Carol Muske Dukes Contact
Married To The Ice Pick Killer  
Life After Death  
List of Publications
Remembering David Dukes
Schedule of Events
Contact Carol Muske Dukes
Home Page of 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)


Home | Bio | Channeling Mark Twain | Publications | Fiction | Poetry | Articles | Interview | Reviews | Remembering | Events | Contact

©2009 Carol Muske Dukes

email: • Join the Mailing List
Website Designed and Developed — Exclusively for Carol Muske-Dukes by Foster Johnson Studios. Los Angeles, California USA.