I AM WRITING TO YOU personally, because as an admirer of your work — which is grand in scope while specific in insight — I find myself frustrated with a few points in your recent article “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” published in the Boston Review’s May/June 2012 issue. I am writing to you publicly, because I feel it's important to complicate the generally black-and-white debates in current discussions around "Conceptualism" in contemporary poetry. I hope that a friendly argument will offer an alternative to the re-staging of an old "culture war" and bring some other things that have been going on in contemporary poetry into the discussion.
But first, let me say that it is distressing to me — as it must be annoying to you, if you read them — to see in the online comments to your piece, which takes issue with Rita Dove’s recent Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, such morsels of American anti-intellectualism as the laconic quip that "honesty is the best poetry," implying that the avant-garde poetry you champion is somehow dishonest. Such calls to so-called honesty come from a place that fears criticality of all stripes and betray a complete misunderstanding of the artifice intrinsic to all poetry. Long before the current Conceptualist critique of "sincerity" and “expression” began, Laura (Riding) Jackson made the compelling argument that poetry, no matter how invested in truth-telling, was always a seduction, and that "poet,” therefore, was “a lying word." It is just such a blindness to the most basic lessons of Modernism — a blindness perpetuated by the big houses, "major" anthologies, and high-school English curricula, and one that you, to your credit, have doggedly countered — that keeps the American mind in the stone age in regard to poetry, among other things.
It's important to start with this point of agreement, because your argument, sustained over the course of many books and articles, about transparency vs. materiality of language has much to do with challenging the still-prevailing amnesia regarding what might generally be called twentieth-century poetry’s linguistic turn. Still, if I may, I'd like to propose a small corrective that may lead to something larger. In your article, you cite the Russian Formalists' notion of "the word as such" ["slóvo kak takovóe"] as one of the things that the poetry of (what you term) "moderation and safety" coming out of today’s MFA programs distinctly avoids. Actually, though associated with the Formalists, the term comes from a Russian (Cubo-)Futurist manifesto and was developed by Alexei Kruchenykh and Velemir Khlebnikov; thus, it originates within a poetic movement and not the (slightly later) theoretical movement that codified its significance.
More important than the provenance of the term, though, is the fact that the same avoidance of "the word as such" can be found at the base of Conceptualist practice, which in your article you set in opposition to what I'll choose to call, for convenience’s sake, "Conservatism": American Realism, Confessionalism, New Yorker poetry, Epiphanism, or what you refer to as a "certain kind of prize-winning, 'well-crafted' poem.” For you, Conservatism resists,...read more