When I talk about contemporary American poetry with friends and colleagues, all too often the discussion comes around not to whom we admire but to those poets whose work we find frustrating. A tendency to get caught up in being overly clever with wordplay or to write more for him- or herself than for an audience does not do justice to the inspiration that drives us to write or the inner self we ideally seek to explore in our work. We must not write for ourselves, but rather through ourselves and our experiences, presenting a voice that can stand not only for the poet but be felt and understood by a community.
This conversation is not a new one. After his recent passing and the subsequent flood of quotes and poems meant to eulogize him, I came across a 1962 interview of Jack Gilbert by Gordon Lish. One passage stood out above all the other smart observances Gilbert had about poetry:
But I’m tired of the kind of experimental poetry we’ve been getting…. I’m not saying my way of writing poetry is the way. But I am admitting my weariness with the great body of poetry which is nothing more than a curious manipulation of words, what Kenneth Tynan has called literary masturbation—a sterile effort to force words to breed…. It’s a kind of trick anybody can learn who has imagination. You just throw your mind slightly out of focus so everything seems different. Or better yet, you learn to set your mind wrong so that each item is mechanically related to an inappropriate neighbor. It’s great when you’re starting out in poetry and words are a kind of fascination. But how can a poet sustain an interest in this kind of thing. Wait a minute, I was just reading something by Samuel Johnson. Here it is: “The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted.”
Fifty years later, the problems of “forc[ing] words to breed” and the “trick anybody can learn who has imagination” are still preventing contemporary American poets from grabbing readers with a message and perspective that can evoke change or understanding in a world that needs more of both. I am not in favor of poetry being dumbed down, but as Gilbert also suggests, “There should be a public level of the poem available to an educated reader who is willing to contribute a fair amount of thinking.” The poet who engages heavily in wordplay and intensely personal work that no one else can navigate is not in line with what should be our chief aim whenever we write: to establish genuine connection with a host of readers in an intensely intimate way.
We must consider then how we can reorient ourselves so that we do not neglect the larger issues that shape how many of us greet every new day. Military conflict, economic uncertainty, environmental threats, death, and disease are troubles worth writing to and about, and though we’ve long been writing too inwardly focused poetry, there are guides who can help us find our way. The postwar Eastern European poets have risen from one of the ugliest times in recent history and managed to write poems that acknowledge, respond to, and rise above the horrors of World War II, poems that help us search within ourselves and find a way to respond to the world. Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, and other members of the Eastern European tradition have experienced brutality and ruin through the loss of their loved ones, homes, and their countries’ identities. They are uniquely qualified to lead American poets to extend their poems beyond one moment in time or one place in order to make people feel what their speakers experience, to make others think about what else exists beyond their personal situations. The postwar poets have gained an unfortunate wisdom from their experiences, but instead of being broken by them, they call us to take in what is wrong with the world and respond to it in a way that will inspire change.