Academic journal article Style

Mel Glenn and Arnold Adoff: The Poetics of Power in the Adolescent Voice-Lyric

Academic journal article Style

Mel Glenn and Arnold Adoff: The Poetics of Power in the Adolescent Voice-Lyric

Article excerpt

In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry, Charles Altieri labels the most prevalent mode of adult poetry written today "the scenic style" (11). Altieri characterizes this mode, also called the poetics of "voice" or the "voicelyric" by Hank Lazer in Opposing Poetries (52), as one that, using "elaborate vowel and consonantal music" and "unobtrusive" craft,

places a reticent, plain-speaking, and self-reflective speaker within a narratively presented scene evoking a sense of loss. Then the poet tries to resolve the loss in a moment of emotional poignance or wry acceptance that renders the entire lyric event an evocative metaphor for some general sense of mystery about the human condition. (10-11)

We're all familiar with this poem, whatever its theme or subject may be, for this type of poem predominates in all poetry, be it targeted for adults, children, or adolescents. It is my aim to examine the voice-lyric and how it operates within the genre of adolescent poetry, how it can subvert or perpetuate the power structures adolescents grapple with daily.

Mel Glenn stands out as one of the most popular of the few poets writing for adolescents, and one of the most prolific. He is perhaps the only poet who has made his name exclusively by writing for an adolescent audience, having authored some ten collections of poetry since his 1982 debut Class Dismissed!. Most other writers of adolescent poetry compose principally for other audiences, and largely other genres. For example, Karen Hesse' s Newbery award-winning free-verse novel Out of the Dust (1997), though an exceptional example of the scenic-mode and certainly appropriate for adolescent readers, is often categorized by teachers, booksellers, and librarians as children's, rather than adolescent, poetry--or even children's fiction--as is Hesse's other work. And while Betsy Gould Hearne's Love Lines: Poetry in Person (1987) and Polaroid and other Poems of View (1991) were marketed, when in print, for both young adult readers and adults, Hearne has made her name as a writer of prose and poetry for younger childr en. Even Liz Rosenberg, author of the young adult poetry collection Heart & Soul (1996) and a dedicated champion of poetry for adolescents, is known largely as an editor and anthologist, responsible for such projects as Light-Gathering Poems (2000), Earth-Shattering Poems (1998), and The Invisible Ladder: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poems for Young Readers (1996), among others.

All of these collections feature verse written in the scenic-mode, to greater and lesser degrees of success. But one collection of adolescent verse stands radically apart from these: Arnold Adoff's Slow Dance Heart Break Blues (1995), whose contents exemplify the possibilities of an empowering poetic for adolescents, while still participating in the voice-lyric paradigm. Adoff, like Hesse, Hearne, and Rosenberg, is not well known in adult circles for his adolescent poetry. Rather, he is more critically acclaimed for his work as an anthologist. Nevertheless, unlike Glenn and other poets writing for adolescents, Adoff pushes the boundaries of the voice-lyric, developing the usually short, meditative, and confessional poem into highly complex explorations. Refusing to condescend to them, Adoff's work empowers adolescents by exemplifying a level of complexity and nuance traditionally reserved for adult poetry. I position Adoff's Slow Dance Heart Break Blues on the progressive end of the spectrum of adolescent poe try, with Glenn's work resting on the other pole, embodying adolescent poetry's conservative tendencies toward condescension and stereotyping.

In style and intention, Glenn represents the majority of North American poets writing specifically for adolescents. Rarely complicating our conception of adolescence, he treats the traditional subjects in young adult literature in quite traditional ways. In fact, his subjects and characters are traditional to the point of being cliches, a problem compounded by the fact that Glenn remains so widely read by teens and so consistently lauded by critics. …

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