Contemporary American Poetry

Ertegun House Reading Group, Erik Fredericksen, 20 February 2013

For my installment of the reading group, I took the opportunity to fast-forward a couple thousand years from my current work in Classics and shared a small selection of contemporary American poetry with the other scholars. I tried to select a varied array of some of my favorite American poets of the last fifty or sixty years, starting with two poets of the New York School: John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. The two are lumped together as members of this “school” of poets and artists (and do share similarities), but in many ways their work is quite different. We got a taste of O’Hara’s colloquial, by turns ironic and sincere tone with his poem “Having a Coke with You” (see him read it here) and experienced Ashbery’s somewhat more difficult, introspective verse with an excerpt from “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror”.

Moving in roughly chronological order, we then looked at Robert Creeley, associated with the short-lived and experimental Black Mountain College and short lines with emphatic line-breaks and enjambment. I think it’s safe to say that for at least a few of us, the highlight of the reading group was hearing him read his poem “For Love” (you can find the reading under Robert Creeley here).

Then we moved westward, reading a couple of poems by James Wright, many of whose poems are firmly rooted in Ohio and the American midwest. From there, we reached California and the West Coast, reading some Robert Hass (a former U.S. poet laureate with perhaps more mainstream popularity than a few of the other poets we read). We took a quick detour for some Jorie Graham (whose 2012 book P L A C E was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize), before ending with some short, playful, but (I think) haunting works from Rae Armantrout, whom you can hear reading her poem “Yonder” here.

This was inevitably just a small slice of the contemporary poetry world, which, if you read various newspaper and magazine articles about it, has the dubious distinction of flourishing and dying out at the same time. Aside from the fact that all of these poets are roughly “contemporary”, I was also wondering if they might be united by some kind of American aesthetic or aspect in their work. For most of them, I for one do feel something quintessentially American in their poems (beyond place names), though who’s to say if this is just an illusion one gets when reading literature from one’s home country…

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