The New Thing
The object lessons of recent American poetry.
May 1, 2009
May 1, 2009
25 Min read time
The object lessons of recent American poetry.
And then a counter-truth filled out its play . . .
—W. B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to
—George Oppen, “World, World—”
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.
—Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare”
For much of the past decade, the most imitated new American poets were slippery, digressive, polyvocalic, creators of overlapping, colorful fragments. Their poems were avowedly personal, although they never retold the poets’ life stories (they did not tell stories at all); the poets used, or at least mentioned, difficult ideas, especially from continental philosophy, although they never laid out philosophical arguments (they did not lay out arguments at all). Nor did they describe concrete objects at length. Full of illogic, of associative leaps, their poems resembled dreams, performances, speeches, or pieces of music, and they were, in M.H. Abrams’s famous formulation, less mirror than lamp: the poets sought to project their own experiences, in sparkling bursts of voluble utterance. Their models, among older authors, were Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, John Ashbery, perhaps Frank O’Hara; some had studied (or studied with) Jorie Graham, and many had picked up devices from the Language writers of the West Coast. These poets were what I, eleven years ago, called “elliptical,” what other (sometimes hostile) observers called “New Lyric,” or “post-avant,” or “Third Way.” Their emblematic first book was Mark Levine’s Debt (1993), their emblematic magazine probably Fence (founded 1998); their bad poems were bad surrealism, random-seeming improvisations, or comic turns hoping only to hold an audience, whether or not they had something to say.
Their good poems were good indeed: we are going to keep reading them. And yet the pendulum has started to swing. Tony Hoagland, whose effusive comic poems might have seemed, a few years ago, to represent that Third Way, attacked it in a 2006 Poetry magazine article, taking examples from Matthea Harvey and Mark Halliday and then excoriating their epigones: there comes, he wrote, “a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality.”
Almost all literary movements and moments expire in a crowd of imitators: what Hoagland called, disparagingly, “the skittery poem of our moment” may be about to slip into just that crowd. Yet Hoagland’s nominee for its replacement—what he calls “narrative,” especially the autobiographical sort—seems an unlikely successor. What will come next instead?
I quote a young poet in a recently published interview with a more famous one:
I usually duck out of a book before I read ten poems, especially if it’s just soft-surrealist cotton candy. . . . I had a helpful conversation with a friend the other day about contemporary poetry and all its entrenchments and trivialities. My friend has been reading ancient Athenian poets whose work is known today only in fragments, much of it lost forever. The implications of that really restored a sense of perspective for me.
In their exchange, the poets may sound like cultural conservatives: New Criterion types, or apostles of “narrative.” But they are not: the younger poet is Jon Woodward, published by Wave and by Alice James, presses strongly identified with that Third Way. The older poet is Rae Armantrout, whose compact, sharp work, too-long conflated with Language-writing-in-general, now seems to some younger poets worth emulating on its own.
Armantrout’s poems have always stood out for their brevity and for the skeptical pressure she puts on each emotion, each word. A poem from Next Life (2007) begins:
Sad, fat boy in pirate hat.
Long, old, dented,
How many traits
must a thing have
in order to be singular?
Armantrout’s poems sometimes describe her dreams: she tells Woodward, in that same interview: “I wouldn’t write faux dream poems myself—and I’m not sure why. I’m phobic, somehow, about ’making things up.’” Critics who see Armantrout among other Language writers note her alertness to the arbitrariness, the inevitably made-up nature, of the words we use; nevertheless, her difficult poems strive for accuracy, and take bearings from real events—her self-skepticism, her seriousness, prevents her from just, as she says, “making things up.”
Just that distrust of unaided (or unchecked) imagination—of lamps without mirrors, imagination without constraint—has brought some new poets to the styles they have found. To judge by their books—not the best recent books, necessarily, nor the best first books, but the best new books that seem to have goals in common, that is, to constitute a tendency—the new thing takes cues from Armantrout, and from Robert Creeley; from the Objectivist poets (George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Louis Zukofsky), and from those poets’ common source, William Carlos Williams, he of the slogan “No ideas but in things.”
“A poem,” Williams wrote in his preface to The Wedge (1944), “is a small (or large), machine made of words. . . . It isn’t what [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes” (emphasis in original). The new poetry, the new thing, seeks, as Williams did, well-made, attentive, unornamented things. It is equally at home (as he was) in portraits and still lifes, in epigram and quoted speech; and it is at home (as he was not) in articulating sometimes harsh judgments, and in casting backward looks. The new poets pursue compression, compact description, humility, restricted diction, and—despite their frequent skepticism—fidelity to a material and social world. They follow Williams’s “demand,” as the critic Douglas Mao put it, “both that poetry be faithful to the thing represented and that it be a thing in itself.” They are so bound up with ideas of durable thinghood that we can name the tendency simply by capitalizing: the New Thing.
The poets of the New Thing observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term “minimalism” comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading. The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit. Woodward’s Rain, with its five-word lines and five-line elegiac stanzas, makes a good example:
of rainwater converts each thing’s
outside to an image of
inside the only object without
a soul is the sun
So says one stanza; six pages on, another reads:
the tar they use to
fill the cracks shines orange
from the orange streetlights but
is blacker than the asphalt
which doesn’t shine
We may have to reread to see, amid these scenes, the grief (for Woodward’s dead friend Patrick) that guides the whole book.
The literary scholar Heather Dubrow explains that since antiquity, lyric poetry has implied, at times, a fleeting song, at other times “a material and artisanal activity [like] plowing fields or making chairs” or making “an inscription in stone.” The New Thing represents a shift from the first idea of lyric to the second: from performing art to hard craft, from air to stone. No wonder the New Thing finds pithy models in classical antiquity, whose long-lasting poetry the new writers sometimes translate: that poetry means more to them than most of the poems written in English before Williams’s day.
No poet represents the New Thing better, nor in more ways, than Devin Johnston, in his own verse and with Flood Editions, the press he co-founded with Michael O’Leary in 2001. Johnston’s third and latest book, Sources (2008), shows in its short lines and stanzas a strenuously muted concentration and care. One poem called “The Greeks,” explains, “We find no ease // never quite / at home at home.” Johnston follows in Ezra Pound’s footsteps when he imitates the Latin elegist Propertius, and in countless footsteps with his “After Sappho” (fragment 16, in a fine, brisk version). Yet Sources does not only mean “translations”; it means that Johnston seeks models outside himself, distant in space and in time. A poem called “Tracing” remembers how Johnston, as a child, copied “Pegasus / from Wonder Book,” his “pencil finding / wings and hooves // as fish rise / from cloudy beds.” Such faithful, yet never quite accurate, “tracing” gives Johnston a better model for poetry than any more self-sufficient performance could.
When Johnston is not paying heed to the ancients, he attends painstakingly to what he sees: “Days spent in the shelter of work / blow apart at dusk: // skirts rustle mimic rain.” “Oysters adhere / to things,” another poem begins, even though they have “no eyes.” A poem chosen almost at random from Johnston’s second book, Aversions (2004), follows Williams—and dissents sharply from most of the 1990s—in its depiction of compact, unmoralized nature, in its fidelity to a small seen thing:
Muffled hedge and bearded pear
uphold a crystal tent;
beneath the fibrous snow
there must be something more
familiar bearing fruit.
Fidelity implies limits; it implies self-restraint. “Ghost,” the first poem in Aversions, now looks like a program for the New Thing, in its pace (controlled by iambic trimeter) and in its tone. Johnston uses the word “tone” twice:
When talking to myself,
I take a tone I’ve learned
from you—not of boyish charm,
but probing and severe—
to say, some things are clear
and some withdrawn from sight.
A cyclist is only such
while seated on a bike,
a sleeper while asleep.
These forms are only forms
fulfilled, as you are now
no more than this—a tone.
Lyric poetry may be, the first line admits, what John Stuart Mill thought it was—the self in private speech—but it may “take a tone” learned from speech amid others: a tone of responsibility, “probing and severe,” and often aware that who we are depends on where we are, in space and in a social order—on what we own, what we see, and what we know, and on how “we” or “I” can imagine a “you.”
Another poet of the New Thing, Joseph Massey, has for some time found praise all over the blogosphere, though he has only just published a full-length book (he has seven chapbooks). Massey writes the shortest of short poems, each with (at most) one moment, one thing seen:
dent the dawn.
What words I
Such compression has limits, but Massey finesses them: he suggests how little we can know (here, by likening waking perceptions to dreams) but also tells us that we can know something—that some “lines” have “power” enough to stay clear. Andy Grace, on the Kenyon Review blog, begins his paean to Massey by quoting this untitled poem, entire:
what was summer.
The windowsill, like Williams’s “broken // pieces of a green / bottle” (“Between Walls”), represents the neglected tableaux of ordinary life, themselves sufficient symbols, rightly seen, both for the traditional topics of lyric (carpe diem, et in arcadia ego, etc.) and for the American “measure,” or meter, that Williams and his heirs devised.
Several other poets share Johnston’s goals, among them the much older Michael O’Brien (lauded last year in The New York Times) and a poet of Johnston’s own generation, Graham Foust, now widely reviewed. Both are published by Flood. Foust’s tightly restricted diction and weighty, small stanzas demonstrate not humility so much as frustration. They are complaints against himself, against the things he cannot help but see:
Our voices are all salt.
Our words keep ramming
into nothing into masks.
The sky is tar is grass is trees.
The ground is cloud is cold
is called goodbye.
Foust calls this poem from Necessary Stranger (2007) “A Note on Ontology”: the title implies that when we know what is real, what being is, we are not going to like it.
Yet Foust, too, professes—however reluctantly—fidelity to objects in this world: “This world is conclusion,” he says in “Interstate Eighty,” a direct answer to Emily Dickinson (“This world is not Conclusion. / A Species stands beyond”). A poem from Foust’s first book, As in Every Deafness (2003), also published by Flood, admits quizzically: “Things / are things. // And even beaten / I seem // to be / where I belong—” In another recent poem, “Managed Care,” Foust sees a hospice or a hospital, a place where the dying take leave of the only world he knows:
Flowers in a blue
The sun erases
all the grass.
The yard is done for.
We may not like it here—we may not like ourselves (“The Real. / It gives me asthma”), but we, and our poems, ought to face it: it is what we have. Foust learned to write this way by reading Williams and Creeley and Armantrout, but if the future reads Foust it may read him alongside the embittered, resigned neo-classical writers of earlier periods: “Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine, / As on we toil from day to day, / By sudden blasts, or slow decline, / Our social comforts drop away,” wrote Samuel Johnson (himself describing a kind of “managed care”). Foust also writes (as did Johnson) poems of invitation:
Do let’s be quiet and ancient
of a day, as is Earth with its endless
boxes and bags, its groups of good blue
and its river-worn stones.
A crowd amid monuments gets its.
The sociable, for Foust as for Williams, is also the political: he calls this poem “Patriot Act” and its “monuments” suggest a veterans’ cemetery, its “boxes and bags” the soldiers and sailors who died.
We can find such terse bitterness, and debts to Oppen and Creeley, again, in Justin Marks’s A Million in Prizes (2009), which includes one poem called “On the Making of Things“; another reads, in its entirety, ”I’ve always clung / to things— // ideas crumpled up / pieces of paper love whatever.“ Objects (the less glamorous the better) have for Marks an alluring solidity that his own voluble self, and his poems (made of mere words) can never attain: “I’m sick,” he writes, “of the selves I’ve been. Their gestures are all / I can conjure.”
There is economic evidence that the New Thing has started to catch on. Flood, for what it’s worth, had five of the bestselling small-press poetry books in the land at the end of 2008, according to Small Press Distribution’s list. These included Foust’s Necessary Stranger, Lisa Jarnot’s Night Scenes, and John Taggart’s There Are Birds.
If the most important independent press for the New Thing is Flood, the most important magazine is Zach Barocas’s Web-based Cultural Society. Barocas entitled his own first book (itself surely part of the New Thing) Among Other Things. Barocas’s poem “Things to Do Today” makes a list of “things I’ve counted on,” among them “cigarettes, history, trucks, & trash,” “lapses, / flares, & lusty resolve”; disarmingly stark lines elsewhere in that same book promise to “abandon / elliptical things.” Among the first poets Barocas’s journal published, in 2001–02, were Peter O’Leary, Norman Finkelstein, and Michael Heller, prominent scholars of Objectivist writing, and Mark Scroggins, then at work on Zukofsky’s biography. Barocas has also published Johnston, Massey, Marks, and Foust; the Flood writers Philip Jenks, John Tipton, and Pam Rehm (who dedicated “A Sequence” to Massey); and, in 2002, Stacy Szymaszek’s cryptic verse about a Mediterranean journey:
plume the night sea
with bartered needle
inks the backs of his hands
Such lines pay homage to ancient Greece via the modern Greeks, and to Williams via Oppen, with his love for boats (see the last poem in Of Being Numerous).
Other parts of the New Thing find, in other Objectivists, other lines of descent. Elizabeth Treadwell’s best and newest book, Birds and Fancies (2007), adds, to her career-long interest in unmannerly feminist modernisms (Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein), compression and euphony reminiscent of Niedecker, whom Treadwell quotes in an epigraph. Treadwell depicts herself as a devoted mother, fleeing from social facts to a natural place:
here in this landscape we’ve bitten
the train, the watertower,
& the mail. tender finger-stubs,
feats & qualities.
until the world needs women again,
I live in the woods with my sons.
the country moon, the fat orange jewels
all our gliding, loose particularities—
This maternal figure (both brooding, and presiding over her brood) watches the external world closely, both for itself (“particularities”) and in order to protect her sons. Devotion to childhood, maternal vocation, means, for Treadwell, noticing and praising the small things that children see or say or do, things other sorts of poetry would pass up:
on our walk
torn flowers bathe
in a bed of leaves
hydrant & sidewalk are doodled
in black & pink hearts & skulls
The doodles remake the hydrant, these line breaks imply, as the birds vivify both the sidewalk we know and the walk, or stroll, we take on it. Then there is Treadwell’s three-line poem “Little Bear”: “little expert / little witness / little star.” (Teddy bears are all those things, and more.) Treadwell says later in Birds and Fancies that she has been “advocating doll sleighs // giving objects their due.” This feminist poet of things may cast herself as a poet of feminine, or feminized, things—skirts, dolls, flowers, birds, a ship’s figurehead, as in “figurehead sea trope,” another three-line poem: “waterbird & skirt fragment / word-bird old as the seas / skirt fragment old as a figurehead.”
The New Thing is this-worldly, friendly to nature, but not always averse to the supernatural: Armantrout and Foust look askance at religion, but Treadwell’s poems can feel like prayers or charms. Johnston’s dissertation concerned occult practices—literal belief in magic—among American poets, including H.D. (another self-conscious “classicist”) and Robert Duncan. The New Thing has also revived Ronald Johnson (1935–98), until recently known mostly for concrete poems and for his daunting, hermetic long poem ARK. Peter O’Leary (Michael’s brother) is Johnson’s literary executor, and he edited Johnson’s last sequence, The Shrubberies, published by Flood in 2001. That elegant, if sometimes repetitive, book showed a poet no less spiritual than the author of ARK but also one given to extreme concision:
What these occult poets share with Williams and the Objectivists, what both share with the New Thing, is not “minimalism” so much as insistence on reference: scientists and shamans, statistically minded investigators and spell-casters, use language with reference to some external world, whether visible or invisible—with just the right words, and only those words, they might get that world right.
The poets named so far must know one another by now. Marks’s Kitchen Press published one of Massey’s chapbooks, Out of Light; another, Property Line, carries blurbs from Foust, Barocas, and Armantrout, who has given Treadwell blurbs too. Yet the New Thing is not simply a social circle: we can find its compressed attention in Orphan Fire (2008), the first book by Alissa Valles, an American poet long resident in Europe, best known—and in some quarters reviled—for translating Zbigniew Herbert. In Valles’s unrhymed sonnet “Photograph,” “Time-wasted things—a green gingerpot, a bird’s nest / found on a walk, a wooden primer with words in a foreign language, lie like objects / in a tomb.” “Post-Homage” quotes Propertius and addresses Chinese classics (“Shades of Tu Fu”) as it articulates exasperation much like Hoagland’s:
I admire the “startling new voice”
and the “linguistic tour-de-force”
but how about something to read before
How about a few lines to engrave on a ring or a stone?
The opposite of showy insubstantiality is not, contra Hoagland, narrative, but inscription: a poem that fits an object designed to last. Valles, more than any of her peers, wants to give each line both the sense of well-measured sound and the force of long-considered judgment. Johnston’s worse poems risk inconsequence; Foust’s lesser efforts show a kind of curdled hostility. Valles’s lesser work instead risks self-importance, since she often refers to epochal disasters (Hiroshima, Srebrenica, the Holocaust). Her best poems view modern history less directly, as in the six-line “Translation”:
Patroklos put on the armor
of his good friend Achilles
to go out onto the battlefield:
your words, a bright shield
lending cover and honor
will save neither one of us.
The New Thing might include other terse first books that also look hard at the material world: parts of Endi Bogue Hartigan’s One Sun Storm (“Let me find the one sculpted stone to bring home / as a gift for my son”), for example, and parts of Maureen N. McLane’s Same Life (which has five poems called “After Sappho”; one adapts the sixteenth fragment). Here is McLane’s “pitigliano” entire:
carved from the hills the city
reaped the rocks’ crops—
“of the burial practices of the poor
we know little”
of the wealthy etruscans, monuments
and waterworks, the cut
of a nose, a crown, a fragmentary
lexicon, a common cup
a king would casually smash
The “common” fragments that these old kings threw away are all that survives of them now. McLane’s book has, too, a deliberately frivolous, autobiographical side, reflected in her most prominent recent poems, including those in The New Yorker. To read her translations of Sappho, and her erotic or venomous epigrams, is to see how the classicism of the New Thing might coexist, in one poet, with an autobiographical interest that might look like the New Thing’s opposite: “The charms I recited,” she writes, “the songs I sang / were lit by a light / almost completely impersonal.”
Then there’s Jeffrey Yang. The poems in Yang’s An Aquarium (2008) feel like epigrams, or like captions, for the “creatures” the poems display. “Remora” quotes ancient scholars’ advice about war: “The mightiest power / does not always prevail”; the small, toothy, parasitic fish of the title suggest small nations that defeat larger ones, but also such small poems as Yang’s, “parasitic” of prior texts and facts. Yang’s aquarium full of poems, and his poems full of quotations, trope a sea full of creatures and a world-system full of societies and economies, in which each unit depends on the rest. “How easy it is to lose oneself / in a kelp forest,” Yang writes, there
bring life where there’d other-
wise be barren sea; a vast eco-
system breathes. Each
Yang is as “classical” a poet as Johnston, but Yang’s classics are South Asian or East Asian. Here is Yang’s poem “Jiang Kui”:
Jing Wang translates Jiang Kui
of the Northern Song: ’In writing
it is better to strive to be different
from the ancients than to seek to be
identical to them. But better still than
striving to be different is to be bound
to find one’s own identity with them,
without striving to identify;
and to be bound to differ with them,
without striving to differ.’
Translating a translation, Yang’s archly recursive poem nonetheless takes seriously a classicist outlook: the poet who strives for accuracy will discover both novelty and “identity” with the ancients, while the poet who seeks novelty first finds neither. Yang’s embedded quotations and his odd line breaks (which sound like, but are not, syllabics), recall Marianne Moore. Yet Yang credits Objectivists as well: the poem “Foraminifera” likens those animals’ accreted shells to the painstaking poems of Zukofsky and of Oppen, for whom “a test of poetry is / sincerity, clarity, respect.”
This turn among poets to reference, to concrete, real things, has parallels, if not contributory causes, in literary academia. By 2001 there were books, articles, and anthologies devoted to “thing theory,” showing how literary works depend on the structures and histories of the “solid objects” (Douglas Mao’s term) that they might depict. The best-known proponent of “thing theory,” Bill Brown, taught (and teaches) at the University of Chicago, where Johnston and McLane earned doctorates, and where Valles is earning one now. Though Brown does not write about modern poetry, it is tempting to think that he and his senior colleagues helped put the seeds of the New Thing in the air, or perhaps in the water, around Hyde Park.
Reference, brevity, self-restraint, attention outside the self, material objects as models, Williams and his heirs as predecessors, classical lyric and epigram as precedents: all these, together, constitute the New Thing. We can find most of them separately elsewhere too: in Saskia Hamilton’s brevity (though her poems are cryptic, inward, dreamlike); in Robyn Schiff’s Moore-esque attention to made things (though her big stanzas, her bravura technique, her whimsical personal asides, place her at some distance from the tendency under examination here); and in several poets now at work in expansive documentary forms, indebted to Williams, Oppen, and Muriel Rukeyser and publishing in journals such as CHAIN, Tinfish, and Xcp. Mark Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down (2004) quotes a worker’s testament in prose (“The men knew that they were risking their jobs in the walkout . . . but they had got worked up to the point where this didn’t seem so important”), then appends this segment of verse:
Because the photo
the door the next flight up’s
*[except the factory’s long since closed]
The brackets, the footnote, the space on the page, suggest modern printings of classical fragments (especially Sappho): is Nowak, so insistent that his poems clarify public matters, a “classicist” too?
Nowak runs Xcp; Juliana Spahr coedited CHAIN. The best of Spahr’s recent writing seems “documentary,” though what she documents (much more than Nowak) connects the material conditions she observes to her own inner life. Here is the start of a new long poem called “The Incinerator”:
We are at the incinerator behind the
house. It is a four foot square made
out of cinderblocks, about three feet
high. I have just dumped our trash in
there and then set it on fire.
then set it on fire. We are now sitting
on the edge, away from the smoke,
striking matches against the
cinderblocks. When they flare we
hold onto them until they burn our
until they burn our fingers and then
we throw them into the incinerator.
I drop one of the matches on my
leg, faking injury so as to lean into
Chillicothe. Chillicothe leans back.
We turn towards each other
turn towards each other and as if we did
it all the time, I start unbuttoning
Read too fast, these versets look like prose memoir. But they are not: the duplicate passages are the first clue, and the second is “Chillicothe”—not a person, but a town in Southern Ohio, where Spahr grew up. The twelve pages that follow mix reported fact (“Appalachia had forty jobs per 100 people in 1969”), reminiscences (“We worried a lot about my father getting fired”), and self-analysis, in grim and nearly flattened language. Spahr says in a recent essay that she once liked to read the anti-representational poetry of Gertrude Stein “because I was looking for something that didn’t seem to be some sort of weird lie.” Her own poems have come to incorporate representation, to seek (however weird) some concrete truth.
The documentary modes that dominate some new books have infiltrated others. At least three thoughtful books of poetry from 2008—by Raymond McDaniel, Katie Ford, and Patricia Smith—took as their subjects New Orleans, up to and including Hurricane Katrina. All three show some hunger for facts, for history, for something to see and say outside the self. Six poems in McDaniel’s book, all called “Convention Centers of the New World,” simply lineate interviews with people who stayed in New Orleans during Katrina: one couplet reads “They can’t give us enough money to replace what they took. / They can’t. They can’t do nothing to replace what was took.” Like Nowak, McDaniel cares most about speech when the speech is not the poet’s own: it is, instead, what the poet’s technique preserves. McDaniel’s clearest influence is C.D. Wright, who began writing in the 1970s; a complete account of the New Thing should note how many poets now emulate her. Wright’s One Big Self (2003) incorporates transcripts of interviews as it documents lives inside Louisiana prisons. The short poems in Wright’s newest book, Rising, Falling, Hovering (2008) are by turns documentary, thing-like and songlike: “We may drop things along the way,” she writes, “that substantiate our having been here. / We will not be able to transmit any of these feelings verbatim.”
Is the New Thing—with its documentary cousins—related to 9/11? To the rise of the Web, where most texts seem ephemeral, and where short texts (but not long ones) circulate easily? To the depredations of the Bush administration, which cast as irresponsible a Clinton-era poetry of free play? Or simply to the exhaustion of the effusive, associative, neo-Baroque mode that came just before? These are questions better answered later on. For Wright, as for Spahr and Nowak, poetic attention to facts and things—emulated, reclaimed, quoted, re-framed—speaks to the material conditions a left-wing politics works to change. For other makers of the New Thing though, the solidity they seek is not so much economic as phenomenological: the poem finds, and emulates, some permanence—it is, and describes, something with weight and “measure,” small enough to hold in the hand.
When Wallace Stevens met Robert Frost in Key West, Stevens said to Frost, disparagingly, “You write about . . . subjects.” Frost retorted: “Wallace, you write about bric-a-brac.” Both men (if they were not kidding) were being unfair. No poem becomes good just because it has a clear subject; no poem is better for lacking one. No poem is better just for being short, or long; for concentrating scrutiny on one thing, or divvying up jazzy salvos among several; for being extravagant, or for sounding restrained. I have described new poets whose books meet the standard that Yang and his “ancients” set. I am not sure which, if any, will seem in a decade as powerful as Debt or as Next Life. I am sure, though, that these poets repay attention; that some are still getting better; that their poems communicate fruitfully with one another, with the durable legacy of Williams, and with the rest of the literary history that they share.
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May 01, 2009
25 Min read time