Johannes Göransson beats me to many of the things I wanted to say about Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, the new Sarabande Books anthology edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin. I've debated whether to address the collection at all, as it contains more than a few poets I respect and admire, and brings some of them to a wider reading audience than they have yet received. I take no relish in making any comments that frame this much-deserved opportunity for recognition as anything other than a cause for celebration. For this reason, I will say nothing about the individual poets or poems contained in the book (beyond those I cannot avoid referring to second-hand in the course of other remarks). My problems with the anthology have to do with the context and format in which it is presented, with the disingenuous method of selection, and with the intellectual content of the introductory statement by the editors, and I will confine my comments as far as is possible to these areas.
To begin with, if you're not familiar with the book, go here for the publisher's description and list of contributors. You might also look at the editors' posts at their blog set up for the project at PoetryFoundation.org.
If the collection advertised itself as nothing more than a compilation of writers in the editors' social and professional circle that they find particularly worthy of anthologization for whatever reason, I would not bother with what I have to say here. The fact is, however, that it is advertised as more than this: the title, most obviously, promises that it will be risky, "edgy," dangerous (it also promises, in what is clearly intended as a thought-provoking paradox, legitimacy, a point to which I'll return). This promise of riskiness and innovation is repeated by implication in the opening words of the introduction, by the invocation of poetic Modernism as a historical analogue to the spirit of the collection. Here is the beginning of the first paragraph:
In her "Aphorisms on Modernism," composed during the First World War, the poet Mina Loy rather extravagantly wrote,
MODERNISM is a prophet crying in the wilderness that Humanity is wasting its time.
CONSCIOUSNESS originated in the nostalgia of the universe for an audience.
LIVING is projecting reflections of ourselves into the consciousness of our followers.
The present, for the Modernists, was a turbulent period of political instability and rapid technological and social change. Modernism, as all aesthetic movements, was a direct reaction to a specific historical, political, and social time where the modes and literatures of the past no longer suited the aspiring artist eager to reflect upon his or her seemingly unique present historical moment.
One gets some sense of the direction taken by the discussion thenceforth if one notices that Loy's aphorisms are subtly but pointedly dismissed even in the act of introducing them: they are simply something that she "rather extravagantly wrote," and serve here mainly as convenient markers of a very broad and well-rehearsed capsule account of Modernism as "a direct reaction" to certain historical developments, and to a nascent sense that the literary past was suddenly outmoded, in need of radical renovation. No sooner do the editors cast out this account, however, than they attempt to reel it back in, to downplay any notions that it might actually be a serious and desirous possibility for a literary movement to be motivated by a perception of the need for actual material change in the world. And unfathomably, the other Modernist they enlist to counter such notions is Gertrude Stein, whose "Composition and Explanation" they cite:
The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.
Dumanis and Marvin apparently read this as a straightforward observation on the way in which, in their own slightly Steinian phrasing, "the human condition, at its essence, has remained essentially unchanged" across history. They don't cite the sentences immediately following those just quoted:
Lord Grey remarked that when the generals before the war talked about the war they talked about it as a nineteenth-century war although to be fought with twentieth-century weapons. That is because war is a thing that decides how it is to be done when it is to be done. It is prepared and to that degree it is like all academies it is not a thing made by being made it is a thing prepared. Writing and painting and all that, is like that, for those who occupy themselves with it and don't make it as it is made. Now the few who make it as it is made, and it is to be remarked that the most decided of them usually are prepared just as the world around them is preparing, do it in this way and so I if you do not mind I will tell you how it happens. Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening.
Stein's remarks, when read in fuller context, clearly ironize that part of her claim which says on the literal level that nothing changes. Part of her point is that the generals only talked about the war as a nineteenth-century war before it happened. The "way it was seen" after that was quite different, as we all know. Similarly, her distinction between those (presumably in "the academies") "who occupy themselves with" writing as "a thing prepared," and those who "make it as it is made," works not to illustrate her tossed-off rhetorical conceit that "nothing changes," but to lay the groundwork for the famous "outlaw vs. classic" theme she pursues in the paragraphs that follow the passages cited above.
All of this, nonetheless, provides a pretext for Dumanis and Marvin to claim that the poetry in Legitimate Dangers "is a poetry searching for universal truths"--a claim I cannot help but think sits quite uneasily with many of the volume's contributors. We are also told that these poets "do not represent, as the Modernists did, a conscious break from the past. They recognize their historical moment is just another in a continuum of not-all-that-dissimilar historical moments." Again, one doubts whether the poets in question were given an opportunity to sign off on this statement. Surely more than one or two might have objected that our present historical moment is profoundly uncertain and disquieting on a global scale that makes a lot of previous historical moments look pretty tame by comparison. It's hardly necessary to go through a litany of the cultural, political, and ecological grounds for making such an assertion. At any rate, even within the terms of their own argument, the editors come close to contradicting themselves: in one place, they write that the "younger poets of today tend not to be as interested in ... specific responses to specific current public events"; in another, they announce that some of the poets in the collection are "preoccupied by the political events of the twenty-first century." The two particular writers they cite, Juliana Spahr and Lisa Jarnot, are certainly not ones who are uninterested in "specific responses." That they are singled out in this light is in itself significant, as they are among what I perceive as the overwhelming minority of poets included whose politics are rendered explicit by their work. A more representative sampling of such writers, of whom there is no shortage, would quite decisively have put the lie to the first generalization.
Considering how much energy the editors put into discounting the idea that the poets they have gathered might have any real investment (or belief) in substantial historical change, it seems fair to wonder what precisely they have in mind by putting "dangers" in the title. Before I knew the source, I was baffled as to what they could have been thinking. "Legitimate Dangers"? What kind of way is that to seduce a reader? (Seduction is a central motif in the introduction as well, built around a rather creepy anecdote involving Alan Gurganus asking students to take their clothes off.) It's like a built-in disclaimer: "Contains No Actual Danger." I thought at first they were trying to play off of the anxious energy of the Homeland Security catchphrase "credible threats," but had overlooked the self-disarming valences of "legitimate." They might as well have called it Establishment-Approved Dissent. What were they thinking? Their explanation, it turns out, is as follows:
In the early stages of editing this book, we came across a letter by Robert Frost where he suggested that "there are no two things as important to us in life and art as being threatened and being saved.... All our ingenuity is lavished on getting into danger legitimately so that we may be genuinely rescued." We wanted to create a representative anthology of writing by emerging poets who seem to us particularly interested in getting themselves into danger. We looked for writers with a singular and unmistakable voice who are steadily amassing a body of work that feels innovative, virtuosic, and entirely their own. We were most interested in visceral, daring poems that challenged the reader's sensibilities, poems that were patently unsafe, at once artful and authentic, sophisticated in technique and pure in motivation.
Now it all makes sense. The curtains are pulled back a bit, and we see that the dual Modernist parry of citing Loy and Stein at the beginning of the introduction was a feint: the editors' Modernist of choice is Frost, the anti-Modernist, the voice of conservative stylistic decorum and restraint. His priorities are markedly formal, as those of the editors are shown to be when they describe what they looked for when making their selections: "ambitious, carefully controlled work that exhibited heightened lyric intensity, verbal daring, and wit, and appealed both to our emotions and our intellect." So far, the danger level in this description doesn't set off any alarms. Somehow, "carefully controlled" isn't a phrase that I associate immediately with "visceral" or "unsafe." And further:
We also favored poems which maintained a high degree of clarity and control on the line and sentence level, while achieving a greater complexity as a whole and not necessarily shying away from the mysterious, the occasionally hermetic, or the slippery.... For every poem we selected, we felt that the writer made good conscious choices word-by-word, one line after another, that caused the overall poem to have a powerful unified effect.
In addition to the second mention of "control," and the non-committal "not necessarily shying away," and the quaintly linear specifications for where exactly the "good conscious choices" should be made, we are told the work must exhibit "a powerful unified effect"--one gets the sense that the intro has been hijacked by Cleanth Brooks and W. K. Wimsatt. Incidentally, the mini-close-reading of one of the contributors' poems that follows these remarks is such an unintentionally funny bit of term-papery bathos that it could pass for a Flarf parody (no reflection on the fine poet in question).
"One additional criterion in our selection," write the editors, "was the willingness we saw in the poets we chose to take risks, to say what others may consider highly transgressive or unsayable, to defy a reader's expectations, or subvert traditional narratives." Here, we seem to be getting somewhere: risks, transgression, subversion. A couple of sentences later, however: "In this anthology, such risks were only interesting to us when they paid off, when the dangers were well-handled and legitimate...." Two examples are then given, one in which the speaker combines a holocaust reference with language connoting nihilistic laughter, and another in which the speaker "fearlessly and candidly traces a personal history that connects his sexual orientation with a sequence of violent occurrences." All very well and dangerous. The two poems are in fact both ones that I find quite moving and worthy of attention. All in all, however, on the level of subject matter, the themes addressed in the poems printed in this book (including the two just mentioned) are not ones that are likely to shock any reader who has read a fair sampling of poetry written in the last hundred years and published outside the Saturday Evening Post. And as for form:
The risks we were interested in pertained not only to content but also to form: it is risky to write a poem ... with thirty lines ending in the same word, it is risky to write a poem ... where every line contains a deliberate malaprop, and it is likewise risky to end a poem mid-sentence....
Now, come on. Risky? Really? I'll buy playful, or inventive, or clever, or entertaining, or "cool," or exciting, or even terrific. But what exactly is being risked by such devices? After living through Modernism, the Beats, the New York School, Language poetry, and beyond, is anyone going to drop their dentures in their lap because a poem repeats or makes up or leaves out some words?
The same sense of overwhelmingly naive shelteredness colors the following passage:
At the beginning of this project, we decided not to have an open call for submission because we were astonished to be able to come up, from memory, with over 150 names of newer American poets whose work interested us, and then simply read as much of everything else that we could get our hands on as possible; after consultation with other poets and the careful reading of numerous additional books, literary journals, and anthologies, we expanded our list to over 250 poets. After a series of difficult choices, we whittled down the unwieldy list to eighty-five writers that both of us emphatically agreed on.
Let's leave aside the editors' self-amazement that they know of so many contemporary poets off the top of their heads (they are both graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop; one would hope that they would be acquainted with some other living writers). What I find more remarkable is their limitation of the final selectees to only those poets that both of them "emphatically agreed on." As the editors have publically announced that their tastes are often quite different, one cannot help but consider how many candidates must have been jettisoned on the basis of some extremity or other--that is, precisely on the basis of the criteria that are supposed to have been used in selecting them in the first place. If all we get are the candidates from the middle zone of unproblematic agreement, we are surely missing writers with just those qualities that might constitute some form of actual riskiness. Why not, for example, have a reserve on either editor's side, of ten or fifteen poets apiece, of poets whom the other editor objects to vehemently? Then we would know that at least one reader felt strongly enough about those poets to feel distaste for them. As it stands, we are given only those dangers that have been legitimated by consensus.
This brings us back to the ostensible paradox of the title (really no paradox at all, which is what is so disappointing). It is the emphasis on legitimacy that is ultimately so distasteful in this anthology full of what are, after all, a good many very fine writers (as well as some whose work I feel does qualify, despite the editors' claims to the contrary, as "bland workshop poetry"). What makes it nearly impossible to read the poets contained herein in the light of their own talents and achievements is the book's thorough insistence on its successful homogenization of all the contributors' singularities into a "powerful unified effect." The power associated with the effect in question is not at all mysterious or slippery; it is specific and clearly locatable in the university programs that are the book's collective source of contributors, and more importantly, the final audience for which it is intended. The overwhelming majority of the anthology's contributors have MFAs from some well-established academic institution--not surprisingly, Iowa wins with 25 or more connections. What we are left with, far more than any sense of the true range and specialness of any of the individual poets, is the intense care and preening that has gone into making the anthology an object for presentation to the American literary powers that be, as a kind of self-legitimating bid for approval and advancement within the halls of those powers. (One senses a little poignantly that this may be a tough sell: the preface by Mark Doty is a nervous, non-committal slice of pro bono indulgence.) Nowhere is this bid more blatant than in the semiotics of the book as a well-dressed object: the little photos and bios that lead off each author's section, along with the executivish typeface and layout, make the entire volume resemble nothing so much as a huge corporate portfolio, or sheaf of resumes. This effect is enhanced by the acid-free endpapers embossed with a repeating wallpaper pattern of the Sarabande S, and by the "tastefully" muted chocolate-putty-and-mauve colors of the bottom half of the front cover.
And then there's the top half of the cover: contemporary American realist Bo Bartlett's 2002 oil painting The Box, apparently an homage to Sargent's Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Loise Pailleron (1881). The two children in the picture are staring balefully, the boy at the girl, and the girl at the viewer. They have opened a trunk containing some items of Americana--a flag or two, some sort of military cap, and a Betsy-Ross-esque outfit which the girl is wearing. Both children seem to be playing dress-up, an act of mild transgression that is simultaneously an act of acquiescence to an unseen but oppressively tangible presence of adult authority. They are in fact old enough that one wonders why they have to resort to such a pastime. I'm sure you see where I'm going here. The kids on the cover can easily be interpreted as Dumanis and Marvin themselves, eager to make a good show of "legitimacy" by putting on the mantles of maturity and tradition, at the same time that they signal a certain acceptable level of youthful impishness and play. One gets the sense that they have been waiting for an audience for some time, that the respectable elders they want so badly to impress are perhaps not really that interested. They are left instead with only the returned gaze of whoever else picks up the book, and are accordingly a little embarrassed on top of their general anxiety. Or maybe the kids aren't the editors; maybe they're the contributors, who are simply pissed off that they've been made to pose like that, dressed in those ridiculous clothes.
* * *
I am not opposed to the idea of MFA programs per se, or of institutional involvement in the larger community of poetry. I don't feel it's desirable or realistic to operate according to some Romantic academy-vs.-outsider, or academy-vs.-scene, or academy-vs.-anything-not-academy mindset. Without creative writing programs and poet-professorships and even, yes, anthologies, we would be missing one of the valuable ways in which poets form communities and receive information.
My objections to the editorial apparatus and selection criteria of an anthology like Legitimate Dangers are based on what I perceive as defects of judgment and failures of vision within a specific context--in part, a context for which the editors themselves set the terms for evaluation. The book is not "bad" simply because it does not contain enough "truly dangerous" poets; nor does it "sell out" purely by virtue of reflecting the products of institutional workshop environments, and so on. As I've said before, some of the poems and poets it includes are on their own terms ones that engage me, and in another setting I might respond completely differently to the work. (On this note, Olena Kalytiak Davis is the blogger of the week over at the Poetry Foundation website, and both her selections in the anthology and her comments there make me want to see more from her. I think she should break free and start her own blog at a site where monitors don't feel compelled to warn readers that she sometimes "curses.") I object to the anthology because the mode of presentation within which it frames the contributors imposes a more-or-less consistent domestication-effect on even the most interesting individual selections. Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs is one of the most moving books of poetry I've read in the past year or so, and the excerpts reprinted in Legitimate Dangers are some of its most powerful passages. And yet, nested in what feels overall like a stack of expensively produced author CVs, they are almost absorbed into the general blandness. The editors' introduction to the collection reads like a business proposal in which "hip" catch-phrases are used to sell a product to a focus group, a focus group that appears to consist of Dana Gioia, Jorie Graham, four prospective Iowa MFA students who want to be "edgy," a representative from Borders Books, and a random slam poet. I repeat, it's not offensive just because it's "institutional"; it's offensive because it perpetuates all the negative cliches stereotypically associated with poetry in the academy (and reinforces them with a good helping of slick corporate marketing strategy). The poets themselves are by and large the victims of this ad-campaign rhetoric along with the consumer. Most of them deserve much better. They deserve to be presented in contexts that accentuate their particular strengths and strangenesses, rather than assimilating them into some empty concept of edginess borrowed from a Nike commercial. Likewise, they don't deserve to be thrown into an insipidly mild and well-behaved hue by the genteel office-decor flavorings of the anthology's material surface. And they especially don't deserve to be spoken for in ways that suggest some impossible relation to Modernism--a relation depicted (incoherently) as simultaneously radical and quietist, avant-garde and old-hat.
Some might say that all this sidesteps the obvious objection that too many important contemporary poets have been left out. Well, the fact is that there are far too many vital and "central" younger poets writing today to ever be gathered between the covers of one representative collection. For any anthology to advertise such representative fullness would be dishonest and futile. Though the editors have argued that such was not their intention with Legitimate Dangers, the product speaks for itself: it is clearly (mis-)conceived as a portrait of a generation. In today's plethora of practices and personalities, centrality can never be demonstrated on a truly generational scale; it can only be demonstrated on local scales of aesthetic relevance. Such scales require careful definition. Why are the writers in a given anthology important? What is their relation to each other (beyond all having been through MFA programs, say)? What makes that relation they have to each other significant as a larger context? Think of a cookbook. Imagine a cookbook titled Great American Recipes. You open it up, and all the recipes are for some variation on tuna salad. Get the point? Really, I wouldn't have so much of a problem with Legitimate Dangers if it were titled Poets Who Went to Iowa or Houston or Columbia or One of About Seven Other Schools.