BOOK REVIEW: American Poetry: A Very Short Introduction by David Caplan

American Poetry: A Very Short IntroductionAmerican Poetry: A Very Short Introduction by David Caplan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book does a great job of helping the reader understand what distinguishes the American strain of poetry from other poetic traditions, particularly the one from which it sprang and to which it’s most closely related, linguistically speaking: i.e. English poetry. Among the unique aspects of American poetry are a shift toward more idiosyncratic poetry, a shift that flows from America’s individual-centric orientation, the employment of American idiom – especially informal language, the connection to other American artforms (e.g. Blues music,) the diversity of form and style that resulted from being a diverse population, and the loud and clear expression of dissenting voices.

The page limitations of a concise guide keep this book from drifting wide in its discussion. The reader will note that it’s focused on mainstream poetry, and there’s little to no mention of counter-cultural movements, e.g. the Beats (e.g. Ginsberg and Synder) are not discussed. However, even within the restriction to mainstream poets, there’re only a few poets that are discussed in depth. Of course, these include the two poets largely considered the pillars of the American form: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. It also includes two poets who were challenging cases for a discussion of national poetic movements: W.H. Auden, a Brit by birth who spent most of his poetry writing years in America; and T.S. Eliot, who was an American by birth but moved to Britain. Both poets produced poetry of importance while on both sides of the Atlantic, and, so, the question is whether anything of note can be said about their poetry vis-a-vis its location of origin (and, if not, have we exited the era in which nationality of poetry is worth discussing?)

I learned a great deal from this book. Again, if you’re looking for a broad accounting of American poetry, this isn’t necessarily the book for you, but if you want to gain a glimpse of the interesting and unique elements of American poetry through a few of its most crucial poets, this is an excellent choice.


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