For there to be outlaw poetry, there needs to be a law

Thinking about Bill Knott’s comments regarding my list of working-class poets, I’ve been considering the idea of underground poets and outlaw poets and other poets who don’t identify (or who aren’t identified) as mainstream.  I’ve been wondering, mainly, if the boundary between underground/outlaw and mainstream is impermeable.  I don’t think it is.  Sometimes I think the boundary is temporal.  Ovid, for example, was considered an outlaw poet not just in his own time but  in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well.  He was, at times, considered too immoral or too irreverent.  His love poems were publicly burned in London in 1599.  But during the Renaissance he was wildly popular and now he’s, well, canonical.

What changed?  The poetry didn’t (though the translations evolved).  Cultural expectations of what poetry should do and the collective mores of society did.  If Ovid was alive during the 1500s, he’d be so bummed that Virgil was getting all the attention, though (in my opinion) Virgil isn’t half the poet that Ovid is (go ahead, Robert Graves, let me have it).  But today he’s on everybody’s list of great Latin poets.

In 2000 I bought the anthology The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry edited by Alan Kaufman and published by Thunder’s Mouth Press (since bought by Perseus Books) in 1999.

In the introduction (I love this introduction), Kaufman writes, “Here are the inventors of the Beat generation and the heroes of today’s Spoken Word movement, poets who don’t get taught in American poetry 101, yet hold the literary future in their tattooed hands.”  He issues this challenge, “The Academy had best make room for these descendents of Whitman’s ‘Roughs’ and Emerson’s ‘Berserkers’:  Our poets can whip your poets’ asses.”

Hallelujah!  Whenever someone calls for a poetry smackdown, I’m all in.  Not for the aggressive confrontation, but for the exploration of the poetics that would deem one poem better than the other.  And you know those poetics will evolve and change.  In the year 1347, we may see Virgil back on top again.

And to be honest, revisiting the table of contents, I found many poets whose work is no stranger to the university classroom: Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, Sapphire, Allen Ginsberg, Joy Harjo, William Carlos Williams, Rudolfo Anaya, Patricia Smith, William Burroughs.  I found many poets who teach in university classrooms: Jeffrey McDaniel (Sarah Lawrence), D.R. Wagner (U.C. Davis),  Sonia Sanchez (Temple),  Ai (Oklahoma State),  Gary Snyder (U.C. Davis).

I point this out not to show that Kaufman is blurring the lines between outlaw and academic, but that the lines between outlaw and academic will always be blurry.  Some of that blurriness is temporal.  The Beats were outlaws, but we study them in college classrooms as legitimate shapers of the American poetry landscape.  But another component of the blur is permeability.  Poetry can co-exist on the street and in the classroom.  I have seen Regie Cabico perform his anthologized “Check One” in lecture hall filled with captivated Syracuse University students.  Anne Waldman’s poetics helped to found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.

And it’s bullshit to argue that academia is co-opting street poetry.  This isn’t true.  Street poetry, underground poetry, outlaw poetry is changing the way academics teach poetry.  And not only because it’s breaking laws.  It’s because the poetry is damn good.



  1. Bill Knott said

    all the poets you mention above continue to publish their work in kill-the-trees editions at prices many can’t afford— they adhere to the capitalist poetry creed of buying and selling— you have to pay cash to read their books, they don’t give their poems away free— no one without money or access to a large library can read these poets . . .

    whereas me and others put our poetry online for free open access… most libraries don’t have the budget to buy many poetry books, but they all have computers; schools have computers . . . my books of poetry can be read for free in their entirety by anyone in the world with access to the web—

    how many people in the world can get access to the works of those “outlaw” poets you advocate, those “lowerclass” poets on your elitist list— what’s the good of those poets if they’re available only in deadtree editions that cost too much . . .

    I can’t afford to buy those poets’ books, I live on Social Security in a small town whose library acquires very few poetry books, the “lowerclass” they’re supposedly writing for can’t afford to buy their books,
    what the fuck is their game? why don’t they publish all their poetry online for free open access, in free download pdf editions,

  2. Bill Knott said

    I repeat: what the fuck is their game? if they’re such “underclass” “outlaw” poets why do they stick to the same old outworn capitalist elitist system of poetry distribution? if according to you they’re such anti-establishment rule-breakers, why do they follow the rules when it comes to publishing their books? Why don’t they post their books of poetry online for free open access for readers everywhere? Where’s the free download pdf edition of that “outlaw bible”? My poetry may not be as good as these underclass outlaws you’re selling, but at least mine can
    be read for free, and theirs can’t—

  3. dwlcx said

    I think you are correct about the line being permeable & I prefer the term “street poets,” or as I use it here, “community poets,” that way I can include some of the poets of the academy who are active in the larger community of street poets. Or some such.
    & as far as poetry being published on the internet, there is more poetry than you could possibly ever read online, too much as some would say.
    DWx (

  4. Bill Knott said

    the fact is, you’re an elitist and the dead tree poets you promote are elitiest … you’re print elitists . . . any poet that doesn’t post all their books of poetry online for free open access and free download is an elitist . . . poetry of the people and for the people must be made available free to the people . . . the old capitalist mode of dead tree print poetry publishing and distribution is obsolete and antidemocratic. . .

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