Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Is Stephen Burt’s “New Thing” all that New?

I have just seen an article by Stephen Burt called ‘The New Thing: The object lessons of recent American poetry’ in the Boston Review in which he says:

‘For much of the past decade, the most imitated new American poets were slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets’ life stories (they did not tell stories at all); the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from continental philosophy, although they never laid out philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete objects at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were, in M.H. Abrams’s famous formulation, less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older authors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O’Hara; some had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the Language writers of the West Coast. These poets were what I, eleven years ago, called “elliptical,” what other (sometimes hostile) observers called “New Lyric,” or “post-avant,” or “Third Way.” Their emblematic first book was Mark Levine’s Debt (1993), their emblematic magazine probably Fence (founded 1998); their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience’

He then sees a move away from this sort of poetry to that typified by (among others) Devin Johnston, Jon Woodward and Alice James. He describes this as follows:

‘The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term “minimalism” comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading. The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit. Woodward’s Rain, with its five-word lines and five-line elegiac stanzas, makes a good example:

the slick
of rainwater converts each thing’s
outside to an image of
inside the only object without
a soul is the sun

So says one stanza; six pages on, another reads:

the tar they use to
fill the cracks shines orange
from the orange streetlights but
is blacker than the asphalt
which doesn’t shine

We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodward’s dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.’

My apologies for being obtuse but how does this sort of poetry exemplify anything new? Granted, in contrast to the poetry that Burt sees as non-descriptive and elliptical it is different. Nevertheless, it is not historically new in the development of poetic writing since High Modernism. On the contrary, it seems merely to represent a style of poetic writing that has always been active in mainstream poetry, namely that which has always relied on an empiricist aesthetic in describing phenomena. Indeed, Burt seems to acknowledge this:

‘This turn among poets to reference, to concrete, real things, has parallels, if not contributory causes, in literary academia. By 2001 there were books, articles, and anthologies devoted to “thing theory,” showing how literary works depend on the structures and histories of the “solid objects” (Douglas Mao’s term) that they might depict.’

Therefore, it is curious that Burt sees this as novel. He adds:

‘Reference, brevity, self-restraint, attention outside the self, material objects as models, Williams and his heirs as predecessors, classical lyric and epigram as precedents: all these, together, constitute the New Thing.’

This statement could have been made at any point in history about mainstream empiricist poetry.

By the way, some of what I say in my article ‘Empirical and Non-Empirical Identifiers’ in Jacket magazine, may inform any discussion this blog entry fosters.