Robert Archambeau’s Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry begins by offering a reassessment of the irascible, archconservative poet-critic Yvor Winters. It then proceeds to discuss several poets from the “last generation of students” to work with Winters at Stanford University, all of whom “arrived in Palo Alto around 1962” (4) and were later featured in the Carcanet Press anthology Five American Poets (1979): Robert Hass, John Matthias, James McMichael, John Peck, and Robert Pinsky. Each of these figures receives a chapter that summarizes his career, comments on his principal publications, and accounts for his reception history.
Described in this manner, the book might not sound promising. While Winters’s insistence that the basis of all good criticism is ethics might appeal to contemporary proponents of an ethical turn in literary study, his antiromantic tirades do not in fact hold up well when juxtaposed with, say, Derek Attridge on responsibility, Alfonso Lingis on trust, or Martha Nussbaum on sympathy. Moreover, the other five poets analyzed in Laureates and Heretics do not cohere as a group stylistically or thematically. Their poetics are simply too varied and divergent. Finally, while Hass and Pinsky might be two of the most award-winning American poets of their generation, the other three are, as Archambeau puts it, almost “unknown and unread outside of . . . small circle[s] of admirers” (225). Many potential readers will already be familiar with books such as Hass’s Field Guide (1973) and Pinsky’s Sadness and Happiness (1975), whereas they will have to be introduced from scratch to Matthias’s Bucyrus (1970), McMichael’s Four Good Things (1980), and Peck’s Shagbark (1972). Can a book devote equal attention to all five of these writers without introducing some kind of distortion or disproportion?
Despite these obstacles, Laureates and Heretics turns out to be a compelling meditation on the mechanics of canonization. Building on the work of David Kellogg, Alan Golding, and Jed Rasula, the study focuses on the institutional and social dynamics that produce different levels of popular and critical success among authors active during the same time period. More specifically, Archambeau proposes that one can describe post–World War II American poetry via a kind of Cartesian graph (“the poetry field”) whose vertical axis runs from traditional to innovative and whose horizontal axis runs from self to community (56). He concedes that these terms are imprecise, and he admits that one cannot pin down a given poet as occupying precisely this or that coordinate in the field. Nevertheless, he believes that this visual tool can clarify notable distinctions in norms and values. For example, the “confessional poetry of Robert Lowell, Sharon Olds, and Louise Glü ck, with its emphasis on individual experience and a distinctive authorial voice, represents a position by the ‘self’” end of the graph. Adrienne Rich, in contrast, “may well be the community-poet extraordinaire, claimed as she is by feminist, gay, and disabled communities, all of whom she seeks to gather around her by various position-takings.” The “New Formalist work of poets such as Dana Gioia” tends toward the “tradition” side of the “poetry field,” whereas self-consciously avant-garde writing falls closer to “innovation” (57).
At first, Archambeau’s argument revisits familiar terrain. He states that during the 1970s the distribution of “power” within the American poetry field “shift[ed] toward community-value” (58). Particularly influential were poetries associated with and speaking to “newly defined identity communities . . . based on historical grievances,” above all the “large and vital feminist and gay-rights movements” and “the black-power movement” (57–58). These developments were “disorienting for heterosexual white male poets, in ways they often could not fully understand or name” (58–59). Although “[s]traight white-male privilege” did not vanish overnight—far from it, as the decade’s prize lists and anthologies illustrate—“its legitimacy had been deeply undermined.” No longer could white men speak unreflectively “of, for, and to a presumably general community” (59).
A comparative study of Winters’s students proves to be a new and inventive means of supporting this last proposition. Hass, Matthias, McMichael, Peck, and Pinsky all came of age in an era of intense ideological demystification...