- Saying It Again:Ideas, Things, and Poetry in the Americas
The question that titles Stephen Burt’s “Is American Poetry Still a Thing?” is compact and canny. It may glance at the poet William Carlos Williams’s famous directive for modern poetry —“Say it, no ideas but in things” (6)—but its immediate reference is to a question asked again and again by HBO comedian and commentator, John Oliver. Burt’s sleight of hand, his bait and switch, is to drop the term “American poetry” into the syntactical slot Oliver reserves for such suspicious, possibly pernicious cultural phenomena as Columbus Day, Hollywood whitewashing, and dressing in ethnic costumes. The bait is entertainment; the switch is literary history; and the payoff, I will argue, is the payoff of any good simultaneity: it makes us think, leads us to think, in a way that brings a series of concepts back to unruly life.
The pivot of the question, the adverb “still,” announces its premise: “American poetry,” as Burt puts it, “used to be a thing” (273). For graduate students in the late sixties and early seventies, it had all the heft and reach of an established field. Surveys and seminars laid out its themes and techniques; anthologies introduced, annotated, and circulated its constituent texts; and critical books the size of doorstops complicated the category without discrediting or dissolving it.
The title of the journal in which this forum takes place—American Literary History—swiftly and confidently states the immediate context for this question. It wouldn’t have been a question on the Fourth of July, 1855, when Whitman released the first edition of Leaves of Grass; it wouldn’t have occurred to the teachers who required late nineteenth-century school children to memorize and recite the poems of the Fireside Poets; nor would it have been conceivable [End Page 315] in the 1940s and 1950s when poetry was the self-evident pinnacle of literary production. How, then, can it be that “American poetry,” one of American literary history’s standard subcategories, may no longer be “a thing”?
Part of the wit of Oliver’s setup is the suggestion that the answer to the question may not be “yes” or “no,” but something more like “meh” or “d’oh,” Bart Simpson’s interjections for things that may still exist but don’t much matter. The vehemence of Oliver’s take-downs, however, suggests something more is at stake than boredom or indifference. The American phenomena his monologues target—things like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, televangelism, and the tenets of Ayn Rand—are objects and events that appear to have the uncanny persistence of the undead: however we dismiss or discredit, put up with or ignore them, they hang around as if they still served a purpose.
Primed by the tendentiousness of Oliver’s question, it’s a pleasure to hear him spring the traps it sets. The points he makes are swift, straightforward, and familiar to the audience that receives them. It’s absurd to say that Columbus “discovered” a continent long inhabited by the time he arrived and ridiculous to continue to label the peoples he encountered “Indians” because he thought he’d found a passage to South Asia. Televangelists are contemporary showmen who continue to thump the sacred texts colonizers carried across the Atlantic and used to justify the extermination of some peoples and the enslavement of others. And Rand’s philosophy, in its turn, continues to rationalize the amassing of enormous fortunes by industrialists, entrepreneurs, and financiers responsible for a global neoliberal capitalism far more toxic than the enterprises of her heroes Howard Roark and John Galt.
What factors allow the category “American poetry” to slide so easily into the syntax of Oliver’s set-up? One answer might be a perceived slippage in the field’s academic cachet, but popularity is not a crux for either Oliver or Burt. If fewer undergraduates enroll in the surveys and seminars that teach American poetry, fewer graduate students wager their careers on it, and fewer departments seek out its scholars and critics, the ideas that animate the field continue to help contour American literary history and intellectual discourse...