American Hybrid, ed. Cole Swensen and David St. John, WW Norton
Poets have always been fiction writers. I don’t mean those of us who are also novelists. I mean the stories that poets have told themselves about their art itself, at least since Plato, to allow them to get a handle on its slipperiness and make it their own. With entries from Philip Sidney and William Wordsworth, the process of course kicked into high gear in the early twentieth century with Modernism’s open attempt to redefine what “poetry” meant, and all the counter-redefinitions in the hundred years since. Like music, poetry saw a flourishing of styles in the just-finished century, such that it made sense to ask someone what “type” they liked. Formal or free? Raw or cooked? New Formal or Language? A thousand forks were introduced to the pie, a process that Cole Swensen and David St.John try to stuff into a new poetic self-fiction in the latest anthology from Norton, American Hybrid.
In the first of two introductions, one by each editor, Swensen presents the rationale for yet another anthology of contemporary poetry thusly: the two-camp model of American poetry, whether the camps are presented as formal vs. free, traditional vs. Modern, Mainstream vs. Radical, New Formal vs. Language, is no longer valid, because “the contemporary moment is dominated by rich writings that cannot be categorized and that hybridize core attributes of pervious ‘camps’”. American poetry today is a “thriving center of alterity,” and today’s poets “often take aspects from two or more (traditions) to create poetry that is truly post-modern in that it’s unpredictable and unprecedented mix.” This is anthology introduction speak meaning that contemporary poets pick and choose from the smorgasbord of styles history gives them, and by and large do whatever they want, with little allegiance to ideologies or schools. A poet might combine a narrative thread with verbal experimentation. Or she could mix fragmentation with the rules of a villanelle. Or insert rhyme into open form. Hybrid poems blend the expressive potential of language-as-language with the potential of language to express recognizable human emotion. According to St. John’s introduction, we “are at a time in our poetry when the notion of the ‘poetic school’ is an anachronism, an archaic critical artifact of times long gone by.” Thus, with a boom and a crash worthy of any Modernist manifesto, the editors announce the birth of a healthy, squalling Third Way in American poetry.
The irony of this is two-fold: immediately after labeling the new poetry uncategorizable, they proceed to categorize it, to define features that, like the features of countless revolutions before it, are sure to set into concrete. You can see it now: pick-and-choose-and-combine as a formal expectation, as critical rubric, as a bludgeon to beat down the new. By recognizing the style, they begin its slow strangulation: think of what had happened to Modernist fragmentation by the 30s. Secondly, and perhaps in keeping with the book’s emphasis on creativity coming from contradiction, this new way is nothing but a seemingly random and idiosyncratic mixing of old ways. To blend schools and ideologies is to recognize those schools and ideologies in the first place. In other words, hybridization is too slip-shod to call a way, or a movement or a style, it is simply the numerical collection of isolated writers plugging away at doing what they want. There is, paradoxically, no style to set. It’s very Zen: the School of No School. It’s very PC: “ It seems therefore antithetical to both the project and spirit of this anthology to suggest that one poet’s way or understanding of hybridization can be judged as ‘better” or ‘more important’ than any other.” If that is the case, have the editors done anything more than collect those poets writing now that they happen to like? Is there any evidence in the poetry here collected that “hybridization” actually mixes styles? Is the result any good?
The answers are sort of, kinda, and it’s hit and miss. Arranged alphabetically and given short and informative bios, the 70-plus poets here collected are indeed a diverse bunch. Perhaps surprisingly, the first poet to stand out as fresh and interesting is Rae Armantrout, usually counted as firmly Langpo in orientation. If you are surprised to learn that a well-established poet like Armantrout is in an anthology about a new wave in verse, you should know that the editors have decided to include only poets with at least three books under their belts. One might think any new way would be the product of the young and fed-up rather than the old and well-fed, but St. John explains that they made this rule in order to “show the historical depth and vitality of the concept of hybridization,” in spite of the fact that earlier Swensen had presented hybridization as a product of the 1990s. And by this line of thinking, in what also seems a commercial move, we get John Ashbery. Historical confusion and big name motives aside, poets like Armantrout are represented by gems like “Generation” (in its entirety):
We know the story.
her back to find her trail
devoured by birds.
The years; the
Looking for hybridization, we note both the strong central image of the birds, and the highly fragmentary nature of the scene. We don’t know precisely what this is about, but neither are we mystified by Langpo gymnastics. A quiet, subtle think piece. Her poem “Scumble” experiments with the meaning and sound of its titular word, without ever puzzling us: “What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as “scumble,” “pinky,” or “extrapolate?” Armantrout has found a happy medium in these poems between the need for recognizable meaning, sense-making, and the equal need for new meaning, making new senses. Ashbery’s offerings, by contrast, do not seem to drink very deeply from the sense-making well: in his poem “Of Linnets and Dull Time” no more than two lines in a row seem to have anything to so with each other. We go from “I feel sorry for anyone that has to die” to, a few short lines later, “The beautiful shape of the toilet interposed/ a viability as the air-raid drill ended.” I have never understood Ashberry’s poetry or why it is so popular, and trying to trace lines of hybridization within it only gives me a headache.
There is, therefore, hybridization in American poetry, but looking at the verses in this anthology shows that it is not as wide-spread or as radical as the editors fervently wish. There are poets who legitimately mix styles, such as Molly Bendall, who in her poem “Conversation With Eva Hesse” employs limerick-like rhyme and repeated lines, only to break into the plane of the poem with “Is this piece finished?” “It’s too bright and beautiful” is the response, making the poem nicely self-referential and post-modern. Michael Burkhard’s “The Rearranger” combines a narrative about AIDS with several twists on language and form. These poems and several others by other poets identifiably use a mixture of techniques not usually mixed, and are in fact hybrid. Many of the selections in the anthology, however, read as your standard mainstream free-verse or quasi-Langpo. The editors, in attempting to explain the hybridity of these texts, frequently use the word “unravel” to describe what happens to traditional narrative or structure. Some poems never seem raveled to begin with, such as Norma Cole’s head-scratcher “Floating By,” but other times the unraveling is very literal: expect to be turning the book in your hands to be able to read Gillian Conoley’s “from The Plot Genie.” You will notice that so far all of my examples are in alphabetical order. That’s because American Hybrid, like any anthology, contains a lot of varied material and the D’s are about a far as you will get on your first reading. Enjoy Stacy Doris’s football diagrams.
Should there be a second reading? Yes. Ultimately, despite the conceptual and evidential difficulties noted above, American Hybrid is a solid and intelligent effort at doing what for poetry or an individual is the hardest task: looking in the mirror. Swensen and St. John deserve your money for making a smart and honest effort. Swensen’s Introduction should be required reading for all contemporary poets, and this book, warts and all, should be on your shelf. Enough examples exist to demonstrate that American poetry is, slowly, painfully, changing, and American Hybrid is the best self-fiction about it we have so far.