American Poetry

Jorie Graham, who was in the UK recently to pick up her Forward Prize for a collection called P L A C E , took the opportunity while she was here to make some comments about American versus British poetry.

PN Review reports her interview with Guardian writer Nicholas Wroe.  Allegedly, Graham:

compared the health of British Poetry favourably with that of the United States, likening it to “a kind of canary down the mine. Very few cultures in the history of humanity have survived if their poetry disappears.  The fact that it is astonishingly healthy in the UK should reassure people who, just as in the US, are worried about the culture. But with a poetry culture as vivid and alive as it is in the UK, your canary seems to be doing OK in your mine. Our canary is running out of breath and croaking a little.”

A few days after I read that, I had a conversation with a poet friend who happens to be part of a workshop group populated by both British and American poets.  She and I agreed on a lot of things.  American poetry seems close to prose-chopped-into-short-lines.  My friend says it looks like someone has ‘vomited on the page’.  She bewails the lack of craft the American writers display.  ‘They feel that once they’ve got everything that was in their head down on to the page, they’ve finished.’ There’s also a hugely confessional aspect to American poetry, in which raw and unprocessed emotions splurge out. We don’t really like it much.  By contrast, British poetry seems more crafted, more thoughtful, more worked and finished, slightly more oblique.

The whole schism began around the time of Walt Whitman. British poets based their work on their public school classical educations, imitating Shakespeare and Milton, while, in America, Whitman celebrated the huge American outdoors with long, expansive lines based on psalms and preaching styles.  I can see a line traced from Whitman to Ginsberg, to the “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King, to poets like Jorie Graham. Eliot crossed the pond, bringing a free verse style that transfused British poetry to some extent, but we still hark back to metre and sonics in a way that the Americans seem to have left behind.

At least, that’s the way it seems to me now. Next term in Roddy Lumsden’s “Here, There and Now” classes at the Poetry School, we are going to be studying contemporary American poets. Either I will learn to appreciate the wheezing of their gasping canary, or I’ll try to throttle it.