What Makes Contemporary American Poetry So Good

Amit Majmudar
June 28, 2013
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One of the most wonderful things about being a writer in contemporary America—besides the unprecendented ease of access to books—is our multiplicity of traditions. In the past, in smaller, more homogenous societies, there used to be something called a “period style.” It remains identifiable in any anthology of English verse. The major poets sound very similar to one another, and even when they don’t (consider Byron’s satires and the Odes of Keats), they still share the same principles of verse composition. This is no longer true, even within the small world of American academic verse. Byron writing satirical poetry, and Keats pursuing high Romantic beauty, will both manipulate meter and rhyme to their ends. Sometimes (as in Don Juan and Isabella, or the Pot of Basil) they will even use the same stanzaic form, ottava rima. These poems are different, yes, but both poets are writing, unmistakably, within a single tradition.

The United States has two major languages, but for literary purposes, only one: the major American Hispanic writers have seemed to eschew Spanish, even when it was their first language. (This is in contrast to India, which has entire literatures in its regional dialects, separate from that of its “national” language, Hindi.) Still, in spite of its single language, America beats continents like Europe and subcontinents like India when it comes to how many traditions it has.

Consider the near-complete stylistic and thematic disjunction of, say, poets like Anis Modjani (a “slam poet”), Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge (an “avant-garde poet”), and A. E. Stallings (a poet sometimes classified as a “formalist”), to name just three. I put their descriptions in quotation marks because these are mere categorizations, and poets deserve better than easy labels. But these terms, and the fact that they are widely and necessarily in use, are a result of our country’s non-overlapping poetic traditions. Poetic traditions are not the same thing as poetic styles. The difference between Byron’s ottava rima narrative verse and Keats’ is a difference in style (and mode). The difference between Modjani and Rae Armantrout is a difference in tradition.

When it comes to these groups of American writers, comparisons or even side-by-side appreciations are impossible. There is no crosstalk, no common ground. To compare them, or to try to corral them all in a single critical idea, is as meaningless as comparing Li Po and Homer.

Luckily, there are enough Americans, and enough diversity among Americans, that the various traditions all have their audiences. The sizes vary, obviously; Modjani, working in a performance-centered tradition, will attract and hold bigger crowds than an professor-poet who insists on deploying Ashbery-like pronoun disagreements. Still, these traditions coexist and thrive—not in harmony, not in opposition, but like civilizations separated by an ocean, scarcely aware of one another. All within America.

In prose fiction, too, we find the American tradition of having more than one tradition. This is why there are thousands of readers for whom Stephen King is the supreme genius in fiction of our time—while Harold Bloom, and the Pulitzer Committee, refuse to honor him. Science fiction has its own classical masters, its own visionaries and geniuses, even its own awards system. The major New York media organizations still govern who receives the elite status of the “great American” writer, but this periodic anointing is actually just an indicator that the writer has pleased a specific group of critics and readers–people who judge literature on a specific set of criteria and control the use of the term “great American.” (It’s clear enough what they like: They respond best to contemporary realism, especially if it deals with urban or suburban Americans, preferably in character-driven rather than plot-driven novels.) To write to this group’s taste is not the same thing as writing for America, much less writing America.

In fact, it is impossible to write a “great American novel” without excluding entire Americas. Just as it is impossible to be a “great American poet” without leaving entire alternative traditions of American poetry indifferent. W. S. Merwin wouldn’t quite work at a Spoken Word event; Saul Williams doesn’t publish poems in Poetry. This country is a world unto itself, and a multipolar one at that, with many traditions, many centers of power. That may be what is most American about our moment in literary history, and what sets us apart from other eras. Whether it’s novels, poems, or screenplays, this country produces, in any given literary form, many kinds of powerful writing, with each kind having remarkably little relation to the others. This is, depending on how you choose to spin it, a symptom of catastrophic cultural fragmentation, with the loss of a common canon…or it’s the creative clamor of a civilization so energized and many-minded that it’s coming up with several, variably successful ways to do a single thing. This glorious multiplicity cannot be asserted of Periclean Greece, or even of Elizabethan England. But it can, and most likely will, be asserted of 21st-century America.

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