Communal Issues in Contemporary American Poetry

Mark Edmundson’s “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse” (Harper’s, July 2013) has garnered a lot of attention and discussion as of late around the blogosphere.  I just published a response to Edmundson in a review-essay that discusses two new book-length poems: Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident is Ours (Futurepoem Books, 2013) and Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape (Counterpath Press, 2013).  Both are highly recommended.

This is the intro to my review-essay, which appears in the latest edition of Hyperallergic Weekend:

According to Mark Edmundson’s uncritically nostalgic and, by now, notorious article “Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse,” which was published in the July 2013 issue of Harper’s, “[o]ur most highly regarded poets—the gang now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond” (such as Sharon Olds, Robert Hass, and Mary Oliver) are, despite their lyric gifts, in a state of bland and unambitious decadence. “At a time when collective issues—communal issues, political issues—are pressing,” argues Edmundson, “the situation of American poetry … [is] timid, small, [and] in retreat.” As can be expected, a range of commentators — from Seth Abramson in the Huffington Post to Stephen Burt in the Boston Review — have already taken Edmundson to task for his gross overgeneralizations and his extremely parochial and outdated understanding of the contemporary scene, but I would like to use his provocation as a starting point and foil to discuss what I take to be one of the most exciting trends in post-millennial American poetics: the importance and evolution of the long poem.

The long poem, at least since modernism, has been the premier form for asserting poetry’s cultural and social ambitions (and here we can think of Olson’s Maximus Poems, Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” Crane’s The Bridge, Tolson’s Harlem Gallery, and Williams’Paterson among many, many others). One would then have reasonably expected a piece that bemoans a dearth of poets “swinging for the fence” and “work that matters” to shed some light on the fate of the long poem in the twenty-first century. But Edmundson only spends a two slim paragraphs discussing two mainstream long poems of the 1990s: Paul Muldoon’s “Madoc: A Mystery” and Jorie Graham’s “Dream of the Unified Field.” Ultimately, Edmundson concludes, “When contemporary poets do write at length, with what appears to be large-scale designs, they tend to lapse into opacity and evasion.”

But what about “large-scale designs” written by poets younger than “the gang now in their fifties, sixties, and beyond,” poets who don’t “get the balance of public attention”? What about the numerous long poems of the new century? In a blogged response to Edmundson (her former dissertation director), Susan Schultz rightly reminds us that there is “an astonishing number of contemporary poets” that are “successfully” writing “[l]ong poems…that navigate philosophical and material vocabularies.” I would like to discuss a pair of such poems that have been recently published by two excellent small presses, Rachel Levitsky’s The Story of My Accident Is Ours (Futurepoem Books, 2013) and Andrew Zawacki’s Videotape (Counterpath Press, 2013). Both of these book-length poems — which are quite different in form, style, and structure — ambitiously articulate, among other things, one of the most crucial of our “collective issues”: the nature of life as it is shaped and conditioned by advanced global capitalism.

~ by Michael Leong on August 3, 2013.

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