Thursday, 13 January 2011

Hybrid Poetry - something old, something new

It's sometimes thought that poetry forms are dead in the States and that students can get literature and creative writing degrees without ever having to parse or write a sonnet. This may sometimes be true. It's certainly true that US poets working with forms were eclipsed by more fashionable schools towards the end of the 20th century

  • L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry emerged in the 70s. The idea was that language should dictate meaning rather than the other way around. The movement was motivated by "mistrust of the spurious authority of the confessional voice", but also a mistrust in lyricism and grammar - e.g. N. NourbeSe Philip "saw the lyric voice as one of the tools used to further the ends of colonialism". The Language poets broke sentences into disjointed phrases and broke phrases into words in order to cleanse language of corruption and banality. Lyn Hejinian tells us that this poetry "invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierachies". Here's an example - the end of Bernstein's 6 page "Dysraphism" (dysraphism is an abstruse medical term meaning a kind of birth defect) -
        Dominion demands distraction - the circus
        ponies of the slaughter home. Braced
        by harmony, bludgeoned by decoration
        the dream surgeon hobbles three steps over, two
        steps beside. "In those days you didn't have to
        shout to come off as expressive." One by one
        the clay feet are sanded, the sorrows remanded.
        A fleet of ferries, forever merry.
        Show folks know that what the fighting man wants
        is to win the war and come home. 

    According to Jed Rasula, "Language poetry ... seems to have nourished poetic practice in marked nondenominational ways". It had a good publicity machine, and the time was ripe for a shake-up - the language aspect of poetry was becoming neglected.

  • Elliptical Poetry - This term dates from 1998. According to Burt "Elliptical poets try to manifest a person - who speaks the poem and reflects the poet - while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-'postmodern' ... Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively 'poetic') diction ... The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television." Here's an example by Kleinzahler
        Ah, Little Girl Destiny, it's sprung a leak
        and the margins are bleeding themselves away.
        You and I and the vase and stars won't stay still.
        Wild, wild, wild - kudzu's choked the topiary. 
        Looks like your history is about to turn
        random and brutal, much as an inch of soil or duchy.
        Not at all that curious hybrid you had in mind.
        Jane Austen, high-tech and a measure of Mom. 

Both of these movements distrusted "the lyrical I" and sincere, anecdotal poetry. They're reactions to two influential (and restrictive) US trends

  • New Criticism - Rational and analytical, this dominated the educational world for a while. "The ideal poem in New Critical terms was self-contained, refined, precisely formed, detached, and difficult in the sense that it required, and rewarded, careful study" (Cole Swensen)
  • The mainstream - "the [mainstream] work appears spoken in a natural voice; there must be a sense of urgency and immediacy to this 'affected naturalness' so as to make it appear that one is re-experiencing the original event; there must be a 'studied artlessness' that gives a sense of spontaneous personal sincerity; and there must be a strong movement toward emphatic closure" (Charles Altieri)

Paul Otremba writes that "By the 1990s, with the rise of feminist, Marxist, and poststructuralist theories, American poets were becoming self-conscious about the ideological implications of their medium, particularly lyric poetry's participation in upholding a patriarchal tradition and a belief in the "transcendental signified" ... this materialist opposition comes from a perception of lyric's 'imperial assertion of self, the programmatic exclusion of otherness or difference, and the logocentric quest for presence' "

According to Cole Swensen (in "American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry") "American poetry finds itself at a moment when idiosyncrasy rules to such a degree and differences are so numerous that distinct factions are hard, even impossible, to pin down". Hannah Brooks-Motl confirms this, saying that "in the last few decades or so, American poetry hasn't needed to worry about combating or complicating its mainstream because it hasn't had one." It's just one school amongst many ("The School of Quietude" according to Ron Silliman).

Meanwhile in the USA a "New Formalism" movement grew, reviving interest in forms. The poets started magazines and produced anthologies. They sometimes didn't get on well with those in the other 2 movements who sometimes considered them right-wing, naive, and old fashioned. But Form wasn't dismissed entirely. Lyn Hejinian in "Moving Borders" wrote

  • "Can form make the primary chaos ... articulate without depriving it of its capacious vitality, its generative power? Can form go even further than that and actually generate that potency, opening uncertainty to curiosity, incompleteness to speculation, and turning vastness into plentitude? In my opinion the answer is yes"
  • "Writing's forms are not merely shapes but forces, too; formal questions are about dynamics ... Form does not necessarily achieve closure, nor does raw materiality provide openness"

And some Language poets were feeling less radical - e.g. Bob Perelman in "Assembling Alternatives" wrote

  • "I want to make a case for syntactic and rhetoric effects which have been systematically denigrated in Language writing"
  • "I want to make the case that contact with familiar social structures in language is a crucial element for politically and poetically ambitious work"

Hybrid poetry arrived, supposedly combining the best of both worlds. "Today's hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first-person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with 'conventional' work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of 'experimental' work, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools" (Cole Swensen).

So what does the resulting poetry look like? There's much variety. Here's part of a sonnet by Karen Volkman (from "American Poets in the 21st Century")

    Lifting whither, cycle of the sift
    annuls the future, zero that you zoom
    beautiful suitor of the lucent room
    evacuating auras, stratal shift

    leaping in its alabaster rift.
    Lend the daylight crescent, circle, spume,
    ether from your eye, appalled perfume,
    ash incense to boundary when you drift


I think this is an acrostic ("la belle absente").

Over-reaction and exaggeration are understandable in times of war, but the some of the arguments I quoted by Hejinian et al seem to me disprovable by experiment and disrespectful to readers - the analogies are wild and the theories don't match the execution. N. NourbeSe Philip went on to say that she's "far more interested in working with the structure of the language to destabilize the image of the daffodil" (she was brought up in the tropics and was taught Wordsworth) but the way she does it -

   Is not a daffodil
   and not

just doesn't work for me; the image isn't stable in the first place, and besides, there are many other ways to make the point nowadays. Perhaps it's best to ignore the theory and focus on the poetry itself. To me however, Volkman's poem combines the worst of both worlds.

No comments:

Post a Comment