In the squares of the city—in the shadow of the steeple Near the relief office—I see my people And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’ If this land’s still made for you and me.
America’s poets have a minimal presence in American civic discourse and a minuscule public role in the life of American democracy. I find this condition perplexing and troubling—both for poetry and for democracy. Because when I look at American poetry from the perspective of a fellow traveler, I see an art invested in various complex, fascinating, historical, and sometimes shop-worn literary debates. I see a twenty-first-century enterprise that’s thriving in the off-the-beaten-track corners of the nation’s cities and college towns. But at the same time that poetry’s various coteries are consumed with art-affirming debates over poetics and styles, American poetry and America’s poets remain amazingly inconsequential to the rest of the nation’s civic, democratic, political, and public life.
This divide between poet and civic life is bad for American poetry and bad for America, too. Decade after decade, poetry slips into its fifteen-hundred-copy-print-run oblivion and scattered identities on the Internet, and we hear not one chirrup about it from the leading thinkers or writers who have access to a dialogue with the greater public. The culture-consuming audience that should provide poetry’s best readers has scarcely noticed its diminishment. Or if they have noticed, they have also come to feel excluded, unconcerned, and dismissive because they believe that American poetry has become so esoteric that figuring out the differences among the warring poets and styles is wholly unnecessary for leading a culturally rich or civically engaged American life.
by Benjamin Paloff, Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2007
Over the last couple of years, I have been hearing complaints from a great many of my friends, poets and readers I respect and admire, about the essays of Tony Hoagland. And poor Mr. Hoagland. For these complaints, some of them rather fierce, gravitate more generally around certain kinds of essays and reviews, and about the kinds of mean or dismissive things that have appeared therein, and for which Hoagland has, for some, become an improbable poster boy. Here, then, is the first virtue of Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft (Graywolf, 2006): these essays, which I have read piecemeal in such venues as Poetry and American Poetry Review with a mix of admiration, irritation, and amusement, and whose jaunty style and chummy intelligence will not save them from the universal decay of matter, have triggered such strong and lasting feelings in those whose judgment I value. And I suppose that my interest is more than a sporting one, since as someone who writes or edits a fair share of essays and reviews I always find it useful to know what will ruffle feathers, so that said ruffling might be more judiciously applied. Prose about poetry, after all, should be challenging and provocative. It should not, like gossip columns, estranged cousins, or American foreign policy, remind us of a drunk wielding a broken beer bottle.
JOAN Didion once observed that “certain places seem to exist because someone has written about them. … A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” By this standard Robert Frost can clearly lay claim to rural New England. The locale “north of Boston” lives in our collective imagination largely because he wrote about it. For that reason it may seem strange to argue that Frost’s sensibility was also shaped by other locations. We know that he was born in San Francisco and spent his first eleven years in California. As a young man he lived in England and published his first book as an expatriate. Above even these places, however, Frost felt a deep affinity for the American South. Not only was he a small a agrarian, but he also maintained important personal and professional ties with two members of the Nashville Agrarian movement - John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson. Moreover his view of the world (particularly the part of it that pertained to politics) put him closer to William Gilmore Simms than to Harriet Beecher Stowe.
MY first cousin once removed was Robert Lowell, the poet — a fact I just happened to mention on my application to Harvard University. The worst part was that I had to work it into the essay section. They had a section for listing family members who had gone to Harvard, but that was only for immediate family members. It was 3 o’clock in the morning and the application was due next day. So I started writing something dumb about my intellectual development — or was it my personal growth? — all the time saying to myself, “I can’t, I can’t,” when suddenly out of the blue came, “As I was having dinner last night with my first cousin once removed, Robert Lowell, the poet, I turned to him and said… .”
Jana Harris talks about her choice to become, what she calls, a confessional poet. Harris feels it has something to do with the fact that one of her parents was suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, and her other parent was in denial.
by Jana Harris, (Triquarterly, Winter 2000)
My conjecture is that if you come from a family that has a strong “denial gene,” and if you inherit only trace amounts of this genetic material, your chances are greater of developing the compulsion to become a writer of the genus poet, species confessional. This phenomenon holds particularly true if one parent is substance-addicted or mentally ill and the other parent is the guardian of the secret. In the beginning, you start out innocently enough harboring a growing obsession to document your side of the story, something to serve as a sort of testament as to what you perceive as the truth. You are still very young at this point, so you still imagine that there is a truth, or only one truth, at any rate. Besides that, you can’t-due to the weak denial gene-contradict what your eyes see. Like all children, you are taught never to bear false witness. But early on you figure out that you don’t get punished for lying to keep the secret. You only get swatted, sent to your room, or threatened with foster care if you tell your truth, which is labeled a tale. And when you persist, you are branded Dirty Little Liar. Thus, you learn the art of subterfuge.
Later in college when you take a freshman creative writing class, the assignments seem almost effortless, because you’re already an adept storyteller. Besides, it’s the late sixties and every bumper sticker yells at you to let it all hang out. This message cleaves to you like a religious text and becomes your mantra. Sophomore year you get a little lazy and don’t make anything up. Voila, you discover that you get points for your confessions, your depictions of altered states of reality, your dramatic moments which more and more often take the form of lines of uneven length scrawled across the page, unhampered by the restraints of punctuation. Unfortunately for you these narrative efforts aren’t entirely off the cuff sketches ripped from the pages of your diary. One problem is that you are told to include a lot of what feels like boring, insignificant detail. The other is that the story of your life and the people around you seems so mundane that it hardly feels interesting. Who would want to read something about a person whose life has been slightly southwest of normal? Then, during your junior year, it dawns on you that not everyone had a Joan Crawford or a Marie Antoinette or Joseph Stalin or Henry VIII as a parent. Okay, so you suspect one or two of your good friends did-which is probably why they’re your good friends-but not everyone sees their parents in a clear critical light and still fewer feel compelled to write about them. Better to call up what strength you can from the recessive denial gene, bury the past (or invent a new one), and move on.
In 1956, just two years after Brown v. Board of Education, Robert Penn Warren set off on a journey south to explore the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision. The slim volume he produced, Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South, offered insight into the people caught in what the Saturday Review later termed “a storm they can neither conquer nor fully comprehend.” Now, a half century later, the Gulf South struggles in the wake of another storm, Hurricane Katrina, and faces a rebuilding effort not unlike the effort to rebuild the culture of the South after the legal walls of segregation had been struck down. The plight of the people, post-Katrina, is still mediated not only by class but also by color, the future is uncertain, and the ongoing identity of the Gulf South will be determined not only by how it will be rebuilt but also by how its past will be remembered. The region stands as a test for the whole nation. Are we hopelessly divided? Or can we still bridge …
Where you come from is gone,
where you thought you were going to never was there,
and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.
O magnet-South! O glistening perfumed South! my South!
O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse and love! good and evil! O all dear to me!
I. The New South
A few years ago I was interviewed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution-a newspaper whose slogan used to be “Covering Dixie Like the Dew”-and later, when the article appeared, the headline read, “Poet Digs at secrets in Her South.” Not long after that, I received several e-mail and phone messages from a marketing representative who wanted to get a few lines from me about “my South.” In the messages, he said it wouldn’t take long and that his firm couldn’t pay me for my comments. Well, I was busy, and besides that, I figured he didn’t want to hear what I really think about the South. Most likely, he probably wanted some sound-bite clichés about how I like my grits, sweet tea, or barbecue, about how we southerners like sitting on porches and after-church visiting.
(6385 words, Originally published in The New Yorker. Compilation copyright (c) 2003 The Conde Nast Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
In 1946, just after being discharged from the Army, where he underwent infantry training four times and then refused a commission when it was offered, the poet Stanley Kunitz got a letter from Bennington College inviting him to come and teach. He was baffled—he had no teaching experience—until he learned the origin of the proposition: his friend and fellow-poet Theodore Roethke had had one of his periodic manic episodes, and, holed up in his faculty cottage, had said he would emerge peaceably only if Kunitz was hired to replace him.
Kunitz’s affiliation with Bennington was brief. As he tells it, several weeks before the graduation ceremonies of 1949 a student, Miriam Marx (Groucho’s daughter), came to him in hysterics. She told him that she was going to be expelled because of a curfew violation. Kunitz was sympathetic. She was young and vulnerable, and he felt that expulsion would be disastrous for her. He organized a meeting of the student body to protest the school’s decision. That night, the president of the college barged into Kunitz’s house and testily warned him to stop the protest. Kunitz was repotting a plant at the time and threw it in the president’s face. Then he packed up his car.
by Sam Hamill, originally published in the Chicago Review, Autumn 2006
I write for one and only one purpose, to overcome the invincible ignorance of the traduced heart. […]! wish to speak to and for those who have had enough of the Social lie, the Economics of Mass Murder, the Sexual Hoax, and the Domestication of Conspicuous Consumption.
In 1959, I was hip. On the Road had put me on the road a couple of years earlier, when I was fourteen and caught a freight train bound for who-knows-where. It was leaving Utah, and that was good enough for me. I huddled in an empty cattle car and smoked Lucky Strikes and peeked between the wooden slats as the vast salt desert clanged by. Hours after dark, I got off in Reno, where I scraped most of the skin from one arm and knee and broke my nose by jumping too soon-assover-teakettle into the gravel and railroad ties. A couple of hours later I was in the back seat of a squad car bound for detention, where I sat for several days before being put on a Greyhound bus back to Salt Lake City, to be greeted by irate foster parents. I was cool.
I hot-wired cars, hopped trains, hitchhiked, and visited detention centers or jails in most of the surrounding states over the next year.