American Ghost Roses
Kevin Stein University of Illinois Press, 2005 Library of Congress PS3569.T3714A83 2005 | Dewey Decimal 811.54
In his first book as the poet laureate of Illinois, Kevin Stein shoulders an array of poetic forms, blending pathos, humor, and social commentary. These poems--ranging from meditative narratives to improvisational lyrics--explore art's capacity to embody as well as express contemporary culture. Stein embraces subjects as various as his father's death, magazine sex surveys, Kandinsky's theory of art, the dangling modifier, Jimi Hendrix's flaming guitar, racial bigotry, and a teacher's comments on a botched poem. Presiding over this miscellany are ghosts of a peculiarly American garden of dreamers and beloved misfits, those redeemed and those left fingering the locked gate.
Although some critics have identified two phases in the poetry of James Wright and have isolated particulars of his movement from traditional to more experimental forms, few have noted also the elements of constancy in the evolution of his poetry. In this first comprehensive scholarly introduction to Wright’s work, Stein traces the unified growth of Wright’s poetry, asserting that while stylistic changes are often more apparent than actual, Wright does undergo a continuing personal and aesthetic development throughout his career. Stein examines the entire body of Wright’s poetry, including such previously unpublished materials as the collection Amenities of Stone.
Stein locates Wright in the Emersonian tradition which sees struggle with language as a struggle with the self -- a locating and defining of the self within a world of natural facts. Language, then, becomes a means of self-definition, and to be frivolous or irresponsible with language becomes a negation of the self and the world it inhabits. For Wright, “the poetry of a grown man” issues from this understanding. Because Wright joins the act of language with the act of selfhood, it is not surprising that the mode and tenor of his work would alter as the self redefines its values and goals, its very identity. In fact, Stein divides Wright’s career into three interrelated stages of development: “containment,” in which he relies on traditional religious and rhetorical measures to distance himself from a world of experience; “vulnerability,” in which he enters the experiential world where the self is rewarded and equally threatened; and “integration,” in which he accepts and balances the necessary combination of beauty and horror inherent in being human within a natural world.
Stein shows that throughout his career Wright’s presiding concern is to discover a way of writing and a way of life that might overcome the effects of an individual’s separation from the human community, the natural world, and the spiritual presence in the universe. In Wright’s world, to do less is to betray one’s language -- and one’s self.
"The great pleasure of this book is the writing itself. Not only is it free of academic and ‘lit-crit' jargon, it is lively prose, often deliciously witty or humorous, and utterly contemporary. Poetry's Afterlife has terrific classroom potential, from elementary school teachers seeking to inspire creativity in their students, to graduate students in MFA programs, to working poets who struggle with the aesthetic dilemmas Stein elucidates, and to teachers of poetry on any level."
--- Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Arizona State University
"Kevin Stein is the most astute poet-critic of his generation, and this is a crucial book, confronting the most vexing issues which poetry faces in a new century."
---David Wojahn, Virginia Commonwealth University
At a time when most commentators fixate on American poetry's supposed "death," Kevin Stein's Poetry's Afterlife instead proposes the vitality of its aesthetic hereafter. The essays of Poetry's Afterlife blend memoir, scholarship, and personal essay to survey the current poetry scene, trace how we arrived here, and suggest where poetry is headed in our increasingly digital culture. The result is a book both fetchingly insightful and accessible. Poetry's spirited afterlife has come despite, or perhaps because of, two decades of commentary diagnosing American poetry as moribund if not already deceased. With his 2003 appointment as Illinois Poet Laureate and his forays into public libraries and schools, Stein has discovered that poetry has not given up its literary ghost. For a fated art supposedly pushing up aesthetic daisies, poetry these days is up and about in the streets, schools, and universities, and online in new and compelling digital forms. It flourishes among the people in a lively if curious underground existence largely overlooked by national media. It's this second life, or better, Poetry's Afterlife, that his book examines and celebrates.
Kevin Stein is Caterpillar Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Bradley University and has served as Illinois Poet Laureate since 2003, having assumed the position formerly held by Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg. He is the author of numerous books of poetry and criticism.