Twenty years ago, I started graduate school. I was a working-class kid from L.A.—half-Italian, half-Mexican. Entering Harvard Graduate School in Comp. Lit., I paid meticulous attention to the literary culture around me in the same spirit an anthropologist might observe the rituals of some newly discovered tribe. I wanted to understand how the literary world operated, especially its assumptions about contemporary poetry. The poetry world was well-defined back then, but during the last two decades it has changed in important and sometimes even astonishing ways that are still not well understood. Tonight I would like to provide a quick overview of the current state of American poetry by making a dozen observations. What these various trends have in common is that they represent significant changes in our literary culture that either would have been impossible to imagine twenty years ago or would have appeared too marginal to become influential. I am not interested in judging most of these trends—only in observing and understanding them.
For almost every living American poet, public readings, whether they are live or electronic (via radio, TV, or tape-cassette), now constitute the major means of reaching an audience. The first observation is that the primary means of publication for new American poetry is now oral. While books and journals continue to appear and remain crucially important in sustaining literary reputations, they no longer enjoy a monopoly on disseminating poetry, especially new poetry. For almost every living American poet, public readings, whether they are live or electronic (via radio, TV, or tape-cassette), now constitute the major means of reaching an audience. This situation applies as equally to older academic poets like John Hollander or Daniel Hoffman as its does to younger poets of every school.
The return to oral performance represents an enormous paradigm shift away from print culture. Until quite recently, most poets didn’t give readings until their work appeared in print, and even then public readings were generally few and infrequent. Robinson Jeffers, one of the few major twentieth century American poets who actually made a living off poetry, was 54 when he gave his first public reading; Wallace Stevens was nearly 60. If you listen to their recordings, you will notice that neither man is comfortable reading his work aloud. The shift away from print culture to an audiovisual, electronic culture has had an enormous impact. Today the physical audience listening to live poetry vastly outnumbers the people who read it in books.
The shift from print to oral publication leads to my second observation: there has been a huge reemergence of populist oral poetry, largely among groups who were alienated from the dominant, academic, literary culture. The new schools of populist poetry include rap, cowboy poetry, and poetry slams, which together command audiences in the millions. No one would have predicted this development twenty years ago. What was seen then was the increasing intellectualization and academicization of poetry. But history usually works dialectically, and one trend often creates its opposite. Nor would anyone twenty years ago have predicted that most of this oral poetry would be formal—in the then discredited and supposed elitist techniques of rhyme and meter. Rap is usually composed in a four-stress line (like Anglo-Saxon poetry without the alliteration) and mostly rhymed in couplets. Cowboy poetry is written mainly in a rhymed stress meter related to the English ballads. Interestingly, while their poetry is formal, neither school employs the kinds of accentual-syllabic meters we associate with academic poetry.
Since the poet’s social role has shifted primarily from the creator of texts to the creator of oral performance, it was predictable that this change would affect the art itself. The importance of oral performance has led to another development. My third observation is that a new hybrid literary art form has emerged that is related to poetry but is equally rooted in experimental theater. I’m talking, of course, about performance poetry. Since the poet’s social role has shifted primarily from the creator of texts to the creator of oral performance, it was predictable that this change would affect the art itself. Performance poetry represents the merger of certain poetic techniques with the forms of theater—sometimes live theater, sometimes film or video theater. Traditional poetry, even oral poetry like folk epics, focused on a creation of a text that could—in practice, if not in intention—be transcribed and transmitted independently of the author’s physical presence. Even if the text changed slightly in its semi-improvised oral performance, it maintained a primarily verbal identity. Performance poetry works differently. It does not focus primarily on the verbal text; it recognizes and exploits the physical presence of the poet, the audience, and the performance space. It recognizes, in other words, the new medium in which it operates. A great deal of confusion in contemporary poetry criticism results from the fact that critics are unable to distinguish between these two types of literary art. Although poetry and performance poetry are intricately related, they follow two fundamentally different aesthetics.
The fourth observation I’d like to make is that popular culture now exerts as much or more influence on young poets of every school than does high culture. There is an immense split now in American culture between what has come to be called “high” and “low” culture. While most young poets continue to admire the literature of the past, they mostly lack the traditional grounding in literature and history that earlier generations took for granted. What young poets now know best is contemporary popular culture, and they recognize that the only common ground they share with the general audience is also popular culture. It seems that the one thing that almost every school of young poets now has in common is some attempt to use the forms and subjects of popular art. New Formalism, for example, which is sometimes misleadingly portrayed as an academic literary movement, is actually of a piece with rap and cowboy poetry in recognizing the auditory nature of poetry. Its ambition is to create a bridge between high and low culture.
The fifth point is that there still exists a huge audience for poetry in America, old and new, but it is now so segmented, that it shares almost no common ground. There is no longer a viable mainstream in American poetry, at least among poets under 60. New American poetry instead is segmented by region, aesthetic, ideology, gender, race, and genre. The academic subculture of poetry represents only one small but highly visible part of this large, diverse, and atomized audience. Those poets who are read and discussed in lower Manhattan are not the same as those who are esteemed in Palo Alto and Seattle, or argued over in San Antonio and Charlotte. If there are half a million regular readers of poetry in America (and I would guess that the number is at least that), it usually seems as if no two are reading the same book.
Why is there no mainstream? The deterioration of the mainstream resulted at least partially from its inability to maintain a meaningful place in public discourse. This leads to my sixth observation—there is no longer much sustained or even modestly serious coverage of poetry in national media. The key word here is sustained. You might see an isolated article here or there on a poet, usually for reasons having little or nothing to do with his or her writing. The days when Robinson Jeffers, T.S. Eliot, or Robert Lowell could appear on the cover of Time, followed by a long, serious article written for the common reader, are over. Equally distant are the days when Edna St. Vincent Millay could be given a commercial radio show or when famous poems of the past would be featured as standard programming on radio variety shows (which was true in America up until the late forties). Today neither poet nor publisher, neither reader nor editor expects poetry to have a regular place at the national media’s table. Consequently this gap has been filled, to the degree that it has been filled at all, haphazardly by local programming or narrowly targeted reviewing, which differs by region, by journal, by aesthetic. There is more programming than ever before, but it serves to segment rather than unify the public.
The lack of coverage has been exacerbated by another development. My seventh observation is that poetry criticism, which was so influential twenty years ago, is now significantly declining in its reach and influence. While criticism still enjoys a certain prestige, it seems increasingly remote from the major developments in poetry. I’m not sure if its marginality is a cause or an effect, but I will make at least four uncomplimentary remarks about the current state of criticism. First, there are few truly distinguished critics who still write seriously about new poetry in a public idiom. Second, there are few general interest journals that still publish poetry criticism, even if you define criticism in the broadest sense to include features, interviews, as well as reviews and essays. Third, academic criticism today is so inwardly focused that it has generally abandoned the concerns and language of the general culture. Academic criticism mostly addresses a substantially different set of issues from what interests most artists, the public, and the media. Not surprisingly, it has virtually no audience outside the university. And fourth, the dominance of literary theory has made most academic criticism so pretentiously mannered that it seems dull or incomprehensible even to extremely intelligent general readers. The days are gone when we had informed regular poetry columnists in the major journals. In the late forties, you could expect to see Robert Fitzgerald in The New Republic, Louise Bogan in The New Yorker, John Ciardi in The Saturday Review, and Randall Jarrell in The Nation. Even twenty years ago an average issue of The New York Times Book Review regularly contained two or three long pieces on poetry or poetry criticism. What we have left of serious poetry coverage comes mainly from highly segmented publications (like The Hudson Review, Poetry Flash, The New Criterion, The Exquisite Corpse, or Verse) each addressing a small audience. Even American Poetry Review, the largest journal in the poetry subculture, has a minuscule circulation by the standards of commercial journalism, and despite its name, it publishes few reviews.
My eighth observation is that there is really no longer a vital, high-art avant-garde in American poetry. Modernism is irretrievably, inarguably dead. It has been dead as a profitable avenue for young poets for at least twenty years, and now almost all of its great practitioners have gone to meet their maker. The university, an institution better equipped to preserve old culture than to foster the creation of new art, has handsomely embalmed the corpse of Modernism — but no one should wait around for the resurrection. If there is an avant-garde in American poetry right now, it is to be found outside of the university and most likely in oral poetry. But locating a true avant-garde anywhere seems problematic. Rap might have started as an avant-garde movement, but its quick assimilation into the corporate entertainment industry gradually turned it into another sort of commercial venture—a naughty one like Penthouse or Hustler, but a consumer commodity equally subject to market forces. Unless you want to define the two major contrarian movements of the eighties and nineties, New Formalism and Language poetry, as the avant-garde, I find it difficult to consider any new poetic school avant-garde—even performance art. The time has probably come to admit that the notion of an avant-garde is no longer useful in discussing contemporary literature. How can there be an avant-garde without a mainstream? Avant-garde de quoi? one must ask. Establishment institutions—universities, museums, foundations, commercial galleries, even the state—have embraced the idea of experimental art for so long that the avant-garde is now a safely domesticated concept, just another traditional style.
My ninth observation also explains the disappearance of the mainstream in poetry. New technology in printing and communication has destroyed the mainstream’s ability to channel opinion. Computers, word processors, desktop publishing, electronic networks, xeroxing, tape cassette recordings, video technology, and all the related technology have brought publishing within the realm of most writers. For the first time in history it is now easier to publish your own book or magazine than to get your work published by somebody else. You also see this trend reflected in ethnic publishing. Minority groups are now more likely to create their own institutions—magazines, presses, conferences, reading venues—than to have their dissenting perspectives assimilated into an increasingly diffuse and disorganized mainstream. Arte Publico in Houston, for example, is the leading publisher of Latino literature in the United States. It sells millions of dollars of books through a network largely of its own creation. Although trade publishing still centers in New York and Boston, literary communication in the United States has become completely decentralized. Just as the proliferation of state universities and private colleges in the mid-century took writers out of compact, urban bohemias and scattered them across the United States, so have these new communications media completely atomized American literary life. Since there is no longer a geographic center in literary life, a critic in New York or San Francisco now has as much trouble following new developments in poetry as does a reader in Fargo or Tuscaloosa.
A tenth unexpected trend in American poetry is the broad revival of form and narrative among many younger writers. Twenty years ago no mainstream critic would have predicted this movement back to rhyme, meter, and story. (The emergence of Language poetry, by comparison, would have seemed more probable since it, despite certain radical differences, grew out of the Modernist enterprise.) What would have been particularly surprising about the so-called Expansive Poetry is that most of its practitioners work and write outside of the academy. The mixture of high culture and popular culture that characterizes New Formalism and New Narrative, therefore, is ironically at odds with the academic mainstream, which has abandoned form and narrative. Significantly, these dissenting poets—like ethnic writers—have also found it easier to create parallel institutions (magazines, presses, reading series, and conferences) than to merge into the mainstream.
Now I’d like to end with two points that constitute a classic good news/bad news situation. My eleventh point is the bad news, namely that the academic job market for writers has collapsed while academic programs have never been so productive in churning out degree-bearing graduates. Hardly a month goes by when someone doesn’t announce a new graduate program. There are about 250 graduate writing programs in the United States. They produce somewhere in excess of 25,000 MFA’s per decade, of whom perhaps 10% to 20% will find permanent, full-time employment teaching in the academy. A young poet is more likely than ever to go through a graduate writing program, but MFA’s are less likely than ever to stay there professionally. The question is where will these people go? What will they do with themselves?
The bad news in the academic job market leads to my final point, which is, I think, the unexpected good news. Over the last decade the groundwork has been unwittingly laid for a new bohemia. This will not be a bohemia in the classic sense of inexpensive urban areas where artists and intellectuals congregate, like San Francisco’s North Beach, or New York’s Greenwich Village. Those bohemias faded out of existence thirty years ago, as the real estate prices went up and the intelligentsia found it was easier to make a living in the university.
Now, however, there are a number of trends that suggest a new bohemia is emerging. The first is the growth of non-academic literary institutions, like Poets House, San Francisco’s Poetry Center, the Nicholas Roerich Museum, and the Nuyorican Cafe, that create new public venues for writers — places where artists and intellectuals can congregate, and where writers and their audience can meet. Congregation, discussion, and performance are what bohemia is about in human terms. Second, the proliferation of independent and chain literary bookstores have created local, nonacademic meeting and performance places for writers and intellectuals. There are an astonishing number of bookstores in America that provide poets with public platforms outside the university. Bookstores like Cody’s in Berkeley or Chapters in Washington D.C. offer better literary programming than do most major universities. I sometimes think it is now possible for a poet to walk across the United States and be able to give a bookstore reading every evening. Third, computer networks, writers’ conferences, independent literary presses and community writing centers, have either in the flesh or via fiber-optics created ways for writers to meet and exchange ideas that didn’t exist twenty years ago. The growth of serious non-profit, literary presses like Graywolf or Story Line—unaffiliated with any university and located outside the Northeastern publishing capitals—are proving as important to American culture as the proliferation of university presses did thirty years earlier. Fourth, there are now hundreds of specialized radio and video shows that bring literary programming to local and national audiences. Much of this new programming is dull or trivial, but some of it—especially the more expansive radio formats developed by commentators like Jack Foley, Terri Gross, Tom Vitale, Colin Walters, and Wayne Pond—are serious and engaging. Radio can become a significant oral medium for literary criticism in a culture where written criticism of poetry no longer reaches even a modestly large audience. Fifth, finally, and best of all are the vast numbers of unemployed intellectuals and artists who will be damned if they’re going to lead uninteresting lives. They will find it in their best interest to create something outside the closed shop of academia.
By the year 2000, for the first time in half a century, the vast majority of young American writers will live and work outside the university. This demographic and economic change has already created a significant cultural shift, and we have only witnessed the beginnings of a transformation in American poetry. The new bohemia will be atomized, decentralized, interdisciplinary, computerized, and anti-institutional. It will embrace oral culture without abandoning the written word. It will include academics without becoming itself academic. The complex shape the new bohemia will take is impossible to predict, but I can imagine some unemployed Ph.D. hacking away, even as we speak, at a millennial manifesto. “Writers of America, unite!,” reads his computer screen. “You have nothing to lose except . . .”
First delivered as an unscripted talk in 1993 at New York’s Poets House. Original transcript published in Poetry Flash (#248, November/ December 1993). Revised and corrected transcript published in Grantmakers in the Arts (Spring 1994).