Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry, Part I

To start with a definition: provincialism, a mode of thought no longer solely relegated to regions outside high density urban areas, and characterized by narrow-mindedness, insularity, lack of, or excess of, sophistication.

“The provincialism of contemporary poets represents a fragmentation based on social exclusion.”

And gentrification, the process of making a person or activity more refined or polite, and acceptable to social standards.

“Poetry has undergone gentrification in large part as a result of the workshop industry.”

Then consider poetry readings as the ground where provincialism and the gentrification of Anglo-American poetry are on display. And ask yourself, when was the last time you attended a poetry reading by someone you didn’t know or was not known by the person(s) you accompanied to the reading?   Are you a teacher, a student, student of poetry, poet, critic, publisher, relative/friend/lover of the reader(s)? None, or all of the above?  Is it because you are curious or excited by the esthetic promise of contemporary poetry?  Maybe it’s that the reader has name recognition, celebrity buzz, in the literary world. What part do you play (or want to play) in that world? Perhaps the poets have the same identity politics as you, so your attendance is a show of support.

Historically the public reading has been poetry’s neglected redheaded stepchild. In classical times Pliny the Younger counseled that one does not read one’s poems in public but hires an actor or a slave (often the same) to do it. The visibility and frequency of readings in the post war era is attributed to the popularity of Dylan Thomas’ highly publicized whirlwind train wreck reading tour in the States at the end of which he drank a dozen whiskeys in a row and promptly fell over dead—the not-so last gasp of neo-romanticism. Yet the idea that celebrity status could be conferred on the poet simply by public performance (and implied scandalous behavior) was certainly appealing to the hungry egos of literature and much more visceral than pages in a book.  Soon auditoriums, bookstores, and coffee houses were among the venues appropriated for the self-aggrandizing personality fests designated as poetry readings and whose value is strictly social.

“Poetry determined by consensus is devalued to the status of politics to be viewed as simply a legitimized social stratagem.”

Poetry readings in general are fraught with expectations. What is the purpose of a poetry reading?  Is it a chance for the poet to recapitulate what is on the page while the audience ruminates on the crux of what they are hearing?  Serious modern poets are, in essence, vanity authors. The general public is largely unaware and uninterested in their poetry.  Many publishers dismiss or reject it. Consequently, the poems are seldom read (despite being published in numerous obscure literary magazines and blogs) or heard, and if they are, it is primarily at poorly attended readings before an audience consisting mainly of fellow poets of similar persuasions, and equally anonymous.  At best, contemporary poetry is for, and by, specialists in the field of modern literature. Then again, one should not forget the predicaments these poets face, individually, socially, and esthetically, that brings their radical poetics into being and at the same time countering the banalization of their innovative turns by those whose only interest is “normalizing” their unconventional stand to make it more palatable to an undereducated audience.  They resist being objectified to satisfy the prejudices of mass education.  For them the poem is not solely words, it is also the poet.

Yet often the biggest problem with poetry readings is with the poets themselves. Poets can be exclusive and clannish, adopting gang-like monikers likely to include the word “School.”  The reason for this lies in the social nature of group cohesion and the difficulty of breaking with that particular in-crowd mindset learned so well in high school.  Poets don’t necessarily attend poetry readings for the poetry but to be seen among their peers and to judge their relative position in the hierarchy of that capricious camaraderie. This social grouping of inclusion and exclusion is not strictly limited to the poetry scene, there are narrow-minded, insular, ingenuous provincials in all arenas of culture.  Provincialism, as such, practices a brand of intentional ignorance, a willfulness that acts as a barrier to anything outside of self-imposed narrow-minded constraints. The poetry reading has become, or perhaps has always been, not so much an opportunity to hear poets read their own words, but a social event to see and be seen, to reinforce a social order of commonly held exclusionary values, what Arendt points to as “the socialization of culture” or its politicization.

Poetry determined by consensus is devalued to the status of politics to be viewed as simply a legitimized social stratagem. This raises the concern that much of contemporary poetry is ideological. Cultural roles then become exchange values to be used and abused for social purposes. For Arendt, in cultural politics, where “there is hierarchy and individualism, there will be tension, suspicion, competition,” the inevitability of us versus them.  Or now versus then.

Then And Now
A nostalgic comparison was made recently, remarking on the difference in attendance at poetry readings, then and now.  Then (late sixties, early seventies), readings were packed, raucous, and viscerally stimulating.  Reading attendance now is staid and sparse, and about as exciting as a Friends meeting.  There can be fewer than a dozen in the audience, or as many as fifty, usually for a name, literary darling, or group reading. Exceptions generally include memorials for widely respected poets, or readings by legends. There were easily 200 in attendance at Joanne Kyger’s memorial reading. Gary Snyder could still fill the pews. So, what happened?

It would be helpful to understand what the differences between then and now are, if now can be viewed as the current situation, always subject to change without notice, and appreciated with the benefit of hindsight. Then, literary events were still largely a rough and tumble male domain and ruled by a top dog pack mentality.  Readings were characterized by much yipping, yapping, and howling (among other canine proclivities) in a male bonding of boisterous agreement or contentious heckling.  Men, meaning boys in long pants, are inclined to mischief and mayhem, to overthrowing the norm as a challenge to hierarchy, pushing the limits and boundaries‒there will be loyalty as well as treachery in seeking the favors of the muse‒offering only perfunctory lip service to propriety.  Attendant was a hierarchal dynamic that demanded engagement, even confrontation, not detachment.

“The most obvious examples of cultural cannibalism are celebrity cults: people, teams, social activists, You Tube influencers.” 

Absent from, or invisible in this arena then were women poets.  That era, however, is marked by the raised consciousness of feminism and the push for inclusion.  It was undoubtedly an uphill climb, but women’s determination should never be underestimated. Currently, women’s leadership role in the literary arts, long overdue, has turned a corner and begun to dominate.  Socially savvy and conscious of the importance of stability in safeguarding group integrity, women strive to administer a governance that is effective and inclusive while still limiting anything deemed a threat (“boy-sterous” behavior?).  As a result of the horizontal structure of female interaction—the dome of inclusion as opposed to the pyramid of hierarchy— a normalization of poetry and poets is underway. The easiest to manage is the standardized, and the standardized is, unfortunately, devoid of the unpredictable.  While it may offer an approach for constancy, it is also a recipe for mediocrity. This is the social dynamic in play, and while no judgement is intended, a critique is implicit.

Art, it should be understood, is not gender specific, as Mary Gilbert’s Ninth Street Women amply illustrates, even though valuation of art had, and continues to have, gender bias.  Yet to speak of art in terms of gender is to speak of socially determined roles superimposed by a largely conservative undereducated society and culture.  The artist is inherently eccentric, orbiting the center to retain a unique perspective. The modern artist by necessity must resist socialization and evade the grasp of convention and conventionalizing. The artist as non-conformist is perhaps a romantic notion, yet success has a corrosive effect on the authenticity of art and artist when it is given social value beyond the actuality of its purpose.

Although art is the seed bed of culture for the use of all, the idea that art is democratic is erroneous. Socialized art acquires the value of property and as such is commodified for consumption. It is in the nature of mass society to devour or consume as an autophagic process the products of culture.  The most obvious examples of cultural cannibalism are celebrity cults: people, teams, social activists, You Tube influencers.  And that particular shine rubs off on all the products of culture. An initial valuation is not so much the worth of the art produced but its social significance provided by the status of the artist in the hierarchy of social standing.

The Provinces
There is no doubt that a shift in the social dynamic is underway in the poetry patch. The reading has now become a gauge of popularity, credibility, and relevance yet of limited literary value. As an example, from Black Bart Country (the very definition of the provinces), a reading series of long standing and solid if not stolid reputation featured a regional literary darling.  On the same bill, a poet and translator of no mean accomplishment but unlikely to be appreciated by the marginally educated, and a local fellow whose idea of poetry was torture and be tortured.

The experience was, as can be imagined, dreadful, but still instructive.  The majority among the three dozen or so in attendance were writing professionals of one kind or another, including retired liberal arts professors, creative writing post grads, workshop gurus and their acolytes, and various aggregations of wannabes, poseurs, and has-beens.  As well, there were a few talented individuals trying to maintain a brave face in the onslaught of gush and pretense.  But turn your back and there’s always the glint of knives.

For the most part what was presented was warmed-over pablum given gravitas by politically correct cliché, barely original or anywhere approaching weighty deep thought wrestled from the demon within.  Sadly, nothing but the shallow bleats of platitude were to be heard.

As was noted,

  • The syntax of lists truncates music.
  • When did the poem have to end with a serious brow?
  • Attempts of attempts and scented products.
  • TV room staccato dissonance.
  • One red carrot accomplishment far outstripping his popular recognition.
  • Narrative for the sake of narrative.
  • The lyrics trail off into understatement.
  • Words without relation to music.
  • The drone of anecdote is all.
  • Nasal no lilt challenged by the page.
  • Matter of fact practiced inanity phoning it in.

These types of readings seem to end with a sigh, like at the conclusion of a church service, serious bordering on sanctimonious.  And then everyone lines up to shake hands or greet the pastor, in this case the poet(s).  The wines and vegan gluten free petite fours are a reminder of what an art gallery owner once observed, that “Poets always bring food.”  The thought then, is it like inviting ants to a picnic?  As demonstrated by the jolly glad handing, the reading, despite its lack of overt literary value, was apparently a success. Nevertheless, although invoked, the muse did not make an appearance.

“There is a paucity of real world knowledge of poets and poetry outside the immediate or allied social groupings of various poetry mafias, networks, clans, and workshop cadres.” 

Poetry Goddesses
Aside from the poetry reading, another notable indication of a shift in postwar American literature that most workshop professionals and academics ignore, or are unaware of, was the resurfacing and recognition of the legacy of nonaffiliated poets and writers from the first postwar period of the 20’ and 30’s by a younger generation of radical American poets who were featured in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). In an effort to distinguish the field of poets from each other across the vast span of esthetics and geography encompassed by US poetry, Allen lumped them by region and/or aesthetic predilection so that New York poets were distinguished from The Beats or The Black Mountain School, San Francisco Renaissance, The Holy Barbarians, and so on.  While this certainly afforded a map of the distribution of artistic nodes and inclinations, it revealed the impossibility of a unified American poetics. Poetry thus subdivided by region serves to isolate and insulate as a characteristic of provincialism.  Allen’s anthology recognized the homegrown independent poets working outside the sanctions of academia and with, at times, a revolutionary fervor to upend the pretentious fussiness of a baroque Anglo literary hegemony.  An antagonism arose over the values and procedures of American lit, conservative and radical.  Again, this was brought about by the social nature of hierarchy and class, and what is acceptable to the primarily bourgeoise arbiters of taste.  Apparently, there are always barbarians at the gate (now known as zombies) as there will always be trend setting elites (vampires).  The elite have their suppositions as the barbarians have their actuality as the source of cultural friction. Or as Robert Graves’ The White Goddess would have it, court poets, i.e., the lap dogs of convention, vie with feral goddess (outlier) poets. However, in this era, rather than having male poets (mediums) speak for them as muses, the goddesses are writing their own poetry.

Two such poetry goddesses made their way to Black Bart Country on the tail end of a cross country reading tour which coincided with a rather frightful spell of wet weather in the region. Despite the stormy conditions, the reading, held in a letterpress art workspace, was quite well attended.  The poets, one of whom has been on the forefront of publishing women’s writing since the early seventies, and the other, an indefatigable author and promoter of women’s solidarity, were well received by the two dozen plus in attendance, a goodly turn out considering the damaging winter storm.  With notable exceptions, telling was the lack of representatives from the larger poetry community who might have benefited from exposure to the wisdom and experience not to mention the cutting edge poetics these independent poets had to offer. And that absence represents a poignant example of the insularity fostered by provincialism.  A regional darling of debatable literary distinction merits a large turn out because it is a social event more than one that emphasizes excellence and artistic integrity.  There is a paucity of real world knowledge of poets and poetry outside the immediate or allied social groupings of various poetry mafias, networks, clans, and workshop cadres. Poetry loses its way when guided by ambitions of social nepotism and in-crowd celebrity.

Submitted to the membership by The Parole Officer

In Part II of Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry

“The gravest threat to American literature is the English major cum English professor/teacher cum workshop professional cum arts administrator as their pedagogic mission is to pigeonhole and gentrify the genuine.”


This entry was posted in Poetry, Poetry Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry, Part I

  1. Stephen R Ratcliffe says:

    Thanks for this Pat (Donald sent it to me, maybe I’m no longer on your mailing list) — what a great piece~~~ ! Stephen

  2. Hanford Woods says:

    Sent to me by Donald Guravich. Great piece, very funny. As one who views all this from a distance, the comedy of manners, or bad manners such as they were back in the ‘boy-sterous’ 60s-70s, was always a major part of the entertainment. But a good reading was always and remains a good reading and often the more sparsely attended the better. The art is in most of its branches about an intimacy and readings before large audiences often involve an effort to imagine that no one else is there. I imagine this is heretical but, as with Shakespeare, however well it is performed, nothing beats reading the stuff, the silent words in a silent room.

  3. Thanks, Pat. It’s a reminder to be alert and aware of the self-service practitioners who overwhelm literary scenes and promote the cult of personality. As fellow poet and satirist klipschutz so aptly stated: “The problem with poetry is poets.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.