The Intractable "Poetry" Problem

By Wilson, James Matthew | Modern Age, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Intractable "Poetry" Problem


Wilson, James Matthew, Modern Age


Dramatic Monologues: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Samuel Maio (Evansville, IN: University of Evansville Press, 2009)

Poetry anthologies serve two purposes: as textbooks for the student and as gateways for the amateur. Dana Gioia observed as much many years ago in his important essay "Can Poetry Matter?" There he noted that, in the early decades of the twentieth century, most Americans bought and read poetry anthologies rather than individual collections of poems--the latter being unaffordable or inaccessible to the casual reader. (1) Taking this datum seriously, when Gioia left his career in business to become a full-time writer, he collaborated in the creation of numerous anthologies, including several that have become standard texts in college literature courses; his influence is discernible in the production of many anthologies edited by other hands. Before one says anything else about a poetry anthology, then, one ought to consider how suitably it serves its intended audience.

Samuel Maio's new anthology serves its readers well, if unevenly, though not for the reasons one might assume on first reading its highly particular title. In brief, the amateur or student who wishes to get a generous survey of the most pleasurable and accessible of contemporary poetry would do well to turn to this book. It contains some of the best work of major living and recently deceased poets such as Richard Wilbur, Robert Mezey, Dick Allen, X. J. Kennedy, John Updike, Anthony Hecht, and W. D. Snodgrass. In greater abundance, it includes the work of distinguished poets one is unlikely to find represented in anthologies of contemporary poetry produced by larger presses than the University of Evansville's. Here I would include those mature poets associated with the New Formalism, such as Rachel Hadas, William Baer, David Mason, Frederick Turner, R. S. Gwynn, and Timothy Steele, but also a group of younger and less-established poets whose work often provides this anthology with its most surprising and powerful contents. Here I would mention in particular Len Krisak, whose translation from the Latin of Samuel Johnson's "Skye" gives us one of the most moving devotional lyrics of our age, and A. M. Duster, whose "Fugitive Son" is a brilliant and plangent meditation on fatherhood and the loss of a child in a miscarriage:

  Although I know my boy does not intend
  More pain, he asks about the nameless son
  We lost three months before he was conceived.
  I have no words to tell him how we grieved.

I would draw attention to Rhina P. Espaillat, whose many books during the past two decades have shown that an often harsh northeastern colloquial dialect can converge well with controlled and elegant verse forms, and also point to A. E. Stallings and Joseph S. Salemi, whose work stands out as among the most pleasurable in this anthology precisely because they have found new ways to harness the resources of classical material for the contemporary short poem. Readers of the modernist poets will recall the productive but often ponderous use of ancient literature and myth in Ezra Pound, Yeats, or Eliot; indeed, the retooling of fragments taken from the classics has been one of the few conventions shared and developed with great continuity by poets across the modernist and contemporary divide. Consider Stallings's dark meditations on sexual love in the context of pagan hell. Says Hades, as he welcomes his bride, Persephone:

  This is the greatest room;
  I had it specially made after great thought
  So you would feel at home.
  I had the ceiling
  Painted to recall some evening sky--
  But without the garish stars and lurid moon.
  What? That stark shape crouching in the corner?
  Sweet, that is to be our bed. Our bed.
  Ah! Your hand is trembling! I fear
  There is, as yet, too much pulse in it.

And finally, I would mention Joshua Mehigan, David Middleton, Felix Stefanile, and Richard Wakefield, whose work collectively ranges over the most intractable elements of modern American experience, from the plague of loneliness, the challenges of the family in an age of individualism, and the nature of American and Christian identity in the wake of mass immigration, to the wars of the "American Century" and the secularization of the '60s. …

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