AMERICAN POETS SAY GOODBYE TO THE 20TH CENTURY
Edited by Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal
Four Walls Eight Windows, $35
Reviewed by Gianna Russo
American Poets Say Goodbye to the 20th Century is an eclectic collection of poems bidding farewell to the century "where we have lived our lives." Edited by Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal _ the editor and executive editor, respectively, of Exquisite Corpse, which must be the nation's quirkiest respectable literary magazine _ the anthology includes poems by 132 poets, all invitees who responded to the editors' call for work that addresses, according to the introduction, the "tragicomic grotesquerie of the spent century." A large number of the contributors are well-known in the poetry world, a fair amount are relative unknowns, and a greater number than one might expect are among this century's superstar writers _ Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Robert Creeley, Anne Waldman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to name a few.
Cleverly titled "Prologue to an Epilogue," the introduction is occasionally off-putting, particularly when it slips into a subtly blithe tone while pointing out the rampant bleakness of many of the poems. Although numerous works, perhaps most, do admit to the disillusionment, carnage, cynicism and loss of faith that have characterized our time, as a whole the collection is neither as hopeless nor as cooly resigned to this "Maddened Century," as Janine Canan calls it, as the introduction led me to expect. It is an engaging, although somewhat uneven, mix of mostly free verse and prose poems. These range from quiet, but stunning treatments of the subject, such as Aimee Grunberger's Goodbye to All That, to Steven Styers' trivial limerick, In the Garden.
A number of poets took the title literally. The opening poem, by Keith Abbott, admits that, at least since the '50s, "in virtual deniability we were waiting always / waiting for the 20th XX Goodbye." Terence Winch predicts that in the distant future we will look back on the century and "cry out the orphan's sad goodbye," while Nanos Valaoritis observes that "the knowledge that tomorrow / may be already here becomes, / as the evening slips away, a certainty." One of the brightest goodbyes is found in Maxine Chernoff's Frankly, where she assigns our age a name: "We want shiny new life and permission to close / a slippery chapter of imprecision we'll call / "Falling Headlong on Memory's Pier.' "
There is plenty of blood, war, alienation: Rae Armantrout asks if there is "no one home / in the "Virtual Village?' " and answers, "Between the quote marks, / nothing but disparagement." Robert Creeley asks why "did right always have to be so wrong?" Lucille Clifton contends that we have been creating and perpetuating the ugliness of this age for a long time: "History is chasing you, america?, / like a mean dog . . . / old folks have watched this longer / than you think, they have learned / how mean that dog is and they know / it is your dog."
While Charles Simic remarks matter-of-factly that "history licked the corners of its bloody mouth," Carolyn Kizer worries over how the century's barrage of monstrosities has desensitized even artists: "As living writers, what are we to do? / Our roles as witnesses ignored, our fine antennae blunted / by horror piled on horror."
Some of the poems are a resigned surrender to living in this time. Bob Holman notes, "Yet we rest easy, It's the company, I'd guess. That we / Finally have accepted knowing each other this way, and that's / The way we find ourselves, little by little, by and large."
But an encouraging number of poets display at least some degree of unwillingness to be beaten by those things that have beaten up this century. More than a few offer rather cautious concessions.
Gerald Stern claims, "I have less bitterness now, more knowledge." William Talcott observes, "You're ahead just by being alive," while Tom Clark admits, "Still we have to go on living somehow." And occasionally these small reassurances blossom into a sort of realist's optimism, perhaps best expressed by Jack Anderson who asserts, "I've lived long enough to know, / of treachery, lies, / stupidity, arrogance, / brute force, and lost causes. / But I also know, / or I'd not be writing this, / that there is never an end / of aspiration / and stumbling good will / and that I am not / alone in thinking so."
But perhaps the truest value of this anthology is the simple fact that someone thought to arrange a written send-off for the passing of this age: and a welcome for the age to come. As Robert Kelly says, "Christ I'm tired of saying goodbye / let me say hello for a change."
This collection also affirms the power of art, and in this case poetry, to endure and survive. American Poets Say Goodbye to the 20th Century is for anyone who believes, still, after all the hideousness that this century has witnessed, after the materialism, deception, destruction, that poetry does have such an abiding power. Tom Clark says it best in On the Brink of the Cold Millennium: "The current domination of the lives of human beings by values derived from commodities and machines still retains no real power over the lyric spirit in poetry."
Gianna Russo is a poet and the director of The Writer's Voice of the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA.