Muting Minority Poetics in the Eighties: The Self-Silencing Model of the White Male Lyric

In his book, The Program Era, Mark McGurl identifies a literary maximalism that upended New Critical ideals in the 1960s and into the seventies. This shift was driven by an ethnic and racial plurality that, in the testimonial era emerging beyond World War II, profited from the creative writing maxim, “use your voice.” As creative writing programs proliferated, this multicultural plurality energized the first-person lyric in American poetry. Authority no longer resided so exclusively with the white and male and bourgeois and English language-only point-of-view. Or, authority still resided with that subject position, but there was an increasing acknowledgment of this as the counterculture movements of the sixties progressed into the seventies.

Encountering this democratization, what, then, would be an appropriate response from those inheritors of authority, namely, white poets? Emerging at this time, Language poets aimed to pull apart the conventions of written English, a language historically conditioned to frame experiences and values through white male perspectives—the colonial and patriarchal values are inherent in the language’s constitution. Language poets began by disrupting a prevailing poetic mode that Charles Bernstein observed as characterized by “personal subject matter & a flowing syntax.” Language poetry de-privileged lyric poetry’s singular “I” speaker. Language poetry worked to evacuate the speaker position and to de-center the poem, shifting the focus of political resistance from the experiences of actual speaking bodies to a structural indictment of language and the speech act.

A typical criticism of Language poetry is that this worked against the era’s testimonial zeitgeist and the minority voices that were increasingly prominent. This criticism extends from criticisms of French deconstructive theory, in which the particular Euro-American avant-garde of Language poetry was rooted, and which itself can be read with skepticism regarding its attention to ethnic and racial difference. Roland Barthes’ theory regarding the “death of the author” is perhaps most frequently tied to the move away from a lyric ego and toward a poem that relies on its reader for closure. In practical terms, this “death” is often regarded as a “death” of minority voices, a conceptual shift that stalled advances into the literary institutions made during the postwar era.

As part of the Yale School of Deconstruction Paul de Man developed many of these deconstructionist concepts. Defending de Man after his WWII articles for an early Nazi collaborationist newspaper surfaced posthumously, Shoshona Felman explains that testimonies or confessions are problematic. “[T]hey are,” she explains, “all too readable: partaking of the continuity of conscious meaning and of the illusion of the restoration of coherence, what de Man calls ‘the readability of…apologetic discourse.” She argues that such readability does not sufficiently break with the logic that produced and continues producing the trauma or disfigurement experienced by those offering testimony or apology. These modes are trained by the events to which they object. These modes report back, attempting to elucidate or explain. But the truth is caught in a crossfire of referentiality. Language cannot open to the truth because it depends on other language for meaning, ad infinitum. Testimonies, apologies? Stable meaning, consensual truth? We can know nothing for certain.

But as Daphne V. Taylor-García writes in her essay “Decolonial Historiography: Thinking about Land and Race in a Transcolonial Context,” “[t]his ambivalence towards the possibility of truth and knowing characterizes not only the work of many continental philosophers but—and this should give us pause—it is also an attitude shared by right-wing ideologues.” She observes that

in the face of post-1960’s decolonial challenges to “universal” narratives of progress, development and the supremacy of Western civilization, many intellectuals within Europe and Anglo-America fell towards a deep skepticism of not only truth claims in science but also of liberation narratives put forth by decolonial movements.

With the ascension of new voices, and the influx of alternative sounds and signs and meanings, rather than expanding interpretive tools to accommodate these multiple narratives, Taylor-García suggests, continental theory focused on destabilizing the reliability of narratives generally.

Nigerian poet and scholar Femi Osofisan provides a firsthand account of the impact as he discusses the mission of African literature in the seventies, dominated as it was then by testimonial literature, in his article “Warriors of a Failed Utopia”:

I am aware of course, in making these statements, particularly on a European platform, that I am articulating a view of literature which, from all appearances, has become obsolete. With the advent of post-structuralism and post-modernism, this privileging of meaning – especially of a moral episteme – in the literary project has become suspect, “imperialistic”, and the text is supposed nowadays to be totally autonomous of any values. This “revolutionary” view of literature, which divorces it from its context, and in the name of liberty paradoxically unshackles it from any humanising burden, has been challenged again and again by scholars from the Third World. But of course, as in other areas of international activity, the voice of the Third World is largely unheard. 

The fallibility of such deconstructionist theory has been well-discussed. And Language poetry and recent evolutions of the avant-garde have been challenged by, among others, Harryette Mullen, Timothy Yu, Evie Shockley, Dorothy Wang, Cathy Park Hong, and Orlando White. Critics point out that the avant-garde has tended to dismiss the racial and ethnic assertions that are legible in poems with even the most fractured subject positions. Critical attention to the “hand-at-work,” as Rosa Alcala has called it, has been glossed over in favor of attention to a more generic resistance to narrative. And, within this critique, the point is made that this decision about how to make room in the language was determined by white poets and theorists.

The effacement of a self- or speaker-driven narrative has been and continues to be evaluated in relation to race and ethnicity. What has less been asked, I think, is how did the dominant poetic discourse adjust to an increasingly inclusive “I”? The avant-garde, after all, is only, by definition, the leading point of the mass. While Language poetry took up the position of the experimental avant-garde, how did the prevailing mode, the lyric, continue to evolve through the end of the seventies and into the eighties?

The energy of the sixties seems to have waned, so that in his 1978 article, “How to Read the New Contemporary Poem,” Paul Breslin observes that “a narrow and dull decorum” had “spread over most American poetry.” If the lyric had been in a mode of expansion—powered perhaps by the “archaeology” of Charles Olson, or the expanded confessionalism (as Leslie Ullman calls it) of Adrienne Rich, or the Deep Image poets’ quests for “universal” archetypes (influenced by the influx of translations), or the social engagement of the Black Arts Movement—how could lyric poetry now be characterized? Where had this “narrow and dull decorum” come from? And for minorities, particularly for writers of color, who had energized and capitalized on a voice-driven, speaker-forward lyric, what was the effect of this new contemporary poem that had “spread over most of American poetry”?

Surveying that period of the late seventies through the early eighties, Jonathan Holden calls Charles Altieri’s Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry, published in 1984, “the most comprehensive current study of contemporary American poetry.” And here “contemporary American poetry” means lyric poetry. Altieri identifies the dominant poetic mode as “scenic.”

Altieri’s book focuses on poets who came to maturity in the seventies, and he uses David Young as an example. Altieri explains that Young “began serious writing around 1960, won a Yale Younger Poets’ prize, developed his current style in the aftermath of a failed cultural revolution, publishes regularly in prestigious places, and edits an influential journal of poetry and poetics.” Young, himself, in a 1980 essay, identifies some of the poetic values upon which Altieri will expand—authenticity of voice, the quality of not being manufactured but surprising even the poet, and a concluding image “that glimpses that loss of self associated with visionary experience and with most great poetry.”

According to Altieri, practitioners of the dominant lyric are so absorbed into their scenes that they are left with little room for reflecting on the consequences of their stances, or on the social drama that has prompted such inward-turning. Young models the self-evasion that is a central feature of this “scenic” mode. The “loss of self” that Young associates with “visionary experience” was not so positively regarded by Altieri. It was certainly an aspect of the period that was being wrestled with. It serves, for example, Peter Stitt’s advancement of American Romanticism as a seventies period style. Stitts looks at Richard Wilbur, Louis Simpson, James Wright, Robert Penn Warren, and William Stafford in his 1985 book, The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets, in order to highlight the development of what he calls a transcendental aesthetic.

Larry Levis, like Altieri, did not see this “loss of self” as so generically transcendental, not an inevitability of “great poetry.” This loss of self, rather, was the effect of a social deflation—Levis sees this loss originating in the inability to fulfill the countercultural promise of the sixties. In his 1980 lecture, “Eden and My Generation,” Levis considers how actual places such as the intimate locales of Richard Hugo, James Wright, or Phil Levine, so evocative of “home,” of childhood and its residues of the oceanic, have been paved over: homogenized America, with its mall shopping centers and ubiquitous franchises—there is no home worth pledging oneself to any longer. Levis sees this experience as a collective, generational loss. “There was for a while,” he says,

a feeling of community, however frail or perishable, which mattered, and which is not apparent in the chic lame, New Left political rhetoric of the time… . …Poets of an older generation, responding to that era and those pressures, wrote mostly out of singular agonies. If they were excessive at times in their use and dependence upon hyperbole and imagery, I think that the sheer ugliness of U.S. foreign policy might have had as much to do with that as the influence of Latin American translations. …In retrospect, I think that what the poets of my generation experienced was not only a deep suspicion of any easy political rhetoric, but a suspicion of what began to seem to be poetical rhetoric as well, of a mannered imagistic poem which effectively kept the poet away from his or her experience.

“Bardic trappings,” Altieiri will call this poetical rhetoric in a 1982 essay. The essay, which previews his book on the “scenic,” considers “[Robert] Bly’s deep image style, [W.S.] Merwin’s depersonalized surreal mindscapes, or [Galway] Kinnell’s journeys into inner jungles.” But poets coming of age in the seventies, increasingly aware of their subject positions and adapting to self-reflexive demands, struggled to escape what Ange Mlinko has called the “vatic authority” assumed by a poet like Gary Snyder.

Lyric poets of the late seventies and early eighties were, Altieri states, “working in the last stages of a culture characterized by an exhausted, but still dominant egotism… .” And who we are talking about—if it has not been clear, it must now feel obvious—is white poets. White male poets. Responding to Kinnell’s 1972 essay “Poetry, Personality and Wholeness,” Adrienne Rich writes, “I have thought that the sense of doom and resignation to loneliness endemic in much masculine poetry has to do with a sense of huis clos, of having come to the end of a certain kind of perception.” When Altieri says “our” cultural revolution, or when Levis describes the “collective” loss of his generation that began with the failed counterculture, this obscures the “other” America, those Americans not represented by a genealogy of middle-class values or of established place.

Jonathan Holden argues that women are vitalizing agents of poetry during this period—“details of life as a female in America had never been, until recently, thoroughly held to the light from a female point of view.” He opposes these women to men who, “[e]xcept when writing about odd corners of experience such as the Vietnam War,” lack “material crying for exposure… .” Again, this seems a very white juxtaposition. One senses that Holden is not talking about male writers, for instance, whose experiences might include immigration or deportation, or ghettoization, or police brutality, or effects of racially institutionalized poverty—unless these are simply those “odd corners of experience.” Holden’s poets are confronted with “the fraudulent opulence of American middle-class life in the early eighties.”

Considering Stanley Plumley, Altieri elaborates on the socio-political moment that “scenic” poets occupy:

Too wise to hope for more than momentary glimpses of deeper realities, too skeptical and cautious of false poses to attempt connecting such moments to coherent argumentative contexts, and too despairing of possible changes in a democratic society that brought Ronald Reagan to power, poets like Plumley can articulate only a spirit aware of its own fleeting recognitions and domestic ambivalences. The speaking voice offers a delicate recording instrument, but only by becoming, on the dramatic level of the poem, a precious and passive witness dominated by the scene.

The poets of this dominant lyric mode were aware that the authority invested in the lyric “I” needed to be redistributed more democratically. But in a time when Reagan ally Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “there is no such thing as society,” just individual men and women, where do these white male poets go to confront their subjectivities? We see, in the “scenic,” an attempt at moving out of the “bardic trappings.” But into what?

Picking on a particular poem of Mark Strand, Altieri identifies “the pursuit of silence as the self-consciously antibardic poet’s way to have his sublime by elaborating personal poignancy.” For these poets, there is respite in a moment of luminous silence that blocks out the world, and there is a consolation in craft.

At the risk of psychologizing what might be an inevitable response to the historical moment, let’s say that this evasion, this recess into a nostalgic playground, is an effort to confine the white cultural values that inhere to those speaking subjects. Let’s say that these poets are trying to hem the white male perspective into the space of the poem in order to avoid universalizing the lyric “I.” Let’s say that it is an attempt to get out of the way. This flight would not be so problematic as an individual act. However, as those poets defined the dominant lyric mode, this self-silencing became an influential model.

As Altieri notes when talking about David Young, this is “the mode that is most influential in the domains of literary education and prestigious publications.” Its poetic values are amplified. Companion to the malls and a bloated middle (consumer) class, there was the wide reproduction of creative writing programs. The Associated Writing Program listed 279 programs in North America in its 1984 catalog. And if the spread of these programs institutionalized certain poetic values, these values were likewise reiterated through the burgeoning competitive publishing model. AWP began its competitive award series in 1975. The following year the Walt Whitman, the Princeton Poetry Series, and the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Series debuted. The National Poetry Series arrived in 1979.

So if we are asking what possibilities the dominant lyric retained for writers of color in the late seventies and into the eighties, it seems that a model of self-silencing might occlude the minority experiences that were becoming visible through the lyric “I” of the maximalist period—becoming visible, I mean, to the white institutions, institutions that promoted and were guided by those white male poets. Coupled with the avant-garde’s dismemberment of the speaker position, this model of self-silencing leaves little room for poets of color to assert social and political critiques in relation to their own lived experiences.

At least for African-American poetry, which had gained so much ground between 1965 and 1976, as Howard Ramsby has it, there is a period of silence associated with black poetry throughout the eighties. He speculates that the Black Arts era declined precipitously in 1976 as Black World magazine closed. But, of course, he adds, “this thing called rap was beginning to expand through the 1980s.” Kevin Young discusses this at length in The Grey Album. And I think, too, of the 2015 exhibition of Jean Michel Basquiat’s “unknown” notebooks at the Brooklyn Museum, which chronicle his asemic poetry finding expression as graffiti art in the late seventies and early eighties.

Squeezed out of the dominant poetic discourse, minority experiences found new expressions. Perhaps, as writers like Chinua Achebe and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha have reported, confrontations with the King’s English enables a generative spark, a new linguistic energy. Cha’s Dictee, which arrived in 1982, is an example.

Harryette Mullen, whose own work shifted toward the experimental/avant-garde throughout the eighties, qualifies the effects of marginalization in this way: “I don’t think there’s an automatic linkage between being marginalized or oppressed and being innovative, but I do think that being oppressed does call upon all of your resources, and often out of that comes innovation.”

Within the Black Arts Movement, the lyric continued to evolve. Elizabeth Alexander explains that

[s]ome black poets did feel that the Black Arts Movement was censoring (or perhaps muting or intimidating are better words), but I don’t think the BAM tamped down experimentalism per se. Rather, the BAM tamped down what we might now call hegemonic: the personal black lyric. Experimentalism, expecting no safe harbor, has always found its way.

Jayne Cortez, as an example, started her own press in the seventies and self-published in the face of mainstream silencing.

As white poets wrestled with a new sense of loss by creating private psychic homelands, minority poetry pursued discursiveness as a central and liberating feature of the lyric, and and a way to unstick that personalized lyricism. I am not trying to indict the white male poets for their privatized aesthetic. They made the gesture available to them, I think. But that self-silencing became the poetic mode du jour, a mode that stifled the pluralizing force and social engagement of the dominant lyric. In a way different from that period’s avant-garde poetry, the dominant lyric also undercut the voice-driven, speaker-forward lyric as it promised or threatened to broadcast the testimonies of experiences beyond the genealogy of middle-class values. The voice-driven, speaker-forward lyric promised or threatened to expose a world filled with odd corners. If, as Rich observed, that white male lyric was rendering the end of a perception, then we have a robust record of its expiration. The actual ending of white and male dominance within the academic and publishing institutions has, however, been much slower, of course.

***

Todd Fredson is the author of two poetry collections, Century Worm (New Issues Press, 2018) and The Crucifix-Blocks (Tebot Bach, 2012). He has made French to English translations of books by Ivorian poet Josué Guébo, Think of Lampedusa (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) and My country, tonight (Action Books, 2016), as well as Ivorian poet Tanella Boni’s collection, The future has an appointment with the dawn (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the 2019 Best Translated Book Award in poetry and the 2019 National Translation Award. Fredson’s poetry, translations, essays, and criticism appear in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Jacket2, Warscapes, Research in African Literatures, Best American Experimental Writing 2020 and elsewhere. He was a 2015-16 Fulbright Fellow to the Ivory Coast and a 2018 NEA Translation Fellow.  

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