glib, moment-referenced humor and the technical mastery of a range of experimental styles. A major hazard for this generation is a bland eclecticism, with technically adroit writing that remains superficial because the cultural and historical tension of the formal gestures has evaporated. But many of these poets are also beginning to advocate and explore renewed ways of engaging sincerity, expressivity, and personal statement, explorations that may generate desirable crosscurrents to the pressures for stylistic accommodation.
Of course, such an increasingly wide-ranging set of writing practices misses out on the risk, commitment, and emotional engagement of more distinctive and perhaps narrower formal and philosophical commitments. I do not make such claims out of a nostalgia for the good old days when a poet could attack a plainspoken sincere poem, offer a fragmented non-I-voice poem, and spark a serious debate.
Indeed the situation may be no less murky for the older generation of innovative writers who may be tending their own careers, refining earlier developments, and no longer engaging in writing that provokes. Or perhaps some truly significant and challenging poetry is being written. We now view poetry through the lens of innovation—a lens ground from specifications that perhaps amount to a caricature of Language writing and may shortchange what is important.
Thus, profoundly innovative and idiosyncratic writing, such as the work of John Taggart, Jack Foley, Theodore Enslin, Will Alexander, Hannah Weiner, and Jake Berry, barely receives attention because it evades the principal contemporary groupings and taxonomies. But in each of these three areas, poets—both those associated with Language writing and others who have taken innovative paths not particularly associated with the Language-writing communities—have established important new modes of investigation. While it is common to valorize the importance of such writers as Robert Duncan and Jerome Rothenberg, a closer examination of their poetry and poetics immediately places us within writing traditions that are openly mystical, romantic, and, in the case of Rothenberg, shamanic and magical—all qualities that are disturbing to most innovative contemporary poets, many of whom have developed a poetics more obviously reliant on tenets of cultural materialism and an anti-romantic metaphysics.
Two who have escaped this uncomfortable relationship with their innovative spiritual predecessors are John Taggart and Jack Foley. Yeats, mixed with a strong commitment to a multi-voiced, performed poetry. Among experimental poets today, Charles Bernstein remains the most vociferous and vital. His poems and essays fuse the techniques of the stand-up comic—he is a big fan of Jackie Mason—with elements of philosophical inquiry.
Heart to heart. Among an older generation of innovative poets, writers such as Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and Robert Creeley continue to do outstanding work, though none of it could be thought of as groundbreaking or even as fundamentally challenging to the ways we conceive of poetry today. While none of the four has achieved the critical consensus to become the designated Lowell replacement, each, in very different ways over a substantial career, provides us with a body of work that has helped to redefine the possibilities for American poetry.
While my account emphasizes innovative poetry, it is important to recognize that one of the great strengths of American poetry is its sheer variety and its proliferation through many different communities of readers, writers, listeners, and performers. Aesthetic differences often splinter these groups into reader-writer islands that have very little to do with one another. Occasionally, as in the many readings against the war in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, there are events that allow the varied poetry communities to meet and read with one another, temporarily setting aside aesthetic and institutional differences in favor of a more general recognition of common uses and aspirations for poetry.
But I mention the different poetry communities in part as a reply to the lamenting critics, who worry that the audience for poetry has dried up. Consider the variety of poetries in active circulation today. Many poets, particularly those in academia, tend to become so absorbed in aesthetic conflicts with colleagues that we lose sight of the larger, more diverse practice of poetry.
Such diversity of practice makes it almost impossible to say what poetry is good or bad without first asking such questions as, for whom?
Indeed, the immense popularity of rap and of slam poetry has helped to change the attitudes of younger students toward poetry. Dre, Eminem, Nelly, and Fifty Cent gives young listeners a visceral experience of the vitality of poetry. The emergence of rap and hip-hop as a popular art form marks a decisive instance of the re-introduction of poetry—particularly oral, performance, and improvisational poetry—into American popular culture, with potentially profound long-term effects on the audience for and nature of American poetry.
Rap, though, is only one example of the many ways in which poetry is being reinvented. David Antin has been pursuing an important Socratic inquiry into the nature of poetry for the past forty years. In , Vollmer became pregnant. Burroughs, who could be startlingly moralistic, abhorred abortion; and so a son, Billy, joined the family. Envisioning himself as a gentleman farmer, Burroughs had acquired a spread in East Texas, where he cultivated marijuana, though not very well.
For three years, he took drugs, drank, picked up boys, hosted friends, and cut a sorry figure as a father. It features terse, crackling reportage, with echoes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
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He had contracted a lifelong mania for guns from duck-hunting excursions with his father, and was never unarmed if he could help it. He fired a pistol from about nine feet away. The bullet struck Vollmer in the forehead, at the hairline. She was twenty-eight. Released on bail, Burroughs might have faced trial had not Jurado, in a fit of road rage, shot a socially prominent young man and, when his victim died of septicemia, fled the country.
Burroughs did the same, and a Mexican court convicted him in absentia of manslaughter, sentencing him to two years. The heat and smoke caused Burroughs to ask to truncate the proceedings. Burroughs sent Billy to be raised by Laura and Mortimer, in St. Louis, and joined them, in , after they moved to Palm Beach, Florida.
He needs a motorboat to take him upriver:. Tomorrow the river will be higher. Its heroes include Hassan-i Sabbah, the historical leader of a sometimes homicidal sect in eleventh- and twelfth-century Persia. Most of the characters run to type: dissolute quasi-aristocratic friends, interchangeable boys, sycophants in steadily increasing numbers. Most prominent is Brion Gysin, a mediocre artist of calligraphic abstractions. Burroughs met him in Tangier, in , and bonded with him in Paris at a dump in the Latin Quarter, known as the Beat Hotel, whose motherly owner adored literary wanderers.
Gysin and Burroughs deemed each other clairvoyant geniuses. It flopped. These have been widely exhibited and sold. It is also interesting to observe a hidden dialogicity embedded in post-Soviet textbooks on history and literature, suggesting the existence of a creative impulse to reinvent tradition and rewrite the past. Losev portrays Khodasevich as a person who, despite many travels during his years of emigration, managed to preserve the image of his motherland in his heart.
They usually represent Tsvetaeva as a true Russian poet. It alludes to the existence of many different views on the notion of canonicity linked not only to the notion of national identity but also to intertextuality and sublimity. The ambiguity of the post-Soviet cultural landscape resembles the eclectic nature of the physical landscape comprising remnants of the Soviet and the pre-Soviet past. Graeme Gill, in his study of the pattern of name changes in Moscow in the post-Soviet period, highlights how the transition from communism to capitalism remains a highly ambiguous process.
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It is not surprising that out of street name changes in Moscow in the last 20 years of them were clearly linked to the desire to eradicate any memory of the communist past associated with revolutionary violence and utopian ideology. Viewed in this light, the new Russophone canon seems inseparable from the post-Soviet geopolitical imagination.
Karpovich, Papers on V. Khodasevich, Bakhmeteff Archive, Columbia University.
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Quoted in Greta N. Georgii Ivanov. Genis, Slobodanka M. Kniga o sovremenoi poezii Moscow: Vremia, , p.
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