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John Bradley’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)

 

(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)

 

 

“Categorize: 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 Iowan elements? 

 

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:

 

Yokel, Bob Arnold

Tongue of War, Tony Barnstone

Blue Front, Martha Collins

Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead Trappist, Lisa Gill

Mosquito Operas, Philip Dacey

Ventrakl, Christian Hawkey

Letters to a Stranger, Thomas James

The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Bhanu Kapil

Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, ed. and tr. by Matvei Yankelevich

Tsim Tsum, Sabrina Orah Mark

Invisible Strings, James Moore

Best Thought, Worst Thought, Don Patterson

 

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 “outsider” groups. 

 

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.