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Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell, Eds.
American Poets in the Twenty-first Century: The New Poetics
reviewed by Andrew Browne
400 pp. Wesleyan University Press.
Unjacketed cloth.

This review is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Andrew Browne and Jacket magazine 2008.

Making It New


My first instinct upon receiving a copy of this book was to comment on the idea behind it. Poetry can be an exhilarating journey for the initiate but a troubling path for those less versed. Many readers of prose are deterred from poetry because of its innate complexity. Poetics statements and critical essays provide a way into poetry for readers of all backgrounds; reading about the poet in his own words or those of an expert in the field can help the reader find a way into the work. Hearing the voice of the poet also adds to the picture and gives the reader a way to actually hear how the marks on the page connect to the breath of the author.

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American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics provides a wonderful compilation of all these tools in an exquisite collection of poetry, poetics, criticism and sound recordings. The editors note that they have used this format before while exploring American Women Poets in the 21st Century (2001), but for this reader it is a novel and commendable format. The organisational style is a great idea; all of the tools needed to find a way into a poet’s work presented in one compact form. Firstly, the poetry itself is presented and probably should be followed by listening to each poet’s contribution on the accompanying audio CD. Secondly, the poet presents a short essay on his or her own poetics. And finally, the poet is examined by an eminent critic in the field.


This combination of resources allows for a fuller understanding of each poet’s work. It is an intriguing mixture that could be a way forward for modern poetry. The complexities of contemporary poetry that can deter the reader are softened by this mixture of sources, and provide concise introductions to the poets involved. Imagine if all collections came in such a format — a kind of introductory kit to a poet; would it deter the diehard poetry fans or add new ones? Maybe the inaccessibility of some poets could be breeched. Would John Ashbery’s newest collection find more readers in this format? Would that be a bad thing?


This collection succeeds in providing an exciting introduction to a various selection of contemporary poets which also must surely reflect on the thrilling diversity of current American poetry. The audio CD helps the reader examine the speaking voice against the written word. It also provides another tool for examining tone and pitch which in some of the poems is crucial.


The intense lyrical explorations of Mark Levine are very interesting. In the poem ‘John Keats’ Levine interrogates what must be a significant influence and examines the act of poetry itself:


                                                     Our machine
Was wired with forgetfulness and failed to ease
the pressure in our mouths, the pressure of the
ground in prayer. Our machine coaxed us
with half-messages from the dying system;
and we saw the machine was weak,
in need of rites; so we touched it with
leaves and with thistles and with dirt
and with white flame and with uranium.
We touched it with sleep and we saw it
in a cloud uplifted on the wings
of nervous hawks. When would the great city
open itself to us? The ideal vase
recited to us treatment methods
we were eager to share. (20)


This is an evocative image of romanticism reflected in the poet’s desire to coax a message from the dying forms, as well as the failure of that endeavour. It also acts, interestingly, to reach beyond the romanticism of Keats and into modernity with questions surrounding the city, modern psychology and nuclear imagery. By melding romanticism and modernism into this poem, Levine seems to be deconstructing the image of the poet and possibly showing his affinity with the romanticist poets but filtered through a modern sensibility, which reminds one of the work of Frank Kermode and Graham Hough from the 1970s that saw modernism as a late romanticism or a continuation of those concerns. Levine’s interrogation of the subjectivity of the poetic speaker, so elegantly plotted by Sabrina Orah Mark, may be a discourse with romantic subjectivity and its continued questioning through modernism.


Karen Volkman’s poetry represents the lyric ‘I’ pushed to its theoretical limit. Through a fascinating mixture of prose, verse and sonnet forms, Volkman investigates the ability of lyric subjectivity to make the complex connections her poetry demands. The poetry is challenging but close readings reward the reader with superb images such as those found in the last untitled prose poem. A line like: ‘the one hanging in the air like a lantern’ (52) recalls Samuel Beckett’s main protagonist in The Unnameable whose torso similarly hangs like a lantern in a café and represents a concern with uncertainty and the void which Paul Ortremba also notices in Volkman’s poetry. Volkman says that it is her hope that the reader will experience ‘pleasure and intense sensation and a shock of strangeness’ (55), and this poetry certainly assaults the senses while providing intellectual stimulation through its intense experimental lyricism.


D. A. Powell’s poetry represents a necessary answer to the coded themes of poets such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. While both of these poets provide poetry accessible to most readers, there can often be culturally specific meanings subsumed within the poems aimed at the homosexual community. Powell produces a poetry that is dealing with the themes and lives of a modern homosexual man but presented in a way that provides accessible cultural references. Maybe the modern acceptance and cultural awareness  of the inner and cultural lives of homosexual citizens (the acceptance of homosexuality not just in poetry but in mainstream entertainment; Will and Grace and Brokeback Mountain come to mind) allow the modern reader easier access to these themes. Powell also layers in popular culture and common experience in ways that provide humanity and humour to his poems.


Powell feels no compulsion to veil his thoughts and experiences and presents them to the reader in all of their vital and expressive imagery. When he does use metaphors and analogies to examine the gay experience, they are presented in ironic and ribald ways that leave the reader chuckling at not only the reference but also the silliness of society’s veiling of natural bodily experiences. Powell uses the word ‘silly’ himself when describing his own poetics and it is this silliness that provides the humour but also allows the reader to feel comfortable occupying the poetic skin of a 21st century gay man. Powell’s poems succeed in continuing the cultural project of gay writers while also opening up his themes for other readers. In his critical essay, Stephen Burt mentions Powell’s attempts to pluralise gay identity (85); the accessibility of these poems is a significant move in that direction.


I was immediately impressed with Peter Gizzi’s use of physical laws to explain metaphysical doubt as found in the opening poem ‘Beginning with a phrase from Simone Weil’. The underlying motif is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which gets a mention in a later poem but works here as the theory behind the words that are trying to grasp the elusiveness of the present moment:


   The present everything is lost in time, according to laws
of physics things shift
   when we lose sight of the present,
   when there is no more everything. No more presence
in everything loved. (97)


Gizzi’s next poem ‘Revival’ opens with a dedication to Gregory Corso which could also be to Alan Ginsburg since this poem is surely as high a quality lament for the current generation as Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ was for his. The reader is assaulted with a variety of cultural references from Cinderella to the Apollo missions, from theories of physics and evolution, to movies and how-to books. The result is to build up a modern sensibility while always questioning the ideology behind it with continued references to the American national anthem and other patriotic allusions. In the end the poem’s speaker finds ‘[a]ll our life, all our American lives gathered / into an anthem we thought to rescue us, / over and out. On your way, dust’ (102).


Juliana Spahr offers up an ambitious long poem ‘Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache’. It is ambitious in its broad sweep as it attempts to draw the reader into a wide swathe of experience that other writers have taken volumes to present. Spahr succeeds in epic fashion as she uses the pronoun ‘we’ as a device to emphasise inclusiveness but also to contrast with the ‘I’ of Walt Whitman to whom this poem seems to be aimed at or referencing.


Spahr uses repetition and listing to build a natural world which she paints specifically American through the process of naming which connects animals to particular places such as ‘the american robin’ or ‘ohio pigtoe’ [small case in text], but also by using certain names that have made their way into American slang and vernacular such as ‘buckeye’ or ‘rabbitsfoot’. Once the reader is drawn into this world, then the tone changes and a different modern, more industrial landscape is painted. This world is also touched with everyday terms and commercial names that give it its particularly American slant. But by the end this song to nature, which changes to a lament about the modern, becomes not her song to America but a sad wail as the ‘we’ becomes ‘I’ and the poet must admit ‘I did not sing wo, wo!’ (131).


I am cautious when using the term Language poetry in connection to any of these poets since it seems as if the term has become as useless and antiquated as the term Confessional poetry. I think that this is rightly so; the revolution represented by the Language poets has taken its course and is now a part of the concerns of modern poetry and not the be-all-end-all poetics that some would have ascribed to it. So when first encountering a poet like Joshua Clover, the term wants to assert itself but then a further reading of his poetry discovers an interrogation of language and themes that goes much deeper than the theoretical explorations of Language poetry, while also seeming rooted in that area.


Clover, like Spahr, interrogates the collective ‘we’ against the lyric ‘I’. ‘Poem’ uses popular and drug culture for its subject matter and works much better than a poem like ‘At the Atelier Teleology’, which uses philosophical and literary terms for its thematic base. Clover mentions in his poetics statement that ‘[s]tanding around talking to everyone isn’t poetry, but I like a poem that makes that seem like a good idea’ (163). Clover’s poetry appears to do that but he is at his best, in my opinion, when that everyone doesn’t include the professors.


In keeping with the diversity of this anthology, Kevin Young returns the reader to a more lyric inspired poetry that emphasises a cultural vernacular. This poetry represents an examination of identity that also pushes the lyric form with its explorations.


Tracie Morris’s sound poetry creates a haunting presence with its eerily suggestive aural shocks. Somewhere between music and madness, its suggestions of abuse through repetition and evocative rhythms are oddly entrancing and upsetting at the same time. Her second poem seems to repeat vernacular references which verge on a racially derogative language.


Myung Mi Kim’s poetry pastiches found statements with bits of politically loaded information that succeeds in creating vibrant images of capitalist/militaristic aggression. Although these poems operate from abstract positions, they do succeed in creating accurate meanings. Kim also uses a Korean vernacular to ironically highlight the situation of Asian-Americans via language and exploitation.


The Beckettian references in Stacy Doris’s first poem from Conference are intriguing: ‘The tale of how speaking begot forgetting’ (268). But it is the selection from Knot which is more to my personal taste. The investigation of rational thought through the usage of a form of reason itself is worthy of note and provides a strange circulatory logic that draws the reader into its intellectual whirlpool. The switch from ‘we’ to ‘I’ is also interesting: ‘So that if we’s could forget entitlement, I might run as some fluid’ (272).


Susan Wheeler’s poem ‘The Debtor in the Convex Mirror’ is a remarkable long poem that explores a sixteenth-century painting from a variety of different artistic angles including its near direct namesake in John Ashbery’s poem. Wheeler’s poem is most appealing in its broad inclusiveness of experience that nods towards economic theory as well as the plight of the modern poet: ‘Book-makers with the odds of slugs’ (300).


Mark Nowak’s intensely political documentary poetry reminds me of some of Barrett Watten’s critical work documenting the photographic recording of Stan Douglas and other alternative artists around the collapsing economy of Detroit (The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics, 2003). Nowak situates his poetry in the industrial wastelands of collapsing American industries to help document the hidden face of capitalism and thus expose the dark underbelly of that faceless machine. This is an out of the ordinary poetry that fuses found statements with pictorial evidence.


Kenneth Goldsmith also uses found poetry but takes it to a rather strange extreme by quoting vast tracks of newspaper reportage. The value of this type of poetry may be in exposing the presence of poetry in the mundane and ordinary, but I felt cheated as I often do when I approach poetry that is less well-wrought and more accidentally discovered.


An exciting trend that this anthology highlights is that the divide between experimental poetry and the lyric doesn’t appear to be as cut and dry as it seems, and that the rather extreme experimentation of certain language and theory based poetries is being tempered with a poetry, or poetries, that are experimenting with the modern lyric potential. It appears that the lyric subjectivity explored by the late romantic poets, interrogated by modernism and disparaged by theory may actually survive the assaults of contemporary poetry.


An important function for an anthology such as this could be as a teaching tool. I can see myself, as a university teacher here in Ireland, developing a course that compares and contrasts the variety of poetic practices being used in the United States today. A text such as this, with its variety of tools, is a perfect way to introduce and compare these poetries.


The final judgement, of any anthology, is to see if the reader follows through reading any of the writers that the text has exposed them to. As I close the pages of American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, I am turning towards my computer with credit card in hand.

Andrew, Aoife and Teddy at Trinity College, Dublin

Andrew, Aoife and Teddy at Trinity College, Dublin

Andrew Browne is a Doctoral Teaching Fellow in the English Department at the National University of Ireland, Galway where he teaches contemporary Irish fiction and conducts doctoral research on Irish and American poetry. Andrew’s MPhil dissertation entitled ‘After Beckett: Samuel Beckett and Modern Irish Poetry, an Exploration’ was successfully completed at Trinity College, Dublin University. Andrew publishes poetry, reviews and essays in Ireland, England and the Czech Republic.

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