Fill ‘er up

Pub date May 6, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


An anthology of poets who allegedly combine mainstream and avant-garde aesthetics, American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (WW. Norton and Co., 512 pages, $25.95) — edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John — is an idea whose time hasn’t come. The word "hybrid" is suspect, its trendiness invented by the auto industry to delay real electric cars, hence the cover’s Prius-green font. Like a hybrid car, American Hybrid is half-bad by design, the mainstream filling the role of nonrenewable fossil fuel, the avant-garde serving as electricity. I want an anthology without gas.

Obviously I speak from one side of this divide, having much admiration for Swensen as poet and translator, and little knowledge of St. John. Nor do I care to know a poet whose intro claims "Contemporary American Poetry is thriving on every front" like a hedge-fund brochure. Swensen’s intro, however, is substantial, her account of the post-Victorian split between mainstream and avant-garde poetries — and their uneasy dialectic — both excellent and provocative.

However, her conclusion that the best new poetry has become a hybrid of the two isn’t convincing. The decision to trace a hybrid tradition among older practitioners instead of spotlighting the generation supposedly defined by it only foregrounds the dichotomy. You could make a case for, say, Jorie Graham as hybrid, but turning the page to Barbara Guest, you find no resemblance, despite Swensen’s assertion that Guest is "the quintessential hybrid poet." Guest worked in the tradition of high modernist abstraction. Why project a concept onto her that didn’t exist in her lifetime?

Even John Ashbery doesn’t fit. He hasn’t "moved into the mainstream"; the mainstream moved to him. But mainstream adherents are tiresome. Ralph Angel’s "Someone remembers something that happened a long time /ago. She forgot it, it changed everything" summarizes rather than achieves an Ashberian mode. Only two lines into the first Ashbery selection we find: "The laurel nudges the catalpa." The word "nudges" is comically inapplicable to trees, yet it gradually begins to seem viable — a quick breeze might whip the branches of one against another, like a jab of the elbow to silence an indiscreet remark. Yet this possibility fails to exhaust Ashbery’s indeterminate line, as much what Swensen calls "an event on the page" as the work of more obviously disjunctive poets.

Mainstream poetry is ephemeral. Ever hear of Stephen Phillips? William Watson? Austin Dobson? Some of the most popular mainstream poets in 1890s England, they’re forgotten today. We remember innovators like Yeats. At best mainstream poetry echoes what was avant-garde but is now condoned. It’s the poetry of bourgeois comfort, of received ideas wrapped in clichés. When Albert Goldbarth depicts a black woman "whose rump thumpthumped in walking /like a pair of bongos" he invokes a jungle stereotype as corny as it is offensive. His poems can’t disappear fast enough. At the same time, much avant-garde poetry will disappear. Techniques like constraint writing and manipulation of extant text have become pat workshop formulae, and the formulaic isn’t really avant-garde.

The younger poets I’ve read — in, say, Sara Larsen and David Brazil’s biweekly zine Try — aren’t sweating the hybrid question. They don’t express the assurance of previous generations on the political efficacy of postmodern investigation of language’s structures of power. They’ve seen its impotence in the post-9/11 world. But I don’t see a generational rupture; the avant-garde is the only place where such poets can breathe. New poetry is always avant-garde, and they’re trying something new, not repudiating their elders. Some of these elders are writing the best poetry today, for in art, the new isn’t simply the prerogative of youth. American Hybrid contains many great poems, but I refuse to concede that poets I admire — like Norma Cole, Andrew Joron, even Swensen herself — are related to the mainstream.