First books, first looks: an omnibus review

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Author: William Doreski
Date: Dec. 2010
From: Harvard Review(Issue 39)
Publisher: Harvard Review
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,700 words
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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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...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A254314726