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American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry Paperback – March 30, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In their introductions, editors Swensen and St. John, both accomplished and forward-thinking poets, outline the contention that spurred this anthology: for a long time, poetry has been divided, or has divided itself, into two basic camps, traditional and experimental. In contemporary American poetry, the editors argue, and the poets collected here demonstrate, these distinctions no longer make sense, as poets now draw equally from both traditions, often in the same poem. Hence these generous selections from 73 poets who seek to blend, in varying degrees, the straightforward clarity and formal rigor of the long poetic tradition with the disjunction, self-consciousness and obscurity of experimental poetics. Some names will be familiar to the casual reader of American poetry (John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass); some are well known in poetry circles (Brenda Hillman, D.A. Powell, Donald Revell); and others are totally new to this kind of anthology, such as the amazing and subtle Martha Ronk (When it is raining it is raining for all time then it isn't) and Bin Ramke, a master of the commingling of old and new. For serious readers of poetry, novices looking for a way in to what's new, and, perhaps especially, for poetry professors, this is a must-have book. (Mar.)
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About the Author
David St. John has published nine collections of poetry, including The Face. He teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Venice, California.
Cole Swensen's most recent collection is The Glass Age. She teaches at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop and lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
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1. Introduces me to some poets and poems I have never read before: this anthology has a number of poets whose names I vaguely know but about whose work I know little to nothing. Since they are alongside other poets I do know better and already like, it gives me confidence in the quality of the work that the editors have chosen.
2. The anthology contains expository writing commenting on the place of the poems within the greater literary context: yes! There are two excellent essays by the editors at the beginning of the book.
3. Biographical information about each poet appears somewhere in the book: in fact, the bios introduce each poet's section of work, which is much better than having to constantly flip to an appendix.
4. The book is substantial but not so large that it won't fit in my handbag: this size is perfect. It's much smaller than those Norton anthologies I had to buy for undergrad English classes.
A previous reviewer mentioned that these poems are difficult and not to her taste. I agree that the poems are difficult. Fortunately, difficult poems are exactly my taste. This makes returning to the work again and again much more rewarding for me.
People quibble over the logic or value of the category, but I find Swenson's argument both convincing and humble in its acknowledgment of its limitations. All such categories have an element of the arbitrary, including the two (alleged) streams of poetry that the hybrid writers mix and mash. Swenson's hybrid idea closely parallels Stephen Burt's "elliptical" poetry, Joan Houlihan's "post-avant" (ugh ...), and others' (Michael Theune?) "third way" poetics. I'm sure these people could spend a lot of time fighting over the borders and the taxonomy, but collectively they're onto something, and it happens to encompass a lot of the writing that I like most.
If you're among the people who dislike this kind of poetry, you're in luck ... there's no shortage of anthologies that are very much not like this one. Just know what you're getting into. Some highlights for me have been Cal Bedient, Killarney Clary, Andrew Joron, DA Powell, Mary Ruefle, Susan Stewart, Arthur Vogelsang, Anne Waldman... Your mileage is bound to vary, but if you like writing that's playful and open-ended without being self-absorbed or opaque, I think you'll be in for a treat.
Many of the selections from the poets really only hint at the possibility of hybrid text as the samples rarely show a collision of the two coming together with only a few poets actually able to balance plain language and disrupted text in a single poem or even a few pages. Some of the poets who do show the best of all worlds in this collection include Nathaniel Mackey, Michael Palmer, John Yau and Harryette Mullen.
With a shaky premise to begin with (poetry has always benefited from a collision between various camps, not just a late 20th century argument between academics), a very loose definition of "academic poetry" (probably included because almost every poet is in academia), and a mandate that hybrid poetry can lead us back to a "purer sense of language" and help in the "renaming of the world" (I thought that was the job of all poetry), this collection doesn't offer a plurality of voices but instead seeks to limit the definitions of what new poetry can be.