- Personal Effects, Public Effects, Special Effects: Institutionalizing American Poetry
Judging by its sheer heft, its blurbs, and its bulk of carefully-detailed appendices, one might expect that The American Poetry Wax Museum represents a major intervention in the ongoing struggles over American poetry. The second title in NCTE’s Refiguring English Studies series, it bills itself as an “innovative and irreverent” book that “oscillat[es] between documentary and polemic.” The inside book-jacket bio of Rasula details a curious trajectory, involving a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness program, a “stint as researcher for the ABC television series Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,” and a relocation to Ontario, Canada, where the now expatriate author teaches at Queen’s University.
Front matter includes a brief mission statement of this NCTE series, which aims to provide “a forum for scholarship on English studies as a discipline, a profession, and a vocation.” The Series Editor, Stephen M. North, is himself author of The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field (Boynton, 1987), the first truly comprehensive attempt to survey the field of composition studies. North’s emphasis on and validation of “practitioner lore” launched a provocative challenge to then-prevailing notions of researcher expertise, and substantially bolstered the status both of composition studies and of its practitioners.
Rasula’s book thus emerges from a curiously recombinant domain of publishing practices within the English industry, a domain whose academic lineage is marked by the rocky ascent to legitimacy of composition studies, and with it the corollary effect that writing practices as such, including poetry, are a suitable subject for institutional interrogation. Which legitimation has in turn been reinforced by the present popularity of cultural studies — specifically, critical reception theory, an enterprise focused on unveiling the various social and cultural apparatuses of textual consumption. With North as custodian, then, and under the imprimatur of NCTE, we might expect from this unconventionally situated author a renegade challenge to prevailing orthodoxies.
And to a considerable extent, the book delivers on its promise. I’ll begin at the beginning, synchronizing my commentary with the text rather closely through Chapter Two to give some idea of its conceptual progression. A Polemical Preface” provides Rasula’s motivated macro view of what he is up to: his is “a study of the canonizing assumptions (and compulsions) that have fabricated an image of American poetry since World War II,” a “field of productive tensions . . . which are foreclosed prematurely by denials that they exist.” Concurring with Don Byrd’s appraisal that “’poetic’ self-expression” has proliferated to the point of being a “cradle to grave opportunit[y],” Rasula alleges that it has been “anthologists and commentators” who have legislated this state of denials, compiling and categorizing in the service of a graven-cum-waxen image, “the enshrinement of the self-expressive subject” (4).
Chapter One: Though I found the opening salvo a bit mechanical and digressive in places, Rasula’s modus operandi is comprised of equal parts erudition and rhetorical aplomb, and a penchant for mordant observation: in accord with the NCTE series title, he refigures American poetry anthologies as museums of wax simulations whose “carceral” condition is such that each “talking head” is forced to “speak” courtesy of the wonders of voice-over technologies (yes, Baudrillard looms large in all of this, as do the lesser known Philip Fisher and Neil Harris). Poets along with their poetry are thus reduced to ventriloquial ploys employed by their curators both to pander to public taste and to promote various not-so-hidden, but often complex social-qua-literary agendas:
My concern, in elaborating this thesis of a poetry wax museum, is to suggest that the seemingly autonomous “voices and visions” of poets themselves have been underwritten by custodial sponsors who have surreptitiously turned down the volume on certain voices, and simulated a voice-over for certain others. Nothing defines the situation more succinctly than the police phrase protective custody.(33)
For Rasula, the...