The Head, the Ear, and the Syllable; the Heart, the Breath, and the Line


Currently my directive, at least in my own mind, is to review the updated edition of Postmodern American Poetry edited by Paul Hoover. While I do not expect to cover the entire length and breadth of this weighty tome in one relatively short blog post, I do hope that I can accurately convey, (as best I can, through writing), my thoughts, feelings, impressions, etc., to you, the faithful Graphite blog reader. That is the purpose of this blog post. Now the blog post is beginning–watch it begin.

The ravenous hordes of avant-garde American poetry fans have been foaming at the mouth for years waiting for Paul Hoover to update his seminal 1994 anthology. Their little faces shook with Beatlemania psychosis at the announcement of the arrival of the book: bigger, better, postmodern-er.

And what, pray tell, is postmodern poetry? Hoover in his introduction, attempts to provide an answer to this difficult question by approaching it from two angles: historical and conceptual. Historically, postmodern poetry represents the period post-WWII when America is emerging as a dominant presence and a truly international nation and the question of America’s role in the world seeps into some of the poetry. Conceptually, “the term suggests an experimental approach to composition, as well as a worldview that sets itself apart from mainstream culture and the sentimentality and self expressiveness of its life in writing”. Postmodern poetry emphasizes the maximal, the abstract, and the disjunctive while also representing a break from Romantic and Modernist formalism (paradoxically still embracing styles such as the sestina and haiku). Postmodern poetry is reflective of the changing economic and social environment of the United States at the time, Much of the work can be read as a reaction to the ascendancy of large corporations and the philosophical context of existentialism. But postmodern poetry seems to be more influenced by the cultural and aesthetic production, rather than historical circumstances, of post-war America.

As far as the poetry goes, there is no singular style or essence that dominates the anthology, rather, the book spans extremes. The book begins at the chronological beginning with the works of Charles Olson, who by some accounts, was the first to use the word, “postmodern” in its present-day context in poetry. Olson began teaching at Black Mountain in 1951 and mentored and collaborated with many younger poets as well as older Modernists like Ezra Pound. In many ways, Olson represents a link between the two movements. Olson connected poetry to the body, preferring the breath to the measure of the line, poetry as a transference of energy from the poet to the reader-listener. Olson’s poetry, especially his unfinished epic, Maximus, shows an early break from the formalist poetry of the Romantics and Modernists (perhaps excluding Pound and Williams). Olson, along with his Black Mountain College contemporary, Robert Creeley, believed that, “Form is never more than an extension of content,”

One loves only form

And form only comes

Into existence when

The thing is born

– from I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You by Charles Olson

The anthology continues to move through the early history of postmodern verse, with selections from minimal poet Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, the shamanistic verse of Allen Ginsberg and the aleatoric and mesostic poems of John Cage. The progression of style becomes a bit overwhelming to explain at this point but it encapsulates performance poetry including Anne Waldman’s chant-like, “Make Up on Empty Space,”

I am putting makeup on empty space

All patinas convening on empty space

Rouge blushing on empty space

I am putting makeup on empty space

Also included are the work of many seminal Language poets (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, after the magazine of the same name), including Ron Silliman (who between 1979 and 2004 wrote a single poem called The Alphabet, he is now working on a second poem, The Universe), Leslie Scalapino, and Charles Bernstein. Language poetry emphasizes writing that challenges the idea of a speaker behind the text, disjunction, and adoption of longer forms and prose poetry. From Leslie Scalapino’s, Zither,

in fireflies crowds sides running on its sides

crowds running on its sides wallows on black grass

crowds wallow eyebrows on moon-edged horse-blackness

crowds wallow grass horse gliding moon

eyebrows arching through grass wallow moon

eyebrows wallow crowd on the horse

As I move through this blog post, it seems less and less appropriate to be using the standard form of blogging in the context of all this poetry. But for now, I will continue by mentioning that the main improvement on the 1994 anthology is its expansion. That is, in this revised edition, younger poets begin to be included but we do not lose the verse of those who were the backbone of the American avant-garde in mid-century. The anthology concludes with the work of poets such as K. Silem Mohammad and others in the Flarf movement, which was started via online listservs in the first part of the 21st century. These poems focus on the mining of poetic sources from Google and other search engines, as well as a focus on topics that are not typically considered appropriate (?) for poetry. Perhaps, this is better illustrated a poem rather than my description, so here it is, an excerpt from Cosmic Deer Head Freakout by K. Silem Mohammad,

A disembodied head and leg poke out of a cart set in imaginary states

Conjuring up haunting beings that are half-animal, half human

Deer man in deep-space/deer antlers/ deer discussion panel/disembodied-hand

My time reading this book has been a long, strange journey and I don’t know if I am closer or further away from an understanding of all this. I hope you, as the reader, are equally confused so I don’t feel as alone. I think Postmodern American Poetry is worth the purchase just so people will look at it on your shelf and think, “Wow this person like big books!” and respect you more.

— G=R=A=Y T=O=L=H=U=R=S=T