Posted on 09 September 2011
The present survey is provisional and intended to serve as only the merest introduction to a vast and extraordinarily complex field, one that commands broad, ongoing attention. Useful examples and additions are welcome and may be entered in the comments section below the article. An earlier version of this essay was given as a talk in […]
Posted on 29 November 2010
Invariably described by critics as “difficult,” Ashbery (perhaps disingenuously) considers himself a simple and direct author of poems that deliberately switch tone, speaker, mood, tense, voice, and idiom seemingly at random. He cobbles together an aural surface that imitates the ADD noise of our channel-hopping daily lives, our bombardment by contradictory opinions, unconnected images, and raw data on a scale impossible to assimilate. He acknowledges in an interview with Daniel Kane for What is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde that he “frequently incorporate[s] overheard speech,” and, as for the role randomness and chance might play in his poems, he concedes “I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.” These are trappings commonly associated with the urbane postmodern aesthetic. Put another way, postmodernism of the kind that Ashbery offers is frequently a nihilistic type of modernism. At times, he seems to enjoy confusion and instability, even as poetic process: “It’s a question of a sudden feeling of unsureness at what I am doing, wondering why I am writing the way I am, and also not feeling the urge to write in another way.” This does not arise from a provocative or incendiary instinct, as he explains in the Paris Review, but rather the belief that one must keep moving or be in danger of ossification.
Posted on 03 November 2010
One of several enticements of the internet for a literary magazine, as for any enterprise, is the ease with which information may be conveyed, stored, and distributed. The era that saw pallets of magazines amassed in warehouses—or, in the case of one magazine I edited, in the copy room at the law office of its […]
Posted on 08 July 2010
In his enormous Pulitzer Prize-winning account, Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer describes the kaleidoscopic tumult and turmoil of the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest American involvement in Vietnam. It was an instant in history when the formal orders of the Old and New Left came together, sometimes reluctantly, with hippies, sectarians, self-styled revolutionaries, and demure New England intellectuals. This was perhaps the last time that such a bizarre gathering would occur on American soil. Among the intellectual elites in attendance and chosen as the avant-garde, literally the advance guard of the march, was the inconspicuous and professorial Robert Lowell, looking a bit capsized and alarmed by the day’s events. Mailer described him as America’s greatest living poet, though he also pointed out, in typical Mailer fashion, that the average National Guardsman assigned to defend the Pentagon would no more recognize America’s greatest living poet than much care about such an obscure status. Lowell is most celebrated today for his keen historical sensitivity, and he has been described, hyperbolically, as the greatest historian of his day. It is therefore fitting that he participated in what can be comfortably termed a crucial historical event at a time when his poetry represented the blending of intensely personal and broadly public concerns.
Posted on 01 September 2008
“John Berryman took his place, but Berryman soon got into trouble—he got drunk and wrecked his room, and the police threw him out of town.”
Posted on 01 April 2008
XJK: I like the sound of words and the fun of putting them together. When I first made fumbling attempts to write, I tried writing fiction too. I wrote extensive imitations of Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys, but those projects didn’t get anyplace. Actually, later on I wrote some science fiction for pulp magazines, two fantasy novels for children, and some stories in little magazines.
Posted on 01 October 2007
Just as Ben Jonson bore the unfortunate fate of living in what would become known as the “Age of Shakespeare,” Louis MacNeice lives in the long shadow thrown by his exact contemporary, W.H. Auden, who dominated his generation of poets and gave a name to the “Age of Anxiety” (Auden’s book of that title begat a symphony by Leonard Bernstein, secured a Pulitzer Prize for the recently naturalized poet, and was hailed by the New York Public Library as one of the most influential books of the last century). Together they suffered the temporary indignity of being joined as ingredients of “MacSpaunday,” the belittling coinage devised by critic Roy Campbell in his book Flowering Rifle. He amalgamated the names of the four Oxford “thirties poets” who were frequently, and unfairly, thought of as indistinguishable (anti-modernist in poetics, leftist in politics): Louis MacNeice (“Mac”), Stephen Spender (“sp”), W. H. Auden (“au-n”), and Cecil Day-Lewis (“day”).
Posted on 08 July 2007
Seidel is a triumphant outsider in American poetry. He does not give readings (he “loathes” them), though one may hear excellent recordings of poems from his new book Ooga-Booga at www.frederickseidel.com. Writing in the New York Sun, Adam Kirsch suggested that Seidel “may be” the best American poet writing today; though hedged, this is a strong bet. Seidel’s most successful techniques, according to Kirsch, are “mystification and outrage.” Kirsch earlier wrote in a 2003New Republic review that Seidel is “transgressive, not in the fashionable way of the seminar but in the disturbing way of the nightmare.” Writing in the Boston Review, Calvin Bedient, editor of avant-garde magazine Volt, depicted Seidel as “the most frightening American poet ever,” and Philip Connors wrote in the young magazinen+1 that Seidel is “willing to say the unsayable.” Richard Poirier, critic and editor ofRaritan, remarked in the late 1990s that Seidel’s poetry contains “complications of a sort that I don’t feel are exhibited in any other of the contemporary poets.” Seidel’s own editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Jonathan Galassi, admits that the poetry is “uncompromising to the point of cruelty.”
Posted on 01 July 2007
EH: The architect Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote that “the truth is more important than the facts.” What does this statement mean to you?
ED: Because I readily admit that much of my book is autobiographical, my family likes to quibble about the details of some of the poems. Every time my parents are present for a reading of “Bees in the Attic,” for example, a discussion of the way “it really happened” always follows. Was the hive really right above my bed? Who discovered the noise first? I remind them of the idea of poetic license and we move on. Similarly, when my mom read “DrugFace” the first time, she was concerned, asking about what (again) “really happened.” I gave a similarly evasive answer, something like, “Yes, I used to drive with my eyes closed, but nobody’s ever asked me what’s my sign.” For me, much of the energy of a poem is in the details, but those details aren’t necessarily facts, though they are true to the situation of the poem and true to the feelings it invokes. In that way, all of “DrugFace” is as true, or as factual, to me as the actual night when I drove around Columbus, Ohio inebriated.
Posted on 08 July 2006
Collins’s most endearing trait, the one that is most frequently trumpeted by his legions of supporters, is that his poems are, above all, accessible. This is true. They waft over the reader as easily as poems can, and this produces a pleasant sensation, particularly for an initiate of modern poetry who, more likely than not, is actively repelled from the art by its practitioners and their protective devotees. When Collins reads his poems, they become a kind of first-rate entertainment. Collins has traded on his reputation as an available, easily comprehended poet for most of his career, and earns credit for reaching such a formidably large audience. However, unlike other popular poets, such as Maya Angelou, Collins (along with fellow bestseller Mary Oliver) is marketed as if he were among the most critically revered poets of the age.