#tbt: American Poetic Hybridity, Then and Now

As Norton is pushing its new edition of Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry, it may be that the press’s 2009 anthology, American Hybrid, is vanishing into history. But this anthology–Cole Swensen and David St. John’s hypothesis of a contemporary lyric existing between “traditional” and “experimental” poetries–is still in the air. Contemporary big-press/big-prize American poetry is gravitating toward its own conception of “hybrid” poetry, a learned, skeptical poetic voice that steers carefully between James Merrill (in his virtuoso word-painting mode) and John Ashbery (in a fairly normy post-Stevens reading of that poet). This is a “hybrid” project if there ever was one–I think of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections and Adam Fitzgerald’s The Late Parade as exemplars–and it suggests to me that this now almost-old-fashioned-feeling idea (whose “traditional”? whose “experimental”?) is still alive. With that in mind, I thought I’d repost a review of American Hybrid I co-wrote with the delightful and serious Michael Theune for Pleiades 30.2 (2010).


On American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, Swensen and St. John, eds (Norton, 2009). A Critical Conversation by Jay Thompson & Michael Theune.

American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry anthologizes work that situates itself in the middle space formed by what is often conceived of as, as editor Cole Swensen calls it in her introduction to the anthology, the longstanding “fundamental division” in twentieth-century American poetry. Formulated in a variety of ways (Romantic vs. Modern; New Formal vs. Language), this division typically comes down to a divide between more mainstream, traditional poetries and more avant-garde, radically experimental poetries in what Swensen calls “the two-camp model.” According to Swensen, the poetry in American Hybrid is new insofar as it hybridizes “core attributes of previous ‘camps’ in diverse and unprecedented ways.” Swensen notes,

The hybrid poem has selectively inherited traits from both of the principal paths… Today’s hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with “conventional” work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of “experimental” works, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools, each one of which can change dramatically depending on how it is combined with others and the particular role it plays in the composition.

American Hybrid brings together the work of 74 contemporary poets whom the editors believe have been doing such hybrid work, presenting each poet with a brief statement about their work, a paragraph of professional biography, and a sampling of approximately six pages of poems. According to St. John’s introduction, all of the poets included in the anthology had three books published when reading for the anthology began in summer, 2005. Many of the anthologized poets are well-known, including Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Mary Jo Bang, Norman Dubie, Alice Fulton, James Galvin, Forrest Gander, Albert Goldbarth, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, Ann Lauterbach, Harryette Mullen, Michael Palmer, D. A. Powell, Bin Ramke, Claudia Rankine, Donald Revell, Rosemarie Waldrop, Marjorie Welish, C. D. Wright, Charles Wright, and Dean Young. But American Hybrid also includes some relatively younger poets and/or lesser-known poets such as Joshua Beckman, Molly Bendall, Killarney Clary, Martin Corless-Smith, Andrew Joron, Myung Mi Kim, Stefanie Marlis, Jane Miller, Jennifer Moxley, Rod Smith, Dara Wier, and Elizabeth Willis.

The following conversation took place via e-mail during the fall and winter of 2009-2010.

I. Canned Carnival

JT: Swensen’s introduction to American Hybrid maps out some of American lyric poetry’s migrating formal opposites (pastoral and urban, speaker-driven and text-conscious, ruptured and resonant), places the hybrid poem in between, then—so quickly you might miss it—makes a significant jump:

Hybrid poems often honor the avant-garde mandate to renew the forms and expand the boundaries of poetry—thereby increasing the expressive potential of language itself—while also remaining committed to the emotional spectra of lived experience. As different as these two goals might seem, they’re both essentially social in nature and recognize a social obligation; and as such, they demonstrate poetry’s continued relevance. Hybrid poetry speaks out, but in ways that avoid echoing the canned speech that has become so prevalent in an age when fewer and fewer people control more and more of the media. While political issues may or may not be the ostensible subject of hybrid work, the political is always there, inherent in the commitment to use language in new ways that yet remain audible and comprehensible to the population at large.

So: what Swensen defines as the hybrid is experiential and social, “comprehensible” and heterogeneous, un-canned and “relevant,” and hybridity is positioned as a term to end terms, home to a “thriving center of alterity” for readers and writers. If this center is a pleasure dome—a place whose center is diversity, or no-center—who’s out? Who couldn’t be made part of this binary, and thus is not part of the fun?

Take a look: in Hybrid you’ll find no Gurlesque writing (the violent, kitschy avant-garde anti-essentializing project reimagining femininity, consumer culture, cuteness, motherhood); very little cross-genre work; few poets (Anne Waldman’s an exception) associated with spoken word or oral poetry; and very little room for the role of minority cultures in contemporary American poetics. These excluded poetics aren’t plucked from the air, but are close at hand for many contributors and near-contributors. At the 2009 AWP panel devoted to American Hybrid, poet Forrest Gander suggested a hybrid aesthetics unlike the formal this-plus-that showcased by Hybrid itself. Gander, drawing from the Cambrian explosion of multicellular life and from bastard texts (he cites the polyglot fever dream of a 1499 text, Hypnerotomachia poliphili) at the dawn of the printing press, noted that “often the greatest degree of diversity, innovation, and hybridity takes [place] at the beginning, before the codification of stereotype.” But this phylogenic riot—with its half-breeds, radical innovators, and pre-categorical churn—does not appear in American Hybrid.

So, having glanced at what’s missing, what’s left? And what’s so appealing to tastemakers (like AWP, or Writers Chronicle which in February 2009 reprinted Swensen’s introduction in its entirety) about Swensen and St. John’s definition of hybridity?

First, Hybrid’s hybridity has had half its roots cut off. For being crammed with avant-garde gestures, the poetry anthologized feels safely deracinated from the radical social contexts and commitments implicit in these gestures. Gone (except here and there, as in excerpts from Etel Adnan’s The Indian Never Had a Horse or Laura Moriarty’s Nude Memoir) is radical art’s mandate to jar something loose in the reader’s consciousness. Dadaist author Hugo Ball: “For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” Swensen gestures toward the political, in suggesting that hybrid authors’ avant-garde techniques (leaving aside avant-garde communities and contexts more generally) resist canned speech. But beyond this concession, American poetry’s “thriving center of alterity” is, it seems, quite conflict-free. (Who could have imagined a selection of Alice Notley’s poems could feel so daydreamy and classroom-ready?)

Second, the virtues Swensen and St. John identify with hybridity are not that new. As Johnannes Goransson astutely pointed out in his review of Hybrid in Rain Taxi (Summer 2009), the editors praise poet after poet for their indeterminacy, complexity, obliquity, craft. If these terms sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same qualities T.S. Eliot and his followers, the New Critics, established for the well-wrought poem of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The New Critics’ reading style was dispassionate, classical, and ahistorical; it read for tensions, symbols, manicured intellectual ironies. Though the poetry in Hybrid reflects subsequent poetic breakthroughs—disjunction, a broadening of “poetic” idiom, the examination of language as a concrete sign—the virtues the editors identify are still cocooned in this New Criticism. How can an anthology like this one escape stuffiness and a text-creeping quality? Where’s the poetry of grotesquerie, spontaneity, outrage, wit, or depravity?

The third appeal to tastemakers of Hybrid’s hybridity is that it suggests a future not so different from the present. The anthology is crammed with Iowa faculty (Mark Levine, Jorie Graham, Dean Young, James Galvin), and it limits itself to writers with three or more books as of 2005. The heavy names and lengthy publishing careers guide the selections away from publishing’s “explosion at the bottom tier” which Swensen sees in American poetry since the 1960s. The blend of “experimental and conventional” here, then, feels less recombinatory and more like old-fashioned liberal pluralism—a peak between two visible horizons. (Between-A-and-B hybridity has been a literary value for half a century: Donald Hall, way back in 1962, introduced his Contemporary American Poetry anthology with the observation that his selected poets represented a hybrid aesthetic between “the literary and the colloquial.”)

Whom does it benefit, anyway, to announce a post-partisan discourse? The big names in Hybrid may be a gesture toward editorial credibility—“look who’s here!”—but they also suggest that hybridity is already canonical. We readers just needed it pointed out to us.

MT: “Hybridity is already canonical.” Hear, hear. But I think it’s even more canonical—or at least more explored and investigated, more done—than you suggest, Jay. The idea has been percolating for some time: in Alice Fulton’s writing on fractal poetics, in “Principles for Formal Experimentation,” the final section of Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes’s An Exaltation of Forms (Michigan, 2002), and in David Caplan’s Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form (Oxford, 2006). In fact, a few hybrid anthologies appeared before American Hybrid; among them were Reginald Shepherd’s The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (Iowa, 2004) and, perhaps, William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi’s The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century (Cracked Slab, 2007). Most notably, however, were Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr’s American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (Wesleyan, 2002) and Reginald Shepherd’s Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries (Counterpath, 2008), the hybrid anthologies before American Hybrid. The subtitle of American Women Poets reveals its focus on hybridity, and Shepherd states in the first sentence of his introduction that his anthology brings together work by disparate poets “whose work combines lyricism and avant-garde experimentation in a new synthesis…” And there is a great deal of overlap between these two anthologies and American Hybrid; 9 of the 10 poets in American Women Poets appear in American Hybrid, and 17 of the 23 poets included in Lyric Postmodernisms appear in American Hybrid, and this number does not include Swensen, who also appears in Lyric Postmodernisms.

Swensen, however, does not include any of the above in her account of the developments in recent American poetry, instead making only passing reference to Ron Silliman’s “third wave poetics” and Stephen Burt’s “elliptical poetry,” two categories of contemporary poetry that jibe with the hybrid, and two literary conferences that seemed to help make space for the emergence of the hybrid. Swensen’s omissions seem willful. One of the conferences Swensen mentions is the “Where Lyric Meets Language” conference held at Barnard College in April 1999, the conference which gave rise to Rankine and Spahr’s anthology. And Swensen must have been aware of Lyric Postmodernisms: she wrote an artist’s statement to introduce the poems by her included in that anthology, and she mentions Lyric Postmodernisms in the introduction to Shepherd and his work in American Hybrid.

Such omissions certainly make American Hybrid seem like it is introducing something really new. Concomitantly, they also let the anthology off the hook in terms of its having to present new thinking about the hybrid; American Hybrid adds some more poets to the hybrid fold, but offers no new thinking about what the hybrid is or does. Mostly, American Hybrid is a kind of corporate takeover of the hybrid. However, unlike lots of other corporate takeovers, there is no real reason to get up in arms about this; rather than an egregious cooption, the publication of American Hybrid feels like a natural progression, offering the apotheosis of a style that long has been official. As you suggest, Jay, American Hybrid’s largely new New Critical work, sanctioned by top-flight MFA programs, is tailor-made for a Norton anthology.

Also: to extend a few of your points, Jay, let’s be clear that this “thriving center of alterity” does in fact have its outsider others. They are, on the one hand, the poets of plainspoken, accessible poetry: stand-up, ultra-talk, and slam poets. American Hybrid is “missing” poetry by those, as Stephen Burt claims in “What I Miss in What I Like,” the final section of his essay “Close Calls with Nonsense” (the second of his two essays on elliptical poetry), “devoted more straightforwardly to argument and wit.” The missing poetry, on the other hand, is the poetry that is more carnivalesque (and isn’t the carnival typically the “thriving center of alterity”?)—perhaps funny, but, if so, more clownish, odd, disturbing, shocking, abjectly surreal. It shocks me how totally unfunny—whether gently humorous or out-and-out slapstick—this anthology is. Even some of the great wits and comedians who are included—including D.A. Powell and Dean Young—are toned down. This seems dangerous to me. By not incorporating some of that energy in itself, American Hybrid becomes particularly susceptible to it. Depending upon how well it is edited, Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics, a new anthology edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg (Saturnalia, 2010), has great potential to dethrone and disempower American Hybrid as the carnival’s fool and boy (or gurl) did the king and bishop.

Simply put, the hybrid, as presented by Swensen and St. John, homogenizes. I think we will see this even more plainly when we examine the work actually included in the anthology.

II. The Art of the Edit

JT: Hybrid feels hand-picked. Aside from being a manifestation of an Iowan (Swensen) anthologizing Iowans, Hybrid reveals, in its acknowledgements, that many poets have included work (C.D. Wright’s “Animism,” Norman Dubie’s “At Sunset”) which hadn’t, at Hybrid’s publication, appeared in book form. Was this work solicited specifically by the editors? Plucked from literary journals? Who knows?

About this handpickedness: Much criticism of Hybrid, especially in the poetry-blog world, has focused on perceived nepotism, the editors reprinting their chums. Goransson again: “it appears an Iowa connection gets one automatic inclusion.” But the question’s more complex than that: many great anthologies have succeeded, in part, because an editor is immersed in the community he draws from. English poet Tom Paulin’s absorption in British Isles idiom, song and brogue fed a passion for his decades-bounding, entirely un-dusty anthology, The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse (Faber & Faber 1990). Though many of Paulin’s contemporaries are featured, Vernacular Verse is broken up not into era but into occasion—childhood poems, riddles, season songs, curses. What occasions might have linked a re-sorted Hybrid?

Another outstanding what’s-new-under-the-sun anthology, Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’s multi-volume Poems For the Millennium (University of California Press, 1995, 1998, and 2009), is the end result of the editors’ participation in avant-garde poetries, ethnopoetics, and translations. Millennium interrupts its chronological march through the world’s groundbreaking poetries from the Romantic era to the present with “galleries” highlighting movements like concrete poetry, Negritude, and post-Cultural-Revolution Chinese neoclassical poetries.

So: why isn’t Hybrid like these? It’s easy to over-romanticize the anthology (of Gander’s phylogenic riot) which doesn’t exist: to pretend it could be everything a canon-aimed, classroom-bite-sized anthology like Hybrid isn’t. But, really, what sort of grouping would better suit the wildly diverse poetry of the hybrid? Hybrid awkwardly claims both that hybridity is new, and that hybridity draws authority from decades of work by a swath of established (lyric and “experimental”) authors. An anthology closer to the one Gander suggests (or, that Rothenberg and Joris’s example point to) would be, by contrast, forced to draw authority from contention.

But Hybrid is staid precisely where the above anthologies leap. There are no manifestos, historical groupings, or even radical differences of expressed opinion here—just two paragraphs of notes (praising, no doubt, the poet’s indeterminacy, mystery and craft) and five to six pages of poetry per alphabetized author. This format privileges shorter works, shuffles diverse authors, obscures substantial differences in publishing history. Trade- and university-press successes like Charles Wright and John Ashbery are side by side with poets like Etel Adnan or Laura Moriarty who’ve worked largely with autonomous avant-garde publishers.

By meticulously avoiding sprawl or conflict, Hybrid shows by negative example the anthology’s potential. I read anthologies for a sense of opened ground, cultural context, cross-historical relationships, and contention between contributors. (What would Marinetti have said to Aimé Césaire? Poems For the Millennium might tell you.) Rothenberg and Joris write, wonderfully, in Millennium’s introduction: “Overall, the question of inclusion and exclusion, which can never be properly resolved, was less important with regard to individuals and movements—more with regard to the possibilities of poetry now being opened.”

Hybrid’s short on precisely the spirit above. If the editors really believe the revolution has happened—that two discrete styles have smelted themselves together—where’s the racket and steam? Where are the sidetrips to (say) internet publishing, the “little magazines” of early Language poets, the resurgence of women authors in contemporary poetry? How come the truths here feel so modish and predigested?

I know I’m discouraged by an anthology when I begin to read around in it for a sense of what I don’t see. Here, explicitly feminist or anti-capitalist work by Laura Mullen (Murmur) or Alice Notley (Desamere or most of Descent of Alette, though not the epiphanic-lyric portions here) is left out. Big-time polymath poets like James Tate—too explosive? too funnily weird?—and Carolyn Forché—too political? too widely read?—are excluded. Too bad!

MT: One could quibble, of course. LOTS of poets could be thought of as hybrid poets, and there are many notable exclusions, including H.L. Hix, Maxine Chernoff, Jean Valentine, Bill Knott, Thylias Moss, Frederick Seidel. Edited well, even poets such as Louise Glück, Charles Bernstein, and Kent Johnson could be hybrid poets. And editing, I want to argue, is just about everything in American Hybrid.

American Hybrid follows the format of many anthologies before it: each poet is given a section that includes a few paragraphs of information on the poet and her/his work, along with five or six pages of their work. But this is not a neutral format; rather, it clearly implies that the anthologized poets are hybrid poets. But this is not the case, and Swensen actually acknowledges this in her introduction; she notes:

…the trend toward hybridization was actually led by writers of earlier generations who continued to push their styles and their underlying principles, even if that meant abandoning stances for which they’d become well known. Among the writers presented here are first-generation members of several movements, including epiphanic lyric, Deep Image, the New York School, and Language poetry. Often these poets have retained much of their earlier sensibilities, but have opened them up to additional modes, broadening their audiences as well as their own voices.

According to Swensen, Barbara Guest is “perhaps the quintessential hybrid poet.” But by this Swensen does not mean that Guest always or even primarily has written in a hybrid mode but rather that Guest has written in numerous modes, producing work, as Swensen notes, affiliated with the New York School, with the Language poets, and “works that ranged from anecdotal and narrative prose poetry to abstract minimalism” to her final volume which “includes many short lyrics based on readily accessible, concrete imagery.”

So, Guest, it seems, is primarily a poet who works in many modes, the hybrid being one of them. She is not primarily a specifically hybrid poet. And this, I think, goes for a number of the other poets included in American Hybrid, poets such as Norman Dubie, Brenda Hillman, D. A. Powell, Dean Young, Robert Hass (whom, the editors note, has been “[c]onsidered by many to be the master of the personal lyric”), and Charles Wright (whom the editors call “a poet of spiritual pilgrimage”). What makes the hybrid hybrid is that a hybrid poem mixes and matches various styles. Swensen notes, “The product of contradictory traditions, today’s writers often take aspects from two or more to create poetry that is truly postmodern in that it’s an unpredictable and unprecedented mix.” Swensen notes that by “[c]onsidering the traits often associated with ‘conventional’ work…and those generally assumed of ‘experimental’ work…hybrid poets access a wealth of tools…” Hass “has the ability to connect readers to the intimacies of daily life through attention to the details of lived experience, but can also reveal that experience as not necessarily seamless, not always coherent.” Wright is “a protean and restlessly inventive poet, capable of sliding from an echo of the Episcopal liturgy to a demotic drawl to a jazz-inflected slang in the space of a single line.”

If, however, it is interesting that poets work in different modes, including the hybrid, why not edit to show the different modes that poet works in? If it is not, then why edit in a way that links the notion of hybridity to the author at all? Why not edit in a new way? Why not, say, collect hybrid poems, regardless of author? This of course could have its attractions: one could show how hybridity is really pretty common, a mode deployed by many different poets, and kinds of poets.

As you note, Jay, the Iowa connection seems to indicate that this anthology is much more about the consolidation of power rather than its dispersal. But I want to push this. American Hybrid needs its authors—that is, it needs its authors’ authority (often established by the listing of publication credits, awards, and teaching positions in the final paragraph of the introduction to each author). The authors’ authority relieves Swensen and St. John of the pressure of having to say: this (and not something else) is a particularly remarkable (dare we say “great”?) hybrid poem. Nowhere is there any sense given of how these poems (or particular sections of poems) were evaluated and selected—not only from other poems but also from all available hybrid poems by established poets…including many of the poets in American Hybrid! No, instead it’s more generally: these are the great poets, so these must be great poems and sections of poems.

One of the very few attempts to define what it is that a hybrid poem does was made by Reginald Shepherd in his introduction to Lyric Postmodernisms, in which Shepherd argues, unconvincingly, that the hybrid poem is a mix of brokenness and connection. What Shepherd fails to argue is that, seeing as many poems are combinations of brokenness and connection, the special hybrid poem—one worthy of being anthologized—must be a singular mix of brokenness and connection, but he never makes clear what creates such an effect. This silence about greatness is a real shortcoming of hybrid aesthetics. Practitioners and promoters of hybrid aesthetics behave as if greatness exists, participate in the social forms of rank and privilege (including publishing standard anthologies), but do little to investigate that greatness. Why this silence? Well, one reason is that it helps the hybrid to quietly serve the status quo rather than challenge it. Another is that it is an attempt to hide the fact that the hybrid—as a generalizable aesthetic—might in fact have little to offer: it may not be some magical synthesis, but a messy amalgamation.

III. The Good, the Bad, the Hybrid

JT: Here and there, excellent poems included in American Hybrid are placed in thought-provoking contrast. Norman Dubie’s great “Apocrypha of Jacques Derrida” (whose speaker survives his car’s collision with a horse and who speaks from a delusion of Napoleon) includes this passage:

…The vaulting black horse

now on its side in the dust. I was left

with the road, with the memories of cities burning.

Matron seemed to sleep. My nose bleeding.

I went over to inspect the huge sunflowers

that were beyond the stone wall. The sunflowers

marched with me in Italy. They were cut down.

There was gasoline everywhere.

This has something to say to this passage, excerpted from Laura Moriarty’s Nude Memoir:

She watches a dead man approach an accustomed meeting place. (Later she learns it wasn’t him.) It’s an old film or tape. The image of him moves swiftly toward his destination. He opens a glass door. His grace is surprising. The context has been established. The film was silent.

The interruptions of one jostle like memories; in the other they’re cut cinematically. One blinks in the wake of calamity; the other anticipates it. One breathes like a lyric poem; the other gasps and leaps. But many pages need wading through for the conversation to happen. As you suggest above, Mike, a side-by-side editing strategy (even one less radical than that of an anthology like Millennium) would have served the taxonomic framework of this anthology admirably.

As it stands, certain selections highlight hybrid tendencies in lyric poets’ work (Robert Hass’s “Yellow Bicycle” looks like a new poem in this company); others are choked with terrible late poetry (Charles Wright’s especially) serving in place of earlier poetry which would have been more indicative, but which would have kept the anthology from seeming that novel.

MT: Of course, there are some poems in American Hybrid that I like. You’re right, Jay, about Dubie’s poem. And I like Claudia Keelan’s “Critical Essay,” and Alice Notley’s “I Must Have Called and So He Comes.” I like a lot of what Martha Ronk is doing in Vertigo, many sections of which are included in American Hybrid. Additionally, though, for the life of me, I can’t tell what makes it hybrid, I like Rod Smith’s “Ted’s Head.” And there are others.

However, there are a lot of clunkers in American Hybrid—way more than should be included in any anthology. Do I need to cite examples? Okay, here goes: Molly Bendall’s “Pirate Keep,” Norma Coles’s “Conditions Maritimes,” the selections from Stephen Ratcliffe’s “[Where Late the Sweet] Birds Sang,” Rod Smith’s “The Strength,” Carol Snow’s “Gallery,” Keith Waldrop’s “First Draw the Sea.” The list, I fear, goes on and on. However, the inclusion of such weak poems is even more striking when one considers the poems by other poets (such as Valentine and Seidel) that could have been included, or other poems by the included poets. Very few of the poems in American Hybrid are my favorite poems—poems I find strikingly singular—by a particular author. I miss, for example, Jorie Graham’s “Prayer” (the first poem in Never), John Taggart’s “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” Mark Levine’s “Jack and Jill,” and D.A. Powell’s “dogs and boys can treat you like trash. and dogs do love trash” and “morning broke on my cabin inverted. tempest in my forehead.”

Vastly more significant than my own list of flops and faves, however, is what I think is the fact that lesser-known poems do not just happen to sneak into American Hybrid. Rather, their inclusion is a direct result of the kind of editing of the anthology, that is, editing according to author and without any view to very carefully defining something new and vibrant in poetry today, and this is a direct result of there being nothing in hybrid aesthetics that would work to exclude really problematic poetry as, again, it’s hard to tell what problematic poetry is in the hybrid. So, a lot of what to me seems simply vapid and aimless and dull gets included because nothing about hybridity necessarily militates against the vapid and aimless and dull.

This process and outcome were foreseen by Mary Kinzie in her great and prescient essay “The Rhapsodic Fallacy,” first published in 1984, at the dawn of the hybrid. “The Rhapsodic Fallacy,” I think, is required reading for anyone interested in hybridity, for it is one of the first efforts at defining a hybrid. In fact, I think “The Rhapsodic Fallacy” could be considered the prose statement of the hybrid as we have it, and the great critique of the hybrid. Potent, if sometimes still nascent, in Kinzie’s essay are many of the ideas and critiques, Jay, that you and I and other critics of the hybrid have raised. Kinzie notes that the poems that employ the problematic rhapsodic fallacy are those that combine in a kind of hybrid “dryness, prosaism, and imaginative commonplace” with a notion of poetry as having the goal of “apotheosis, an ecstatic and unmediated self-consumption in the moment of perception and feeling.” Such hybridity is a problem; Kinzie states, “The poetic has thus made an odd marriage with the prosaic, and it is this parasitic weakening of the subjective idea by an aimless prosaic experimentalism that we see in much new verse.” “[A]imless prosaic experimentalism”: Kinzie, who also presciently defines one outcome of the poems that deploy or are victims of the rhapsodic fallacy as the “Innocuous Surreal Style,” and who takes on hybrid poets such as John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, already is voicing the problems with the hybrid that we and others are detecting. And I think the last paragraph of her essay is apropos of our discussion here about the hybrid. After describing and dissecting the innocuous “Comic Surreal,” Kinzie states,

The great difficulty, finally, with the Rhapsodic Fallacy is precisely that is nourishes such aimlessness, such provisionality, such nonsense. It has no standards to impose, no goals to hold out before the writer… Neither does the Fallacy permit the poet to evaluate or improve himself, because it denies the validity or possibility of shared standards of judgment… This illogic at last imprisons both poet and critic, who have come to circle each other like dead stars, and the novice writer as well, who learns from their empty orbiting very little about good literature. For although they may present no significant barriers to genius, neither do the assumptions and techniques that cooperate in the kind of monotonic poetry we have examined do anything, it seems to me, to encourage, or positively enable, great thought or great poetry.

The exact same claims can be made about the hybrid.

JT: Another relevant, barbed thought. Avant-garde poet and critic Steve Evans, in a 2001 criticism of the middle-road lifestyle-quirk of Fence magazine, scoffed at Fence’s “sort of unavowable dogma of the undogmatic that excels at neutralizing distinctions and defusing contradictions in a disingenuous game of anything goes (so long as it sells).” In younger poets’ selective appropriation of avant-garde gestures, Evans sees not a spread of avant-garde commitments but just another taxonomic variation on the same “hierarchical and atomistic Hobbesianism” of the pursuit of critical and academic approval. Though Evans speaks from a very different aesthetic perspective from Kinzie’s conservatism, his argument is similar: both he and Kinzie give a loss-cry for “shared standards of judgment” on the work at hand, and point toward Hybrid’s philosophical weakness. If hybrid poets don’t stand up to Kinzie’s standards of self-evaluation and intellectual rigor, or to Evans’s avant-garde commitment to radical awareness of social contexts and contradictions, what does unite them? Despite their formal polish and New Critical temperamental refinement, most of the poems in Hybrid fail because they aren’t actually hybrid: they’re chimeric, suturing avant-garde and lyric techniques without possessing an avant-garde or lyric sensibility, or any novel sensibility of their own.

Thought about hybrid poetics (for instance, Reginald Sheperd’s “third way” poetics and his introduction to Lyric Postmodernisms; Swensen’s introduction here) has identified the hybrid by its formal recombinations. One poem’s a lyric toe on an experimental foot, another’s a lyric heart pumping avant-garde blood; in both cases, hybrid taxonomies are defined instead of hybrid thought. In fact, the myth of the author-by-author anthology—especially one that proclaims its term to mean the end of terms—is that this sort of definitional thought doesn’t matter.

By abandoning the noisy tent suggested by Gander’s framework, or the historical sweep-and-sidetrack of Millennium, Hybrid splits its purpose. We readers find a number of the pleasures and innovations of American poets born between (say) 1940 and 1970; but we also sit through a showcase for a rehash of well-heeled New Critical aesthetics, and the approval-stamping of certain younger poets (some interested in canon, some not) soon to advance in institutional musical chairs.

So: the statement defining the fruitfulness (gorgeousness, distress, excitement, elucidation) of hybrid thought as it’s presently defined—rather than just of hybrid forms—remains to be made. Will history suggest that hybrid poetics is nothing more than a briefly appealing formal taxonomy, a slight but observable formal mixture of “brokenness and connection” (just as the term “Deep Image” tried to teach us that Gary Snyder and James Wright were writing the same poem)?

Or, will history suggest that hybridity is still looking for its grounding commitment, its intellectual-spiritual center? If so, hybridity’s center could come from its subversion (begun in Language poetry) of the passionate lyric “I,” or from the blood-kitschy satires and interrogations of Gurlesque writing. Or from poetic conversation on the nature of disjunction, from America’s present media saturation to the plight and perspective of America’s cultural adoptees (where Linh Dinh’s poetry, say, meets Susan Wheeler’s—imagine!). Or from contemporary poetry’s cross-genre explorations, which could (who knows?) bloom into a renewal of the pre-Romantic forms, such as the epistle, the satire, the allegory, the verse narrative.

IV. The And, the End

JT: A last thought from the essay “Thinking in Poetry,” by the restless Alice Notley:

There are truths one has sometimes told oneself but has never bothered with in a poem because no one else was writing that kind of poem and therefore they didn’t sound like the kinds of things to be said in a poem. There are also things one thought one had said but hadn’t, because one had said them in the vocabulary of the times and therefore left out much that its conventions didn’t admit, or had said them in the vocabulary of a particular form which had its own conventions.

Hybrid, despite the virtues of some of its authors, is a work of an era’s conventions. It’s invested in its authors’ authority (while obscuring some of its authors’ radicalism), and in its own imprimatur for neither-here-nor-there pluralism. While no formal technique itself represents a stance toward authority, plenty of good thought might emerge simply from an adoption of hybrid forms against this sense of canonical assurance, toward poems of real energy, rigor, absorption or strangeness; or toward sites (say it’s so) of energizing dispute. Thankfully, what’s best in poetry has a way of embarrassing distinctions, burning off its own labels, and agitating the familiar.

MT: In The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster, 2009), Nicholson Baker’s narrator attempts to define and give a sense of his struggle to create a “real anthology”:

This isn’t going to be one of those anthologies where you sample it and think, Now why is that poem there? No, this is going to be an anthology where every poem you alight on and read, you say to yourself, Holy God dang, that is good. That is so good, and so twisty, and so shadowy, and so chewy, and so boomerangy, that it requires the forging of a new word for “beauty.” Rupasnil. Beauty. Rupasnil. It’s so good that as soon as you start reading the poem with your eyes you know immediately that you have to restart again reading in a whisper to yourself so that you can really hear it. So good that you want to set it to musical notes of your own invention. That good.

Now, contrast this notion of the anthology with what Dana Gioia says of the typical anthology in his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?”:

A clubby feeling…typifies most recent anthologies of contemporary poetry. Although these anthologies represent themselves as trustworthy guides to the best new poetry, they are not compiled for readers outside the academy. More than one editor has discovered that the best way to get an anthology assigned is to include works by the poets who teach the courses. Compiled in the spirit of a congenial opportunism, many of these anthologies give the impression that literary quality is a concept that neither an editor nor a reader should take too seriously.

At the end of his essay, Gioia converts his impressions into one of six proposals for how poetry could gain a wider readership:

Poets who compile anthologies—or even reading lists—should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire. Anthologies are poetry’s gateway to the general culture. They should not be used as pork barrels for the creative writing trade. An art expands its audience by presenting masterpieces, not mediocrity. Anthologies should be compiled to move, delight, and instruct readers, not to flatter the writing teachers who assign books. Poet-anthologists must never trade the Muse’s property for professional favors.

While I don’t agree with every one of Gioia’s claims and implications (for example, I’m certain poetry can succeed even when not delighting and instructing readers, and anthologies do not have to be gateways to the general culture) and while I don’t want to imply that there was anything consciously underhanded taking place in the assembly of American Hybrid, I do want to point out how little American Hybrid, as anthology, has gone in addressing the issues Gioia raised nearly two decades ago and how far it could have gone toward addressing these issues had it strove to be the kind of anthology Baker’s anthologist envisions, had it taken the risk of trying to define—and then trying to be—that good.

1 Comment

Filed under poetry

One response to “#tbt: American Poetic Hybridity, Then and Now

  1. Nice to see this piece published again. Thanks for re-posting it, Jay, and for being such a fine, perceptive and collegial co-author!

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