Albert Goldbarth was one of the most celebrated, prolific, and widely anthologized American poets of the late twentieth century, prompting biographer David Starkey to observe that Goldbarth “has produced in less than twenty years a body of work that has had an undeniable impact on contemporary American poetry.” Goldbarth grew up in a middle-class Jewish household in Chicago, the son of insurance underwriter Irving Goldbarth and his wife, Fannie Goldbarth (née Seligman), who worked as a secretary. Albert received a B.A. from the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle campus, in 1969 and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa creative writing program in 1971. He taught at Chicago’s Elgin Community College from 1971 to 1972 and completed a year’s work toward a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Utah in 1973.
Goldbarth received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in creative writing in 1974 and taught briefly at both Cornell and Syracuse Universities before accepting a position as professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a faculty member from 1977 to 1987. In 1987 he was named distinguished professor of humanities at Wichita State University in Kansas.
Although he enjoyed a distinguished career as an academic, Goldbarth’s widely diverse and consistent output as a poet is what merits his place as one of American poetry’s most important innovators. The depth and diversity of his numerous poetic works rival those of any noteworthy poet of his time and eclipses most. While most poets are fortunate merely to be linked with one particular stylistic or thematic landscape, Goldbarth’s poetry runs the gamut of tastes and territories, exhibiting a unique mastery of genres as divergent as the long poem, the personal lyric, the narrative, and the satire. Goldbarth’s many chapbooks, full-length volumes, and retrospectives offer not only short lyric poems but also sequences, book-length works, and poems in a variety of traditional forms. Thematically, his work is equally broad in scope—often Goldbarth’s concerns are both broadly social and engagingly personal in aim. He is one of the few contemporary American poets to integrate both approaches into a style that is both uncompromisingly progressive and endearingly accessible.
When attempting to describe his unique, verbally prodigious style, many critics find Goldbarth’s work not only ambitious but also relentless in its drive to recapture the energy and force that poetry sacrificed as it moved, in modern times, from an oral to primarily a print medium. Not since Walt Whitman has there been a writer as intent on restoring poetry’s incantatory quality and sonorous resonance as Goldbarth. The fluid, often exhilarating cadences of Goldbarth’s poems demand that they be read aloud, and those who have attended one of his frequent readings realize that it has been among his foremost intentions to restore poetry to its traditional place as a performance medium. His rhythms frequently mirror those of the orator, drawing important cues from the speechmaker’s idiom. In general, Goldbarth’s poems are significantly longer than most contemporary poetic lyrics, many spanning several pages and preserving their unity through a calculated repetition of central words and patterns, an unabashed penchant for informal and playful language, and a flair for incorporating unexpected but provocative tangents. As it runs its course, a Goldbarth poem is likely to transport its reader to a variety of locales—consider poems like the sprawling “Library” from Saving Lives or the wistful “The World Trade Center” from Popular Culture—all absorbing and inspiring, few arbitrary or commonplace.
Throughout his career, Goldbarth has asserted that writing poetry is his primary literary drive, and that although many of his...
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contemporaries may engage in a variety of related efforts—such as writing fiction, editing, and scholarly pursuits—he himself is not a “man of letters” in the same sense as many of his peers. Thus, relative to some of the other poets to whom he is most often compared—Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, or Adrienne Rich, for example—his output of such ancillary works may seem small. Nonetheless, Goldbarth has published a number of significant prose collections, all of which contain useful insights on his aesthetic, on trends and undercurrents in contemporary American poetry, and on a variety of related topics and issues. The essay collections Goldbarth has published serve as enlightening, incisive companions to his poetic works and rival them in breadth of scope, integrity of vision, and depth of erudition.
Although Goldbarth’s unprecedented output of poetic works in the 1970’s and 1980’s would easily be enough to merit him a secure place in the canon of American poetry, he has continued to release important, if not seminal, poetry collections. Saving Lives, perhaps his most widely reviewed and acclaimed volume, received the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award in 2002.