Saturday, May 05, 2012

Under 35 in 1989

I'm moving my office this month, and look at the sorts of things I'm finding!

Nicholas Christopher introduced the new generation of poets in 1989 in Under 35: the New Generation of American Poets.

It’s not really how right or wrong he was about specific poets (some of these poets have continued to be widely anthologized and talked about and some haven’t, which is always the case), but more, what interests me is the slice of American poetry he saw then.

America is an “[e]mpire in decline, from all indications,” he says in the introduction. And “every poet is writing his or her personal history, but also a history of his [or her] times.”

Here they are, or were, then:

Judith Baumel

Bruce Beasley

April Bernard

Lucie Brock-Broido

Cyrus Cassells

Henri Cole

Connie Deanovich

Lynn Doyle

Cornelius Eady

Martin Edmunds

Elaine Equi

Martin Espada

Kathy Fagan

Suzanne Gardinier

Martha Hollander

Lynda Hull

Vickie Karp

Wayne Koestenbaum

Victoria Kohn

Robert McDowell

Askold Melnyczuk

Carol Moldaw

Karen Murai

Jane Oliensis

Brenda Marie Oxbey

Jacqueline Osherow

Donald Revell

Mary Jo Salter

Vijay Seshadri

Jason Shinder

Jack Skelley

Mark Svenvold

Cole Swensen

David Trinidad

James Ulmer

Valerie Wohlfeld

Cynthia Zarin

So what version of the forming canon was Christopher seeing? This anthology is weighted heavily to poets who looked a lot like, in their content and form, the poets of the generation before them, typified by the poetry of Sharon Olds.

Here’s a poem, which opens and is typical of the anthology, by Judith Baumel:

The New York City World’s Fairs
1939 and 1964

for my mother

We visited the world’s fair
thirteen times and saved a brochure
from every pavilion.
When you were my age then,
with a Heinz pickle pin
on a brownie collar,
you trooped through the Dawn of a New Day,
the World of Tomorrow;
marched up the Helicline
and saw Billy Rose’s Aquacade.
You went back for the thrill
of stepping on a board that yelled,
“ouch, that hurts” or “don’t tread on me.”
GM’s bright Futurama between
the Great Depression
and the Second Great War.
I put 50 cents in a machine
at the Sinclair pavilion and it produced
a fresh warm plastic dinosaur.
That was man and science—
dinosaur to oil, oil to plastic.
I wanted and got another.
You wanted to teach the family possibilities,
to show man’s clever exhibitions,
but the future I came away with
was an entire house
of impermeable Formica where I wept
because my brother was lost
for the fifth time that season
and you’d gone to some hamburger-
shaped tent to pick him up again.

But, what’s equally interesting about this anthology is the inclusion of poets like Cole Swensen, Donald Revell, and Elaine Equi, who would go on to typify a very different strain of American poetry.

If there was any truth in Christopher's description of America in 1989, it's only more true now, so it's not surprising, then, that looking at this anthology now, it’s hard for me to say much has changed in American poetry in the last 23 years. Whatever the debate was is still the debate.

Something to think about, at least, while waiting for the complex transformation to get here.  I'm going to the porch now to watch for the foederati.


At 5/06/2012 4:53 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

We were watching for the foederati in '89, too. They swarmed out of the Batcave and fluttered across the pond.

God, back in '89 I was bored to the point of hatred with that flat autobiographical chopped-up prose. It was everywhere.

At 5/06/2012 6:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

There was and is a strong prose-influenced, autobiographical move in contemporary American poetry. But there’s also, in the poems in this anthology, a tendency to deflate the epiphany, to attempt a flatter poignancy.

Here’s Victoria Kohn’s “Horrible Tangents”:

While clearing the land, Walter
accidentally chops down her favorite
apple tree. She is in the cabin
feeding the dog, which he forgot
at the lumber yard earlier that morning.
She is still not speaking to him.
He walks toward the cabin,
determined to tell her the truth.
In the cabin, she remembers
how awful being separated from Walter
was, almost as awful as living with
him now.

It’s easy to say you don’t want children
until you think about not having them.

She doesn’t know why, but
it makes her sad to think of eating
watermelon with Walter.


It’s a difficult proposition, to look to the future of poetry from a group of people under 35, though it makes a good pitch to a press, I suppose. I remember getting this anthology right around the same time as the Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets.

There’s an attempt in many of the poets included in this anthology to harden the edge, to be tougher than the raised epiphany that is so easy from autobiographical poetry, to be more associational, but poems such as this one above can come out seeming pretty heavy-handed as well as unintentionally comic.

At 5/06/2012 8:13 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

It's interesting that you use "flatter" in the meliorative--flattering?--sense of lowering or deflating a raised epiphany, while I meant "flat" in the pejorative sense of effervescenceless because lacking figurative language or any other wordplay. Even the Kohn poem, which, as you point out, blunts the poignard, would have bored me at that time. I was just bored with the plain style in general. It planed my encephalogram. When I read something like Charles Wright, I thought, This is the shit.

I saw this Under 35 book around back then, and I bought the Morrow, but it mostly bored me. There was some good stuff in it, e.g., James Tate. "All I want is a cup of tea with no holes in it."

Once I read in a bar and Lynda Hull--looking superfly in a beret, it might have been raspberry even--said I sounded like I'd been reading a lot of Tate. & I did read a lot of Tate in my late teens and early 20s. I often wrote skittery back in '89, but not many poets who heard or read me thought I was on to anything. Older poets like Philip Levine and Bill Matthews advised me to stop swerving around and focus on one thing. Josephine Jacobsen flat hated my skittery stuff. & as for people my own age, I always got more positive responses from garage punk kind of guys than from MFA types. Most of the latter wrote the kind of poem you copied in your post. I called them my-grandmother's-tapestry poems. You know: "The first time I saw my grandmother's tapestry I was eight years old...zzzz..."

At 5/06/2012 9:39 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Around that time I was more interested in Ch. Wright as well. But still, what they were trying to do, or at least from this anthology, what it seemed many of these writers were trying to do, was to make the autobiographical new, a more clinical eye, perhaps. Other poets (Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Alice Fulton) were doing similar things.

Here’s another example, Martin Edwards’s “One for the Road”:

A dusk so dark woodsmoke
is a hung net unkinking
until the sky opens
a scar of lightning,
forked road down which
a white-faced convict
looks back but comes stumbling.

Claws scrape at the cracked flags
lining the drive.
Red eyes seen through
the steam of its breathing,
sniffing me out.

Let it be.
Let what is leashed
and beaten in me
come and go begging
through the night, lifting
house after house,
city by city,
a torn silence, the bloody
pads of its paws.

At the eye of the storm,
unbearable calm.

Far down the evening,
a dog barks.

Just like that, a man
opens his throat to the moon.


In this poem I can really see the attempt to mix Robert Lowell and Robert Bly, a kind of deep-image confessional poem (“Claws scrape the cracked flags” is absolutely Robert Lowell’s cadence and influence). As much as things like “a scar of lightning” sounds overwrought and deep-image stones and bones, it makes me imagine at what a similar howling might be said of 2012.

At 5/06/2012 5:58 PM, Blogger Whimsy said...

A seriously interesting, diverse and enduring collection of poets.

I love what you do, John.

The poem seemed like autobiography with enjambment, not my favorite kind.

Swensen, Equi, Revell, Brock-Broido. It seems impossible they were of the same generation.


At 5/07/2012 5:41 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Lynda Hull!

At 5/07/2012 8:46 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Lynda Hull! What a sweet, charming woman. I felt comfortable with her instantly. And the stuff she read--speaking of making the autobiographical new, in Fulton fashion--reminded me of Black Tickets, dirty realist flash fiction with a poet's sense of language. At the time, anyway--my touchstones were limited. What a pity such a talent died so young.


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