Book review: American Poets in the 21st Century

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American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics
Edited by Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell
Wesleyan U Press, 2007. 400 p.
Includes audio CD

I snapped up a copy of this book as soon as I heard about it.

The audio CD would be useful on my Wordsalad radio program, and the text would bring me up to date on a number of poets doing exciting work. The sounds of these authors’ voices are a welcome addition to the program.

Lisa Sewell writes in the introduction that this collection is among those beginning to chart and situate the progress of this current generation, focusing on 13 poets whose work provides an introduction to the breadth and vitality of the field: Joshua Clover, Stacy Doris, Peter Gizzi, Kenneth Goldsmith, Myung Mi Kim, Mark Levine, Tracie Morris, Mark Nowak, D.A. Powell, Juliana Spahr, Karen Volkman, Susan Wheeler, and Kevin Young.

Each of these writers is evolving a distinct poetic that in some way revises, extends, and/or counters the traditions of the previous century, Sewell writes.

Each chapter includes a selection of one writer’s poems, a brief artist’s statement, and a critical essay that provides a historical context as well as an analysis of the ways the specific work alters and extends the understanding of what the new American poetries can look, feel, and sound like. In addition to the recordings of each poet reading some of his or her work, additional audio files are available online for listening and download.

The line between innovation and tradition, between experiment and expression, is no longer clear or easy to draw, Sewell writes. Innovative, materialistic poetic practices have been absorbed by both the lyric mainstream and the multicultural poetries of identity politics. Writers on either side of the ostensible divide employ interruption, parataxis, narrative discontinuity, and alinearity to produce fragmentation and disjunction.

While many of these poets claim a space for lyric interiority and “emotive effect,” she writes, almost all treat the speaking subject as provisional, expressing doubts about a lyric poetry that dramatizes the self’s fixed relationship to the world.

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