Academy of American Poets: A Can of Beans?
A Loudmouth Editorial by Marcus If, Fall 2016
Since its establishment in 1946 (the fulcrum of 20th Century poetry), the Academy of American Poets’ Chancellor’s Board (the Academy started in 1934) has brought together the mainstream of university poetics under a ‘court of the land’ banner to promulgate the art of verse. The continuous influence of the New Critics is evident in the tenure of Robert Penn Warren (Chancellor 1972-88), long after the Fugitives/Southern Agrarians had made their mark on said universities (Understanding Poetry, defacto textbook, 1938). There have been few mitigating poets to break that American Poetry Review trend, notably Robert Creeley (Chancellor 1999-2002) of the Black Mountain School, Lyn Hejinian (chancellor 2006-12) of the Language School, Ron Padgett (Chancellor 2008-13) of the New York School, and Anne Waldman (Chancellor 2011-Current), our pseudo-local Beat Poet.
Interestingly, I did not see hints of the New Formalism in the work of the current board, and Ms. Waldman is the only proponent of Slam. This seems to corroborate my contention that evolution is not a word in the Academy vocabulary. Admittedly, while I have read at least 3-4 poems from each current Chancellor, I have not spent hours listening to their lectures, and it is probable that there is some discussion around contemporary trends in that milieu. There is, however, little evidence of the avant garde in their collective work. Of the 16 current Chancellors, there were a few whose work I might return to, a couple of poems that I might share, and a far-too-large contingent whose very existence on the board I question.
The demographic breakdown of the current 2016 Academy of American Poets serving 6 year terms is as follows: 5 White Women, 4 Black Women, 2 Hispanic Men, 1 each White, Libyan, and Chinese-American Men. 2 from Rutgers, 2 from U of Michigan, the rest teach at other second-tier universities. 1 each self-labeled Concrete & Confessional; New York School & Beat & Slam; Childrens; and Prose Poetry. The rest consider themselves Contemporary, without defining the term. At least 2 are dedicated translators. They range in age from 52 to 79, though most are in their 60s. All appear to be heterosexual from their profiles (some poetry hints otherwise).
The job of these people is to give lectures, award prizes, create prompts and teaching tools, publish a journal (members only), hold an annual conference, and chose the next in line for vacancies. Quite a lot of bureaucracy for a poet to handle, perhaps that’s why they write the rote? Their online presence, poets.org, has a catalog of 6800 poems, which does make their search engine a primary resource. Some of the teaching ideas are kind of hokey, not really delving in to the methodology, but there are the occasional useful tidbits for teachers. Ed Hirsch’s excellent Poet’s Glossary is also perusable.
In the end, as Headmaster of the Beyond Academia Free Skool, what I must iterate is that these are the Academic poets. Their work is no more crafted or inspiring than many of the BAFS participants. Syntactical attention is nearly absent. It too often has that feeling of “good enough” instead of “Tight!”. There is no chance that such ruffians as Olson, or Ginsberg, or O’Hara, or gods forbid Bukowski would have ever made their ranks. To my tastes, their work seems to be resting on the (lack)laurels of Frost & Eliot, and the best of the Boulder Poetry Tribe are far more interesting to read. What the Academy does offer is a baseline look into the world of academic poetics, what is taught and expected, what you can expect when reading them. Much like Slam Poetry, here is a homogenized voice that can most often only hear itself. And this is what we sell as American poetry-in-a-can. No wonder the world hates us!
This is the first in a series of op-ed essays on the State of Contemporary American Poetics, as opined by Marcus If, to be disseminated by the Boulder Poetry Tribe. Comments and counter-arguments are encouraged and valued by the Tribe. Further inquiries into the nature of the Beyond Academia Free Skool or the Headmaster are directed to loveshovelranch.com.