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’. 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.

In the long and wide-ranging discussion that opens his book, Gwiazda situates contemporary poetic production in historical and social contexts of the ‘transnational’ phase of postwar us history, borrowing the term from the recently minted New Americanist school of literary criticism, with its constitutive emphasis on the complex relational character of us culture and society. His grouplet of poets pay sustained attention to ‘the concept of the nation-state, and the attendant concept of Empire’. He identifies the meaning of the latter term with Hardt and Negri’s millennial totalization of the post-Cold War geopolitical landscape, Empire, employing their capitalization of the term throughout, even as he declines to join them in rejecting the idea that the us is an imperial power. Acknowledging us preeminence, he says, these poets ‘find it difficult to write about globalization and nationalism as mutually exclusive phenomena’. Empire remains significant for Gwiazda, as it was and perhaps still is for many left-liberal intellectuals, because of the ambivalent terms in which it treats America, with careful accent on its constitution and civic republicanism, as well as the expansionary dynamic that unfolded from the nineteenth century onwards.

Gwiazda’s other point of departure is Robert von Hallberg’s study of poetry in the initial period of America’s planetary imperium, American Poetry and Culture, 1945–1980. A rearguard for the 1980s—the time of ‘alarming new kinds’ of literary studies, as Fredric Jameson once wrote—this book presented a theory of poetic ideology, seeing key postwar linguistic usages (‘system’ for organizational structure, for instance) as thematic indicators of mainstream intellectual culture. Von Hallberg argued that the work of poets as different as Charles Olson and James Merrill gave expression to cultural signifiers of an imagined experiential–intellectual centre of American life, neither too critical of the country nor too complacent about its military power. In the very hour of the decentring of American poetry—in the 60s, when poets like Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, Jack Hirschman, Juan Felipe Herrera and Janice Mirikitani aligned themselves with new social movements and the so-called Language poets (Barrett Watten, Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews and others) took their anti-expressive, constructivist turn—von Hallberg traced the contours of a contemporary poetry whose ‘signs of cultural coherence’, so he maintained, ‘help to ratify imperium’. Gwiazda’s poets, in contrast, are characteristically ‘ambivalent’ in their attitude to the us state and society: ‘The plural-headed Empire, manifold / Beyond my outrage or my admiration’ is Robert Pinsky’s memorable phrasing of his position in 1979. Younger poets like Boyer and Lerner, born in the 70s and so coming a whole generation after Pinsky (b. 1940), encounter a somewhat different imperial culture today. Gwiazda writes: ‘The very idea of being an American is likely to resonate differently in an increasingly multipolar universe.’ However, if Socrates’s criticisms of poetry, exempting only those poems that promote civic cohesion, have no purchase in this setting, Shelley’s antithetical defence of its unique and independent visionary power is likewise held at a distance. Above all, it is Auden’s moral penumbra that looms over Gwiazda’s preferred conception of civic poetry. If the characteristic combinations of image, rhetorical understatement and classical form in Auden’s work do not influence any of the poets under examination in a direct way, they nonetheless ‘write with a sense of obligation to their audience’, reconciling poem with public. And though specific influences of avant-garde Language poetry are glimpsed throughout, Gwiazda’s cohort, including several formally experimental practitioners, leave parataxis and the fragmentation of ruthlessly non sequitur writing behind. Language poetry did not anticipate a liberal addressee in the manner of a socially coherent civic poem. Bruce Andrews is quoted as evidence: ‘I’m the main reader of what I write. It’s designed for me.’ Seeking a way out of the postmodern impasse for poetry caught between relentless linguistic innovation and clearly but not artfully rendered political content, Gwiazda champions exemplary works beholden to neither imperative. This is writing that is oblique rather than propagandist, that affirms and exploits the social autonomy and literary specificities of poetic practice while remaining within the semantic register of liberal common sense. The experimentalists Toscano, Lerner and Spahr ‘foreground rather than fixate on the idea of language as material signifier’. Their poetry’s ‘intense feeling of alienation’ from America produces a range of mostly negative emotions or affects, and in this way represents a discontinuity with the legacy of Whitman, whose ‘imperial fantasies’ these poets ‘cannot exactly share’.

Robert Pinsky’s early book-length work, An Explanation of America (1979), is Gwiazda’s first object of analysis. ‘A useful vantage point’, Pinsky’s drifting but discursively lucid poem tracks the first signs of the much-heralded demographic transformation of the country, placing ‘some of the most salient features of the United States’ national self-construction—exceptionalism, expansionism, and the dichotomy of individual and community—against the backdrop of then-emerging debates about multiculturalism’. In it, a college professor meanders his way to an encompassing justification of late imperial society after the 1960s and Vietnam. He follows Malcolm X in deeming it a prison but, then again, isn’t society itself always something of a prison? Pinsky’s poem epitomizes ‘Stoical distance’. Packaged in an idiosyncratic version of the New York baroque, whose flattening manner ‘borders on complacency’, An Explanation of America interlards its contemplative and Horatian idiom with terse representations of popular culture and the smouldering embers of political upheaval, making it plain that the very idea of American identity is undergoing a substantial recomposition.

Adrienne Rich’s ‘An Atlas of the Difficult World’ (1991) moves Gwiazda’s study sequentially to the other side of the Reagan years and the end of the Cold War. Rich wrote the poem ‘very consciously as a citizen poet’ during the Gulf War. A late-life Marxist, this renowned second-wave feminist activist arrived at this understanding only after overcoming the anti-communist biases of her political formation. For Gwiazda, the poem’s horizons are more attenuated: ‘Rich’s main goal in her poem is to expand the concept of poetry readership in the United States beyond its traditionally stipulated parameters.’ Gwiazda reads ‘Atlas’ against a series of obituaries for American poetry, assailed by the critic Dana Gioia and others for disregarding the common reader. ‘Conclusions about the death of poetry presuppose a uniform poetry audience’, he writes, ‘and, by extension, a uniform American cultural tradition’. His analysis of Rich’s poem itself emphasizes the universality of her poetic mural ‘[h]aunted by age-old political and social struggles’. In linguistically immediate lines, Rich works with a ‘bare-handed’ treatment of ordinary, unelevated diction:

I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural
then yes let it be these are small distinctions
where do we see it from is the question

Poetry here takes the form of a call to political consciousness, just as humanitarian intervention makes its cnn debut (‘A patriot is not a weapon’). ‘Atlas’ sustains a ‘counter-narrative’ to American history, as it ‘travels back and forth in time’, touching ‘Appomattox / Wounded Knee, Los Alamos, Selma, the last airlift from Saigon’. If the atomized individuals populating the poem seem unable to connect (particularly in the case of the imprisoned black revolutionary George Jackson), Gwiazda sees this as a quasi-Utopian test of her poem, ‘whether, under the homogenizing effects of late capitalism, poetry can become a forum for multicultural exchange’. Her poetic form of audience-building is a model for progressive civic conversation, the seed form of liberal ideas of social change.