American Poets on American Poetry

This first post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"You might say, 'Oh, to be pure would be so much more poetic.'  On the contrary.  Your poetry is the poetry of the mix." So Robert Pinsky tells Pearl London when their conversation turns, as so many of hers do, to the question of what it means to be an American poet, and what makes poetry American. And Pinsky is not the only one to pick out heterogeneity as a defining characteristic; each poet that she speaks with describes the "Americanness" of their poetry as entangled with both their personal history and the history of the nation. Edward Hirsch, for instance, discusses how his Jewishness "jostles with" his idea of himself as an American.

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As a Jew, Hirsch looks backwards into the past; as an American, he looks to the future. Variations on this formulation are offered by many of the poets. Regardless of background, each tackles the question of American poetry by looking back to his or her ancestry and looking forward to how it can and should influence them—as if being an American is something that is always reached for, moved towards, but never accomplished.

Muriel Rukeyser articulates this relationship in reverse—being an American, she says, allows us to make choices about our personal history and gives us license to "choose our own ancestors."

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An American's  lineage is likely divergent from the history of the country, transforming the past into a place of potential and allowing us to take ownership over historical events to which we have no ancestral connection.

If Rukeyser and Hirsch are concerned with the poles of past and future, then Robert Pinsky focuses on the space between—on his present self, as he's been shaped and is still being shaped.

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For Pinsky, being American is characterized by having a mix of competing cultural identities; it is not a pure state but necessarily a dappled one. This is true both on a personal and a national level: "biographical facts...themselves are parallel to cultural truths."

This "mix" is articulated in poetry through the various American dialects and languages. As Lucille Clifton says, "The American language is a wonderfully vital and alive thing—it will only die if we kill it, I think. But it seems to me that we can keep the language alive and that we can use the whole thing of it."

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For more on American poetry, take a look at American Poetry Society website, where over a hundred poets have weighed in on the question, "What's American about American poetry?"


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