The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945, Edited by Jennifer Ashton

New York: CUP, 2013, 238pp.

Pulling up linoleum in a house thirty years ago I found sheets from a local newspaper dated only a few years after the point at which this book begins. A letter to the editor was headlined as being about “foreign films”. This struck me as intriguing since, a longtime devotee of Bergman, Antonioni, Godard et al., I hadn’t realised that foreign films were shown at all in Australia just after the war. But the letter included the sentence “what have the Americans ever done to match Red Shoes?” revealing that, for its author, foreign films were American films. It was a reminder that Australia wasn’t always as it is today. The postwar period is the period of the mass arrival of American popular culture (with the intriguing exceptions of its sports which have never made any real headway) for better and worse. Australia’s literary nationalists of the period between the wars would have been horrified and those lamenting in their different ways the absence of a “white” indigenous culture (the “we are second-hand Europeans” approach) would have added surprise to their horror. The generation which might have read the letter to the editor as it was intended has now almost entirely passed away and those, like me, belonging to the next generation are as helpless as Anglo-Saxon smallholders in the years after 1066 watching Norman knights spread over the landscape, bringing with them their weird language and the strange cultural attitudes, attitudes which will seem entirely “normal” in a few generations.

It is tempting to say that with popular culture has come American “high” culture, but the meanings of that innocent “with“ would take a lot of unpacking. American popular culture seems almost entirely ignorant of its nation’s “serious” art – one wonders how many of the poets spoken of in The Cambridge Companion to American Literature Since 1945 would have been mentioned by name in an American film, sit-com or genre novel – so there is no question of one “piggybacking” the other. Actually the processes of transmission are very complex (and far beyond my rudimentary abilities as a student of cultural matters) but we can point to two important phenomena. Firstly, the excellence of the American literary-scholarly tradition meant that, after the war, more postgraduate students in the arts went to America rather than England and they were, inevitably, exposed to American poetry. Secondly, in the seventies – the years of the Vietnam war – more lines of communication were opened under the influence of a shared opposition to a war in which both Australians and Americans were involved. You might even have found a poem by Robert Bly or Robert Creeley in an Australian small magazine of the period, something unthinkable before. And, because America had a crossover high/low literary movement in the Beats (already, really, solidified into a dated, historical phenomenon by the seventies), at least one aspect of American “high”culture could give people what consumers of popular culture seem desperately to need – a lifestyle.

At any rate, Australian poetry is now so entirely enmeshed with American interests, practices and, especially, institutions that making some sense of that juggernaut is an important issue for Australian poets and critics. The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945 is very much designed as a help to students but it is a more than useful introduction. It’s a multi-authored volume (in this way the Cambridge “Companions” series seems to be distinguished from its “Introductions” series – there is no single-authored equivalent on the Cambridge list) and that is probably the best way in which to approach as complex and multifaceted a subject as this. Fourteen scholars write self-contained chapters of about six thousand words (together with notes and some more than usually valuable “Further Reading” lists). Of course, in a sense, there isn’t anything exploratory about such a book since the choice of topic (as well as, to a lesser extent, the choice of scholar) means that the crucial decisions have been made before a pen has moved (or an inkjet squirted). The contents can be divided into three areas: straightforward literary history; accounts of special issue poetries like feminist poetry or ecopoetics; and issues such as the professionalization and institutionalisation of poetry, writing schools, the status of the “mainstream” lyric and so on.

Mark Scroggins’ excellent “From the Late Modernism of the ‘Objectivists’ to the Proto-postmodernism of ‘Projective Verse’”, is an example of conventional literary history but it copes well with what is a very confusing terrain. The fundamental questions it tries to answer are: In what way do the post-Poundian poetics of the first part of the century (perhaps, as this is an American book, one should define it as both post-Poundian and post-Williams) feed into and structure the poetics of someone like Olson, the entrance way to “alternative” traditions in the period? In what way do the poetics of Olson relate to those of Zukofsky and the “Objectivists” whose careers either extended into the post-war period or were, as in the case of Oppen, reactivated within it? Later chapters on the Beats, the San Francisco poets, the New York School (and, to a lesser extent, the Black Arts Movement) might be said to try, with varying degrees of success, to trace the further evolutions and modulations of this strain. In a sense, these chapters are trying to deal with a problem that any outsider faces. Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry, which is the foundational text for the entire period, groups its poets under four headings: Black Mountain, San Francisco, New York and Beat: How on earth are these connected? What could possibly count as a shared heritage for – to pick examples at random – a French- and visual arts- influenced John Ashbery and an infinity-oriented self-styled amalgam of Blake and Whitman called Allen Ginsberg? Did the importance of the anthology alone produce the connections? If it did it would be one of those random and unpredictable turns in literary history such as the one Scroggins describes whereby Zukofsky was forced by Harriet Monroe to invent a name for the group of poets he had collected so that his issue of Poetry would chime with the pre-first World War issue of the Imagists (Zukofsky came up with the word “Objectivists” to describe the poets but never used the word “Objectivism”, which would have suggested a non-existent movement). Or are the connections more like the random alliances formed from the experience of opposition (think or pre-revolution Iran or current-day Syria)? From this one might move to general questions of the methodology of literary history: what is the relationship between contact, friendship and influence: do the latter two reinforce each other or, under the pressure of a commonly observed creative drive towards of primacy, do they undermine each other? There isn’t too much exploration of methodological issues like this in the Cambridge Companion but, for the sake of those using the book, this may be a good thing.

It isn’t the fault of the individual scholars that the “special interest” chapters read as though they had written them in their sleep: after all, if you know a subject very well and have spent your entire professional life thinking about it, there isn’t going to be anything new turning up in a six thousand word essay aimed mainly at students. These chapters work best when the ideologies they describe have inbuilt tensions. Lisa Sewell’s chapter on feminist poetry is, while useful to an outsider, slightly lame because its analysis of the field into three types (“Mainstream”, “Identity issues” and “Critique of language and subjectivity”) results in an essay that then can simply work through these types descriptively. (It is interesting and typical of the inward focus of this book that this chapter doesn’t deal with tensions that derive from the abrasion between this particular special interest and the rest of the world, namely that American feminism, like Western Christianity in the nineteenth century, seems, to an outsider, like yet another example of a well-meaning but inward-turned, and thus insensitive, West telling the rest of the world that, yet again, its cultural values are wrong.) More interesting, among these chapters, is Nick Selby’s “Ecopoetics in America” and this is because the entire piece is structured as an attempt to resolve both internal abrasions and abrasions with the zeitgeist:

The question then becomes, are ecopoetry and postmodernism inimical (with the former asserting, ultimately, that the earth we inhabit is always already a reality we ignore at our peril, and the latter asserting that even something so seemingly solid as the land we inhabit is, ultimately, an ideological construct)?

A complex argument involving reading practice spins out of this issue – which is perhaps a contemporary version of the old dichotomy of immediate sensual experience versus cultural processing – and this enables the chapter to deal with an important poetic issue while focussing on the work of a number of poets: Frost, Berry, Merwin, Snyder, Niedecker and Ammons. The poets don’t seem examples dragged on stage in obedience to a brief which seems to have asked that a couple of poems at least should appear in each chapter, but are rather parts of an overall argument.

But the most compelling chapters of this book for Australian readers are, predictably, those that deal with general issues. Most of us will probably read first Hank Lazer’s “American Poetry and Its Institutions” on the assumption that while styles cannot be imported (or if they are, produce only a second-rate, derivative poetry) institutions can. What can’t be imported, of course, is that peculiarly American drive towards professionalization of everything from car-selling to pornography resulting in bizarre conventions where participants kick their feet and hoot support for “inspirational” speakers; somehow, you feel, this is a cultural bridge too far for Australians. Lazer begins by observing that the “most astonishing aspect of the contemporary institutionalization of American poetry” is that “in spite of the nearly worthless nature of the business’s principal commodity, the poem, there has been an extraordinary, extensive, hyper-professionalization of the business” and goes on to look at the rise of Creative Writing degrees and workshops which have, between 1975 and 2010 grown in number from 79 to 852. Almost everything about this area, especially the Club Med-style “vacation” workshops (we get a detailed description of participants’ responses to one of them – “US Poets in Mexico”) is both fascinating and horrible, doubly so because, with the usual lag before Australia adopts American cultural developments, something very like it will almost inevitably soon be coming to a city near you.

The result of all of this growth is not to make new readers but to make new writers. If we simplify the past a little, there might have been a model in America and Australia whereby a poem had to be liked by an editor from a literary magazine “of repute” before it was likely to get into a manuscript that might be looked at by the reader for a press “of repute”. There were, that is, a lot of gateways guarded by a lot of gatekeepers who, in the case of the major presses, had a lot to lose in terms of money and reputation. This has all disappeared with the developments of digital technologies including online “publication” and the sort of low-cost, high-quality book-publishing result available through print-on-demand technology and exploited by now major poetry publishers like Salt and Shearsman. This is very close to my dream as a publisher of a small press in the seventies and eighties where, I used to like to think, there was something especially Australian about being contemptuous of gatekeepers. But, as everyone knows, one of the Chinese curses is for your wishes to come true and Lazer remorselessly points out the problems of what he admits is a “somewhat utopian vision of a thousand flowers blooming”. There are a lot of problems with not having a canon of “great poets”: it makes poetry harder to teach to beginners, especially school-children, who feel that the hard work involved must at least be devoted to something “good” (after all in science courses we don’t have to agonise about understanding theories which turned out to be wrong) but also denies new young poets something to hate and react against. Ultimately one wants to get rid of privileged, conservative gatekeepers without losing the sense of value. One wants to encourage a nation’s creativity (it is, after all, generally better for a country if its citizens prefer making bad poems to making good bombs) without encouraging a world in which poets read and log-roll only their friends. One American institution, recently adopted in Australia, which might seem to provide some sort of solution to these problems is the prize system. On the surface it is a good way of getting money into the impoverished hands of poets and it provides a chance for really good books and poems to be celebrated publically (one of the useful features of this companion is that it has a “Chronology of Publications and Events” of the period which lists, among other things, the winners of the annual Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award). But the authority of these becomes questionable in a decentralised landscape as Lazer explains in what is, to me, a chilling passage:

Even though there are still institutions that pretend to be a centralized form of recognition – the appointment of a poet laureate, major awards like the Pulitzer and MacArthur – increasingly these acts of recognition result in scepticism – who? really, you’re kidding!

The second issue that The Cambridge Companion deals with is the status of the “mainstream lyric”. A number of these concluding chapters raise the issue, not least Lazer because the product of writing courses is usually lyric poetry. Christina Pugh defends it from the charge, usually emanating from one of the post-Poundian “schools”, that it is built on a naively concealed model of the self and poetic expressiveness, by looking at some individual poems (notably by Louise Glück) which are both lyric and immensely conceptually complex. The objections turn out to have more than a whiff of the straw man about them. Oren Izenberg contributes an odd but interesting chapter that begins by looking at the idea of an “academic poet” and then goes on to look at the work of two poets, Allen Grossman and Susan Howe, who, as “direct inheritors of modernist-scale ambitions for the continuation, restoration, or redirection of culture” and at the same time “postmodern by default and by design” could be said to be reinventing the classic lyric; Grossman’s immensely sophisticated critical/theoretical writings, especially his Summa Lyrica, turn out to be quite remarkable.

Finally one is left with the feeling that the central issue in the literary history of America in this period – What is the importance of the post-Poundian, post-Williams developments relative to the “mainstream lyric”? – is fudged slightly. Certainly all the interestingly traceable, complex literary history of movements, arguments and ideas belongs to the former and one can see why it dominates. But the bulk and the institutions generally belong to the latter. One could certainly imagine (if not recommend) an equivalent of this book which focussed on different conceptions of the self, identity and the framing mode of the lyric (whereby something like Grossman’s Summa would be but one starting point) and reserved a single chapter at the end for something called “alternative poetries” which would quickly sketch in everything from Olson, the Objectivists, the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beats to Language poetry.

Gibbon was once described as one of those who are the last who could have read everything available about their subject; after him increasing specialisation and professionalism in the field of the early European and Asian middle ages meant that one could only read selectively. Australian poetry is still a field in which a single individual can “keep up”. It amounts to something like, on average, seventy-five books of poetry a year, together with poems in literary magazines and on-line, and a small body of critical work. But in 2006 (according to figures quoted in Lazer’s article) nearly two thousand books of poetry were published in America. A few hours trawling websites is another way of getting some sense of how vast a field American poetry is and how untrustworthy any individual’s knowledge of the field might be. The literary history and study of special issues contained in The Cambridge Companion represent a kind of snapshot of American poetry’s sense of itself at the moment and its editor concludes with a good article hoping, in the future, for a genuine hybridity which will bypass what has been a history marked by oppositions and the simplistic description of opposing camps. But, a century from now, it seems likely that the history of American poetry between the Second World War and the first decade of the twenty-first century will be seen entirely differently as the future decides what to make of the poetries that followed Pound and Williams.

Published in Australian Poetry Journal, 3:1 (September, 2013), 87-93.