American Poetry - American Poetry Today

American Poetry Today

The last forty years in United States poetry have seen the emergence of a number of groups, schools, and trends, whose lasting importance has, necessarily, yet to be demonstrated.

The 1970s saw a revival of interest in surrealism, with the most prominent poets working in this field being Andrei Codrescu (born in 1946), Russell Edson (born in 1935) and Maxine Chernoff (born in 1952). Performance poetry also emerged from the Beat and hippie happenings, the talk-poems of David Antin (born in 1932), and ritual events performed by Rothenberg, to become a serious poetic stance which embraces multiculturalism and a range of poets from a multiplicity of cultures, including Puerto Rican born poets Giannina Braschi (born in 1953) and Julia de Burgos (born in 1914) who lived and wrote in New York City about the plight of the Hispanic-American immigrants. This mirrored a general growth of interest in poetry by African Americans including Gwendolyn Brooks (born in 1917), Maya Angelou (born in 1928), Ishmael Reed (born in 1938),Vim Karénin, Nikki Giovanni (born in 1943), and Detrick Hughes (born in 1966).

Another group of poets, the Language school (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, after the magazine that bears that name), have continued and extended the Modernist and Objectivist traditions of the 1930s. Some poets associated with the group are Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman and Leslie Scalapino. Their poems—fragmentary, purposefully ungrammatical, sometimes mixing texts from different sources and idioms—can be by turns abstract, lyrical, and highly comic. Critics of the Language school point out that, by abandoning sense and context, their poetry could just as well be written by the proverbial infinite roomful of monkeys with typewriters.

The Language school includes a high proportion of women, which mirrors another general trend—the rediscovery and promotion of poetry written both by earlier and contemporary women poets. A number of the most prominent African American poets to emerge are women, and other prominent women writers include Adrienne Rich (born in 1929), Jean Valentine (born in 1934) and Amy Gerstler (born in 1956).

Although poetry in traditional classical forms had mostly fallen out of fashion by the 1960s, the practice was kept alive by poets of great formal virtuosity like James Merrill (1926–995), author of the epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, Richard Wilbur, and British-born San Francisco poet Thom Gunn. The 1980s and 1990s saw a re-emergent interest in traditional form, sometimes dubbed New Formalism or Neoformalism. These include poets such as Molly Peacock, Brad Leithauser, Dana Gioia, Donna J. Stone, Timothy Steele, and Marilyn Hacker. Some of the more outspoken New Formalists have declared that the return to rhyme and more fixed meters to be the new avant-garde. Their critics sometimes associate this traditionalism with the conservative politics of the Reagan era, noting the recent appointment of Gioia as Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. More recent examples of New Formalism, however, have sometimes crossed over into the more experimental territory of Language poetry, suggesting that both schools are being gradually absorbed into the poetic mainstream.

Haiku has also attracted a community of American poets dedicated to its development as a serious poetic genre in English. The extremely terse Japanese haiku first influenced the work of Pound and the Imagists, and post-war poets such as Kerouac and Richard Wright wrote substantial bodies of original haiku in English. Other poets such as Ginsberg, Snyder, Wilbur, Merwin, and many others have at least dabbled with haiku, often simply as a syllabic form. Starting in 1963, with the founding of the journal American Haiku, poets such as Cor van den Heuvel, Nick Virgilio, Raymond Roseliep, John Wills, Anita Virgil, Gary Hotham, Marlene Mountain, Wally Swist, Peggy Willis Lyles, George Swede, vincent tripi, Jim Kacian, and others have created significant oeuvres of haiku poetry, evincing continuities with both Transcendentalism and Imagism and often maintaining an anti-anthropocentric environmental focus on nature during an unparalleled age of habitat destruction and human alienation.

The last two decades have also seen a revival of the Beat poetry spoken word tradition, in the form of the poetry slam, which was born of the Nuyorican movement led by New York based Puerto Rican poets Pedro Pietri, Giannina Braschi, and Miguel Piñero. Chicago construction worker Marc Smith turned urban poetry performance into audience-judged competitions in 1984. Poetry slams emphasize a style of writing that is topical, provocative and easily understood. Poetry slam opened the door for a new generation of writers and spoken word performers, including Alix Olson, Apollo Poetry, Taylor Mali, and Saul Williams, and inspired hundreds of open mics across the country. Poetry has also become a significant presence on the Web, with a number of new online journals, 'zines, blogs and other websites.

During this time frame there were also major independent voices who defied links to well-known American poetic movements and forms such as poet and literary critic Robert Peters, greatly influenced by the Victorian English poet Robert Browning’s poetic monologues, became reputable for executing his monologic personae like his Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria into popular one-man performances.

Robert Pinsky has a special place in American poetry as he was the Poet Laureate of the United States for three terms. No other poet has been so honored. His "Favorite Poem Project" is unique, inviting all citizens to share their all-time favorite poetic composition and why they love it. He is a professor at Boston University and the poetry editor at Slate. "Poems to Read" is only one demonstration of his masterful poetic vision, joining the word and the common man.

In general, poetry in the contemporary era has been moving out of the mainstream and onto the college and university campus. The growth in the popularity of graduate creative writing programs has given poets the opportunity to make a living as teachers. This increased professionalization of poetry, combined with the reluctance of most major book and magazine presses to publish poetry, has meant that, for the foreseeable future at least, poetry may have found its new home in the academy and in small independent journals.

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