There has been so much poetry written in the United States in the last thirty years that it has become difficult for even its most passionate readers, among whom I count myself, to pretend to have a broad, comprehensive view of the thousands of poems that have been published in books and literary magazines over that time. That was not always the case.
In the 1950s, American poetry was a small pond with a few big fish in it and others of various sizes swimming around them, so it was easy to see who was imitating whose moves, whose progeny were multiplying and whose were looking sickly. Of course, there were others too, sulking on the murky bottom of the pond and keeping their own counsel, but they were by and large invisible.
The Beat poets changed all that. They made such a splash that even high school kids were reading Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Thanks to their popularity, bars and coffee shops started having poetry readings, with colleges and universities following soon after, inviting other kinds of poets to read as well and offering them jobs to teach creative writing. Today, with thousands of graduates of writing programs publishing collections and still more graduating every year, it’s hard to believe that a book of poems can be completely original, but despite the great odds, it still happens.
Poetry is like an old clock that stops ticking from time to time and needs to be violently shaken to get it running again, and if that doesn’t do the trick, opened up and disassembled, its wheels cleaned, lubricated, and its intricate moving parts made to run again. Unlike watchmakers, poets repair their poems by leaving parts behind that after centuries of use have turned out to be unnecessary to their workings. Hard as it is to believe, lyric poets are still tinkering with a contraption thousands of years old, mending it and reinventing it with no desire to call it quits. As they do that, poetry keeps changing while remaining the same.
If that weren’t so, how could we still understand and enjoy the old Greek, Roman, and Chinese poems and recognize ourselves in them while knowing next to nothing about the world those poets lived in? Reading Jana Prikryl’s book, it crossed my mind that neither William Blake nor Emily Dickinson would have had much trouble making sense of this poem of hers:
“New research suggests that butterflies and moths come with mental baggage…left over from their lives as larvae.”
He’d like to be at one with his new self
but memories sit in him like eyes.
Sometimes scent implies an unheard-of
idea and he’s off
but it’s just another of the given forms.
You’d think flight…
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