A Review of The New Young American Poets
Southern Illinois University Press
Poetry is a perfect vehicle for history and journalism. This thought came to mind when reading The New Young American Poets. Some of its contributors offer information and insight not readily available elsewhere. Nick Carbo, for example, illustrating the difference between conservative and liberal politicians in “The Filipino Politician,” or Angela Clark’s poems on her African-American father’s attitudes toward white people in “Numbers.” Poetry is the one public discourse available in which one can speak candidly and undefensively about highly politicized issues. The pages of The New Young American Poets provide ample space for such cultural reporting and historicizing. This is its strength. Unfortunately, it’s a strength that must compensate for a host of weaknesses.
For reading The New Young American Poets left me starved for poetry. Not just any poetry, but for works infused with rhythm, lyricism, and chthonic, primal intensity.
My problem was not the plethora of free-verse or prose poems in the anthology, but the abundance of pieces that seem written off the top of the poet’s head, with images plucked from thin air and glued together. For poems devoted to exploring the nature of language and consciousness, this disembodied potpourri was enervating. Some poems apparently intend to map the mythic architecture of human consciousness, most notably--and compellingly--those by Larissa Szporluk, but the lack of ballast dilutes their authority and impact.
Some poets favor lush and sensual imagery, but when applied to thematically incoherent or underdeveloped pieces, this imagery resembles wallpaper. Blaming this all on laziness is too easy. An underlying creative constriction seems endemic here. One casualty of this may be reflected in the anthology’s love poems: there aren’t any. (Presumably editorial discretion is not soley responsible.) There are, however, many poems about desire. They are all devoid of passion. Has the contemporary American poetry’s fetish of self-consciousness shriveled some key psychic taproots?
Yet many poets treat the subversiveness of sexual desire, whether gay, extramarital, or female, as manifest and manifestly important. Denise Duhamel fall into this category. She begins a poem with “I had sex with a famous poet last night/and when I rolled over and found myself beside him I shuddered/ because I was married to someone else” It goes on like this for over sixty low-on-surprise lines. The point is not that the sexual politics and the play of desire and identity are issues that have been popularized into obsolescence; it is that they need more nuanced exploration to have any poetic resonance.
So what other kinds of poems can be found in The New Young American Poets? Take one by James Harms. “My Androgynous Years” opens with “I had a crisis at the supermarket, yesterday./ I said to myself softly, so no one could hear,/ I said, Your soul is not stepping/ from your body. I said, Stop it, relax.” The speaker goes on to recount some childhood incidents in one long, continuous stanza that continues for over a page. While not all the lines are this flat, even the more lyrical ones fail to generate any momentum or heat. In many respects Harms’offering typifies others found in this anthology: an emphasis on the anecdotal and autobiographical, a determinedly amused tone, and that omnipresent self-consciousness discussed earlier. Wordiness is a common technical deficit. Indeed, if this anthology truly measures the zeitgeist of the new generation of professional poets, then one can only conclude that the poetics being nurtured in MFA programs regard attention to sonice elements as optional.
A few poets throw the monotony of the others into bold relief. Jeffrey McDaniel’s “Disasterology” begins with “The Badger is the thirteenth astrological sign/My sign. The one the other signs evicted unanimously.” After the anxious, arid ambience of his fellow contributors, McDaniel’s series of unmannered, exuberant non-sequitors is a breath of fresh air. Also, whereas so many poems in The New Young American Poets strain to exhibit polished wit, McDaniel simply indulges in being funny. “My third grade teacher told me I had no future./ I run through snow and turn around/just to make sure I’ve got a past.” In recounting the aftermath of a car accident in childhood, he writes “I remember wishing I could be boiled like water/ and made pure again.”
(Compare the above line with the concluding stanza from Julia Kasdorf’s “Grossdaad’s Funeral” describing a child’s attendance at a funeral: “ This is the girl who clutches the muff, who digs in its fur/for edges of skull, scrapes at the glass beads glued in for eyes,/ and presses the teeth so her fingertips sting/all through the long, German prayers.” The poignancy of McDaniel’s simple line is more potent than Kasdorf’s more ambitious multiple ones. Her solemn tone and detailed description simply weigh the poem down.)
Rafael Campo also stands out, in part for his deployment of formal versification. But he also seems unafraid to widen his horizons. The Self may be his subject, but his enthusiasm and unabashed lyricizing give his poems a pulse. In the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a gay ex-soldier living in San Francisco recalls his life in the military and the men whom he served with and still longs for. Then, “And suddenly they want to lift the ban./ I don’t think they can./ I still want to die// My death of honor, I want to die/ Defending values I don’t understand;/ The men I see walking hand in hand/ Bring this love song to my mind.” While I find the speaker’s self-assessment somewhat unconvincing, the poem makes his vivid his emotional ambivalence and a hunger for intimacy.
In his biography, McDaniel tells us he composed “Disasterology” at 3 am the night before its debut in a National Poetry Slam. He performs all over the country, and frequently appears on the radio. Campo is a medical doctor with an active clinical practice. Unlike their fellow contributors, neither man has spent his poetry-making youth confined inside academia’s insular environs.
This brings us to the mystery that lies at the heart of The New Young American Poets. The diversity of its forty contributors is significant: they are African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American, Amish. Many of the male poets are gay (The sexual orientation of most of the women poets is less identifiable).
So why do the poems in this anthology sound so similar? Because, in almost all cases, their poetics were manufactured in creative writing programs and in the workshop/conference cottage industry. Many of the deficits detailed in this review are commonly attributed to these po-biz staples. Indeed, the most common denominator in the biographies of these poets, besides their youth, is the fact that their poetry careers are tethered to academia.
Maximum entropy is the state an entity reaches when it can no longer emanate nor receive energy. The poetry culture as represented in this anthology seems to have reached maximum entropy. Precisely why is another discussion.