Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Schools of Poetry

I'm indebted to Carter Monroe for re-engaging me in an ongoing debate among poets--namely, why the so-called School of Quietude, dubbed so by Ron Silliman, won't acknowledge its own existence or its own tacit (so to not speak) dominance, still, of American poetry. A waggish answer: because it's quiet. Shhhh!

I'm further indebted to Seth Abramson for finally identifying Silliman's question as bait (my word, not Abramson's) and cheerfully taking the bait, partly, I sense, so that others wouldn't have to do so, having better things to do. Actually, I think Silliman's question is more fair than the sarcasm in the last sentence suggested. At any rate, here is part of Abramson's answer:

The belief, as exhibited in and by certain contemporary poems, that the near-totality of words in an individual poem should be employed in such a way as to utilize exclusively their transcendent rather than immanent meaning. To the extent this proclivity, as to word usage, commonly generates a poem whose individual on-the-page "marks" constitute merely an "echo" of the visualizable universe of matter the poem evokes, the actual words of the poem may be considered Quiet. They are Quiet in the sense that they are not permitted their full expression as "words-qua-words," but instead remain merely signifiers of a series of referents whose acknowledgment, comprehension, and internalization is the most important work of the poem.

And it's a good answer, one that follows the assertion that what Silliman calls the School of Quietude is really a family, not a genus or a species; a big tent, in other words.

Abramson also takes pains to establish his bona fides. I guess I should, too: publishing poetry in magazines since @1978, some prizes (whatever), Ph.D. in English literature (British romantics, with an exam area in Modern British and American poetry); have taught poetry-writing and poetry as literature since 1980; have written articles and books about poets and poetry; have co-written a textbook on writing poetry and fiction; have also published fiction. Yadda yadda.

To Abramson's apt definition above--which emphasizes language as a referential medium (roll over, Jacques) and thus its image-making quality, I would add that it is still a sound-making medium--lyric, that is. Too quietly for Silliman's tastes, apparently, but I'd still argue that the spine of Anglo-North-American poetry is in the "lyre," and that in this regard Auden is the dominant influence, even for people who haven't heard of him.

That is, I don't think this is an either/or question: quietude vs. noise. It is both/and, as is often the case in debates. Maybe the debate is about volume, the kind of argument that takes place in automobiles: "Turn down the bass!"

I do get what Abramson is asserting, and I do get Silliman's point that a certain way of writing squats at the center of American poetry and dominates the poetic/literary establishment: Folks from the Black Arts Movement made this point almost five decades ago.

Finally, I think it must be said that such a squabble, to the rest of the world, must sound like A Little Gnat Music, as it does even to many of us inside the family of poetry (not the taxonomical family to which Abramson refers).

As Carter Monroe has noted, "Schools" of poetry usually arise, like ghosts, after the body is buried (my analogy, not his); they are named after the fact. This reminds me of when I published my only detective novel. I was reading a review of it, and the reviewer called my novel a "procedural." I turned to my wife and said, "Honey, I wrote a procedural!" Who knew? It was a procedural because the detective was a county sheriff, thus a "police-person," a civic, not private, pro; and thus the novel, to some degree, followed his "procedure" for solving the crime. By the way, many poets, including Auden, are attracted to detective fiction because of the stricture of form and the opportunity to bend them. It's like messing with the sonnet form.

And/or, I would add, they take on far greater cache, prestige, and leverage after the fact, so much so that the young writers of this or that generation desperately yearn to be Imagists, Modernists, Black Mountain Schoolchildren, Beats, New York Schoolchildren, and so son. These schools generate what passes for glamor in the sad wee world of poetry. And what Silliman calls the S of Q seems to own a lot of the glamor still, if the Poet Laureate position generates glamor. I do wish someone would appoint Silliman.

Luckily, I grew up in the High Sierra in a town of 200, went to school in the West, have lived and taught in the West--although I have gotten around, teaching in Sweden and Germany. This squabble does carry a whiff of one more argument from East of the Mississippi; --although, again, I will take pains to acknowledge that Silliman asks some fair questions and that Abramson goes out of his way to provide a fair answer--more than fair: enlightening. Such dust-ups are good for the system of poetry; maybe. But mainly, poets should not go out of their way, if their way is to write poetry. What you want to be doing if you are a writer is to be writing the main thing you write, not writing about Schools. School is out.
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