First Books, First Looks: An Omnibus Review

by William Doreski

Reading a great deal of new poetry on hot summer nights induces vertigo. The profusion of first collections, mostly through pay-to-enter competitions, is an odd and challenging cultural phenomenon. Although the audience for these books is usually limited to the poet’s friends and relatives (and sometimes the poet’s hapless students), these contests flourish. And, despite their limited claim on the reading public, these books deserve serious attention; one or more of these poets might turn out to be of lasting value. But faced with a stack of some two dozen of these hopeful volumes, the reviewer needs to select, sort, classify, and find some aesthetic leverage with which to pry them open to a critical gaze.

The critical grouping and classification of contemporary poetry began in earnest in the late 1950s with Robert Lowell’s division into the “raw” and the “cooked” (after Claude Levi-Strauss), and the conservative Donald Hall anthology (New Poets of England and America) versus the experimental Donald Allen anthology (The New American Poetry). While exponents of formal experiment favored historical or narrative objectivity, the term “confessional,” first applied by M. L. Rosenthal to Lowell’s poems about mental illness, came to designate almost every expression of the lyric self. Subsequent anthologies of the 1960s and 1970s insisted on the primacy of free verse and lyric voice by exploring the concepts of Naked Poetry (1969) and Open Poetry (1973), while various international anthologies, especially those produced by Robert Bly, reified the image as the basic element of poetry. Language Poetry, however, in the late 1970s rejected the lyric or autobiographical self and almost everything else about poetry as unnecessary fictions, and replaced them with a primordial soup of unmoored signifiers. In the 1980s and 1990s a “new formalism” emerged with anthologies and essays commending a return to end-rhyme and accentual-syllabic meters.

Anthologizing the poetry of more recent years, David St. John and Cole Swensen have labeled it “hybrid poetry,” arguing that it melds the experimental and traditional into a new formulation. Yet this hybridization, however startling its visual effects, is superficial. Draping poems across the page in eye-challenging formal shapes or compressing them into taut dimeter or trimeter, embracing the prose poem or bulking up with long Whitmanesque lines does not conceal the essential voice of the poem. An examination of several first books by various twenty-first century poets suggests that, even in this era of hybridization, the inward-looking lyric self, rather than the dramatic or narrative voice, remains the dominant mode of poetry.

With her first collection, Allison Titus provides a broad catalogue of contemporary formal effects. She violates the coherence of her lines by adding extra spaces, and in some of her most striking work does away with lines altogether by absorbing them into blocks of prose. The effect is a slowing or jolting of the eye:

Across the meadow the doeskin sack waits empty,
no cord of wood stacked clean.

The new is old and the news gets older.

I while away the dormant season

with the broken Casio and rolling
papers I found in your jacket

or was it your desk. Thief or witness;

I do not boast.

(“The Nineteenth Century”)

Yet when she presents a poem like “Shepherding” as an unbroken stream of steeply enjambed brief lines she gains a force and momentum her more eye-catching pages sometimes lack. “Shepherding” is about inhabiting the world through the force of the imagination, one of Titus’s vital themes. It projects a syntactical vitality that invigorates the poet’s voice and shows her at her best. That voice, filtered through an array of formal gestures, retains the intimacy of the lyric first-person.

Samuel Amadon prefers a blocky look, fairly regular lines, convoluted syntax, and non sequiturs. His voice is typically declarative, but frequently wraps itself around a series of rhetorical gestures not easily reconciled. “Like an Evening” gives some sense of his complex procedure:

Comfort is not what keeps me here
deciding I cannot like my seat as much
as what it means to topple
out and where it would be difficult
to separate me from airport
when instead it is the plane
taking off…

Perhaps overly impressed with Gertrude Stein’s grumbling on the mundane, Amadon refuses a poetics of imagery in favor of one of self-conscious syntax and grammatical combativeness. The effects can be striking and powerful, as in the opening of “North Meadows”:

There were no rods for where we were showing her the consideration or too cold telling her the difference was a little more ghetto than one gets to keep.

Language is an open question for Amadon; like the Language Poets, he questions the fixity and viability of the relationship between language and the world. His formal struggles occur inside the poem, in complex syntactical gestures that appear disciplined, in neat stanzas and lines, and yet wrench themselves at the level of the phrase. His challenge comes from within the lyric voice; rather than rejecting it in favor of something more objective, he chooses to re-form it by complicating its syntax and grammar.

One way to privilege voice over form is to embrace the banality of received form, rendering it moot through familiarity. Hart Crane and Robert Frost, in their different ways, do this, enabling Frost to develop his notion of sentence-sound and Crane to compress metaphor into agonies of juxtaposition no subsequent poet has matched. Another way, highly popular now, is through the prose poem. Julia Story’s strictly justified rectangular poems resemble windows opening into places where the objective and human worlds intersect and clash. Although many of the poems address “you” or refer to a third person, this is not the Other of the lyric I-you, but the animus/anima of the divided postmodern self:

I bring her the new robin and she puts it on the shelf with the others. I have lost, I have lost, I have great loss is my song. The girl can wash up near me she can wear this mask
and frighten away the dancers, the dream dancers, the dog dancers. The gray water will fill me instead. She doesn’t want to hear
this. She only wants to hear the delicate
song of the worm.

By refusing the comfort of line endings, the prose poem reifies the sentence as the basic structural element. Frost’s applied theory of sentence-sound does the same for blank verse and even the rhymed lyric, but poems like Story’s, by stripping away any competing notion of form, remind us how absolutely the laws of grammar shape us.

Most contemporary poets, however, retain line endings, stanza breaks, and the rhythmic phrase, and brandish them without the irony of cubist nostalgia. Amy M. Clark and Joyce Wilson write about the self and others without reflexive ironies. Their project, common to much of our poetry, resists the pull of universal angst and particularizes experience (or the fiction of experience) into syntactically and sensuously pleasing gestures. In “Provisions,” Wilson invokes the life-changing journey-metaphor in homey terms:

Our first car needs a push to start;
every evening we lie together on an old tarp
gazing up at a vast universe of engine.

Equipped with a month’s provisions—
freeze-dried stew, your father’s pup tent—
you vow to provide for me, and I for you.

Clark, wielding a similar unrhymed triplet in “The Donut Shop,” embraces the sensuality of food, another domestic motif: “I stood before the bakery’s donut case, / eyeing the plump mounds, yellow-lit, / ordered on their trays, oozing sweetness….” Such writing invokes time-honored pleasures of poetry: the lilt of sound on the tongue and in the ear, the summoning of past experience, the recovery of sounds and odors. Proust as much as Stevens or Eliot lurks behind these modern and postmodern forms of nostalgia, and without his example of sensuous grace much contemporary poetry would collapse into unmediated sentiment.

Yet even as poets try to avert their gazes from the sentimental implications of their subjectivity they risk it in order to mediate between the world inside and the external world—which usually means a few beloved individuals, some landscapes of personal significance, and a variety of evocative relics. Leslie C. Chang confronts this difficult mediation when she contemplates her mother’s tortoiseshell combs (dangerously nostalgic items) and accepts the banality of their attraction:

I’ve enough
longing to fill a Song dynasty tea-bowl
glazed a shiny brown and black, its
“hare’s fur” pattern my own tulip mania—
predictable as the weather.

(“Augury Again”)

Insofar as she overcomes banality, she does so by displacing it into metaphor—the image of the tea-bowl lingering long after the predictable emotion has faded.

The lyric voice may have originated in the need to vent private emotions in a publicly digestible manner. Whether disciplined or freed by form, it continues to perform that function, though in the work of many contemporary poets, this escape from feeling occurs only at the last possible moment. Henry R. Williams, on the other hand, is among those most eager to shed lyric subjectivity. Many of the poems in his unusually handsome book are third-person, Olson-shaped narratives (mostly about a character named Philby, presumably after the British spy) with titles like “Reading the Cross Assorting,” “Epenthetic Nîmen,” and “Protojounce.” However, in poems like “The Identity of Seedlings” he shows how the lyric evocation of feeling functions in the third-person, demonstrating that the fiction of authorial presence is unnecessary:

a chorus offering milkweed, bracciliah,
nightshade & a few choked evening-
primrose. Lately her lacerated
hands have left digging to other
badgers & reliant on flock reassurance.

The pathos of those “lacerated hands” that “have left digging” requires no self-referral for its effect. Yet, despite the narrative framework, Williams’s linguistic resources generate more emotion through metaphor than incident through narration, so although complex and remarkably allusive, his poems remain firmly rooted in the lyric mode.

But lyric is a genre, and lyric voice is generic. How do poets distinguish themselves from one another in an era of no particular aesthetic tendency or expectation? Have MFA programs ironed out the eccentricities of voice that empowered poets like Dickinson, Whitman, and Crane? None of the twenty poets read for this review offers a voice as distinctive as the one Charles Simic generates even in his earliest work. The generic lyric voice of many of these collections is of the quotidian, innocent variety that according to T. S. Eliot characterizes the mind of the poet.

That problem often coincides with an unwillingness to concede areas of experience to prose. Ken Chen frequently and pointedly veers into prose in order to bring the certitude of sentence and paragraph to his verse, which itself is relentlessly prosaic in a vaguely post-Ginsberg way. “The City of Habits” opens with this serviceable paragraph:

When you speak of how poorly I treat you, you speak as though we
have a thing inside us, such as a heart, a mind, or other flint ball that
we strike with our thoughts and spark into intentions. I do not believe
that we have intentions. We possess practices, an ecosystem of habits
that may or may not be good for us. The dew on the grass stalks, the
air-moistening leaf and the dark and breathing woods—our lush
habits give us a life that we can breathe before we dive back into the
black waders. We spend most our lives in these waters.

This seems poetic enough in its feeling for metaphor and its grasp of emotional complexity. It surrenders the little graces of line endings, but typically Chen’s line endings coincide with sentence endings anyway. The substance of these poems simulates autobiography to such a degree that the fiction of the lyric voice seems irrelevant. Perhaps this is the point, the manner in which Chen wishes to distinguish himself from his contemporaries. The publicity material accompanying this latest volume of the Yale Younger Poets series speaks of “the forms of the shooting script, blues, song, novel, memoir,” but this range of formal reference is superficial: Chen makes all of these genres sound alike. That they all sound like Ken Chen is probably to his credit.

But refusing the self-defining characteristics of poetry is not the only route to individuality. To carve aesthetic space for herself, Jennifer Boyden adds an air of absurdity to the quotidian, underscoring the surreal in the ordinary. This is not a unique procedure, but she succeeds when she finds metaphors that seem arbitrary, odd, and yet heartfelt:

All night we wore the masks
of chemical thieves. So children grew listless, so
the neighborhood dwindled
like a band of crickets. It was big,
we said, and made the measurements again.

(“Making it Big, Standing Back to be Sure”)

Expertly written, like all of the poetry discussed in this review, Boyden’s work reminds us that one of the poet’s tasks is to estrange us from the familiar. If she doesn’t do that quite as vividly as Wallace Stevens, she doesn’t forget that poetry occurs when two words come together in an unexpected way. We have to admire a collection that begins with this startling quatrain:

I begin each day blank as an uncut key,
but in the shower I start hearing
neighbors twelve blocks over
washing the body of their mother.

(“The Listener”)

But not all lyric estrangement is personal. Barbara Claire Freeman presents an extraordinary array of formal experiments, and yet is perhaps the most frankly political of the poets under review. She realizes that the banality of public disaster requires massaging to make it palatable as poetry, and that a poem has to remain autotelic even as it critiques the world outside itself. In “Apocryphon II 5, 29-86, 19,” a poem that suffers the triteness of “Their fruit, / poison. Their calls for amnesty, lies,” she generates the astonishing and yet precise assertion, “Burying alphabets / in the sky is part of the pattern.” But her best poems do not have to rescue themselves from facile complaint. “The Closing Bell” mates Ashbery’s casual surrealism with Bernstein’s language-ruptures but sounds like neither:

The screen was overcast and in the endless iterations
of the same type we could see no passage. The frozen

mud lying ahead paralyzed the turnpike after night
frost extended January after beautiful adaptations…

In poems like this, Freeman, in forcing the concrete and the abstract together under great pressure, generates a singular and compelling voice. But must the contemporary poet so fiercely challenge the reader with implacable conundrums to distinguish him or herself from the crowd? Must every poet now privatize the language?

Not necessarily. In several of his poems, Todd Hearon moves away from the faux-autobiographical mode that defines so much contemporary poetry and assumes a voice approximating that of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Yeats’s “Second Coming.” But it is difficult to sustain this lofty tone in twenty-first-century idiom, and so “Atlantis,” which begins “About that country there’s not much left to say. / Blue sun, far off, a watery vein / in the cloud belt,” maintains a cool remove until the ending:

All spring
the nightingale perched on the green volcano’s lip.
The rats had abandoned the temples.
My mind was a voyage hungering to happen.

However much the reader might regret the belated concession to introspection, this and some of Hearon’s other poems resist the cheap allure of emotional intimacy and project a sense of detached and fairly objective intelligence. This contrasts effectively with the sentimental obsession with family, childhood, and self that blunts the intellectual verve of much otherwise promising new poetry.

Another poet who resists an oppressively private stance is Reginald Dwayne Betts, an alumnus of several prisons, who renders his experiences in tactile language free of bathos and the sentimentality that often mars work generated by personal anguish. Betts has a strong sense of the kinetics of individual words, phrases, and lines. This rhetorical alertness complements his preference for enjambment in poems like “And What if Every Cuss Word Was a Sin”:

Mouths would blossom more
thorns & men—shackled to bunk
beds, chow calls and count times,
their tongues touching pain
so rich it crawled inside bruises
and began to beat,—still wouldn’t
give a fuck if God was listening.

Most of his poems describe prison life, and the undertone of violence generated by his subtle but energetic poetics suits his subject matter well. His more formal poems—a couple of ghazals, for instance—feel overdressed and uncomfortable in this crowd. But his best poems seem almost literally about to burst from the page in a show of muscle and grit:

Do a set counted out in reps
often, and then do it until
your biceps bulge
with the promise
of an early release, until the weight
if every reason you’re two

felonies short of a life sentence.

(“The Secret Art of Lifting Time”)

Betts most typically wields a short, sharply rhythmic, consonant-heavy line. Some of his poems extend the line almost into prose poetry. Although these occasionally slacken, his mastery of his subject and flat, almost objective voice usually maintain control. Betts resists intimacy in favor of a calm reserve. The resultant emotional understatement can be highly effective.

By contrast, when lyric intimacy meets dawning sexuality the sentimental backwash can swamp the reader. That happened to this reviewer in reading Carrie Fountain’s “The Change”:

I swear the year my mother
stopped having her period
was the same year I started

having sex, the year
I spent my evenings
parked by the river, getting good

at revealing my breasts
to my sensitive boyfriend,
my ass, my armpits…..

Male reviewers risk being labeled sexist for asking why so many women poets seem so obsessed with body parts and functions. Arguably this self-obsession reacts against centuries of the fixed male sexual gaze by reclaiming the woman’s body for the woman; but it feels like another kind of objectification, one that through the illusion of an intimate voice enables the reader to participate in some unseemly way in someone else’s life.

Fountain, like the other poets reviewed here, writes with studied ease, but the voice of her poems, unalloyed by clear signals of fictionalizing, suggests how generic the confessional mode has become. It sounds more like memoir than poetry—and that, finally, may be why so much contemporary poetry, however intelligent and resourceful, sounds alike. Robert Lowell, although by reputation the progenitor of extreme lyric intimacy, wrote to Elizabeth Bishop about Sylvia Plath, “Whatever wrecked her life somehow gave an edge, freedom and even control, to her poetry. There’s a lot of surrealism which relieves the heat of direct memory….” Lyric poetry can’t simply “say what happened” (as Lowell elsewhere regretted) but has to call upon more public and more objective voices to crosscut its own and give it an edge and the freedom to veer from introspection to other places. It’s the peculiar, individual, and even eccentric crosscutting of private and public iterations, compressed and transformed by the imagination, that gives the most memorable poets their personal voices and frees them from aesthetically oppressive selves.

First published in Harvard Review 39

Published on October 4, 2010