03 February 2015

On the Result of Sleepwalking in the Library

This morning, I found a stack of poetry on my desk: the 1855 Leaves of Grass, Selected Poems from William Carlos Williams and ee cummings, Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, A Coney Island of the Mind, and The Book of Nightmares. They’re all white American male poets. What brought this collection together?

The later do all show obvious stylistic debt to Whitman, but that’s simply because Whitman (and Emily Dickinson) largely invented American free verse. It’s no more meaningful connection than saying I owe my life to my father (and thanks for that, Dad!).

It isn’t a common place. Chicago, San Francisco, and Paterson, NJ, come to mind for Sandburg, Ferlinghetti, and Williams, while Whitman encompasses multitudes. Coney Island and Nightmares are largely focused inward; the other books chronicle and examine the changing world around their authors. Publication dates range from 1855 to 1976.

One commonality -- really the corollary of their common ancestry in Whitman -- is that none of these poets seems bound by traditional, formal metric conventions. Long, long lines are common, and recognizable rhyme schemes rare, across these pages. Instead, language itself becomes a plaything, a constraint against which to press and experiment. cummings is the most blatant violator of reader expectation, but all of these writers rely on their own experience, on the diction and cadence of the America assaulting their ears, to provide the patterns for their poems. They are inventing and representing a new world and have no need for conventions of the past.

This is what they share, the reason these six poets can be a cohesive reading group. They are showing us America -- what it is, how it got that way, what it means. This stack of books wants me to better understand my home, and thus better understand myself.