It is certainly a good thing that there is no longer an orthodoxy in contemporary poetry. Anything goes. Formalists new and old browse peaceably on the slopes of Parnassus with nth-generation free versers. The Oulipist lies down with the Slam Poet. No center, no party line: it’s all good. Readers and writers should celebrate what's come to look like a Maoist approach to poetry: let a thousand flowers bloom.
And yet, centerlessness notwithstanding, certain broad commonalities persist. A kind of Average Poem haunts the reviews and quarterlies whose features are familiar to us all. These include a fondness for absurdist juxtapositions, a resonance to nature understood as landscape, a good deal of melancholy weather, and the projection of a central consciousness named I who reflects, generally, on his or her experience with irony or ruefulness or grief. The Average Poem of the moment, that is to say, stands in the long shadow cast by the Confessional Poets of the 1950s and 60s.
The confessional mode is an old and honorable dimension of poetry, as old as the lyric impulse itself. It probably dates from the moment when Sappho saw the man who got her girl, and thought he seemed to be a god. I’ve read a good deal of confessional poetry, and I am not at all interested in writing any. In a way this is regrettable, for I have much to confess: my colorful ethnic childhood, my unreasonably happy second marriage, my intrepid neglected children, the privilege I’ve enjoyed even as a small-time academic to learn and reflect about interesting things in the world outside myself. But I decline to write about myself in part because of a personal distaste for self-display, in part because there are so many other things that interest me more.
Since I began writing poetry, recently and late in life, my subjects have come from lifelong interests in American literature, music, flora, photography, and military history. Many of my poems have been biographical narratives, which I've written, somewhat compulsively, in suites or sequences. There are 23 poems about Ho Chi Minh, president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, seven about legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ("Hound Dog," "Kansas City"), eight about General Curtis LeMay, architect of the United States firebombingcampaign against Japanese population centers in the months before Hiroshima. The list goes on.
These poems combine facts about these people with a good deal of invented detail and circumstance. Ho Chi Minh, who in historical fact had worked his passage to London in 1914, then worked as a plongeur in George Escoffier's kitchen at the Ritz, is carried back to that year and city, in my invention, when he listens to "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in Hanoi shortly before his death in 1969. In my Bird's Thumb poem "Austin Dickinson Orders Trees for the Beautification of Amherst, Mass, 1887" Emily Dickinson's brother whom I imagine, perhaps unkindly, as an aristocratic fop who doesn't think much of her talent, diverts himself from grief at her recent death by listing the botanical names of the trees he'd like to see planted on the campus and commons.
Many of my poems explore photographs: Cartier-Bresson's portrait of the very old Ezra Pound, W. Eugene Smith's photograph of Thelonius Monk rehearsing with the Town Hall band. Photographs, I'm sure I surprise no one by saying, are fascinating for the way they combine precision and ambiguity, how they gesture to absent things outside the frame, and make invisible things apparent. And for me at least, photographs carry a special pathos for the way they suggest the irresistible momentum of time and mortality.
A few years ago I finished a suite of seven poems on photographs by or about Allen Ginsberg. The photos I chose include one of Ginsberg in the 1980s sitting on the porch of the house where Jack Kerouac was born, another from the 60s of the poet at the falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, N.J., yet another where Ginsberg talks with Bob Dylan backstage at Princeton's McCarter Theater. These photographs are the occasion to exercise a traditional lyricism—an opportunity to make interesting pictures and sounds. More importantly, the pictures make possible an interrogation of the contradictions in Ginsberg's character: Allen Ginsberg as poet and narcissist, mystic and freak. And like the other poems mentioned here, the Ginsberg poems rigorously exclude anything about me.
I think of what I've been writing as anti-confessional poetry, and I see it as a liberating exercise for the imagination. Writing about oneself seems, by contrast, confining, like going back and forth over the pages of one's own diary. If confessional poetry can be celebrated on the basis of its supposed universality (questionable: is Sexton's or Snodgrass's cri de coeur always in tune with one's own?) then anti-confessional poetry must be valued for its particularity, its exploration of a concrete world beyond the self.
Benjamin Goluboff's collection, Ho Chi Minh: A Speculative Life in Verse, and Other Poems is due out from Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017. Goluboff teaches English at Lake Forest College. Some of his work can be read at: https://www.lakeforest.edu/academics/faculty/goluboff/
Read Benjamin's poem, "Austin Dickinson Orders Trees for the Beautification of Amherst, Mass, 1877"