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It’s early September, just before the start of the autumn university term. I’m in western Scotland with a group of undergraduate and Masters students, just about to launch a radiosonde (a device to measure vertical temperature, humidity and wind profiles through the bottom 20 km or so of the atmosphere). A cold front is imminent, and the rain is both horizontal and cold. No doubt about it – it must be a meteorology field course.
This chapter focuses on the work of two apparently quite different American poets, namely Thylias Moss and Charles Bernstein, in order to consider how poets responded to, resisted, and participated in exchanges about the significance of style as those assumptions unfolded and changed between 1980 and 1990. Moss's early poems are at least as clearly in conversation with Richard Wilbur's or Wallace Stevens's lyricism and with social realities, settings in which white sheets would call to mind the violent history of lynchings, not angels, as with Language poetry. The chapter suggests that the apparently opposed poetry camps of the 1980s reveal in effect a continuing late Romantic understanding of poetry's purpose, namely that, however the self and the world are defined, poetry expands or recasts the borders between self and world, a process seen to require accuracy of seeing and feeling.
For much of the twentieth century, critics, scholars, writers, and readers often set American literature's parameters to exclude African American literary artists. The story of contemporary African American poetics begins with Gwendolyn Brooks and her collection A Street in Bronzeville. Bob Kaufman's poem expands on Hughes's imagist inclination, but it veers sharply from the solid modernist elements of Robert Hayden's or Gwendolyn Brooks's poetry. In his musicological works, Blues People and Black Music, Amiri Baraka argues that bebop and avant-garde jazz are rooted in the African American experiential continuum, but still offer listeners and other artists routes toward surreal, experimental, modern, and revolutionary practices. Like Baraka and Kaufman before him, Ishmael Reed's early poems are drawn from American popular culture, African American cultural particulars, and various mythological systems. Baraka's poetic concept of othering the self makes improvisation a metaphor for both intellectual work and African American identity.
The Cambridge History of American Poetry offers a comprehensive exploration of the development of American poetic traditions from their beginnings until the end of the twentieth century. Bringing together the insights of fifty distinguished scholars, this literary history emphasizes the complex roles that poetry has played in American cultural and intellectual life, detailing the variety of ways in which both public and private forms of poetry have met the needs of different communities at different times. The Cambridge History of American Poetry recognizes the existence of multiple traditions and a dramatically fluid canon, providing current perspectives on both major authors and a number of representative figures whose work embodies the diversity of America's democratic traditions.