red, or black, flags, as well as roar. Because art is a weapon. After millions of well-aimed blows, someday perhaps it will break the stone heart of the mindless cacodemon called Things As They Are. Everything else has failed. —Kenneth Rexroth, Introduction to Rexroth’s first collection of essays, Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959). Well, being a poet is a funny kind of jazz. It doesn’t get you anything. It doesn’t get you any money, or not much, and it doesn’t get you any prestige, or not much. It’s just something you do. —John Berryman, from “An Interview with John Berryman” conducted by John Plotz of the HarvardAdvocate on Oct. 27, 1968. In Berryman’s Understanding: Reflections on the Poetry ofJohn Berryman. Ed. Harry Thomas. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988. Copyright © HarvardAdvocate In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Britain a number of times for literary events. My conversations with poets and readers there have led me to think more about what it means to be an American writer— something that we don’t consider so carefully, I suppose, until we’re confronted with difference. In conversations in pubs after readings, or in the café at the Poetry Society in London, it struck me that our colleagues in the United Kingdom have a very different sense of the poet’s right to speak about his or her own life—of the centrality of the self, in other words, in the poems we write. The clearest example of this came one evening when we were talking about American poets, and the conversation turned to the poems of James Wright. I quoted three lines ofWright’s I’ve always loved: Suddenly I realize That ifI stepped out ofmy body I would break Into blossom. I was shocked to discover that this passage had been enormously controversial in the U.K.; for my British friends, it represented the height of a brash, American sense of self. How dare Wright make such a claim for his own feelings? How could he have the nerve to be so self-aggrandizing, to assume that he felt some special, important emotion that could be announced in this way, without irony, without apology? Perhaps the signal characteristic of American poetry is our desire to put the self at the center—whether it be Whitman’s expansive, inclusive “I” or Dickinson’s micro-cosmic, endlessly doubting examination. Our way of knowing the world is through the study of our own feelings and perceptions. And if this gets in our way, some of the time, and offers too Volume 8 No 1 - Page 13

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