Evaluating contemporary poetry as if it were already an object in the trash or treasure closet (no one owns chests anymore) of literary history is a difficult procedure.
“All I know is that the quality of the work here is really extraordinary,” poet and writer-in-residence Louise Gluck said about student poetry, after attending some of her students reading in the Younger Poets Reading at the Beinecke April 20.
There’s no tiered structure at Yale disseminating a campus-wide poetic aesthetic. If anything, poetry at Yale is decentralized, leaving those interested and passionate to form smaller subsets and local identifications on their own.
“Well, all poets are human, you could say that,” Gluck added, if a generalization was required. “But one of the things that’s so exhilarating to me about teaching here is the diversity of the talents.”
And the resounding conclusion in interviews has been that the terms like school, scene and style are not relevant, accurate or necessary descriptors for the students linking together based on shared affiliations in taste, politics and influence.
What’s left is the way students identify themselves through the self-contained aesthetic affiliations that do, in fact, exist.
When interviewed separately, poets Kenneth Reveiz ‘12, Kevin Holden GRD ’15, Josh Stanley GRD ’16, and Edgar Garcia GRD ’14 mentioned one another as associates and admitted to sharing similar influences, interests and goals in experimental poetics (and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable list: Zukofsky, O’Hara, Pyrnne, Olson, Pound and Dorn … )
Reveiz finds that these graduate students he’s met talk about poetics in a way “that should be more common at Yale. Like how history is important to poetry, how form and politics is important to poetry.”
They all speak excitedly, and subtly, about writing, highly of each other and lack the sort of teleological discourse that dominates stricter political ideologies.
Stanley and Holden edit their own magazines; when Stanley gets his second issue of Hot Gun out of the way, he said, he hopes to start a magazine with Reveiz; Holden and Garcia are currently collaborating on a longer poem by way of Google Docs.
And partly inspired by the students he’s met and partly in response to the marginalization of poetics he finds important, Reveiz started informal readings in the basement of 216 Dwight that drew a big crowd.
What else is necessary?
To start, as far as poetics go, ‘experimental’ is at once one of the most meaningless and one of the most important words. Anything that’s new is, in some sense, experimental.
But paradoxically, asking what kind of poetry is avant-garde today may be a question only possible to answer retrospectively; when the moment, already, has come to pass.
Anything that truly and radically changes the way poetry approaches verse, can stretch the term experimental across aesthetic boundaries and past areas most obviously labeled as avant-garde, said Justin Sider GRD ’14, who taught ENGL 135, “Poetry for Craft,” this semester, said.
So as a sociological marker, the experimental label serves to define certain groups of writers falling into or falling off of certain traditions, such as language poetry or symbolism. In terms of content, it can be used as a catch-all to describe a poetry that resists and challenges determined rhetoric frameworks and traditional modes of discourse.
“Experimental poetry is interested in playing with the language itself and thinking about language and the effects of language” English professor and poet Richard Deming said.
And yet, for all the sensibilities they share, each poet speaks about their own poetics in very different ways, but in what one might still classify as an experimental framework with politically leftist radicalism.
“Constraints aren’t all that bad if they inspire you to do something different,” Garcia said.
Along with Stanley and Reveiz, Holden similarly speaks to “a little bit of a reaction among the more traditional and a wanting to sort of push on poetry and push on language to make it do something else to move beyond the common sense or average every dayness.”
“What poetry can try to do is disclose falseness in the way we think and the arguments that are available to us, and at the same time, it can also passionately hold on to an argument through that falseness,” Stanley said, in a description about the importance of poetry.
Reveiz says that as avant-garde is too broad a term a majority of his own poetry can more specifically be described as “classical / traditional / epic / narrative / avant-garde / conceptual / meta / postmodern / post-postmodern / realist / surrealist / confessional / erudite / Latino / juvenilia / queer / existentialist / humanist / life-affirming / alternative / other.”
Then again, aesthetics are often defined by difference.
“It’s almost a necessary function in order to say what you’re doing,” Sider said. “You go to a family reunion and you get asked what sort of poetry do you write and you try to tell them ‘Well I don’t write metrical verse or I don’t write sort of really expressive poetry or autobiographical poetry. Once you throw politics into aesthetics, and its hard not to do that to some degree, the lines become sort of … Well, you start to say ‘it’s bourgeois in its complicity to economic practice or something along those lines.’”
Whatever connotations the academic-poet (poet/academic) once held, the consensus holds that being an intelligent, educated and articulate poet, whose education is all that matters. As seen through the history of poetry, education can come from inside, from outside and even in spite of the academy.
Editor-in-Chief of the Literary Magazine, Christine Kwon ‘11 said in an email, “Good writers are often good readers first. Like Anne Carson, whose handle on ancient Greek strengthens her poetry and whose criticism and translation benefits from her understanding of poetry as a poet. And Louise Gluck is an amazing of reader of poetry; she understands what a student poem wants and needs.”
But is all this new or, as poet Yogi Berra once said, is it “deja-vu all over again”?
“These places don’t have a lot of institutional memory sometimes. So you don’t really know what happened ten years ago amongst the grad student writing scene but among the grad students right now there is definitely something exciting,” Holden said.
Yet with regards to past remarks, baseball player Yogi Berra also was quoted saying “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
So maybe in ten years, this will not be what was meant. That is not it, at all.