There is not a “school” of poetry at Yale. There is not a dominant contemporary poetry scene with dominating characteristics. There is not — entirely — a story here about the birth/revolution/death/rebirth of poetry. That is not it at all.
But this is “a good thing,” really.
The lobby of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library today is unusually flooded with light. April is starting to stand for spring along with National Poetry Month.
“Poetry can be kind of below the radar, and yet, it’s such a lively world and there’s so much going on. All you really have to do is scratch the surface,” said Nancy Kuhl, a poet and the curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature, housed in the Beinecke.
As curator, Kuhl programs the American Poet speaker series, directs the academic community to the Beinecke’s resources and co-leads the Working Group in Contemporary Poetry.
Not only does the Beinecke function as home to the University’s manuscripts and extensive poetry resources, but also provides funding for postdoc and graduate fellows, whose specialized research brings poets’ letters, drafts and processes to life. After all, one of the draws for any artist and/or academic at a university is the unparalleled opportunity to get his hands on so many good books.
All of this exchange makes the Beinecke (arguably) the liveliest center of poetry at Yale, a crossroads where a cross section of the community (grad/undergrad/professional/aspring/faculty) intersects most often.
“Poetry is often very local,” she said, “and so try to find the spaces between what we can do locally and how we can draw on a national and international community — how we can all be in conversation and hear what other people have to say — makes it an exciting time to be interested in American poetry.”
But for Kuhl, a community is not just people, but also the voices of one’s literary influences. If this is true, then the Beinecke, home to 500,000 volumes and millions of manuscripts, holds the history of all Yale’s poetry scenes within it.
Ilan Ben-Meir ’12, who was invited to participate in the April 20 student poetry reading at the Beinecke, similarly speaks to a “broader litearary scene.”
“There are lots of groups who identify around some idea of poetry, but there isn’t really one community of poets,” he said. “Which is probably a good thing, since when you put too many poets in one room, people tend to get hurt.”
Ben-Meir applied for a Sudler grant to publish single-author chapbooks and to sponsor readings to “create a new space for poets to come together.” He said there is a dearth of student publications devoted to promoting single poets’ voices at Yale.
He went on: “The one and only piece of advice I have for anyone really serious about writing and studying modern poetry: Find Richard Deming, as fast as you can.”
I’m complaining about the stairs.
“That’s what everyone says to me,” laughs Richard Deming, who teaches American literature, writing and readings in American poetry.
Deming is also the founder and co-coordinator, along with Kuhl, of the Working Group in Contemporary Poetry, and his office is on the fourth floor of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, the English Department’s home. The group was started in 2003 as an outlet for “experimental, avant-garde or neo-modernist” poetry that is not often taught in LC’s (or Yale’s) classrooms.
“We work on really difficult poetry that we wanted to talk about to people, and we also thought that it would be a service to the community,” Deming said. “There’s been a growing number of people who still look for alternative or experimental writing, and then they come to our group and they find that.”
The group’s membership has grown from its initial five to six members to upwards of 20 (with a near record of 25 for Jorie Graham meeting) that now includes students, locals in the area, Beinecke fellows and a senior neuro-pathologist.
And it’s meaningful for Deming that the group is not just tied to Yale.
“People read poetry whether they teach it or not, whether they write it or not, whether they’re in school or not, whether they’re senior faculty, and it’s great just to see they’re caring,” he said. “Because most of the time the world tells us that poetry doesn’t matter.”
Deming attributes the group’s success in bringing prestigious poets to the investment of the groups’ members and the intensity of group conversations: “They’re lured by the fact of 20 people who have read their work very carefully and are very smart and very interested in poetry. To get that kind of discussion is kind of rare. Even for the biggest names, it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think it would.”
The state of contemporary “avant-garde,” “experimental” poetry (in the group, at large and at Yale) is diverse, local, fragmented, personal, classified by smaller subsets, shifting alignments, or a lack thereof, and global communities.
Kuhl hesitated to reduce the lively poetry scene to a single “school”: “things are a bit more sprawling than that, and people have a sense of a willingness to engage with a bunch of different traditions right now.”
This is due, in part, to the Web, which makes intra-regional communication over long distances all the easier, but also increases the means and decreases the costs of publishing.
But this is “kind of great” adds Deming. “You feel like you’re one voice in the wilderness, but it also means that there are a lot of possibilities out there and poetry doesn’t have to be one way. Its just that open.”
And what about students? A glance at student readings, publications, organizations, and courses on campus, makes it clear that the equation doesn’t run where openness equals anonymity.
“There are ‘poetry people’ who move through the various poetic venues and form a sort of community,” confirms Ben-Meir.
So who, then, are the constituents of local poetry communities at Yale, this “avant-garde”?
“I would say there are four species of Yale poet with very uniform habits,” wrote a student reader of submissions to the Lit Mag, who wished for his e-mail to remain anonymous. “The first writes confessional/Wallace Stevens poetry with religious imagery about dead animals and weather. She is very pleased with herself because her poetry is ‘accessible.’ This is 70.2 percent of Yale poets. The second writes ‘avant-garde’ poetry that is offensive or shaped like trees. He is very pleased with himself because his poetry is ‘original.’ This is 17.9 percent of Yale poets. The third writes slam poetry about strong women, if it is female, or manipulative women, if it is male. It is very pleased with itself because its poetry is ‘socially relevant.’ This is slightly less than 9.8 percent of Yale poets. The fourth writes good poems.”
If this methodical breakdown were the only categorization available, then the article’s reportage would end here. Next week, WEEKEND will print the second part of this story, which, if not as reductive a classification, is representative of a broader community of voices.
For now, the schema is still up for debate.