- Is American Poetry Still a Thing?
I take my title from the transatlantic cultural critic John Oliver, whose television show asks “How is (Columbus Day, Daylight Savings Time, Televangelism, etc.) still a thing?” Oliver implies that the thing in question has become useless, harmful, or obsolete. I do not ask whether individual poems are useless or harmful, but whether “American poetry,” as a category and a concept, might be obsolete, and whether the term and the set of works to which it has pointed no longer cohere. If that is the case, what should replace it?
These questions became inescapable while Alfred Bendixen and I were editing the Cambridge History of American Poetry, completed in 2014. What was this thing called “American poetry” whose history our 48 contributors were writing? What was the recent historiography, both of American poetry, the set of texts and practices, and of “American poetry,” the term? How did that history fit—or fail to fit—poetic composition up to 2000 (our terminus ad quem), or to the present day?1
The Cambridge History of American Poetry is—so far as we can tell—the first multi-author history from a university press since 1993.2 It is, therefore, the first literary history to cover what we now understand as the whole field. Up through the late nineteenth century, that coverage meant commissioning chapters whose missions looked a bit like the founding mission of American Literary History: these chapters tried both to put poets into their contexts and to do justice to cultural production far from the most celebrated writers of Boston and New York.
Such reconsideration has a logical stopping point if—and only if—you know how many poems there were, and if you can read them all. As we get past 1860, or perhaps 1920, or 1970, we may decide that no one can read all of them. There’s too much, they have too [End Page 271] little in common, and there are too many conflicting principles of selection available, not just in principle but in our practice. Here is Cary Nelson, editor of the Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (2014): “No matter how long you read and study and think, you will never fully master modern American poetry”; the “process of recovering” occluded poems and poets, he adds, “is by no means complete. Indeed there is no longer any reason to think it ever will be” (5).3
Ever. It’s not just that so many books and so many poems have appeared, but that so many texts and authorial practices propose so many standards and definitions that we have trouble asking not just “What is a good poem?” or “What is a successful poem?” but also “What is a poem?” What does the poetry of James Merrill, Saul Williams, Mary Oliver, Juan Felipe Herrera, lucille clifton, Bernadette Mayer, Claudia Rankine, and Bruce Andrews—all successful in their own terms—have in common? What about the poetry—if that is always the right word—of Carla Harryman, Jenny Holzer, Brother Ali, Ana Carrete, David Antin, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Jewel? These are not just descriptive questions about how we already use that loaded, multivalent word “poetry,” but normative questions about how we have been told to use that word, and by whom, and about how we would like other people to use it. They require judgments of merit, as well as attention to reception history.
Different institutions favor different kinds of answers. Pressures outside academia—in trade publishing and book reviewing, and among most casual readers—usually favor clear definitions of easily interpretable things, things that can be sold or put on a Tumblr, or put into this year’s Best American Poetry. But, as in the world of gallery art, pressure inside academia often favors, instead, poetry that continues the modernist project of requiring that we ask “Is this a poem?”, work that tries—in Marjorie Perloff’s words—”to defamiliarize poetic material,” to participate in a process, a debate, or an agon, over what art can do (21). That is one reason academics who work on contemporary poetry have heard so much...