Asian American poetry flourished in the first two decades of the 21st century. In 2004, the Asian American literary organization Kundiman hosted their inaugural workshop-based retreat at the University of Virginia, connecting poets from the United States and North America across generations. (The retreat continues to be held annually at Fordham University and has included fiction writers, as fellows and faculty, since 2017.) The first year of Kundiman’s retreat coincided with the publication of Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, edited by Victoria Chang, which introduced emerging poets Kazim Ali, Cathy Park Hong, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Srikanth Reddy, and Paisley Rekdal, among others, to a broader audience of readers and critics and, at the same time, urged a reassessment of the contemporary poetry field. Both events signaled an emergent generation’s desire to find community and acknowledgment for their work. Not only were these goals accomplished, but the collectivization of young Asian American poets and critical attention from universities and other cultural institutions also evinced how powerfully the impact of a previous generation of Asian American poets had been felt. That generation arguably began with the publication of Cathy Song’s Yale Younger Poets Prize–winning book Picture Bride in 1982 and grew to include Marilyn Chin, Li-Young Lee, Garrett Hongo, and Agha Shahid Ali, whose work can be found in Norton anthologies of poetry and various other canon-defining projects. The critical and cultural acceptance these poets enjoyed at the end of the 20th century blazed a trail for Asian American poets of the 21st century, who increasingly balance the lyric conventions of emotional expressiveness and imagistic language with audacious political subjectivity. In doing so, Asian American poets of the 21st century have opened up conceptions of lyric, particularly regarding voice, to incorporate questions of identity, immigration and migration, and American cultural experience. Contemporary Asian American poets frequently reimagine the lyric tradition through a distinctly Asian American political imagination.
Latina/o environmental justice literature, prompted by organizing against environmental racism and for ecologically linked social responsibility, emerges in the late 20th century, but environmental justice literary interpretation and critical theory examines texts from any period of Latina/o literature, engaging the nexus of nature, culture, and environmental degradation and justice. Latina/o environmental justice literature includes many genres (fiction, poetry, nonfiction, memoir, testimonio, and performance art, to name a few) and has umbilical connections to a large body of lived experience, longstanding theory and praxis, traditional environmental knowledge (TEK), and environmental justice movement activism. This body of literary poetics that followed the emergence and naming of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s had precursors in the cultural poetics of the civil rights movement and related struggles for justice, equality, nonviolence, feminisms, human rights, and environmental protection. Antecedents to Latina/o environmental justice literature are found in oral literature, pre-Columbian texts, and subsequent Latina/o writing. Definitions of environmental justice within the context of the burgeoning environmental justice movement in the latter decades of the 20th century contribute to interpretations of the literature from this period forward. The last decades of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century saw environmental justice themes emerge in many genres, and Latina/o literature made significant contributions to the broader field. Studies of cultural poetics of environmental justice contributed to that diversity. Contemporary environmental justice literary scholarship summarizes past approaches, traces ongoing work, and offers future directions—redefining and rebirthing environmental justice and climate justice poetics, given global warming and resulting climate change.
Prosody refers, most broadly, to versification and pronunciation. Historically, prosody referred to the branch of grammar that contained versification as a subsection, but since the late 19th century literary scholars and poets have interchanged versification and prosody, while linguists use prosody to refer to pronunciation. Since the beginning of the 20th century scholars have also referred to prosody as a “poetics,” or a system of meaning-making, and do not directly engage in analysis of meter but rather use the term prosody to signify any aspect of literary style or figurative language that might contribute to the affective register of verse-form. The philological register of prosody may use versification in order to make a claim about how a verse-form reflects a national, historical, or even ethnic character, a practice that began in earnest during the mid-18th century and persists into the 21st century, though with some critical distance. Because the measure of verse is subjective and historically contingent, debates and discussions about prosody are a constant and tend to repeat. There is no one progress narrative of prosody, writ large, but the progress narrative of poetry within prosodic discourse is one of its main tropes. That is, while there are theories of prosody that posit progression, there is little agreement about the evolution or even naming of prosodic systems. Each history of prosody therefore posits a new theory. Thus, the theory of prosody might always be seen as the proliferation of conflicting theories about prosody, in no way limited to one national language; in fact, theories of prosody from other languages applied to English are much older and more robust than theories of prosody that derive from only English—for instance, measuring English by Latin prosody, or French, or German, and so on. Despite the proliferation of conflicting theories, scholars who work on prosody nevertheless agree broadly that, like the subject of grammar under which prosody was historically a subset, prosody is a set of interrelated features in language that, according to how you measure these features, either appear to adhere to a particular system or do not. Also, scholars agree that, like grammar, prosody as an interpretive system often hovers between the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the conflicts over theories of prosody, adherents to one system attempt to convince adherents to another that theirs is superior, and these debates and conflicts continue unabated in linguistic prosodic criticism. Those who practice literary prosodic criticism in the 21st century tend to adopt a system of verse-measure with little interest in its history, or even with what linguistic prosodic critics might call a sharp disregard for its inaccuracy. Linguistic prosodists—who have made significant advances in the field—are sidelined by the momentum of a literary history that has rendered their ongoing work too specialized for general use. There are also those who believe that prosody—or, rather, specific paralinguistic features of prosody—exists, like grammar, in particular bodies, to be awakened or cultivated by a particular kind of reading or hearing ear or a particular kind of feeling body. Trends in cognitive science have influenced one strain of theorizing about prosody as a form of subconscious knowledge in no way dependent on the cultural formations that may have organized sonic features into recognizable systems. Historical prosodists, those who study the history of thinking about prosodic form but also practice prosodic reading, posit that prosody is culturally contingent and, along with phenomenology, might be better considered as a part of cultural criticism rather than a privileged key to poetic meaning. Finally, where prosodic theory happens is a live question. Whether discourse about prosody (or meta-metrical discourse, as in Gascoigne or the various grammars discussed here) is prosodic theory or whether poets writing in a variety of prosodic forms (whether interpreted by critics or not) posit prosodic theories in their practice is at the heart of what many mischaracterize as a divide between historical prosody and other theories of reading. This divide is artificial, but the fact is that disagreements about what and how prosody means have led to a variety of approaches to the study of prosody in poetry, and despite this disagreement prosody is nevertheless taught in most academic settings as if it has an agreed upon past, present, and future.
Lyric poetry is an ancient genre, enduring to the present day, but it is not continuous in its longevity. What happens to lyric poetry and how it changes during its numerous and sometimes lengthy periods of historical eclipse (such as the 18th century) may be as important to our understanding of lyric as an assessment of its periods of high achievement. For it is during these periods of relative obscurity that lyric enters into complex relations with other genres of poetry and prose, affirming the general thesis that all genres are relational and porous. The question of whether any particular properties of lyric poetry endure throughout its 2,700-year checkered history can be addressed by examining its basic powers: its forms; its figurative and narrative functions; and its styles and diction. The hierarchy of these functions is mutable, as one finds in today’s rift between a scholarly revival of formalist analysis and the increasing emphasis on diction in contemporary poetry. As a way of assessing lyric poetry’s basic operations, the present article surveys the ongoing tension between form and diction by sketching a critique of the tenets of New Formalism in literary studies, especially its presumptions about the relation of poetic form to the external world and its tendency to subject form to close analysis, as if it could yield, like style or diction, detailed knowledge of the world. Long overshadowed by the doctrinal tenets of modernist formalism, the expressive powers of diction occupy a central place in contemporary concerns about identity and social conflict, at the same time that diction (unlike form) is especially susceptible to the vocabularistic methods of “distant reading”—to the computational methods of the digital humanities. The indexical convergence of concreteness and abstraction, expression and rationalism, proximity and distance, in these poetic and scholarly experiments with diction points to precedents in the 18th century, when the emergence of Anglophone poetries in the context of colonialism and the incorporation of vernacular languages into poetic diction (via the ballad revival) intersected with the development of modern lexicography and the establishment of Standard English. The nascent transactions of poetics and positivism through the ontology of diction in the 21st century remind us that poetic diction is always changing but also that the hierarchy of form, figuration, and diction in lyric poetry inevitably shifts over time—a reconfiguration of lyric priorities that helps to shape the premises and methods of literary studies.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.