The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep (Ahsahta Press, 2012)
From a mix-CD labeled “Breakup Songs” to a three-pound Norton omnibus of capital-L Literature, anthologists set themselves a task that’s usually simple enough to declare. Often it’s right there in the title—take American poetry, which continues to welcome (or endure) wave upon wave of anthology. You get everything from Specimens of American Poetry in 1829 to Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 to Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry to Rita Dove’s recent Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Then there are the more specific categories, all announcing themselves in the title, from Douglas Messerli’s “Language” Poetries: An Anthology to Billy Collins’s Bright Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds.
The real work is in collecting and culling, letting in and keeping out—all the slow, solitary labor of taxonomy-by-taste, of defining an idea or category with exhaustive example, according to the dictates of your fancy and your conscience: What is worthy? What is new? What is a bird?
And then there are anthologies that are more assertions than marathons of definition. The 2009 anthology American Hybrid claims that American poetry has been locked in a standoff, its practitioners shouting across an abyss between “traditional” and “experimental,” clarity and disjunction. No longer, it contends, and lays out its case by calling on both expected and unexpected witnesses. In Legitimate Dangers (2006), Cate Marvin and Michael Dumanis argued that some exciting poetry was being written by certain poets born after 1960, then gathered some to prove it. (Was this poetry merely “dangerous” before? No worries—now it was legitimate.)
In The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, a fascinating new anthology from Ahsahta Press, editors Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep stake out territory the borders of which are difficult enough to find, let alone fix. Never mind building an argument on these grounds. A bird, at least, is a fairly stable category of thing: It has feathers and is hopeful. But fashioning sturdy parameters for the postmodern is no picnic, and it turns out the pastoral is no walk in the park either. (“North American,” you’d think, would be a pretty solid anchor, but don’t assume.)
Corey and Waldrep start from a premise that both labels—postmodern and pastoral—are “exhausted and empty cultural signifiers” that can be “reactivated by the logic of mutual and nearly assured destruction.” The question seems to be, can the pastoral tradition, run through the materiality and multiplicity and hyper self-consciousness of the postmodern, be a way for poetry to engage our present moment? In the revitalization of supposedly dead modes of writing, do we find new possibilities for bringing poetry to bear on a world of casual destruction and radical connectivity, defined by the porous categories of nature and artifice, actual and virtual, original and copy, creation and assemblage, waving and drowning?
“Pastoral” is a designation I’m not sure all of the poets in The Arcadia Project are likely to have applied to themselves. The anthology limits itself to poems written or published since 1995, and bills itself a gathering not of American poetry but of North American poetry—and this is key, because the Canadian neo-pastoral is an essential part of the collection. However, what is not present—without explanation, without comment even—is the fourteenth largest and eleventh most populous sovereignty in the world: a little place I like to call Mexico. More on this later.
What is this pastoral stuff that is empty and dead? Which pastoral tradition is this? It is, writes Corey in a thin but elegant introduction, “one of our culture’s oldest and most enduring simulacra, a virtuality to which we can effect temporary escapes from the frenzy of modern life,” yet it has within it a “kernel of critical negativity that, when properly activated by poet and reader, promises to put us in touch with the reality, or realities, of our contested world.”
This, with a contemporary update, is a view of the pastoral that goes back at least to Schiller’s descriptions of “sentimental poetry”—more complex than “naive” poetry, which merely attempts to imitate the world, but nonetheless limited in its available sentiment. From Schiller springs a long line of criticism that begins with the understanding that the pastoral landscape, in its idealized innocence, either directs us to look backward to a Golden Age, or else look sideways at the moral coruscation of the city. Nostalgia or critique, elegy or satire. The postmodern update is that the division between city and country has eroded, leaving these categories of place, as Corey says, contested. The postmodern pastoral “insist[s] on the reality of a world whose objects are all equally natural and therefore equally unnatural.”
Corey doesn’t mention anywhere in the introduction why he and Waldrep chose 1995 as the starting point for this volume. Yet it makes an intuitive sense to me, because 1995 was the publication year of the essay anthology Uncommon Ground, edited by William Cronon, with Cronon’s seminal work “The Trouble with Wilderness.” The book was a sane, critical, thoroughly postmodern affair, in that it problematized(!) the natural, took wilderness out of some ahistorical never-never land, and brought history and culture and power and politics and gender and race to bear on longstanding ideas of nature.
The changing arc of “wilderness” in the West—and particularly in the US—makes for a remarkable history. The unknown and terrifying outer-land; the immense realm to be mastered and exploited; the salutary, near-holy place of immanent worth (America’s cathedrals, Thoreau’s “in wildness is the restoration of the world”); and finally the locus, really the definition, of nature itself. The cult of the pristine took hold among a small group of people trying to slow the relentless march of scorched-earth resource extraction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to throw bodies on the workings of the machine. These dissenters later hardened their positions, like any outgunned rebel army. A book like Uncommon Ground, published in the wake of Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution, seemed to a good many environmentalists like the work of a fifth column.
We have a problem with nature because we have a problem with wilderness, Cronon wrote. The American wilderness is a cultural product that, over much of its history, has largely been celebrated by well-off city-dwellers, and wilderness is their fabrication: “The removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness’—uninhabited as never before in the human history of a place—reminds us of just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is. . . . In virtually all of its manifestations, wilderness represents a flight from history.”
The twentieth century’s conflation of wilderness and nature—while effective in keeping vast tracts of land safe from chainsaws—is damaging in the long run. Wilderness hurts us if, as Cronon wrote, “we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit.” His argument is that “if we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall” and “we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead.”
[I]f we acknowledge the autonomy and otherness of the things and creatures around us—an autonomy our culture has taught us to label with the word “wild”—then we will at least think carefully about the uses to which we put them, and even ask if we should use them at all. Just so can we still join Thoreau in declaring that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World,” for wildness (as opposed to wilderness) can be found anywhere: in the seemingly tame fields and woodlots of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, even in the cells of our own bodies.
What is remarkable to me, reading The Arcadia Project, is how thoroughly the precepts underlying this call to the environmental movement to look inward, to be self-critical, to fight for the “fallen” world (not just the remnants of what looks like Eden), has been assimilated in the poetry of this anthology.
The postmodern pastoral, as Corey and Waldrep conceive it, is thoroughly Crononized. “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless there’s a subway handy or a record store or some sign that people do not totally regret life,” writes Frank O’Hara, whom Corey cites as the volume’s guiding light. With the un-wilding of wilderness, and more importantly, the wilding of sidewalk cracks, with the consciousness that nature is in the city and suburb, comes the suspicion that the cultivated “middle ground” championed by Leo Marx as the setting for a clash fundamental to American literature—“But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive”—is not necessary or remarkable, and perhaps never was. The machine is ever in the garden, the garden in the machine, and both of them touch the wild just as the wild touches them. The poets in this collection, Corey tells us, are “flaneurs in the country, naturalists in the city, zoologists in the suburbs”; they, like O’Hara, want tunes with their grass, “though the grass may be engineered by Monsanto, though the record store may be an MP3 blog or a CD rack at WalMart.”
Add to these fungible twentieth-century categories of country/city, human/nature, and natural/artificial the twenty-first century’s porous borders between the virtual and the real, the mind and the cloud, and you arrive at 2012. If the pastoral’s idealized landscape and its harmonious inhabitants were once created and maintained to remind us of the Golden Age, or to expose, through irony, the machinations of the court and the squalor of the tenement, then why not revive the pastoral as a playing field for postmodern poets to explore the contested identities and fragmented ways of being and naming in our increasingly hybrid literature. “To write the postmodern pastoral poem,” Corey tells us, is “to be a digital native with dirt between one’s toes.”
Thus shod, and with these passports, we get the muster of poets and poems Corey and Waldrep have assembled. The book is divided into four sections: New Transcendentalisms, which includes “those younger poets intent on pursuing and transforming the legacy of American Transcendentalism, mining the nineteenth century for patterns of perception and insistence that can sustain the twenty-first”; the post-language Textual Ecologies; Local Powers, encompassing poets who are “mapping the permeable border between the self and non-self, the I and its environment”; and finally, the Necro/Pastoral, which goes entirely—bewilderingly—unremarked upon in Corey’s introductory essay. One hundred and six poets, one hundred and fifty-five poems—extensive, if not quite exhaustive—drawn from tiny poetry journals and old guard quarterlies and chapbooks and hip indie presses and stolid university imprimaturs, plus previously unpublished poems, premiering in this anthology. All of this speaks not only to the breadth of the poetry itself but also the anthologists’ work ethic, initiative, and personal connections—this was a real undertaking.
There is no shortage of heavy hitters of recent post-modernity, although countless other big names are not here. In terms of style and strategy, the poetry spans Camille Dungy’s fluid lyrics to Dan Beachy-Quick’s intricate diptychs. It takes in K. Silem Mohammad’s neo-Oulipian “Sonnagram” series—in which he treats each of Shakespeare’s sonnets as the raw material for an anagram, writing an entirely different sonnet using all of the letters of the original—as well as Marcella Durand’s unnerving prose-block meditations on Landsat imagery. There are Makers of Lists—Christopher Dewdney’s version of Jubilate Agno, Juliana Spahr’s naming of every living thing that has ever lived in “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache,” Gabriel Gudding’s furious ticking off of SUV makes and models. There is the first person lyric, the textual mashup, the concrete, the fun-with-computer-font, the thick prose block of sentence fragments, the triumphant white space, the overtly musical, the continental theory dump, the multi-vocal, the ecstatic, the whimsical, the technical, the trenchant, the wispy, the dull, the buffet of all of the above.
There’s a healthy selection of long and complex poems, as well as extracts from what are clearly longer projects (for what could be more emblematically postmodern than to approach poetry as a project, a project within an Arcadia Project). I’m still chewing over Peter O’Leary’s deeply thoughtful sixteen-page “The Phosphorescence of Thought,” a mind mapping itself onto flight, the bodies of birds and bodies of water. (It also has more than its share of highly technical jargon borrowed—no, carjacked—from hydrology and avian anatomy: phanophagus, uropygial, bradyapneatic, autochthonomous, stillicidous, hyperduliated.)
What does a postmodern pastoral poem look like? I open a page at random and there is this, from Maryrose Larkin:
crocus when grey can east into pansies cedar document or winter changes drift
blooming into limbed cross 30 horizon a expecting late limbs wings no covering
Imagine a transcribed conversation between cockpit and control tower in some wonderful new International Aviation Alphabet—“Roger that, cross 30 horizon, expecting late limbs wings, heading for runway Pansies Cedar Document”—but, no, it’s a poem that seems to be about plants and weather. I turn to the final poem in the volume and find this, in its entirety, by Chris Green:
Macbeth for Everyone
: be not so happy.
Reading through the repertoire, it’s clear that Corey and Waldrep are onto something here—this boundary erasure between nature/civilization, nature/human, human/digital, the confusing flow across these eroding and eroded membranes. There is poetry today that is wrestling with this in ways worth attending to. The machine and garden remain evocative symbols in poetry, useful shorthands to be evoked and agitated. Thus in Heather Christle’s poem “Acorn Duly Crushed,” there is a train and there is a forest, but the poet seems to be on the train, and the relationship between each and the other is troubled, troubling, and in play.
Dear stupid forest.
Dear totally brain-dead forest.
Dear beautiful ugly stupid forest
full of nightingales
why won’t you shut up.
What do you want from me.
A train is too expensive.
A clerk will fall asleep.
Dear bitchy stupendous forest.
Trade seats with me.
It goes on, shredding through the pastoral, its allure and its shortcomings, the forest at turns “municipal” and a haven for the scarf-and-beard crowd, at other times “nasty” and “pregnant,” with “important gangs of leaves.” “You are environmentally significant,” she concedes. “Men love to hang themselves / from your standard old growth trees.” Elsewhere in The Arcadia Project, Lyn Hejinian and Jack Collom write, “I think the woods is made of many minor keys,” but Christle’s woods contain the entire scale of wood-thoughts, and you could hardly play it any faster than she does. Then again, we are moving quickly, the speaker is in the machine, looking at the garden, unsure of what either really is, unsure of where she’d rather be, if she could even choose.
In a modernist pastoral poem like Frost’s “Two Look at Two,” an encounter between two hikers and two deer, the people mostly submerge themselves in the scene, and the poem tentatively goes into the minds of the deer, as the people in the poem might do in that moment, gently grasping for a thought in a deer’s register. Nature: this thing apart from and a part of us. In The Arcadia Project, nature also becomes the setting for playing out semiotic indeterminacies—“the mind and words in the mind a landscape also”—as John Taggert’s poem “Slash” avers—“the mind and clutter of words in the mind.” His entry in this anthology is a sort of Barthesian-Emersonian remix of “Two Look at Two”—call it “One Looks at ‘One’.” Taggert’s speaker seems equally astounded by there being a word for “deer”—and a mind to which that word might occur—as he is by the appearance of a creature in his sight. It’s all he can do to navigate between thought and word and thing, to assert, slightly misquoting Emerson, that “words are signs for natural facts”:
the white deer is a fact most secret fact in the landscape what the landscape keeps
what’s kept hidden kept hushed held back in the mind first and
last fact and after some of which
the true the truth the true animal body a little closer.
Brenda Hillman, whose poem “The Vowels Pass by in English” seems like an Arcadia Project ideal case of landscape and language converging with equal self-awareness, equal historical attention: “the wave withdraws, plovers pick evidence / from married footprints as the lyric does.” Or: “the vowels pass by in English, / the ruined banisters of the A.” This is a poem of colonizers, a colonized land and language, a landuage; words pass by like horsemen, bridling their O’s, saddling their U’s.
The Textual Ecologies section will, I think, be the most divisive—but maybe I’m projecting. I feel the most divided about it, anyway. Here are Lisa Robertson’s dense pairings of weather and action, Leslie Scalapino’s zooming dictionary-engine poems, Nicole Mauro’s pangrams, John Beer’s “revision” of Schiller’s unfinished novel Lucinda (“Careless me stands in an arty garden / Next to a round beet. It’s all blossom overdrive”). Here, too, “field composition” is alive and well, though in some poems we’ve seemingly moved beyond using the page-field to illustrate or enact of relationships among natural forces. And here’s a section of Erín Moure’s “Memory Penitence / Contamination Église”:
Readability a context raises leaf a clear holographiea impediment holyoke, a crie
donc amiable Etruscan hole emmedial ,imtrespt , obligate , perflux creede lff;wejk
fea tueauoriu`l a ‘lfk éaoeiur op;ajdvkrleu; `tjl`lsd l`áf` ;oertl l a;le er`f;dla`flk ae-
wopr `pa`fò;eoad``;o;w`lkat;li`eo``àwp:i;eo ` f e àsdf;l aeoi ; òo `;;soe to9lw l```lw-
(Please forgive any typos—I transcribed that late at night.)
In 2012, I guess, an anthologist no longer has to explain to a reader who’s already picked up an anthology with “postmodern” in its title that this passage is doing the work of poetry, and is in fact interesting poetry. But one can also make an argument that this poem’s relationship to the pastoral tradition is not obvious—that any bewilderment one might have about how this poem is engaging the pastoral isn’t simply trivial. There’s so little interest in contextualizing a poem like this in The Arcadia Project, beyond three clauses of one sentence in the introduction: “words and syntax, like the pastoral itself, form a hybrid terrain of human and nonhuman elements to be negotiated or explored.” Also diacritical marks and semicolons, of course—the pure punctuations of (North) America go crazy.
I’m attracted to Moure’s work—there are parts of the same poem that I find arresting (and, well, legible), and I understand that bits of sense play off blocks of nonsense, that sounds and signage jostle in interesting ways. My beef, if I have one, is not with her. If this anthology is an assertion, if it is an argument about what the pastoral has been and what it has now become, then the anthologists skip some important rhetorical steps in making their case.
Again, a bit of nonsense isn’t the problem for me. Matt Reeck has a poem in the Textual Ecologies section, this one exclusively featuring sense-making English words:
in lyrics, riddles,
in tin wigs,
fickle thrills, in
in fish gills,
krill, dills, in
crisp linen, thin
limericks, in pimp
in blimps, in
trim limbs, in
thick licks, hips,
in silk slips,
guilt, rings, in
little hills, stills,
in whisk, figs,
That’s a fun poem—it’s called “Ode to /I/” and indeed it circles around the maypole of the letter i. It rings with half-heard slogans, with hips that don’t lie and loose lips that sink ships, with whiskey stills in pimped-out cribs. But—pardon this thick hick’s brick wit—where does this poem engage with the pastoral? I enjoy my Odyssey à la Christian Bök; and yes, Georges Perec is a weird genius, and yes, I, too, occasionally enjoy taking a turn on the Ouliptical machine; I’m pleased that this poem is alive to the material of language and that it plays with arbitrary rules—but is that it? This is pastoral? Vowels, pass by.
If an anthology is an assertion, how important is coherence and how important is breadth? The introductory essay is brief enough to give the reader the sense that this collection was enthusiastically assembled but lightly, or hurriedly, curated. Why these poets and poems and not others? Why these categories? We learn very little about the poets themselves, beyond what looks like a poet-supplied biographical note at the end (and not every poet gets a note). Corey’s introduction doesn’t go at all deeply into how the pastoral has evolved over time, and his reading of pastoral’s essence is—as I’ll get into below—narrow. The Necro/Pastoral is not explained in any way, and the Textual Ecologies presumes such a comfort with the self-evident pastoral-ness of language poetry and post-language poetry that a few words suffice. Words and syntax form a hybrid terrain of human and nonhuman elements to be negotiated and explored? Fine, but that’s true of everything ever written down anywhere.
I’m disappointed in the scope of the introduction, in the absent framing, because I know what an intelligent and lucid writer on poetry Joshua Corey is—anyone who has even browsed through his blog, Cahiers de Corey, can see this. And he has written a much longer essay on the postmodern pastoral—it’s called “A Long Foreground,” and it’s available as a PDF at The Arcadia Project’s website.
It’s in this essay that Corey sketches out the pastoral tradition at least going back through modernism—a valuable bit of context that would have enriched the book itself. Here we see how the rhizomes of Robert Duncan's meadow—
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
—send shoots into The Arcadia Project. Here the bounds of chaos have been loosened, as in Alessandra Lynch’s poem “What the Meadow Said Afterwards”:
be dead, heart
be the raft cracked
don’t function as door
spill like salt, effortless, daft,
choose the city in lieu, lying
removed, stiff with lights, crippled by wire over
the sweet, dying blossoms, the stalks terrified
by their thorn.
Or in “The Laws” by the well-named Richard Greenfield, the meadow is regained but the “first permission” has been revoked and one is paralyzed, unsure of the rules,
were only unrealized
or only arrived at
in a meadow, biotic
you can’t do this
you can’t do that
Corey devotes a section of the essay to Lorine Niedecker the pastoralist, larding the lake-scape of her poems with careful research, a practitioner of what Corey calls “ecolage,” a portmanteau of ecology, collage, and bricolage:
Niedecker’s ecolage comes close to realizing the promise of what Olson called “page as field” writing: the poem as environment, in a complex, more-than-descriptive relation to actual places, ecotones, habitats, and histories that does not erase the tensions between those varying discourses and their normative contexts.
Corey sees ecolage as a hallmark of the postmodern pastoral. This being postmodern, the collagists are eager to flash the scissors and show you the glue. In The Arcadia Project, Catherine Wagner (whose other poem in the anthology is giddy with samples of Tom Jones lyrics) contributes a poem called “A Form for Verse”:
make me collage it.
Do you see that you are
I refuse to be adequate
to the day
hold it in
for a greener consciousness”
Everyone’s always done it.
We must be getting greener
by the hour.
It’s only in this essay that Corey touches on the “necropastoral”—in Corey’s words, “the limit case of pastoral, its degree zero,” whose practitioners “seek to de-nature and de-purify the pastoral.” And only here that he fully lays out his understanding of the pastoral tradition and of what a postmodern version of pastoral would look like:
And by passing through postmodernism’s focus on the materiality of language, the historicity of discourse, and the constructedness of subjectivity, pastoral sheds its naivety and tactically refocuses our attention on the strategies of greenwashing and obfuscation by which the corporate powers that be work to hide, quite literally, our own nature from us.
But to truly get the skinny on the necropastoral, you have to look beyond “A Long Foreground,” and beyond The Arcadia Project itself to the always interesting blog called Montevidayo. It’s here that the poet Joyelle McSweeney, in a post from January 2011, argues, “Where classical pastoral insists on separation and containment, necropastoral posits supersaturation, leaking, countercontamination.” In other posts that month, she writes:
In its classical form, the pastoral is a kind of membrane on the urban, an artificial, counterfeit, impossible, anachronistic version of an alternative world that is actually the urban’s double, contiguous, and thus both contaminatory and ripe for contamination, a membrane which, famously, Death (and Art) can easily traverse (Hence, Et in Arcadia Ego).
The Pastoral, like the occult, has always been a fraud, a counterfeit, an invention, an anachronism. However, as with the occult, and as with Art itself, the fraudulence of the pastoral is in direct proportion to its uncanny powers. A double of the urban, but dressed in artful, nearly ceremental rags and pelts, the Pastoral is outside the temporal and geographical sureties of the court, the urbs, the imperium itself, but also, implicitly, adjacent to all of these, entailing an ambiguous degree of access, of cross-contamination. (The Pastoral, after all, is the space into which the courtiers must flee in the time of plague, carrying the plague of narrative with them.)
Never fear, McSweeney’s necropastoral contribution to the volume crackles just as much, burning the pastoral in effigy. The Necro/Pastoral section revives the anthology just as the political weight placed on its language fields begins to strain. McSweeney’s writings on the pastoral are explosive; her vivid philippics lend color to her assertion that the pastoral is dead and always was deadly dull, and the new necro-pastoral-philiacs are here to give it a zombie funeral. Some of The Arcadia Project’s most searing writing shows up at the wake, as in Johannes Goransson’s “Nature Is Forbidden”:
Out of one wound comes that woman with her tits hanging out. She’s Nature. Out of another comes a man with shit for eyes. He’s the Patient. The things they act out are atrocious and possibly detrimental to society. The things they act out are also called History.
Or Matthias Svalina’s “Metal”:
One goes to sleep on fire & wakes up ash. One goes to sleep a willing victim & wakes up a teacher. The moon is new-born as corrosion, agitation new-born as a field. What reassures me is how the period holds the sentence & the sentence is spoken by someone else, how I revise my memory into the pluperfect. This is the miracle: the cannibal field new-born as the body, floating horizontally above the canal, making a bed of corrosion in the moonlight of memory.
And in the Necro/Pastoral we get the truest heirs to the performative tradition of pastoral, to its multivocality—look at the raging call-and-response of Philip Sydney’s “Ye Goatherd Gods,” from 1590, if you want to see just how necro some herdsmen can be:
Meseems I see a filthy cloudy evening
As soon as sun begins to climb the mountains;
Meseems I feel a noisome scent, the morning
When I do smell the flowers of these valleys;
Meseems I hear, when I do hear sweet music,
The dreadful cries of murdered men in forests.
I wish to fire the trees of all these forests;
I give the sun a last farewell each evening;
I curse the fiddling finders-out of music;
With envy I do hate the lofty mountains
And with despite despise the humble valleys;
I do detest night, evening, day, and morning.
But underlying both McSweeney’s superabundance and the measured arguments of Corey is a basic assumption: old pastoral is about landscape—or, better, land-escape. It’s a benighted take on nature, a naive and counterfeit retreat, one that rests on the idea that the lives people actually live are unnatural, are outside of and separate from nature. Corey writes in “A Long Foreground”:
From the strife and corruption of the urban everyday, from the turmoil of the city, from the hell of modernity glimpsed by Blake as “every charter’d street” and “dark Satanic Mills”—throughout the long tradition of pastoral, poets have created visions of gardens and wildernesses to which readers might repair for refuge. But a refuge is not home. Sooner or later we must turn away from these visions, whether pastoral or anti-pastoral, and return to the compromised cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural counties where modern life actually takes place.
This is well put; this is William Cronon in a poet’s beard and scarf. But whether you take your postmodern pastoral with necrosis or a transcendental touch, the main thing that the pastoral does, in this view, is show our relationship to nature—whether commodified, purified, contaminated, deified, putrefied. What we know of nature and of landscape has changed, what we know of pollution and climate change and genetic engineering and even history has changed—and changed our relationship to nature, making it more complex and omnivorous—and so the pastoral must change, too. If the tools of postmodernism are difficult—the research and pastiche and disjunction and ecolage and critical theory and pop reference—it’s because they are called on to perform a difficult task.
But there are other traditions of the pastoral for which land and leisure and harmony aren’t the point; they’re the setting, the stage. The poets assembled in this volume reinvent the pastoral in a hundred ways, but Corey and Waldrep don’t seem to have the most expansive view of what it is they’re actually reinventing.
The struggle to determine what is and isn’t pastoral is actually really old. The pastoral begins with Theocritus’s Idylls, and is already ready for a makeover by the time of Virgil’s Eclogues. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century poets like Jacopo Sannazaro used both Theocritus and Virgil as their models, and inevitably prefaced their poems with an explanation of what they were doing. What was pastoral? It wasn’t a genre, it wasn’t a form. Here we get René Rapin in 1659 (the English translation is from 1684), settling on a definition of pastoral, which he’ll revise over many pages:
It is the imitation of the Action of a Sheapard, or of one taken under that Character: Thus Virgil’s Gallus, tho not really a Sheapard, for he was a man of great quality in Rome, yet belongs to Pastoral, because he is represented like a Sheapard.
(Thus Leo Marx’s quip, “No shepherd, no pastoral.”) The shepherd over time came to be shepherdesses, too, and other workers, Marvell’s mower, Wordsworth’s itinerants moving through the countryside. The clearest conventions of the classical pastoral—the gathering of shepherds in the midday otium to relate a story, to lament a loss, to pine for love—are entirely aware of their own conventionality. This is a poetry of community, as Paul Alpers points out in his lucid, monumental What Is Pastoral?, because the greatest convention is that of convening—literary herdsmen need each other; they need to sing for someone, and often with someone. Thus the common description of characters in Virgil: Arcades ambo–Arcadians both. Classical pastoral is an intimate performance, and it would be a mistake to privilege the scenery over the actors. As Alpers writes, “We will have a far truer view of pastoral if we take its representative anecdote to be herdsmen and their lives, rather than landscape or idealized nature,” and, “pastoral landscapes are those of which the human centers are herdsmen or their equivalents.” And why herdsmen and shepherds? Why their heirs among rural laborers?
Rapin, for his part, looking through his seventeenth-century lens, settles on the idea of simplicity,
Therefore let Pastoral never venture upon a lofty subject, let it not recede one jot from its proper matter, but be employ’d about Rustick affairs: such as are mean and humble in themselves and such are the affairs of Shepherds, especially their Loves, but those must be pure and innocent; not disturb’d by vain suspitious jealousy, nor polluted by Rapes; The Rivals must not fight, and their emulations must be without quarrellings.
The pastoral is younger than the epic. It was, even in Theocritus’s time, a more modest proposal in the face of Homer’s towering legacy—it declines to remake the world, it does not feature people for whom remaking is a plausible outcome. These are not powerful people—in Virgil’s first Eclogue, the two shepherds are at the mercy of despots. And yet there is a central fiction to the pastoral that places great weight on the shepherd—that shepherd’s lives are representative human lives. And this is what pastoral has in common with heroic poetry; William Empson divides the two by starting with a single assertion:
“This member of the class is the whole class, or its defining property: this man has a magical importance to all men.” If you choose an important member the result is heroic; if you choose an unimportant one it is pastoral.
“In pastoral,” Empson says, “you take a limited life and pretend it is a full and normal one.” Central to the pastoral tradition is a belief that no longer feels comfortable to assume, not because we’ve ever bothered to refute it, but because we find the terms distasteful, condescending, wrong-headed. As Empson phrases it, “you can say everything about complex people by a complete consideration of simple people.” The pastoral has been the locus of the artist confronting her own precarious middle ground—in looking at the “simpler” person, the less-educated, the less-worldly, the manual laborer, the pastoralist has made earnest and comedic representations, and, Empson says, “both versions, straight and comic, are based on a double attitude of the artist to the worker, of the complex man to the simple one (‘I am in one way better, in another not so good’).”
These categories of humanity feel terribly out-of-date. Even typing them makes me uncomfortable. The uneasy relationship between the intellectual—and what fraction of poets in this volume don’t carry advanced degrees?—and the laborer is not new, and is not much changed. But the point is that the pastoral has always been about limited power relative to the world—it has held up a mirror to the heroic and shown a representative person who, in Alpers’s words, “is able to sing out his dilemmas and pain, but . . . is unable to act so as to resolve or overcome them, or see them through to their end.” And it has been about a particular kind of challenge to the artist—to borrow Empson’s concision again, the challenge of “putting the complex into the simple.”
It’s not surprising that Corey looks to George Oppen and Frank O’Hara as parents of this volume. Corey sees a flaneur and an elegist in O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them,” which he quotes from in “A Long Foreground.” I see that, too, but I also see a poet who is paying attention to and celebrating what working people are working at while he’s on his lunch break.
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
Compared to O’Hara, the poems of The Arcadia Project aren’t more or less de-natured—they’re de-peopled! If you look at the pastoral as philosophical field of play, a landscape or “landscape” where different ideas of the Natural and the Simulated bump up against the self-consuming focus on the arbitrariness of imperiousness of language, you may never get around to work, to looking at labor and what that means in the world today. Where the hell food comes from. What people are doing on the land and in processing plants and in warehouses so that there is food. Who are these people, today’s shepherds and mowers, today’s Margaret of the Ruined Cottage, today’s woodcutter, today’s man on the dump? They’re in the world, but they’re hard to find in The Arcadia Project.
And this is where the idea of postmodernizing the pastoral feels the flimsiest—this whole side of the pastoral tradition seems virtually abandoned. It’s easy enough to see why. First, there’s the aversion postmodern poetry tends to have toward simplicity of expression, the “putting the complex into the simple.” Postmodernism is not preoccupied with simplicity or “wisdom.” It doesn’t believe in them.
With some cause. We suspect that simple narratives are sweeping things under the rug, and not doing so in some even-handed way, because we’ve seen it happen again and again. We tend—in this long postmodern moment—to look at simplicity as the enemy of art, and more fundamentally, the enemy of truth, which is not truth but truths, inherently multiple and multiplying, and therefore un-simple. We are in the business of complicating narrative, exploding narrative, sending a swarm of antibodies to encircle and consume the plague of narrative, down to the self-satisfied narrative buried in a straightforward sentence’s straightforward syntax.
Corey cites the Objectivists as another precursor to The Arcadia Project. It was they who opened up the field of the poem to research and documents, the use and pastiche of which has become an essential technique in postmodern poetics and ecopoetics. The postmodern pastoral is engaged in this research—presenting raw material, whenever possible, rather than digested, because digestion, too, is suspect. Samuel Johnson hated Milton’s pastoral elegy, Lycidas, for its “long train of mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies.” College has supplied a great deal to these poems; so has collage.
The multiplying is good. Corey is interested in the urbanizing of the pastoral, the queering of the pastoral, the gendering and transgendering of the pastoral. The pastoral as African American. All of this is happening, as Corey points out, and of course it’s well past time. But there’s still a missing element in this anthology’s engagement with the pastoral. The problem with Corey’s vision of multiplication is not that it goes too far but that it doesn’t go far enough.
“Omission of one sort or another is, of course, a defining feature of all anthologies,” says Marjorie Perloff. The “where is?” game is a cheap shot, because “someone is always going to be left out and someone else is going to be indignant about it.” I don’t want to be indignant. On the other hand, if you read 513 pages of poetry, you get to weigh in. I think even by the aesthetic concerns of the book, Ariana Reines’s “Truth or Consequences” would have been a nice addition. Ander Monson should be here—The Available World’s exploration of the natural and the digital, modulated by desire, and beginning with an epigraph from Marvell, and accompanied by a funky website—this should find a place in an anthology that sets out to show what it means “to be a digital native with dirt between one’s toes.”
But what is really missing? Work, and people doing work.
Michael Walsh’s recent collection The Dirt Riddles might seem to be about everything this volume wants to leave to the Ghost of Pastoral Past: rural life, farm work, labor, living with animals, using them. As Christina Mengert writes, the poems in this volume offer “a corrective to the hyper-romanticized vision of rural life that has long dominated the American imagination.” Walsh’s poems “observe life on and around a dairy farm, crafting an anti-pastoral pastoral marked by an attitude of tenderness towards their land, even as our speaker(s) eye does not flinch from the ugly, gross, aggressive or uncomfortable.” This leads Mengert to wonder if “we have been persuaded by our idea of what the pastoral is, rather than specific, complex readings of pastoral poetry. In other words, what the pastoral is may be much richer than what we imagine it to be, and much more fraught.” I think she’s right. Walsh’s poems “see this world through the sometimes anxious eye of a man whose sexuality targets him for potential violence in a homophobic world”; the eye, too, of a son who sees his parents’ livelihood evaporate. Here is a queer, complex pastoral poetry with some actual interest and familiarity with the nexus of labor and land and economy, as well as the tension between the romance of the rural and knowledge of the hollowness of that romance.
I don’t mean that a shepherding equivalent, whatever diminished thing it might today be, is completely absent from the anthology—Arielle Greenberg’s poem is attuned to this; Brenda Hillman mentions strawberry picking—but it is such a minor concern.
And there is another absolutely glaring omission, the reason I put scare quotes around “North American.” English is not the only widely spoken language of this continent. Let’s set aside the seven million Canadians for whom French is their first language. Let’s set aside all the First Nation languages. The exclusion of Mexico, without comment, is bizarre.
Perhaps some text was meant to be included in the introduction, something that said, “By ‘North America’ we mean, politically, 2/3 of North America,” or “We are interested in the English-language poetry tradition, and not in Spanish-language poetry, which has a tradition of pastoral poetry entirely its own.” Let’s suppose that. Still: in its effort to diversify the pastoral, the severely limited contribution of Latino poets in this volume is remarkable.
Not only is the nation of Mexico expunged—this is a North America with virtually no Chicano or other Latino presence. Corey writes in his introduction of the crops that are “engineered by Monsanto,” but doesn’t mention who is harvesting them. We are still a hugely agricultural continent. It’s just that rustic and manual labor is more and more the province of people who are largely not represented in this book. With that is a missed opportunity to engage—one hopes without the potential condescension of the old pastoral (although that condescension shouldn’t be presumed)—with another postmodernism: the transborder, murkily legal, half-demonized, half-ignored labor that increasingly characterizes rustic work in large swaths of North America. This is the contemporary equivalent (if there are equivalents in this kind of work across time; and if there aren’t, that’s interesting, too) of the mowers and shepherds and village laborers and hired hands who peopled the pastoral from Theocritus to Frost.
Do you have to be a Latina poet to write a pastoral that has an awareness of an orchard, or a factory farm, or a meatpacking facility, or a WalMart subcontractor’s warehouse? Of course not. Is it entirely a coincidence that a book with so few people working in rural places or hybrid landscapes is also a book with very little Chicano presence—and a book that seems unaware or unconcerned that Mexico is part of North America? Is there something about postmodern poetry—or about Corey and Waldrep’s definition of postmodern—that has very little room for Latino poets, people like Juan Felipe Herrera, elena minor, Roberto Tejada, Blas Falconer, or Ruben Quesada?
I think this is a shortcoming. I think the poems of this anthology are with few exceptions more fixated on ‘the I’ and on Culture and on Nature—hybrid, urban, constructed, signified, humanized, co-opted, acculturated as it may be—than they are on other people, and in so doing they are revising an incomplete version of the pastoral. In the vital question of how we negotiate our place in the world, the “we” of The Arcadia Project is narrower than it could be, given Corey’s stated concerns, and the interpretation of “pastoral” is narrower than it should be, given that one of the hallmarks of the postmodern is that all strains and modes and traditions are available.
But I’ll quit the “where is?” game—it’s only useful up to a point to criticize an anthology for what it is not. “Whatever is bequeathed a single word will slide down a funnel to the general,” Brent Cunningham writes in the first poem of The Arcadia Project. Corey and Waldrep have bequeathed a lot to two words, two “exhausted and empty cultural signifiers,” and the fact that they should have bequeathed even more is proof that this is a necessary collection, one I want to celebrate and recommend. It re-frames poems I’ve read before in new ways. It brings me poems I couldn’t have read anywhere else, and introduces me to poets, like Jasmine Dreame Wagner, whom I’ll keep watching.
In “A Long Foreground,” Corey reveals the ambitions of this volume in a way that he doesn’t allow himself in the book’s introduction:
Nature, along with the older, ideological modes of pastoral, must give way to politics: a new “Constitution” in [Bruno] Latour’s view, that recognizes both human and nonhuman entities as deserving and requiring voice and representation, so that the poetry of the earth might give way to a poetry of a radically inclusive and democratic world.
That’s quite a heroic task for a traditionally un-heroic poetry, but if you love any kind of poetry, it’s a thrilling thought.