When Kinnell passed away in late October, The New York Times ran his obituary on the front page. Not only was Kinnell's death a sobering bit of news, I found myself struck by the fact that Kinnell's poetic legacy was so potent that he merited front-page treatment by the paper of record. To me, the front-page story was also news. The Times efficiently laid out the case for why Kinnell had surfaced for air, and a resounding public airing, upon his death at age 87 from leukemia.
Mr. Kinnell came of age among a generation of poets who were trying to get past the modernism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and write verses that, as he said, could be understood without a graduate degree. He succeeded well enough that all of the volumes of poems he published from 1960 to 2008 — evocations of urban streetscapes, pastoral odes, meditations on mortality and frank explorations of sex — are still in print.
His front-page obit followed a little more than two years that of Adrienne Rich, pictured right, whose own front-page remembrance on March 29, 2012 by The New York Times was titled "A Poet of Unswerving Vision at the Forefront of Feminism."
In addition to the obituary, the Times took Rich's passing as an opportunity to review her work and place in the literary canon with at least two other pieces, including the obligatory investigation by David Orr of how, given how politics influenced Rich's work, one was supposed to read her poetry.
American poets rarely become public figures, and those who do --Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost — usually pay a price for it. Sometimes that price is measured in a temporary decline in their literary reputation (other poets find fame hard to forgive), but more often it’s a simple matter of becoming papered over with expectations. The more the public looks at a poet, the harder she becomes to see.
So it would be good to remember that while Adrienne Rich, who died on Tuesday at 82, was indeed an inspiring cultural force, she was at bottom a writer of poems. And the defiant political stands for which she became famous are entirely consistent with that identity and its long American heritage. (John Greenleaf Whittier was inveighing against slavery in his poems at considerable personal risk right before the Civil War.) But for Ms. Rich, as for any real poet, the question is always: How do we read her work not as social history, but as poetry?
With Rich and Kinnell gone, and their posthumous places a little more fixed in the galaxy of poetic stars, I found myself wondering who among the living poets would, upon their deaths, merit similar levels of commemoration in the more mainstream media outlets.
It was a question fueled by a sense that poetry, as an art form, had been blown up and sent scattering to various niches and corners in part by the very likes of Kinnell, Rich and other poets born in the 1920s whose work was "radicalized" by the explosive changes that took place in this country, particularly in the 1960s, when these poets were gaining the height of their creative power. Civil rights, anti-war protest, post-war urbanism, post-modernism, confessional poetry, post-confessional, politics as personal ... poetry was blown to smithereens by these formidable writers who worked in these combustable times, leaving the next generation of poets to wander down so many forked paths that assessing different schools, let alone individually great poets, has become far more challenging.
Naturally, the most keen critics and keepers of poetry took me to task for framing the question about poetic lineage and legacy as I had, especially the notion that outside of Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, it was difficult to foresee who next might merit front-page consideration by the Times or other major mainstream publications.
"That's a little bit morbid,'' was the pointed rebuke I got from Robert Polito, president of The Poetry Foundation, who pointed out that in the three generations of poets now working, we haven't come to the end of anything when it comes to who are the next standard bearers or gatekeepers or game changers in poetry.
Polito questioned the premise, and gave a wide-ranging survey of the writers and reasons why poetry is as vibrant today as it ever has been: Louise Gluck, Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Collins, Natasha Threthewey, Mark Doty. There are three million unique users to the Poetry Foundation website. Book sales and web-based publishing has broadened the audience. Universities are enrolling large numbers of poets in MFA programs.
Those sentiments were echoed by Pinsky, who all but lamented the premise that with Kinnell's passing we'd be hard pressed to identify another singularly important poet whose body of work would stand up to time as a game changer.
"I revere Galway, Adrienne, others, but -- I suggest you take a look at Joan Shelley Rubin’s book Songs of Ourselves, an historian’s meticulous, lively history of American readership of poetry.
She tells how when the Fireside Poets began dying off, many many public forums featured laments that the great age of American poets was ending. (Whitman and Dickinson had no such role.) Then, among others, the college classmates Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams . . . I repeat— I mourn these recent losses of poets I esteem highly. But . . . " Pinsky said.
Pinsky also rejected the idea that poets like Rich and Kinnell were as important as they were because they set up real work for themselves to write against tradition.
"As to 'urgency to break the mold,' the first books of that generation— Rich, Wright, Levine, Merwin— were mostly in rhyme and meter,'' Pinsky said, implying that it is way too early, or impossible, to determine in real time those poets whose work and legacy will indeed stand up to generational scrutiny.
For some moral support, I called Alan Michael Parker, a poet who I grew up with in Port Washington, NY and who has gone on to publish many critically acclaimed books as well as hold a prestigious teaching post at Davidson College in North Carolina.
"I'd say John Ashbery, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins & Mary Oliver all still enjoy the kind of affection that subsequent generations might still consider life-changing,'' Parker said.
"Nonetheless, I'm intrigued by the notion that the radicalization of the aesthetics contributed to the cultural sway of these poets. Perhaps that's the moment that's passed, when the avant-garde offered a legacy that cut across disciplines within the arts. Perhaps, too, the poets born in the 1920s reached the peak of their powers during a radical moment in the culture—the 1960s—when art and politics dovetailed more conspicuously, or when artists had more to contribute to political discourse,'' he said.
Poetry may be alive and well and enjoyed if not written by more people than ever, but the question wasn't really one about popularity so much as it was about ground-breaking, about a poet who, as Ezra Pound implored, makes poetry truly new.
Polito agreed that there are certain new categories of poets these days. The confessional and experimental or language poets have given way to "anti-creativity" poets like Kenneth Goldberg, or "documentary" poets. Fitting into this category these days is Claudia Rankine, whose new book "Citizen: An American Lyric" is garnering a great deal of appropriate acclaim. In the opening paragraph of The New York Times review of Rankine's National Book Award finalist entry, the very question of the state of American poetry is characterized by its "lack of urgency." Rankine brings that to her work and this new text, but is urgency, or an identifiable breaking of the mold, really being executed by another living poet who is aiming to seize the medium, if not the day?
Perhaps it's unfair to try and find identify the next Kinnell, just as it is to try and find the next Walt Whitman, who seized upon poetry as nothing less than a tool to not reflect America, but to save her.