And then a counter-truth filled out its play . . .
W. B. Yeats, The Circus Animals Desertion
The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to
George Oppen, World, World
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.
Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare
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. Abramss 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 OHara; 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 Levines 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, whether or not they had something to say.
Their good poems were good indeed: we are going to keep reading them. And yet the pendulum has started to swing. Tony Hoagland, whose effusive comic poems might have seemed, a few years ago, to represent that Third Way, attacked it in a 2006 Poetry magazine article, taking examples from Matthea Harvey and Mark Halliday and then excoriating their epigones: there comes, he wrote, a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality.
Almost all literary movements and moments expire in a crowd of imitators: what Hoagland called, disparagingly, the skittery poem of our moment may be about to slip into just that crowd. Yet Hoaglands nominee for its replacementwhat he calls narrative, especially the autobiographical sortseems an unlikely successor. What will come next instead?
I quote a young poet in a recently published interview with a more famous one:
I usually duck out of a book before I read ten poems, especially if its just soft-surrealist cotton candy. . . . I had a helpful conversation with a friend the other day about contemporary poetry and all its entrenchments and trivialities. My friend has been reading ancient Athenian poets whose work is known today only in fragments, much of it lost forever. The implications of that really restored a sense of perspective for me.
In their exchange, the poets may sound like cultural conservatives: New Criterion types, or apostles of narrative. But they are not: the younger poet is Jon Woodward, published by Wave and by Alice James, presses strongly identified with that Third Way. The older poet is Rae Armantrout, whose compact, sharp work, too-long conflated with Language-writing-in-general, now seems to some younger poets worth emulating on its own.
Armantrouts poems have always stood out for their brevity and for the skeptical pressure she puts on each emotion, each word. A poem from Next Life (2007) begins:
Sad, fat boy in pirate hat.
Long, old, dented,
How many traits
must a thing have
in order to be singular?
Armantrouts poems sometimes describe her dreams: she tells Woodward, in that same interview: I wouldnt write faux dream poems myselfand Im not sure why. Im phobic, somehow, about making things up. Critics who see Armantrout among other Language writers note her alertness to the arbitrariness, the inevitably made-up nature, of the words we use; nevertheless, her difficult poems strive for accuracy, and take bearings from real eventsher self-skepticism, her seriousness, prevents her from just, as she says, making things up.
Just that distrust of unaided (or unchecked) imaginationof lamps without mirrors, imagination without constrainthas brought some new poets to the styles they have found. To judge by their booksnot the best recent books, necessarily, nor the best first books, but the best new books that seem to have goals in common, that is, to constitute a tendencythe new thing takes cues from Armantrout, and from Robert Creeley; from the Objectivist poets (George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky), and from those poets common source, William Carlos Williams, he of the slogan No ideas but in things.
A poem, Williams wrote in his preface to The Wedge (1944), is a small (or large), machine made of words. . . . It isnt what [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, its what he makes (emphasis in original). The new poetry, the new thing, seeks, as Williams did, well-made, attentive, unornamented things. It is equally at home (as he was) in portraits and still lifes, in epigram and quoted speech; and it is at home (as he was not) in articulating sometimes harsh judgments, and in casting backward looks. The new poets pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, anddespite their frequent skepticismfidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williamss demand, as the critic Douglas Mao put it, both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself. They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing.
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. Woodwards Rain, with its five-word lines and five-line elegiac stanzas, makes a good example:
of rainwater converts each things
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 doesnt shine
We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodwards dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.
The literary scholar Heather Dubrow explains that since antiquity, lyric poetry has implied, at times, a fleeting song, at other times a material and artisanal activity [like] plowing fields or making chairs or making an inscription in stone. The New Thing represents a shift from the first idea of lyric to the second: from performing art to hard craft, from air to stone. No wonder the New Thing finds pithy models in classical antiquity, whose long-lasting poetry the new writers sometimes translate: that poetry means more to them than most of the poems written in English before Williamss day.
No poet represents the New Thing better, nor in more ways, than Devin Johnston, in his own verse and with Flood Editions, the press he co-founded with Michael OLeary in 2001. Johnstons third and latest book, Sources (2008), shows in its short lines and stanzas a strenuously muted concentration and care. One poem called The Greeks, explains, We find no ease // never quite / at home at home. Johnston follows in Ezra Pounds footsteps when he imitates the Latin elegist Propertius, and in countless footsteps with his After Sappho (fragment 16, in a fine, brisk version). Yet Sources does not only mean translations; it means that Johnston seeks models outside himself, distant in space and in time. A poem called Tracing remembers how Johnston, as a child, copied Pegasus / from Wonder Book, his pencil finding / wings and hooves // as fish rise / from cloudy beds. Such faithful, yet never quite accurate, tracing gives Johnston a better model for poetry than any more self-sufficient performance could.
When Johnston is not paying heed to the ancients, he attends painstakingly to what he sees: Days spent in the shelter of work / blow apart at dusk: // skirts rustle mimic rain. Oysters adhere / to things, another poem begins, even though they have no eyes. A poem chosen almost at random from Johnstons second book, Aversions (2004), follows Williamsand dissents sharply from most of the 1990sin its depiction of compact, unmoralized nature, in its fidelity to a small seen thing:
Muffled hedge and bearded pear
uphold a crystal tent;
beneath the fibrous snow
there must be something more
familiar bearing fruit.
Fidelity implies limits; it implies self-restraint. Ghost, the first poem in Aversions, now looks like a program for the New Thing, in its pace (controlled by iambic trimeter) and in its tone. Johnston uses the word tone twice:
When talking to myself,
I take a tone Ive learned
from younot of boyish charm,
but probing and severe
to say, some things are clear
and some withdrawn from sight.
A cyclist is only such
while seated on a bike,
a sleeper while asleep.
These forms are only forms
fulfilled, as you are now
no more than thisa tone.
Lyric poetry may be, the first line admits, what John Stuart Mill thought it wasthe self in private speechbut it may take a tone learned from speech amid others: a tone of responsibility, probing and severe, and often aware that who we are depends on where we are, in space and in a social orderon what we own, what we see, and what we know, and on how we or I can imagine a you.
Another poet of the New Thing, Joseph Massey, has for some time found praise all over the blogosphere, though he has only just published a full-length book (he has seven chapbooks). Massey writes the shortest of short poems, each with (at most) one moment, one thing seen:
dent the dawn.
What words I
Such compression has limits, but Massey finesses them: he suggests how little we can know (here, by likening waking perceptions to dreams) but also tells us that we can know somethingthat some lines have power enough to stay clear. Andy Grace, on the Kenyon Review blog, begins his paean to Massey by quoting this untitled poem, entire:
what was summer.
The windowsill, like Williamss broken // pieces of a green / bottle (Between Walls), represents the neglected tableaux of ordinary life, themselves sufficient symbols, rightly seen, both for the traditional topics of lyric (carpe diem, et in arcadia ego, etc.) and for the American measure, or meter, that Williams and his heirs devised.
Several other poets share Johnstons goals, among them the much older Michael OBrien (lauded last year in The New York Times) and a poet of Johnstons own generation, Graham Foust, now widely reviewed. Both are published by Flood. Fousts tightly restricted diction and weighty, small stanzas demonstrate not humility so much as frustration. They are complaints against himself, against the things he cannot help but see:
Our voices are all salt.
Our words keep ramming
into nothing into masks.
The sky is tar is grass is trees.
The ground is cloud is cold
is called goodbye.
Foust calls this poem from Necessary Stranger (2007) A Note on Ontology: the title implies that when we know what is real, what being is, we are not going to like it.
Yet Foust, too, professeshowever reluctantlyfidelity to objects in this world: This world is conclusion, he says in Interstate Eighty, a direct answer to Emily Dickinson (This world is not Conclusion. / A Species stands beyond). A poem from Fousts first book, As in Every Deafness (2003), also published by Flood, admits quizzically: Things / are things. // And even beaten / I seem // to be / where I belong In another recent poem, Managed Care, Foust sees a hospice or a hospital, a place where the dying take leave of the only world he knows:
Flowers in a blue
The sun erases
all the grass.
The yard is done for.
We may not like it herewe may not like ourselves (The Real. / It gives me asthma), but we, and our poems, ought to face it: it is what we have. Foust learned to write this way by reading Williams and Creeley and Armantrout, but if the future reads Foust it may read him alongside the embittered, resigned neo-classical writers of earlier periods: Condemned to Hopes delusive mine, / As on we toil from day to day, / By sudden blasts, or slow decline, / Our social comforts drop away, wrote Samuel Johnson (himself describing a kind of managed care). Foust also writes (as did Johnson) poems of invitation:
Do lets be quiet and ancient
of a day, as is Earth with its endless
boxes and bags, its groups of good blue
and its river-worn stones.
A crowd amid monuments gets its.
The sociable, for Foust as for Williams, is also the political: he calls this poem Patriot Act and its monuments suggest a veterans cemetery, its boxes and bags the soldiers and sailors who died.
We can find such terse bitterness, and debts to Oppen and Creeley, again, in Justin Markss A Million in Prizes (2009), which includes one poem called On the Making of Things; another reads, in its entirety, Ive always clung / to things // ideas crumpled up / pieces of paper love whatever. Objects (the less glamorous the better) have for Marks an alluring solidity that his own voluble self, and his poems (made of mere words) can never attain: Im sick, he writes, of the selves Ive been. Their gestures are all / I can conjure.
There is economic evidence that the New Thing has started to catch on. Flood, for what its worth, had five of the bestselling small-press poetry books in the land at the end of 2008, according to Small Press Distributions list. These included Fousts Necessary Stranger, Lisa Jarnots Night Scenes, and John Taggarts There Are Birds.
If the most important independent press for the New Thing is Flood, the most important magazine is Zach Barocass Web-based Cultural Society. Barocas entitled his own first book (itself surely part of the New Thing) Among Other Things. Barocass poem Things to Do Today makes a list of things Ive counted on, among them cigarettes, history, trucks, & trash, lapses, / flares, & lusty resolve; disarmingly stark lines elsewhere in that same book promise to abandon / elliptical things. Among the first poets Barocass journal published, in 2001–02, were Peter OLeary, Norman Finkelstein, and Michael Heller, prominent scholars of Objectivist writing, and Mark Scroggins, then at work on Zukofskys biography. Barocas has also published Johnston, Massey, Marks, and Foust; the Flood writers Philip Jenks, John Tipton, and Pam Rehm (who dedicated A Sequence to Massey); and, in 2002, Stacy Szymaszeks cryptic verse about a Mediterranean journey:
plume the night sea
with bartered needle
inks the backs of his hands
Such lines pay homage to ancient Greece via the modern Greeks, and to Williams via Oppen, with his love for boats (see the last poem in Of Being Numerous).
Other parts of the New Thing find, in other Objectivists, other lines of descent. Elizabeth Treadwells best and newest book, Birds and Fancies (2007), adds, to her career-long interest in unmannerly feminist modernisms (Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein), compression and euphony reminiscent of Niedecker, whom Treadwell quotes in an epigraph. Treadwell depicts herself as a devoted mother, fleeing from social facts to a natural place:
here in this landscape weve bitten
the train, the watertower,
& the mail. tender finger-stubs,
feats & qualities.
until the world needs women again,
I live in the woods with my sons.
the country moon, the fat orange jewels
all our gliding, loose particularities
This maternal figure (both brooding, and presiding over her brood) watches the external world closely, both for itself (particularities) and in order to protect her sons. Devotion to childhood, maternal vocation, means, for Treadwell, noticing and praising the small things that children see or say or do, things other sorts of poetry would pass up:
on our walk
torn flowers bathe
in a bed of leaves
hydrant & sidewalk are doodled
in black & pink hearts & skulls
The doodles remake the hydrant, these line breaks imply, as the birds vivify both the sidewalk we know and the walk, or stroll, we take on it. Then there is Treadwells three-line poem Little Bear: little expert / little witness / little star. (Teddy bears are all those things, and more.) Treadwell says later in Birds and Fancies that she has been advocating doll sleighs // giving objects their due. This feminist poet of things may cast herself as a poet of feminine, or feminized, thingsskirts, dolls, flowers, birds, a ships figurehead, as in figurehead sea trope, another three-line poem: waterbird & skirt fragment / word-bird old as the seas / skirt fragment old as a figurehead.
The New Thing is this-worldly, friendly to nature, but not always averse to the supernatural: Armantrout and Foust look askance at religion, but Treadwells poems can feel like prayers or charms. Johnstons dissertation concerned occult practicesliteral belief in magicamong American poets, including H.D. (another self-conscious classicist) and Robert Duncan. The New Thing has also revived Ronald Johnson (1935–98), until recently known mostly for concrete poems and for his daunting, hermetic long poem ARK. Peter OLeary (Michaels brother) is Johnsons literary executor, and he edited Johnsons last sequence, The Shrubberies, published by Flood in 2001. That elegant, if sometimes repetitive, book showed a poet no less spiritual than the author of ARK but also one given to extreme concision:
What these occult poets share with Williams and the Objectivists, what both share with the New Thing, is not minimalism so much as insistence on reference: scientists and shamans, statistically minded investigators and spell-casters, use language with reference to some external world, whether visible or invisiblewith just the right words, and only those words, they might get that world right.
The poets named so far must know one another by now. Markss Kitchen Press published one of Masseys chapbooks, Out of Light; another, Property Line, carries blurbs from Foust, Barocas, and Armantrout, who has given Treadwell blurbs too. Yet the New Thing is not simply a social circle: we can find its compressed attention in Orphan Fire (2008), the first book by Alissa Valles, an American poet long resident in Europe, best knownand in some quarters reviledfor translating Zbigniew Herbert. In Valless unrhymed sonnet Photograph, Time-wasted thingsa green gingerpot, a birds nest / found on a walk, a wooden primer with words in a foreign language, lie like objects / in a tomb. Post-Homage quotes Propertius and addresses Chinese classics (Shades of Tu Fu) as it articulates exasperation much like Hoaglands:
I admire the startling new voice
and the linguistic tour-de-force
but how about something to read before
How about a few lines to engrave on a ring or a stone?
The opposite of showy insubstantiality is not, contra Hoagland, narrative, but inscription: a poem that fits an object designed to last. Valles, more than any of her peers, wants to give each line both the sense of well-measured sound and the force of long-considered judgment. Johnstons worse poems risk inconsequence; Fousts lesser efforts show a kind of curdled hostility. Valless lesser work instead risks self-importance, since she often refers to epochal disasters (Hiroshima, Srebrenica, the Holocaust). Her best poems view modern history less directly, as in the six-line Translation:
Patroklos put on the armor
of his good friend Achilles
to go out onto the battlefield:
your words, a bright shield
lending cover and honor
will save neither one of us.
The New Thing might include other terse first books that also look hard at the material world: parts of Endi Bogue Hartigans One Sun Storm (Let me find the one sculpted stone to bring home / as a gift for my son), for example, and parts of Maureen N. McLanes Same Life (which has five poems called After Sappho; one adapts the sixteenth fragment). Here is McLanes pitigliano entire:
carved from the hills the city
reaped the rocks crops
of the burial practices of the poor
we know little
of the wealthy etruscans, monuments
and waterworks, the cut
of a nose, a crown, a fragmentary
lexicon, a common cup
a king would casually smash
The common fragments that these old kings threw away are all that survives of them now. McLanes book has, too, a deliberately frivolous, autobiographical side, reflected in her most prominent recent poems, including those in The New Yorker. To read her translations of Sappho, and her erotic or venomous epigrams, is to see how the classicism of the New Thing might coexist, in one poet, with an autobiographical interest that might look like the New Things opposite: The charms I recited, she writes, the songs I sang / were lit by a light / almost completely impersonal.
Then theres Jeffrey Yang. The poems in Yangs An Aquarium (2008) feel like epigrams, or like captions, for the creatures the poems display. Remora quotes ancient scholars advice about war: The mightiest power / does not always prevail; the small, toothy, parasitic fish of the title suggest small nations that defeat larger ones, but also such small poems as Yangs, parasitic of prior texts and facts. Yangs aquarium full of poems, and his poems full of quotations, trope a sea full of creatures and a world-system full of societies and economies, in which each unit depends on the rest. How easy it is to lose oneself / in a kelp forest, Yang writes, there
bring life where thered other-
wise be barren sea; a vast eco-
system breathes. Each
Yang is as classical a poet as Johnston, but Yangs classics are South Asian or East Asian. Here is Yangs poem Jiang Kui:
Jing Wang translates Jiang Kui
of the Northern Song: In writing
it is better to strive to be different
from the ancients than to seek to be
identical to them. But better still than
striving to be different is to be bound
to find ones own identity with them,
without striving to identify;
and to be bound to differ with them,
without striving to differ.
Translating a translation, Yangs archly recursive poem nonetheless takes seriously a classicist outlook: the poet who strives for accuracy will discover both novelty and identity with the ancients, while the poet who seeks novelty first finds neither. Yangs embedded quotations and his odd line breaks (which sound like, but are not, syllabics), recall Marianne Moore. Yet Yang credits Objectivists as well: the poem Foraminifera likens those animals accreted shells to the painstaking poems of Zukofsky and of Oppen, for whom a test of poetry is / sincerity, clarity, respect.
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 Maos term) that they might depict. The best-known proponent of thing theory, Bill Brown, taught (and teaches) at the University of Chicago, where Johnston and McLane earned doctorates, and where Valles is earning one now. Though Brown does not write about modern poetry, it is tempting to think that he and his senior colleagues helped put the seeds of the New Thing in the air, or perhaps in the water, around Hyde Park.
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. We can find most of them separately elsewhere too: in Saskia Hamiltons brevity (though her poems are cryptic, inward, dreamlike); in Robyn Schiffs Moore-esque attention to made things (though her big stanzas, her bravura technique, her whimsical personal asides, place her at some distance from the tendency under examination here); and in several poets now at work in expansive documentary forms, indebted to Williams, Oppen, and Muriel Rukeyser and publishing in journals such as CHAIN, Tinfish, and Xcp. Mark Nowaks Shut Up Shut Down (2004) quotes a workers testament in prose (The men knew that they were risking their jobs in the walkout . . . but they had got worked up to the point where this didnt seem so important), then appends this segment of verse:
Because the photo
the door the next flight ups
*[except the factorys long since closed]
The brackets, the footnote, the space on the page, suggest modern printings of classical fragments (especially Sappho): is Nowak, so insistent that his poems clarify public matters, a classicist too?
Nowak runs Xcp; Juliana Spahr coedited CHAIN. The best of Spahrs recent writing seems documentary, though what she documents (much more than Nowak) connects the material conditions she observes to her own inner life. Here is the start of a new long poem called The Incinerator:
We are at the incinerator behind the
house. It is a four foot square made
out of cinderblocks, about three feet
high. I have just dumped our trash in
there and then set it on fire.
then set it on fire. We are now sitting
on the edge, away from the smoke,
striking matches against the
cinderblocks. When they flare we
hold onto them until they burn our
until they burn our fingers and then
we throw them into the incinerator.
I drop one of the matches on my
leg, faking injury so as to lean into
Chillicothe. Chillicothe leans back.
We turn towards each other
turn towards each other and as if we did
it all the time, I start unbuttoning
Read too fast, these versets look like prose memoir. But they are not: the duplicate passages are the first clue, and the second is Chillicothenot a person, but a town in Southern Ohio, where Spahr grew up. The twelve pages that follow mix reported fact (Appalachia had forty jobs per 100 people in 1969), reminiscences (We worried a lot about my father getting fired), and self-analysis, in grim and nearly flattened language. Spahr says in a recent essay that she once liked to read the anti-representational poetry of Gertrude Stein because I was looking for something that didnt seem to be some sort of weird lie. Her own poems have come to incorporate representation, to seek (however weird) some concrete truth.
The documentary modes that dominate some new books have infiltrated others. At least three thoughtful books of poetry from 2008by Raymond McDaniel, Katie Ford, and Patricia Smithtook as their subjects New Orleans, up to and including Hurricane Katrina. All three show some hunger for facts, for history, for something to see and say outside the self. Six poems in McDaniels book, all called Convention Centers of the New World, simply lineate interviews with people who stayed in New Orleans during Katrina: one couplet reads They cant give us enough money to replace what they took. / They cant. They cant do nothing to replace what was took. Like Nowak, McDaniel cares most about speech when the speech is not the poets own: it is, instead, what the poets technique preserves. McDaniels clearest influence is C.D. Wright, who began writing in the 1970s; a complete account of the New Thing should note how many poets now emulate her. Wrights One Big Self (2003) incorporates transcripts of interviews as it documents lives inside Louisiana prisons. The short poems in Wrights newest book, Rising, Falling, Hovering (2008) are by turns documentary, thing-like and songlike: We may drop things along the way, she writes, that substantiate our having been here. / We will not be able to transmit any of these feelings verbatim.
Is the New Thingwith its documentary cousinsrelated to 9/11? To the rise of the Web, where most texts seem ephemeral, and where short texts (but not long ones) circulate easily? To the depredations of the Bush administration, which cast as irresponsible a Clinton-era poetry of free play? Or simply to the exhaustion of the effusive, associative, neo-Baroque mode that came just before? These are questions better answered later on. For Wright, as for Spahr and Nowak, poetic attention to facts and thingsemulated, reclaimed, quoted, re-framedspeaks to the material conditions a left-wing politics works to change. For other makers of the New Thing though, the solidity they seek is not so much economic as phenomenological: the poem finds, and emulates, some permanenceit is, and describes, something with weight and measure, small enough to hold in the hand.
When Wallace Stevens met Robert Frost in Key West, Stevens said to Frost, disparagingly, You write about . . . subjects. Frost retorted: Wallace, you write about bric-a-brac. Both men (if they were not kidding) were being unfair. No poem becomes good just because it has a clear subject; no poem is better for lacking one. No poem is better just for being short, or long; for concentrating scrutiny on one thing, or divvying up jazzy salvos among several; for being extravagant, or for sounding restrained. I have described new poets whose books meet the standard that Yang and his ancients set. I am not sure which, if any, will seem in a decade as powerful as Debt or as Next Life. I am sure, though, that these poets repay attention; that some are still getting better; that their poems communicate fruitfully with one another, with the durable legacy of Williams, and with the rest of the literary history that they share.