American Poetry and Poetry Criticism Now
Caplan, David, The Virginia Quarterly Review
In his recent poem, "Introspective Voyager," lames Longenbach depicts an aging poetry scholar, the speakers mentor:
He smoked in a way that seemed old-fashioned, from the fifties.
He remembered that, as a boy, he stood beside a closed door listening
To his teachers, Richard Blackmur and John Berryman.
He couldn't tell a poet from a critic;
They talked about the same things in the same way.
This layered portrait contrasts two generations' experiences. Blackmur "needed people the way he needed cigarettes," Eileen Simpson recalls in her memoir of that era, when she was married to John Berryman, "He needed conversation." Acknowledging this mutual need, Berryman's "Olympus" quotes Blackmur's prose, adding line breaks. Even on the page poet and scholar sound alike. Employing the same technique, Longenbach's poem later quotes the teacher's monograph, but to different effect: as a rueful monologue, not a conversation. The recent past feels distantly remote. Even to recount it is to appear out of touch with contemporary realities: vaguely mythic and ghostly.
The American poetry scene has not gone back to the days of the midcentury generation- nor should it. It also largely avoids the least attractive development that claimed the intervening years, when the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry returned as farce. More recently, the relation of poetry and criticism changed. Instead of warring with or, worse, ignoring each other, American poets and critics show a renewed interest in each others' work. Each informs the other. Many scholars actively participate in poetic communities, supporting and influencing their activities, and a majority of major poetry scholars publish their own poetry. …