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New Left Review 98, March-April 2016

David Lau


Public poetry has been a notable part of the American literary repertoire since the time of Walt Whitman. Later exponents have included Robert Lowell and John Ashbery, for example, or, in an adoptive mode, W. H. Auden. Piotr Gwiazda’s new critical study aims to shed light on the public vocation of American poetry in the period stretching from the end of the Vietnam War to Occupy Wall Street—a span of years in which, as he maintains in the face of much conservative nostalgia, the proliferation of college and university creative writing programmes has favoured a ‘symbiotic relationship’ between creative work and pedagogy that ‘has increased rather than diminished poetry’s public presence’. [1] Piotr Gwiazda, US Poetry in the Age of Empire, 1979–2012, Palgrave Macmillan: New York and Basingstoke 2014, $95, hardback 203 pp, 978 1 137 47085 0 In this age of globalization, he writes, ‘us poets take it upon themselves to perform the role of public intellectuals’ by creating a responsibly civilized and patriotic poetry of empire. A series of études probing a limited set of poetic examples, us Poetry in the Age of Empire, 1979–2012 is a marked departure from Gwiazda’s first book, a study of the influence of Auden’s homosexuality on James Merrill’s long poem The Changing Light at Sandover. A former pupil of Harold Bloom’s at New York University, Gwiazda exhibits here a broader taste than his teacher for the strangely proliferating poetry of 21st-century America. His book scans the field across the experimental and conservative aesthetic divide in search of the poets ‘gifted with civic ambition’. Those chosen are Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka, all born in the decade before World War Two; and from a later generation, born in the 60s and 70s, Juliana Spahr, Ben Lerner, Lisa Jarnot, Anne Boyer, Rodrigo Toscano and Mark Nowak. All can be said to take up social and political themes that resonate with the broad public, affirming a tradition of civic-minded poetry.

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David Lau, ‘Poetics of Resistance’, NLR 98: £3

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