UA Poetry Center Donate Now UA Poetry Center Email SignUp
The State of the Poetry Today?

First, I would like to thank Frances Sjoberg and everyone affiliated with the Poetry Center and the University of Arizona who has made this event go so smoothly and who have made us out-of-towners feel so welcome. It has been an extraordinary few days for me; poetry critics rarely have an opportunity to observe seven first-class poets read their work, discuss its ins and outs, and debate the nature and future of their vocation, all over the course of several days. I have taken copious notes, and I apologize in advance if any of you should discover your words or ideas showing up in my current book project on visual-verbal relations in contemporary American poetry. I intend only praise. And—I feel compelled to add given all the talk here about appropriation and plagiarism—I promise to adhere to the 1998 U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), so that no poets will have their livelihoods threatened by interruptions in their ongoing sizable income from permissions fees.

It’s not immediately clear what an academic like myself can contribute to a symposium such as this. Looking back to Marjorie Perloff’s keynote address, however, I realized that I could take up the question of how genres change over time. For part of her talk, she drew on Iurii Tynianov’s 1927 essay “O literaturnoj evoliutsii” [“On Literary Evolution”]. As should have been clear, Tynianov does not intend the word evoliutsiia [“evolution”] to suggest a simple analogy between biological and literary systems. In his other writings he in fact occasionally uses a different Russian word, smeshchenie [“confusion,” “mixture”], to refer to the process by which genres renew themselves. As he sees it, when the definitions and categories that one learns in school begin to seem strained or irrelevant, then one is likely witnessing the emergence of new modes of writerly practice that cannot be fully understood within existing paradigms.

Smeshchenie is a good word to keep in mind when surveying the contemporary poetry scene. Ever since I entered graduate school in the mid-1990s, scholars have been playing a parlor game called “What Is the State of Poetry Today?” Answers have multiplied. Is postmodernism over? Are we post-postmodern now? Is the avant-garde through? Are we post-avant? Is Language Poetry a thing of the past? What might it mean to be “post-language” (or “post-Language” or “post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E”) (or for that matter, “post-9/11” or “post-ironic”)? Are we living in the age of new lyricism, new brutalism, or new narrative? Are we elliptical? Rhomboidal? Inquiring minds want to know.

I’m now going to take my own turn playing this dubious pastime. Bear with me. I will be making a series of gross generalizations about some of my favorite contemporary poets. I will not be describing English-language poetry in general: I will be offering an account of what could, in retrospect, turn out to be a set of important developments. I base my comments not only on the writings of the poets present at this symposium but also a range of other authors whose work I follow, including, for example, Susan Howe, Katie Degentesh, Harryette Mullen, Sawako Nakayasu, Lisa Robertson, Elizabeth Willis, and Kevin Young. Despite obvious differences, the writings of these poets share several isolable traits:

(1) A fascination with mediation. These writers are thematically and formally invested in thinking through the many ways by which words reach audiences. Sometimes they meditate on parallels between poetry and the visual and musical arts; other times they produce aggressively inter-, multi-, and mixed media works. This interest in media is both historical—how have writers written in the past and what can we learn from those methods and means?—and present-tense—how are today’s digital means of communication altering poetic expression?

(2) An exploration of embodiment. The body, too, is a medium, and language inhabits and traverses it. How does the word relate to the flesh, how (performatively, kinesthetically, visually) is the word made flesh? How does differential embodiment (sex, race, age, health, ability level) affect word-smithery? This inquiry into “embodiment” occurs also in the expanded sense of the term to be found in cybertheorists such as Katherine Hayles and Mark Hansen. How is information (including genetic code) “embodied”? How does the re- and transmediation of content, its translation from one embodied form to another, alter it (or not)?

(3) An awareness that language is through-and-through historical. For these writers, language is rarely if ever pure, universal, or timeless. Rather, it is what Julia Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language calls “post-semiotic,” that is, legibly marked socially, politically, and even racially. Sedimented within it are innumerable traces of its past usages (and conflicts). This is not a cause for despair (OMG, no transcendence!). Rather, it is an inexhaustible motive for composition: one can unfold endlessly the lessons that language can tell. To this end, a poet can employ etymology, translation, code switching, dialectical variation, and other aspects of language and linguistics as generative devices that simultaneously serve forensic ends (see, e.g., Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary).

(4) A tendency to amass (or disport in) archives. Instead of limiting themselves to reportage of lived experience, these writers frequently delve into and exploit specialized bodies of knowledge. An “archive” might be a year’s worth of weather reports (Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather), or it might be a collection of books on textiles in colonial America (Susan Howe’s Bed Hangings). It could be a long list of patient responses to Rorschach tests (Dan Farrell’s Inkblot Record). Language, Hart Crane once wrote, has always built towers and bridges; a tour of monuments past (or slums or highways or . . . ) can constitute a twenty-first century poem.

(5) A project-based mode of composition. Instead of concentrating on producing individual lyrics, many poets today think of themselves as pursuing “projects” that span many poems or take the form of a long poem. Sometimes the result is a book. Cole Swensen’s Ours, for instance, mulls over the career of the seventeenth-century landscape architect André Le Nôtre. Other times a project refuses to settle securely between two covers. Caroline Bergvall’s Shorter Chaucer Tales currently exist as a variety of recordings and live performances. Soon she will be publishing selected tales as a chapbook from Belladonna Books. But as long as the project continues—as long as she continues to experiment and explore a particular configuration of ideas and intuitions—we are likely to see further iterations, whether they be printed, recorded, or installed in a gallery.

Is there a name for this sensibility? Labels are, of course, very tricky. One reason for the current smeshchenie within the poetry world is the persistence of a literary-historical and literary-critical vocabulary that first emerged in the 1960s and became consolidated by the later 1980s (“postmodernism,” “poststructuralism,” “neo-avant-garde,” etc.). The French critic and curator Nicholas Bourriaud argues in Postproduction that today’s art is best described by setting aside the jargon of previous generations and studying the discourses that today’s cutting-edge practitioners use when talking about themselves and their ambitions. In particular, Bourriaud recommends drawing on the culture of DJ-ing, which has evolved its own means of accounting for and analyzing second-order composition, that is, the choosing, arranging, and reworking of found (“sampled”) materials.

In this spirit, I would like to propose the label “D.I.Y.” (“do-it-yourself”) for the poetic sensibility that I have tried to anatomize. We live in a world where anyone with a cell phone is instantly potentially a photographer and a videographer. A couple undergraduates with a laptop and ProTools can become an experimental music collective. In wealthier nations, the media ecology has become fantastically rich, and a numerically large and diverse segment of the world’s population has secured access to a panoply of options for self-expression. Blogs, podcasts, YouTube, e-zines, mp3 files, PowerPoint, desktop publishing: is it any surprise that many of today’s poets would be curious about the manifold ways in which language acquires form and connects people across large distances? In response, they often improvise (or borrow or steal or unearth) ways of managing, redirecting, recording, and reconfiguring the ubiquitous incessant flow of the infostream. They teach us how to inhabit an age of data-overload by demonstrating what can (or should) be preserved, and how we can (or should) do so.

Brian M. Reed