Under 35 in 1989
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:
Brenda Marie Oxbey
Mary Jo Salter
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.