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Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)




Jake Berry



  (Responses to this essay by poets and academics can be found here)



For the purposes of this article the terms Otherstream and Knownstream will be used in the sense that Bob Grumman coined them in the mid-1980s. Here is his most recent commentary on the terms, from an email of March 2011:


“Otherstream” is my adjective for works of art the great majority of arts academics, well-known critics, commercial publishers and commercial magazine editors know little more than the names of, if that. A brief definition: art of a kind that’s not taught in college classes. For me, it means approximately, but only approximately, the opposite of “mainstream.” What it’s the exact opposite of is “knownstream.” That’s because some art is knownstream, like certain kinds of very formal versethe sestina, say, is well known to most literature professors but is not what you’d call a kind of mainstream poetry.





How do we assess poetry in the 21st century? Is there an institution or group of institutions that can comprehensively describe the art as currently practiced? The answer is not radically different than it was a century ago—with a notable exception. In the early 20th century most people who appreciated poetry read it in books or periodicals that were published by large publishers. If they were true aficionados they might be familiar with a few smaller publishers or even books published by individuals. The exception 100 years later is the considerable influence and prestige of the academic system with its university presses, creative writing degrees and workshops.


Someone browsing the local bookstore or online bookseller still encounters the large publishers primarily, but might also find the work of major, but less popular, poets in handsome volumes published and widely distributed by university presses. If one cares to dig a little deeper he or she will discover that there are a wide variety of small presses whose work may not be available at the local bookstore, but easily ordered online through the same sites that sell movies, music, clothes, jewelry and most anything else.


Generally speaking, that is the limit of the public knowledge of poetry. It is also the limit for many poets. Though they may be aware of poetry on CD, tape and LP, Internet magazines, journals and blogs as well as videos and audio recordings online, the dominant notion, and validation, of poetry remains in those books with the greatest distribution. Since so many books are available and poetry has such a long history why would anyone look any further? Poetry composed thousands of years ago as well as poetry composed last year and all points in between is available in such copious amounts that no single individual could ever hope to read it comprehensively. If one cannot afford to buy many books then libraries are available with large collections of poetry and computers that enable one to read the works of all manner of poetry onscreen.


If one goes online and does a general search for poetry one will discover that not only is a great deal of poetry available, but that an overwhelming amount of it is very current—perhaps as current as the same day! How does one respond to page after page of websites of brand new poetry? The usual reaction is to appeal to an authority on the subject in order to get some idea of where to start, and that authority remains major publishers with the addition of academia. They are the gatekeepers.


It is reasonable to argue that with so much poetry available a gatekeeper is needed. Otherwise one might read, listen or watch for years and never get a sense of which poetry was important and which was insignificant. If one assumes that the large publishers and major universities have done their jobs thoroughly and sorted the wheat from the chaff the task is greatly simplified. There is plenty to read. It is almost always superior in content to popular film, music and novels. One can be quite satisfied that great poetry has been sought, located and read with a result not unlike a visit to a museum or the consumption of fine wine. Namely, that a higher level of culture has been experienced. Why would anyone look any further? Why trouble the waters of contented erudition? Most never will.


However, a deeply engaged appreciation of poetry can never be contented because that engagement disturbs the waters forever. Poetry is rarely the result of contentment, quite the opposite. It is a result of a disturbance in the mind of the poet, the shape of culture in which it was composed, and occasionally in the deep well of being itself. For that reason poetry will not let us rest in the status of self-affirmation as an intelligent individual. It compels us to go further, to ask fundamental questions and seek something quite beyond ourselves. To become deeply involved with poetry is to unsettle our broad cultural assumptions and even throw the nature of individuality in doubt. Poetry creates an ache that can never be healed, but only relieved by a lifelong experience of those conditions that only poetry can provide. No gatekeeper can make absolute determinations on such a personal level. Both the gate and the keeper have become irrelevant.





Given that the primary function of major publishing is to generate profit, the poetry it publishes is merely a token gesture to the art. If we look to them for a representation of what is happening in contemporary poetry our perspective will be reduced to something bordering on complete ignorance. Looking then toward the other established channel for contemporary poetry—the academy—we have to consider what the university presses offer and what is being taught, especially to young poets and other creative writers.


The academic presses do a reasonably good job of publishing poetry of the past, including 20th century poetry, at least up through the mid 1970s. This makes sense because a generation or two is often required to develop a perspective on the poetry of the time and what should be published. As might be expected then, the contemporary poetry published by the academy is even more subject to the bias of the editors of each press. However, two schools / movements / areas of contemporary poetry have become the dominant focus of both the presses and the classrooms. Namely, the poetry that originated and developed from the Iowa School and its workshops and Language poetry—also a development largely within the academy.


 In both cases the idea was to create an authentic alternative to the poetry that was taught and published in the 1960s—usually the deviations and derivations of modernism. Both the Iowa School and Language poetry are often labeled as post-modern, which has become a horrible term because of its overuse and inaccuracy. It only makes sense as a way of designating the poetry composed by the generation immediately following the modernists. For instance, if Ezra Pound is a modernist, Charles Olson is a post-modernist. In painting, if Picasso is a modernist, Pollock is a post-modernist. By that logic the word has value and its time has passed. The term can be applied in the same way to the culture as a whole. If industrialization and the move toward urban centrism is modernism then the collapse of industry and city centers is post-modern. The rise of information culture is a step beyond the post-modern. Likewise, pop art, concept and performance art and poetry are not post-modern. They represent a further cultural shift. They reflect neither a centralized aesthetic nor a decentralized response to modernism. Their primary cultural importance may lie in the fact that they do not represent anything in particular beyond the culture’s inability to comprehend itself or generate a broadly meaningful vocabulary.


In their wake the Iowa school has, very generally speaking, sought authenticity in the discovery and development of an individual voice and a sense of place based on individual experience. It was and is welcomed as a reprieve from the difficulties of modernism and the abstractions of post-modernism. The voice is clear, the imagery and actions are precisely articulated. A deeply personal experience has been communicated.


Language poetry on the other hand offers no single aesthetic and has been described by its own founders as a loose association of very different poets. The poetry is often dense, textually experimental and defiant of a singular voice or interpretation. This loose association has however been cohesive enough to exert considerable pressure on the academy, insisting on inclusion. After a long struggle the academy in many places has accepted that both movements are significant enough to be taught in classes and workshops and published by its presses.


Poetry in the early 21st century is presented to young poets and anyone interested in understanding contemporary poetry as an uncomfortable, dissociated co-existence of these two very different approaches to poetry. Despite the ways each has broken from the past and are in that sense avant-garde or experimental, they have become the academic mainstream. As such, they encounter a problem inherent in all established systems—diminished returns. As established modes of poetry all that can result in their inclusion in the academy as we now have it is a reproduction or reworking of the original works and methods that became the bases of the movements. Students can augment and modify, according to their experience, the intricacies of the forms, but if the forms are to remain within the context of their instruction, they can never break from the forms in any fundamental way. The result is that each generation produces work that is at best equal to the previous generation and usually inferior as measured against the originals.


What about everything else, anything else, that does not easily fit within these two categories? Should they be dismissed as failed poetries because they are not broadly taught in the academy or published by it? Though a few in academia might wish it so, these outside, Otherstream poetries, refuse to vanish. Their poets continue with little or no concern as to what happens in the academy, let alone major publishers. What began as small magazines and chapbooks in the underground press of the 1970s and 1980s shifted much of its effort to the Internet in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century without ever completely abandoning the print and recorded mediums that have served them so well. What are we to make of all this work whose poems and publications now dwarf the output of academia and the major publishers combined? Is this just the detritus of failed romantic notions or does it represent a wide variety of valid alternatives to both the past and the contemporary mainstream, the Knownstream? If the latter is true why has it been excluded from the academy?


To be fair, there are archives at universities and elsewhere that include Otherstream / outsider work. The Avant Writing Collection, created by John M. Bennett in 1998 at Ohio State University, includes some of the most radically discordant work of the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. The Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual poetry in Miami Beach is known globally for its comprehensive collection and its inclusiveness. The collection of print and electronic poetry, papers and correspondence by a wide range of poets at the State University of New York in Buffalo, curated by Michael Basinski, is well known. All of these represent what academies and independent institutions can do when they remain open to all possible approaches to the art. They are not the only ones, but they represent the exception, not the standard policy of most institutions.


Ultimately the fate of poetry in the future does not reside in archives, universities or publishers, it resides in what future generations decide they want from poetry. At the time of their death few, if anyone, would have believed that William Blake, Emily Dickinson or Arthur Rimbaud would someday be among the most revered poets of their time or any other. Blake’s work was stored among all his other remains. Dickinson’s poems were discovered carefully bound in sections and stored away. Many decades passed before her work was finally published as written. Rimbaud’s work had been discarded even by the poet. His death itself may have been the impetus to bring the work to light for a larger public than he ever would have imagined.                    


The poetry that is highly regarded, archived and taught as the highest expression of the art today may be dismissed in future generations as an insubstantial obsession of an age that, like so many ages before, took no notice of timeless work that will serve all generations to come. It is impossible for anyone to know.


As much as we may want a center of poetic practice, some means of knowing what poetry is and how it might be recognized or measured, this is less possible now than it has ever been. There is no single institution or aesthetic that can claim center ground because there is no center. To fully appreciate poetry we have to discover it anywhere it may be—which appears to be everywhere if we are paying attention.





The oppression of centuries combined with the opportunities presented by science and the development of new states in the western hemisphere made the neo-classicism of the 18th and early to mid-19th century obsolete. The response in poetry, growing out of Hölderlin, Blake, the romantic poets and Baudelaire was the birth of modernism and the idea of sequential avant-gardes and experimentalism. This makes sense in a world where revolution is frequent and progressive development and discovery in the sciences is generally believed to improve the world.


By the end of the 20th century the ceaseless flood of information and a diverse array of technology not only delivered that information, but made it interactive. The constant call and response from all quarters, the ability of anyone with frequent access to a computer to create personal and multiple channels of information (web sites, web logs, podcasts and social networking) created an atmosphere of perpetual renewal. Further, the constant change was not only sequential, but also simultaneous. A poet could read new poetry all day every day and never read it all or even get an accurate sense of what new poetry was like. The result was a condition of perpetual revolution and perpetual simultaneous avant-gardes that could not be fully documented or known by any of the established systems. The former conduits of what was new, of high quality, and important were drowned in the assault by these information mediums outside and beyond the domain they had perpetuated for well over a century.


Major publishers and academia began to seem a bit like reliquaries even when the artifacts they presented were contemporary. By the time the volumes arrived on the shelves, thousands of new poems, many of very exotic disposition and modes of presentation, had already been published and read. Likewise the institutions through which a poet or student of poetry might have traditionally learned the art began to feel like a journey through the past even if the institutions were equipped with the latest information technology. It was simply impossible to develop a framework within which to accurately describe what contemporary poetry, or even poetry of the recent past, might be.


If the idea of education was to prepare the student for the future the best an institution could hope to do was describe the past and hope that the future was similar enough to the past that its students’ education would be relevant.  The very concept of a single avant-garde followed by another, or even a few simultaneous avant-gardes, collapsed. The idea was a relic of different age—relevant to the present perhaps, but of a distinctly different order of being. The institutions resigned themselves to the past and often clung to it fiercely, like a religion defending its doctrine.


Like all religions there were true believers who held to the faith and produced work of great substance. Yet they were utterly overwhelmed in wave upon wave of the future. Poets often abandoned any sense of time at all and merely practiced and published their work as if poetry were quasi-temporal. Chaos and turbulence were the currency. Poetic identity was erased and recomposed from one day to the next. A manic state of exuberance co-existed with one of despair. The desire for literary immortality became impossible to maintain in such an environment so poets abandoned the concept as just another extinct idea. They projected into a future that would arrive and disappear as quickly as their poems were read, seen or heard.





What birds plunge through is not the intimate space

in which you see all forms intensified.

(Out in the Open, you would be denied

your self, would disappear into that vastness.)


                                                                                                                                             Rainer Maria Rilke, 1924


The other is always outside. It is present, but only as an unknown. Whatever can be apprehended, grasped or named is not the other. Whatever is subject to those conditions has lost any primary turbulence. However active or resistant it may be, it dwells inwardly, or is at least cloaked by the inward projected onto it. This is the condition of the object. An individual presence.


An individual presence that has fallen, if only superficially, into this enclosure is severed from the outside. It actually remains outside, but it has been robbed of its actuality. It has been contained and therefore, lost. It has become safe to approach. It is subject to any quality demanded of it. Though it may slip into otherness again, the memory of it remains an object that is vulnerable when summoned.


Yet whatever remains other, due to ignorance or oblivion or some slippery, ungraspable nature cannot be individualized or internalized.  As such the other feels dangerous. It is impossible to determine if it is actually dangerous because it is unknown. What are its qualities? How can it be determined? This remains unknown because whatever it/they may be lies beyond the made thing. Neither subject nor object, the other provokes and disturbs the desire for inwardness. Yet, at all attempts this presence remains outside. Beyond even twilight or shadows, no trace of it can be directly perceived.


For the domain of what is known, internalized and contained this other is a threat. It/they press upon us and make demands, but there is no adequate response. Despite the desire to apprehend it, it must be allowed to remain beyond.


So it is with the Otherstream. It is turbulent and chaotic relative to the perspective of the Knownstream, yet it is present in the unlimited margins. To practice art in that space that is not actually a space means to surrender conventional ambition and work in the wilderness. No single description of it is sufficient since it is largely unknown and what is known cannot be determined to be representative. Failure, then, is a given and is the initial experience in this other “space.” To surrender and pass through failure without expectation is the price of admission out.


The world is lost in any confrontation with the actual. It is impossible to determine if failure and loss are the only experiences until and unless surrender occurs. We might assert that something more than this initial terror is available, but we cannot know. However, we suspect that whatever is actual lies somewhere beyond that terror.


If time has been compressed to points of collapse, if there is no real advance, no before or after, no origin or terminus, no space or absence, all that remains is something like an activity that compels us outward. Of all that is present this is the most persistent because we are lost outside dissolving and awake.  





copyright © Jake Berry




Jake Berry is a poet, musician and visual artist. The author of Brambu Drezi, Species of Abandoned Light, Drafts of the Sorcery, and numerous other books. He has been an active member of the global arts and literary community for more than 25 years. His poems, fiction, essays, reviews and other writings have been published widely in both print and electronic mediums. In 2010, Lavender Ink released a collaborative book, Cyclones In High Northern Latitudes, with poet Jeffrey Side and drawings by Rich Curtis; and Outside Voices: An Email  Correspondence (with Jeffrey Side) was released by Otoliths also in that year.

Berry's solo musical albums include, Liminal Blue, Strange Parlors, Naked as Rain and the Animal Beneath, Shadow Resolve and many others. With Bare Knuckles he has recorded four albums, Trouble In Your House, Alabama Dust, Doppelganger Blues and Root Bound. With the ambient experimental group Ascension Brothers he has recorded numerous albums including All Souls Banquet, The Wedding Ball and Pillar of Fire (which served as soundtrack for a series of plays by Ray Bradbury) and most recently Transfigurations Blues.

Ongoing projects include book four of Brambu Drezi (which will include a video for each section - the opening sections are available now at YouTube and, a collection of short poems, an online and print biography of the poet and critic Jack Foley, an album of experimental ambient music with Chris Mansel under the name Impermanence, an album of acoustic songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry and Van Eaton under the name The Cahoots, and an album of alternative rock songs in collaboration with Jeff Berry, Ben Tanner, Max and Kirk Russell.