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My piece of the puzzle

by Doren Robbins

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by Nikdefour


The main thing I like about Doren Robbins’ current book of poems, My Piece of the Puzzle, is the way it revalidates the position of poets writing in the free verse, narrative-lyric tradition of Walt Whitman. Over the last quarter of the twentieth century till now, one of the central issues for poets concerns what has actually been an ongoing debate regarding the formal aspects of poetry.

In the 1970s poets and critics, many of whom were linked or sympathetic to “Language Poetry,” began exploring the early Modernist paths in experimental arrangements of syntax and subject, non-linear narrative, and disjunctive non-realist poetic-prose constructions. Of crucial concern is their direct impatience with the natural speech movement in poetry beginning roughly with Wordsworth and his call for a poetry conveying “feelings and notions in simple unelaborated expressions,” Whitman’s claim and stance for “simplicity,” that “nothing can make up for excess or for the lack of definiteness,” to W.C. Williams’s final emphasis on the importance of the “American Idiom” for naturalizing poetic speech.

There is a sound argument that written-word-spoken-word synthesis has reached a point of dilution. Even in celebrated mainstream poets like Galway Kinnell or Louise Gluck, or maverick poets Charles Bukowski or Lawrence Ferlinghetti it is clear that in large portions of their work the language style for expressing emotion and the immediacy of experience is worn out, no matter what the tone is--the language style makes for a drab, predictable, energy-sapped reading experience.

Based on biographical information, his essays, and statement on craft at, Doren Robbins appears to have been aware of this and other debates crucial to the arguments of writing dynamic poetry. But it is only in recent books, from Dignity in Naples and North Hollywood and The Donkey’s Tale, to Driving Face Down and his current book, My Piece of the Puzzle that his stature as a poet revitalizing narrative-lyric has been legitimatized.  However, his best works are not “simple, unelaborated expressions,” they are indisputably brilliant and enlivening in the often innovative use of idiomatic narrative, imagery, and rhythmic flux exemplified in such poems as “Name a Dish After Me, John Said,” from The Donkey’s Tale, or “Abrams,” “Anna,” “My Pico Boulevard,” and “Beneath The Jewish Music” from Driving Face Down, and, finally at least three from his new book My Piece of the Puzzle: “Four Family,” “Before and After Tampico,” and the title poem.

Robbins’ poetry is starting to gain critical attention. Notably, his work has been acclaimed by such poets as Thomas McGrath, Philip Levine, Gerald Stern, Adrienne Rich, and the historian-playwright Howard Zinn.

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