Postmodern American Poetry
A Norton Anthology
Paul Hoover, Editor
(Norton)Editor Hoover goes to great effort, in the Introduction, to tell us what "Postmodern" Poetry is, or is supposed to be. Evidently it hove into our lives after WWII. It is anti-romantic, and anti-self-expressive, and is well engorged on existentialism. Its style is, we are told, "quotationist," "citationist," and "double-coded" ... whatever those words may mean.
Its precursors are not Donne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, or even Eliot and Auden, that's for sure. Presumably these ancients carry too much ego-baggage around, too much pastoral (or impassioned) pain, too little wonder at the machine age.
Postmodernism is big on technology (machines count heavily) and "global capitalism" and the various limited wars of the past thirty years. 9/11 and other disasters are key, as is the 2003 Homeland Security Act. It's all "cybernetic" and "procedural."
For example, Hoover lovingly cites Kenneth Goldsmith's "Seven American Deaths and Disasters," which
contains not one word of his own expression; it consists of transcripts of police tapes and mass communications reports.
"The text is mediated and edited but, strictly speaking, it is not authored. Such an approach," Hoover reveals, "presents challenge to authorship's treasured concept of originality." You can say that again.
Postmodernism, he concludes, "has received acceptance in all areas of culture and the arts." It is perhaps now, he suggests, the reigning style. If so, I shudda stood in bed. The editor says it is poetry. I say it's spinach, and I say to hell with it.
§ § §
Postmodern American Poetry is a fatty: almost 1,000 pages of not-too-inviting type. It's an anthology, and anthology means a parsing of limited space. Those at the top of the editor's love list will get top billing: either in number of pages or, in a poetry anthology, the number of poems included. The winner here is John Ashbery, with twenty-two pages, including "Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape:"
The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country."
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: "How pleasant
To spend one's vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched
Her cleft chin's solitary hair. She remembered spinach ...
And I still say to hell with it, for arrant nonsense is just that. The author cites the forebears of Postmodernism, John Cage and Gertrude Stein, but the two of them were (1) funny, and (2) always at their best in music or prose: see Silence or Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or The Making of Americans.
The champion poet in this anthology, the one with the most poems --- Kenneth Koch --- feels to me to be a bit overrated. "Aesthetics of Being a Mouse" begins
Look at the floor.
Look at the wall.
This may be very zen and all, but for mots that count you are better off with Suzuki or Watts or Cage.
My take here is that there are too many so-called poets and too many not-so-hot poems (the cover proudly boasts "114 poets, 583 poems, and selections from 19 poetic essays.") It's the repetitiveness that embarrasses the most, like Catherine Wagner's
Penis regis, penis immediate, penis
tremendous, penis offend us...
Or naked sentimentality (which the editor claims to have excised), viz., Katie Degentesh's
My son takes showers for the longest time and
he has the cutest bounce to his little step
the backs of his legs look like the little lines on a road map
I'll snip them off and make pillowcases out of them ...
Then there's Carla Harryman's "Orgasms,"
low light lit little tick flea migrant sip pissy wit twill twill low will piano frill label slain hero palo o opal laughing harrow barracuda amour our radio crash ...
It seems like a clever cut-out, but it's no more than that. The clowning cynicism of Peter Gizzi's "It's good to be dead in America / with the movies, curtains and drift, / with muzak in the theatre" meanders without being uplifting, as does Bruce Andrews' "Devo Habit" ---
Hucksters bundle up detachment hives grows uselessness comfy to politicize a retins. The gauge of illusion as illusion: experience is life --- that is, therapy fuels longshot plantation. Only absence of telos self-satisfaction's superfluity chinks. Bits outrage neo directness as brain condom
All this tedium makes one long for the poetic riot that made up the earliest Dada Manifesto
HAS DADA EVER SPOKEN TO YOU:
about women's pants
about the fatherland
about Art (you exaggerate my friend)
what a horror
about sleeping with Verlaine
about the ideal (it's nice)
about the past
about genius, about genius, about genius
about the eight-hour day
about the Parma violets
What we have here is a split, the difference between old guys having a laugh and the new guys on the block being show-offy and disingenuous. It's a matter of a split between the beatniks and the steely "postmodernists." The latter don't seem to be able to come up with a boff anywhere, the cold of their lists just cannot light our days and enrich our nights.
i am a page if i am not a page
i will be a page when i will not be a page
i want to be a page as i do not want to be a page
i have become a page but i have not become a page ...
The author, who teaches "Poetry and Letters" at SUNY, advises us, "Maybe you don't like this poem or perhaps you don't want to read it perhaps you should do something else like wash last night's dishes or watch TV if I were you I'd try reading a good book or even start to write one but perhaps you haven't stopped reading this poem." But I have and I'm wondering why it's here and (yawn) why they even bothered.
Alan Ginsberg is given the short shrift here --- only five brief poems --- although his essay at the very back of the book, in the section called "Poetics," is a poetic masterpiece. (It's called "Notes for Howl and Other Poems.) Still, there are, I assure you, hidden somewhere among the 583, a few fine poems. Like Frank O'Hara's "Personal Poem," or Ferlinghetti's wonderful
In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
And as always, saintly Ginsberg, always managing to touch us, apparently in defiance of the editor's statement that this book represents a "worldview" that "sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the sentimentality and self-expressiveness of the mainstream culture." Well, maybe ... and yet ... maybe not. Hoover included it, but maybe he didn't get the very human, sad message of it,
Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies all ash
nipples, Ribs I touched w/my thumb are ash
mouth my tongue touched once or twice all ash
bony cheeks soft on my belly are cinder ash
earlobes & eyelids, youthful cock tip, curly pubis
breast warmth, man palm, high school thigh,
baseball bicept arm, asshole anneal'd to silken skin
all ashes, all ashes again.***--- L. Milam