Lytle Shaw’s Fieldworks is a big and ambitious study that is a welcome addition to the dense, unruly, and relatively unmapped field called “postwar poetics.”
Starting with William Carlos Williams’ and Charles Olson’s monumental treatments of Paterson and Gloucester in their late modernist serial epics, Shaw takes us on a sweeping diachronic tour of a poetics of place. He makes strategic stops among embodied communities of the New American Poets (visiting such points of interest as Gary Snyder’s Kitkitdizze; Robert Creeley’s and Joanne Kyger’s Bolinas; and Amiri Baraka’s Newark), detours through Donald Judd’s Marfa and Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, descends into Clark Coolidge and Bernadette Mayer’s collaboration The Cave, and finally ends with the “discursive site-specificity” of Flarf and conceptual writing via the installations of Mark Dion and Renée Green.
It is, to be sure, a lot of ground to cover, and one risks in this book — which approaches 400 pages — getting lost or sidetracked along any number of backroads and byways; but if one is willing to finish the trip, one will undoubtedly come away with a renovated and up-to-date understanding of contemporary American poetry.
Shaw argues that “the turn to place, and later site, allowed postwar poets and artists not just to dive into (and remain within) a luminous world of immersive specificity” but also “to rethink their relations to neighboring disciplines — historiography and ethnography above all — and to critique and recode those fields.”
Fieldworks, then, gets a great deal of mileage from the dual meaning of “fieldwork”: as both exploratory research “outside the study, office, laboratory, headquarters, etc.” as well as intellectual labor within and across “particular branch[es] of study” (OED). So, for example, Olson not only goes out into the field to study Mayan ruins and glyphs, an endeavor which yielded The Mayan Letters, but he, in The Maximus Poems, advances a mode of historiography that is “in fruitful dialogue” with American antipositivist historians as well as the French Annales school. Likewise, Coolidge and Mayer not only investigate Eldon Cave in western Massachusetts but they create writing that feeds “off the interrelationships between scientific authority and language.”
Why the trajectory from place to site in the first place? According to Shaw, an uncritical understanding of place “implies a priori unities and syntheses. It falsely grounds and organizes the fluid and dispersed.” Though Shaw is careful not to claim that the concept of site can redress, once and for all, the mystifications of a crude place-based poetics, he emphasizes the fact that the term “site” nicely captures both a literal ground as well as a discursive domain: “in the most compelling site-specific poetry … claims about specific locations, specific physical sites, always coincide with other claims about discursive and historiographic sites.”
A denial or unawareness of this coincidence, for Shaw, underwrote “much place-based poetry of the 1970s and 1980s, which, rather than engaging in a self-reflexive investigation of writing’s possible relations to the category of place, simply went about either representing more places or presenting poets as exemplars of familiar and secure regional identities.”
Shaw cites, as examples, anthologies entitled Three Contemporary Poets of New England and Three Pacific Northwest Poets from Twayne’s United States Authors Series. What Shaw calls “the bad infinity of expressivist modes available under pluralism” was cleverly parodied by John Ashbery in a sly statement prepared for a 2004 poetry symposium organized by the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review:
Poetry is being written, and presumably read, all over America. Some of it bears traces and inflections of its place of origin; much of it does not. The new poet laureate, Ted Kooser, lives in Nebraska, and according to James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, he is the first poet laureate to hail from the Great Plains. One hopes that the High Plains, the Mississippi Delta and the Florida Panhandle will one day achieve similar recognition.
In a way, Ashbery was not far off the mark if we think about our current Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, who was born in Gulfport, Mississippi — not too far from the Florida Panhandle.
Indeed, a more recent New York Times article (“Recognition Grows for Poets of Streets, Main or Otherwise,” May 7, 2013), which reported the proliferation of town, city, and state poet laureateships, suggests that the culture of mainstream American poetry is still very much under the sway of the pluralist and regional identitarian model. It is not that Shaw is against regionalism per se—in a footnote he approvingly lists poets such as C.S. Giscombe, Marcella Durand, Rodrigo Toscano, Brenda Coultas, and Linh Dinh as practitioners of a “critical regionalism” (such a corpus, in fact, could form the core of another, much-needed study); rather, Shaw sees the need for a critical, self-reflexive poetics of place that is interdisciplinary and interdiscursive.
In such a poetics, we would not be — as Shaw says in his conclusion, which remarkably ties together and anchors his diverse and wide-ranging case studies — “in a position to choose definitively and finally between the empirical and the discursive, the immediate and the iterable, the local and the global.” Ultimately, such a flexible position would depend upon poetry “stepping outside of itself into the neighboring and seemingly more authoritative explanatory disciplines like historiography and ethnography.”
If, for the astute and sensitive reader of contemporary Anglophone poetry, it seems obvious that poetry is “stepping outside of itself” — and besides the works that Shaw mentions we might think of, say, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, which powerfully “critiques and recodes” legal and ethical discourses in the context of the trauma of transatlantic slavery — we might consider the extent to which certain critics and practitioners of contemporary poetry wish to safely root poetry within its own disciplinary boundaries.
We might also consider, for example, James Longenbach’s 2004 book The Resistance to Poetry, which defends “poetry’s inwardness” in a climate that makes certain claims about poetry’s “cultural power.” According to Longenbach, the language of poetry “is the language of self-questioning — metaphors that turn against themselves, syntax that moves one way because it threatens to move another, voices that speak because they are shattered.” “[P]oetry,” so this logic goes, “is the resistance to poetry.”
If we replace the terms “self-questioning” and “resistance” with “self-criticism” and “criticism,” we would have nothing other than a rehashed version of Clement Greenberg’s theory of modernism. In “Modernist Painting” Greenberg said, “The essence of Modernism lies … in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more ﬁrmly in its area of competence.”
What could be more characteristic of poetry than Longenbach’s prized elements of figuration, syntactic complexity, and voice? That Greenberg advanced his argument over fifty years ago makes it tempting to adapt Brion Gysin’s notorious claim that “[w]riting is fifty years behind painting”: poetry criticism — at least some of it — is fifty years behind art criticism.
Fieldworks, on the other hand, is well up-to-date regarding art criticism and art history. Shaw not only argues for an interdisciplinary poetics but also practices a current and provocative interdisciplinary scholarship. He, for example, productively engages with Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, which proposes distinct phases or paradigms of site-specific art (phenomenological, institutional, and discursive), to analyze how contemporary poetry can critique and destabilize disciplinary authority.
Fieldworks, in other words, ably shows how postwar poetry can indeed perform the kind of cultural power of which Longenbach is so suspicious. Longenbach’s latest book, The Virtues of Poetry (2013), in fact, dismisses the entire field of postwar poetry with the wave of a hand — or more precisely, with the batting of an eye:
… over the past fifty years, accomplishment in our poetry had been signaled most often by manner — as if it were the job of artists … to sequester themselves in one or another schoolroom … Schoolroom for formalists, schoolroom for experimentalists — the degeneration of these terms, hijacked by the renegade engines of taste, would portend the degeneration of the medium, except that while fifty years is a long time in the life of an artist, it is in the history of art nothing, the blink of an eye.
There are again echoes of Greenberg in Longenbach’s desire to preserve the purity of the poetic medium. It seems that the class within Longenbach’s nostalgic schoolroom — woefully blind to the achievements of contemporary poetry’s interdisciplinary forays — is in desperate need of a field trip. Shaw’s Fieldworks would be a good place to begin.
Lytle Shaw’s Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics (2013) is available from the University of Alabama Press.