Richard (Cory) Kostelanetz John Martone - Essay

John Martone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although his title [The Old Poetries and the New] might imply an evolutionary understanding of the relationship between traditional and avant-garde poetries, Kostelanetz finds them to be engaged in a battle to the death. His dichotomous view of contemporary poetry (one often gets the feeling that a poet is either experimental or morally deficient) comes across very strong in this retrospective, and one suspects that Kostelanetz's polemical tone may in itself have significantly hindered the development of the new poetry.

Surveying the old poetries in a series of reviews and articles on American poetry since 1949, Kostelanetz expresses an almost obsessive fear of and distaste for any poetry that can be associated—if only by virture of an anthology—with the university. To be sure, his descriptions of contemporary poetry at its worst ("a soft surrealism … willfully mysterious, and, of necessity, attitudinally poetic") are frequently to the point and well taken, but he is too often simply ungenerous and morally presumptuous….

At his best, in essays such as "The New Poetries" and "TextSound Art in North America," Kostelanetz communicates the intellectual importance and excitement that non-syntactic and a-coherent poetic strategies have for contemporary writers. But even though these essays are well written …, one experiences discomfort upon hearing the new poetries praised as programmatically as the old were condemned. Above all, one misses an articulation of the basis of the new poetries: what is the relationship of such art to technology? of non-syntactic poetry to the structure of our lives? of the art work to the self? These are questions that Kostelanetz only alludes to here. One is thankful for the allusion, though, and for his recently published anthology Visual Literature Criticism, which provides a context wherein those questions can be more fully addressed.

John Martone, in a review of "The Old Poetries and the New," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, p. 675.