A few weeks back Andrew Shields posted some thoughts on the notion of “mainstreams.” I commented on it and want to clarify and expand on that comment a bit, mainly because the use of “mainstream” as a pejorative in the poetry world is so annoying. Every poet wants to be an outlier, a rebel, radically individual or at least a member of a radically individual crowd. Hence the spectacle of tenured professors denouncing “mainstream poetry.” But does mainstream poetry exist? Well—yes and no.
I think mainstreams exist only in retrospect. The backward look simplifies and so falsifies what was, in fact, an almost-chaos of individual practice. I say “almost” because there are certainly anti-entropic forces at work, though they work as they do in real streams: there are swirls, eddies, rapids and backwashes, rain that swells and freshens, droughts that shrink and encourage stagnation. Only after the season has passed do we seem to see the “mainstream,” its offshoots and tributaries—though we see them all through a contemporary lens, almost never the way they were seen at the time.
One example: readers of poetry a sense of which poets, right now, are “major” and which aren’t. (The Library of America, in what may prove to be an excess of enthusiasm, has already devoted a volume to John Ashbery.) But isn’t that sense a fantasy—a kind of hubris? Best to keep in mind that in 500 years the language we speak—the language of our poetry and this humble blog post—will be so archaic that extensive footnotes will be required to read us at all, and even then the subtleties, such as they are, will be lost or accessible only through scholarly research.* If reading is still something people do then.
* I wonder what a three- or four-sentence footnote on Ashbery will look like in 2511.