CFP: [American] ââThe simple fact of having lastedâ: Americaâs Poet-Eldersâ (NEMLA 2009, Feb 26-Mar 1, Boston)

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William Waddell
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“‘The simple fact of having lasted’: America’s Poet-Elders”

The tag line is James Merrill’s, one of the fine American poets born in
the Twenties who, alas, haven’t lasted. But as Roger Gilbert recently
observed in the Michigan Quarterly Review, the community of American
poets and readers of poetry is currently blessed with an extraordinary
group of prospective, or putative, sages, still writing well into or on
the cusp of their eighties. Gilbert’s two part review essay focuses
first on Donald Hall and Robert Bly, with John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich
promised for part two, this summerâ€"for what he calls their “particular
prominence,” and perhaps for the sheer range of style and practice they
represent. But the surviving group just from the Twenties also includes
(and I’m sure this remains a less than comprehensive list) Wilbur, Kumin,
Levine, Snodgrass, Kizer, and Kinnell.

What does it meanâ€"to individual younger poets or to our national culture
(or to anything in between)â€"to have, or to acknowledge, poetic elders?
To the extent that any have addressed the question, directly or
indirectly, what does it feel like to be one? What seems to have been
handed on? Is this matter of “having lasted” actually “simple”?
(Merrill was speculating about our attitude toward buildings, after all,
not people, at least not directly.) What has lasting meant, for any of
these poets, artistically? An evolution of style, perhaps, or voice, or
perspective? What has changed along the way, in language, in reputation?
What are the challenges that have mattered, that have defined the
achievement? How might we best describe the role of these poets,
individually or collectively, in negotiating mid- to late twentieth-
century poetry’s development out of high modernism? Into a confessional
phase and out again on the other side?

Papers aimed at this session could speak to any of those questions, and
to many others I’m sure. The conference presentation format doesn’t
provide time for career surveys. We might think instead of telling
comparisons, apt juxtapositionsâ€"of one poet to another (or others), of
early to late work. One might focus on poems dealing explicitly with
aging, with mortality, or with retrospection. (“Ought I to regret my
seedtime?” we all hear Lowell saying in the background.) One might even
examine some glaring absence from this generation hailing from the
somewhat arbitrarily chosen decade of the Twenties: some who enjoyed
relatively long life (Merrill, Levertov, Ginsberg, Ammons, Justice,
Creeley); some who did not (O’Hara, James Wright, Sexton, even Plath, if
we stretch our decade of years to a dozen).

The aim here, with Roy Harvey Pearce and The Continuity of American
Poetry looking over our shoulders, is to take part in the slippery
business of literary history, measuringâ€"in different ways, no doubtâ€"the
twentieth century.

Send 300-500 word proposals by September 15, to Bill Waddell at, or English Department, St. John Fisher College,
Rochester, NY 14618.

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Received on Mon Jun 23 2008 - 12:05:32 EDT