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American Literary History 14.1 (2002) 181-193
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Contemporary American Poetry
Christopher J. Knight
Of the five books reviewed here, one explicitly sets out to make a dramatic impact upon what we think of as the canon of contemporary poetry: Harold Bloom's edited anthology, The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-1997. This is an anthology culled from the first 10 volumes of The Best American Poetry series, whose general editor has been David Lehman. In the present anthology's foreword Lehman writes, "If the books in the series have lived up to their collective title, this anthology of anthologies might define a contemporary canon" (11). This is all the more reason, thinks Lehman, for asking Bloom to edit the volume, for he is "the one critic who has unabashedly and unapologetically committed himself to the idea of a literary canon, to the possibility of making one and to the necessity of having one, is a critic who long ago made a name for himself as a highly discriminating reader of the poetry of his time, whose provocative judgments have turned out often--remarkably often--to be right" (11). Neither the editor of the other anthology, The New Young American Poets: An Anthology, nor the authors of the three critical books are prepared to make such brash claims. Nevertheless, they each set out to say, in their more subtle ways, something with regard to which contemporary poets merit our attention. As they do so, they are participating in the same canonical discussion that Lehman and Bloom think themselves in control of. They are each seeking to promote not only a set group of poets but also a poetics, and the consequences of each attempt are not restricted to the poets who are brought to the fore.
In Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry, Kevin Stein sets out to study a select group of late-twentieth-century American poets--Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Frank O'Hara, James Wright, Philip Levine, Yusek Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, David Wojahn, and Carolyn Forché--"who have labored under the remnants of a Modernist tradition that encouraged them to turn their backs on larger historical forces," yet who have gone on to evince "an awareness of [End Page 181] poetry's social and public functions ignored by much of twentieth-century American poetry" (xiii). History and community are Stein's key critical terms. By history, Stein means "so-called objective history, what is 'recorded' and thus chronicles the rise and fall of nations and peoples, the history of their wars and governments, the large-scale workings of civilization and culture" (xiii). In addition to this notion, Stein wishes to add another, the individual poet's more personal sense of history, an "inward and 'authentic' sense of history, the immediate experience of being-in-the-world" (xiii). He seeks, in short, to investigate a poetry that lives "in the vital intersection of private and public history" (xv). Stein's community refers to a "'social' space" that is, at once, both personal and political. For explanatory assistance, he looks to Forché, who writes, "We need a third term, one that can describe the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal. Let us call this space the 'social'" (149).
Stein's strength as a critic is that of a close reader who cares for the poetry about which he writes. His individual readings are sensible; he is possessed of a limpid prose. In practical terms he is a very good guide to a group of...