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Bill Freind’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)

 

 

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jake Berry’s “Poetry Wide Open” is really a form of link bait, i.e., a wildly exaggerated argument designed less to advance a discussion than to provoke a series of heated responses online. Berry makes a series of sweeping claims that are unsupported by anything approaching evidence; in fact, in a 3300 word essay, he fails to name a single living poet. (He cites Bob Grumman’s definitions of Otherstream and Knownstream, and mentions John Bennett’s archive at Ohio State, but neither is cited as a writer of poetry.) I find it hard to believe that he thought it was possible to talk about contemporary poetry without talking about poets or poems, so there’s a part of me that wants to say “Berry isn’t really serious” and let it go at that. At the same time, I think it’s conceivable that he is sincere, so here goes.

 

Berry argues that contemporary poetry is dominated by the Knownstream, which he divides into two camps. On one side is what he calls “the Iowa School,” which he says is characterized by “authenticity in the discovery and development of an individual voice and a sense of place based on individual experience.” The other dominant mode is Language Poetry, with its skepticism of that individual voice, as well as its difficulty and  its non- or semi-referentiality. Standing in lonely and heroic defiance toward those two armies of the Knownstream is the Otherstream. For some reason, Berry never really defines the Otherstream, except to say that it’s neither LangPo nor Iowa School, and – according to Berry – is all but excluded from “the academy,” a monolith that apparently includes established poets, grad students at research universities, endowed chairs at Ivy League schools, associate professors at small state universities (such as myself), and underpaid adjuncts teaching at almost every school in the US.

 

There’s virtually nothing in Berry’s framework that I agree with, so I’ll take some time to work through the problems I see in his claims. I’m puzzled by his use of the term “Iowa School,” since the vast majority of the poets who belong in this category have nothing to do with the Iowa Writers Workshop. Ron Silliman’s term “School of Quietude” (which Silliman borrows from Edgar Allan Poe) would have been both more appropriate and more precise. Furthermore, a quick glance at the Iowa workshop’s website reveals that a number of the faculty could not in fact be called Iowa School writers in Berry’s sense of the term: Cole Swensen is on the permanent faculty, and in recent years visiting faculty have included Forrest Gander, Peter Gizzi, Bill Knott, Geoffrey Nutter, and Rod Smith – as well as Lyn Hejinian and Bob Perelman, both of whom are perhaps best known for their work associated with Language Poetry. [i] This should come as no surprise. While the School of Quietude remains the dominant mode in many MFA programs, elliptical and post-avant work is no longer as marginalized as it once was.

 

Berry’s brief discussion of Language Poetry also raises a number of questions. As an organized movement, Langpo probably dissipated by the late 1980s, so Berry’s claim that the academic Knownstream is dominated by Langpo and the Iowa School would suggest that colleges and universities teach almost no innovative poetry written in the last two decades – a claim which is obviously and demonstrably false. As if that assertion weren’t absurd enough, Berry digs in deeper by claiming that “[p]oetry 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.” I’ve been teaching poetry for almost twenty years and I’ve never heard of anyone offering a course structured like that, so I spent an hour googling syllabi for contemporary poetry courses. In that admittedly non-rigorous, non-scientific exercise, I found not one course that was even vaguely similar to Berry’s description; in fact, with the exception of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Langpo was almost entirely absent from these syllabi – which is exactly what I had suspected [ii]. Although I enjoy much of the work of the language writers, I find it’s very difficult to teach to undergraduates, and my guess is that many faculty members feel the same.   

 

In Berry’s essay, both “Iowa School” and “Language Poetry” function as little more than straw people: although they’re opposed aesthetically, they are both equally complicit in maintaining what he imagines is the academic status quo. The sans-culottes challenging these anciens régimes are the poets of the Otherstream. So what exactly is the Otherstream? Here’s the closest thing Berry offers to a definition:

 

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?

 

I’d like to be diplomatic, but his paragraph is so utterly wrongheaded that I can only conclude either that Berry knows nothing about how poetry is actually taught in North American colleges and universities, or that he is being disingenuously provocative. His first two questions – “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? ”—border on the absurd. First, there any number of Knownstream poets who can neither be categorized as Langpo or Iowa School, many of whom either teach or have taught in academia and/or have had their Knownstream status confirmed with nominations for the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, e.g., John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Ann Lauterbach, Nathaniel Mackey, Patricia Smith, Keith Waldrop, and C.D. Wright. Second, is there anyone on the face of the globe who would say that any forms of contemporary poetry that are not currently taught in university courses should be dismissed as “failed poetries?”

           

Berry’s claim that “[t]hough a few in academia might wish it so, these outside, Otherstream poetries, refuse to vanish” is virtually self-refuting: if Otherstream poetry is already invisible in the academy, why would any faculty member wish it to vanish from the poetry community? These unnamed faculty members are countered by the unnamed members of the Otherstream, who “continue with little or no concern as to what happens in the academy, let alone major publishers.” For these writers, apparently, fame (if not love) has to nothingness done sunk.

           

I’m always skeptical of claims about large groups of artists who create with no regard for recognition, and Berry inadvertently gives good reason for that skepticism when he offers a thumbnail sketch of the Otherstream which begins with “small magazines and chapbooks in the underground press of the 1970s and 1980s.” Berry doesn’t seem to realize that that phrase perfectly describes Language Poetry, a movement that was once quintessentially Otherstream and that now, according to Berry, constitutes one pincer of the Knownstream. That should have given him pause, or at the very least prompted him to re-read the paragraph from Bob Grumman that he included at the beginning of his essay. Grumman writes, “I used [Otherstream] mainly for visual poetry, sound poetry and language poetry when I began using it, but some language poetry has become mainstream.” It should be obvious that some sections of the Otherstream will always and inevitably become part of the Knownstream, but Berry seems either reluctant or unable to acknowledge that.

           

That points to another fundamental problem with Berry’s essay: on one level, it’s a fairly typical example of the “what poetry counts and why” genre, but it lacks even the most rudimentary theory of how poetry is acclaimed in the academy or anywhere else. Berry might have thought about exactly how Langpo went from Otherstream to Knownstream, or he might have considered Gertrude Stein’s claim in “Composition as Explanation” that “the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic,” or he might have read Alan Golding’s From Outlaw to Classic, which takes Stein’s claim as its title, or he might have read any one of the scores of other books by academics about canon formation (Jed Rasula’s American Poetry Wax Museum is an obvious choice), or he might have taken the theoretical route and gone to Bourdieu or Foucault, or he might have simply talked with Bob Grumman. Instead, he presents a comic book version of contemporary poetry in which academics work to exclude all forms of innovative poetry. Berry has posted on the Poetics List out of the University of Buffalo, so I’m left wondering why he didn’t ask any of the academics on the list for the syllabi for their courses, or for comments about what we teach and why.

 

I also wonder why he didn’t name specific poets he thinks have been excluded from college classrooms. Perhaps Berry even has ideas about how faculty members could teach innovative poetry to undergraduates. I would be very interested in hearing his ideas on those subjects. That would have been much more constructive than yet another rant about the alleged state of “the academy.”



[i] Perelman also has an MFA from Iowa, as does Barrett Watten.

[ii] I should add that Charles Bernstein’s syllabus includes language poetry, which makes sense since the course is entitled The Expanded Field of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: Contemporary Poetry after 1975. However, the class also presents an extremely wide range of other poets, including Arkadii Dragomoshenko, Harryette Mullen, Bernadette Mayer, bpNichol, Robert Kelly, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Ann Lauterbach, Kamau Brathwaite, et. al. See http://writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/syllabi/262.html.

 

 

 

 

copyright © Bill Friend

 

 

 

Bill Freind is the author of two collections of poetry: American Field Couches (BlazeVox, 2008) and An Anthology (housepress, 2000), as well as the editor of Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada  (Shearsman, 2012). He teaches at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.