National Poetry Month 2013 Contemporary Poetry Reviews (Part 1)

National Poetry Month 2013 Contemporary Poetry Reviews (Part 1)
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and ten collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than two thousand books of supplied and already-held contemporary poetry. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the author of this article. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a ten-year period. For a partial listing of books received and considered, see here.

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on how contemporary poetry is reviewed, how communities of poets are formed, and how our individual and collective analyses of literary production ought be transformed by recent events in literary criticism and the types of social formations now endemic to American verse.

A book briefly promoted on the Poetry Foundation blog several weeks ago, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, argues that "[creative writing] MFA programs are markers of caste and brand." Its author, American novelist Sarah Schulman, is an undergraduate creative writing professor who prides herself on steering her young charges away from such institutional markers. In a recent interview, she notes that she's "sent like 3 students to MFA programs in twelve years." (NB: During that timespan, between 42,000 and 54,000 aspiring poets and writers have applied to graduate creative writing programs, approximately 70% of them successfully--though some of these ultimately decided not to matriculate, usually due to funding concerns.) In the same interview, Schulman makes no bones about her core contention regarding the study of creative writing: "I hate MFA programs; I think they're terrible for the culture and that they hurt people's writing." Elsewhere she has been heard to say, as noted by the Poetry Foundation, that "MFA programs are to the world of art what gentrification is to your neighborhood."

Gentrification is the process by which residents (often minority residents) of poor urban areas are displaced, due to rising rents and property taxes, by newer, wealthier (often young and white) residents. It's seen as a possibly inevitable but nevertheless regrettable and even cruel phenomenon. It's also one of the most cockamamie metaphors for academic-institutional literary production this author has encountered, given that prior to the popularization of the creative writing MFA the literary establishment in the United States was almost exclusively white, male, straight, and coastal. The mid-1960s advent of degree programs whose campus communities were formulated not on the basis of entrants' social capital--in addition to being white, male, straight, and coastal, a certain degree of money, for instance, was invaluable in accessing pre-1960s literary coteries, and/or a large reserve of sociocultural know-how--but instead on a portfolio of creative writing, was a revelation for those too poor, isolated, shy, or ruralist to run off to New York City and San Francisco and join some cloistered bohemian cabal.

Since the so-called "Program Era" officially began in 1964, those colleges and universities offering terminal graduate creative writing degrees have admitted and employed literary artists of such extraordinary diversity of income, geography, gender, race, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and personality that they have, by 2013, put a viable and heterogeneous literary arts community in nearly every college town, small city, and metropolis in America. In other words, history confirms that the birth and expansion of the Program Era represents the largest decentralization and diversification of the literary arts in American history. By way of example, not only is there now a sizable institutionally-patronized literary community in every American state--and in some states, up to thirty such communities--but today more women than men apply to creative writing MFA programs; more women than men are admitted to such programs; more women than men receive fellowships upon graduating from such programs; and more female than male graduates of such programs land full-time employment in academia. In a world in which the domestic literary establishment is still overwhelmingly white and (albeit to a lesser degree) male, the graduate creative writing program represents the purest expression of merit-based advancement. These days, one needn't spend months or years trying to break into some homogeneous cloister of hipsterdom on the East or West coasts, one simply needs ten strong poems and a $50 application fee to gain entry to a vibrant, permanent, diverse, and multidisciplinary community of literary artists in a city whose name doesn't necessarily end in City or Francisco.

Gentrification the Program Era is not. And Schulman (in an obscure online interview, rather than a book published by University of California Press) seems to admit as much: "[I]f you are a working-class person or an unconnected person, you have to get an MFA...[i]f you come from the upper middle class, or upper classes, if you have connections and relationships in the social apparatus, perhaps you don't need it." So, in revision, Schulman's conception of literary "gentrification" looks a lot like a process that benefits the poor and offers few new advantages to the rich, that expands the number of viable residences for under-resourced individuals, and that (because there has never been a standardized curriculum or pedagogy in the eight-decade history of institutionalized creative writing, and because, as Schulman notes, each of the nation's 200+ creative writing MFAs represents its own unique "brand" in any case) is in no particular way an obvious driver of homogeneity.

Recently an article in The Atlantic took a different approach to discouraging young writers from seeking an MFA: It ignored existing demographic data relating to MFA matriculants in order to argue that the patronage of colleges and universities is largely lost on young writers because so few of them have ever lived outside the ivory tower of academia. In fact, polling shows that the average incoming full-residency MFA student is between twenty-six and twenty-seven years of age, and the average incoming low-residency MFA student--low-residency MFAs having grown at a substantially faster rate than full-residency MFAs since 2000--is in her mid-30s. When we consider how many of the literary bohème of the twentieth century began writing their magna opera, initiating small presses, or generally speaking making their mark on American literary culture in their early and mid-twenties, it seems perverse that Americans who've been out of college between five and fifteen years are now being told they've had insufficient exposure to Americana to put pen to paper. The cruelty of this double-standard--one for those living near the poverty line and writing/working while serving coffee at a Starbucks in New York City, and one for those living near the poverty line and writing/working while attending a college or university in, say, Nebraska--hasn't been lost on Jia Tolentino, a University of Michigan MFA student whose scathing rebuttal to the Atlantic piece justifiably observes the "stupidity" of "equating good writing with unique situations and setting both things in opposition to graduate programs designed to give decent writers a three-year break from scrambling for their rent." Perhaps that's why this MFA student's description of a graduate writing program sounds more than a literary salon--the avant-garde setpiece after which the first MFA program was modeled--than what sociologists call a "total institution."

The reason these articles, and their accompanying counterpoints, matter to contemporary poetry-reviewing is that they illuminate (or, in the case of Schulman and The Atlantic, obscure) important narratives relevant to literary criticism in America. Eventually, one begins to wonder what all these skin-deep, data-free shirt-rendings over graduate creative writing programs are covering up: What master narrative lies behind such seemingly willful distortions? And why does propaganda of this sort so often emanate from literary scholars, presses, and institutions closely associated (as is Schulman's University of California Press) with the presently-acknowledged literary avant-garde? One possible explanation is the utility, in academia, of a dialectic master narrative in which Program Era verse plays foil for its presumptively more energetic avant-garde cousin; after all, an avant-garde is not an avant-garde if it's got nothing to push off from, and as identifiably avant-garde verse is more amenable (due to its animating principles) to theorized scholarship, whiter academic literary criticism if it, too, has nothing to push off from?

Historical research eviscerates the Academy's present dualistic rhetoric. The notion that students of graduate creative writing programs enjoy special access to the highest echelons of the literary establishment in America simply isn't borne out by the facts. For instance, of the last fifty-four recipients of the Pulitzer Prize--every recipient since 1960, when the opening salvos of the Program Era were heard--forty-three, or 80%, never received an MFA degree in creative writing. Only seven, or 13%, studied in a graduate creative writing program during the Program Era proper, and of the four (7%) who received an MFA degree during the Program Era from a program other than the Iowa Writers' Workshop, three (75%) were writers of color whose biographies place them outside even a fanciful rendering of the "establishment.". Analyses of other major literary prizes return the same results. So if students of the Program Era--the only writers credibly (if still inconclusively) associated with the influence of creative writing pedagogy and academic-institutional social formations--haven't been dominating the uppermost tiers of American letters, who has? What third entity, if not the American avant-garde or the children of the Program Era, has been the primary driving force of "mainstream" American verse?

It says here that the New Criticism represents this mysterious third presence in American literature, the one both "creative writing" and the avant-garde/post-avant have been pushing off for decades. More particularly, we may speak of the New Criticism's present influence on American literature in terms of those Ivy League-studying students of the preeminent (and now late) New Critics, whose own aversion to "creative writing" was so virulent and public that virtually no university that hired a high-profile New Critic ever founded--even to this day--a graduate creative writing program. Indeed, the New Criticism, which holds that poets and scholars should employ a specialized, quasi-scientific code in discussing poetry, is anathema to the Program Era, whose professors rarely have any graduate-level training in literary theory or literary criticism, and whose students are selected and educated in blissful ignorance of any officially-sanctioned language for riffing on literature. If you've ever been in a graduate creative writing workshop, you'll know that the level of formality and the erudition of the discourse would make even a college freshman blush. A minimally-directed rap session for cantankerous, heterogeneous, stubborn-as-hell working writers it is; a New Critical lecture series it is not.

What this new, historically-accurate master narrative brings to the table for contemporary reviewers is a reinvigoration of a heretofore minority and even sacrilegious premise: That the impoverished, largely bohemian students of the Program Era are gradually supplanting the territorial, well-connected, Academy-affiliated, intellectually-isolated scions of the literary avant-garde as the new outsiders of American poetry. The recent reaction of such privileged scions to criticism of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry--Norton anthologization constituting prima facie evidence, since time immemorial, of the loss of "outsider" status--is telling. As poet and critic David Biespiel has noted in The Rumpus, in leading avant-gardists' shrill, tone-deaf refusal to acknowledge their own sociocultural, intellectual, and professional victories lies an "omen of the [postmodern poetry establishment's] own demise." And it's true: When your leading lights are publishing with universities or trade presses, drawing fat university paychecks, and receiving a constant barrage of covering fire from English scholars largely hostile to the communal and pedagogical and geopolitical innovations of the Program Era, you've punched your last Victim card.

Perhaps it's time, then, to turn increased attention to those young, MFAed writers whose lives and inclinations have been relentlessly mischaracterized by major-media essayists, English scholars, post-avant scions, and New Critical, prize-winning laureates alike. While this review series makes absolutely no broadly-drawn, qualitative distinctions between writers who have MFA affiliations and those who do not, to the extent such affiliations become fodder for reviews of individual collections it is because the operations of MFA-affiliated communities, as much as the poetry written in and around such communities over time (that is, poetry written and published both pre- and post-graduation), that heralds the nation's only earnest attempt, at present, to achieve the original ends of the historical avant-garde: To return Art to the praxis of life--or, differently stated, to reorganize the praxis of life through Art.

[On this note, a suggestion: If today, or tomorrow, or the next day, some segment of the thousands of despondent MFA graduates lamenting the worthlessness of their degrees wrote the Web Editors of small- to mid-size city newspaper websites offering to write (for free) monthly poetry-review columns, the visibility of new contemporary poetry would shortly be on par with that of new films and new fiction, and the press-kits of even the smallest indie publications would include praise--or at least erudite disgust--from the likes of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, The Denver Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Detroit Free Press, The Newark Star-Ledger, or the hundreds of other online newspaper websites likely to say "yes" if offered free monthly online content by a highly-motivated terminal degree-holder in her field. Especially if that field is the fastest-growing field in higher education.]

In short, the Program Era has silently erected in America, in a mere half-century, precisely enough human and institutional infrastructure to return American poetry to cultural relevance by the end of this decade. Yet it says here that we will continue to resist the temptation to fight on poetry's behalf--to ensure that the world's strongest nation is never again so easily distracted from the abiding graces of aesthetic engagement--because there will always be those who stand to lose from such a revolution. For instance, the publishers who fear more competition from small presses will damage their brand; the poetry reviewers who fear more poetry reviews will inadvertently discredit the genre, devalue their own (purportedly unique) skill-sets, and dilute their authority and cultural capital; the poets who still measure their Art by books sold and readings given and Facebook friends won and chapbooks published in a world in which even the poetry of so-called literary rock stars (that class of persons admired, unlike Maya Angelou, not just by television-show hosts and intermittent poetry readers but working poets as well) reaches only a mere 3% of their national literary community; academic institutions that wage war on the dissemination of hard data about graduate study in the arts in the hope of stiff-arming their institutional competitors for limited human resources (or, worse, in the hope of staving off intra-institutional change intended to better serve presently under-served communities of aspiring poets); academics whose implicit and explicit allegiances with both the aesthetic left (i.e., with theory-driven avant-gardists) and the aesthetic right (i.e., with the neo-New Critical forces perennially opposing the expansion of creative writing programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels) have kept both them and the subjects of their study employed and publishable; and working poets whose benighted tribalism causes them to misunderstand the history of avant-gardiste literary production, mistrust the intelligence of their audiences, and misstate the depth and breadth of what may credibly be deemed experimental in contemporary poetry.

All of these fears--and all of these self-interested alliances--have in common a fidelity to vertical hierarchies of value, authority, and capital, though many masquerade in plain sight as good-natured quasi-bohemian coteries. Consequently, just as the solution to poetry's marginalization is horizontal expansion of the artistic franchise (under the watchful gaze, surely, of those canon-makers we will never be rid of anyhow), the solution to increasingly narrow literary discourse (incredibly, in the context of an ever-expanding library of work available for entertainment, consideration, and review) is to pass the reviewer's baton to an ever-larger stock of qualified individuals, to permit literary critique that primarily honors what is perceived to be "good" rather than gratuitously shaming what is perceived to be "bad" (by way of acknowledging the next-to-impossible book-buying decisions overwhelmed poetry-readers are being asked to make daily), and, as importantly, to analyze poetic literary production within the "horizontal" frame of literary communities and subcultures rather than canonic pronouncements no one takes seriously in any case.

It is time to say that there is a transcendent beauty in the cacophony of sounds and language philosophies evident in post-avant writing, just as there are limitless immanent sensory pleasures in the very best "conventional" lyric-narrative verse. Aesthetics is, finally, taste, not a series of New Critical compositional technologies and terminologies increasingly dead to the attentions of contemporary readers; in contrast, poetics, which measures the eccentric relationships of individual poets to their language, their genre, their communities, domestic and international literature, and themselves, is infectious. While there will always be canons and anthologies to celebrate one scion or another's personal compendium of idiosyncratic tastes, what is needed now is a better understanding of how Great Art does not merely survive over time, but also generates an ever-expanding sphere of influence over time and space.

This review series celebrates precisely this kind of cultural, intellectual, and (dare we say it) spiritual influence, and the concurrent development of coherent communities and subcultures around individual poetics. These phenomena are addressed not merely as historical curiosities but as ends-in-themselves, as inherent goods, and even--in a perhaps novel construction--as aesthetically pleasing metaphysicalities. It is ironic that the avant-garde tradition in American verse, which has always celebrated horizontal influence over vertical hierarchy, and relative cultural influence over absolute aesthetic hegemony, has lately been co-opted by those who would add ever higher and higher obstacles to individuals' access to the artistic franchise, enforce with greater and greater aggression ever narrower and narrower contingencies of value, and police with increasing alacrity the ever-shrinking roster of poets "deserving" of serious study--while all the while accusing poetry's valiant, industrious band of small-d democrats of (of all things!) privatizing and institutionalizing Art out of all cultural relevance.

There's a better way forward than this sort of smallness, and the fact that individuals within contemporary poetry anathema to avant-garde literary production are also now arguing for a doubling down on rigid canonical hierarchies simply underscores that this is the wrong road for anyone hoping to jumpstart literary innovation and appreciation in America.

In the reviews that follow, consistent attention is paid to what the art of individuals and communities, and the operation of communities and institutions, contributes to our understanding of poetry as a fundamentally social artform. The premise of this series is that poetry is presently as ready for universal relevance as it has been at any time in the history of recorded speech, and that, moreover, we working poets owe a debt of industriousness and moral seriousness not only to poetry and to one another but also to the non-literary domestic communities that have long nurtured us toward Truth and inspired us toward Beauty.

In keeping with the above, this month many of the reviews will consider how and why Program Era verse shows signs of promulgating an authentic avant-garde for the next literary generation.

1. a book of variations, bpNichol (Coach House Books, 2013). At first blush, few poets seem as disconnected to the phenomenon now popularly denominated "The Program Era" as bpNichol. To begin with, Barrie Phillip Nichol (1944-1988) was a Canadian poet, and more than 92% of the 229 graduate creative writing programs of which the Program Era is comprised are located in the United States, with only five located in Canada (and only one that was in operation in Nichol's lifetime); second, Nichol passed away in 1988, a year prior to the first conspicuous "boom" in MFA-program creation in North America; third, while known for his promotion of poetry institutions, particularly small presses, Nichol--a member of Canadian sound-poet cadre The Four Horseman and a founding member of the theory-driven Toronto Research Group--was not particularly associated with academic institutions; and fourth and most obviously, Nichol, predominantly a sound and concrete poet (in the technical senses of those terms) never wrote the sort of poetry now so commonly associated, albeit unfairly, with graduate creative writing programs.

And yet as has been stated in this space, and in many others, not only is direct engagement with academic-institutional literary production not a prerequisite for participation in the Program Era, neither is, surprisingly, to have been a living writer during the most turbulent and transformative stages of the period. Indeed, at base the "Program Era" may be defined as the re-institution of "horizontal" relationships between and amongst poets as the primary distinguishing characteristic of North American literary production. The days of "vertical" scholarly analyses, that is, that sort of academic endeavor that seeks to craft canons of longstanding value on the basis of professional consensus, are ending or over. The "anthology wars" contemporary poetry has been enmeshed in since the late 1800s are, at least here in America, anachronistic; the volume of literary production in the United States today is simply too great for any anthology aimed squarely at the canon-making function to function effectively as designed. Invariably, vertically-oriented anthologies labor under the weight of cronyism, nepotism, aesthetic tribalism, professional politics, and other administrative ephemera; by contrast, the consideration of contemporary literary production as a complex map of overlapping literary subcultures not only more accurately charts the heterogeneity of North American verse but also promotes increasingly dynamic and open-ended conversations about poetry. (In view of this, room must be left here for new types of anthologies: Those less invested in the accrual of cultural capital to editors or selected writers than in contributing to nuanced discussions of the myriad, horizontally-structured "cultures of poetics" now extant upon the North American literary landscape.) Canonmakers will always be born (and borne), and will always prosper, but their top-down, deductive proclamations self-aggrandize only a precious few, educate but a handful, and exclude a multitude; grassroots, inductive analyses of literary subcommunities and subcultures honor the fact that verse is always produced in social and pedagogical spaces, whether such spaces are inside the classrooms of academic institutions or outside of them.

In view of the preceding, we can say this with some certainty: bpNichol's poetry is the sort of poetry that animates entire communities and literary subcultures, that is, the sort of poetry that aims to be both a communal event and a dialogic catalyst as opposed to a concretized aesthetic prescription. We have been told, for many decades now, that experimental verse of the sort for which Nichol was known is dry, "academic," joyless, and lacking any of the myriad sensual pleasures of the artform. Yet experimental verse, unlike the conventional lyric-narrative schematic that has long dominated American literature, exhibits enormous cultural generosity: First, in that it requires discourse to be properly digested; second, in that it directly engages the ideas of others rather than merely rehearsing the song of the self; third, in that it seeks to directly influence the literary production of its contemporaries, and is canonized (when and if canonized) primarily on the basis of its success in this regard rather than some consensus-driven "objective" aesthetic judgment; and fourth, it has always, and still does, rely in substantial part on the generative communal infrastructures found in literary subcultures and subcommunities, which replenish the spirit of experimental-verse practitioners when--and, more to the point, as--their compositional mode habitually denies them the simple pleasures of self-aggrandizement.

In other words, it's little surprise that if we dig deeper into bpNichol's biography we find that he was also a writer for the eighties children's television program Fraggle Rock; that he had an interest in breaking down complex structures into lively, easily-digestible units (such as in his The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid, which takes four pages to tell a story others have told in works a hundred times that length); and that under his editorship, a collection of Canadian concrete poetry was given this title: The Cosmic Chef Glee & Perloo Memorial Society under the Direction of Captain Poetry Presents an Evening of Concrete Courtesy Oberon Cement Works. So, humorless Nichol was not. Nor, as one of Canada's most exuberant literary collaborators, was he one to shy away from his fellow poets.

In other words, Nichol's life illuminates something we know instinctively but too often forget when we enter the classroom, coffee shop, or editor's cubbyhole: We may celebrate and discuss the Great Themes and mimetic landscapes of contemporary lyric-narrative poetry, but the utility of such poems as conversation-starters has a ceiling and it is hard. Needless to say, the New Criticism has left us with (for lack of a better term) "technical-ish" terminology for verse composition, and it certainly behooves young writers to learn both the methods to which these terms refer and the canonical texts in which we see their best expression, but--over the long haul of many years in undergraduate and graduate workshops and seminars, and many decades in impromptu literary salons the nation over--generally speaking paraphraseable verse marked by inarguable epiphanies and well-rehearsed technical gestures doesn't require a colloquium. It aims, rather, to pipeline Truth and Beauty directly to the individual reader, not the reader qua community participant. While of course it can and sometimes does do much more--we must not fail to see the tiny, intricate transgressions of work that nevertheless skirts generationally-significant tectonic shifts--a classicalist measuring-stick is, finally, the one we use for such work. By contrast, much experimental verse is like an extra-large pizza: It's meant to be consumed in a group setting.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Nichol's a book of variations is described, on its back cover, using a word we hardly ever hear in connection with poetry: Fun. Really? Poetry, fun? How? To whom? These are fair questions, and ones that our predecessors in the nineteenth century, always so willing to speak of the "pleasures" of literature, had ready answers to; twenty-first century poets are more commonly mute on the subject. For Nichol, and for readers of Nichol, "fun" is not merely a buzzword for use by buzzing publicists, it's a rhetorical conceit. Nichol asks hard questions about sound and language in a way that encourage these difficult topics to be wrestled with good-naturedly and spiritedly by small groups of working poets. While Nichol could produce a magnum opus with the best of the High Modernists--his signal work, after all, was a nine-volume long poem called The Martyrology--what a book of variations reveals is a poet determined to start conversations any writer with a reverence for language, whatever his or her age or genre or experience, is positively duty-bound to have.

Consider "ghosts," a series of superimposed etchings depicting individual letters of the alphabet. Surely we can see, in such a simple and even willfully inartful project, the most succinct and user-friendly visualization of Derridean literary theory yet devised? Many will not have read--or, having read, will not much understand; or, understanding, will not much care for--the essays of celebrated French philosopher Jacques Derrida, but few readers, whether working poets or otherwise, could read "ghosts" without seeing its seminal premise: Beneath all language is faintly-visible language that's older by far, language that both mirrors and haunts every language event (whether one of inscription or consumption) that succeeds it.

Nichol accomplishes a similar miracle in "frames," which neatly summarizes the basic precepts of metarealism using a series of crudely-framed primitive doodles. In the first "frame," a cloud presides over a river, thinking, "I am who am!" [sic]; in the second, a lone bird flies over an empty landscape and ponders its loneliness; in the third, these two sentient images have been replaced by words depicting (in their suddenly disappointing way) a similar landscape: "sky" and "earth," and, between the two, a dividing line that participates in neither ("something which watches quietly," writes Nichol). In the fourth frame, the limited reliability of all frames is illustrated, as--if words like "sky" and "earth" stand in for images of clouds and birds--the only way to provably speak of the "outside" is to put the word itself ("outside") beyond the literal "frame" of reference used in the preceding pages. As the serial poem continues, the poet's ideas become increasingly reliant on words rather than images to do their intellectual work, until all that can be seen are words inside a frame and--finally--words without any functional frame whatsoever. Gone is the cloud and the bird, as representation itself is revealed to be little more than a parlor trick that obscures its objects as much as it reveals them. Mind you, all this is portrayed in cartoons, and they are (as advertised) very fun indeed.

Nichol, who began writing in the mid-1960s, at the dawn of the Program Era, was decades before his time. He saw, as few others did, that for poetry to thrive in a word increasingly defined by interpersonal collisions and generic "borderblur" (to use a phrase of Nichol's), it would have to return to its roots as a predominantly social medium. And he was right: Put a book of variations in the midst of a classroom or coffee shop filled with working poets, you've got the beginnings of an inductive dialogic investigation with no obvious endpoint; put a lyric-narrative poem primarily concerned with mastery over language in that same space, and the room is more likely to be, at least in a very short while, silenced--as the students remain merely students rather than prospective artists. The Program Era forced a sort of literality on poetry by shoehorning literary production and literary dialogue into an identifiably pedagogical space, where previously the imperative for poetry to educate and bring together disparate persons was (ironically) mere metaphor.

That poetry-writing and poetry discourse, not merely the performance of poetry, should descend from its Romantic heights to even briefly occupy a conspicuously interactive and stridently inquisitive institutional environment is, say purists at both ends of the aesthetic spectrum, an abomination. Yet if it's true that a genuine avant-garde must push back against not one but two opposing forces--the avant-garde out of which it was born, which definitionally it must break with to some degree, and the establishment against which its transformations are finally measured--we can see that so much of what has been billed as experimental in the preceding three decades is in fact what we would call a "demi-avant": A literary happening in which a poet or cadre of poets either pushes off from only one foundation or habitually misstates or misunderstands the two forces in reaction to which it has arisen. The Language poetry of the 1970s and 1980s misidentified its enemy as "creative writing" rather than "New Criticism," and its successors have made the same error, leaving those who would fight back against the increasing degradation of language with no better weapon than post-avant poet Kenneth Goldsmith's doctrine of appeasement and implicit surrender (blithely termed "uncreative writing"); meanwhile, creative writing enacted under the sign of the Program Era has ever been staunchly opposed to New Critical technologies and pedagogies, and better understands than does either (say) Goldsmith's Conceptualism or so-called "flarf" that every generation produces an avant-garde that looks nothing like the avant-garde that preceded it. In short, we've been looking for signs of the future in verse of the past (in part because certain scions of the past have willed it so) rather than allowing that the next authentic avant-garde will, while acknowledging its heritage in ways large and small, nevertheless constitute a profound and shocking break from any avant-garde that preceded it. As Gertrude Stein reminds us, a change in time is more often than not the most profound change a language can experience.

Nichol is as important a poet as the twentieth century produced, when we consider the utility of horizontal analyses of language dissemination across subcultures rather than archaic hierarchies of presumptively "objective" value. There will, of course, always be hierarchies and aesthetic contentions, so we need not fear we'll ever miss them or suffer for their absence; what the brilliant, multigeneric, generous, and fundamentally joyous poetry of bpNichol reminds us is that it is not canons on which we subsist as writers, but access to the tradition in the context of dynamic literary communities in which talking is as much the province of poetry as writing. To say every poet should own this book is, therefore, somehow insufficient; in fact, every poet should own this book and bring it over (with perhaps a bottle of wine, or something, depending upon the state one lives in, rather more transformative) to the home of a poet she loves.

As Nichol writes in "Allegory #6-7," "Words as they/ are are simply/ words.... And yet?!" So it is that what fills in the empty spaces in Nichol's work, and in our understanding of it, is a human dimension today's most innovative poets would do well to seriously consider an integral element of the artform itself. Certainly, we cannot understand Nichol's place in history without it. For in fact (surprise ending!) bpNichol attended University of British Columbia just eighteen months before it would create one of the first five graduate creative writing programs in the world, and--as a creative writing student at UBC in the early 1960s--was by definition one of the very first Canadian creative writing students, one of the very first creative writing students of any nationality to study creative writing outside the State of Iowa, and a seminal figure of the critical three-year period (1962-65) during which the Program Era unofficially and then officially began. Is it possible that UBC, which not only provided Nichol with in-class workshopping experience but also a certificate in Elementary Education, was a primary catalyst for the poet's adoption of an explicitly communal, pedagogical poetics? Whatever the answer, it's a conversation the man, the poet, and the poetry itself richly deserves.

[Excerpts: Various digitized works (from author website)].

2. Bravura Cool, Jane Lewty (1913 Press, 2013). One would be hard-pressed to find a more expert manipulation of language--especially at the level of the syllable and the word--than is found on every page of Jane Lewty's debut collection, Bravura Cool.

Jane Lewty's biography vividly reenacts the many infirmities of aging avant-gardists dialectic master narrative for American literary production. A graduate of the iconic yet minimally-coursework-oriented Iowa Writers' Workshop MFA program, Lewty is also a doctorate-holder who long trod in the rarified air of Joycean and Poundian Studies. If her academic-institutional affiliations are grand, her present publishing affiliation--Bravura Cool is published by tiny but consistently impressive California start-up 1913 Press--is not, emphasizing (as if we didn't already know it) just how fluid affiliative politics can be in contemporary literature and contemporary poetry especially.

Lewty infuses each linguistic sub-unit of Bravura Cool with a reverence for the just expression that would be uncommon even in a roomful of professional linguists. Bravura Cool consequently expands the vocabulary of human action and inaction immeasurably; indeed, these poems perform an alchemical process upon language no less profound, to the lover of poetry, than is our scientifically-oriented peers' eternal (and much better-televised) search for new periodic elements and subatomic particles. Yet what startles most about Bravura Cool is that it does not read as a parade of erudition, though a more erudite collection of verse in English one would be at great pains to find. Instead, Lewty's presentation is of a life lived by and through the capacities and incapacities of language, which must therefore patrol every borderline and dimension of a word--the sensual, the transcendent, the grammatical, the lexical, and the connotative alike--to acknowledge its implicit autobiographical function. If the so-called Confessionalists were ever in error about the limits of self-expressive verse--and, to the extent we may even speak of them as a coherent group, they manifestly were--it was in their presumption that our personal experience of language is primarily metaphoric (transcendent) rather than visceral (immanent). Lewty is no Confessionalist, of course, drawing her inspiration instead from the ornate violences of High Modernism, yet her devastatingly exacting and demanding poetry performs the self more credibly than any shirt-rending post-Confessionalist self-narrative ever could.

What we find in Bravura Cool is a recalibrative poetics that is constantly shifting its frames to re-connote its perfectly-pitched language. Often enough, Lewty locates the tragedies of the human in cracks appearing consequent to our emotive and intellectual effusions. In the opening poem of the collection, "The Better Condensed," we find the search for inarguable denotation--for, as it were, the symmetrical word, the word that perfectly corresponds to our experience--a harrowing and perhaps impossible one, no less fraught with dangers to the dignity of the self than was alchemy in the time of Newton. From the poem: "Who put the slickering sound/ into the room?// Monitory, perfidious.// Unlike the idea of travel./ Like him/her./ Like a hunted certain idea/ minutely there but not enough." This, then, is the measure of language's inscription of sound and sense: It organizes lives, but also misleads them into zones of false security; it transforms understandings of the possible without satisfying any of us that a definitive transformation, a transformation of the permanent kind, is in fact within reach. After all, how many Twitter tweets and Facebook status updates and Instagram photos and Tumblr re-posts does it take for us to understand that even a single encounter with a terminal failure of language--say, the cruel insufficiency, at the most critical times and places, of the words "I love you"--is worth a decade of seemingly generative public musings? We are so often told, especially by apologists for the literary status quo, that language suffices for daily transactions, so why not celebrate rather than deconstruct it in verse? The answer, as Lewty--on the evidence of Bravura Cool--well knows, is that if language is indeed sufficient for the daily, it is equally the case that it is insufficient when the unit of measure is a lifetime.

The notion that content is always lost in its transmission over a distance--whether temporal or spatial--runs throughout Bravura Cool. There is much here about gaps and elision, and the points of confrontation and elusion mapped by vectors, and spillages in the middle distance, and inadvertent (or enforced) circumnavigations, and juxtapositions of the senses that self-consciously fail (on the page) to honor the immediacy and ambience of the sensory. As Lewty writes in "The Freight," "This is how my mind does. It rotates in a passageway/ the socalled 'dorsal stream'/ the 'where' or 'how'-way place// in everyone's head. What I hear is murmur ha/ see some losses/ some language..."

Yet quotations such as the one above altogether fail to capture Lewty's particular take on what (in other circles, under other circumstances) might be read as Slow Poetry. These are quite evidently poems of abiding passion, but, for all that, they are nevertheless also poems that must have been produced under the requirement of exquisite precision. And so it is that a careful reader must always consider her source: This poetry is meant to be read with as much thoughtfulness and generative caution as seems to have been behind its composition, if the collection's title--which includes the word "bravura," a reference (among other things) to a musical passage requiring extraordinary technical skill to execute--is any indication. Fortunately, Bravura Cool is one of those texts that rewards rereading, for like any poet with previous scholarly training Lewty is aware that the most important rhetorical superstructures in a work of art are rarely cognizable on a first or even second read.

In the Program Era, the procedural--writing-as-meaning-making, reading-as-meaning-making, socialization-as-meaning-making, and the meaning-making function of all dialogic exchanges--is hard-wired into the poetry of those who've been thrown together to discuss poetry composition, reading, and community-building under explicitly pedagogical conditions. While a preoccupation with compositional process is of course a calling-card of most avant-garde verse, both in the present and historically, what's been different these past few decades is the sheer volume of echolocational anxiety in verse by younger poets: In other words, how aware today's poets are that their voice is unlikely to project far in a culture whose non-literary quadrant is now dominated by Duck Dynasty, and whose literary circles are not just troublingly incestuous and self-sufficient but also, often enough, unreflective, anti-intellectual, and tradition-poor.

Lewty understands better than most that under such conditions the greatest kindness is a point of reference, though such landmarks are as often as not transactional rather than locomotive ("all freeways are white and all tollbooths are home," she writes in "The Freight," adding "Look at the ground instead, then. Look down for me/ look at this new ground of mine."). The echo of Ezra Pound's "make it new" is inescapable here, as is the sense that Lewty's prescription for contemporary meaning-makers is not just uncommon but ingenious: To subsist in the fearlessness (dare we say the "bravura") of the solitary moment, that instant of flex and reflex in which the fragmentary acquires its own internal coherence, a wholeness that permits us the enjoyment of many different selves or "auxiliary yous" ("Errata")--whether or not the final coherence Pound himself so famously (and some would say ineffectually) longed for can be achieved. Lewty acknowledges the possibility of shame, vanity, mis-(self)-apprehension, and blind faith in such individualized reframings, yet what choice have we, after all, things being what they are? Appropriate to the broader cultural context in and into which it was written, Bravura Cool offers readers an intensely challenging yet eminently rewarding aesthetic and pedagogical experience, and one richly deserving of further study, consideration, and dialogue.

[NB: The author of the above piece attended the same graduate school as Ms. Lewty between 2007 and 2009.]

3. The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather, Sampson Starkweather (Birds, LLC, 2013). Sampson Starkweather started a press in 2006, and while the vagaries of the Internet don't, in this instance at least, permit efficacious research into the author's personal biography, what's clear is that he started "Birds, LLC" with a number of recent MFA graduates: Dan Boehl (Emerson), Chris Tonelli (Emerson), Matt Rasmussen (Emerson), and Justin Marks (The New School). Perhaps Starkweather also studied in such a program and is merely shrewder about disclosing it; as of press-time, this author can't know and it doesn't really matter. What matters is that even as longtime darlings of the avant-garde--we know and thus need not name them--are conjoining themselves to university presses in Alabama, California, Connecticut, and elsewhere (or, alternately, offering literary fodder to the giant "trade" mills of New York City) the gaggle of MFAed youngsters behind Birds, LLC is self-publishing their own work with a vivacity and alacrity that would put seminal avant-gardist Louis Zukofsky to shame. The product of this homespun industriousness is a series of collections that not only eschews insider status socioculturally but also leaves more than enough room for the poems themselves to receive a similar assessment.

Sampson Starkweather is announced, with the publication of The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather, as a pioneer of contemporary American metarealistic poetry, something which would have been evident from this first publication (or, as one likes, the poet's first four publications) even if Starkweather's next, still-forthcoming work weren't entitled The Tennis Court Oath By John Ashbery By Sampson Starkweather. What Starkweather achieves, through Art, is a warm acknowledgment that planes of reality exist on an infinite loop without clear origin or terminus; we can and do move between these diverse metaphysical, sociolinguistic landscapes all day every day, and it's these movements which (at least when we fail to call them what they are) cause us so much unnecessary alienation, disillusionment, dislocation, and ennui. That contemporary living underscores the predicament Starkweather explores in verse--that is, that Starkweather is not merely a literary theorist with access to a computer and a Norton anthology--is a testament to the poet's ability to reorganize Art according to the praxis of Life and vice versa.

Starkweather implicitly references the Jungian "collective unconscious" on the first page of the first book of The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather; generatively cites his first Jungian archetype (the "forest") on page two; and concludes this second page with the phrase, "The trees in the trees," thereby foregrounding the Venn diagram of dimensional interrelation that (as you like) describes Jung's trifecta of "persona," "personal unconscious," and "collective unconscious," or (alternately) the way in which we cannot approach the fifth, sixth, or seventh dimensions of space and time--or, it says here, even the elongated elegance of the second and third dimensions--without the recalibrative function of metarealism.

Metarealism, a term most often associated with the Russian postmodernist poetry of the 1980s, aims to delineate, in "realistic" and readily-identifiable fashion, the hyperphysicality of all objects in space and all events in time. More to the point, and perhaps more digestibly, metarealism employs a form of non-visual metaphor called "metabole" to juxtapose separate realities (as metaphors do) without getting locked into the descriptive function that typifies discussion of individual planes of reality (a failing of metaphors). If that's still too obtuse, we might say that metarealism is preoccupied with the "superconscious"--the ability to see how the reality we experience is just one of many possible realities, a realization normally blocked by our universe's accursed three-dimensionality--whereas much lyric-narrative verse explores the ego, and much conventional avant-garde literary production various facets of the sociolinguistic subconscious. In other words, there is no "headier" poetry than metarealism, for it maps entirely ideational spaces we can long for viscerally (as many of us do) but not in the narrow emotional terms so common to discussions of How Things Are. The relational anxiety produced by the Program Era (and discussed in several of the reviews in this essay) naturally produces an instinct toward metarealistic verse, and Starkweather is one of our best examples of the trend.

It simply won't do to attempt a summary of the many excellences in Starkweather's debut. Each page offers stunning exemplars of how the younger generation of experimental writers is challenging received literary wisdom not at the level of the transcendent or the immanent but at the level of what we may call "hypersemantics" (the idea that a written mark's "meaning" is also a function of its dimensional context rather than merely semiotics and cognition). To many, the work will not immediately present as being of an experimental bent; we've been trained, in part by years of quasi-scholarly essays written by poets in the lineage of Language poetry, to see experimentation as consequential only when it theorizes language via what scholars deem the "philosophy of language" (or, related but different, the "philosophy of mind"). Consider this, however, from Starkweather: "The shortest distance between any two points (peoples' lives) is a straight lie." The reduction of a four-dimensional construct (the human lifespan) to a one-dimensional unit (the "point") permits Starkweather not only the realization that the investigation of hyperphysicality requires collapsing traditional lyric preoccupations--such as the ego--into geometrics, but also that the attempt to use relational logic while doing so ("the shortest distance between") is necessarily self-deceitful, even paradoxical. In other words, throwing out the conventional understanding of the ego (and the human gaze) requires, for once, tossing even the baby out with the bathwater. That Starkweather makes this observation using a parodic allusion to contemporary idiomatic speech (cf. "the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line") is the poet's wink to his readers: Readers (the poet seems to say), don't worry, I know we're still living in this reality, let's just all try to forget it.

There's little use to pursuing further this particular analytical vein; the joys of The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather are a Christmas present every poet should get to open for themselves. "The body is an obsolete barometer," writes Starkweather, and given the relational anxiety of the times the poet's prescription for moving forward--for awakening something more than the body--is an apt one. If language is, as Starkweather writes, "the zoo we all lose our nature to," how do we recover that nature without either a) reinscription of the sort of presumptuous metaphoric pablum that's been the province of (largely if not exclusively) bad poetry for centuries, or b) reducing language to commoditized material as dead in our hands and on our tongues as decades-old rock candy? "There is/ no difference between a poem and a tree. A crooked/ tree has no responsibility," says Starkweather, and in such proclamations we see the enactment of a dimensional collapse the philosophers of the Eleatic School--Monists like Zeno, who believed that because nothing was actually moving, not just language but all matter was part of an indivisible whole--would smile at approvingly.

The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather is (are) rife with the sorts of gestures we haven't seen in poetry in--well, perhaps never--and for this reason we must call this text not only thrillingly accessible, not only deeply thought-provoking, but also, and without exaggeration, historically important. This staggeringly ambitious debut collection is, in sum, to quote its author, "the sound of a finger pointing to some/ unseen thing. To be reckoned with, or perhaps,/ reckoned by." While not every poem (or "book") in this collection is consumed by the same preoccupations, enough of the work is committed to doing the intellectual heavy lifting mentioned in this review that, in its totality, the work stands apart and distinct from all others of the past few years.

[Excerpts: from The Waters; from Self Help Poems; from King of the Forest].

4. Fright Catalog, Joseph Mosconi (Insert Blanc Press, 2013). The difficulties in reviewing Joseph Mosconi's Fright Catalog begin with describing the physical article itself. This reviewer has never before received an artifact of this sort, and abashedly admits that he briefly considered tossing it onto a pile of independent press catalogs before realizing it was not a catalog at all but a poetry collection. The confusion (which presumably other potential consumers will experience also) is understandable: Fright Catalog presents as being in the genre of "the catalog," with its magazine format and glossy pages. That something entirely different is afoot is evident when the reader opens Fright Catalog to find, on page one, in giant white letters against a background of blue-screened roses, "GRRR ARRRGH ARRRGH GRRR." The effect is striking and the message clear: The safe spaces of contemporary lyric poetry, which we so often associate with gorgeous flora cleverly metaphorized, are no longer so safe--or shouldn't be, given how unsafe all speech is in the Internet Age. The final words of the collection, "HATE SPEECH," are thus reinvigorated as both admonition and imperative rather than "merely" a politically-fraught (in the conventional sense) adjective-noun pairing.

The brightly-hued pages of Fright Catalog--each page features large colored text on a differently-colored background--are a testament to our sense that behind the glee and glamour of contemporary living is writ the apocalyptic apocrypha of our Age. That Mosconi borrows from several mythic traditions to stake his claims (vampires, trolls, and other excrescent baddies abound here) is at once a commentary on American culture's crass neutering of genuinely threatening ancient specters and a reminder that sometimes we must attack conventions from well outside the gated communities of the Real. While certain of the poems in Fright Catalog offer strictly sensual pleasures ("THE ORMOD LISS OF TRANSURANICAL NORTIVAGATIONS," reads one poem in its entirety), and others primarily semantic ones ("NO NOT REALLY/ FUCK THE UNIVERSE/ I'LL SHARE MY THIRST/ WITH THE THING ON/ THE DOORSTEP", another poem-in-full), the rest read as randomized amalgamations of a more or less mythic, primal, or "frightening" noun (examples: fascist, witch, dwarf, caveman, serpent, vomit, dragons, scars, wounds, villain, labyrinth, evil, pantheon, succubi, and troll) a verb implying a vivid motion or cancellation of motion (examples: breathing, summoned, droning, ensorcelled, hoards, grasp, loathing, crucified, slake, strides, restrained, and soars), and a series of additional adjectives, verbs, and nouns of such forceful presence they invariably ensure the incoherence of the whole (examples: electro, multiplicity, autocrat, rhetoricize, galaxies, fractal, welkin, baloney, syndicate, and aquaphobics). Now and then a new or newish coinage appears to further muddy the waters (examples: souldrilled, necrobobsledder, megacosm, frostwind, candlemath, and funerealism).

If the whole sounds rather baroque and indulgent, it is. It's also a minor work of genius, which is, needless to say, considerably more genius than most work subsists upon. The color schemes that animate each page of Fright Catalog, generated by an "online Color Theme generator" sensitive (it appears) to its textual context--in other words, an application in which textual input partially drives spectral output--inflect each utterance so finally that it's impossible to imagine poetry has so long survived without such habitual pairings of sound and hue. Mosconi thus denies his readers the luxury of ignoring local context in a way few other poets do. Combined with the poet's resurrection of words long banished from polite literary conversation, the total effect is simultaneously dizzying and intoxicating. It's little surprise that the word "rhetoric" appears several times in Fright Catalog, as the rhetorical effect of the collection is simultaneously classical (as to its persuasiveness) and unsustainable (as to its intensity); the reader feels herself at the center of a cannibalistic sublimity as likely to ingest itself as its witness. In other words, Fright Catalog is one of those rare poetry collections that delivers on the promise of its title--for make no mistake, this is a frightening artifact whose aggressions are (quite literally) prismatic. To describe this reading experience as either "horrifying" or "thrilling" would equally hit the mark.

At the center of Fright Catalog--between a page reading "AN EPIPHANIC/ VOMITING/ OF BLOOD" and "I HOPE YOU FAIL/ MISERABLY/ & NEVER ACCOMPLISH/ ANYTHING/ EVER AGAIN"--is nestled a chapbook entitled Fright Analog. To say Fright Analog is an inscrutability circumnavigated by another inscrutability is to understate the case; whatever coherence Fright Catalog promises is undermined, rather than undergirded, by Fright Analog. And that's a good thing. So much verse promises epiphany just beneath the surface of its superficial complexities that it's refreshing to see a poetry collection that self-consciously encodes chaos within chaos--which, in any case, is a more honest reification of contemporary iterations of the chaotic. Non-sense begets non-sense, not a greeting-card, after all.

Within Fright Analog are snippets of visual poetry (example: the word "lighght" is circled and then annotated, by the poet, as "unlight"; the message, particularly relevant to contemporary American culture, seems clear: not only does scrambling the semiotics of a term hogtie its semantics, it can even turn, as it were, too much "light" into darkness); a Wiktionary entry for "military slang"; uncaptioned photographs of creepy humans and non-humans; photocopies of book and CD covers; and, nearly at the center of Fright Analog (thus, nearly at the center of the center of Fright Catalog) an oddly touching rebuke to darkness: "I'm NOT leaving my bed in the gloom." Which, of course, depending upon your mood, could as easily be read as an admission of terminal paralysis in a world in which gloom (again, depending upon your mood) is arguably everywhere.

You must read this book. Not merely because you've never seen anything like it, not merely because there hasn't been anything like it since Dadaists stalked the European continent, but because it is, in a way so little poetry is, visceral. Not visceral in the transcendent sense of permitting its reader a vision of beauty--much contemporary lyric poetry does this--but visceral is the sense that the horrors of the Abyss are visceral, a permanent shiver of the spine is visceral, the consideration of "hate speech" as condition rather than prohibition is visceral.

[NB: After writing this review, this author Googled Mr. Mosconi and discovered that he's an analytical linguist at Google and a former professional lexicographer. He is, moreover, a literary critic, a poetry/visual arts editor, and co-director of The Poetic Research Bureau, a Los Angeles-based "out-of-pocket milk-crate boosterist enterprise...attempt[ing] to cultivate composition, publication, and distribution strategies that enlarge the public domain. It favors appropriations, impersonations, 'compost' poetries, belated conversations, unprintable jokes and doodles, 'unoriginal' literature, historical thefts, and pastiche. The publication emphasis is on ephemeral works, short-run magazines and folios, short-lived reprints and excerpts in print-on-demand formats, and the occasional literary fetish objects of stupidly incomparable price and value."]

[Excerpts: from "Fright Catalog" (click on thumbnails at link to see individual pages)].

[Continue on to Part 2].

Popular in the Community