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The Poetry of the Beautiful

Yet another strain of intensely lyrical, image-driven poetry celebrates beauty despite, or in the midst of, modern life in all its suffering and confusion. Many poets could be included here -- Joy Harjo (1951- ), Sandra McPherson (1943- ), Henri Cole (1965- ) -- as the strains of poetry are overlapping, not mutually exclusive.

Some of the finest contemporary poets use imagery not as decoration, but to explore new subjects and terrain. Harjo imagines horses as a way of retrieving her Native-American heritage, while McPherson and Cole create images that seem to come alive.

Mark Doty (l953- )
Since the late l980s, Mark Doty has been publishing supple, beautiful poetic meditations on art and relationships -- with lovers, friends, and a host of communities. His vivid, exact, sensory imagery is often a mode of knowing, feeling, and reaching out. Through images, Doty makes us feel a kinship with animals, strangers, and the work of artistic creation, which for him involves a way of seeing.

It is possible to enjoy Doty by following his evolving ideas of community. In "A Little Rabbit Dead in the Grass" from Source (2001), a dead rabbit provokes a philosophical meditation. This particular rabbit, like a poem, is important in itself and as a text, an "artfully crafted thing" on whose brow "some trace / of thought seems written." The next poem in Source, "Fish R Us," likens the human community to a bag of fish in a pet store tank, "each fry / about the size of this line." Like people, or ideas, the fish want freedom: They "want to swim forward," but for now they "pulse in their golden ball." The sense of a shared organic connection with others is carried throughout the volume. The third poem, "At the Gym," envisions the imprint of sweaty heads on exercise equipment as "some halo / the living made together."

Doty finds in Walt Whitman a personal and poetic guide. Doty has also written memorably of the tragic AIDS epidemic. His works include My Alexandria (l993), Atlantis (l995), and his vivid memoir Firebird (1999). Still Life With Oysters and Lemon (2001) is a recent collection.

Doty's poems are both reflexive (referencing themselves as art) and responsive to the outer world. He sees the imperfect yet vital body, especially the skin, as the margin -- a kind of text -- where internal and external meet, as in his short poem, also from Source, about getting a tattoo, "To the Engraver of My Skin."

I understand the pact is mortal,
agree to bear this permanence.
 
I contract with limitation; I say
no and no then yes to you, and sign
 
--here, on the dotted line--
for whatever comes, I do: our time,
 
our outline, the filling-in of our details
(it's density that hurts, always,
 
not the original scheme). I'm here
for revision, discoloration; here to fade
 
and last, ineradicable, blue. Write me!
This ink lasts longer than I do.

The Poetry of Spirit

A spiritual focus permeates another strand of contemporary American poetry. In this work, the deepest relationship is that between the individual and a timeless essence beyond -- though linked with -- artistic beauty. Older poets who heralded a spiritual consciousness include Gary Snyder, who helped introduce Zen to American poetry, and poet-translator Robert Bly, who brought an awareness of Latin American surrealism to U.S. poetry. In recent times, Coleman Barks has translated many books of the 13th-century mystic poet Rumi.

Spiritually attuned contemporary U.S. poets include Arthur Sze (1950- ), who is said to have a Zen-like sensibility. His poems offer literal and seemingly simple observations that are also meditations, such as these lines from "Throwing Salt on a Path" (1987): "Shrimp smoking over a fire. Ah, / the light of a star never stops, but travels." Shoveling snow, he notes: "The salt now clears a path in the snow, expands the edges of the universe."

Jane Hirshfield (l953- )
Jane Hirshfield makes almost no explicit references to Buddhism in her poems, yet they breathe the spirit of her many years of Zen meditation and her translations from the ancient court poetry of two Japanese women, Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. Hirshfield has edited an anthology, Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (l994).

Hirshfield's poetry manifests what she calls the "mind of indirection" in her book about writing poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997). This orientation draws on a reverence for nature, an economy of language, and a Buddhist sense of impermanence. Her own "poetry of indirection" works by nuance, association (often to seasons and weathers, evocative of world views and moods), and natural imagery.

Hirshfield's poem "Mule Heart," from her poetry collection The Lives of the Heart (1997), vividly evokes a mule without ever mentioning it. Hirshfield drew on her memory of a mule used to carry loads up steep hills on the Greek island of Santorini to write this poem, which she has called a kind of recipe for getting through a difficult time. The poem conjures the reader to take heart. This humble mule has its own beauty (bridle bells) and strength.

On the days when the rest


have failed you,
let this much be yours--
flies, dust, an unnameable odor,
the two waiting baskets:
one for the lemons and passion,
the other for all you have lost.
Both empty,
it will come to your shoulder,
breathe slowly against your bare arm.
If you offer it hay, it will eat.
Offered nothing,
it will stand as long as you ask.
The little bells of the bridle will hang
beside you quietly,
in the heat and the tree's thin shade.
Do not let its sparse mane deceive you,
or the way the left ear swivels into dream.
This too is a gift of the gods,
calm and complete.

The Poetry of Nature

The New World riveted the attention of Americans during the revolutionary era of the late 1700s, when Philip Freneau made a point of celebrating flora and fauna native to the Americas as a way of forging an American identity. Transcendentalism and agrarianism focused on America's relation to nature in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today environmental concerns inform a powerful strain of ecologically oriented U.S. poetry. The late A.R. Ammons was one recent progenitor, and Native-American poets, such as the late James Welch and Leslie Marmon Silko, never lost a reverence for nature. Contemporary poets rooted in a natural vision include Pattiann Rogers (1940- ) and Maxine Kumin (1925- ). Rogers brings natural history into focus, while Kumin writes feelingly of her personal life on a farm and her raising of horses.

Mary Oliver (1935- )
One of the most celebrated poets of nature is Mary Oliver. A stunning, accessible poet, Oliver evokes plants and animals with visionary intensity. Oliver was born in Ohio but has lived in New England for years, and her poems, like those of Robert Frost, draw on its varied landscape and changing seasons. Oliver finds meaning in encounters with nature, continuing in the Transcendental tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her work has a strong ethical dimension. Oliver's works include American Primitive (1983), New and Selected Poems (l992), White Pine (1994), Blue Pastures (1995), and the essays in The Leaf and the Cloud (2000).

For Oliver, no natural fact is too humble to afford insights, or what Emerson called "spiritual facts," as in her poem "The Black Snake" (1979). Though the speaker, as a driver of an automobile, is implicated in the snake's demise, she stops and removes the snake's body from the road -- an act of respect. She recognizes the often vilified snake, with its negative associations with the biblical book of Genesis and death, as a "dead brother," and she appreciates his gleaming beauty. The snake teaches her death, but also a new genesis and delight in life, and she drives on, thinking about the "light at the center of every cell" that entices all created life "forward / happily all spring" -- always unaware of where we will meet our end. This carpe diem is an invitation to a more rooted, celebratory awareness.

When the black snake
flashed onto the morning road,
and the truck could not swerve --
death, that is how it happens.
 
Now he lies looped and useless
as an old bicycle tire.
I stop the car
and carry him into the bushes.
 
He is as cool and gleaming
as a braided whip, he is as beautiful and quiet
as a dead brother.
I leave him under the leaves
 
and drive on, thinking
about death: its suddenness,
its terrible weight,
its certain coming. Yet under
 
reason burns a brighter fire, which the bones
have always preferred.
It is the story of endless good fortune.
It says to oblivion: not me!
 
It is the light at the center of every cell.
It is what sent the snake coiling and flowing forward
happily all spring through the green leaves before
he came to the road.

Oliver's poems find countless ways to celebrate the simple yet transcendent fact of being alive. In "Hummingbird Pauses at the Trumpet Vine" (1992), she reminds us that most of existence is "waiting or remembering," since most of the world's time we are "not here, / not born yet, or died." An intensity reminiscent of the late poet James Wright burns through many of Oliver's poems, such as "Poppies" (1991-1992). This poem begins with a description of the "orange flares; swaying / in the wind, their congregations are a levitation." It ends with a taunt at death: "what can you do / about it -- deep, blue night?"



The Poetry of Wit

On the spectrum from poetry of self to poetry of the world, wit -- including humor, a sense of the incongruous, and flights of fancy -- lies close to world. Wit depends on the intersection of two or more frames of reference and on acute discrimination; this is a worldly poetry.

Poetry of wit locates the poetic occasion in everyday life raised to a humorous, surrealistic, or allegorical pitch. Usually the language is colloquial so that the fantastic situations have the heft of reality. Older masters of this vein are Charles Simic and Mark Strand; among younger poets, its practitioners include Stephen Dobyns and Mark Halliday.

The everyday language, humor, surprising action, and exaggeration of this poetry makes it unusually accessible, though the best of this work only gives up its secrets on repeated rereading.



Billy Collins (1941- )
The most influential of the poets of wit today is Billy Collins. Collins, who was the U.S. poet laureate for 2001-2003, is refreshing and exhilarating, as was Frank O'Hara a generation earlier. Like O'Hara, Collins uses everyday language to record the myriad details of everyday life, freely mixing quotidian events (eating, doing chores, writing) with cultural references. His humor and originality have brought him a wide audience. Though some have faulted Collins for being too accessible, his unpredictable flights of fancy open out into mystery.

Collins's is a domesticated form of surrealism. His best poems, too long to reproduce here, quickly propel the imagination up a stairway of increasingly surrealistic situations, at the end offering an emotional landing, a mood one can rest on, if temporarily, like a final modulation in music. The short poem "The Dead," from Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), gives some sense of Collins's fanciful flight and gentle settling down, as if a bird had come to rest.

The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
 
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
 
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

The Poetry of History

Poetry inspired by history is in some ways the most difficult and ambitious of all. In this vein, poets venture into the world with a lower-case "i," open to all that has shaped them. The faith of these poets is in experience.

An older poet working in this vein is Michael S. Harper, who interweaves African-American history with his family's experiences in a form of montage. Frank Bidart has similarly merged political events such as the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy with personal life. Ed Hirsch, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Rita Dove imbue some of their finest poems with similarly irreducible memories of their personal pasts, centering on touchstone moments.

Robert Pinsky (1940- )
Among the most accomplished of the poets of history is Robert Pinsky. U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, Pinsky links colloquial speech to technical virtuosity. He is insistently local and personal, but his poems extend into historical and national contexts. Like the works of Elizabeth Bishop, his conversational poetry wields seeming artlessness with subtle art.

Pinsky's influential book of criticism, The Situation of Poetry (l976), recommended a poetry with the virtues of prose, and he carried out that mandate in his book-length poem An Explanation of America (l979) and in History of My Heart (l984), though later books, including The Want Bone (l990), unleash a lyricism also seen in his impressive collected poems entitled The Figured Wheel (1996).

The title poem from The Figured Wheel is among Pinsky's finest works, but it is difficult to excerpt. The brief poem "The Want Bone," suggested by the jaw of a shark seen on a friend's mantel, displays Pinsky's technical brilliance (internal rhymes like "limber grin," slant rhymes as in "together" and "pleasure," and polysyllables pattering lightly against a drum-firm iambic line). The poem begins by describing the shark as the "tongue of the waves" and ends with its singing -- from the realm of the dead -- a paean of endless desire. The ego or self may be critiqued here: It is a pointless hunger, an O or zero, and its satisfaction a hopeless illusion.

The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth's bell.


Blue rippled and soaked in the fire of blue.
The dried mouthbones of a shark in the hot swale
Gaped on nothing but sand on either side.
 
The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.
 
Ossified cords held the corners together
In groined spirals pleated like a summer dress.
But where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?
Infinitesimal mouths bore it away,
 
The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.
But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
My flower my fin my life my lightness my O.

The Poetry of the World

On the furthest extreme of the poetic spectrum lies poetry of the world, presided over by the spirit of Elizabeth Bishop. This is a downbeat, or outcast, poetry that at first reading seems anti-poetical. It may seem too prosaic, too caught up with mere incidentals, to count for anything lasting. The hesitant delivery is the opposite of oracular, and the subject at first seems lost or merely descriptive. Nevertheless, the best of this poetry cuts through multiple perspectives, questions the very notion of personal identity, and understands suffering from an ethical perspective.

Older poets writing in this manner are Richard Hugo, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Phil Levine. Contemporary voices such as Ellen Bryant Voigt and Yusef Komunyakaa have been influenced by their almost naturalistic vision, and they are drawn to violence and its far-reaching shadow.

Yusef Komunyakaa (1947- )
Louisiana-raised Yusef Komunyakaa, born James Willie Brown, Jr., served in Vietnam directly after graduation from secondary school, winning a Bronze Star. He was a reporter for the military newspaper Southern Cross, and has written vivid poems set in the war. Often, as in "Camouflaging the Chimera" (1988), there is an element of suspense, danger, and ambush. Komunyakaa has spoken of the need for poetry to afford a "series of surprises." Like the poet Michael S. Harper, he often uses jazz methods, and he has written of the poetry's need for free improvisation and openness to other voices, as in a musicians' "jam session." He has co-edited The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991, 1996) and published a volume of essays entitled Blue Notes (2000), while he first gained recognition with Neon Vernacular (1993).

One of Komunyakaa's enduring themes concerns identity. His poem "Facing It" (1988), set at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., begins with a riff that merges his own face with memories and reflected faces:

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

Cyber-Poetry

At the extreme end of the poetic spectrum, cyber-poetry is a new worldly poetry. For many young American adults, the book is secondary to the computer monitor, and reading a spoken human language comes after exposure to binary codes.

Computer-based literature has taken shape since the early 1990s; with the advent of the World Wide Web, some experimental poetry has shifted its focus to a paperless, virtual, global realm.

Recurring motifs in cyber-poetry include self-reflexive critiques of technologically driven work; computer icons, graphics, and hypertext links festoon vast webs of relationships, while dimensional layers -- animation, sonics, hyperlinked texts -- proliferate in multiple directions, sometimes created by multiple and unknown authors.

Outlets for this work come and go; they have included the CD-ROM poetry magazines The Little Magazine, Cyberpoetry, Java Poetry, New River, Parallel, and many others. Writing From the New Coast: Technique (1993), an influential gathering of poetic statements accompanied by a collection of poems edited by Juliana Spahr and Peter Gizzi, helped catalyze experimental poetry in the electronic age. It celebrates irreducible multiplicity and the primacy of historical context, attacking the very notions of identity and universality as repressive bourgeois constructs.

Jorie Graham and other experimental poets of self have arrived at similar viewpoints, coming from opposite directions. Ultimate or contingent, poems exist at the intersection of word and world.



Contemporary American Literature



Don DeLillo (© AP Images)


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Sherman Alexie (© AP Images)


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Chang-rae Lee (© AP Images)
The United States is one of the most diverse nations in the world. Its dynamic population of about 300 million boasts more than 30 million foreign-born individuals who speak numerous languages and dialects. Some one million new immigrants arrive each year, many from Asia and Latin America.

Literature in the United States today is likewise dazzlingly diverse, exciting, and evolving. New voices have arisen from many quarters, challenging old ideas and adapting literary traditions to suit changing conditions of the national life. Social and economic advances have enabled previously underrepresented groups to express themselves more fully, while technological innovations have created a fast-moving public forum. Reading clubs proliferate, and book fairs, literary festivals, and "poetry slams" (events where youthful poets compete in performing their poetry) attract enthusiastic audiences. Selection of a new work for a book club can launch an unknown writer into the limelight overnight.

On a typical Sunday the list of best-selling books in the New York Times Book Review testifies to the extraordinary diversity of the current American literary scene. In January, 2006, for example, the list of paperback best-sellers included "genre" fiction -- steamy romances by Nora Roberts, a new thriller by John Grisham, murder mysteries -- alongside nonfiction science books by the anthropologist Jared Diamond, popular sociology by The New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell, and accounts of drug rehabilitation and crime. In the last category was a reprint of Truman Capote's groundbreaking In Cold Blood, a 1965 "nonfiction novel" that blurs the distinction between high literature and journalism and had recently been made into a film.

Books by non-American authors and books on international themes were also prominent on the list. Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini's searing novel, The Kite Runner, tells of childhood friends in Kabul separated by the rule of the Taliban, while Azar Nafisi's memoir, Reading Lolita in Teheran, poignantly recalls teaching great works of Western literature to young women in Iran. A third novel, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha (made into a movie), recounts a Japanese woman's life during World War II.

In addition, the best-seller list reveals the popularity of religious themes. According to Publishers Weekly, 2001 was the first year that Christian-themed books topped the sales lists in both fiction and nonfiction. Among the hardcover best-sellers of that exemplary Sunday in 2006, we find Dan Brown's novel The DaVinci Code and Anne Rice's tale Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.

Beyond the Times' best-seller list, chain bookstores offer separate sections for major religions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and sometimes Hinduism.

In the Women's Literature section of bookstores one finds works by a "Third Wave" of feminists, a movement that usually refers to young women in their 20s and 30s who have grown up in an era of widely accepted social equality in the United States. Third Wave feminists feel sufficiently empowered to emphasize the individuality of choices women make. Often associated in the popular mind with a return to tradition and child-rearing, lipstick, and "feminine" styles, these young women have reclaimed the word "girl" -- some decline to call themselves feminist. What is often called "chick lit" is a flourishing offshoot. Bridget Jones's Diary by the British writer Helen Fielding and Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City featuring urban single women with romance in mind have spawned a popular genre among young women.

Nonfiction writers also examine the phenomenon of post-feminism. The Mommy Myth (2004) by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels analyzes the role of the media in the "mommy wars," while Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards' lively ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (2000) discusses women's activism in the age of the Internet. Caitlin Flanagan, a magazine writer who calls herself an "anti-feminist," explores conflicts between domestic life and professional life for women. Her 2004 essay in The Atlantic, "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement," an account of how professional women depend on immigrant women of a lower class for their childcare, triggered an enormous debate.

It is clear that American literature at the turn of the 21st century has become democratic and heterogeneous. Regionalism has flowered, and international, or "global," writers refract U.S. culture through foreign perspectives. Multiethnic writing continues to mine rich veins, and as each ethnic literature matures, it creates its own traditions. Creative nonfiction and memoir have flourished. The short story genre has gained luster, and the "short" short story has taken root. A new generation of playwrights continues the American tradition of exploring current social issues on stage. There is not space here in this brief survey to do justice to the glittering diversity of American literature today. Instead, one must consider general developments and representative figures.

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