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'American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry' takes 73 different directions

The collection celebrates the diversity of America's poetic culture.

July 05, 2009|David L. Ulin

"I have always believed," David St. John writes in his introduction to "American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry" (W.W. Norton: 530 pp., $25.95 paper), "that the great strength of American poetry resides, at its source, in its plurality of voices, its multitude of poetic styles, and its consistent resistance to the coercion of what emerges -- in each generation -- as a catalog of prevailing literary trends."

St. John is right, of course, and the 73 poets in this collection, which he's co-edited with Cole Swensen, speak to that multiplicity, to the idea that our poetic culture is at its most compelling when it does not allow itself to be fenced in. Thus we find Fanny Howe, whose "9/11" hangs suspended between opposing declarations ("The first person is an existentialist" and "The third person is a materialist") -- a perfect metaphor for the book as a whole.

Along with Howe, there are many well-known names here: Charles Wright, Paul Hoover, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley and the remarkable Albert Goldbarth, whose "(Etymologically) 'Work Work' " strings together 14 sonnets in a sequence that blends history, science and personal experience: "My phone fills," he writes, "with the sound of an Exxon oil tanker cracking in half."

In her introduction, Swensen decries "the two-camp model" of American poetry, which dates from the 1950s, and was once described by Robert Lowell as a divide between "the raw and the cooked." My own sympathies have long been with the raw, but the power of "American Hybrid" is in the case it makes that such divisions are not relevant, that we inhabit a new poetic age.

-- David L. Ulin

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david.ulin@latimes.com

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