My initiation into contemporary poetry began my freshman year in high school. My family had recently moved to Nebraska—where both of my parents were born and raised and where we had generations of family connections. But the landscape was mostly foreign to me; I had grown up in the narrow vales and hills on the north side of Pittsburgh, and the flatlands of the prairie felt like the moon. My freshman English teacher, hoping to help, handed my a copy of Alvin Turner as Farmer by William Kloefkorn. The book is less known than it should be in the bicoastal world of the poetry establishment, but in Nebraska it’s a cultural treasure and touchstone. Kloefkorn was the State Poet for nearly thirty years and was well known to Nebraska’s teachers, because he had started the state’s poets-in-the-schools program in the early seventies—and had spent decades traveling all over to talk with students. “Not many things,” Kloefkorn said, “are more important or more satisfying than are classrooms filled with wide-eyed, vibrant students who are eager to learn and to tell stories by way of the written word.”
But I didn’t care about any of that then. For me, Kloefkorn’s narrator—“a dirt farmer / Who dreams of poetry”—represented something far simpler and more dear; he was a voice that explained this new terrain and reconciled it with my own dreams. This, of course, is the work of all great literature: to transport us to worlds we never knew existed while also forcing us to look at our familiar surroundings anew, to reexamine what we thought we already knew. This may be getting tougher to do, as more than a few contemporary critics have posited. The attention span of today’s youth, they say, is more suited to Twitter and Facebook and twenty-four hour news. But why, then, shouldn’t poetry have an opportunity for a resurgence? Imagist classics like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Carl Sandburg’s “Fog,” Adelaide Crapsey’s “November Night,” and William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” would each fit neatly within the confines of a Tweet. (Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” and H.D.’s “Oread” come close.) And why shouldn’t a form as nimble and associative as poetry be the ideal genre for dealing with the jumble and rush of our lives?
This issue grew from these very questions. David Caplan had presented to me two very different projects that he wanted to embark upon: one an essay on the interrelationship of insult and rhyme in hip-hop music, the other a sequence of poems about young men navigating modernity at a yeshiva in New Jersey. On the surface, these explorations couldn’t seem more different, and we initially agreed that they would have to appear in different issues—maybe even separated by several issues. But the more we talked, the more we came to see the shared impulse of these projects: a common struggle to understand how certain modes of language convey participation in or rejection of tradition, how our emotions are contained in words as we speak them now and how others before us have spoken. Soon, I decided that the two projects should not be separated but placed side by side. And I asked Caplan to assist me in building an issue that would radiate out, like ripples on a pond, in either direction—one stretching backward through criticism toward the origins of the language of American poetry, the other reaching forward into a suite of young or under-recognized contemporary poets.
From there, we were guided only by our own tastes and the pleasure we each seemed to derive from poems and critiques of poems that challenged us, surprised us, informed us, and sometimes upset us. We didn’t necessarily agree with all of the essays contained herein, but we found everything here worth airing. We value the discussion they ask us to participate in. Likewise, we sometimes disagreed about particular poems (though, in truth, we agreed far more often than we expected to), but we shared the wish to reward ambition and execution alike. Thus, though most of the poems here are fully realized and tightly crafted, we also felt great affection for the scruffy underdog—the poem that, for all its accomplishment, points toward still bigger things.
Considering all this intuitive compiling, the result appears rather thought-out and tidy. The essays begin with a symposium of short essays on Walt Whitman in Washington, DC. The sesquicentennial of Whitman’s arrival in the nation’s capital after witnessing the carnage of the Fredericksburg battlefield is approaching, and it seems an appropriate place to start—with the war that birthed the American modern era as understood by our national poet. From there, we move to a pair of essays on H.D. and Elizabeth Bishop by Maureen N. McLane and William Logan, respectively. Each explores the origins of the poet’s imagery, though the approaches could hardly be more different. McLane melds the tools of criticism with the self- revelation of memoir to create a daring and original portrait of her personal version of H.D. Logan, by contrast, delves into Bishop’s biographical material and manu- script archives to present a stunningly intimate view of the young Elizabeth Bishop as she verged on becoming the poet we know. Last but not least is an open-ended symposium inspired by the simple question: what is the state of contemporary American poetry? Unsurprisingly, a critic took up Rita Dove’s edition of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, which has sparked such critical controversy since its publication last year and even more debate after the vitriolic review it received from Helen Vendler in the pages of the New York Review of Books. The stances taken here represent both the fragmented nature of the current critical establishment and the degree to which such disagreements are a healthy part of a continuing discourse on the tension between inclusivity and the inherently selec- tive and subjective nature of canon-making.
Opening out in the other direction are the poems themselves—which defiantly resist categorization and pigeon-holing. There are unexpected nods to formalism (Charles Bernstein’s alternating rhymes, Victoria Chang’s acrostics, Linda Zisquit’s ghazal), but there are also all the trappings of the thorny world some critics would have poetry stand against. David Baker grapples with Twitter and texting, John Koethe tackles YouTube, and Paul Guest name-checks the dead Bigfoot hoax carried on cable news. Katie Ford and Andrew Hudgins confront the American legacy of war, Pimone Triplett takes on the housing crisis, and Natasha Trethewey and A. Van Jordan discuss race—from the very different perspectives of Sally Hemings at Monticello and Black Bart in Blazing Saddles. Together they illustrate how easily the mash-up of the modern world can impose itself, uninvited and unwelcome, into any moment in our lives. But they show, too, how greatly we need a kind of poetry and poetry criticism that is adroit and engaged enough to cope with and make sense of this confusion. This is my charge to all poets: to continue this struggle—and to carry it forward for a new generation, as Bill Kloefkorn did for me.
And what better way to close not only this issue but my tenure? This will be my last issue as editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. After nine years of editing and working to foster new talent and broaden the purview of American literature and journalism, I’m happily returning to the life of a writer, with the new challenge of living up to the standards I’ve long imposed on others. Upon my exit, it seems fitting to offer up this issue of American poetry—not as some forlorn bulwark against the floodwaters of dumbed-down public discourse, but as simple evidence of what a few well-rendered lines can still accomplish. The essays examining our nation’s lyrics show both the expansiveness of our literature and the microcosms it can inhabit. The poems attest to the health and diversity of our voices and styles, how we as a culture have come to simultaneous honor tradition and value improvisation. Survey- ing these pages, I see cause for nothing but pleasure in the reading and unqualified hope for the future of poetry.
Indeed, as I return now to live amid the sweep of the Great Plains that once seemed so foreign, it’s hard not to see a certain symbolism. The school district I attended is at work on new elementary school, scheduled to open in the fall. It’s a fairly standard-looking brick and concrete structure surrounded by a neighborhood of cookie-cutter suburban homes. It couldn’t seem more like every other public school scattered across the country. But this school has a unique and noble name, a testament to what careful and a few well chosen words can mean to a place and its people. Come August, my son will be among the inaugural class at Kloefkorn Elementary.