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The scholarship, established in memory of the late actor David Coleman Dukes, is awarded annually to a third-year Theater Arts student working toward a career in stage acting. A bronze plaque commemorating the scholarship benefit held in David Coleman Dukes' name can be seen in the lobby of the Bing Theater, off Queen's Court on the USC campus.
— Madeline Puzo, Dean, USC School of Theatre
 

 © 2012 Carol Muske Dukes

 
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• Out of the Cradle Violently Rocking (Kenyon Review)

Summer/Fall 2001

THE NEW YOUNG POETS
Review by Carol Muske-Dukes

The New Young American Poets. Edited by Kevin Prufer. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.264 pp.
$16.95 paper; $49.95 cloth.

The New American Poets. Edited by Michael Collier. Hanover; NH: University Press of England, 2000.304 pp. $19.95 paper; $50.00 cloth.

American Poetry: The Next Generation. Edited by Gerald Costanzo and Jim Daniels. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000.
450 pp. $24.95 paper; $39.95 cloth.

I spent a bit of last summer reading three anthologies-three collections of selected poems by "young American poets" (that is to say, poets born in 1960 or after), most (though not all) of whom have at least one published book of poems.

The introductions to the anthologies provided fuel for speculation -in part due to the tone of portentousness that attends such formal contextualization of the new-in this case, if you will, the New Age of Poetry. It is, in fact, true that poetry history is being made with these anthologies -not the kind of all-out "headline" history of, say, the War of the Anthologies back in the fifties-but an engagement on an offhand sort of aesthetic battlefront. And despite the superficial calm of this front, I'd side with Bichard Howard in his assessment of the present and upcoming generations of poets (from his "Foreword Looking Backward" in The New Young American Poets) that "Ours, then, is a generation of poets that knows not the Law, and though the results of such ignorance are often brilliant, and certainly worth our delighted attention, we shall discover that the poetry of our moment, as in the volume that follows, is a literature of desperate measures, dreadful freedoms that only the strongest and most resolute talents can endure" (xi).

Howard's comment follows quotes from Toqueville and Santayana that reinforce (echoing each other sixty-five years apart) a view of American literary culture that bluntly characterizes the poets of the century gone as lacking comprehensive literary education-and in Santayana's view, filled with "contempt for the lessons which the past might teach" (xi). Howard's typically uncompromising critical views are not meant, presumably, to preach to the anthologized initiates, who embody for him, it seems, a fulfillment of this "prophecy." Instead he confronts all of us with our "dreadful freedoms," leaves us wondering who will be the strong and resolute talents, capable of "enduring" these freedoms (xi). The New Young American Poets offers, he says, (treading water in this threatening tide) "a notable stay against confusion" (xii). Not exactly a rhapsodic endorsement, but certainly not an indictment either. (And its "notable stay"-rather than the "temporary stay against confusion" Robert Frost called poetry itself-provides a kind of sly compliment.) Indeed, he offers hope: ..... a specifically new accommodation; a dialogue between the private self and public imagery-between what is given out (by the culture, by what we have learned to call the media. . .) and what is taken in" (xii). (And "such a dialogue," he adds, with a perfectly [forgive me] straight face, "seems to require the "permissive structures of free verse" (xiii.) So here is an important moment in the ascendance of this generation of poets-and it comes not from a fifties-style "Academy vs. the Beats" type confrontation-but from a voice of rather priestly literary integrity (and a hierophantic sense of right!) questioning the sources of knowledge of the new.

Still: it's not a conflict. If Richard Howard's sense of what can be hoped for the New is a reconfiguration of the coordinates of deprivation and abundance - then we have in the most extended sense a purely "American" poetry-uneducated in tradition, democratic, eclectic, vigilante, and filled with inventive genius. And out of this violent rocking cradle, we may hope to hear the sublime and barbaric yawp.

Michael Collier's introduction to his anthology, The New American Poets, bristles with more positive claims than Howard's, insisting that the most promising new and young writers in America are between his anthology's covers. Yet his analysis of the evolving literary culture makes a roughly similar point about the positioning of the young within poetry history. Unlike poets of the immediate past (it is vexing to try to pin down exactly what is meant by a "generation" in all these anthologies-a decade?, a mother-to-daughter span?, an individual literary period?) the young here are distinguished by their "pluralism and eclecticism" (xix). Unlike the put-upon poets of the "seventies, eighties and early nineties" who often found themselves at odds with just about everybody (then who were then?) including "the Language-based poets," the new Formalists, and the "poetry of identity and politics"-these enlightened young have found a way to coexist peacefully with "various aesthetics" (xix). This is indeed a politics-the politics of the individual capable of understanding differing aesthetics as a manifestation of public life, of the polis, of an outside to be internalized-thus the proximity to Howard's "new accommodation" (xii) and his idea of dialogue. The sense of dreadful freedoms, of desperate measures, is not addressed, but implied. This sympathy for various aesthetics, Collier says, is an achievement that is "peculiarly American" (xix). And by this internalization of the pluralistic, the disjunctive, the performative -in the rays of the setting sun of the past-it seems to me that we have both this "promise" of extraordinary distinction, as well as the diminishment of the wholly literary.

It's so American, it's true. As our vision of "public imagery" (Howard xii) alters, so it seems, does our private aesthetic (like some shrunken version of manifest destiny). Wordsworth matured in the shadow of the French Revolution, its desperate crucible of politics, yet his aesthetic was secure. He knew what Beauty was, for example. He didn't know what the Self was, as he introduced it to Poetry, but he knew what it conceived of as beautiful, just, symmetrical-at least at that moment in

his life. Now, the Self has grown huge without knowing itself-what the young Wordsworth could never have foreseen: we are expressive without knowing our precedents. We are expressive within the ideologies of the marketplace yet our "theorists" suspect Beauty as ideologically reprehensible, bourgeois. Still, Poe's supernal beauty remains to our taste attached to feelings-liberated from the detached appreciation of the connoisseur; but hungering for the kind of "encounter" Howard describes

-between "recognition and ignorance," between "unacceptable public image and an unsuspected private identity" (xii)

It is the third anthology that gives us the hard numbers out of which we could hope for yet another smattering of this "encountering" sensibility. American Poets The Next Generation, edited by Gerald Costanzo and Jim Daniels, is less an anthology and more a rugged survey course of the poetry of the moment-heavily populated-sometimes with more than one poet on a page. The editors are no-nonsense about their challenge: "To select representative [my emphasis is poems from perhaps the broadest range of styles ever extant at a single period in our history" (xxix). Again, the sympathy for various aesthetics, for diversity, that has become knee-jerk enumerative phrasing now: "a poetry which spans the spectrum from performance to Language" (xxix) to the "new formal" and so on. Their emphasis on "representative" allows them more latitude than the other two anthologies, which have sought out only top preferences. The inclusion of more "Spoken Word" and "performance" poets along with more familiar faces is not necessarily to the benefit of the collection, but "representative" means just that-and this anthology radiates a kind of in-your-face energy.

Many of the same poets who are included in The New Young American Poets appear; of course, in The New American Poets and American Poetry: The Next Generation as well. Thus we have (to mention a few of the names that appear in more than one anthology) some of the ascendants: Elizabeth Alexander; Sherman Alexie, Erin Belieu, Molly Bendall, Rafael Campo, Nick Carbó, Joshua Clover, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Nick Flynn, Suzanne Gardinier; Allison Joseph, Timothy Lin, James Longenbach, '(haled Mattawa, Campbell McGrath, Carl Phillips, Claudia Pankine, Barbara Pas, Matthew Rohrer; Marisa de los Santos, Reginald Shepherd, Ann Townsend, Pimone Triplett, Reetika Vazirani, Mark Wunderlich. And thanks to the broader-based American Poets The Next Generation, we have Denise Duhamel, Rigoberto Gonzales, Terrance Hayes, Laura Kasischke, Frankie Paino, Kevin Prufer (editor of The New Young American Poets), Patty Seyburn, Brenda Shaughuessy, Virgil Suarez, Larissa Szporluk, Suzanne Wise, and other less widely referenced but very notable voices.

There is, finally, good news. I think that once past Richard Howard's explication of our predicament once we acknowledge the lack of formal structure in most of these poems (Adrienne Su in The New American Poets calls her selection "Four Sonnets" but moves outside of the sonnet form) and the lack of literary past-we quickly become aware of the desperate measures, the dreadful freedoms-and then of the compensatory "strong and resolute talents" beginning to emerge. Employing free verse, free association, employing disjunction and binary irony-wonderfully employing (in the case of Carl Phillips) a classical education; in the case of Julia Kasdorf, a Mennonite religious sensibility; in the case of Nicole Cooley, a fascination with Salem history-these poets begin to claim their ground. Ms. Cooley notes in her essay in The New Young American Poets, (which wisely requested "statements" of each of its authors) that she likes to "raise questions about the role of history, place, and identity in American culture" (226)-and following along, the reader begins to appreciate the range of hunger and talent, of obsession and curiosity, within these covers.

The range of voices is dizzying. We move from Sherman Alexie's prairie thunder to Suzanne Gardinier's minor-key melodies to Molly Bendall's tart and sophisticated internal landscapes to Erin Belien's sweeping plaintive eloquence. We register off-key extremity in "Los Angeles, the Angels" with James Harms, we hear Jefferson's voice in Joy Katz's "Taxonomy," and the stunned silence of the mother of a stillborn in Ann Townsend's eloquent "First Death" and Reetika Vazirani's redoubtable "Mrs. Biswas," Claudia Rankine's elliptical elaborations. There are delicate masques and monoliths with microphones, sound-checks, and send-ups of contemporary speech. Howard is right-the "intersections" must be observed, analyzed differently. And the blithe permissiveness evident here yields its confident crop.

The following might be examples of Howard's "new accommodations" between public and private, images and identities, and Collier's New Pluralism:

Timothy Geiger (b. 1966) on Chaos Theory (or Bell's theorem of universal connection in physics):

While half the globe away the highest peak of Everest
lifts an icicle another centimeter to compensate,
halfway down the block an old woman losescontrol
around an icy bend of Pheasant Road, goes through
the foggy windshield of a white Oldsmobile,
knocking over an old-growth tree where a squirrel
that raided my bird feeder all last August
sleeps in a mansion of sticks, acorns and mud.
("Disproportionate," Costanzo 158)



Or Thomas Sayers Ellis (b. 1963) in "Practice":

Big Earl and Scarecrow stood behind guitars the same way The marines at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stood behind rifles.
(Prufer 58)



Brenda Shaughnessy (b. 1970) in "Postfeminism":

There are two kinds of people, soldiers and women,
as Virginia Woolf said. Both for decoration only.
(Costanzo 365)



Or Claudia Rankine (b. 1963) in Testimonial":

As if I craved error, as if love were ahistorical,
I came to live in a country not at first my own
And here came to love a man not stopped by reticence.

And because it seemed right,
Love of this man would look like freedom

the lone expanse of his back
would be found land, I turned,
as brown field turns, suddenly grown green, green

for this was the marriage waited for: the man
desiring as I, movement toward mindful and yet.
(Prufer 143)

Whether this is American poetry lifting off into an assured future or the pure products of the country going crazy, time will tell. I have listened with "delighted attention" to what the present is saying. Here are

some lines from Khaled Mattawa's "Heartsong" that seem to me to sum up both the opportunity and the dangers of the new.

A bird sings from the tree. The birds sing
sending waves of desire -- and I stand on my roof
waiting for a randomness to storm my days. I stand on my roof
filled with the longing that sings its way out of the bird.
And I am afraid that my call will break me.
(Prufer 93)

But hold on. Let's listen to a New Young Poet whom Wordsworth once insulted, calling his lines a "pretty piece of Paganism" Way Back When:-Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

Carol Muske-Dukes is author of six books of poems, three novels, and two collections of essays. Her third novel, Life After Death, was published by Random House in May 2001. Se is director of the new graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.