In my Advanced Poetry Workshop, I’ve prefaced the current semester with an examination of several critical essays in the hope that my students and I might gain something like a grip on what our current period’s fashionable style looks and acts like, and why.
The essays I’ve selected, Louise Gluck’s “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” collected in her collection Proofs and Theories (Ecco, 1994); Tony Hoagland’s provocative “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment” (which first appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle); and several essays by, perhaps, the most important younger critical voice (in the realm of contemporary poetics) at work today (and by “at work,” I mean at work both at analyzing AND establishing/predicting poetic trends), Stephen Burt, the man who coined the hot-button term of our day, “elliptical poetry.” These essays include “Close Calls with Nonsense” (subtitled “How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry”), “Shearing Away,” and “The New Thing.”
These essays speak to each other (a couple quite literally) in a variety of enlightening and useful ways. In my monthly Congeries, it’s been my desire to present as many poetic practices as possible within a single frame (although, of course, within that frame, each poem exists within its own singular frame), so as to allow these works to speak and interact with one another, to inform us via the thrumming tensions inherent in their juxtapositions. The same idea is applicable to the appreciation of critical essays. A few observations that may or may not, finally, be much more than obvious have occurred to me as I’ve re-read these illuminating essays; I posit them here neither as my end-all interpretation of the essays and their goals nor as an argument for or against any particular recent poetic practice, whether waxing or waning (I prefer to believe that I continue to appreciate poems written in all styles); rather, I wish to put an observation or two out there in the hope that we who are in it, in this rather uniquely unformed and unsure period in American poetic history, might take it upon ourselves to read these critical documents and arrive at our own conclusions.
Gluck’s essay is the oldest of those under consideration. Let me point out that when I first read the essay, twenty or so years ago now, it provided the very information I then required to understand some poems that confounded me, poems by lyric poets like Jean Valentine and Carol Frost, poems to which I was attracted yet found myself unable to “enter” in a way that allowed me to understand the attraction, what the poems were trying to do, how they worked. These were poems that were quite different in many ways from the work of those poets whose influence still controlled my aesthetic sensibilities; a brief list would include Kinnell, Roethke, Hugo, Kumin, Lowell, and James Wright. The essay begins with a key assertion about the poetic landscape of the eighties, namely, that most of the best poets of her generation wanted to write “poems which cover an extended sequence of events.” In other words, she tells us, rightly, that the dominant mode at that juncture happened to be the narrative mode. In the second paragraph, Gluck writes that she, instead, is “attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence.” There’s that word, “ellipsis,” that Burt has propelled to such contemporary importance. But, it seems, one poet’s ellipsis is not necessarily the same as another’s.
Gluck’s starting point is that the “unsaid, for me, exerts great power . . . . Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied [my italics]. . . .” Gluck’s argument is for the lyric as a powerful poetic mode that, more readily than the typical narrative poem, allows the reader to participate in the making of meaning, and for lyrical “breakage” as “the dark complement to the act of making” because the “thing that is broken has particular authority over the act of change.” That is, “change” (in whatever political register one might choose to understand the term) comes from engagement with what is partial, “broken,” and available for intuitive reassembly by an engaged reader.
Tony Hoagland’s essay agrees with Gluck’s assessment of the period style of the eighties, and he describes our current state of aesthetic affairs by declaring that “[s]ystematic development is out; obliquity, fracture, and discontinuity are in.” Lyrical “fracture” equates to what Gluck calls lyrical “breakage,” yet Gluck calls for neither “obliquity” nor “discontinuity as, at the end of the day for her vision of the contemporary lyric, “wholeness is implied,” and what she is, in fact, championing is a “withholding of the gratuitous,” thereby recovering for poetry (and for the reader) the fertile “tension” that is often be lost in the “expansive poem.” Hoagland enumerates several possible reasons for the popularity of today’s hip period style, what he coins “the skittery poem of our moment,” and among these reasons is that “the new resistance to conventions of order represents a boredom with, and generalized suspicion of, straightforwardness and orchestration. Systematic development and continuity are considered simplistic, claustrophobic, and even unimaginative.” He argues that many younger poets today find “organized narration… inadequate to contemporary experience, [that] its use is felt by some to be oppressive, over-controlling, ‘suspiciously authoritarian.’” Hoagland, finally, is rather blunt about the poetry of many (though, I think, certainly not all) who fall under Burt’s self-admittedly wide umbrella, suggesting that a style of poetry reliant on a dismissal of something akin to traditional linguistic association in favor of “a dissociative poetry [that] is always shuffling the deck in order to evade knowability,” an intentional thwarting of the possibility for naturalization, is a cop out. “Perhaps, in their effort to circumvent linearity, or logic, or obviousness” he writes, “they have eluded representing anything but Attitude—one of the familiar problems of Modern American culture.” Hoagland is careful to note that “the pretense of order is, in some way, laughable,” and that “[s]ome wildness is essential to [art’s] freedom,” yet he insists finally that “there is a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality.”
Stephen Burt defines the period style I’m poking around at thusly:
Elliptical poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-
quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes.
They believe provisionally in identities...but they suspect the Is they invoke;
they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how little can go a
long way. Ellipticists seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge
their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about
what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting
traditional lyric goals.
Much of this, if taken as a manifesto of sorts, makes claims that have become familiar as aesthetic styles have come, gone, and then returned to fashion; “authority of the rebellious,” the violation of decorum, and the questioning of what does or does not belongs in a poem are all as easily applied to Walt Whitman, say, as they are to Jorie Graham. And the idea of less being more, of course, has been articulated by architects and artists before and after Ezra Pound. There are things, as well, that Burt claims about elliptical poetry that are certainly debatable.
But for now, I’d like to end with a consideration of these three critical voices and their aesthetic concerns, predilections, and preferred choices and see how the tensions created by the conversation might apply to the pursuits an active reader of poetry. Specifically, before one goes on to pay one’s money and take one’s choice as to what sort of poetry to like, write, or champion, what things must we understand? One is the notion, as Burt has already suggested in “The New Thing,” that elliptical poetry, as he has defined it, may already be on its way out as the fashionable style of the moment. As we have discovered, for such aesthetic fashions to pass fully out of style takes more time than one might expect, particularly since many of these poets now hold jobs within the most visible and influential creative writing programs in the country, and most of these poets are forty or less years old and so, presumably, will hold these positions for a long time. As art goes, the elliptical lyric will surely spend its own term as poetry under attack by younger generations of poets who are dead certain that they bring to the table something utterly new and important. Of that much I’m sure, and I’m sure, too, of two claims that Burt makes. First, I agree that “[d]escriptions of poets in terms of schools or regions or deepest beliefs have rarely been less useful than they are now.” Indeed, the variety of poetry generally and, because of the internet, easily available for public consumption has never been vaster. I agree with Burt, also, that, as he asserts at the end of “Close Calls with Nonsense,” that the best of the elliptical poets will be read “for a long time.” The truth of the matter is the same as it ever was, that a vibrant middle, a center that includes the majority of what is published as poetry today, continues to be enriched by the tension inherent in the opposition of the aesthetic poles it lay between. What at first seems somehow threatening or even absurd is quickly absorbed and made “safe,” and what is useful for an individual poet, as a compliment to what he or she might be trying to do at a particular juncture, will be stolen and claimed as his or her own. This is what poetry is, an engagement with the chaotic despite the knowledge that language alone is insufficient. The question, maybe, is this: is the ineffable better articulated, in whatever limited way it can be, by linearity, by narrative (or lyric) poetry that suggests a whole we know to be a fiction, or by a poetry that sees the fictive nature of a suggested whole as somehow offensively authoritarian and so chooses to put the onus of myth-making on an individual reader? Isn’t it great that we have a choice?