Postmodern American Poetry
A Norton Anthology
Paul Hoover, Editor
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 up.
    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

    about Italy
    about accordions
    about women's pants
    about the fatherland
    about sardines
    about Fiume
    about Art (you exaggerate my friend)
    about gentleness
    about D'Annunzio
    what a horror
    about heroism
    about mustaches
    about lewdness
    about sleeping with Verlaine
    about the ideal (it's nice)
    about Massachusetts
    about the past
    about odors
    about salads
    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
                'suffering humanity'
            They writhe upon the page
                in a veritable rage
                    of adversity
            Heaped up
            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
***"On Neal's Ashes," by Allen Ginsberg

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