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This review is taken from PN Review 167, Volume 32 Number 3, January - February 2006.

THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS STEPHEN DUNN, Local Visitations (W.W. Norton) $12.95

As has been noted repeatedly by its critics, poetry in America tends to be a middle-class, academic occupation. The growth of the American middle class following the Second World War, fuelled both by national prosperity as well as the near universal access to a college degree, resulted in a huge geographical shift out of the cities - haunts of Whitman and Crane - to the open plains between the cities, empty spaces where there truly was 'no there there'. Housing was homogenised as was, generally speaking, the culture itself. Suburbia exists, somewhat shamefacedly, in a liminal space between a past of adventurous modernism and a future so unknown that it can only be labelled according to what came before it: post-modernist. Middle-class suburbia is an easy target, especially for poetry critics who rail against its stifling impact on originality, a stifling compounded by the sterility of an academic bureaucracy that stamps out cookie cutter poets who have been taught by technically competent but emotionally unengaged professors. This criticism of poetry mimics the larger cultural critique, found in films like American Beauty or novels like Richard Ford's Independence Day, of the suburbs as physically and emotionally deadening.

Yet art, as the poetry of Stephen Dunn demonstrates, can be made there. Dunn is the poet laureate of suburbia - southern New Jersey, as it happens - and that, I would argue with no hint of irony or sarcasm, is high praise indeed. That ...


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