The Future Is Being Written. Are You Part of it?
A sort of satire:
And now, an explosion of a small moment:
The point of the attack is against a minority of the poetry being written today, on behalf of the mainstream. Writing about Kay Ryan’s complete poems (published in 2035, you see), the author, Jason Guriel uses his position twenty-five years in the future to look back on the early poetry of the century (now) to let us know that the disjunctions (etc) associated with the “Ashberians (or the Sillimen or the Dean Youngians . . .)” that typify the period will give way to an age of poems that look and sound a lot like Ryan’s. Kay Ryan, the piece argues, is going to be the voice of the next 25 years.
The tone of the piece aside, he might be right that the poem of the future will look something like Kay Ryan’s poetry (which, if so, I believe will have a lot less to do with Kay Ryan than it will to Rae Armantrout), but I must, once again, stress that the typical poem of right now looks nothing like the poetry of Ashbery-Silliman-Young. All one needs to do is to pick up the three or four largest circulation literary journals, or, better, check out Poetry Daily and Verse Daily for a week and note the modes and methods of the poems there. The poetry typified by Ashbery-Silliman-Young (or, as a female counter [because it fascinates me how writers continually talk about male examples while ignoring equally powerful and appropriate female examples], I propose Armantrout-Hejinian-Ruefle) looks to have little in common until you place it next to the poetry of Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, and, more typical of what is being written by most poets today: Robert Pinsky or Kim Addonizio.
Two things come to my mind when I see this division put forward (and it seems to be put forward a lot, and always by people arguing on behalf of the mainstream, what was once called "Official Verse Culture" and then, more famously, as a sort of prod "School of Quietude").
One, critics don’t have a way to talk about the real mainstream of American poetry without acting like it’s not the mainstream, and as if Ashbery (et al) were the mainstream. In acting as if the mainstream were not the mainstream, in placing it in opposition to this Ashbery/ Silliman/ Young (Armantrout/ Hejinian/ Ruefle!) trio (or sextet!), critics can position it against a large enemy and thereby pitch it as a heroic quest. The way Kay Ryan’s story is being pitched as a version of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (she came from nowhere to the Laureateship!) perhaps, or “The Emperor Has No Clothes” (Her AWP piece is full of insight no one else would dare utter aloud!), when in actuality Kay Ryan’s reputation was built mostly through the strong endorsement of Poetry Magazine, the most visible (to the culture at large) poetry publication in the country, and her laureateship was a political appointment, in the hands of very few. Hers has been less a grass-roots rise than it has a rise through a few powerful advocates.
Two, it could be that the world of Ash-Sil-You / Arm-Hej-Rue is currently a minority position, but a minority position that is growing, or that has, as Tony Hoagland suggests, seeped into the fabric of the time. If this is true (which I’m not certain of, looking at the majority of poems written today), then it does explain the weight of the arguments against it. Poets such as Hoagland see it as something that’s OK in a small measure (he endorses Dean Young and others), but he also sees it as a dangerous “skitteriness” that has no real emotional depth. The barbarians are at the gates, perhaps. Or the writing is on the wall.
I think there’s something to this when I read things such as the recent reviews in The New Yorker of the most recent books by Rae Armantrout and Ann Carson, and a little less recently, but noteworthy nonetheless, the reviews of Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy. All three books are from poets associated with the Ash-Sil-You “side” (which, again, is absurd as a “side,” as, for one, I don’t think Ron Silliman much cares for or feels much affinity with The New York School, represented by Ashbery, and I’m quite certain he doesn’t care much for Dean Young’s work) that have overt, readily apparent, emotional qualities. Such could also be said for Ashbery’s breakthrough (in the mainstream sense, as many experimental poets turn rather to The Tennis Court Oath) book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. (This could be taken as a wonderful opportunity for a “note to self” for poets in the “experimental” “community.” [!]) Hah!
So all this is to say that if I were to guess (knowing that Guriel’s piece is some sort of satire, even as it, to me at least, makes more points against Ryan as it does against what seems to be its true targets [AWP? Experimental poets? Critics who think Ryan is slight?]), the poetry of the future (twenty five years isn’t enough time, by the way, as many poets writing today will still be writing then—so I suggest we look 50 to 75 years off) will be unrecognizable, or at least as much like any tendencies that are swirling today as, say, William Carlos Williams is like Kay Ryan.