Monday, November 01, 2010

The New Chicago School

[I'm reposting this here now that digital emunction is going out of business. I had linked to it when it first appeared but soon the link will dry up, I'm guessing.]

My pro­posal: That the clos­est thing we presently have to a “School” of younger, rig­or­ously inno­v­a­tive poets in the U.S. (one that stands clos­est chance of being ret­ro­spec­tively seen as akin in sig­nif­i­cance to the NY School in its first-​generation, proto-​formation years–and when I say “School” I mean in that sense of for­tu­itous con­stel­la­tion, some­thing very dif­fer­ent from a self-​identified ten­dency or “movement”) is what I’ll call the New Chicago School. It’s a list of accom­plished, exper­i­men­tal writ­ers, more poet­i­cally focused as a col­lec­tive, per­haps, than the con­tents list of the City Vis­i­ble anthol­ogy of a couple years back, and more geo­graph­i­cally focused, too, inas­much as all the poets have roots in the city, even though a few of them have recently moved else­where (though in most cases still nearby), and one now lives abroad:

William Fuller, Ed Rober­son (these first two the elder fig­ures of the group), Anthony Madrid, John Tipton, Devin John­ston, Peter O’Leary, Robyn Schiff, Bill Alle­grezza, Dan Beachy-​Quick, Michael Rob­bins, John Beer, Arielle Green­berg, Lisa Fish­man, Jesse Seldess, Nick Twem­low, Suzanne Buffam, Srikanth Reddy, Jen­nifer Scap­pet­tone, Francesco Levato, Eric Elsh­tain, Jen­nifer Karmin, Leila Wilson, Nathalie Stephens, Joshua Marie Wilkin­son, Garin Cycholl, Joel Felix, Chris Glom­ski, Erica Bern­heim, Larry Sawyer, Patrick Durgin, Joshua Corey out in the sub­urbs, Tony Trig­ilio, Daniel Borzutzky (though some­thing of a sep­a­rate case, the work of these last two, perhaps)… and a gaggle of bril­liant scholar-​editors asso­ci­ated, past or present, with the Chicago Review, along with Robert Archam­beau, on the out­skirts of town at Lake Forest.

To these names one could add an active (and often activist) group of even younger poets and pub­lish­ers: Michael Slosek, Kerri Son­nen­berg, Steve Halle, Eric Unger, Luke Daly, Brooks John­son, and Bar­rett Gordon, for exam­ple (the latter four have close con­nec­tions, and their work engages the visual arts and music scenes, as well).

For sure, there are others I’m just blank­ing on, or don’t know, and apolo­gies for that (please add). And obvi­ously (!) there are all kinds of superb poets in Chicago doing impor­tant work who don’t quite fit the avant-​aesthetic para­me­ters of the group­ing–Don Share being one promi­nent case, or David Trinidad, another.

From a poetic stand­point, what would jus­tify the set? It is a diverse group (as was the orig­i­nal NY School) and a large one, but it’s held together by a vibrant, active scene and cer­tain broad affini­ties of poetic pre­dis­po­si­tion and–quite often, and with the nec­es­sary excep­tions–affect. The tilt is towards a “scholarly,” brainy, less “pop-cultural” and more self-​consciously “critical” mode than tends to be the case around St. Mark’s, for exam­ple. And, I’d argue, the work by and large tends to be more the­mat­i­cally ambi­tious, more novel and chal­leng­ing in its reg­is­ters and forms, more earnestly in tune with the inter­na­tional than the work of the younger NY scene, still largely caught, the latter, within tonal frames of the hip, the pop, the ver­nac­u­lar, the anec­do­tal, the flarf.

I know that some of the poets above–John­ston, O’Leary, Tipton, and Fuller–have already been “aesthetically” grouped together by Stephen Burt (Bobby Baird has pointed out here that this group rep­re­sents a rhetor­i­cal and formal drift locally known for some time already as “Flood Poetry”), in his recent essay “The New Thing,” where he also iden­ti­fies recent theory coming out of the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago as key source for what he sees as a devel­op­ing cur­rent of poetic epis­te­mol­ogy. Burt is refer­ring to “Thing Theory,” as pro­mul­gated by, among others, Dou­glas Mao and Bill Brown, the latter living in Hyde Park, appar­ently. In short, these younger poets are turn­ing away from the still-​fashionable modes of lin­guis­tic and con­cep­tual abstrac­tion and towards a redis­cov­ery of “ref­er­ence” and “con­crete, real things,” tend­ing to render their expe­ri­ence with terse­ness and con­ci­sion. Though some of the poets he names, it should be noted, are not exactly laconic…

Now, I fully agree with Baird, in his post here some months back, report­ing on afore­said essay, that Burt is a ter­rific critic. I sup­pose Burt and Adam Kirsch are more or less neck and neck right now to be the next Helen Vendler, Burt the horse on the left, Kirsch the one on the right, strid­ing to the pole, pulling their crit­i­cal sulkies behind. (Though who, one won­ders, will be the next Mar­jorie Perloff?) So there’s no ques­tion he’s very good. But I find his neo-​Objectivist “Thing” group­ing to be some­thing of a stretch: John­ston, Mark Nowak, Juliana Spahr, Joseph Massey, and Jen­nifer Moxley, for exam­ple, placed in the same stable accord­ing to the poets’ (very dif­fer­ent) ren­der­ings of their atten­tions to objects and their (usu­ally wildly dif­fer­ent) the­matic appli­ca­tion of these phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal encoun­ters? Well, OK, I guess, though really, I wonder what U.S. poetry since Williams’s isn’t haunted at least a little by some manner of Husser­lian susurra­tion inside it. Come to think of it, forget Williams; even spooky Dick­in­son is chock-​full of stuff and Things. So is Whit­man, and in over­drive, though he’s not quite “con­cise,” so maybe he wouldn’t qual­ify as a “thing” poet. In any case, what’s all that “new” about the New Thing, if such a thing actu­ally exists, is not all that clear.

As you can see, I feel Burt’s argu­ment is a bit forced and con­strain­ing, a bit too much of a bit and halter, as it were. (Inci­den­tally, inter­est­ing to me, and as I wrote Burt after I first saw his essay, I’m pretty sure the first-​ever seri­ous appli­ca­tion of Thing Theory to post-​avant poetry, includ­ing quo­ta­tions from Mao and Brown, et. al, was in Eric Hayot’s 2005 PMLA essay, “Araki Yasu­sada: Author, Object.”) In any case, both Baird and John Latta have pretty neatly taken Burt apart on all this.

And maybe my grumpi­ness with Burt’s bridling clas­si­fi­ca­tion isn’t all that nec­es­sary, anyway. Supe­rior poets will almost never try to con­form to this or that critic’s tax­o­nomic cri­te­ria, and I’m sure some­one like Burt would be the last to want them to. The point I’m trying to make, though per­haps I don’t even have to, is that you don’t need–as again, the New York poets proved, or the Black Moun­tain poets proved, or the Beats proved, or even the Objec­tivists proved–any kind of solid critical-​philosophical frame to con­sti­tute a vig­or­ous “school,” or even ten­dency, of poetry. You don’t even need a quasi one. All you need is a locale(s), smart ambi­tious people, and a cer­tain affec­tive habi­tus (often found in tav­erns) that is friendly, con­tentious, gos­sipy, mutu­ally sup­port­ive, and pro­fes­sion­ally inces­tu­ous to some degree. The modal, orga­niz­ing affini­ties, which rarely funnel down to strong affini­ties of “pro­gram,” grow out of these. If some­thing is right, and who knows what that is or how it works, things flower.

So I’m making the case that there is some­thing that has devel­oped in Chicago over the past few years, an accre­tion of poetic felic­i­ties whose parts and sum are unri­valed by any other avant locale in the coun­try: St. Mark’s has a wealth of talent and enough in-​house sound for a School, but the tex­tual ambi­tion seems com­par­a­tively slight; Austin has Slow Poetry, and this is full of promise, but it’s more an embry­onic move­ment, not a School; the Bay Area has a great scene, but the crazy var­ie­ga­tion of it all (see Bay Area Poet­ics) makes any notion of School unten­able; Philadel­phia is loaded with smarts, but true Schools of poetry cannot abide ven­er­a­ble Head­mas­ters (well, OK, except­ing the Sons of Ben, during the reign of Charles I); Iowa City has the most expert prac­ti­tion­ers of the period tachisme, but that is not any kind of School, it is a career; Prov­i­dence has riches, but it takes more than stu­dents; Buf­falo is home to some fine out­lier poets, but SUNY is cov­ered in snow; Boston, appar­ently, has fallen into the sea.

In con­clu­sion, what I’m propos­ing (it would appear I am begin­ning to repeat myself) is some­thing that’s begin­ning to have a sense of the self-​evident to it already, I think, and no doubt others have noticed it, too: that Chicago, right now, is home to the most inter­est­ing and vital avant “poetic cluster” in the country.

And I feel con­fi­dent enough of the claim to name it again, even though I know the name is not all that flashy, but that’s appro­pri­ate to the city’s spirit, too: The New Chicago School.

–Kent John­son

[One hun­dred miles from Wrigley Field, in Freeport, Illinois]