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.”