The Promise of American Poetry

Poetry now is more reflective of the makeup, tensions, desires, and needs of a broader swath of Americans than ever before.

| Summer 2019

Photo by Adobe Stock/okalinichenko.

The future pulls us forward. Crawling becomes walking, becomes riding a bike, becomes flying to Paris, if you’re lucky. The desire for love, if you’re even luckier, becomes love. Broken hearted musings in a notebook can turn into a career in poetry, thank god. It’s snowing right now, which has me throwing my thoughts ahead to spring.

But we’re also buried alive with little losses along the way. The slowed step that becomes the bad hip and no more running. The word I can’t retrieve that turns into the sentence that refuses to form. Maybe the worst part of death is that I see it coming. To stay truly alive the whole time I’m alive gets harder as I go.

I write this because I’m dying as a poet. My books don’t sell as well or get reviewed as much as they used to. A lot of this drop-off likely has to do with age, as the fate of the majority of gray hairs, in whatever field, is to witness our obsolescence. Not always, of course, but older poets (and artists generally) tend to be washed away by aesthetic and thematic waves coming up behind us, changes we’re often unaware of or uninterested in, having moved on from that exciting but demanding phase when we eagerly cultivate a sense of the zeitgeist. Even if a poet’s work hasn’t settled into a rut, the present belongs far more to the young, who tend to see and push against their predecessors’ tendencies, their failures and tics, and actively pursue new styles, different content. The common progression for poets as we age—and this is for the very very lucky—is foreground, background, in the ground.

The good news for me is I’ve done well. I’ll forever count myself among the lucky dogs that anyone has ever wanted to read my poems, let alone to the degree they have. I see some other successful poets going through the same thing and hope they feel as grateful as I do for the ride they’ve had, a ride that’s not over, just evolving in ways it should have long ago.

Which is to say I’m a straight white guy and the face of poetry is finally changing. The hottest book of the past few years is by a black woman. The hottest book of the past year is by a black man, followed closely by a book of poems by a Latina. The hottest book of the moment is by a gay man born in Vietnam. From winners of major literary prizes in recent years to Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought” section, the books that come up least often are by straight white men of any age. The faces of poetry have changed.

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