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Norman Finkelstein’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)


There are still other made-up countries

Where we can hide forever,

Wasted with eternal desire and sadness,

Sucking the sherbets, crooning the tunes, naming the names.


                                                                                                   John Ashbery, “Hop o’ My Thumb”



Jake Berry’s thoughtful and provocative “Poetry Wide Open” offers us an useful analysis of poetry in “The Present Age.” Berry is particularly insightful in regard to the seemingly endless polarization and recirculation of opposing tendencies in modern poetry; he also makes some pointed observations in regard to the role of the academy, the current state of poetry publishing, and, of course, the impact of the Internet on poetry’s readership and on poets themselves. But Berry not only provides us with a trenchant sociological analysis. He also understands why poetry matters both psychically and historically. For Berry, “a deeply engaged appreciation of poetry can never be contented because that engagement disturbs the waters forever. Poetry is rarely the result of contentment, quite the opposite. It is a result of a disturbance in the mind of the poet, the shape of culture in which it was composed, and occasionally in the deep well of being itself.” This is genuine poetic wisdom, and it leads to some of Berry’s most worthwhile insights. But this understanding also leads Berry to a sort of historical pessimism, or at least the sense of a cultural impasse, which he seeks to evade at the end of his essay through some lofty but not particularly helpful philosophical generalities. In what follows, I will briefly elaborate upon some of Berry’s insights, explain why I think that he unduly limits his vision, and offer a few suggestions that may help nudge our situation beyond the impasse that he describes.


In setting up his analysis of our current situation, Berry relies on the often observed binarism of the Iowa school and Language poetry, both of which are now firmly ensconced in academia. (Another, broader way to put this would be mainstream versus avant-garde, though Berry eschews this terminology in favor of the more idiosyncratic—and not very helpful—terms “otherstream” and “knownstream.) The styles and procedures, and behind them, the aesthetic assumptions, of both groups, have now been thoroughly assimilated by the academy and taught to at least one and probably more than one succeeding generation of younger poets. In recent years, we have even witnessed the emergence of so-called hybrid poetry which ostensibly adopts qualities from opposing schools, as seen, for instance, in Cole Swenson’s and David St. John’s Norton anthology American Hybrid. This polarization and its subsequent absorption by the academy produces what Berry describes as “an uncomfortable, dissociated co-existence of these two very different approaches to poetry.” Furthermore, “[a]s established modes of poetry all that can result in their inclusion in the academy as we now have it is a reproduction or reworking of the original works and methods that became the bases of the movements.  Students can augment and modify, according to their experience, the intricacies of the forms, but if the forms are to remain within the context of their instruction, they can never break from the forms in any fundamental way.” Breaking away from established forms is not in and of itself a virtue: Berry does not escape the still commonly held fetishism of “make it new.”  But I do agree with Berry that most of the poetry produced in creative writing programs is indeed “a reproduction or reworking of the original works and methods.”  The development of a poet as an “individual talent,” as T. S. Eliot understood the term, is tremendously difficult, given the dialectic of tradition and originality which Eliot describes in his classic essay.  My sense is that such growth is not made any easier, and may well be stifled, in most creative programs. To be sure, there are gifted teachers in many programs who nurture their students’ talents without imposing a party line. But it is in the nature of creative writing programs, within an academic system that emphasizes professionalism and career advancement, to inculcate one or another aesthetic ideology to which students are encouraged to conform, in order to get published and secure a teaching post. Given the explosion of online publications in recent years, the former goal may be somewhat easier to reach. Given our current economic situation, the latter is far more difficult.


Berry’s understanding of recent technological developments in relation to the concept of the avant-garde (or perhaps more simply put, the new) is worth noting. Writing in the past tense, which creates the curious feeling that he is peering back from a remote point in the future or the “end of history,” Berry observes that “[t]he constant call and response from all quarters, the ability of anyone with frequent access to a computer to create personal and multiple channels of information (web sites, web longs, podcasts and social networking) created an atmosphere of perpetual renewal…A poet could read new poetry all day every day and never read it all or even get an accurate sense of what new poetry was like.  The result was a condition of perpetual revolution and perpetual simultaneous avant-gardes that could not be fully documented or known by any of the established systems.” What this really means, as Berry understands, is the collapse of any viable notion of an avant-garde, which for Berry is tantamount to the “collapse of time.”


The conclusions that Berry draws from this analysis, however, strike me as unjustified: as we experience “wave upon wave of the future,” Berry claims that “[p]oets often abandoned any sense of time”—by which I think he means “history.” This makes little sense to me—serious poets, despite changing conditions, will still work to maintain a sense of history and tradition in relation to originality and innovation. Yet for Berry, “Chaos and turbulence were the currency. Poetic identity was erased and recomposed from one day to the next. A manic state of exuberance co-existed with one of despair. The desire for literary immortality became impossible to maintain in such an environment so poets abandoned the concept as just another extinct idea.” I’m tempted to ask what literary coffeehouse or wine bar Berry has been frequenting. It may be true that among younger poets especially, the mood swings he describes are evident, but given the uncertainty of the times, this is perfectly understandable. But this is not to be equated with the erasure and recomposition of poetic identity. Again, serious poets, especially under such challenging circumstances, will assert their sense of identity and work even harder to achieve “literary immortality.”  And it is at just this point that Berry gives way to the generalities I mentioned earlier.


Like most analysts of the current situation, Berry acknowledges that despite the persistence of outmoded literary “gatekeepers,” “[t]here is no single institution or aesthetic that can claim center ground because there is no center.  To fully appreciate poetry we have to discover it anywhere it may be—which appears to be everywhere if we are paying attention.” True enough. But as he brings his essay to its conclusion, Berry falls back on the philosophical cliché of “the other,” which for him “is present, but only as an unknown. Whatever can be apprehended, grasped or named is not the other…Neither subject nor object, the other provokes and disturbs the desire for inwardness.”  It is within this condition or space that poets are to practice their art, though for Berry, “[f]ailure, then, is a given and is the initial experience of this other ‘space.’”  The result seems to be a kind of terror in the face of temporal collapse. And that is where Berry, after an acute description of our dilemma, chooses to leave us.


Frankly, I find this conclusion quite disheartening. As a poet, I am constantly motivated to bring my work to a state of deeper inwardness, and when I compose, an experience of otherness (or perhaps, of the uncanny) is a sure sign that something is happening. But how is this to be conveyed to a reader? After all, poets may traffic in philosophical abstractions and psychological states of inwardness, elation and terror, but what they produce is poetry, which has an objective dimension insofar as it is made out of words. A poem is an achieved form. It may be experienced as an “other,” but in reading it, it is no longer “unknown.” On the contrary, if it is well written, it resonates for the reader, and we come to know it as our own. The matter, therefore, remains one of evaluation. 


Granted, there are more outlets for poetry than ever before, and no one reader can cover the entire ground. What is called for, then, is not a collapse into complete subjectivity, but sensitive reading, clear thinking, and a lucid prose style. Poets will continue to write in the open (Berry quotes Rilke in this regard); they must continue to “surrender conventional ambition and work in the wilderness.”  But once their work sees the light of day, it is up to readers to explain, to argue, to demonstrate why the poetry is of lasting value, why the poet deserves a bigger audience. This means that the informed, responsible reader must reflect upon his or her aesthetic values and be able to put them into play, translating theory into practice. This has been the foundational principle for me in all of my critical writing about contemporary poetry, whether in reviews or extended interpretive works. Sometimes a poem moves me in such a way that I simply don’t want to mar it with explanation. But most of the time, the work that means the most to me also inspires me to discuss what I regard as its lasting worth.


In the end, however useful broad generalities about schools and tendencies may be—and they are useful, up to a point, as heuristic devices and critical shorthand—the unit of the poet and his or her work remains unavoidable, and ought to be close to the critic’s heart. This is why, however much I gained from my engagement with Jake Berry’s essay, I kept wanting him to name a few more names and quote a few more passages. True, he mentions a number of figures from literary history as examples of tendencies and developments over the last two hundred years. But who, I wonder, does he value among his contemporaries?  In the welter of presses, journals, online magazines and blogs, what books, what poems, has he plucked out for that experience of otherness? Will he tell me about them? Will he explain why I should read them myself? Thanks, Jake. Looking forward to hearing from you.





copyright © Norman Finkelstein




Norman Finkelstein is a poet and critic. He has written extensively on modern poetry and Jewish literature. His most recent books are Track (Shearsman, 2012), Inside the Ghost Factory (Marsh Hawk, 2010), and On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (Iowa, 2010). He is a Professor of English at Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio.