I was honored to be asked by editor Oded Carmeli to choose fourteen poems published during the current decade by U.S poets for an anthology that has now been published in the most recent print issue of Hava LeHaba in Israel, a Hebrew-language magazine of experimental poetry and poetics. Click here to view a PDF copy of the relevant pages from the magazine. I wrote the following very brief prefatory statement:
Contemporary experimental poetry in the U.S. is so diverse in mode, tone, and conception that no introductory generalization will suffice. But having chosen fifteen poems I admire, all published in the current decade, I noticed post facto that they are all meta-poetic. Nada Gordon thieves Marianne Moore’s anti-ars poetica. Susan Howe’s “That This” presents, in part, the this-ness of the writing. Rae Armantrout’s post-God/post-mother linguistic smiting reminds her and us that she owes her writing life to a mother who taught her to wring sweetness from syllables as a kind of maternal sacrifice. Tyrone Williams “scribbles furiously to a mortgaged future.” Brenda Hillman’s own words fall out of sentences when aerial bombs fall on their targets. And the poem I chose to represent Dorothea Lasky is itself titled “Ars Poetica.” Poems about poetry need not indicate an escape from the world. On the contrary, these are mostly political poems—a language of politics and a politics of language. Laynie Browne gives us the real Hillary Clinton, lines Hillary would say, except that key words are left blank so that readers can be competent co-creators.
Multilingualism has long been a key characteristic, even a central tenet of literary experimentation. So maybe it seems a bit weird that after all these commentaries I still haven’t found anything to say about the various streams of modernist literature that drew upon other languages. Why haven't I addressed T.S. Eliot's attempted reconstitution of the “mind of Europe”? What about Ezra Pound's (also attempted) translation of Chinese written characters? Or what about the less well known but no less multilingual Zurich Dada “nonsense” poems that drew upon anthropological works, using fragments and phrases from world Indigenous languages to inform their experiments in non-meaning?
Analyses of avant-garde or experimental poetry typically understand multilingualism as a part of the modernist dream of breaking with the past in order to prefigure an unforeseen but possible future.
In the newest issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal, a special issue (volume 38, number 2, dated Fall 2014) devoted to Helen Vendler’s career-long interest in Stevens’s poetry, an essay by me appears. Here is a link to a PDF copy of the piece.
Those of us who teach know that the various cultural debates around multilingualism worm their ways into our classrooms. At the K-12 level especially, bi- and multilingual education have specific consequences for funding: the fear is that English Language Learners (ELLs) will lower schools’ test scores, resulting in a punitive drop in already meager funding. In higher ed, many universities are getting rid of foreign language requirements (although they’re still promoting study abroad as a great resumé-booster and as the ticket to success in an increasingly globalized economy). At all levels of education, of course, there are many students who are second-language (or third- or fourth-language) speakers, and students speak varieties of English other than the ones that are privileged in traditional education. Many of these students want to improve their use of Standard English, but that doesn't mean they should be made to feel as though there is an "English Only" sign on the classroom door.