From Anthology to Conversation
By Cole Swensen and David St. John on 8.28.09
By way of introduction, we are the editors of a poetry anthology called American Hybrid. A poetry anthology is an implicit conversation about poetics, about history, about the role of the arts in society, but the conversation just starts there. We’d like to use this Poems Out Loud column to let that conversation overflow into the literal, where American poetry can be discussed in its widest sense, its current state and its future.
We also hope that this column can serve a practical role, particularly for educators, by offering answers to their questions, as well as explications, elaborations, and additional perspectives. It can point readers of American Hybrid to supplementary materials and help to connect them to contributors.
American Hybrid is unusual in that most anthologies delineate a group, a movement, or at least a tendency within a larger literature, but this one is driven by an opposite impulse; it delineates a divergence, a scattering, a dissipation of earlier tendencies. Its 72 poets may have things in common, but what really unites them is the fact that they all have, in wildly varied ways, disrupted the polarized positions at the core of 20th century American poetics. These poles were often labeled the experimental and the traditional, and yet it was issues of subjecthood—the relation of the writer to the “I”—assumptions about the role and nature of language, and poetry’s relation to the political that most distinguished these two extremes. Over the past twenty years, American poets have found increasingly complex approaches to these issues, resulting in a gradual erosion of the division, or at least of its binary nature. So, while the work presented in American Hybrid comes out of a past dominated by “two camps,” it has moved beyond it.
Photo by Simon Pittock on Flickr
I don’t mean to say that the traditional and the experimental are not still important qualities in American poetry, but that they’re no longer (if they ever were) accurate categories. Furthermore, to be accurate even as qualities, both terms need to be constantly and rigorously redefined. For instance, “tradition” as it applies to many writers today can refer to ancient Buddhist traditions or African mythology as well as to conventional forms and meters, and the term “experiment” is similarly slippery and multi-faceted. We hope both the anthology and this column will offer a site for such necessary redefinitions.
Though evolved from these two poles, what we have gathered in our anthology is not a collapsing-toward-the-middle, not a center-between-extremes, but is actually the opposite, an errance off the linear continuum that runs from the conventional to the experimental, an errance that explodes that narrow, linear path into an open field. And from there, it goes everywhere.
In exploring this tendency of the contemporary, the anthology presents writers that we feel are the deep roots of a hybridization of experiment and tradition. While there are many outstanding younger writers working in this vein, we felt that any presentation of the idea that did not acknowledge its origins would not properly reflect the enormous changes in American poetry since Paul Hoover’s seminal anthology Postmodern American Poetry. Many of the writers presented in American Hybrid are the masters to which younger poets look, and they look to them not only for what they have done in certain recognizable camps, but above all for the ways in which they have moved beyond labels and into their own adventuresome idiosyncrasies.
There is a quandary inherent in any anthologizing: should the editors “present,” that is to say, observe what is taking place in a given part of the field (which is, of course, in itself a judgment), and lay it out in a way that allows readers to form their own opinions about the relative importance and merit of the contributors, or should the editors “judge,” allotting space and organizing material in a way that makes that relative importance evident? There are strong arguments in favor of both, but we inclined toward the former, feeling that the judgment of inclusion sufficiently expresses our opinions and that contemporary readers both can and should decide which work is most important to them, based upon their own reasons for coming to the anthology, or to poetry in the first place. This inclination is behind our assigning equal space to all contributors and organizing the book alphabetically. In addition, we felt that any arrangement based on geography, chronology, or perceived affinity would posit causal relationships that would, in this case, be more misleading than not.
Response to the anthology has been gratifyingly vigorous; we invite it to continue, and look forward to the many directions the discussion may take—in short, we look forward to hearing what you think.