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When an Issue of a Newspaper Is a Poem

PostmodernAmericanPoetry_PB_MECH.inddLiterary anthologizing is always a fraught undertaking. No two editors will find the same set of works worthy, and every anthology will—if publishers are half-smart—have plenty of potential readers, many of whom will cavil about particular selections and omissions.

In the poetry world, that proved much the case in late 2011 when The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry appeared. Rita Dove, a former US Poet Laureate and the 1987 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, edited it, and took enormous flak for her judgment.

In a new edition of Postmodern American Poetry, due out in March from W.W. Norton, editor Paul Hoover is on safer ground if only because devotees of experimental poetry comprise a small subset of all poets and poetry readers, and because even large numbers of the devoted will surely find much of what Hoover has selected baffling.

Much postmodern poetry, if it is to be considered postmodern, presumably must baffle, given the way Hoover and others have defined it. In essence, he writes in his introduction, postmodern poetry is avant-garde, experimental writing from 1950 to the present that displays “an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the sentimentality of self-expressiveness of its life in writing.”

It also constitutes opposition to “establishment,” “formalist,” and “academic” verse, or any form conventional at the time, says Hoover, a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University and author of nine books of poetry and one novel. Certainly it seeks to move well away from 19th-century romanticism—Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, and company—as well as from modernism of the early 20th century whose icons include William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot.

Hoover writes that postmodern poetry has continued to be what it was in 1994, when he edited the first edition. However several more subcategories of postmodern verse have emerged during the interim. To styles that went by such names as Beat, projectivist, New York School, deep image, and aleatory poetry have been added newer forms that go by cyberpoetry, Newlipo (see Oulipo, an earlier form, below), and flarf, the last employing such techniques as an online anagram generator.

In a starred pre-pub review, Publishers Weekly calls Hoover’s range of selections “stunning”  and the anthology “essential.”

The scholar, who also is one of two editors of the journal New American Writing, says that all postmodern styles, pre-1994 and post-, have in common a “resistance to dominant and received modes of poetry; it is the avant-garde that renews poetry as a whole through new, but initially shocking, artistic strategies.” He parses out those qualities in numerous ways; for instance, the postmodern may shock because it is “messy rather than neat, plural rather than singular, mannered and oblique rather than straightforward.” Or, Hoover says, the verse may, in words the critic Fredric Jameson used to describe postmodernism more generally, express “the end of the bourgeois ego.” Or it may sample elements of “dead styles” to create pastiche that responds to a culture of late capitalism run rampant.

All that hints at why postmodern poetry’s readership is specialized, even if it no longer has to seek out little-known broadsheets and poetry journals with readerships in the fewer than three figures. Since the earliest days of the approaches, the audience has remained small for work that evokes the loss of individuality in a consumer society, or the loss of privacy and rights in an era of surveillance and control, or that may be dizzyingly cheeky, ludic, populist, or ironically generated by machines.

At its most surprising—at least to anyone for whom Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” has epitomized poetry since their high-school English classes—postmodern verse takes such forms as the “authorless” texts of such (non)authors as Kenneth Goldsmith, whose 2011 work “Seven American Deaths and Disasters” contains nothing he wrote himself, but instead consists of transcripts of police tapes and mass-communications reports. Explains Hoover: “The text is mediated and edited but, strictly speaking, it is not authored.” And, “such an approach presents a challenge to authorship’s treasured concept of originality.” (Except, presumably, insofar as Goldsmith was quixotic enough to construct such a thing.)

Not that postmodern forms and procedures have no precursors, says Hoover. Many postmodern styles hark back to modernist collage as found in Eliot’s “The Waste Land” from 1922, or to Dada, which at about the same time used found words and objects, or to Oulipo, a movement that in the 1960s was known for such devices as writing poems and even novels without common letters—‘e,’ in the famous case of Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La disparition. (He could hardly have called it L’extinction.)

Postmodern poetry may demonstrate a fascination with cyberspace, “a delight in poetry machines,” or the manipulation of “found texts”—whether a note picked up from a sidewalk or, in some cases, mass-media products such as the issue of The New York Times that was reproduced in Goldsmith’s 2003 work, The Dayevery word of it, with the addition of not one word of his own. Whether to categorize such works as poetry or something else— just “conceptual,” say—seems a reasonable question. So, too, in the case of Craig Dworkin’s “Parse,” from 2008. Dworkin, born in 1969, took Edwin A. Abbott’s 1874 book How to Parse: An Attempt to Apply the Principles of Scholarship to English Grammar, and made a work of it that consists entirely of parsing of the book’s grammatical structures.

Hoover allows that the results of many or even all the approaches of postmodern poetry may prove “silly” unless poets also have imagined compelling ways to use raw linguistic materials. But of works such as Dworkin’s, he observes that the stakes are considerable: “With the death of God and the unfortunate but inevitable distancing of nature, appropriation becomes a reigning device.”

And, Hoover affirms, Dworkin very much knows what he is doing: He presents his work as plainly “uncreative,” but he also is intent on suggesting that poetry can be just another niche-market infotainment commodity. Further, writes Hoover, “the work’s exhaustiveness is part of its conceptual humor,” as is a footnote in which Dworkin states that he was in part inspired by a comment made several decades earlier by Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has even been more exciting than diagramming sentences.”

Craig Dworkin, says Hoover, has emerged as “an important conceptual poet and one of conceptualism’s leading theorists.” He also is a professor of English at the University of Utah.

That would not surprise Hoover. An irony of postmodern American poetry, he notes, is that it has fared so well since his 1994 first edition that, far from remaining ghettoized in small publications, many of its practitioners now hold endowed chairs at leading universities. That may demonstrate that earlier antipathy between bohemian poets and the institutions that rarely used to hire them has faded away. He also allows that the efflorescence of college creative-writing programs have assisted in winning jobs for postmodern poets.

Nonetheless, thanks to those developments, Hoover’s anthology seems unlikely to provoke a punch-up of the kind that Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry provoked.

Like a court jester, postmodern poetry may have been accommodated by the “establishment” more than vilified by it. The critic Marjorie Perloff wrote in a 1996 article in Diacritics that even by the time of the appearance of the first edition of Postmodern American Poetry, “there was no longer a clear line of demarcation between the raw and the cooked, the oppositional and the established, the ‘experimental’ and the ‘safe.’”

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