Steven Cramer: State of Poetry

This is the ninth in our series of essays on the state of poetry. For others, check our list.

Communal Reading

Steven Cramer

Steven Cramer

Whenever I’m asked for my opinion about the state of contemporary poetry, I recall two lines by Dennis Hinrichsen, a wonderful poet not enough readers know.  They go like this:  “Here are your books alphabetically arranged/to suggest the gaps in your learning.”   How can anyone hold an informed viewpoint about the condition of contemporary poetry?  No matter how much one reads, there will always be much more one hasn’t read.   Every poetry reader today is like a cartographer who barely knows his maps, let alone the terrain they represent.

When we’re young—in high school and as college students, say—we read our elders, most of them assigned and deceased.  Through our mid-twenties and thirties—and perhaps into our forties—we’re often reading our contemporaries.  One hopes we continue to make discoveries among the dead; the true state of poetry always lies with them, and the dead are dynamic.  At some point—where I am now, at 60?—we realize that much of the new poetry we read was written by people younger than us.  This comes as a bit of a jolt, like first recognizing that we’re older than the President.

It’s a laudable goal to become as generation-blind as possible in one’s reading, but I suspect that the ways poetry changes are better understood by those changing it, that trends are grasped best by the trendsetters.  Recently, I chatted with a forty-year old poet, who praised as essential reading two poets of his generation whom I hadn’t read; I advocated two similarly indispensable poets of my generation, likewise unknown to him.   I wondered how he could have missed these favorites of mine; I suspect he wondered the same about the gaps in my learning.  In this conversation at least, the state of contemporary poetry for a forty-year-old wasn’t the same as for a sixty-year-old.  Maybe he’s gone on to read my recommendations.  I confess I forget his.

On reflection, even this tentative observation about a poetic generational divide doesn’t hold up to a closer look at my particular experience.  A few months ago, the three members of my writing group agreed to each select one poem we’d read on our own and found memorable, and to bring it to our next meeting for a quick talk-about before moving on to our own work.  Two of the poems we discussed you can read online— “A Noun Sentence,” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah and the title poem from Linda Gregerson’s The Selvage—and I’ll assume you’ll read them before moving on to the third poem, by Erin Malone, which appeared in Field, Spring 2013, and which I reprint here:

LETTER NEVER SENT

As for the weather, it’s fair to say

fine.  The cherry trees are rioting.

I got your note

two dishtowels and the small white

mixing bowl.  In my dresser

your ring is in a box.

I walk

to the sound of bicycle wheels

and a voice warning on your left.

 

The trees are an industry.

There’s too much of more

and my thoughts.

I walk to the sound of a bird

singing Okaleee!

Another goes, Potato chip.

 

And because the dead are never out of work

you’re up to your soapy elbows

calling, Well hi there!

when I’m coming in the door.

Darwish’s is an extravagantly surreal hymn to sensory amplitude; Gregerson’s a complex lyrical and social meditation, piercingly smart about race, about deep attachments, about nature; and Malone’s a deeply felt elegy, personal and accessible, despite its structure of sly indirections.  Darwish died in 2008 at the age of 67, Linda Gregerson is a poet of my generation, and Erin Malone (I gather from her web site) is significantly younger than I am, author of one chapbook.  The three poems I discussed with my friends have almost nothing in common other than they are very good of their kind.  Bringing them together into one discussion created a cross-generational “state of contemporary poetry,” healthy as the quality of our conversation about them.   “To have great poets,” wrote Whitman, “there must be great audiences too.”  That’s a bit grandiose, but then Whitman believed the first edition of Leaves of Grass would avert the Civil War.  I especially like his plural “audiences.”  Reading poetry to oneself is a little less secluded than writing it (at least there are two interior lives involved), but it’s still—and too often—a solitary activity that needn’t be.  Sharing poems with others turns an audience into “audiences,” into a society of readers, which guarantees at least two benefits.  First, two or more heads scratched over a text become better informed than one.  Second, by virtue of having been read by a group rather than by an individual, the poem will be less lonely.

Collections of Steven Cramer’s poetry include The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987); The World Book (1992); Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997); Goodbye to the Orchard (2004), which won the 2005 Sheila Motton Prize and was named an Honor Book in Poetry by the Massachusetts Center for the Book; and Clangings (2012), a book-length sequence the deals with psycho-linguistics.  Cramer has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. A former editor at the Atlantic Monthlyhe currently directs the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University,