John Graham reading from “Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman
Great historical trauma has always produced great literature. World War I produced a Lost Generation, robbed of their comforting societal myths by the harsh realities of trench warfare. World War II, with its Holocausts and Atomic Weapons, produced a generation of Beat poets — exhausted with what James Joyce dubbed “the nightmare of history.” Many of these poets grew from 1950s dropouts into poetic activists. They wrote against a human rights nightmare, what our country called The Vietnam War. Out of that war came poets like Bruce Weigl — a vet writer who confronts his own flashbacks in fragmented narrative verse. It’s an historical constant: trauma shatters. Poets pick up the pieces.
And no poet alive in America today has escaped this reality. September 11, 2001 ripped away our national illusions as violently as the trenches of World War I dislocated the poetic mind of Wilfred Owen. Our economic collapse may eventually be as shocking to the planet as World War II once was. And of course, we have our own human rights nightmares that most people try to ignore.
So if you want to be a contemporary poet in 2012-13, write about what it means to be alive at this point in human “progress.” Write about how this world feels to you. Create your own poetic emotional archive of this mess, this wreckage, these United States of the American Waste Land.