The Role of Poetry

The Role of Poetry Poet J.T. Barbarese says you can describe "The Black Beach," his new book of poetry, in the broad terms of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Appropriate terms for a Philadelphia resident such as Barbarese, but he also laughs at the very description because it is so broad. "It's about all of those things, but more," says Barbarese, an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden.

From poems about family to coaching Little League to 9-11 to, as the title indicates, the beach, "The Black Beach" is about everyday aspects of life. "There was no preconceived theme," he says. "But most of the poems are about longing for transcendence, as God or the human body of now."

Due for release in April, "The Black Beach" has already won the Vassar Miller Prize for Poetry from the University of North Texas. Judges for the prize say that Barbarese's fourth book "constantly delights with its questing, surprising, and not-easily-satisfied imagination" and "creates an exacting and exhilarating vision of 'God, the undoer that does.'" Reviewers have also praised it for "memorable poems of the human predicament" (Eleanor Wilner) and its "uncanny ability to size up the urban scene, then hallow and harrow it" (Maxine Kumin).

Published by the University of North Texas, "The Black Beach" differs from Barbarese's last three books in that it isn't full of the formalist poetry for which the Rutgers-Camden scholar is known. Poems from the book have been published in such literary journals as Poetry, Atlantic, and the Georgia Review, but it's a complete collection of poems that Barbarese works to achieve when writing.

"It's better than 'A Very Small World,'" he says, referring to his last published collection of poems that spun from events spread over a decade, including the death of his father. "These poems are more now."

What place, though, can poetry occupy in mainstream culture when that "now" places less and less emphasis on the written word, especially the written word when molded into formats and formulas that are hundreds of years old?

"It's the most important question anybody can ask," says Barbarese. "Poetry is about memory and remembering what goes on in this world. It's also a means of self-expression. There's something about poetry and its truthfulness that can't be reached in any other form."

Barbarese says that he has always written poetry but that he has focused on formal poetry - sonnets, sestinas, villanelles - because there is comfort in the form. "There's an aspect of playing to it, of gaming with language, that makes it attractive."

He also points to the role that formal poetry plays in ethnic communities where form is part of the ethnic background. Barbarese, who was born and raised in South Philadelphia and who contributed to The Italian American Reader, finds that form is a way for immigrants or children of immigrants to "become visible to a culture that is committed to excluding you." "It's about representing yourself as part of the mainstream and recouping yourself in a culture that is not your own."

While "The Black Beach" emphasizes free verse over formal poetry, Barbarese says that form is always a factor in his work and in the work of other poets writing in free verse. "Much of twentieth century poetry is not formless, but is poetry that for the most part abandoned the traditional forms for patterns that more or less discovered their shape or form as they moved."

When April celebrates National Poetry Month, that question of what "role" poetry plays today will take center stage, though Barbarese is wary of that one-month spotlight.

"I'm note sure that poetry ever had what we would call, exactly, a 'role' in any culture except as a vehicle for thinking a certain way about personal experience," he says, "Maybe the kindest thing to say is that our national cultural conscience, or its administrators, have had to carve out a calendar month and designate it as the annual Poetry Month, which reflects the sort of curatorial compulsion that goes along with deep anxieties about the ability of a thing to survive without a holiday."

At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 6, the Rutgers-Camden poet will read from "The Black Beach" at the Barnes & Noble in Marlton.

On April 10, Barbarese will introduce poet Robert Pinsky, who is speaking as part of a reading to benefit the Rutgers-Camden Writers House. He will also be teaching sessions on poetry writing as part of the Rutgers-Camden Summer Writer's Conference.

Barbarese regularly teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in poetry, creative writing, and children's literature at Rutgers-Camden. In addition to "The Black Beach" and "A Very Small World" (2004, Orchises Press), he is the author of the poetry volumes "New Science" (1989) and "Under the Blue Moon" (1985), both from the University of Georgia Press.

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Author: Press Release-Rutgers-Camden

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