Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 26 April 2004

"Poetic Culture" by Christopher Beach

The problem

Previous books on the state of poetry have looked at the cultural context and aesthetic considerations. "Each of them has also proposed a 'solution' to the problems facing contemporary poetry: for Jonathan Holden, it is the more engaging use of subject matter; for J.D. McClathy, the recuperation of the aesthetic norms of the previous generations; for Dana Gioia, the better marketing of poetry for the general reader; and for Vernon Shetley, the reinvestment of poetry with a kind of difficulty, intellectual engagement, or 'skepticism' characteristic of a midcentury poetic" (p.15). "Unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when the academic poetry 'establishment' came under fire from the emerging countercultural avant-garde, this new attack seems to have come from all directions"


This book considers the mainstream/avant-garde split, particularly: the social structures which sustain it; alternative career paths (in creative-writing-programs, academia, experimental, performance); anthologies, etc. The mainstream anthologisers tend to claim that "there is no ruling party, and thus no opposition; ... there are only good or bad poets, publishers, literary magazines; ..the others are simply those who failed to make the grade". Non-mainstream anthologisers are more likely to state their assumptions.

How does the mainstream deal with the onslaught? It's been suggested that the term "experimental" is best used to describe a text's style, leaving "avant-garde" to describe a sociological phenomenom, a position defined in relation to prevailing mainstream structures. Similar tactics can be used to disarm both prongs of this attack

  • isolate and ignore the rebels en masse
  • praise one of them at the expense of the others
  • adopt a benign component of their work - their subject matter, for example - and ignore their more challenging aspects
  • focus solely on a non-poetry aspect (e.g. politics, attitude to drugs, rude words)

Other splits

Fragmentation is happening in various ways: on regional, ethnic, gender or stylistic grounds but also according to the media: performance, computer-mediated, etc. The internet has helped sustain some of these grouping, which hitherto might only have acquired critical mass in big cities. Some of these sub-groups are melting pots for topics whose separation defines other groups.

Slams and TV

The book looks at Slams, examining which types of poetry succeed in them and whether there are routes out of the Slam (onto the page, etc). Then Poetry-on-TV is dealt with, in particular the "United States of Poetry" venture.

The future

Beach thinks that since the 1980s, the "New Formalist" fragment has shrunk, partly because it "continued to function more as a splinter group of mainstream academic poetry than as a truly alternative poetic" (p.175). Meanwhile, the Language and mainstream/Workshop factions have continued, albeit weakened. His own sense is that "the poetic mainstream as it has been defined over the past twenty or thirty years no longer provides a sufficient model of either poetic writing or poetic community", and Language Poetry as originally launched is seen as excessively doctrinaire. Beach says that "Not only was the poetic practise of the Language poets strongly demarcated from that of avant-garde poets of the previous generation ....but the strength of their theoretical writings and the commitment of their ideological positions confirmed that independence" (p.181). He quotes Wallace in "Emerging Avant Garde" who thinks that the current avant-garde have "a much less clear theoretical similarity than the language poets" and seem "a directionless group".

He feels that presses, journals like Iowa Review, and indeed poets themselves have more flexible affiliations than before, and that the most promise is shown in the Premonitions anthology by Lew, where multicultural, identity-based yet linguistically experimental work is found.

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