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Distortion, Abstraction, and Originality in Contemporary American Poetry


Mark Irwin

Monster: Distortion, Abstraction, and Originality in Contemporary American Poetry argues that memorable and resonant poetry often distorts form, image, concept, and notions of truth and metaphor. Discussing how changes in electronic communication and artificial notions of landscape have impacted form and content in poetry, Monster redefines the idea of what is memorable and original through a broad range of poets including John Ashbery, Anne Carson, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Forrest Gander, Peter Gizzi, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Laura Kasischke, W. S. Merwin, Srikanth Reddy, Donald Revell, Mary Ruefle, Arthur Sze, and James Tate.

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Raising Poetry to a Higher Power


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A notion of Kafka’s perhaps hints at one of the highest aspirations of art: “The artist’s task is to lead the isolated individual into the infinite life.” Isolation occurs through the constraints of the material and physical world. This is what Rilke means when he tells us in The Duino Elegies, “Even the nearest moment is far from mankind.” If, however, the artist is capable of spanning those distances between the physical and spiritual, then some of the most memorable art occurs.

In poetry, a great deal of the task is accomplished through the collapse of temporal and spatial boundaries, and through a quality of voice washed of ego, one that seems to have traversed these same boundaries. In his memorable poem “Place,” W. S. Merwin recreates a sense of origin and timelessness, one so brutally destroyed by industry, greed, and capitalism in recent decades. The poem’s first couplet (each line with seven monosyllabic words) seems to compose a miniature poem within, a kind of fourteen-word sonnet complete with volta, or turn of thought, after the first line:

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

Written in eight couplets and collapsing temporal and spatial boundaries, the poem creates a memory in the future, a kind of jarring paradox that recalls ← 83 | 84 → Merwin’s “The Last One,” a poem from The Lice in which the shadow of the last tree becomes a dark...

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