“Who am I, why am I here, why did I cut my hair, I look like a squirrel”; or Thoughts on Poetry of Place and Self

I periodically dip into A FIELD Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, an anthology of terrific essays, attested to by all the pages I’ve dog-eared because of the wisdom therein. This time I read Larry Levis’s meditation on Donald Hall’s meditation on the poetry of place, “Eden and My Generation.” He writes, “…[F]or a while in the late sixties and early seventies in this country, it seemed to me that almost every American poem was going to locate itself within a more or less definite place, was going to be spoken usually in the first person singular, and would involve, often, …testimony to the poet’s isolations.”

Levis suggests that from a poetry of place in which place was specific and represented a lost Eden, this kind of poetry of place has been shifting in favor of finding different ways to imagine the imagery and ideas of that loss. Of the poetry of place in general he notes, “It is the geography of the psyche that matters, not the place.” He notes “Eden becomes truly valuable only after a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrecoverably, from what it once was.”

“And yet most younger poets still testify precisely to this alienation and isolation, this falling from Eden. Only they have changed it. It is as if the whole tradition has become, by now, shared, held in common, a given…,” he observes. He wonders, “Again, in some unspecifiably social sense, it may be that places themselves became, throughout much of America, so homogenized that they became less and less available as spiritual locations, shabbier and sadder.” He considers, “it may be that this…new homelessness…is what a number of…new poets have in common when they practice the ‘meditational’ mode–for what they tend to hold in common is, at heart, a contradiction: an intimate, shared isolation.”

But I wonder if this isn’t exactly what poetry is, an intimate shared isolation? Don’t we sit alone with a volume in our hands seeking to find contact with another mind/body/soul/individual? Maybe I overstate it. And maybe he overstates a poetic drift away from poetry of place. But as I read desultorily across literary magazines and volumes, I do find less about exterior place and more about interior place, specifically the interior place of identity. Is this the new home that we’re writing about, the home of who we are, or think we are? And is self-identification by definition an exercise of comparison to others, in some way an oddly collective act? Funny.

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