The Poem Is You

An introduction

Stephen Burt

Share Via:

An excerpt from the Introduction to Stephen Burt's new anthology of American poetry 'The Poem is You'

Stories about American poetry in the twenty- first century can emphasize its responses to public events. The attacks of September 11, 2001, the American military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the campaigns and elections of 2008 all generated phalanxes of poems, and there are anthologies devoted to each. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath inspired at least eight whole books (the most celebrated, Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, is best read whole). It may be that generations to come will read the poetry of our own time principally for its response to global climate change; the Katrina books enter into that response, as does the recent spate of long poems about watersheds, ecosystems, and metropolitan areas, among them Peter O’Leary’s booklength Phosphorescence of Thought and several long segments in Juliana Spahr’s monumental Well Then There Now. I do not represent those volumes here, but I do include attempts by Allan Peterson and Jorie Graham, by dg nanouk okpik and James Merrill, to learn from climate science, and to face a rapidly warming world.

Other stories about the most recent poetry highlight controversial schools and explicit programs. Conceptualists such as the wonderfully confounding poet- critic Tan Lin and the out spoken performers Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith emulated visual artists in their practice of repeating, reframing, or reshaping preexisting, apparently nonliterary texts. (Some of that practice has included racially charged—or offensive— appropriation.) Flarfists, or Flarf poets, flaunt “corrosive, cute or cloying awfulness” (as Drew Gardner put it), looking back to Dadaism and trying to challenge the very idea of taste. The Black Took Collective and its allies, on the page and in performances, proposed a non- narrative, non- autobiographical “ ‘experiment’ or ‘innovation’ as a means of defining a different kind of blackness,” as Dawn Lundy Martin has explained. “Gurlesque” poets (a label devised by Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum in their anthology of the same name) found in apparent “bad” taste, in scandalous extremes, means of resistance to patriarchal demands. Spurred by classroom needs, by international examples, or simply by intellectual challenge, poets far from any avant-garde also invented or revived strict forms, from the alphabetical acrostic to Ali’s “real ghazal” to the Golden Shovel, a verse form devised—in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks— by Terrance Hayes.

If you compare American poetry today to American poetry ten, twenty, thirty years ago, treating both as if they could be considered whole, perhaps the most obvious difference is this: African American poets and poems now seem central, to black and to non- black observers. It’s perilous to judge anything by lists of prizes, but it means something that the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle award, the Pulitzer, the Kingsley and Kate Tufts awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize all went to more than one African American poet between 2010 and 2015. White poets in the same years became more likely to write about white privilege and whiteness: Bruce Smith, Tess Taylor, Ed Pavlic, and Martha Collins have done so with particular force.

And yet American poetry can no longer be plausibly seen, by observers of any background, in black and white. The last fifty years— but, even more so, the last ten— have seen more and more descendants of non- European immigrants publish first, and second and third, books. Many of those poets wanted styles that fit their multiple or hybrid ethnic identities; some of them, from John Yau to Khaled Mattawa, worked at once to extend and to discard ideas about tribes, inheritance, and “voice” that came to them from the confessional, autobiographical poets of earlier years. Asian American poetry, like African American poetry and like Chican@ and Latin@ poetry, benefited in the 2010s from institutions and networks built in the 1990s, and it began to flourish in several places at once. The current renaissance of Native American poetry, by contrast, has an identifiable source in Santa Fe: the writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where the poet Arthur Sze taught (for example) Sherwin Bitsui, Layli Long Soldier, and dg nanouk okpik. Though ethnically specific literary institutions such as Houston’s Arte P.blico Press long predate the 1990s, the last twenty years saw many more of them, from the Cave Canem network of African American writers’ retreats to the Asian American Writers Workshop.

Nor were all new institutions ethnically marked. Writers devoted to premodern rhymed or metered techniques created magazines, presses, and conferences, such as the West Chester University Poetry Conference, for those goals. Writers who kept up the eclectic, choppy aesthetic of the 1990s, such as Noah Eli Gordon, found new ways to collaborate and discuss their work online, in expansive journals such as The Volta that could not have come about before the Web. Very young writers used digital media to conjure poetic communities of their own. And if we count only named institutions, we miss other sources of poetry, styles, and networks created through less formal means. In the late 1990s poets who wanted to capture the informal energies of enthusiastic conversation invented a mode (presented here by Albert Goldbarth) that some proponents called “ultra- talk.” Mark Nowak, Craig Santos Perez, Spahr, Claudia Rankine, and others incorporated journalistic research and documentary prose into long poems meant to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Epigrams and epigrammatic or witty poetry— hard to find in the America of the 1980s— experienced a revival led by Kay Ryan. Graham Foust, Pam Rehm, and Joseph Massey, among others, revisited the cool observational sides of modernism and the midcentury movement called Objectivism in unadorned, precise miniatures. Some of these schools and movements and institutions and writers are represented in this book. Some are mentioned here because they are not.

Extracted from The Poem Is You by Stephen Burt, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, £20.00. Copyright © 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

The book may be purchased here:

Many Thanks to Harvard University Press and Stephen Burt for allowing us to use this extract.