March 22, 2010

The End of the Everything Hour

First Vaudeville, then the variety hour disappeared from the American cultural landscape. The entertainment industry discovered the benefit of specialty and of identifying consumer markets for advertisers with surgical precision. Instead of combining a comedian, tap-dancer, plate-spinner, and magician into an hour-long entertainment olio, a separate venue could be established for each. And so was born the Plate Spinning Network and a million other pigeon holes. Music, film, television, and books became increasingly directed by myopic genres, and viewers/readers became increasingly intolerant of interruptions to their narrow aesthetic. Entertainers became chemists, mixing carefully constructed and tested formulas. Lost were the cross-pollination of the circus act, the creative exchange of the backstage menagerie, the gear-grinding segue offered by the oft-baffled host, and by sparing ourselves the warbling soprano, we have withered the muscle of wonder, stanched the frisson of curiosity, and obliterated the peripheral discovery, the happy accident. Worse, we have confused homogeny with community.

In twenty years the polite introductory question won’t be “where are you from?” but “what channel do you watch?” Physical regionalism won’t be as prescriptive of a personality as where the needle stops on the dial.

This self-enforced categorization has changed the poetry collection radically. It’s expected that a book of poems now will have a clear theme, a narrative arc, a formal consistency, a unified voice. Formula and genre are popular, supposedly, because they infer a readership, but ostensibly the “concept” collection comes with its toe-tag already filled out.

The Variety Hour poetry collection, that motley collection of big personalities and small oddities, is increasingly rare, and its disappearance (or growing irrelevance) has profoundly changed the way poetry is written. When a poet sets out to write to a theme, or genre, or voice, or arch, the concept becomes the product; the poet is writing to a hole in a project and not writing to answer a yawp or heartbeat. Repetitious and incomplete poems, dependent and self-referential poems abound within the smug covers of the concept collection. I have often heard poets write or say that their work has to be experienced in toto, that their individual poems can’t stand alone. I can’t imagine a more feeble position; they are essentially saying, “I must be studied and plumbed to be enjoyed or understood.” Such poems are, in effect, entries rather than entities.

I often argue for poetry for the people, and so I cannot say with any resolve that coherence is inferior to variety, or that universality is better than genre. But our insistence that we produce and present our work in neat categories forestalls a lot of creative influence and experimentation. I want to have faith in my voice and ideas, not in a genre, not in a “project.”


  1. Excellent post. I love this conversation. Thanks for your insights. Opened up a can of worms for me, for sure.

  2. I'm with Gary. This is an excellent post, and with all of us writing subsequent manuscripts, the questions are plentiful, and the possible influence of these "projects" is dangerous.