Essays

American Hybrid: An Introduction

I have always believed that the great strength of American poetry resides, at its source, in its plurality of voices, its multitude of poetic styles, and its consistent resistance to the coercion of what emerges – in each generation – as a catalogue of prevailing literary trends. That is, we are, as American poets, culturally alert to complexity and verbal nuance, determinedly poly-vocal, and stylistically independent, even arrogant. I believe we live in a time of extraordinary literary riches. Contemporary American poetry is thriving on every front. The work of many of my contemporaries has been remarkably innovative in its ambition and deeply compelling in its personal and artistic courage. Recent American poetry is startling and powerful in the ways it has both drawn upon and revised any number of past traditions. Poets live with either admiration or despair within those literary traditions they inherit and, in time, must either alter, accept, or dismiss. Of course, poets have always created new alternatives for themselves and must, as we are hoping to do here, celebrate and champion the writings of those they consistently envy and admire.

In the Spring of 2005, listening to Cole Swensen deliver a talk about the growing hybridization of American poetry, I suddenly understood quite clearly why I had become so deeply dissatisfied by the increasingly narrow categorical definitions of and, in my view, exclusionary critical demarcations in American poetry. The rubrics and various designations – avant-garde, post-modern, new formalist, language poetry, organic, mainstream, new critical, beat, et cetera – all served, I felt, primarily as highly generalized critical orientations to or as retrospective overviews of a poet’s work (irregardless of how reductive those rubrics might, in fact, be). What they did not make available was the fulsome poetically focused investigation or charged discussion of any given poem that comes, as poets know, with our understanding of and deep engagement with a particular poem. To Cole, the challenge and fascination of American poetry had become the way that previously conceived poetic “differences” and aesthetic borders of every kind were being tested and transgressed; she noted the many exciting ways that stylistic concerns were being melded and re-forged within the poetry of any number of individual poets. In my view, this was and remains exactly right. The most compelling poetry I’ve been reading for the past fifteen years has been that which has ignored and/or defied categorization, poetry that embraces a variety of – even, sometimes, contradictory — poetic ambitions and aesthetics. These hybridizations of poetic value seem to me all to the good of the individual poet and to American poetry itself.

Although I have always distrusted writers who run in packs, I welcome all literary partisanship as a gesture toward what I would call a “values clarification” in poetry. However, let’s be frank. We are at a time in our poetry when the notion of the “poetic school” is an anachronism, an archaic critical artifact of times long gone by. The most compelling new poets today draw from a vast and wildly varied reservoir of resources. Their choices concerning “voice” and stylistic possibility (as well as their attitudes toward aesthetic, theoretical, cultural and political urgencies) are now articulated as compelling hybridizations.

When Cole Swensen and I began deliberating about the contents of this anthology we first imagined a group of younger poets. Then, we decided we would need to include other poets as well, in order to show the historical depth and vitality of the concept of poetic hybridization in American poetry, and in order to present the impressive range of poets we believe articulate this impulse. We eventually determined that we would consider only those poets who, at the time we began reading for the anthology in the summer of 2005, had already published at least three volumes of poetry. Ironically, this excluded many of those younger poets whose work we’d first looked to as models of hybridization. I can only add that their anthology is yet to come.

We also made the decision not to champion individual poets as special exemplars of hybridization in our introductions. We believe one of the philosophical points of this volume needs to remain that all aspects and variants of hybridization in American poetry are of equal and lasting value, and that, in fact, the variety of hybridization found in our living poetry at this moment constitutes one of the most vital elements of its importance. It seems therefore antithetical to both the project and spirit of this anthology to suggest that one poet’s way or understanding of hybridization can be judged as “better” or “more important” than any other. That is, the idea of first suggesting that the poetic activities of the poets here in American Hybrid have helped to erase the boundaries of poetic schools and leveled out many of the assumed hierarchies, and then to say, Some animals are more equal than others, runs counter to the very premise we are positing in this anthology.

I am persuaded by the idea of an American poetry based upon plurality, not purity. We need all of our poets. Our poetry should be as various as the natural world, as rich and peculiar in its potential articulations. The purpose of this anthology is to celebrate these exquisite hybridizations emerging in the work of our poets. Let the gates of the Garden stand open; let the renaming of the world begin again.