- In Search of Lost Tone American Poetry in a Year of Change
Two thousand eight will forever be known as a year of change in American history, with negative effects for the economy, positive effects for politics. But for poetry it was just kind of a same year, with nothing really differentiating the quality or style of the publications from the previous year or the year before that. Of course "the year" has always been an arbitrary marker of change as well as an arbitrary framework for evaluating achievement. But in the contemporary American poetry world it is striking—and depressing—just how much the years have begun to blend into each other, so that it was possible for the ABA group Book Sense to compile a 2008 Poetry Top Ten consisting of only three titles actually published in 2008. The fact that Book Sense posted its picks on March 13, 2008, with more than nine [End Page 189] months left in the calendar year, demonstrates just how blasé some readers have become about differentiating between poetry titles year by year.
Some of this is just laziness, but it also has to do with the sheer volume of new poetry titles and the frequency with which some poets publish. I love Dean Young, but even I found it difficult to pay much attention to his 2008 volume, Primitive Mentor, mainly because I felt I had just read a book by Dean Young. And I had: 2007's Embryoyo.
A deeper problem that afflicts contemporary American poetry than the glut of publications, though, is the tonelessness of so many of them. Langdon Hammer identified this problem in his 2002 essay "Frank Bidart and the Tone of Contemporary Poetry"; what he wrote then still applies today:
I propose that tone (once a common word in literary criticism, now disused) is a key problem in American poetry since the 1970s, with both technical and philosophical aspects, and that this problem—which comes down to a general uncertainty about how to represent inner, mental and emotional experience—is something that we hear in contemporary poems, very often, as a flatness of voice.
For Hammer, Bidart's work represents "one of the important and . . . representative poetries of our time not because it demonstrates that prevailing flatness of voice but because it struggles against it."
I would go even further and say that Bidart has become the major voice in contemporary poetry for how his work calls into question this flatness of voice, acting as a conscience for the prevailing mode. Reading Bidart, for me, has a bracing effect: it reminds me that tone should be not an option for poets but a threshold requirement. I mean "tone" in the larger sense in which jazz musicians and critics think of it, as the distinctive sound an artist must develop in order to make original music. Tone serves as a jazz musician's auditory signature, tells the story of his or her relation to life. Through tone, jazz musicians can be identified in their most characteristic attitudes: the exuberant swagger of early Lester Young, the spiritual yearning of late Coltrane, the devastation of late Ben Webster.
The History of Anonymity: Poems
University of Georgia Press, 2008, 82 pp., $16.95 (paper)
This kind of tonal identification is not possible when reading a passage from Jennifer Chang's "The History of Anonymity," the title poem from her first collection published in 2008: [End Page 190]
The ocean swallowed my diary. It swallowed my words. I have secrets from you. You with no name, do you love me who iswithout a face? Or do you love me withouta sound? In...