New Directions in American Poetry

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      Recent directions in American poetry include the “language poets” loosely associated with temblor magazine. They stretch language to reveal its potential for ambiguity, fragmentation, and self-assertion within chaos. Being ironic and postmodern the reject “meta narratives” - ideologies, dogmas, conventions - and doubt the existence of transcendent reality. Among them are Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Douglas Meserli (editor of “Language” Poetries: An Anthology (1987), Bob Perelman, and Barret Watten, author of Total Syntax (1985), a collection of essays. They stretch language to reveal its potential for ambiguity, fragmentation, and self-assertion within chaos. Viewing art and literary criticism as inherently ideological, they oppose modernism’s closed forms, hierarchies, ideas of epiphany and transcendence, categories of genre and canonical texts (accepted literary works). Instead, they propose open forms and multicultural texts. The appropriate images from popular culture, the media, and fashion and refashion them. Like performance poetry, language poems often resist interpretation and invite participation.

      Performance-oriented poetry (associated with chance operations such as those of composer John Cage), jazz improvisation, mixed media work and European surrealism have influenced many U.S. poets, well-known figures include Laurie Anderson, author of the international hit United States (1984), which uses film, video, acoustics and music, choreography, and space-age technology. Using performance poetry entered the mainstream with rap music, while across the United States “poetry slams” - open poetry reading contests that are held in alternative art galleries and literary bookstores - have become inexpensive, high-spirited participatory entertainments.

      At the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum are the self-styled “New Fonnalists” who champion a return to form, rhyme, and meter. All groups are responding to the same problem - perceived middle-brow complacency with the status quo, a careful and overly polished sound, often the product of poetry workshops, and an overemphasis on the personal lyric as opposed to the public gesture. The formal school is associated with Story Line Press: Dana Gioia (a businessman-poet); Philip Dacey, and David Jauss, poets and editors of Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (1986); Brad Leithauser; and Gertrude Schnackenberg. Robert Richman’s The Direction of Poetry: Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in English Since 1977 is a recent anthology. Though these poets have been accused of retreating to 19th century themes they often draw on contemporary stances and images, along with musical language and traditional, closed forms.

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