I just finished reading American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology Of New Poetry edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John. The book is a compilation of poets and a selection of their poems that have been published over the past 10 or 20 years, illustrating the vast expanse of poetic ideologies on the current scene. But I can’t help feeling, after reading the book, that Swensen’s and St. John’s definition of hybrid is somewhat broad.
After completely reading through all 508 pages, I went back and re-read the introductions to see if I had missed something. Swensen, in her introduduction to the work, gives a clear and concise definition of what she calls hybrid poetry with these words:
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. (emphasis mine)
This is what I believe ties most of the poems in American Hybrid together, though that’s not what I would consider a hybrid poem.
What Is A Hybrid Poem, Exactly?
To be sure, whoever defines the terms controls the conversation. The way that Swensen and St. John have defined hybrid, it could almost apply to any poet who has ever written a poem in any century except that the term and concept of avant-garde didn’t exist prior to the 19th century. Here’s what St. John says in his introduction:
Although I have always distrusted writers who run in packs, I welcome all literary partisanship as a gesture toward what I would call a “values clarification” in poetry. However, let’s be frank. We are at a time in our poetry when the notion of the “poetic school” is an anachronism, an archaic critical artifact of times long gone by.
In other words, since poetic schools are no longer necessary and you are a poet writing today you can borrow elements from two or more schools and that makes you a hybrid. I don’t think so. I believe the concept of hybridization in poetry deserves a more critical look than that.
While Swensen starts out discussing the historic divide between the avant-garde and everyone else, she quickly moves on to other waters in an attempt to get to the heart of the American hybrid. In the end, it all boils down to whether or not a poet is true to one school or flirts with another.
Personally, I think the delineations between avant-garde and traditional poetry are still necessary and helpful. The emergence of both the Language poets and New Formalists at right about the same time is evidence of this. While I would not adhere to, or encourage others to adhere to, either extreme entirely, I do think that poetic purity is a positive in a volatile world.
Is The Avant-Garde Truly The Vanguard?
The avant-garde philosophy has been around in some form through most of written history. However, it is recognized that the art movement began in the early 19th century with a French utopian socialist by the name of Henri de Saint-Simon.
It is important to note that Saint-Simon was a Christian Humanist who had a vision to reorganize society into a group of elites made up of philosophers, scientists, engineers and other intellectuals. His philosophy was instrumental in the development of many ideologies that are now considered mainstream and a part of the hierarchical structure of society that he tried to tear down. Among them are sociology and economics. His disciples include Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology as a science, renown utilitarian economist John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, who needs no introduction.
In essence, avant-gardeism started out as a political movement, but it was the artists, most notably in France and Italy, who picked up on it and started communicating the ideas of the movement through their works. The poetic forerunners of the avant-garde include Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire, ensuring that French surrealism would take a high position within the movement.
Sidebar: In the way of full disclosure, I happen to be a fan of Baudelaire.
Avant-garde artists of all media have historically considered themselves to be the progenitors of greatness while their traditional counterparts were mired in unthinking mediocrity. While some of that may be true, it is largely a posturing move to make avant-gardeists feel better about themselves for being shunned by the power structure that mocks them. Art and poetry have long been a violent political battlefield.
But politics aside, the real matter is whether avant-garde poetry is any good or not and whether it is, as their most vocal apologist’s maintain, the vanguard of letters. While I maintain that poets writing today can learn from any poet or movement of poetry and incorporate synergistic elements into their own work, I also am baffled at some of the techniques that poets use in their attempts to communicate. Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. And just because it is done doesn’t make it great. Furthermore, just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t suddenly make it a genius moment for those who do it. Replace any innovation with the word “it” as you will.
Those are postulates, not absolutes. By the same token, just because the mainstream doesn’t like it or appreciate it doesn’t mean it isn’t great, shouldn’t be done, or not profitably worthwhile when it is done. Everything must be judged on its own merit.
Introduction To The Post-Avant Malaise
I write in many forms and styles. I try not to restrict myself, though I recognize that certain techniques are more useful than others. Some are just plain ridiculous.
We all have our preferences and many of us have our prejudices. With regard to the latter, I try to keep an open mind and attempt to understand what a poet is trying to do. But that is sometimes hard.
In order to get to the bottom of what precisely is considered “post avant”, it is necessary to understand what is avant-garde, the genesis of the post. At the heart of it, the avant-garde consists of the following attributes:
- Rejection of traditional values
To what degree then is post-avant poetics opposed to these values? The answer is: None. The post-avant poet is firmly rooted in all of these avant-garde values, rejecting none.
However, the post-avant is just as likely to use traditional elements as avant-garde elements in their poetry. See the contradiction?
Good. Because it’s a planned and conscious contradiction.
The difference between the avant-garde and the post-avant is that the latter has no political overtones. It seeks to borrow literary elements from wherever it may find them and incorporate them into a singular poem without regard for the social or political implications. That obviously leaves some schools out of the running for post-avant status.
The Problem With The Avant-Garde
I will say right at the outset that I am not a formalist, either new or old. While I have a deep and abiding respect for all the forms and reserve the right to use them, or modify them, they are not the defining attribute of poetics. By the same token, they shouldn’t be rejected outright because they are traditional. I see both extremes as irrational prejudice.
Another idea I reject is the notion that poetry is inherently an aural art. It isn’t. The reason primitive cultures chose to communicate their poetry through oral presentation is because they couldn’t communicate in writing. When they did undertake written communication it was done in the way of visual images first. Later, language was developed. As societies and cultures grew and developed new technologies, poetry evolved into visual and concrete forms and structures. It was a natural development.
Poetry is communication. Plain and simple. That means that poets can use any medium at their disposal. It also means that there are a rich diversity of structures, forms, and techniques available, both oral and written. Nevertheless, any virtue can be taken to extreme.
The avant-garde is possible because of the visual nature of modern poetry. Aural poetry could never develop an avant-garde movement because there’d be no way for it to communicate apart from sound. So it’s no coincidence that the avant-garde didn’t come along until the 19th century. But there is one thing that bothers me about the style of avant-gardeists and that one thing is evident in many of the poems to be found in American Hybrid.
The problem with the avant-garde is its emphasis on the disjunctive over the logical in language. I’ll use a poem from American Hybrid to illustrate my meaning:
Lucent road, first letter. Evening spooked with light. Quarter moon road with the darkness inside it, and full moon sky with the tree inside it. Curved road in the gloaming. Oak trunk, a vector of force punched upward. held in place
The above lines are taken from a poem titled “Road And Tree” by Forrest Gander, who the editors describe as “Lyrically rooted and visually adventuresome”. That’s not quite how I’d put it.
To start with, we’re not given an instruction manual on how to read this poem. Do we read down first or across first? We’re left to figure it out. I found that it reads better when read across first. But if it reads so well that way then why do we need the fissure down the middle of the poem? You’d think that maybe the subject matter is a clue, but it’s not. This is a device that Gander uses throughout several poems, always with the same disjunctive feel. There seems to be a constant flow of thought across the spaces, but not necessarily.
For instance, in the second line, is the quarter moon road dark inside and full or are we supposed to see these two clauses as independent as evidenced by the crack between them? We’re not told. And there aren’t any clues. Nor, does the poet (or the editors, for that matter) feel the need to clue us in. We’re just supposed to accept it the way it is.
This is the kind of disjunctive language that epitomizes much of the avant-garde, particularly schools like the Language school. It’s one of the most irritating things I’ve seen in late-school poetics.
On the other hand, there are poets, like Brenda Hillman and Martin Corless-Smith, who use this double-line form to great effect and I understand those poems. While it isn’t a technique I’m particularly married to, it is something I can live with if the lines appear controlled by the poet and not vice-versa.
In summary, the problem with a pure avant-garde philosophy is that if you are anti-traditional and experimental for the sake of the same then it’s a lot like spending $200 on a paid escort for the night and masturbating while she waits outside your dorm room fully clothed.
Is It Hybrid, Post-Avant Or Millennial?
Call it what you want, but poetry written today is nothing like poetry that was written 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago. And that’s the point behind Swensen’s and St. John’s American Hybrid. To them, a hybrid poem can consist of a poem borrowing elements from the Language School and Surrealism, both avant-garde traditions. To me, that’s not really a hybrid poem. But a definition is only as good as the theoretical foundation upon which it stands.
Some of the poets in American Hybrid are purely married to the avant-garde. Who can deny that John Ashbery hasn’t been one of the most experimental poets of the 20th century? I like his work, but I’d be hard pressed to find anything traditional in it. So should he be considered a hybrid poet simply because he achieved a certain level of mainstream notoriety?
What about Rae Armantrout, a founding member of the Language School who has gone on to better things, albeit mostly in the avant-garde tradition? Or Barbara Guest, who is the “quintessential hybrid poet” according to Swensen? She started out identifying with the New York School and later moved into the Language camp. But the former is a forerunner to the latter so how is that “hybrid”, exactly?
I hope you can see my dilemma. To me, it isn’t hybrid if you borrow elements from two or more avant-garde schools. Nor would I particularly consider that post-avant, to use Ron Silliman’s phrase.
When I think of post-avant, I think of poets like Reginald Shepherd, Paul Hoover, or Brenda Hillman, all of whom are represented in American Hybrid. Their work truly exemplifies elements from the avant-garde tradition as well as the formal traditions.
I appreciate the work that Swensen and St. John put into American Hybrid. There are truly some fabulous poems, and great poets, included. But I think they have broadened the definition of hybrid too far. I agree with St. John when he says “Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations”. I was glad to see Swensen discussing poets using the Internet to market and publish their poems and reach new audiences (a hot button for me). But my definition of hybrid differs from theirs.
To revisit some posts that I wrote last year, I offer the following principles as a 10-pillar base for a new school of poetics, what I call The Millennial School. But it makes no difference if you call it The Millennial School, Post Avant, or hybrid poetry, it all points back to the idea that 21st century poetics is on the move, not tied down by traditions or tainted with political baggage. Poets today care about one thing: Writing great lines fused with great images that communicate great things.
Millennial Poetics Revisited
- Craft is of utmost importance
- There is no room for prejudice
- Form is just another element of craft
- Creativity and craft go hand in hand
- No topic is taboo
- Language is the fundamental tool of the craft
- All poems are individuals
- There is no acceptable method to writing poetry
- All convention should be shunned
- Technology may be used to enhance the poetry experience.
I’ll leave the elaboration for another post, or you can revisit my series on this topic from last year.
Meanwhile, pick up your copy of American Hybrid and make your own judgments.