Andrea Hollander Budy
Perhaps the first truly American poet was Whitman. He was expansive: his subject matter was inclusive yet focused, his prosody was metrical yet daring, his inventiveness challenging yet accessible. In short, his work could never have been mistaken for the British or British-influenced verse of his time. American poets since Whitman (and including Dickinson, who was his contemporary) have continued in this expansive vein, and though his particular aesthetic is recognizable in the work of many of his off-spring and their off-spring, the term Americancan also be applied to those whose work does not resemble Whitman's in anything more than its audacious surety. Thus, American poetry is a roomy genre, taking in all sorts: traditionalists (children and grandchildren, as it were, of British and Western European forebears), but also welcoming l*a*n*g*u*a*g*e poets, new formalists, confessional poets, even performance poets. In general, American poetry is only as limited and limiting as the country itself, which is of course a nation of mostly immigrants and the children of immigrants. But these immigrants arrive and establish in loud voices their particular varieties. (This expansiveness does not, of course, take into consideration the relative qualityof expression. But that is not the topic of the present discussion.)
In a country which offers its largest prizes to such diverse versifiers as John Ashbery and Philip Levine, Anne Sexton and Jorie Graham, there can be no absolutely recognizably Americanpoetry in terms of form, aesthetics, subject matter, etc. Except, perhaps, that it is a poetry markedas a wholeby a (sometimes uncomfortable) acceptance of such diversity, though not without argument among its critics (and as often among the poets themselves.)
As far as the next century of American poetry is concerned, I imagine a continuation: most of what is written and published and shared aloud with audiences on college campuses and bars and bookstores will be replaced by similar outpourings by writers not yet born. And, as always, a few of the voices among us will continue, even after these writers are no longer alive. Perhaps the "deeply educated" among us (Harold Bloom's term) will be studying the poems of John Ashbery, but others will be reciting Mary Oliver's poems, she being, I believe, a poet more like that other famous American, Robert Frost, in that her work is at once deep and accessible. Essentially, what is American in the next century will rise from what is American in this one, and it will be a poetry filled with innovation and renovation.