David Mamet (1947- )
Equally important is David Mamet, raised in Chicago, whose writing was influenced by the Stanislavsky method of acting that revealed to him the way "the language we use...determines the way we behave, more than the other way around." His emphasis on language not as communication but as a weapon, evasion, and manipulation of reality give Mamet a contemporary, postmodern sensibility.
Mamet's hard-hitting plays include American Buffalo (l975), a two-act play of increasingly violent language involving a drug addict, a junk store, and an attempted theft; and Speed-the-Plow (1987). The acclaimed and frequently anthologized Glengarry Glen Ross (l982), about real estate salesmen, was made into an outstanding 1992 movie with an all-star cast. This play, like most of Mamet's work, reveals his intense engagement with some of America's unresolved issues -- here, as if in an update of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, one sees the need for dignity and job security, especially for older workers; competition between older and younger generations in the workplace; intense focus on profits at the expense of the welfare of workers; and -- enveloping all --the corrosive atmosphere of competition carried to abusive lengths.
Mamet's Oleanna (l991) effectively dissects sexual harassment in a university setting. The Cryptogram (1994) imagines a child's horrific vision of family life. Recent plays include The Old Neighborhood (1991) and Boston Marriage (1999).
David Rabe (1940- )
Another noted dramatist is David Rabe, a Vietnam veteran who was one of the first to explore that war's upheaval and violence in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (l971) and Sticks and Bones (l969). Subsequent plays include The Orphan (l973), based on Aeschylus's Oresteia; In the Boom Boom Room (1973), about the rape of a dancer; and Hurlyburly (1984) and Those the River Keeps (l990), both about Hollywood disillusionment. Rabe's recent works include The Crossing Guard (l994) and Corners (1998), about the concept of honor in the Mafia.
August Wilson (1945-2005)
The distinguished African-American dramatist August Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel, was the son of a German immigrant who did not concern himself with his family. Wilson endured poverty and racism and adopted the surname of his African-American mother as a teenager. Influenced by the black arts movement of the late 1960s, Wilson co-founded Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theater.
Wilson's plays explore African-American experience, organized by decades. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (l984), set in 1927 Chicago, depicts the famous blues singer. His acclaimed play Fences (1985), set in the 1950s, dramatizes the conflict between a father and a son, touching on the all-American themes of baseball and the American dream of success. Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986) concerns boarding-house residents in 1911. The Piano Lesson (1987), set in the 1930s, crystallizes a family's dynamic by focusing on the heirloom piano. Two Trains Running (1990) takes place in a coffeehouse in the 1960s, while Seven Guitars (1995) explores the 1940s.
Contemporary American Poetry
U.S. poetry since 1990 has been in the midst of a kaleidoscopic renaissance. In the latter half of the 20th century, there was, if not a consensus, at least a discernible shape to the poetic field, complete with well-defended positions. Well-defined schools dominated the scene, and critical discussions tended to the binary: formalism versus free verse, academic versus experimental.
Jorie Graham (© AP Images)
Louise Glück (© AP Images)
Billy Collins (© AP Images)
Robert Pinsky (© AP Images)
Yusef Komunyakaa (© AP Images)
Looking back, some have seen the post-World War II years as a heroic age in which American poetry broke free from constraints such as rhyme and meter and flung itself heart-first into new dimensions alongside the abstract expressionists in American painting. Others -- experimentalists, multiethnic and global authors, and feminist writers among them -- recall the era's blindness to issues of race and gender. These writers experience diversity as a present blessing and look forward to freedoms yet unimagined. Their contributions have made the poetry of the present a rich cornucopia with a genuinely popular base.
Among the general public, interest in poetry is at an all-time high. Poetry slams generate competitive camaraderie among beginning writers, informal writing groups provide support and critiques, and reading clubs proliferate. Writing programs flourish at all levels, brisk poetic exchanges zip over the Internet, and universities, magazines, and enterprising authors mount Web sites. American poetry at present is a vast territory of free imagination, a pot on the boil, a dynamic work in progress.
The ferment of American poetry since l990 makes the field decentralized and hard to define. Most anthologies showcase only one dimension of poetry, for example, women's writing -- or groupings of ethnic writers, or poetry with a common inspiration -- jazz poetry, cowboy poetry, Buddhist-influenced poems, hip-hop.
The few anthologists aspiring to represent the whole of contemporary American poetry begin with copious disclaimers and dwell on its disparate impulses: postmodernism, the expansion of the canon, ethnicities, immigration (with special mention of new voices out of South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East), the dawning of global literature, the elaboration of women's continuing contributions, the rise of Internet technology, the influence of specific teachers or writing programs or regional impulses, the ubiquitous media, and the role of the poet as the lone individual voice raised against the din of commercialism and conformity.
Poets themselves struggle to make sense of the flood of poetry. It is possible to envision a continuum, with poetry of the speaking, subjective self on one end, poetry of the world on the other, and a large middle range in which self and world merge.
Poetry of the speaking self tends to focus on vivid expression and exploration of deep, often buried, emotion. It is psychological and intense, and its settings are secondary. In the last half of the 20th century, the most influential poet of this sort was Robert Lowell, whose descents into his own psyche and his disturbed family background inspired confessional writing.
Poetry of the world, on the other hand, tends to build up meaning from narrative drive, detail, and context. It sets careful scenes. One of the most influential poets of the world was Elizabeth Bishop, generally considered the finest American woman poet of later 20th century.
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop were life-long friends; both taught at Harvard University. Like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the 19th century, Lowell and Bishop are presiding generative spirits for later poets. And although they shared a kindred vision, their approaches were polar opposites. Lowell's knotty, subjective, rhetorical poetry wrests meaning from self-presentation and heightened language, while Bishop offers, instead, detailed landscapes in a deceptively simple prosaic style. Only on rereading does her precision and depth make itself felt.
Most poets hover somewhere between the two poles. Ultimately, great poetry -- whether of the self or the world -- overcomes such divisions; the self and the world becoming mirrors of each other. Nevertheless, for purposes of discussion, the two may be provisionally distinguished.
The Poetry of Self
Poetry of self tends toward direct address or monologue. At its most intense, it states a condition of soul. The settings, though present, do not play definitive roles. This poetry may be psychological or spiritual, aspiring to a timeless realm. It may also, however, undercut spiritual certainty by referring all meaning back to language. Within this large grouping, therefore, one may find somewhat romantic, expressive poetry, but also language-based poems that question the very concepts of identity and meaning, seeing these as constructs.
Balancing these concerns, John Ashbery has said that he is interested in "the experience of experience," or what filters through his consciousness, rather than what actually happened. His "Soonest Mended" (1970) depicts a reality "out there" lying loose and seemingly simple, but lethal as a floor on which wheat and chaff (like human lives, or Walt Whitman's leaves of grass) are winnowed:
...underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.
The enigmatic, classically trained W.S. Merwin (1927- ) continues to produce volumes of haunting subjective poetry. Merwin's poem "The River of Bees" (1967) ends:
On the door it says what to do to survive
But we were not born to survive
Only to live
The word "only" ironically underscores how difficult it is to live fully as human beings, a nobler pursuit than mere survival. Both Ashbery and Merwin, precursors of the current generation of poets of self, characteristically write monologues detached from explicit contexts or narratives. Merwin's haunting existential lyrics plumb psychological depths, while Ashbery's unexpected use of words from many registers of human endeavor -- psychology, farming, philosophy -- looks forward to the Language School.
Recent poets of self have pushed more deeply into a phenomenological awareness of consciousness played out moment by moment. For Ann Lauterbach (1942- ), the poem is an extension of the mind in action; she has said that her poetry is "an act of self-construction, the voice its threshold." Language poet Lyn Hejinian (1941- ) expresses the movement of consciousness in her autobiographical prose poem My Life (1987), which employs disjunction, surprising leaps, and chance intersections: "I picture an idea at the moment I come to it, our collision." Rae Armantrout (1947- ) uses silences and subtle, oblique associative clusters; the title poem of her volume Necromance (1991) warns that "emphatic / precision / is revealed as / hostility." Another experimental poet, Leslie Scalapino (1947- ), writes poems as an "examination of the mind in the process of whatever it's creating."
Much experimental poetry of self is elliptical, nonlinear, nonnarrative, and nonobjective; at its best, it is, however, not solipsistic but rather circles around an "absent center." Poetry of self often involves a public performance. In the case of women poets, the erasures, notions of silence, and disjunctions are often associated with Julia Kristeva and other French feminist theoreticians. Poet Susan Howe (1937- ), who has developed a complex visual poetics to interweave the historical and personal, has noted the difficulty of tracing back female lines in archives and genealogies and the erasure of women in cultural history. For her, as a woman, "the gaps and silences are where you find yourself."
Jorie Graham (1950- )
One of the most accomplished poets of the subjective self is Jorie Graham. Born in New York, she grew up in Italy and studied at the Sorbonne in France, at New York University (specializing in film, which continues to influence her work), and at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she later taught. Since then, she has been a professor at Harvard University.
Graham's work is suffused with cosmopolitan references, and she sees the history of the United States as a part of a larger international engagement over time. The title poem in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994 (1995) addresses this complex and changing history. The poem brings together disparate elements in large-gestured free association -- the poet's walk through the white flecks of a snowstorm to return a friend's black dance leotard, a flock of black starlings (birds that drive out native species), a single black crow (a protagonist of Native-American oral tradition) evoked as "one ink-streak on the early evening snowlit scene."
These sense impressions summon up the poet's childhood memories of Europe and her black-garbed dance teacher, and broaden out into the history of the New World. Christopher Columbus's contact with Native Americans on a white sandy beach is likened to the poet's white snowstorm: "He thought he saw Indians fleeing through the white before the ship," and "In the white swirl, he placed a large cross."
All these elements are subordinated to the moving mind that contains them and that constantly questions itself. This mind, or "unified field" (a set of theories in physics that attempt to relate all forces in the universe), is likened to the snowstorm of the beginning:
Nothing true or false in itself. Just motion. Many strips of
motion. Filaments of falling marked by the tiny certainties of flakes.
Graham focuses on the mind as a portal of meaning and distortion, both a part of the world and a separate vantage point. As in a film's montage, her voice threads together disparate visions and experiences. Swarm (2000) deepens Graham's metaphysical bent, emotional depth, and urgency.
The Poetry of Voice
At its furthest extreme, poetry of self obliterates the self if it lacks a counterbalancing sensibility. The next stage may be a poetry of various voices or fictive selves, breaking the monolithic idea of self into fragments and characters. The dramatic monologues of Robert Browning are 19th-century antecedents. The fictive "I" feels solid but does not involve the actual author, whose self remains offstage.
This strain of poetry often takes subjects from myth and popular culture, typically seeing modern relationships as redefinitions or versions of older patterns. Among contemporary poets of voice or monologue are Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Alberto Rios, and the Canadian poet Margaret Atwood.
Usually, the poetry of voice is written in the first person, but the third person can make a similar impact if the viewpoint is clearly that of the characters, as in Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah. In this volume, Dove intertwines biography and history to dramatize her grandparents' lives. Like many African Americans in the early 20th century, they fled poverty and racism in the rural South for work in the urban North. Dove endows their humble lives with dignity. Thomas's first job, as a laborer on the third shift, requires him to live in a barracks and share a mattress with two men he never meets. His work is "a narrow grief," but music lifts his spirits like a beautiful woman (forecasting Beulah, whom he has not yet met). When Thomas sings
he closes his eyes.
He never knows when she'll be coming
but when she leaves, he always
tips his hat.
Louise Gl?943- )
One of the most impressive poets of voice is Louise Gl?orn in New York City, Gl?he U.S. poet laureate for 2003-2004, grew up with an abiding sense of guilt due to the death of a sister born before her. At Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, she studied with poets Leonie Adams and Stanley Kunitz, and she has attributed her psychic survival to psychoanalysis and her studies in poetry. Much of her poetry deals with tragic loss.
Each of Gl?books attempts new techniques, making it difficult to summarize her work. Her early volumes, such as The House on Marshland (l975) and The Triumph of Achilles (1985), handle autobiographical material at a psychic distance, while in later books she is more direct. Meadowlands (1996) employs comic wit and references to the Odyssey to depict a failing marriage.
In Gl?memorable The Wild Iris (1992), different kinds of flowers utter short metaphysical monologues. The book's title poem, an exploration of resurrection, could be an epigraph for Gl?work as a whole. The wild iris, a gorgeous deep blue flower growing from a bulb that lies dormant all winter, says: "It is terrible to survive / as consciousness / buried in the dark earth." Like Jorie Graham's vision of the self merged in the snowstorm, Gl?poem ends with a vision of world and self merged -- this time in the water of life, blue on blue:
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice;
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
Like Graham, Gl?rges the self into the world through a fluid imagery of water. While Graham's frozen water -- snow -- resembles sand, the earth ground up at the sea's edge, Gl?blue fresh water -- signifying her heart -- merges with the salt sea of the world.
The Poetry of Place
A number of poets -- these are not groups, but nationwide tendencies -- find deep inspiration in specific landscapes. Instances are Robert Hass's lyrical evocations of Northern California, Mark Jarman's Southern California coastlines and memories of surfing, Tess Gallagher's poems set in the Pacific Northwest, and Simon Ortiz's and Jimmy Santiago Baca's poems emanating from southwestern landscapes. Each subregion has inspired poetry: C.D. (Carolyn) Wright's hardscrabble upper South is far from Yusef Komunyakaa's humid Louisiana Gulf.
Poetry of place is not based on landscape description; rather, the land, and its history, is a generative force implicated in the way its people, including the poet, live and think. The land is felt as what D.H. Lawrence called a "spirit of place."
Charles Wright (1935- )
One of the most moving poets of place is Charles Wright. Raised in Tennessee, Wright is a cosmopolitan southerner. He draws on Italian and ancient Chinese poetry, and infuses his work with southern themes such as the burden of a tragic past, seen in his poetic series "Appalachian Book of the Dead," which is based on the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. His works include Country Music: Selected Early Poems (l982); Chickamauga (1995); and Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems (2000).
Wright's intense poetry offers moments of spiritual insight rescued, or rather constructed, from the ravages of time and circumstance. A purposeful awkwardness -- seen in his unexpected turns of colloquial phrase and preference for long, broken lines with odd numbers of syllables -- endows his poems with a burnished grace, like that of gnarled old farm tools polished with the wear of hands. This hand-made, earned, sometimes wry quality makes Wright's poems feel contemporary and prevents them from seeming pretentious.
The disparity between transcendent vision and human frailty lies at the heart of Wright's vision. He is drawn to grand themes -- stars, constellations, history -- on the one hand, and to tiny tactile elements -- fingers, hairs -- on the other. His title poem "Chickamauga" relies on the reader's knowledge: Chickamauga, Georgia, on September 19 and 20, 1862, was the scene of a decisive battle in the U.S. Civil War between the North and the South. The South failed to destroy the Union (northern) army and opened a way for the North's scorched-earth invasion of the South via Atlanta, Georgia.
"Chickamauga" can be read as a meditation on landscape, but it is also an elegiac lament and the poet's ars poetica. It begins with a simple observation: "Dove-twirl in the tall grass." This seeming idyll is the moment just before a hunter shoots; the slain soldiers, never mentioned in the poem, have been forgotten, mowed down like doves or grass. The "conked magnolia tree" undercuts the romantic "midnight and magnolia" stereotype of the antebellum-plantation South. The poem merges present and past in a powerful epitaph for lost worlds and ideals.
Dove-twirl in the tall grass.
End-of-summer glaze next door
On the gloves and split ends of the conked magnolia tree.
Work sounds: truck back-up-beep, wood tin-hammer, cicada, fire horn.
History handles our past like spoiled fruit.
Mid-morning, late-century light
calicoed under the peach trees.
Fingers us here. Fingers us here and here.
The poem is a code with no message:
The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath,
unhoused and peregrine.
The gill net of history will pluck us soon enough
From the cold waters of self-contentment we drift in
One by one
into its suffocating light and air.
Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax
And grammar a catechist,
Their words what the beads say,
words thumbed to our discontent.
The poem sees history as a construct, a "code with no message." Each individual exists in itself, unknowable outside its own terms and time, "not the mask but the face underneath." Death is inevitable for us as for the fallen soldiers, the Old South, and the caught fish. Nevertheless, poetry offers a partial consolation: Our articulated discontent may yield a measure of immortality.
The Poetry of Family
An even more grounded strain of poetry locates the poetic subject in a matrix of belonging -- to family, community, and changing traditions. Often the traditions called into play are ethnic or international.
A few poets, such as Sharon Olds (1942- ), expose their own unhealed wounds, resorting to the confessional mode, but most contemporary poets write with an affection that, however rueful, is nonetheless genuine. Stephen Dunn (1939- ) is an example: In his poems, relationships are a means of knowing. In some poets, respect for family and community carries with it a sense of affirmation, if not an explicitly devotional sensibility. This is not a conservative poetry; often it confronts change, loss, and struggle with the powers of ethnic or non-Western literary tradition.
Lucille Clifton (1936- ) finds solace in the black community. Her colloquial language and strong faith are a potent combination. The moving elegies to his mother of Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001) draw on a dazzling array of classical Middle Eastern poetic forms, intertwining his mother's life with the suffering of his family's native Kashmir.
Malaysian-Chinese American Shirley Geok-lin Lim (1944- ) powerfully contrasts her difficult family in Malaysia with her new family in California. Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes memorializes her harsh, impoverished family life in California; Louise Erdrich brings her unpredictable, tragicomic Native-American family members to vital life.
Li-Young Lee (1957- )
Tragic history arches over Li-Young Lee, whose Chinese-born father, at one time a physician to Mao Tse-tung, was later imprisoned in Indonesia. Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Lee lived the life of a refugee, moving with his family to Hong Kong, Macao, and Japan before finding refuge in the United States, where his father became a Protestant minister in Pennsylvania. Lee won acclaim for his books Rose (1986) and The City in Which I Love You (1990).
Lee is sensuous, filial -- he movingly depicts his family and his father's decline -- and outspoken in his commitment to the spiritual dimensions of poetry. His most influential poem, "Persimmons" (1986), from his book Rose, evokes his Asian background through the persimmon, a fruit little known in the United States. Fruits and flowers are traditional subjects of Chinese art and poetry, but unusual in the West. The poem contains a pointed yet humorous critique of a provincial schoolteacher Lee encountered in the United States who presumes to understand persimmons and language.
Lee's poem "Irises" (1986), from the same volume, suggests that we drift through a "dream of life" but, like the iris, "waken dying--violet becoming blue, growing / black, black." The poem and its handling of color resonate with Gl?wild iris.
The title poem of The City in Which I Love You announces Lee's affirmative entrance into a larger community of poetry. It ends:
my birthplace vanished, my citizenship earned,
in league with stones of the earth, I
enter, without retreat or help from history,
the days of no day, my earth
of no earth, I re-enter
the city in which I love you.
And I never believed that the multitude
of dreams and many words were vain.