- “That Thing You Do”
But I have come to say that we have gone too far.Stephen Burt
Looking through the advance program for the American Literature Association’s symposium on poetry, held in Savannah on 24 October 2014, I came to the title of Stephen Burt’s keynote address, “How is American Poetry Still a Thing,” and paused, wondering if we were to hear an exegesis on Object Oriented Ontology, or if perhaps Professor Burt had made a recent foray into Thing Theory. I came of age with Isley Brothers poetics; used to dance to “It’s your thing. / Do what you want to do.” One of the cultural institutions in my hometown, not far from Burt’s, was the New Thing Art and Architecture Center in Washington, D.C. The Ashford and Simpson song that set the metrics of my youthful prosody, masterfully realized by Marvin Gaye (another hometown guy) and Tammi Terrell, went “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby.” Even Lou Rawls warned that “Your Real Good Thing’s about to Come to an End.” Charles Johnson began his career in fiction with the tale of Faith and the Good Thing (1974). We were all about the things of this world. More recently I have been contemplating poet Duriel Harris’s “Thingification” performance piece, but what thing was Burt going to do?
Here’s the thing: this wasn’t How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin’s treatise on language. This was about how it is with American poetry, or maybe what it is with American poetry; the question, both contemporary and rapidly aging, “what’s up?” To be precise, Burt’s questions were : “whether ‘American poetry,’ as a category and a concept, might be obsolete, and whether the term and the set of works, or writings, or activities, to which it has pointed no longer coheres. If that is the case, what can or should replace it?” (271). Burt’s essay might well be produced in answer to another [End Page 300] question recently posed by Daisy Fried: whether “the era of declaring eras over is over.” Probably not.
But if Burt poses these questions as having become inevitable in the process of coediting the Cambridge History of American Poetry (2014), he surely knows that the same questions have seemed inevitable throughout the history of American literary history, sufficiently so that versions of them were put to me in each of my comprehensive examinations for the PhD so many years ago. I am old enough to have had a colleague who got his doctorate from Stanford at a time when, as he put it, the faculty were not so sure there was such a thing as American literature. At my present university, Penn State, there is a plaque posted by a nearby sidewalk celebrating Fred Lewis Pattee as the first professor of American literature at any American university. There is considerable contention around that claim, but when he came to Penn State, originally to fill in for the one member of the English Department, Pattee was certainly one of the very few faculty members in the US making a specialty of American literature. There was still enough of a suspicion about this topic that Pattee’s 1896 article in Chicago’s Dial was titled “Is There an American Literature?” (Was American literature a thing yet?) By the time Pattee published his History of American Literature Since 1870 (1915), he clearly felt he could answer in the affirmative, at least for the literature since 1870, and yet American literature remained an object in question. More recently, Kenneth Warren asked What Was African American Literature? (2011), like Pattee before him, seeing the object of his question not coming into being as a coherent subject until well into the nineteenth century. Burt cites David Perkins’s musing to the effect that “we must perceive a past age as relatively unified if we are to write literary history,” but how odd a construction is the phrase “relatively unified” (273). While it aptly describes our own federal system of governance, it’s a strange way to think of works of art, let alone periods...