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Sites and Sociability in Contemporary American Poetry

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 402-411 | 10.1353/cli.2014.0021

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Over the past twenty-five years, many scholars in contemporary American poetry studies have turned their attention to the social matrix that contextualizes the production of poetry. In 1989 alone, three crucial studies appeared. Michael Davidson’s The San Francisco Renaissance argued persuasively for the way in which lifestyle and literary values converged in a certain place and time to create a sense of community around poetry that presented an alternative to mainstream Cold War–era consensus. Walter B. Kalaidjian, in Languages of Liberation, explored the power of poetry to critique dominant culture and to challenge the conventional wisdom of literary criticism. He examined a wide range of midcentury poets, from James Wright and W. S. Merwin to Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks, in order to reveal poetry’s “social text”—“not merely [its] inscription of historical events, but equally important, its social transactions with various interpretive communities, conglomerate and small press markets, the academy, and other spheres of cultural production” (xii). Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery set a precedent for rediscovering modernism’s diversity, especially in underrecognized political poetry and its publics. These books arguably laid the groundwork for what could be called U.S. poetry criticism’s “cultural turn.” This ongoing shift seeks to complicate the diachronic relationship of the aesthetic object to a canonized tradition by understanding the impacts of synchronic ties: the geographical site, localized scene, network, or diaspora in which it comes to life; institutional sites that promote or exclude it; and sites of production and preservation such as archives, workshops, and small-press publishing outfits that enable critical and recuperative forms of cultural memory. Important studies by Christopher Beach, Cheryl Clarke, Maria Damon, Andrew Epstein, Alan Golding, Timothy Gray, Daniel Kane, Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Bob Perelman, Ann Vickery, Timothy Yu, and others, including the authors under review here, have further developed this trajectory. Two new texts, Lytle Shaw’s Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics and Among Friends: Engendering the Social Site of Poetry, an anthology of essays edited by Anne Dewey and Libbie Rifkin, confirm the staying power of this scholarly direction and offer new insight into the terms of its debate.

Richly documented and ambitiously conceptualized, Lytle Shaw’s Fieldworks offers an illuminating narrative of how experimental poets and artists used site-specificity in the postwar period to reconsider the practices of contextualization and authorization that organize forms of knowledge. For Shaw, site-specificity as an artistic mode is perhaps best understood as a double move that intertwines material practice linked to place with discursive claims to disciplinary fields and their conventional genres. A robust literary history of the poetics of place, from William Carlos Williams to Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and Amiri Baraka, Fieldworks is also a fascinating art-historical account of site-specificity since minimalism, focusing prominently on Robert Smithson and Donald Judd. Drawing on these and younger artists, including Mark Dion, Renée Green, the Flarf poetry collective, Robert Fitterman, and Lisa Robertson, Shaw demonstrates that claims to site-specificity, whether in poetry, sculpture, or installation, always rely on mediating rhetorical frames in which writers and artists incorporate, deform, and recode disciplinary methods and conventional genres of writing from neighboring fields and discourses, including historiography and ethnography (4) as well as natural history, archaeology, nationalism, and urbanism (10). Because site-specific strategies draw our attention to context as a “site of intervention” and are the result of “choices about which kinds of discourse to engage and . . . how these might be processed or resituated” (263), they also serve as a provocation to challenge, from the ground up, “the normative rulers by which the world is measured” as Shaw suggestively writes (261). Winner of the Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Literature from the University of Alabama Press, Fieldworks is a major achievement and a testament to what still remains to be accomplished in long-form scholarship. Addressing both contemporary poetry and contemporary visual arts with complexity and grace, Shaw reorganizes what we thought we knew about transformations in avant-garde writing and art practice since midcentury.

The heft of the book notwithstanding, Shaw’s analysis of the constitutive links between literary and art-historical disciplinary knowledge is seamless...

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