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Anne Waldman: Finding Poetry’s Public Voice
...foolish common people do not understand that what is seen is merely their own mind.
— Lankavatara Sutra
In “Non Stop,” an early poem that quietly subverts the “I do this I do that” model that has been ascribed to Frank O’Hara, Anne Waldman writes:
I really don’t feel like doing anything today
but I’m going to anyway & you know why?
Because all this aside, Mr. President
I really like getting up & doing things
Somewhat later, in Fast Speaking Woman (1974), Waldman further identifies herself, as a seeking intelligence and as a poet:
I learn by books
I learn by singing
I recite the chant of one hundred syllables
I write down my messages to the world
The wind carries them invisibly, staccato impulses to the world
I’m the woman stirring the soup pot
The woman who makes circles with her arm
Stirring, singing this song about the Woman-Who-Does-Things
(quoted in Knight 291)
And indeed there can be no more accurate description of Anne Waldman’s contribution to American poetry in the last three decades — she is par excellence the “woman who does things.” The young woman we meet in “Non Stop” is not Amy Lowell wandering down garden paths proclaiming “the softness of a woman” trapped in a corset and opulent gown; nor is she a revolutionary diva such as Nikki Giovanni or Erica Jong. Anne Waldman is the vessel of a different voice — a poet who works her way into Art as a way of finding a public voice. Thus Waldman’s work ranges, with equal power and feeling, from the personal love lyric and deep moral contemplation to protest against the infernal industry and mindless destructiveness represented by nuclear weapons factories.
Placing Anne Waldman
In 1965, Waldman published a play script entitled “The Stoop” in Silo, the Bennington College student literary magazine that she edited. Reflecting aspects of the Theatre of the Absurd that was then in vogue, Waldman’s work depicted a dysfunctional typical American urban family harassed by a group of surly teenaged delinquents. This is, however, an upside-down society — off-kilter to the extent that when the police are finally called to the scene, it is the family of “crackpots” who get arrested for “molesting” the thugs (“The Stoop” 76). The world seen from “The Stoop” is a topsy-turvy world; but some would say that this play is a literary effort that delivers an accurate sounding of the time in which it was written.
The philosopher John McDermott once suggested to me that merely recognizing the possibility of new categories can be liberating. Americans, he said, consider Descartes to be a thinker. “But to the French,” said McDermott, “he is not a thinker; he is someone who formulates experience by ideation” (personal conversation, 28 February 1965). Similarly, it may have been useful for book reviewers and critics in the 1980s and 90s to consider Waldman a belated member of the Beats or of the New York School; but at this point it is also seems appropriate to imagine a broader context for her work.
If we view her as an activist on behalf of poetry, we might eventually decide that Anne Waldman has been at least as influential as Harriet Monroe, having built two important institutions that continue to thrive. It must be said that unlike Monroe — who founded Poetry magazine in 1912 and was an indefatigable if proprietary advocate of what she called the “New Poetry Movement” — Waldman’s own poetry has never played a secondary role to her organizational activities.
As a poet, Waldman has managed to find a useful approach to solving a dilemma that has confronted every American poet since the 1890s; and that is how one might achieve a productive balance of the public and the personal dimensions of the art.
“A literary history that is serious about examining the state of the art and its place in the culture at a particular historical moment,” writes James D. Sullivan, “needs a critical method that will help reveal what people at the time thought poetry was, what they thought it was for, and what they did with it” (12). In the 1960s — thanks to the mimeograph machine and the photo-offset printed paperback book — poetry was popular, glamorous, engaged, and confrontational. The 60s was a period when much poetry was informed by what Waldman called the “boisterous experimentation” of the Beats (Beat Book xx). There was also enough antagonism between so-called “academic “ poets and “non-traditionalists” that an attempt to call a truce became the rationale and marketing ploy for a Doubleday anthology titled A Controversy of Poets (1965), edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly.
Beatniks were supposedly apolitical but, as Waldman points out, “the Beat writers empowered themselves through their writing at a time when the rest of the culture was under a collective hallucinatory yoke” (Beat Book xxi). As the voices of a subculture, the Beat writers also proposed alternative concepts of community that would be variously expressed by different demographic groups in subsequent decades. It is important, however, to explore just what it was in American society that the 1960s disrupted; which is to say that it is worth our while to look further back.
From the New Poetry Movement to the New Critics to The New American Poetry
Compared to the somnolent and soporific gentility of late nineteenth-century verse, the poetry produced by American writers in the twentieth-century displays a remarkable dynamism. Perhaps a brief outline of the major tendencies during the century can set the stage for our discussion.
In his critical survey American Poetry Since 1945, Stephen Stepanchev characterized the often-innovative poetry of the 1910 decade as energized by “some sort of idealism, either traditional or revolutionary” which eventually produced a “remarkable group of poets [who] brought American poetry to an eminence it had never reached before” (11, 12). He adds that “from 1930 to 1945, American poetry moved in a leftward, populist, mildly Marxist direction” (12) that nevertheless generated an opposition from the right that achieved its most influential expression in the New Criticism.
From their base in university English departments and university-sponsored quarterlies, the poets and editors associated with the New Criticism proved to be a very powerful opposition to the populist trend. If American poetry was intensely political in the 1930s, according to Stepanchev, “by the end of the Korean War in 1953, the poetry of public issues was completely in disfavor. It was regarded as rhetorical and superficial. It was no longer ‘hip’ to believe in social, political, or economic salvation, and many poets eagerly shed the political labels they had acquired in earlier years” (14).
Alan Golding and others have carefully shown how the New Critics’ textbook — Understanding Poetry (1938; and many subsequent editions) edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren — changed the way that American poetry was taught and publicly perceived. As early as 1941, Karl Shapiro had complained that “American poetry suffers from the dictatorship of criticism” (Stepanchev 55). In this new climate, Michael Thurston has argued, poets took W. H. Auden’s line “poetry makes nothing happen” — from his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1939) — seriously enough to make it come true. As a result, their poetry offered “interventions not in politics but in imagination,” becoming “a special kind of discourse, removed from the world of action and consequence and thus prevented from acting, prevented from having consequences” (Thurston 6; emphasis added). As may be expected, the preeminence of this approach in turn gave rise to opposition. And it is to that rising voice of dissent that Anne Waldman pledged allegiance.
Waldman has seen herself as participating in what she terms “a hybrid outsider tradition” influenced by the New York School, the San Francisco Renaissance of the early 1950s, Charles Olson’s Black Mountain College aesthetic, Jerome Rothenberg’s explorations of ethnopoetics, and a number of other approaches that brought her “magnificent epiphanies” (Knight 288). It is probable that the fount of all these discoveries was Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry 1945 — 1960 which re-invigorated the emphasis on innovation and experimentation that marked American poetry in those early decades of the century when Modernism and Harriet Monroe’s New Poetry Movement first captured public attention. What Allen’s anthology demonstrated was that, after World War II, younger poets working at the margins “created their own tradition, their own press, and their own public.”
“They are our avant-garde,” Allen wrote, “the true continuers of the modern movement in American poetry” (xi). Augmented by appearances in Evergreen Review and other Grove Press paperbacks, the poets Allen introduced to avid young readers became tremendously influential. Aspiring artists and writers, born in the 1940s — that is to say, those who were high school and college students in 1960 — immediately adopted Allen’s anthology as their own textbook. In the “Statements on Poetics” section at the back of the book, Robert Duncan’s comments struck many readers as a revolutionary call to order — or, perhaps, disorder.
“Could it be,” Duncan wrote, “that when poetry no longer has any cultural value; when poetry no longer furnishes the gentleman’s library with its elegance or the English professor with his livelihood; that a poetry will remain, cherished only by unimportant people who love or adventure” (Allen 402). The idea would not seem at all strange to young people who knew Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) almost by heart. Such ideas, coming from the early 1950s to set the tone for a new decade, easily caught the imagination of young people eager to give voice to their own dreams and ideals.
A tradition, as Robert Creeley has suggested, is what we choose to use.
Writing in Chicago Review, critic Jed Rasula claims experimentation as a major feature of American poetry of our moment. “The point is not tradition versus experimentation,” he writes, “but the accreditation and activation of a tradition of experimentation”; and he goes on to state that
any tradition we know is a tradition of experimentation in the broader sense. As soon as the sense of experiment declines, the tradition itself dwindles into routinized expectations of the same. (29)
It might be more useful, however, if we specify that the “tradition of experimentation” that informs Anne Waldman’s work is one that draws upon the Beat writers’ understanding of jazz as well as aesthetic concerns embodied in the practice of Abstract Expressionist painting and aleatoric music that interested some of the New York School poets. This would be a tradition that privileges spontaneity and views art more as process than as product or artifact.
It is interesting, in this regard, to note that Waldman’s poems and her energetic activities on behalf of poetry and poets are similarly informed by a delight in experiment and a deeply motivated quest for what she has referred to as a “spiritual community.” Waldman, I think, would agree with Muriel Rukeyser’s comment that poetry has the power to produce “That climax when the brain acknowledges the world, / all values extended into the blood awake.” It is such power, says Rukeyser in her poem “Reading Time: 1 Minute 26 Seconds” (1939) that makes people fear poetry:
They turn away, hand up palm out
Fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
Clearly, Rukeyser’s epiphanic “moment of proof” can be seen as a moral counterpart to Charles Olson’s directive in “Projective Verse” (1950) that “the poem itself must at all points, be an energy-discharge” (Allen 387; see also Stepanchev 126–129) in terms of both language and content.
The East Side Aesthetic, ca. 1960–65
“Writing, for me,” wrote painter Joe Brainard in Self-Portrait (1972), “is a way of ‘talking’ the way I wish I could talk” (Lewallen 79).
That statement is probably true for many poets as well. I know that it is true for me. We poets are, in effect, our own Cyranos.
Among the influences that helped Waldman discover her own voice might be a tendency in the first half of the 1960s that we might call something like “the lower East Side aesthetic.” An attitude reflected across artistic disciplines by a great many writers, painters, musicians, and other performers, the lower East Side aesthetic is most clearly identifiable as a mood of sociability and a theory of performance that was shared to some extent by artists linked to Ted Berrigan.
A precise analog for the poetry produced by a group of young writers gathered around Berrigan’s C magazine in the early 1960s can be found in Brainard’s assemblages. As art historian Constance M. Lewallen notes, Brainard collected detritus (cigarette butts, bottle caps), junk, antiques, curios and trinkets and created astonishing altar-like constructions. “Typically,” writes Lewallen,
Brainard doesn’t disguise the identity of the constituent parts, and whatever specific meaning accrues in their new context is never preconceived. While bristling satire was behind the constructions of other assemblagists (Ed Kienholz and Bruce Connor, for example), it was far from Brainard’s mind. His approach was always sensual, a search for the beautiful in what Berrigan called “the polyglot materials of the city.”
Brainard’s works do, in fact, possess an unexpected yet strangely inevitable formal beauty. It should go without saying that such work — like the scrambled syntax of Berrigan’s rhymeless sonnets — also disrupts previously-held ideas of what art should be.
Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, the aleatoric works of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, the hybrid art/ drama “happenings” of Allen Kaprow and others, all flourished in the later 1950s and early 1960s. Together these works constitute much of the “tradition of experimentation” that Waldman had begun to explore. If they had something in common it was a notion of spontaneity.
As those who are familiar with jazz will know, spontaneity in art demands erudition. And some will remember that there was a period in ancient Greece when poetry was choreographed and strophes were steps. So, looking at her in the 1980s, one can see Anne Waldman as a poet of gracefully deft movements for whom traditions are like a gymnast’s ball or beribboned baton, a poet who can call upon literature’s magnificent clichés to tweak patriarchal samsara:
The lady’s face is like the moon
her eyes are like lotuses
but I’ve got to impart a touch of my own
it’s his eyes blue like the lotus it’s
his face that’s not a bit like the moon
though maybe like the current moon
a little narrow
(Waldman, Makeup 50)
That’s from a poem titled “Of All My Kingdom” in the collection Makeup on Empty Space (1984). In the same volume is another take on a perennial required topic. “To a Young Poet” allows Waldman to clearly state her own aesthetic values. She begins by spotlighting the etymology of the word. Greek poetes means “maker.” She writes:
Never forget you are what you are
poetry is important
it’s food. The words never take you
back to where you start from, but they
might change the figuration of the
mind and glow. You might perceive
clearly the harmony if not logic
which can upset, can delight
Poetry, then, is a way of knowing; an exercise that allows us to perceive things differently; which is useful, even if — as Buddhist sages insist — all we see of the world is our own mind. Indeed, even if poetry is merely a game of language, such practice may still yield wisdom. Waldman continues:
remember: no rules.
Poetry keeps changing its stress
and we might live more in our
dreams than in this dangerous
waking life, or not
Characteristically, Waldman resists expressing ignorant certainties.
The lady writes thoughtful, erudite, jazzy, sassy poems. That is not, however, the point of this essay. Central to understanding her work — and the eventual significance of her place in American letters — is her contribution to a long-running debate concerning the rôle of the personal or public voice in poetry.
What is Art?
Our brief outline above of the major tendencies in American poetry during the twentieth century is useful, perhaps; but I must also point out that poets in each generation have had to personally confront the issue of whether or not their poems should be entirely personal or have broader, public utility. In each decade, as our outline has indicated, this was also a question that demanded a response from literary criticism.
The summer of 1926, for example, brought two important texts that focused on this question. Writing in the June 23rd issue of the Nation, Langston Hughes offered an essay that is still regarded as a defining text of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes, in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” argues for total artistic autonomy. He demanded for artists the right to depict life exactly as they saw it. “We know we are beautiful, and ugly, too,” he wrote. Boldly, he declared that he didn’t care whether white people liked what he wrote. And he did not care about how black people received his work, either.
“We build our temples for tomorrow,” Hughes concluded.
In the same month, Archibald MacLeish made his first appearance in Poetry magazine with “Ars Poetica” — a Modernist affirmation of art for art’s sake. An American trained as an Ivy League lawyer, a member of Yale’s Skull and Bones fraternity, living in France with his two children and a wife who gave concerts of art songs written for her by Darius Milhaud, MacLeish declared
A poem should be palpable and mute
But, having our undivided attention, offered several additional conundrumns:
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea —
A poem should not mean
Interestingly enough, forty years later this poem would be answered in parody by Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” (1967).
The background of the “art for art’s sake” ideal that MacLeish seems to champion in “Ars Poetica” is worth examining in some detail — especially as it seems also to be an ingredient of Hughes’s recipe for artistic integrity.
Margaret Atwood offers a concise view of what is at stake in the durable and contentious art pour l’art debate:
The nineteenth-century battle over the proper function of art was fierce, but all attempts to bend art to some useful purpose or to prove that it had such a purpose — even attempts by art-lovers such as John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold — came to grief in the end because what they amounted to was censorship.
If beauty is truth and the truth will make you free, is there a kind of truth that ought to be suppressed? Yes: ugly truth, or any truth that might be bad for you. (13)
“Art pour l’art,” the strange device on the banner raised by Théophile Gautier — in defiance of the social good, of the improvement of the individual, of moral earnestness, and so forth — this device was the credo that finally prevailed among the devotees of Art. (13)
The most extreme expression of this position came, of course, from Oscar Wilde. “The only excuse for making a useless thing,” said Wilde, “is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless” (quoted in Atwood 13). Therefore, if you strictly follow Wilde’s logical tease, art is entirely admirable. Or, perhaps, good for nothing except to be admired.
If Archibald MacLeish subscribed to that idea when he wrote “Ars Poetica” in 1926, a decade later he had second thoughts. It could be said, in fact, that MacLeish has wrestled more strenuously with the issue of poetry’s public utility than most other writers.
Poetry as Public Speech
During the 1930s, says Cary Nelson, MacLeish “was in conflict about the relation between art and politics” and was ridiculed in the Leftist press as “a key example of liberal indecisiveness” (Nelson 162). Despite the ideas expressed in “Ars Poetica,” however, Nelson finds that MacLeish’s poetry was “deeply engaged with social issues” and, therefore, counts as a contribution to the decade’s predominantly political literary atmosphere (163).
Writing in Atlantic Monthly in June 1939, as Europe became engulfed in full-scale war, MacLeish reiterated his belief in art as “a method of dealing with our experience of this world.” But he noted,
There are other methods of dealing with our experience of this earth which translate it into intellectual terms or extract from it moral meanings. Art is not such a method.
(MacLeish, “Poetry and the Public World” 825)
“Poetry to most people,” he insisted, “stands for the intensely personal life of the individual spirit” (823). Still, MacLeish admits to being troubled by a nagging question:
Is the political experience of our time an experience which requires for its intensity the intensity of poetry? Is the political experience of our time an experience personal and immediate and intense as are the experiences to which poetry, and poetry alone, can give shape and order and recognition? (826)
We might also ask: is poetic utterance — the breath that should touch the heart and bring profound comprehension — too precious to be spent on political issues? Others, of course, have phrased that question somewhat differently. Cary Nelson, in Repression and Recovery (1989), has suggested that poetry in the United States functions as a discourse that is permitted to deal with issues that are not allowed to be discussed in any other discursive context. A more ancient iteration of MacLeish’s question, however, might be that Biblical text so often quoted in the pulpits of the African American church in this country: “If I do not speak, the rocks will cry out.” And, as one minister in Houston added, “I don’t want no rock crying out for me.” This need to speak, in other words, is imperative.
A year earlier, in the Yale Review, MacLeish had imagined poetry that saw a place for itself beyond focusing upon the intensely personal and presumably private. Public speech, he wrote, “is that human, living, natural, and unformalized speech, capable of the public communication of common experience” (“Public Speech and Private Speech in Poetry” 537–538). There was, in fact, a kind of poetry that aspired to that role. Such work, in MacLeish’s view, represented
a revolt against the almost neurotic conception of poetry which exiled poets from the actual world. It is a struggle to regain that conception of poetry in which a poem, like war or an edict, is an action on this earth. (538; emphasis added)
Here, perhaps, is where Anne Waldman comes in. It is clear that most of her work is focused on the personal. We take delight in the intrepid persona who journeys through India, Iran, and Afghanistan in “Blue Mosque” (1988). We say “right on!” to the bold beauty who declares in “Miles Above” — a poem from the somewhat surrealistic Invention (1985):
You know, I just arrived the spine a burning
question: Is sex securely fastened?
The stewardess has poisoned me out of jealousy
And amid what she calls “Travel notes — literal and figurative” (in Journals & Dreams, 1976) are images that come from dream work and deeply felt poems that are, nevertheless, also letters to friends. Beyond this tendency to personal reference and private communication, however, Waldman is a poet who still reserves herself the right to employ the sort of efficacious public speech that MacLiesh struggled to define.
“Is the political experience of our time,” asked MacLeish in the 1930s, “an experience which requires for its intensity the intensity of poetry?”
Intensity is the operative word. In her time, at the end of the 1980s, Waldman identified our era as equivalent to the Kali Yuga, the “dark age” of Hindu cosmology.
“The amount of pain we have inflicted on ourselves,” she wrote, “on other beings, on Nature is unspeakably intense. You could almost say infinite” (Vow to Poetry 69). In response to this pain she proposed a poetic integrity:
Kali Yuga Poetics has everything to do with the acts of poetry, language, and speech committed in the Kali Yuga timeframe. Now more than ever the poem is a call to responsibility and action. To witness, grieve, alleviate suffering.
(Vow to Poetry 72)
Such poetry must be cast in a public voice; but with Waldman, the source of this voice is not politics in the sense of ideology or partisan loyalty or strategic negotiations. Indeed, while her consciousness of suffering is real enough, Waldman’s conception of poetry sometimes seems mystical. In a 1991 interview included in her book Vow to Poetry (2001), Waldman asserts, “speech remains a mystery. Words are sacred from some point of view. They emerge — when they aren’t purely discursive — out of luminosity” (114). The comment, of course, suggests some of the more complex ideas attached to the notion of logos since antiquity.
But if Waldman’s enactment of public speech is not grounded in our usual conception of politics, where then does it gain its urgency and force? If, as she says, “The motive for the performance of writing and propelling the poem is social as well as personal” (Vow 212), perhaps we will find that motive in the models chosen for Waldman’s meditative practice and in her vision of community.
To focus a spiritual or meditative practice on a model such as the eleventh-century Tibetan teacher Milarepa means focusing upon worthy goals such as humility and “clarity of mind.” The deceptively casual One Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa offers advice meant to sound quite practical:
And when spiritual knowledge manifests itself,
Do not make much of yourselves by a willingness to talk,
If you talk, the goddesses and dākinīs will be disturbed,
So practise without distraction and exert yourselves.
And when you’re in the company of your master
Do not look for faults and virtues, good and bad.
If you do, you’ll see him as a mass of faults.
Just practise clarity of mind and exert yourselves.
The personal accomplishment of Milarepa’s humility has been one of Waldman’s own goals. Similarly, her interest in Shamanism, and in the idea that poetic performance is rooted in ancient ritual, moves her toward a grounding in religion rather than politics (Vow 209, 211). Once there, her serious devotion to Buddhism focuses Waldman’s attention on compassion.
This age of violence and arrogance that we live in, this Kali Yuga timeframe, is an extreme example of samsara, a Sanskrit word Waldman translates as “living inside the wheel of existence, of suffering.” Our daily lives and our society are correspondingly chaotic.
“We are confused,” says Waldman, “because we decide to be confused. We boycott wisdom and compassion. We want to get on with trips of passion, aggression, pride, and immortality” (Vow 191). In her view, politics cannot solve this problem and poetry can only “describe” it. But poetic description can be powerful because Waldman believes that “meaning is not simply something ‘expressed’ or reflected in language, but is actually produced by it” (Vow 212). As she says in her footnotes to Fast Speaking Woman, “Chant is heartbeat. Chant is an ancient efficacious poetic practice” (35). Efficacy, then, means that a poem does not merely “be.” A poem also does something in the world.
To the public, business leaders or army generals or artists are important if they achieve some measure of fame. Within their discipline, however, important artists are just as often those who point out a new direction or offer solutions to problems that may, in fact, only be appreciated as problems by other artists. So it is that Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque are important because of their role in redirecting European painting at the start of the twentieth century. Similarly, Gershwin and Ellington are important — beyond the level of fame or fortune they achieved — because they demonstrated how America’s indigenous folk and popular music could be endued with an elegance that can only be called classical, and not only come Sunday.
So, with Anne Waldman, there is a way for us to measure her importance. In the context of her work here discussed, she does not solve for all time or for all poets the dilemma of the public and private offices of poetry. That debate will continue. Waldman does, however, present us with a model of how one may — to utilize a broader sense of the terms raised by Archibald MacLeish and others — achieve a poetry of consequence and compassion, of worthy and necessary witness. Anne Waldman demonstrates to us that we can write a poetry that matters... because she knows that our lives do.
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———. “Public Speech and Private Speech in Poetry.” Yale Review 27 (March 1938): 536–547.
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———. Fast Speaking Woman. San Francisco: City Lights, 1978.
———. Journals and Dreams. New York: Stonehill, 1976.
———. Makeup on Empty Space. West Branch, Iowa: Toothpaste Press, 1984.
———. “Non Stop.” Another World: A Second Anthology of Works from the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Ed. Anne Waldman. Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971. 377–378.
———. “The Stoop.” Silo 8 (Fall 1965): 67–76.
———. Troubairitz. New York: Fifth Planet Press, 1993.
———. Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews, and Manifestos. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2001.
———, ed. The Beat Book: Poems and Fiction of the Beat Generation. Boston: Shambhala, 1996.
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Lorenzo Thomas, Xavier University, Louisiana, 2004
Lorenzo Thomas is a Professor of English, University of Houston-Downtown. He is the author of Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (University of Alabama Press), which was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book in 2001. His volumes of poetry include Chances Are Few and Dancing on Main Street.
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