Q & A: American Poetry

Q & A American Poetry: Sandra M. Gilbert

Are there essential ways in which you consider yourself an American poet?

Yes, I am an American poet because I am a "mongrel" poet: Italian-American, French-American, Russian-American, in other words, a poet who lives & writes on the hyphen between what has come to be called "American" culture & a number of other cultures.

When you consider your own "tradition," do you think primarily of American poets?

But my "tradition"—that is, the literary inheritance out of which I write my poems—is Anglo-American, though more American than "Anglo." (Yet I couldn't rule out Keats & Shakespeare & the Rossettis as magnificent & significant precursors.)

Do you believe there is anything specifically American about past and contemporary American poetry? Is there American poetry in the sense that there is said to be American painting or American film? Do you wish to distinguish American poetry from British or other English language poetry?

At the same time, to answer a question about what is "specifically American" versus what is "British" or "other English language poetry" would require a book, wouldn't it? Or several volumes, at the least. What is American, though, is precisely _hyphenation_! Until quite recently, so-called "British" and "other English language poetry" were characterized very differently: British poetry at least SEEMED to have an Anglo-Saxon purity, perhaps misleadingly seemed to have that quality, while "other English language poetry" was variously marked by a range of other linguistic inheritances (e.g., Irish poetry was complicatedly "Celtic" as compared to "Canadian" poetry, which drew on French as well as Native-American and English and Scottish origins, etc.)

Which historic poets do you consider most responsible for generating distinctly American poetics?

Whitman & Dickinson, of course, & then Stevens & then such a host of others, not just Williams & Eliot & H.D. & Millay & (A.) Lowell but also the whole generation beginning with (A.) Ginsberg & (R.) Lowell that I can't even summon enough breath to define & count........

What import does regional poetry occupy in your sense of American poetry?

Not a lot. I have lived in California for more than thirty years now but I consider myself a born & bred New Yorker, yet at the same time I am not a "New York" poet. I am an American—i.e., a hyphenated, cross-cultural, mongrelized—woman poet.

Additional Comments:

"Popular culture"? "Political correctness"? Poets who lived in Europe? "Political correctness"? The "next century"? I find these questions difficult & frankly exhausting. They expect more introspection of me as a poet than I can afford to surrender. Maybe that's because I'm also a literary critic & therefore always fearful of the dangers I associate with a "fall" into self-reflexiveness. Anyway, the only really serious thing I think I have to say to anyone doing a survey has already been said: that I am hyphenated, complicated, COMPOUNDED, like so many of my peers & precursors--& I hope that such complications & hyphenations & compoundings have all been for the good.

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