Counting the Ways: Contemporary Poets

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Counting the Ways: Contemporary Poets


Stern, Fred, The World and I


No country has as many poets at any one time as the United States. We want to express ourselves whether we are farmers or bus drivers, high school students or professors at prestigious colleges, members of poetry discussion groups, hospital nurses. Age is not a factor. Educational level doesn't count. Some of our poets follow the straightjackets of line, meter and rhyme. Others simply take the most direct path to saying what's on their minds, in their hearts.

Most of our poets write solely for their own pleasure. They may not even tell their closest friends. There are probably some poets who hide their work in shoe boxes or in sewing baskets, like Emily Dickinson. She left most of her work to be found that way tied together in small bundles, never thinking that they would eventually bring her immortality. Wallace Stevens, one of our most eminent poets, often waited years to publish a given poem. Stevens walked to work, reciting lines that came to him and then had these typed by a secretary in his Hartford, Connecticut office where he was the vice president of an insurance company.

Many poets though, crave recognition. At a magazine where I worked for a brief period, envelopes with poems arrived every day, read by weary editors who had room to publish a mere eight poems per month. They were forced to make their selection from hundreds of submissions. The quality of the poetry was uniformly high, and I also would have been hard pressed to make a selection.

For some poets the way to recognition is simply to "self publish," paying for the production costs of their own book or publication. Thus they send their voice into the maelstrom of competition in that manner.

Another time honored tradition is the "poetry reading" where poets read to non-poets or to their peers. Poetry readings typically take place at local libraries, and can be devoted to presentations by one poet or a group of poets; often they are followed by an "open mike" session in which members of the audience are free to read some of their poems.

For aspiring poets, I recommend participating in such readings, even for those writers who are shy or anxious, and for very good reason: The reader can hear what his poem sounds like. If he detects a false note--and chances are there will be some--or an unenthusiastic response from listeners, the poem can be altered accordingly.

Of course, in the tradition of expressing deep and personal feelings that may be unpopular or unsympathetic, many poets will leave their work unchanged. Nevertheless, the poetry reading is a venue for meeting other poets and establishing a working relationship with peers who are willing to reach out with encouragement and constructive criticism.

Considering the many ways in which poetry is written, exploring the motives and techniques of all contemporary poets of good quality, or describing the moods their poetry displays, would take hours of time and reams of paper. Here I would like to present the work of the most talented poets who make up the American poetic landscape of the present and recent past.

Because the field of poetry is not well paid, many poets also teach. For example, the talented poet Charles Wright is a Tennessean and teaches at the University of Virginia. Here is an excerpt from Wright's "Blackwater Mountain:"

   That time of evening, weightless and disparate,
   When the loon cries, when the small bass
   Juggled the lake's reflections, when
   The green of the oak begins
   To open its robes to the dark, the green
   Of water to offer itself to the flames,
   When lily and lily pad
   Husband the last light
   Which flares like a white disease, then disappears:
   This is what I remember.

The poet knows when he has succeeded by the spell he is able to weave, by the solemnity of his words. Wright uses images from nature to dramatically craft his spell. In fact, the pastoral or components of the natural world have occupied poets for millennia. …

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