112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Play Structures in 21st Century American Lyric Poetry

Brian Stefans, University of California, Los Angeles

Poets are gravitating toward a “formal” style of writing poetry, forsaking the freedoms Modernism granted, opting rather for rhetorical, procedural, inhuman modes, characterized by arbitrary constraints, word lists, syllabics and re-workings of precedent texts. What do these new realist/mathematical modes have to say about digital culture—the “database as symbolic form” (Lev Manovich)—and can the use of fixed if variable forms be theorized from the angle of the “ludic” rather than that of a formal “tradition”?


Many American poets are gravitating toward a “formal” style of writing poetry, forsaking the freedoms that the Modernists and New Americans granted (free verse, the page as “open field,” collage, concrete poetics, oral poetics, indeterminacy, etc.), and opting instead for highly rhetorical, procedural, decidedly inhuman modes, characterized by the uses of arbitrary constraints, word lists, syllabics and exhaustive re-workings of precedent (or their own) texts and word sets. Book-length sequences of short lyrics—Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life, Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge, Christian Bok’s Crystallography, Aaron Kunin’s The Sore Throat, Ben Lerner’s Lichtenberg Figures and K. Silem Mohammed work-in-progress “Sonnagrams” are among them—form a set that is less celebrated than the widely publicized groups of works by “conceptual writers” and “Flarf” poets, but together, they describe a trend in the development of the poetry that might become more emblematic, if only because more general, synthetic and affective, of our moment in history. These works produce new readerly effects by engaging the reader in acts of parsing, counting, and de-encryption while invoking the human voice, suggesting an urgency to negotiate the rise of the quantitative over the qualitative in the techics of everyday life. These lyrical works highlight a strand of American poetry that—after the end of the battles of the “raw” and the “cooked,” and after the heady trend of theory-based or “elliptical” poetry (in Stephen Burt’s phrase) has subsided—demonstrates a homegrown response to, and rapprochement with, the English Metaphysical poets who, in Eliot’s phrase, were “constantly amalgamating disparate experience,” a lyric poetry that reflects what happened before the famous “dissociation of sensibility” set in.

In Pamela: A Novel, a roman-a-clef of 90s Bay Area culture, Pamela Lu writes that she and her cadre of intellectual friends were “living structuralism.” She meant that people of her generation grew up with a store of casual and not-so-casual knowledge of a hodgepodge of anti-establishment theorists—Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Spivak, Baudrillard, etc.—to which they had access as educated bourgeois subjects. The twenty-somethings of her generation were not capable of the revolutionary fervor that came readily to Modernists with which to transform society—they were not society’s “other,” or if they were, the books they read both socialized them and gave operatic eloquence to their marginality. Like Pamela’s band of outsiders, Harvey, Mullen, Bok, Kunin, Lerner and Mohammed might be examples of “living structuralism” for they have naturalized a plethora of aesthetics and viewpoints that once seemed incompatible, returning to lyrical form to regain the singularity of poetic production—with all the bells and whistles of form, voice and allusion that are sacrificed in “conceptual writing”—while remaining open to the many rhizomic exchanges of language. These books can be seen as anthems of a denatured, alienated, but multivalent subjectivity, leaving the question of whether their comedy is liberating or fatalistic—on the edge of social emancipation or simply finding a balance—unanswered. But what do these new phenomena have to say about digital culture? Can the use of fixed if variable forms be better understood from the angle of the “ludic” rather than of an Eliotic (or Bloomian) “tradition”? Has the American tradition of “open” poetics and the attack on “closure” finally disappeared? Has a paradigm shift occurred—are we no longer able to appreciate social marginality because of the ubiquity of the present tensebrought on by ubiquitious surveillance? Finally, is the new emphasis on the ludic nature of communications systems—the “database as symbolic form” in the words of Lev Manovich—forcing us to rethink the divide between “formal” and “experimental” verse?