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American Poetry and Poetry Criticism Now

ISSUE:  Spring 2012

In his recent poem, “Introspective Voyager,” James Longenbach depicts an aging poetry scholar, the speaker’s mentor:

He smoked in a way that seemed old-fashioned, from the fifties.
He remembered that, as a boy, he stood beside a closed door listening
To his teachers, Richard Blackmur and John Berryman.
He couldn’t tell a poet from a critic;
They talked about the same things in the same way.

This layered portrait contrasts two generations’ experiences. Blackmur “needed people the way he needed cigarettes,” Eileen Simpson recalls in her memoir of that era, when she was married to John Berryman, “He needed conversation.” Acknowledging this mutual need, Berryman’s “Olympus” quotes Blackmur’s prose, adding line breaks. Even on the page poet and scholar sound alike. Employing the same technique, Longenbach’s poem later quotes the teacher’s monograph, but to different effect: as a rueful monologue, not a conversation. The recent past feels distantly remote. Even to recount it is to appear out of touch with contemporary realities: vaguely mythic and ghostly.

The American poetry scene has not gone back to the days of the midcentury generation—nor should it. It also largely avoids the least attractive development that claimed the intervening years, when the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry returned as farce. More recently, the relation of poetry and criticism changed. Instead of warring with or, worse, ignoring each other, American poets and critics show a renewed interest in each others’ work. Each informs the other. Many scholars actively participate in poetic communities, supporting and influencing their activities, and a majority of major poetry scholars publish their own poetry. Even amidst contentious debates, today’s poets and critics distrust narrow commitments.

When we approached contributors for this symposium, we sought assessments of the field and its most promising possibilities. As these essays confirm, discussion means neither consensus nor uniformity. They reveal sharp divisions about major issues regarding aesthetics, culture, and literary history. Yet poets and critics today typically view literature and creativity more in syncretic than ideological terms. Jennifer Moxley, for instance, describes her education in exactly this fashion, celebrating its apparent contradictions. “Had I been of a less syncretic bent such a mix might have caused me to suffer from ideological consternation, but the paradox,” she concludes, “disturbed me not in the least.” This openness defines this generation’s thinking, its general impulse when as, in this issue, poets and critics discuss their shared art.


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