Poetry at Yale
Poetry now, here
By Ava Kofman
Friday, April 15, 2011
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.
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.