The Contemporary Poem

The Contemporary Poem

The Contemporary Poetry Review {1} had an useful essay on the typical American contemporary poem a while back, which began with the question everyone hates to answer: When I tell people I teach and – God help me – even write poetry, they often say, “I wish you could explain modern poetry to me. I just don’t understand most of it.” Reviewing work published in the New Yorker, Jan Schreiber observes that today’s poem is commonly:

* Unmetered and unrhymed.
* Focused on a particular event.
* Possessing slightly fantastical details, but not incomprehensible.
* Inviting metaphoric or symbolic interpretation.
* Reducible, with some ingenuity, to a statement, though not a simple one.
* Inconclusive in its ending.

Readers pointed out that New Yorker selections reflect the editors’ tastes primarily, that the examples illustrated weren’t too mind-blowing, and that a wider-ranging article was on Lemonhound. {2} All true, no doubt, but this English reader does find a certain unsatisfying sameness in contemporary or near-contemporary American poetry. I am thinking now of work in the Oxford Book of American Poetry {3} where the later (and still living poets) anthologized poets are Mark Strand, Jay Wright, Russel Edson, Mary Oliver, Charles Wright, Frederick Seidel, C.K. Williams, Charles Simic, Frank Bidart, Carl Dennis, Fanny Howe, Robert Pinsky, Tom Clark, Billy Collins, Bob Dylan, Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Marilyn Hacker, Linda Gregg, Ann Lauterbach, William Matthews Sharon Olds, Ron Padgett, Louise Glück, Michael Palmer, James Tate, Douglas Crase, Paul Violi, John Koethe, Bernadette Mayey, J.D. McClatchy, Alice Notley, Kay Ryan, Terence Winch, Patti Smith, Rae Armantrout, Aaron Fogel,  Jane Kenyon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Susan Mitchell,  Molly Peacock, Bob Perelman, David Shapiro, James Cummins, Rachel Hadas, Lawrence Joseph, Heather McHugh, Lynn Emanuel, Katha Pollitt, Charles Bernstein, Anne Carson, Carolyn Forché, Dana Gioia, Jorie Graham, Edward Hirsch, Rodney Jones, and John Yau (a long list from a very substantial collection – which may help someone contemplating buying the book unseen from Amazon, etc . I should also add – in case this is taken as a recommendation – that there seem to be good-to-passable things by W.D. Snodgrass, John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath, Frederick Seidel, Frank Bidart, Patti Smith, Jane Kenyon and Rachel Hadas but too much of the rest is prose, and prose that’s remarkable dull, ill-crafted and predictable. David Lehman is clearly seeing and prizing things that I can’t. *

Perhaps what I’m trying to say will become clearer if I list what I find generally missing from the work:

1. Something worth saying.
2. An overall shaping where each pause, word, phrase and sentence has the right place in the poem, each line leading naturally to the next and developing the theme further.
3. An ‘inevitability’ of phrasing, with the word combinations appearing unexpected but apt and memorable on reflection.
4. A close attention to the sound of the words, with those phonetic patternings and half echoes that make a line or phrase pleasing by its auditory qualities alone.

Am I being serious with such sweeping judgements? I am, though of course realizing that poetry today, or the serious poetry published in leading magazines, has other aims. As David Caplan remarks: ‘the plurality of alternatives that contemporary poets encounter’ has destabilized our sense of acceptable options. A circumstance that makes the poets’ formal choices nearly impossible to anticipate. In other words: forget what you know. We’ve been invited to a game held together by a set of rules that are self-devised, unique, complex and subject to instant change.'{2} And of course I write from a peculiarly British point of view: American speech is much less formal than ours – a different rhythm and intonation altogether, as anyone comparing films from the two countries will grasp immediately, particularly in costume drama pieces. So arises, I imagine, the ceaseless search for novelty, inescapable when so many MFAs are turned out each year, all needing their publishing credits to secure a tenured position in academia.

‘Making the rules up as they go along’ often extends into the writing process itself, where spontaneity is admired and preserved. In recent interview Billy Collins had this to say: {4} ‘I try to write very fast. I don’t revise very much. I write the poem in one sitting. Just let it rip. It’s usually over in twenty to forty minutes. I’ll go back and tinker with a word or two, change a line for some metrical reason weeks later, but I try to get the whole thing just done. Most of these poems have a kind of rhetorical momentum. If the whole thing doesn’t come out at once, it doesn’t come out at all. I just pitch it.’ I imagine many poets do something similar, but do they publish everything, even if the result is banal or unambitious? {5} Spontaneous writing was a favourite pastime of surrealist poets, but not much of their work is read today, or was then, very probably, outside their particular coteries.

* Other reviewers also seem disappointed by the later selections in The Oxford Book of American Poetry. {6-7}

End Notes

1. Stalking the Typical Poem by Jan Schreiber 5/15/2014:
2. Carmine Starnino: Steampunk Zone. 4/17/2013. from Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism, Gaspereau Press, 2012)
3. The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Chosen and edited by David Lehman. O.U.P., 2006.
4. Billy Collins, The Art of Poetry No. 83 Interviewed by George Plimton. The Paris Review. Fall, 2001.
5. An Apology for Poetry, or, Why Bother With Billy Collins? By Paul Stevens. DrunkenBoat. Spring 2002.
6. The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Chosen and edited by David Lehman. Reviewed by Jay Parini. Guardian, January 2007.
7. The Oxford Book of American Poetry. Chosen and edited by David Lehman.  Poetic Boom? By William Logan. NYT’s Sunday Book Review, April 2006.


One Comment

  1. You may appreciate this Poetry & Free Verse portal on Prose:

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