School of Quietude, Continued

I was critical of Ange Mlinko in this post in response to Tom Morgan's thoughts about the so-called school of quietude in contemporary American poetry. But if her claim, in the letter Morgan quotes, that someone she knows graduated with an MFA in poetry from SW Texas State without knowing who John Ashbery is, mainstream American poetry is in worse shape than even Ron Silliman thinks. Here is the evidence, a Guggenheim for a professor in that program. My beef with Silliman is the style of his argument, I realize, rather than its substance. And the fact that it fails to recognize good poetry that falls outside the "post-avant." [See comments.] Not that there is not a quietude, but that there are at least a few post-Modernist (post-post-Romantic?) poets who have produced important work over the last fifty years. Hayden Carruth & William Bronk seem paradigmatic in this regard. The "turn toward language" that Silliman celebrates (the phrase is Charles Bernstein's, I think) has itself become a dominant mode, increasingly institutionalized, but that's another argument. What drives me crazy is that Kathleen Pierce's story is my story: NEA, AWP, Iowa & what have you. And yet, on the evidence of Pierce's poetry available online, she writes from an aesthetic not only foreign to mine but hostile to my deepest sense of what poetry is. Her work strikes me as Georgian, the sort of thing Pound & Eliot & Dr. Williams & HD wrote against. Poetry is not a decorative art, nor primarily psychological, but an investigation of the world. Maybe I was just born under a bad sign, a man without a country. But even that sounds as if I am assuming an heroic stance & I assure you I detest the heroic stance. Mlinko, in her poem "Orders of Economies in New York," writes, "Never mind the student loans that went for poetry, reimbursing itself with itself." I am not charmed by the surrealism of Mlinko's work, but I'll take it any day over the soft Victorian pieties of poets like Pierce. I used to have a fierce protective attitude toward MFA programs -- served on the AWP Board -- but I don't think their proliferation has done much good for the art. Whether that proliferation has done positive harm, I don't know, but I am less sanguine than I used to be.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

8 thoughts on “School of Quietude, Continued”

  1. Joseph,

    How many times do I have to say nice things about Jack Gilbert, Wendell Berry, Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, Daisy Fried, Anne Finch, Bob Hass et al before I stop hearing that I never admit to value among the School of Quietude? That’s a canard if ever there was one,


  2. Okay, Ron, I’ll withdraw the canard. I don’t read everything you write & have no doubt mis-characterized your critical stance. So how about a value-neutral term for the SoQ that’s parallel to “post-avant.” My beef, as I said, is more rhetorical than substantive.

  3. I neither understand nor accept the characterizations of Daisy Fried as a quietist and Ange Mlinko as a surrealist.

  4. Jordan, I’d argue that at least one of Mlinko’s modes is a sort of wry urban surrealism in which juxtaposition is the dominant technique of poetic movement. I haven’t read enough of Fried’s work to have an opinion about it.

  5. Surrealists don’t own juxtaposition, or at least they have to share it with the rest of the modernists — Moore, Eliot, and Loy seem much more apposite here, though I’d wager she’d recoil at the mention of Eliot.

    My gist: the surrealists’ juxtaposition was much more arbitrary than Mlinko’s, which usually eventually reveals an associative (emotive, art-historical, scientistic) logic behind its apparently random jumps.

  6. Jordan, you’re probably right about Mlinko. And speaking of juxtaposition, I was just teaching Jack Spicer’s “Song for Bird and Myself” (along with O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”) in my Literature of American Popular Music class today. It’s true that Mlinko is closer to Spicer than to Andre Breton. Like Bird’s solos, Spicer’s poem swerves & jukes & drops through trapdoors, but there is a through-line.

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