The Argotist Online
John Bradley’s Response
(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)
assort, break down, classify, class, codify, compartmentalize, digest,
distinguish, distribute, grade, group, peg, place, range, rank, relegate,
separate, sort, type” (Merriam-Webster).
Jake Berry deserves credit for
performing that brave deed—to categorize poetry into various “movements”
or “schools” in his essay “Poetry Wide Open,” always a thankless task.
While it’s helpful in some ways to identify literary movements, ultimately I
find it limiting and not very productive. At best it leads to endless quibbling
about such topics as: What exactly is the “Iowa School?” Are all poetry
workshops “Iowa School,” even those that do not promulgate Berry’s alleged
Berry also proposes that Language
poetry has become part of the “academic mainstream.” Hardly news, as most
revolutionary movements eventually fade away or become part of the institution
they once sought to overthrow. Berry deserves praise for getting this out into
the open, but shouldn’t he be arguing that there are now two types of
workshops—Iowa and Language? Or is “workshop” too strong and foul a term
to place next to the “Language poetry”?
For this reader, however, the main problem with Berry’s
essay is its over-simplification of a much fractured poetry scene into three
camps (though Berry’s subtitle, “Fragments in Motion,” suggests his
awareness of the unruly state of poetry). Perhaps the best way to illustrate the
problem with Berry’s categorizations is to look at some specific works.
Here’s a list of some fairly recent (though one is a republication of
an out-of-print work and one a translation of an early twentieth century poet)
books that merit attention:
Tongue of War,
Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead
Trappist, Lisa Gill
Letters to a Stranger,
The Vertical Interrogation of
Strangers, Bhanu Kapil
Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected
Writings of Daniil Kharms, ed. and tr. by Matvei Yankelevich
Sabrina Orah Mark
Best Thought, Worst Thought,
I’ll briefly discuss a few of
these titles. Thomas James honed his craft at Northern Illinois University in
the poetry workshops of Lucien Stryk. As he “sought authenticity in the
discovery and development of an individual voice,” he must belong to the
“Iowa School.” Yet there was and is no MFA in poetry at NIU, and there was
and is no beaten path from Iowa City to DeKalb, Illinois. Those familiar with
James’ sole book, Letters to a Stranger, with its mysterious,
ever-shifting personas, and disturbing obsession with death and awakening, know
it is hardly the stuff of workshops—Iowa or otherwise.
In fact, the uniqueness of this work, it could be argued, is the main
reason for its republication by Graywolf Press in 2008.
James Moore studied at the
University of Iowa Creative Writing Program, so surely he is the classic “Iowa
School” poet. But those who read
his books, beginning with The New Body,
discover a poet who clearly does not fit into this “movement.” Yes,
there’s an individual voice, but it’s full of unruly passion. See the
display of grief in Lightning at Dinner.
His newest, Invisible Strings,
experiments with short, haiku-like poetry written in jagged lines. Not your Iowa
(or any other) workshop poetry.
Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim
Tsum contains dense prose poems, and is “defiant of a singular . . .
interpretation,” thus qualifying it as Language poetry. However Berry’s
elements of the “Iowa School” also apply to her: there is certainly an
“authentic” and “individual voice” here, and a strong “sense of
place”—though not one found on this earthly plane. Likewise, it could be
argued her “individual experience” (her mother’s family speaks Yiddish)
shapes the language and vision of this book. And, to add to the delicious
complexity of categorizing Mark, she earned her M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers’
Workshop. Is it still possible to argue that Language poetry is not part of
academia and taught in poetry workshops?
If we were to apply the category
that best describes these and all the other books listed above, it would have to
be “otherstream,” that is, works that “work in the wilderness” and
“defy convention” in some way. Each of these books surprises the reader by
taking great risks, and somehow succeeds. All the poets listed here can be
considered “outsiders” in many ways. Thomas James, who took his life in
1974, was a gay poet at a time when it was not widely accepted. (In fact,
Illinois just legalized “civil unions,” a breakthrough, and yet it still
falls short of complete acceptance of gay rights.) James Moore went to prison
for refusing to cooperate with his draft board, during the Vietnam War (see his
poem “For You,” in his The Freedom of History). Sarah Orah Mark’s
work, as I mentioned, is steeped in the Jewish culture, one of the most historic
Yet this raises another problem.
Aren’t we defining “otherstream” poetry—which Berry seems to suggest
includes Blake, Dickinson, and Rimbaud—with the “otherness” of the poets
themselves? Perhaps it’s impossible to separate the life of the poet from the
poem? Or are there some specific qualities of poetry that determine works in
this “otherstream” category? I’m curious what list of literary elements
can incorporate the work of Blake, Dickinson, and Rimbaud, as well as
“otherstream” poets whose poetry we have yet to see.
Meanwhile poetry (ancient,
traditional, modern, post-modern, you name it) continues to be ignored by most
Americans. And here we are, debating which peg fits into which hole, and if one
of the pegs is a quasi-revolutionary post-peg peg.
Perhaps we should take Berry’s
profound caveat to heart: “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.” With these humbling words, I disappear back into the vastness.
copyright © John Bradley
John Bradley is the author of Trancelumination, You
Don't Know What You Don't Know, and War on Words. He teaches at
Northern Illinois University.