|Lyric Theory Reader|
Panel at ACLA 2014
Back in November 1999, the Poetry Society of America
, in conjunction with then-US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky
and the New School Writing Department
, presented a festival entitled "What's American About American Poetry." In preparation for the festival, the organizers queried a wide and diverse array of US poets on this very question, with the results posted on the PSA's website
. (A decade and a year later, they surveyed another swath of contemporary US poets.) I was living in the metro area at the time and attended the festival, which offered numerous memorable and forgettable presentations. One of the more confounding and unforgettable ones, which I believe I'm recalling correctly, occurred when poet Thylias Moss
was describing the origins of poetry--hers, and one might say a good many others--and pointed not just to music and song, but everyday exchanges, in the kitchen, among family members, over fences, at church, and so forth. Which is to say, everyday speech, the vernacular, in the regular, often quotidian social performances of language.
On that same panel, the late John Hollander
dismissively challenged Moss's assertion, suggesting that poetry's origins were loftier, and certainly not to be found in anybody's kitchen or conversations through a back door, but rather in European
traditions going back millennia, to Ancient Greece. None of the other people on the panel--all white--openly or overtly challenged Hollander, which I found disappointing at the time and still do. Among my friends who were also there, I know I was not the only one who took umbrage at Hollander's tone and reply. I do know, however, that it was not until a later panel that day, I think, that Sonia Sanchez
, in her gentle but forceful way, challenged Hollander's comments. The exchange led me to write a semi-found poem, weaving in quotes and notes I had taken that day, in one of my little black notebooks, which I believe I still have somewhere. I titled the poem "What's American About American Poetry," and shared an early draft with the Cave Canem
listserve, which I was still then on. Among the lines directly dealing with the Moss-Hollander contretemps were:
a white silence
which is metaphysical
and a black silence
which is political and social
and, as aptly,
we keep coming back
to Eliot and Pound
to rebel against
the street and jazz
I thought of that conference and the Moss-Hollander exchange, as well as the "white silences," of that panel and so much more, as I sat at a panel on the new Lyric Theory Reader, edited by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins yesterday at the American Comparative Literature Association's (ACLA) annual conference in New York, titled "Capitals," at New York University. Though I am not a member of the organization nor a comparativist by training or pedigree, and have never been to an ACLA conference (unless by happenstance), I thought I should attend since I do write and teach poetry and poetics, and am always interested in current and ongoing conversations both within and outside academe about both. During my entire stay at Northwestern I was involved in various ways with the poetry side of the undergraduate creative writing program (less so the graduate poets), and once the Poetry and Poetics Colloquium began during the last few years of my time there, I actively participated in many conversations around and discussions about lyric poetries and the "new lyric studies." I even made a point of setting aside and reading through the issue of PMLA which presented papers by Jackson and others, so as to be cognizant of this new turn in poetry and poetics studies. That PLMA section was an intellectual preview of the Lyric Theory Reader (Johns Hopkins University, 2014) which gathers a range of essays, many from the last 75 years of writing about American and European poetries, some as recent as the last few years, theorizing "the lyric" and lyric poetry. It is, by any measure, a compendium anyone teaching poetry today should consider perusing.
A review of its contents, however, immediate point up a glaring problem that the composition of the panel, which included Jonathan Culler, Heather Dubrow, Herbert Tucker, and Charles Altieri, as well as Jackson and Prins, mirrored. (One panelist, Marjorie Perloff, could not attend, we were all told, because of a family issue.) In both the anthology itself there are, I think, only two essays by scholars who are not white (one is by an Iranian-American scholar whose recent work does explore poetries by poets who are not white, the other a non-US, South Asian scholar writing about Indian poetics), and perhaps others in the volume do go beyond the perfunctory in discussion poetries and poets who are not white. But it struck me that yet again, in 2014, both with this anthology and with this panel, on a topic that by its very nature is necessitates an attention to the historical, which in the US, as well as Europe, which entails thinking about Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific world, and so forth, the topic and thematics of RACE WERE A GLARING OMISSION. It was what I think poet Harryette Mullen has called "aesthetic apartheid," which I will broaden to "literary critical apartheid" and "intellectual apartheid," since it is not just a matter of aesthetics, but an unconscious and conscious series of gestures and acts, of thought and speech, at the individual, institutional and structural levels, that keep up this process and practice of omission, exclusion and erasure.
I will note Jackson did very briefly broach this omission as part of her concise remarks that concluded the panel discussion. She suggested that supplements to the anthology and the discussion which had just occurred might be necessary, in the process also noting queerness's absence from the panel's interlocutors (though "sexual difference" does merit a section of the book), as well as a lack of mention of "digital" writing as well, though one of the panelists, Heather Dubrow, as part of her remarks, did offer some sparkling insights on how scholars and critics might think expansively about social media in relation to public readings of poetry. She also mentioned a potential way of reconsidering the horizon of "address" in poetry that queer studies had opened up (I immediately thought of the idea of Michael Warner's work on "counterpublics," and of José Estéban Múnoz's work on "queer utopianism" as read through figures like Frank O'Hara, etc.), but did not, however, mention the topic of race. It was the unmentionable topic, by the panel and, it appeared, the mostly white audience. I attended with a friend, the scholar Dorothy Wang, whose brilliant new study, Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry, which was published late last year by Stanford University Press, treats this very topic in assured, nuanced fashion, from its introduction through each individual chapter, and we each realized that the other would have to be the person to speak up if it was going to happen.
Before I detail how that unfolded, I should note that all of the panel presentations did provide grist for thought, some more than others. Interestingly, I felt at times as if I were in a time warp, circa 1986-87 as an undergraduate at Harvard, since more than one of the panelists mentioned not only Paul de Man, who was still a much bruited, not yet publicly unmasked intellectual presence then (and a graduate of Harvard's comparative literature doctoral program in the early 1960s), but also Helen Vendler, who had, I believe, just arrived shortly before I graduated (and is also a Harvard Ph.D.), and, quite interestingly to me, New Critic Reuben Brower, whose famous Humanities 6 program had been the training ground for both Vendler and de Man, among many other major literary scholars of that era. On top of this, I had my sophomore history tutorial seminar (required of all students in every major, I think) in the Brower Room in Harvard's undergraduate residential hall Adams House! So, a high priest of literary theory, most specifically deconstruction (de Man), a critic whose work might be thought of as atheoretical in the post-1960s sense of that term (Vendler)--though any attempt to read and understand literature that entails any level of abstraction is, by another name, theoretical engagement--and a New Critic mostly forgotten today were central players in the exchanges that unfolded. All in all, it felt quite bizarre. A shockingly aggressive paper by Jonathan Culler, in which he directly attacked Virginia Jackson for what he claimed was an elementary error of formalist reading (mistaking a sonnet for a prose poem) by Charles Baudelaire, as part of a critique of a misreading of de Man, added to the bizarrerie. Jackson, in a gentle but incisive way, called him on his unaccountable aggression.
Afterwards, Dorothy and I approached Jackson and politely queried her about the complete absence of any overt treatment of race, or of any American scholars or critics other than one who were or are not white, in the Lyric Theory Reader, perhaps as clear a reflection of literary critical apartheid as one can get, and she was quite apologetic, going so far as to tell us that a highly regarded African American poet and critic had slammed the volume down in disgust after seeing its reinscription of critical and aesthetic erasure, and that two noted African American male scholars had been contacted to provide essays, but had been unable to do so. I noted to Jackson that Dorothy herself had just published a book addressing many of the issues we were pointing out--and providing a powerful way of reading Asian American poetry, as well as other poetries by writers of color, and white writers, who are, despite all evasions to the contrary, are racialized subjects too. There are any number of other Asian American, Latino/Latina, Native American, mixed race, and white critics, let alone African American scholars, who have written on lyric poetry and race, or who could have been persuaded to do so, for this volume. (I should note that I have not yet purchased or perused the reader, but have only viewed it and its table of contents online.)
Jackson responded by asking if we thought the panel reflected a particular critical oversight, and we both noted that the panel, like the anthology, was symptomatic of far deeper problems that white scholars and critics badly need to address. The US is not getting any whiter; American poetry has hardly been all white since its beginnings (the second published US poet was a black woman, Phillis Wheatley, and there have been a range of US poetries for over several hundred years), and criticism by scholars and poets and about poets who are not white, lyric poets, can be found with even a minimal amount of searching, even on Google. Yet as was the case with the "The Future of Literature" conference at NYU, this sort of racist blindness--and I am not going to ascribe bad faith to Jackson or Prins or anyone else, but what else do you call an approach which erases almost completely the very presence of people whose existence of constitutive of the thing being discussed, which is to say, lyric poetry in the Anglophone world, which by its very nature involved, as countless literary scholars and others have pointed out, colonialism, chattel slavery, imperialism, white supremacy, ethnocentrism, and so much more? I accept Jackson's apology, and acknowledge that she did appear quite distressed at the oversight, but the anthology is in print, it will circulate not just in the US but perhaps throughout the Anglophone world and beyond, and anything not in it will exist as a supplement, a material testament to the erasure the anthology enacts and embodies.
One might ask why anyone cares at all about an anthology that a group of scholars affiliated with the ACLA has compiled. I would answer that all one needed to do was look at the packed audience, filled with numerous young and many established scholars, not all of them white, and consider the future generations of students and scholars who, in the absence of more broadminded doctoral exam lists and committees, are internalizing the premise that the study of the lyric, of lyric theory, of lyric poetry in the Anglophone world, let alone elsewhere, by its very nature brackets off questions and issues of race. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with American history, society and poetry knows how absurd this premise is, yet this theory reader suggests that this absurdity is just the opposite, a way of proceeding such that yet again, the element thing lying at the heart of the structures of American society and culture, our politics, our economics, our very being, does not exist, just as it did and does not exist in British or Commonwealth poetry (which is of course equally absurd). To the countless poets of the past and present who are elided and erased, of course, there is the recourse of doing their work and making the case for themselves. For the critics who are ignored or omitted, they must speak out. Yet at base, I come back to the following point: there is a name for why this sort of thing keeps happening. The people doing it need to name it, address it and own it.