Mortality is the new distraction


American poetry of the nineteen-sixties was a contest of brilliant, unforgettable boasts: “I myself am hell,” Robert Lowell insists; “I eat men like air,” Sylvia Plath crows; “Versing, I shroud among the dynasties,” John Berryman struts. For a moment—the so-called “confessional” moment—the recipe for poetic power was misery mixed with braggadocio. Mark Strand and Robert Hass, two of our finest contemporary poets and both former United States Poet Laureates, started writing at that moment. And yet they occcupy a temperate middle region often thought to be inhospitable to the imagination, which thrives (as Lowell’s, Plath’s, and Berryman’s did) at the poles: burning and freezing, loving and hating, torn between Shakespeare’s “comfort and despair.” (“When Shakespeare wrote, ‘Two loves I have,’ reader, he was not kidding,” Berryman writes.) An entire zone of “ordinary” emotion—where most of us spend most of our time—had not been represented in American poetry. Strand and Hass, more comfortable than despairing, write in that zone.

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