Despite David Wagoner’s accomplishments and honors, and despite the fact that his poems appear regularly in mass-circulation magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, as well as the literary quarterlies, he is generally regarded as one of the most underappreciated of American poets. His works, with the exception of “Staying Alive,” had not been included in major poetry anthologies until the early twenty-first century, when his poems began appearing in collections such as The Best American Poetry (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006). There are several possible explanations for this. First, he lives in Seattle and has chosen as his primary subject matter the land and people of the Pacific Northwest—thus giving rise to the dismissive “regional” label. It is also possible that some of his own best qualities may work against him. His subject matter is anything but trendy; the reader searches his poems in vain for the issues of the day. The only explicit social comment one is likely to find is contained in a half dozen or so poems addressing the Weyerhaeuser Company, a logging firm, and its practice of clear-cutting three-mile swaths of virgin forest.
Perhaps the major problem, as X. J. Kennedy suggests, is Wagoner’s very “readability.” Much of his poetry seems, at least on first encounter, curiously unpoetic, even prosy. His unpretentious language and casual, conversational tone frequently combine with his sense of...
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