New Jersey, of course, has a great tradition of poets, from Philip Freneau, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg up to notable contemporaries like C.K. Williams (born in Newark), Robert Pinsky (from Long Branch), and Gerald Stern and Alicia Ostriker who make their homes in Lamberstville and Princeton respectively. My apologies to other fine poets I’ve omitted.
We tend to think of the above poets as poets of America and the human condition as opposed to being regional, though W.C. Williams is inextricably linked to New Jersey by his life-long residency and especially by his epic poemPaterson. We might say he is of the region rather than being regional. But if he is regional it’s the way Faulkner is; his work that depends on place attempts to reconstruct it and tends to resonate into the larger world. Regional poetry has its bad name because the merely regional poet, say the poet of landscape, may be insufficiently inside while he’s outside. Or his or her portraiture of local people or self interwoven with environment may not be inherently philosophical or political, to name just two possibilities.
But regional poetry, as it involves New Jersey, really isn’t much of an issue. New Jersey seems to inspire very little of it. Maybe because its identity is so mixed up with New York and Philadelphia, maybe because its populace is so un-homogeneous. Maybe because, in its national stereotype, New Jersey has been the equivalent of a Polish joke, a joke that some of its poets either half-believe or are uninterested in correcting. If I had more time, the speculations could go farther.
None of the poets I mentioned is from South Jersey, or at least not my South Jersey (Whitman lived in Camden, that now sad arm of Philadelphia), though Gerald Stern has an early and fine book of poems set in the Pine Barrens, called The Pineys. And it should be pointed out that A.R. Ammons lived and had a business for a while in South Jersey. His excellent and much-anthologized “Corson’s Inlet” is the best proof of it. I’ve lived in South Jersey for almost thirty years, and when I look back on my work, at least my work prior to 1996 when my book Loosestrife was published, there’s little more than a trickling of poems that depend on or even identify my environment. Indeed, if my poems could be said to have a terrain it has been largely social, psychological, the world or worlds inside the world in which we live. This may be partially due to the fact that I’ve never felt I belonged anywhere, not to the suburb in Queens where I grew up, or to the South Jersey towns where I have settled. It’s not so much an alienation as it is a living elsewhere. I’ve always seemed to live elsewhere. In my head. In books. On sundry athletic fields and courts. Certainly in my imagination. I suppose this is why I tend not to see the things that are around me, and have trouble knowing their names. I’m speaking in particular about the natural world. (I’m very attentive to people and social dynamics.) But in my poems you’re more likely to find a generic word like “flower” than, say, “orchid.” And I seem to be fond of writing “tree” instead of “chestnut” or “maple.” It’s pretty difficult to be a poet of place when you have to learn from the local newspaper instead of from observation that you’re surrounded by blueberry fields and cranberry bogs. I became aware of this as a deficiency about ten years ago, and in writing my 1996 book Loosestrife I made a pointed attempt to remedy it.
To not take on my New Jersey increasingly seemed to me like a failure of attentiveness and imagination, not to mention the fact that the world is always someone else’s until we’ve made our own version of it. And yet there is something inchoate about New Jersey, though not necessarily South Jersey, that seems to resist the imagination. I contrast this, for example, to the way my three year stint in Minnesota – with its omnipresent sky and weather – inspired in me a reaction to it. New Jersey didn’t have sky or weather. I wasn’t sure what it had. So with great effort I attempted to name what was around me, not just for naming’s sake, but as another way of situating my musings and worries about desire, loss, mortality – our common sky and weather. It was a gesture, finally, to landscape, to some tangible underpinnings for my usual mindscapes. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was a gesture toward what might fuse the two.
To properly name a place may be the beginnings of imagining it, for oneself and for others. It struck me that South Jersey hadn’t yet been imagined, and therefore, in many ways, didn’t exist – the way, say, that Williams’s Paterson now does, or Richard Hugo’s Montana. It seemed that I had an enormous opportunity, if I chose to seize it, and could be equal to it. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’m not sure, I can’t say that I’ve made more than a few gestures in that direction.
Yet there’s a long section in my new book Local Visitations, consisting of twenty or so poems, in which I’ve resurrected 19th century novelists and story writers and placed them in South Jersey shore towns. These inventions began rather aimlessly, one day without forethought placing Dostoyevsky in Wildwood, but gradually they became purposeful.
The more I worked on them the more I saw that I could use these authors’ sensibilities to better see where I lived, and what I thought about where I lived, and to perhaps offer some minor, wry literary criticism in the doing. Otherwise, an old enterprise: invention as an entrée into what wasn’t immediately apparent.
I still don’t feel like I belong anywhere, but I’m happy to have claimed some physical territory as my own. It is perhaps through our writings that we can best prove that we’ve been where, in fact, we’ve been, and that we’ve taken part in the mystery that is our lives. In that sense it is desirable to use whatever’s around the house or in the neighborhood. The local, well seen, can have legs.