What does it mean, in the world of contemporary American literature, to be an "outsider"? And why does the culture – in particular, the reading culture, those who by nature of their consumption of serious contemporary writing are already "insiders" – value it? It's a problematic trope, one I found myself thinking about recently after reading a series of poetry reviews that praised not so much this or that poet's poems as this or that poet's cultural position. The poet does or does not teach (at a college, specifically in an MFA program). The poet's work is or is not represented in the "popular anthologies." (I wasn't aware there were any.) The poet's themes or subject matter seem, well, unpoetic, and therefore "refreshing." The poet's output is prodigious, proving her essential visionary impulse, or else it is scant, suggesting an admirable reticence in the face of the Great Unknown. The poet had a Significant Life Experience (cancer, war, a stint in the Peace Corps) that sets him apart from the quotidian herd. The poet has a miniscule but passionate readership. The poet lives in Ann Arbor, Grand Junction, Santa Fe...anywhere, it seems, but New York City-unless s/he does in fact live in New York but is distinguished (rendered "outside") by some other notable characteristic.
What so many of these reviews seemed to want was to identify some essential trait that would impute value to the work: render it authentic, meaningful, and not some detachable, forgettable part of the cultural noise in which Americans are immersed. And they wanted to locate this essential trait in context: in the life, times, or circumstances of the poet, anywhere but in the work itself.
Not long after reading those reviews, I was actually asked, by a colleague, to name my "favorite contemporary outsider poet." I replied that I couldn't, because for a poet to be "outside," in my opinion, he or she would probably have to be unpublished. To publish – to seek publication and achieve it, along with a readership of any size – is to step "inside."
A stranger comes to town and shows the way to salvation. A vigilante, a gunslinger in the American idiom. Or: a flâneur, a la Andre Breton and the Surrealists of Paris circa 1924.
We are frightened of literature, it seems to me – frightened of Art – and we want someone, something to tell us how to read what we read, how and why to value what we have read. To be "outside" is, somehow, to be authentic. In authenticity resides value.
I grew up in the authentically rural South in the 1970s and 1980s. I certainly felt like an outsider, in terms of art and culture, and specifically literature. But I left that world – I chose to leave that world – for Harvard when I was 17. Harvard: surely the mark of an insider! Nine years later, I dropped out of academia and joined the Amish. I lived in an isolated horse-and-buggy community for six years, working as a carpenter and baker. It was there that I began to read and write poetry, with no coursework or mentoring. I hitchhiked or hired a driver to get to the university library in Chapel Hill, where I picked up poetry books by the dozen: outsider, by almost any definition. That particular Amish community broke up, and after some wandering I found myself in Iowa, where I earned an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop: insider again.
Now I'm a tenured professor at a small college where I also happen to edit a literary journal: not only insider, but gatekeeper.
I thought about this again last weekend while I was helping a dairyman brother in the religious community of which I remain a part with his evening chores. The cows seemed very authentic.
To read a work of art through the biographical context of origin, publication, or circumstance is useful, for critics. But it suggests the work of art is insufficient, on its own terms, even within its moment. I am not arguing that the work, qua work, is autonomous, but I am suggesting that a work of art, of any quality from any period, may be sufficient, on its own terms. (Poetry is that which suffices, as Wallace Stevens maintained.)
The convoking of these terms is a curious matter, a negotiable contract between the work and any active, curious reader. As an editor, I am always on the lookout for that glint, that opalescent sheen suggesting something more than the ambient cultural noise.
Moving through thousands of submissions a year, one begins to discern contours: work that is "inside," vs. work that is "outside." The same plots, executed to the same degree of competence (more or less): this is the "inside" of American fiction, whether they come from recent Iowa graduates or inmates in the California prison system or grandmothers in Missouri. In poetry, the same lyric turns: the minor epiphanies of domestic confessionalism, the "elliptical" or "skittery" collages in the more recent tradition of Dean Young or James Tate.
The inside of contemporary Anglophone literature is a brightly-lit room: we know where we are, because everybody from Alice Munro and Toni Morrison and Ian MacEwan to Sharon Olds and John Ashbery and Yusuf Komunyakaa has told us. This is where we live, most of the time.
If there is an "outside" to the literature of our moment, it lies in the dim rooms and unmapped corridors leading off from this brilliant space.
And yes, we should be frightened. (See: the sublime.) Like infants, we will learn to know these new spaces by touch. We should whistle, and even sing, as we move around in the dark. It won't help us know any better what this new terrain looks like, but it will alert the inhabitants of these new rooms, these other corridors that we're present, we're here.