In recent years I've been lucky enough to travel to Britain a number of times for literary events. My conversations with poets and readers there have led me to think more about what it means to be an American writer—something that we don't consider so carefully, I suppose, until we're confronted with difference. In conversations in pubs after readings, or in the café at the Poetry Society in London, it struck me that our colleagues in the United Kingdom have a very different sense of the poet's right to speak about his or her own life—of the centrality of the self, in other words, in the poems we write.
The clearest example of this came one evening when we were talking about American poets, and the conversation turned to the poems of James Wright. I quoted three lines of Wright's I've always loved:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
I was shocked to discover that this passage had been enormously controversial in the U.K.; for my British friends, it represented the height of a brash, American sense of self. How dare Wright make such a claim for his own feelings? How could he have the nerve to be so self-aggrandizing, to assume that he felt some special, important emotion that could be announced in this way, without irony, without apology?
Perhaps the signal characteristic of American poetry is our desire to put the self at the center—whether it be Whitman's expansive, inclusive "I" or Dickinson's micro-cosmic, endlessly doubting examination. Our way of knowing the world is through the study of our own feelings and perceptions. And if this gets in our way, some of the time, and offers too many opportunities for self-absorption, then I also feel it's our strength. Through its bold curiosity about the self, its willingness to investigate perception, thought and feeling with a relentless intensity, American poetry in our century has evolved into a vibrant and diverse endeavor that's among this last century's brighter achievement.