Who's The Next Poet Standing Whose Work Has Been Broadly Influential Beyond Diehard Readers of Poetry?
It has been a brutal year for deaths among the most decorated and published poets. Maya Angelou, Mark Strand, Carolyn Kizer, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell and, most recently, the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner Claudia Emerson, who succumbed to cancer last week at age 57. Some of the air has been sucked out of the atmosphere -- a void that sparked a question for me about the state of American poetry.
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.
Kinnell had established himself as a key figure in the lineage of American poets whose work represented, if not an entirely new canon, at least a significant turn and shaping of the art form.
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.
Adrienne Rich was an accomplished and important poet from early on in her career, but her turn toward her own voice and vision left critics nowhere to turn except the inevitable comparisons to Sylvia Plath and the poetry of feminist rage -- a box that Rich more that adroitly defended by refusing to be defensive.
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.
Literary pilgrimages are best saved for internal musing, since the drive to go stand inside the homes where the great poets or other artists lived stirs up deep sediment that doesn't really serve anyone else except the primary visitor. It is a personal matter. I mean, which writer among us can really properly convey the feeling and meaning of just being there in the same room where Walt Whitman was born? Hell if it's going to be me.
However, I would like to just note it for the record: Standing in the room where Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, which is the downstairs bedroom of the farmhouse Walt Whitman's father built in the West Hills area of Huntington on Long Island in 1816, exceeded my own expectations.
I've stood in front of or been in houses where Edgar Allen Poe lived; where Emily Dickinson wrote in genius seclusion; Hawthorne was born Salem; where the poet Charles Olson pumped out his Gloucester poems; where James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein and Anais Nin worked in Paris ... but there is something more fundamental about Whitman, at least for me, not only because of his humanism, progressiveness and his marriage of personal and political, but because he hailed from Long Island, my birthplace.
That the farmhouse still stands is the first miracle. What was once a 60-acre farm in the middle of other farmland is now one acre set inside high fencing to secure the historical site from the suburban sprawl of shopping centers and housing development. Another part of Walt Whitman's legacy, among the most seminal and iconic and landmark artists in American or literary history, is that his name is born on the shopping mall that stretches down Route 110 (Walt Whitman Road) in Huntington across from the poet's birthplace. Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Williams-Sonoma: These may not be any of the things Whitman catalogued in his newspaper accounts or verse, but there these big box stores sit, surrounding the sedate grounds where the Whitman house stands.
And while it's definitely weird trying to find the Whitman Birthplace site amidst the clutter and clatter of modern-day (i.e. car-addled/store-riddled) Long Island, it turns out to be OK.
For the poet who celebrated himself and gave ample, sprawling voice to the burgeoning song of Democracy, the scrum and mess of society blithely whizzes around and past the former pastureland where Whitman was birthed. Thanks to efforts in 1949, when the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association was formed, and continued advocacy and fundraising via former Newsday newspaper publisher Alice Patterson, the site was preserved from the fast-encroaching suburban development. The state of New York helps administer the site along with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which has erected a statue of the poet and a modern loft-like building that houses a shop and reading space.
The entire site and experience is worth the trip and the $6 for the guided tour of the house. On the crisp November day I visited, an enthusiastic guide led me across the lawn and into the home, which Walt Whitman Sr. grandly built as a model home to show prospective clients just what he could build for them, too. We entered the foyer, then the parlor, with its wide-plank wood floors and custom, built-in cabinets and large windows. Then, we walked through to the bedroom where, the guide said: "And this is where Walt Whitman was born."
Whatever sense of being in a semi-sacred space that I had had just walking through the front door of the home was, in that instance, amplified. Most of it came from the striking realization that for everything Whitman did, everything he became and remains, started in one room. I was in a real place that stands in concrete confirmation against the decades and centuries of the Whitman who became the poetic father and god and enduring definition of a hearty, heralded strain of the new American poetic canon.
In a world of shopping malls and cars and democracy under siege, the sanctuary of the Whitman home was palpable. It was made even more so by my profound sense that, stripped of the noise and the Internet and the virtual world I have come to inhabit for great chunks of time, Whitman walked from Long Island to Brooklyn to Washington to the Civil War battlefields and hospitals to Camden, NJ and witnessed his world, his America, unfolding in real time. Our songs of ourselves these days ... hard to not see them by comparison as wanting. But at least the visit got me reconnected to some time and some place distilled of distraction, distilled to its essential point and purpose.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.