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Pulitzer surprises: small presses and language poetry

Last Monday's announcement of the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes in Letters surprised some observers and touched off much speculation about how larger cultural forces are shaping the judgements of the three person juries that award what have traditionally been America's most centrist and mainstream annual literary prizes. 
As many commentators noted, the fiction winner Tinkers, a first novel by Boston area writer Paul Harding  published by Bellevue Literary Press--a small, independent press based in a tiny 6th floor office of New York City's fabled Bellevue Hospital Center that publishes "fiction and nonfiction at the nexus of the arts and the sciences, with a special focus on medicine"--represents the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to a book published by non-commercial press since John Kennedy Toole's posthumously published A Confederacy of Dunces (with its effusive introduction by Walker Percy) won for Louisiana  State University Press in 1981.
While it would not be accurate to describe Tinkers as avant-garde, post-avant, or even as "innovative fiction" in the formal sense, it is a decidedly unconventional and strangely evocative non-linear narrative account of an elderly New England iconoclast's deathbed hallucinations and reveries of his life, his memories of his father--like the son, a clock maker and jack-of-all-trades as well as something of a homespun mystic--his rootedness to the land, and ties to his family and community.
Harding, a former drummer for the Boston-based rock band Cold Water Flat turned University of Iowa Writers' Workshop MFA program graduate and (now) faculty member, reportedly circulated the novel to several of the New York City based mainstream publishing houses without success--the book was viewed as too narrow in its appeal to have any commercial potential--until Erika Goldman, the publisher of Bellevue, a specialty press with ties to New York University's School of Medicine, took an interest.  Once published, the book took on a trajectory of its own, largely fueled by positive reviews and word-of-mouth endorsements rather than concerted social networking or a traditional publicity campaign.
The selection of California-based Rae Armantrout's Versed for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry should come as no surprise, given that it had already received the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and had been selected as a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, but it still represents an adventurous choice by longstanding Pulitzer standards.  The book--Armantrout's tenth full length collection of poems--was published by Wesleyan University Press, making it just the third time over the past decade that a not-for-profit press received the award.
More noteworthy, however, is that Armantrout becomes the first poet associated with the what has come to be known as "language-centered writing" or more commonly "Language Poetry" in 1980's and 1990's to receive a Pulitzer.  While it's possible to read too much into the selection process of a single prize jury, Armantrout's book is a singular achievement that moves toward a deceptively simple, almost lyrical concision, but always in service of probing the dizzying discontinuities in language and thought.
No reader of  its two long sections--"Versed," in which Armantrout writes with playfulness and wit on cognitive and linguistic paradoxes and dissonances, and "Dark Matter," where she matter-of -factly introduces the diagnosis and treatment of (her own) cancer not only as a physical ailment, but also as a crisis of representation for the language of the body and the self--would mistake her approach with that of a poet with a less language-centered view.
If there remained any doubt that "Language writing"--once the scourge of the sclerotic "Official Verse Culture" and mainstream literary media in the United States that it sought to critique--is now the dominant linguistic frame through which literary innovation is parsed, last week's laudatory New York Times Book Review of Charles Bernstein's All The Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) convincingly puts it to rest.
If the occasion of the review is Bernstein's first volume of poems "not published by a university or independent press," what reviewer Daisy Fried writes about the former University at Buffalo professor and co-founder of the UB Poetics program ("famous as a poet and anti-poet") is a kind of performative utterance:
With “All the Whiskey in Heaven,” ...Bernstein takes his place in the mainstream of American poetry, the very “Official Verse Culture” he’s attacked entertainingly for years — a fate awaiting all our best outsiders. Bernstein is identified with the Language poets, who emerged in the 1970s. Interested in the materiality of language, they are politically left, theoretically grounded and deeply suspicious of the lyric “I” that speaks from the heart in traditional poems without examining its own existence in a sociopolitical power structure.  
If the New York Times Book Review, ostensibly the house organ of the "Official Verse Culture" in the United States proclaims it, it must necessarily be a fait accompli.  Never mind that All the Whiskey in Heaven is the first of Bernstein's sixteen full length collections of poetry and five books of essays over the past three decades ever to earn a New York Times review.  Never before has the ascent from persona non grata to literary icon been accomplished with such selective hindsight.
In the current (Spring 2010) issue of  BOMB Magazine Bernstein is interviewed by journalist Jay Sanders on the origins of  L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine (the title for which Bernstein attributes to co-founder Bruce Andrews), the various misconceptions that arose about language writing, and its influence on a broad range of 21st century poetics.  In response to a question from Sanders about the perceived "militant aesthetic break" from prevailing poetic practice that the procedural and constraint-based techniques of language writing is thought to have represented, Bernstein avers:
When we started L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E we were trying to open up conversations across divides. As you say, rather than trying to narrow things down, the journal was about dialogue not just among poets of the same generation and the same perspective, but among poets of different generations, and also with those in the other arts. Still, the reaction in terms of the parochial world of poetry was that somehow something exclusive was being launched. We proposed an alternative to what then dominated as respectable poetry. Ours was a poetics of (some of) the excluded....

...We tried to trace a history of radical poetics, taking up the model presented in Jerome Rothenberg’s Revolution of the Word, and later by Rothenberg and Pierre Joris in Poems for the Millennium and Marjorie Perloff in The Futurist Moment. When you go back 30 years, you see that poetics that now are widely accepted as foundational for contemporary poetry were harshly rejected then. Poetry’s center of gravity has shifted to the poetic left, to call it that, though not everyone has heard the news. Even in the more mainstream poetry magazines now there’s a certain amount of work that is far looser and formally radical than you would have seen in the mid-’70s.
Asked about to what extent he and peers contributed to an "opening of the field" (Robert Duncan's phrase) for innovation, Bernstein points out that "...some recent poetry and poetics concertedly take out the contentiousness from formal invention."  Discussing the 2009 Norton American Hybrid poetry anthology, he observes that "while the editors welcome a certain kind of elliptical, fragmented style, they also try to find a happy mean between extremes."  
It's what he says next that speaks to the lasting influence of Language writing on 21st century poetics:
For me, it’s the extremity, the eccentricity, even the didacticism, that shakes things up. When poetry becomes normalized and more oriented toward craft, it loses the point. I’m not interested in any of the styles, per se, that were developed in the ’70s and ’80s—my own or anybody else’s. The issue was never stylistic technique as such. You have to read that era in the context of the intense resistance to nonlinear poetry, to algorithmic forms, to appropriated language, and non-“I”-centered poems—all of which are now accepted. Even the procedural is just one technique or form that emerges, sometimes zombie-like, to reveal hidden codes, or other times just as textile, as generator of texture.
In this sense, it's not the "mainstream" of American poetry that Bernstein and Armantrout have entered; it's the river itself that has changed its course.
--R.D. Pohl


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