Happy as I was to read a conversation on contemporary poetry between two interlocutors as articulate as Michael Hofmann and William Logan (June-July, 2004), I found their exchange ultimately disappointing in its narrow range of reference and its lazy willingness to base generalizations on strolls through all-too-familiar poetic neighborhoods. Hofmann and Logan both deplore contemporary poetry's monoglot, heavily workshopped, and linguistically uninterested (and uninteresting) textures, and I nod to concur on that point. But there are more poetics under the sun than are dreamt of in these two writers' philosophies, and both ignore some of the obvious ghettos in which poets are taking chances with form and language as well as (or often, thankfully, instead of ) the revelation of intimate personal details. Two such back streets are pointed out in Logan's dismissive asides: "eccentric" poets, whom, according to Logan, Americans call "Language poets" and at whom they "throw rocks," and poets who write from the specific experience of a racial or ethnic identity (which Logan calls "the new privilege"). A closer look (and listen) reveals a more interesting and encouraging picture of poetry at the present time.
Michael Palmer, for example, offers up fascinating poems with roots in French Surrealism and a searching interest in how language works. Across the Atlantic, Denise Riley mixes pop and politics in compelling explorations of domestic spaces, artistic surfaces, and linguistic constructions of reality. Indeed, in both the US and the UK whole communities of poets whose practices might be traced back to Pound and Williams, to Prynne and Bunting, continue to write poems that repay a simple willingness to sit with them a while. The same is true of poets of color, many of whom write poems whose richness gives the lie to the caricatured "multiculturalism" often kicked around by Logan and others. In book after book, Carl Phillips mixes memory and desire in poems fed by the roots of traditional forms; Jay Wright, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Thylias Moss in the US, David Dabydeen, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean "Binta" Breeze, and Benjamin Zephaniah in the UK, and Kamau Braithwaite along with Derek Walcott from former British colonies in the Caribbean, are all producing richly varied and compelling poems. The sad thing about this hand-wringing exchange between Logan and Hofmann is not that it demonstrates just how narrow the dominant taste in contemporary poetry continues to be, even as it masquerades as catholicityLogan likes both Geoffrey Hill and Anthony Hecht!but that it creates the appearance of a crisis where none exists. Readers should not share their worries. In both Britain and America, poetry is doing just fine for those with the will to look a little beyond the catalogues for Knopf and Carcanet.