American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for August 2012

American Hybrids

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Working backward in time, from the near present to the 1830s, by a combination of free and accidental association, in order to think forward: less a method than a way of passing the time — history as bookshelf, browsing as historiography.

American Hybrid (2009)

For a short time after its publication there was a lot of controversy over American Hybrid, a Norton anthology that made the claim — I guess I should say makes; it’s still in print — that poetry is no longer a matter of warring factions; the best poets now pledge no allegiance, it said — says — but jump sides at will. Or would if there were sides (which there are) (are not).

Let those parenthetical equivocations stand in for a fairer representation of the anthology’s own, which are not so much contradictions as uncertainties. For the purpose of the anthology has never been clear to me. I mean its editorial purpose, since the work is the work, produced for reasons — conscious and unconscious — of the authors’ own, which may or may not correspond to the imagination of the editors.  But what was that imagination? Did the editors intend to produce an historical account of the literary present, or an aesthetic theory, or a manifesto? By what criteria should I judge their labor? And how strictly should I judge?

My choice has been to take the anthology as something more personal and more effervescent than a history, theory, or assault: I see it instead as lending substance to a mood, and in this regard its success is much less qualified, as the substance is not a matter of accuracy, coherence, or influence, but richness and suggestion.

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The caption comes from Emerson’s 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address, slightly misquoted: “They are content to be brushed like flies from the path of a great man.” (Click on the image for a larger view.)

The stumbling block for me (not that anyone is asking) is the title, which was meant to draw luster, I suspect, from postcolonial theory, where hybrid has become something of a master trope for the aftereffects of colonial relationships (and by extension the more symmetrical forms of engagement that occur between groups, ideologies, etc., which is how American Hybrid uses it). Associated in particular with Homi K. Bhabha, the trope of hybridity highlights the generative possibilities of such relationships, conceptualizing “an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on … the ‘inter’ — the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space — that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.”[1] That hybrid is a trope is often forgotten, however, though not by the editors and publishers of American Hybrid — witness the flag-waving butterfly on the cover, each of its wings coming from a different breed. A hybrid literally is the offspring of two different species, and it has, for much of its history, carried a negative association when applied to human beings (I think, for instance, of Ezra Pound’s Fascist propaganda, which refers sneeringly to “hybrids of the Anglo ghetto” ).[2] Postcolonialism is explicitly a critique of racism, so its redemption of the word is at once polemical and contextualized. Neither is the case with American Hybrid, which is unfortunate since some of the controversy over the anthology was owing to its “whitewashing,” as Craig Santos Perez put it, of American poetry and hybridity as concept. In any case, hybrid is not a trope I particularly like, no doubt for personal reasons: I am one generation removed from the eugenic nightmare of Nazi Germany (about which my father, a survivor, has written at length).

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The caption comes from Emerson’s Nature (1836): “I expand and live in the warm day, like corn & melons.” (Click for a larger view.)

I should distinguish, though, between two versions of the trope, each of which is adopted in the anthology. Innocuous to me is the metaphor of poem as hybrid, especially in the horticultural form David St. John adopts at the end of his brief introduction (the second of two; the other, much longer, is by his co-editor, Cole Swensen):

I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based upon plurality, not purity. We need all of our poets. Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations. The purpose of this anthology is to celebrate these exquisite hybridizations emerging in the work of all our poets. Let the gates of the Garden stand open; let the renaming of the world begin again.[3]

There is a certain confusion here — the Adamic citation at the end hardly points away from the fantasy of purity; and the slippage from “poets” to “poetry” does suggest that the former are the stock from which the latter’s “exquisite hybridizations” are produced — but to speak of poetry as cultivation, evoking a “Garden” of verses, is to till the very idea of culture in its most venerable form.

Christopher Pearse Cranch, Illustrations of the New Philosophy (MS Am 1506), Houghton Library, Harvard University. The large speech bubble comes from an attack on Transcendentalism by Andrews Norton: “Those may here become aware of the venom of the serpent who have only been admiring its bright colors & glittering eyes.” The serpent is George Ripley, who had answered one of Norton’s earlier attacks. The other bubbles read “Is that the Transylvanian?” and “Monstrum horrendum ingens informe &c!!” The caption comes from Lalla Rookh: “Some flowers of Eden ye still inherit, But the trail of the Serpent is over them all.” (Click for a larger view.)

The other version of the trope appears in Swensen’s introduction, and the genetic aspects are there highlighted. She speaks of “writings and writers that have inherited and adapted traits,” and refers to her poets as “THE NEW (HY)BREED.”[4] Like St. John, moreover, she ends on a reference ill-matched to her announced aims. In her case, the reference is a citation of Mallarmé, “to give a purer sense to the language of the tribe.”[5] Impurity, I should think, would be a more appropriate goal in this context; and since the poetic legacies at issue for Swensen were earlier defined nationally (as French or English in origin), I find myself thinking about the purity of “the tribe,” which cannot be the last thought she wanted me to have.

I hasten to add that I see no malignant design in this troping. It is just something I do not care for, hence my sensitivity to it; and when the anthology appeared, it kept me from sharing in the mood.

I am not entirely sure why I am going into such detail about my response to the anthology (or rather, my reasons for not responding), except that I came across a modernist precedent for the anthology’s conceit, which in turn suggested another precedent from the nineteenth century, and I did not think I could talk about these precedents without sorting out my original feelings. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Ben Friedlander

August 2, 2012 at 11:27 pm