Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links
RSS feed

Search the Web


The People’s Poetry

Hank Lazer

8 If American poetry were a production line for a series of anointed poet-stars, and if the next bobble-head doll to succeed the Robert Lowell model were already in the works, recent history would be easier to describe. But no such star-figure has appeared, nor can one be expected to appear any time soon. So it has become common over the past ten years to write lamentations about the state of American poetry.1

The typical lament goes like this: Poetry used to matter in our culture; with the advent of modernism, it grew too complex for the average reader and passed into the hands of academia and its professionalized explainers; as a result, contemporary poetry has become a culturally irrelevant art distant from the general population. Its quality has been further diluted by the development of the many creative-writing programs that encourage a well-crafted but unambitious poetry that amounts to little more than a minor decorative art. Where is the truly great poet, the Robert Frost, the T.S. Eliot, the Ezra Pound, the Robert Lowell of today?

The critics have a point. Contemporary American poetry is atomized, decentralized, and multi-faceted, and the range of poetries and audiences is too varied to capture in a compact or singular history. It is difficult to know exactly what’s going on now in American poetry. But maybe this dispersion, this so-called loss of direction is a good thing. Perhaps, contrary to the laments, we are now living through a particularly rich time in American poetry—an era of radically democratized poetry.

Consider the variety of poetry communities active today: academically sponsored readings and presses, urban and community arts centers and reading series, small presses all over the country, therapy-based groups, and identity-based readings and publications (including those based on ethnicity, sexuality, region, age, psychological history, and other group identities that are linked to poetic expression). The oral tradition thrives in the spoken-word and poetry-slam scene (present in virtually every large, medium, and small city) as well as in rap and hip-hop culture. To be sure, these poetry communities often exist entirely independently of one another. But while quantity does not ensure quality, taken collectively—the many students enrolled in creative-writing courses, the many readings taking place nationwide, the many books published by large and small presses, the many poetry projects now carried forth through the Internet—poetry is arguably more popular, more common, more deeply embedded in American culture than ever before. In its anarchic democratic disorganized decentralization, poetry culture has developed in a manner parallel to the computer: the decentralized PC has beaten the main-frame. No one can pretend to know what is out there, or what is next.

I won’t pretend to know, but will describe and assess what is of value in contemporary American poetry from my own inevitably partial viewpoint; so, caveat lector, you should know from the start that I am drawn mainly to innovative or experimental poetry. From this vantage point, contemporary American poetry is filled with new energy and exciting prospects—including new modes of lyricism, explorations of the intersections of the visual and the verbal, a new poetry of spirit, a reinvestigation of autobiographical writing, extensions of performance poetics, a range of new procedural methods of writing, and an ever-expanding variety of digital poetries.2

Language writing was the most coherent and profoundly affecting movement of the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 21st century we have entered a post–Language writing era. But just as in the imagined production line of famous poets, in which the next model remains undesignated, at the level of collective endeavor there is no new definitive movement, no readily identifiable successor to Language writing. This very lack of definition is one of the defining features of the murky present—a present from which a new model of literary activity may emerge that is no longer fixated on a major figure or a named polemical movement or community.


Fifteen years ago I suggested that Language poetry could be thought of as an oppositional literary practice. Rather than taking the traditional view of poetry as a staging ground for the creation and expression of an “authentic” voice and personality, Language writing arose from a fragmented sense of the self, affirmed the modernist emphasis on radical experimentation with literary form, blurred genre boundaries (not only between poetry and prose, but between poet and critic, and poetry and philosophy), and sought actively collaborative relationships between reader and writer that highlighted the political dimension of literary activity.3 Language writing, particularly in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, thus offered an implicit and explicit rebuke of mainstream American poetry’s commitment to the personally expressive, often confessional, plainspoken, voice-based lyric, and also to linear narrative, with its characteristic closure in a moment of personal epiphany.

The 1990s and the early years of the 21st century have muddied the waters of experimental poetry in the United States. Language writing continues to be both a complicated legacy (for younger writers) and a significantly diversified poetry of the present. The older generation of Language writers—Barrett Watten, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, Tom Mandel, Carla Harryman, Bruce Andrews—no longer concentrated just in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, have embarked on writing projects that are not sustained by an oppositional force or a sense of community-based coherence.

Some would claim that Language writing has now been absorbed by academia, that many of its key practitioners hold academic appointments and that their poetry is discussed in scholarly articles, books, and conferences. But such claims really do not take into account the divided (and specific) nature of American academic culture. For the most part, American poetry is still divided between the mainstream, with its MFA programs in creative writing, and the experimental, which remains a weak force in such programs and is excluded from nearly all the structures that support poets, including awards, grants, fellowships, and major presses. (Some evidence of permeability exists, such as the residencies of Bob Perelman and Lyn Hejinian at Iowa, the preeminent MFA program in the country.)

The more complicated and intriguing issue about the evolution of Language poetry is not its relation to the academy but rather the increasing diversity of literary production by the major figures of Language writing. It has become virtually impossible to provide any sort of coherent or axiomatic description of Language writing that adequately represents the present. The term “Language writing” itself has become a historical marker, while still retaining some traces of an oppositional, “us vs. them” label.

For example, although Susan Howe is often mentioned as a key Language writer, this label hardly captures the scope of her work. Indeed, her writing falls within an American antinomian tradition and can be seen as an act of sustained radical revisionist historiography. Howe is better understood in relation to Charles Sanders Peirce (and the American pragmatists, including Kenneth Burke), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson than read as exemplifying the tenets of Language writing. It has become increasingly productive to read Howe’s work with attention to its autobiographical elements. And despite the early, “pure” days of the Language writers’ disruptive, fragmented critique of subjectivity, many Language poets—including Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Charles Bernstein—have written significant and extensive autobiographical works. These writings do not represent a disavowal of earlier critiques, for they are often marked by serious attempts to find new ways of conceptualizing, expressing, and narrating a person’s life and experience—often involving a multiple or dispersed version of subjectivity rather than a coherent personal narrative.

What may have passed into the mainstream, perhaps merely as technique or another element of craft, are certain stylistic features associated with Language writing: fragmentation, radical collage, and the absence of a singular plainspoken sensitive voice. But what is missing from this assimilation is the earlier oppositional, charged cultural context of these gestures.4 Students in creative-writing programs can now say that they have learned the techniques of Language writing and can use them whenever it seems appropriate. Perhaps the most common claim among younger writers of both mainstream and experimental poetry is that they are learning a wide range of styles and techniques, and that they are attempting new fusions. Those who claim to be in no particular camp have come to form their own, perhaps dominant, camp.

For younger writers, many of whom have grown up with access to a bewildering array of modern and contemporary writings, it is a particularly difficult time to establish a new direction. Thus, the current trend is often described as hybridization, or fusion, or assimilation of a broad range of techniques and styles; perhaps, as one poet has proclaimed, this is a time of refinement rather than major innovation. For writers of the generation of Charles Bernstein (i.e., born around 1950), that refinement may entail an extended exploration of the avant-garde writing methods developed in the 1970s and 1980s—methods that themselves extend the experimentation that marked the early 20th century, as Marjorie Perloff demonstrates persuasively in her 21st-Century Modernism.5

The challenge for an immediately next generation (of post-Language writers) is to make use of the Language poetics as a means toward new modes of composition. While the Freud-Bloom model of generational conflict, a series of oedipal struggles and successions, may not be applicable, it is nonetheless hard to determine what this next generation seeks to overcome, or correct, or enhance. A slightly younger generation, a next-next generation—poets involved in magazines and presses such as Verse and Fence—has been schooled in a dizzying and seemingly miscellaneous range of styles and forms, and runs the risk of writing a tepid, eager-to-please poetry based on stylistic accommodations. Their poems often exhibit a sassy, glib, moment-referenced humor and the technical mastery of a range of experimental styles. A major hazard for this generation is a bland eclecticism, with technically adroit writing that remains superficial because the cultural and historical tension of the formal gestures has evaporated. But many of these poets are also beginning to advocate and explore renewed ways of engaging sincerity, expressivity, and personal statement, explorations that may generate desirable crosscurrents to the pressures for stylistic accommodation.

Each of these “next” generations is missing a set of galvanizing philosophical and linguistic issues6 that parallel—in terms of poetic voice, authorship, transparency of communication, or sincerity—the literary and cultural tension (or productive energy) of the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps the interlocking pressures of professionalization and publication encourage or force a strategic multifaceted investment in many different styles of writing. Of course, such an increasingly wide-ranging set of writing practices misses out on the risk, commitment, and emotional engagement of more distinctive (and perhaps narrower) formal and philosophical commitments. I do not make such claims out of a nostalgia for the good old days when a poet could attack a plainspoken sincere poem, offer a fragmented non-I-voice poem, and spark a serious debate. Indeed the situation may be no less murky for the older generation of innovative writers who may be tending their own careers, refining earlier developments, and no longer engaging in writing that provokes.

Or perhaps some truly significant and challenging poetry is being written. I think of Charles Bernstein’s With Strings (2001) and Lyn Hejinian’s A Border Comedy (2001) as possibilities, as well as the pending completion of Ron Silliman’s monumental 30-year multi-volume project, The Alphabet7—but neither of the completed works is read very attentively or recognized for its importance. We now view poetry through the lens of innovation—a lens ground from specifications that perhaps amount to a caricature of Language writing and may shortchange what is important. Thus, profoundly innovative and idiosyncratic writing, such as the work of John Taggart, Jack Foley, Theodore Enslin, Will Alexander, Hannah Weiner, and Jake Berry, barely receives attention because it evades the principal contemporary groupings and taxonomies.

Perhaps the most interesting fissures to open up within the category of innovative American poetry have been created by the renewed interest in autobiographical writing, the examination of new modes of lyricism, and the re-investigation of a poetry of “spirit.”8 Each of these topics involves a somewhat tense and intensified return to areas that in the more strident, more combative 1970s and early 1980s had been dismissed as somehow retrograde, conservative, naive, nostalgic, and characteristic of an unaware mainstream rhetoric of self-expression. But in each of these three areas, poets—both those associated with Language writing and others who have taken innovative paths not particularly associated with the Language-writing communities—have established important new modes of investigation.9

Of the autobiographical writing, Susan Howe’s work comes to mind (with its familial story of rewriting American history), as do the talk-poems of David Antin (which collectively constitute the beginnings of a unique species of autobiography and cultural history), the more recent Memory Cards and Adoption Papers of Susan Schultz, Rae Armantrout’s True, and Ron Silliman’s Writing Under “Albany.”

The issues of “lyricism” and “spirit” point to the uneasy legacies and lineages for much of contemporary experimental American poetry. While it is common to valorize the importance of such writers as Robert Duncan and Jerome Rothenberg, a closer examination of their poetry and poetics immediately places us within writing traditions that are openly mystical, romantic, and, in the case of Rothenberg, shamanic and magical—all qualities that are disturbing to most innovative contemporary poets, many of whom have developed a poetics more obviously reliant on tenets of cultural materialism and an anti-romantic metaphysics. Two who have escaped this uncomfortable relationship with their innovative spiritual predecessors are John Taggart and Jack Foley. Taggart, especially in When the Saints (1999), and Foley, particularly in Exiles (1996), extend that spiritual legacy in important new directions. Foley’s “Stanzas from Djerrasi” begins

Descend again—
thank you
spelling something more, or less—
The Orphic possibility always remain-
open—Strange—always being so—
staining the world
reentering the bounty of it—
How do you love someone?
How do you offer
Thanks in the strangeness of it—10

Foley’s work draws on a range of sources, including a mythic-romantic inheritance from poets such as Robert Duncan and W.B. Yeats, mixed with a strong commitment to a multi-voiced, performed poetry. Taggart’s poetry, typically written in extended structures, also draws on Duncan but works out of the ethical demands of George Oppen’s poetry and uses musical models, from the gradual modulations of minimalist music to the improvisations of jazz musicians such as John Coltrane. Here is a somewhat typical section from the book-length work When the Saints, in part an elegy for the sculptor Brad Graves:

How to say thank you
to a saint

who wrote a poem
love poem a love supreme poem

some of the words of which
I’ve taken and changed

to find a word take away a word

what I have done
what I have done and what I am doing.11


Among experimental poets today, Charles Bernstein remains the most vociferous and vital. He has written the most influential, most widely cited critical works of the day, including A Poetics (1992) and My Way (1999), as well as two important edited volumes, The Politics of Poetic Form (1990) and Close Listening (1998). But the critical assessment of his poetry, which is best known through his readings and performances, lags behind the understanding of his criticism (due in part to the irregular publishing habits of Sun & Moon, Bernstein’s primary publisher until 2001).

Bernstein’s poetry from the last six or seven years—collected in With Strings (2001), Let’s Just Say (2003), and World on Fire (2004)—presents a highly performative comic poetry, blending many different styles and voices with a strikingly original humor and intelligence. His poems and essays fuse the techniques of the stand-up comic—he is a big fan of Jackie Mason—with elements of philosophical inquiry.12 Bernstein has created a remarkably varied series of nearly 30 books of poetry, having deliberately not pursued any one particular voice or style; his books are models of self-differing works and expand our notion of what kinds of language and what modes of sense-making are possible in poetry. His most recent poems maintain an appealing, lightly humorous tone even as they pose a serious critique of the aims of poetry, as in the opening passage from “Thank You for Saying Thank You”:

This is a totally
accessible poem.
There is nothing
in this poem
that is in any
way difficult
to understand.
All the words
are simple &
to the point.
There are no new
concepts, no
theories, no
ideas to confuse
you. This poem
has no intellectual
pretensions. It is
purely emotional.
It fully expresses
the feelings of the
author: my feelings,
the person speaking
to you now.
It is all about
Heart to heart.
This poem appreciates
& values you as
a reader.13

Among an older generation of innovative poets, writers such as Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and Robert Creeley continue to do outstanding work, though none of it could be thought of as groundbreaking or even as fundamentally challenging to the ways we conceive of poetry today. While none of the four has achieved the critical consensus to become the designated Lowell replacement, each, in very different ways over a substantial career, provides us with a body of work that has helped to redefine the possibilities for American poetry.

The contemporary vitality of American poetry is not confined to such “greats” as Bernstein, Baraka, Rich, Ashbery, and Creeley. Indeed, the category “American” may be misleading: one of the more intriguing recent developments has been a simultaneous, contradictory impulse toward an increasingly globalized sense of poetry and toward an intensified recognition of poetry’s highly particularized, localized (or regional) nature. On the one hand, there is the increased prevalence of the Internet and of e-mail as modes of publication and distribution of poetry, and the emergence of such important print cross-cultural journals as Tinfish (edited by Susan Schultz, with an emphasis on writing from throughout the Pacific Rim region) and XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics (edited by Mark Nowak, a journal with an emphasis on anthropological, ethnographic, and documentary poetries and poetics). There have been some major anthologies which seek to imagine a global comprehensiveness, the most remarkable of which are the two volumes of Poems for the Millennium: Modern and Postmodern Poetry (edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris)—arguably the most extensive, comprehensive world poetry anthology ever produced. Rothenberg’s anthologies reveal the extent to which standard anthologies (such as the Norton literature anthologies) continue todemonstrate extraordinary blindness, a lack of adventurousness, and an aesthetic conservatism that amounts to cultural xenophobia.14

On the other hand, there has been an equally strong movement that at first glance appears to run counter to globalization: an increased awareness of poetry’s local and regional particularities, including its residence in specific languages, dialects, and classes of language. Even as the magazine Tinfish promotes a sense of a Pacific region (while also promoting intriguing conversations across experimental-writing communities), Tinfish Press most definitely increases a reader’s sense of the highly specific, highly localized terms of composition, particularly by calling attention to the cultural politics of writing in pidgin. Recent Tinfish Press publications such as Living Pidgin: Contemplations of Pidgin Culture (by Lee A. Tonouchi, “da pidgin guerrilla,” 2002) and Sista Tongue (by Lisa Linn Kanae, 2001) merit serious attention as examples of locally based writings that deliberately resist any tendency toward a globalized homogeneous writing culture.

Similarly, at a time when “regional” literature is presumed to be disappearing, an era of rapid electronic communication that is reputed to erase borders or a sense of distinctive place, Bill Lavender has edited a substantial collection, Another South: Experimental Writing in the South (2003), which calls into question such assumptions. Lavender’s anthology, in putting forward radical new versions of writing the South, simultaneously questions the presumed disappearance of regionalism while displaying a new wave of writing that further complicates the issues of identification of poetry (and of writing generally) with a specific place.15


While my account emphasizes innovative poetry, it is important to recognize that one of the great strengths of American poetry is its sheer variety and its proliferation through many different communities of readers, writers, listeners, and performers. Aesthetic differences often splinter these groups into reader-writer islands that have very little to do with one another. Occasionally, as in the many readings against the war in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, there are events that allow the varied poetry communities to meet and read with one another, temporarily setting aside aesthetic and institutional differences in favor of a more general recognition of common uses and aspirations for poetry.

But I mention the different poetry communities in part as a reply to the lamenting critics, who worry that the audience for poetry has dried up. Consider the variety of poetries in active circulation today.16 Such a list would have to include the slam scene (which now includes a very popular Broadway show, Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam), the many open-microphone events in nearly every American city, the therapy groups that rely on journals and poems as essential modes of self-expression and healing, the hundreds of creative-writing programs in American colleges and universities, poetry programs in numerous elementary, middle, and secondary schools, poetry programs in prisons, poetry connected to various religious practices (whether the new translation of core religious texts or new devotional writings), poetry for senior citizens, poetry as part of the process of recovering from abuse, and so on. Many poets, particularly those in academia, tend to become so absorbed in aesthetic conflicts with colleagues that we lose sight of the larger, more diverse practice of poetry. Such diversity of practice makes it almost impossible to say what poetry is good or bad without first asking such questions as, for whom? for what uses? Maria Damon’s At the Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Poetry Vanguards (1993) is one of the few books to address this range of poetry’s uses.

Indeed, the immense popularity of rap and of slam poetry has helped to change the attitudes of younger students toward poetry. Eminem’s movie 8 Mile, with its highly dramatic scenes of poetry-rap competitions, and a range of popular rappers (including Run DMC, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Nelly, and Fifty Cent) gives young listeners a visceral experience of the vitality of poetry. The emergence of rap and hip-hop as a popular art form marks a decisive instance of the re-introduction of poetry—particularly oral, performance, and improvisational poetry—into American popular culture, with potentially profound long-term effects on the audience for and nature of American poetry.

Rap, though, is only one example of the many ways in which poetry is being reinvented. David Antin has been pursuing an important Socratic inquiry into the nature of poetry for the past forty years. His talk-poems, begun in the early 1970s and continuing to the present, are an essential improvisatory mode of composition that allows for a vernacular and narrative-based theorizing and questioning.

While rap and hip-hop have reinvigorated poetry performance, more-traditional literary scholarship has made a major contribution to our understanding of the recent past. Most exciting has been the development of new scholarship on African-American innovative poetics by Lorenzo Thomas and Aldon Nielsen. Thomas’s Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2000) and Aldon Nielsen’s Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postomdernism (1997) rewrite the history of African-American poetry and poetics in the 20th century, recovering innovations, poems, and poets that had either disappeared entirely or were read in ways that diminished our understanding of the fullness of their contributions to American poetry. Along with Nathaniel Mackey’s Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993), they have generated a much more complete picture of African-American poets’ centrality to the developments of modernism, postmodernism, and current developments in American poetry.

Of contemporary poets, Mackey and Harryette Mullen have done the most important, innovative work. Mullen’s Muse & Drudge (1995), with its fusion of experimental poetics and African-American culture, is one of the great books of the 1990s. Mullen’s latest book, Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002), with its complex humor and its reinvigoration of various inheritances from Stein and the Oulipo group, promises to be similarly influential. Other important instances of innovative “minority” poetries—Chicano, Native American, and Asian, among others—gained increased attention and visibility in the 1990s through such works as Walter Lew’s Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (1995) and the reprint of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee.

Finally, the rapidly developing world of digital media promises to effect the most fundamental change in the nature, location, and reader-viewer experience of the poem. While there are superb Web sites that represent amazing resources—from Web magazines such as Jacket and August Highland’s colossal muse apprentice guild to huge archival assemblies such as The Electronic Poetry Center (with its many links) and UbuWeb—the electronic medium is beginning to transform the material of the text itself as well as the viewer-reader’s relationship to that text.17 Kinetic poems, video poems, sound poems, interactive poems and environments that are modified throughinteraction, and other emerging electronic poetries have the potential to redefine the entire genre in entirely unpredictable ways.

A recurrent observation is that we are entering a third generation of textuality—from manuscript culture (handwritten, individualized texts), to the codex or print or book culture (of reproduced, post-Gutenburg textuality), to digital culture. Many of today’s poets are acutely aware of the current generation’s transitional position—one foot in the book culture, one foot in the digital culture. But, in a double movement that parallels the pattern of globalization–localization, the rise of digital culture has been matched by increased attention and devotion to manuscript culture and to one of poetry’s great strengths: the highly idiosyncratic and anti-industrial production of artists’ books, fine-press and limited-edition books, handmade books, and small-press publications. A peculiarity of digital culture is that it carries with it echoes and reverberations backwards in time—so the variant handwritten manuscripts of Emily Dickinson, for instance, become more legible and accessible in light of the multiplicity of hypertexts. My guess is that while poetry will increasingly be accessed and published and viewed (or listened to) electronically, we will also see an increased attention to and self-consciousness about the particularities and material and aesthetic nature of the book and of the experience of reading books.


While I do find the present in American poetry to be an exciting, productive, complicated, murky time, I do not want to resort to a naive description of an era of promise, happy variety, and mellow democratization. The present may in fact be a less polarized time when compared to the late 1970s and 1980s. Yet when it comes to recognition, rewards, economic clout, circulation, visibility, and audibility, the changes in American poetry culture have been rather minimal. With a few exceptions, the major grants, awards, prominent reviews, prizes and prize nominations, and range of permitted styles in most national publications reflect virtually the same narrowness—the same aesthetic xenophobia—that Charles Bernstein decried more than 20 years ago in his analysis of “official verse culture.”18 As I argued around the same time, the periodic bemoaning of the sad state of American poetry is, in part, a consequence of the limited range of writing that receives significant public attention within “official verse culture.” These predetermined limitations almost guarantee a climate that celebrates the unremarkable.

For example, the existence of a U.S. poet laureate places poetry in a national spotlight. But the laureates—Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins—have been more valuable as promoters than as poets. While these poets are each highly accomplished, none of them has created a new mode of poetry, something that is deeply formative for a range of writers. While newness itself is not the be-all and end-all for poetry (or any other art form), it would be nice if national recognition were linked to an adventurous, ambitious poetry more truly contemporary in its nature, as opposed to the more retrospective and nostalgic modes of craft and accomplishment—inevitably reinforcing a seemingly boundless American appetite for personal epiphany—that are certified as nationally meritorious.

I am hard pressed to find an example of laureate poetry that presents new and exciting ways to proceed. To be sure, Hass made important links between poetry and ecological activism. And Pinsky worked hard to develop a network of participatory publication—collections of favorite poems, readings of poems—which have helped to increase poetry’s public visibility. These deeds matter. But Marjorie Perloff’s critique of what she terms “laureate poetry” is also true: “laureate poetry—intimate, anecdotal, and broadly accessible as it must be in order to attract what is posited by its proponents as a potential reading audience—has evidently failed to kindle any real excitement on the part of the public and so decline-and-fall stories have set in with a vengeance.”19 The laureate poets have not been leaders in terms of the key questions, issues, and challenges of and to poetry today. For the most part, the same holds true for the prize-winners—the books of poetry that have won Pulitzers and National Book Awards over the past fifteen years.20

One way, then, that recent poetry takes shape is through the activity of key critics. Yes, as Helen Vendler contends, poets themselves often shape the direction of poetry, make reputations, and play a key role in deciding what writing is of currency. But the American publishing and academic cultures also elevate certain critics to the role of arbiters who can promote poets to a lofty status and ensure that they receive prizes and high-profile publication. In the 1970s and 1980s, Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler had such preeminence. Marjorie Perloff is preeminent today among critics of contemporary poetry, but she is arguably the only major critic of the day, and she has come to be identified as the spokesperson for innovative poetry. There is no longer a Vendler who can make national reputations by writing in The New Yorker.21 Indeed, it would seem that the national reviewing publications have continued their retreat from any sustained attention to poetry—except when, for external reasons (such as politics or personal scandal), poetry is deemed to be newsworthy.


In 1994–95, I wrote Days, a year and a day’s worth of poems written in an invented ten-line form. I thought of these poems as constituting a kind of laboratory of the lyric. I looked to various predecessors and peers whose musicality I admired—Robert Creeley, Larry Eigner, Sylvia Plath, Harryette Mullen, Nathaniel Mackey, John Taggart, Louis Zukfosky, George Oppen, and others—along with two key models from jazz: Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. As I neared the end of this writing project, a couple of friends mentioned Theodore Enslin’s poetry to me. They wondered whether I had become acquainted with his highly musical, lyrical writing. I barely knew the name and had no familiarity with his poetry, though I had been reading contemporary American poetry avidly for about 25 years. I looked up Enslin’s work and, to my astonishment, found that he had published about 85 books of poetry. I recently mentioned Enslin’s work to a poet my age, someone who has published quite a few books of poetry, teaches contemporary poetry, and is an avid reader. He, too, had not heard of Enslin.

To this day, I continue to read and enjoy Enslin’s poetry. Indeed, I look forward to the next (inevitable) time when I will be pointed toward a similarly enriching, previously unfamiliar poetry.

I close with this anecdote as an example and a reminder: contemporary American poetry is not a subject one can pretend to know with any comprehensiveness. My own account, with its emphasis on the rich, inclusive diversity of contemporary poetry, has covered a considerable range of activity. But it is a source of wonderful delight that the truth about American poetry is vastly greater than any single story can hope to capture. <

Hank Lazer is the author of many books of poetry and criticism, most recently Elegies & Vacations and Opposing Poetries: Issues and Institutions. He is the assistant vice president and a professor of English at the University of Alabama.


1 The archetypal essay of this genre was Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” (The Atlantic Monthly, May 1991: 94–106). And see, for example, Vernon Lionel Shetley, After the Death of Poetry: Poets and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

2 For examples of procedural writing methods, see the work of John Cage (particularly the mesostics and the writing-through projects), Jackson Mac Low, and the Oulipo group, as well as recent work such as Christian Bok’s Eunoia (2001) and Kenneth Goldsmith’s No. 111 (1997), Fidget (2000), and Day (2003). Examples of the intersection of visual and verbal—what British poet-critic Redell Olsen calls “scripto-visualities.” See the work of, among others, Joan Retallack, Tina Darragh, Jake Berry, Hannah Weiner, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Susan Howe.

3 See my “Outlaw to Classic” in Opposing Poetries: Volume 2: Readings (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), pp. 6–18. For other helpful histories of Language writing, see also Alan Golding, From Outlaw to Classic: Canons in American Poetry (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995) and Jed Rasula, The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940–1990 (Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1995).

4 In a perhaps parallel situation, in analyzing the emergence of radical black music in the 1960s, James Hall notes, “even a revolutionary artistic practice (or talk about that practice) can become stagnant if applied without continued attentiveness to what was originally at stake.” (James C. Hall, Mercy, Mercy Me: African-American Culture and the American Sixties [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001], p. 132).

5 For an excellent discussion of Perloff’s book, see Yunte Huang’s review in Boston Review, summer 2002: 57–59. See also my “Learning the Lessons of Early Modernism,” Virginia Quarterly Review 79, 1 (Winter 2003): 182–188.

6 Even as I advance such a critique, I am also aware that this lack of “galvanizing philosophical and linguistic issues” might be considered as part of the broader claim I have been making for the general fragmentation of American poetry culture. As Yunte Huang asks me quite directly, “Why do you expect the new generation to put forward any coherent proposition?” (e-mail, March 18, 2003). Thus perhaps my own limited viewpoint is one that does not adequately appreciate that a new generation may be characterized by an awareness that putting forward a decisive oppositional poetics is itself a nostalgic, retrograde, or passé paradigm for poetic movement and development. The next generation, then, may come to be characterized by alternative approaches to the problems of “succession” and “next-ness.”

7 Silliman’s The Alphabet is now nearing completion. Individual “letters” or volumes have appeared over the past twenty years, beginning with ABC in 1983 and including Paradise (1985), Lit (1987), What (1988), Manifest (1990), Demo to Ink (1992), Toner (1992), Jones (1993), N/O (1994), © (1999), Woundwood (2004, a section of VOG), and Xing (1996). When completed and published as a single work, The Alphabet promises to be a tremendously important documentary of the era.

8 On “spirit,” see Facture 2 (2001), particularly the special section called “Grasping the Knot —Poetry and Spirit.” Earlier considerations of the complex and conflicted intersection of spirit and innovative poetry include Five Fingers Review 10 (1991): Vanishing Points: Spirituality and the Avant-Garde and all six issues of apex of the M (1994–1997), a controversial journal published in Buffalo and which best illustrates the profound disagreements among innovative poets on matters of spirit. My own essay in Facture 2, “Returns: Innovative Poetry and Questions of ‘Spirit’ ” (pp. 125–152), constitutes an extended examination of new approaches to a poetry of spirit.

9 I am thinking of the work of poets such as Susan Howe, John Taggart, Harryette Mullen, and Norman Fischer—poets with a tangential though substantive relationship to Language poetry—but also poets such as Paul Naylor, Jake Berry, Jack Foley, C.D. Wright, Donald Revell, and Lissa Wolsak.

10 “Stanzas from Djerassi,” Exiles (Berkeley: Pantograph Press, 1996), p. 66. It is hard to extract from Foley’s poems which tend to be long multi-voice works often written in two columns to be performed by two voices simultaneously. Foley’s work also moves in and out of the conventions of prose and poetry.

11 When the Saints (Jersey City: Talisman House, 1999), p. 33.

12 See, for example, Bernstein’s scathingly humorous, insightful essay “The Difficult Poem,” Harper’s Magazine, June 2003: 24–26.

13 From Let’s Just Say (Tucson: Chax Press, 2003). An excellent reading by Bernstein from September 23, 2003, which includes “Thank You for Saying Thank You” and other poems from Let’s Just Say and World on Fire, can be found at the PENNsound Web site,

14 Indeed, it may not be a hyperbolic statement to call Jerome Rothenberg the most important anthologist of the latter half of the twentieth-century. More than any other poet, he has shown over a period of nearly fifty years through a series of stunningly original anthologies—Shaking the Pumpkin (1972, 1986), Technicians of the Sacred (1968, 1985), A Big Jewish Book (1977), Revolution of the Word (1974), and America a Prophecy (1973)—how important the anthology is as a tool for re-mapping and re-forming our understanding of poetry’s past and present.

15 Harry Polkinhorn and Mark Weiss’s superb new anthology, Across the Line/Al otro lado: The Poetry of Baja California (2002), further interrogates the notion of “region” by providing a great example of the permeable borderline of “American” poetry.

16 A particularly interesting discussion of the importance of new oral poetries—from rap to cowboy poetry to slam poetry—can be found in Dana Gioia’s “Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture,” Hudson Review, spring 2003: 21–49. Gioia argues for the emergence of a fundamentally “different relationship between spoken and typographic language” (41), noting that “the new popular verse shamelessly thrives in the marketplace” and that “rap is the only form of verse—indeed perhaps the only literary form of any kind—truly popular among American youth of all races. If there is a new generation of readers emerging in America, rap will be one of its formative experiences—just as jazz or movies were to earlier generations” (36).

17 For a discussion of the underlying assumptions of electronic poetries, see Loss Pequeño Glazier’s Digital Poetics: The Making of E-Poetries (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2002).

18 See Bernstein’s “The Academy in Peril: William Carlos Williams Meets the MLA,” Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986), particularly pp. 247–249. The essay was first delivered as a talk on December 29, 1983. See also my discussion of official verse culture in “Criticism and the Crisis in American Poetry” in Opposing Poetries: Volume 1—Issues and Institutions, pp. 6–36.

19 Marjorie Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics [Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002]. Perloff’s description of the recipe for laureate poetry is quite similar to Charles Altieri’s earlier critique of “scenic poetry.” See Altieri’s Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), especially Chapter 1, pp. 1–31. This similarity is one indication of how little mainstream poetry has changed over the past 20 years, particularly the most lauded and celebrated mainstream poets and poems.

20 Perhaps in the United States (and possibly elsewhere), such “major” or national awards tend to be somewhat retrospective in nature, recognizing the culmination of a career—as the in awarding of the Pulitzer for selected or collected poems of Richard Wilbur (1989), Sylvia Plath (1982), Galway Kinnell (1983), and James Wright (1972)—rather than celebrating a truly innovative book or a book of enduring distinction. The key exception in the last 30 years would be John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1976). Year after year, the finalists for these awards tend to come from a very narrow set of publishing houses—a process that tends to exclude the more innovative and challenging books published, most often, by so-called small or independent presses. As a result, it is a rarity for an award-winning book, or a book by one of the laureates, to raise fundamental questions about how to read poetry, how poetry might be written today, or how poetry might embody the changing nature of contemporary consciousness.

21 Of course, Vendler’s essay–reviews do continue to appear sporadically in The New Yorker, but they no longer seem as frequent or as consequential as they once were. At one time, seemingly, one of Vendler’s essay–reviews in The New Yorker—of Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, Amy Clampitt, Dave Smith, and others—had the ability to elevate (if not launch) a poet’s career. Now a contributing editor of The New Republic (where some of her more recent reviews have appeared), Vendler, of course, continues to publish on a range of poets, including Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and Eliot, as well as contemporary poets such as Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath.

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2006. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |