‘American Poetry’

I find it interesting that Americans constantly self-identify themselves as ‘American’.

I’ve been reading Roger Pao’s blog Asian-American Poetry with some interest, but while he explores all the nuances, the root question goes unasked and unanswered – why that category? Why the keenness to put your work into a non-literary category? By which I mean: “I am an Asian-American Poet” is a different kind of statement to “I am a Vorticist”. Or is it? Perhaps it is intended as a statement about the work, rather than, say, an assertion of identity or a marketing opportunity. But what kind of statement? If a customer bought an anthology of Asian-American poetry and found that, although all the poets were Asian-Americans, the work was indistinguishable from that of other Americans, would they be entitled to feel cheated?

Actually, though, the idea of ‘Asian-American Poetry’ doesn’t really surprise me. There are obvious reasons why people would want to identify themselves as Asian-American (it’s a historically marginalised minority with shared interests etc etc), and why an Asian-American Poetry anthology would seem like a good idea. It no more needs special justification than an anthology of woman poets, or Welsh poets, or young poets.

What I find more interesting is the tendency for America to do the same thing. A trivial example – after the success of ‘Pop Idol’ in the UK, it crossed over to America where it became ‘American Idol’. Why? Why would an American program made by an American company and broadcast on an American network need to identify itself as American? What point were they trying to make? Normally, I’d expect a program (or anthology) that identified with a particular social group to be defining itself in relation to the majority, but surely the US isn’t defining itself (to itself) in opposition to the rest of the world.

Similarly, and getting back to poetry for a minute, I have a copy of the New Formalist anthology Rebel Angels (dreadful self-satisfied title, I know). The introduction is basically spent defending metrical poetry against the suggestion that it is ‘un-American’. The subject is set up as an argument between two sides: both seem to believe that American poets have some kind of responsibility to American Poetry, and the only difference is how that responsibility should be discharged.

I would have thought that American Poetry could look after itself. Whatever kinds of poems are written by poets who are from the US will be American Poetry, and the long-term trends will emerge whether anyone tries to influence them or not.

Perhaps it’s the UK (England?) which is unusual in being very reluctant to invoke ‘Britishness’. I suppose we had the YBAs (Young British Artists – Hirst, Emin etc) recently, but I never felt anyone was expecting them to strive to make their art British; and whatever responsibilities they may have had to Art never seemed to include a responsibility to Britishness.

Anyway, I don’t really want to make this into a Brit/American thing, I’m just intrigued by the labels people pick for themselves.