David Wojahn’s 1982 collection, Icehouse Lights, was selected by the highly acclaimed American poet Richard Hugo as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. The volume also won the 1983 Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Book Award. This was high praise for a first collection, and Wojahn has continued to grow as a poet, establishing himself as one of America’s most distinguished contemporary poets. Since 1982, Wojahn has produced five extraordinary collections, including Glassworks (1987), Mystery Train (1990), Late Empire (1994), The Falling Hour (1997), and Spirit Cabinet (2002). In addition to poetry, Wojahn wrote the fascinating collection of essays Strange Good Fortune: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (2000) and edited the posthumous poetry collection of his late wife Lynda Hull, The Only World (1995). In 2006, he edited the Collected Poems of Hull. Wojahn, however, is first and foremost a poet. He probes the human condition and strives to wed the personal with public events and cultural icons that are familiar to Americans.
Although Wojahn’s first collection shows a youthful poet in the throes of finding his own voice, there are subjects that he raised in this somewhat derivative volume that he has revisited in subsequent collections. Wojahn believes in the power of memory and in the tricks that it can play on an individual’s life. The importance of family history is one of the recurring themes of Wojahn’s poetry. How people remember episodes in their lives and in the life of the country are prominent topics in all of his collections. How one grows up, deals with tragedies, confronts mortality, and finds meaning while continuing to move forward are issues that are close to Wojahn’s heart. The poet is clearly influenced by such eminent poets as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Louis Simpson, Frank O’Hara, and James Wright: He admires the poets of the past who aimed for greatness. In recent years, Wojahn has been saddened by what he considers the “Era of Downsize.” He admires Lowell for his boldness and considers Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead” the “most enduring American political poem of the last half-century.” Wojahn speaks of Lowell as being the last American poet who aspired to “Greatness in the old fashioned, capital-G sense.” It is important to understand that Wojahn believes in the need for the poet to be driven, to reach for the stars. He clearly attempts to write large, to write with passion about issues that hit home for everyone. He continues to believe that poets can make a difference, whether on the page or in the classroom.
For Wojahn, the personal saga must rise to the surface, must be confronted. He has stated that he looked at his first collection as a “book which attempts a kind of self-discovery through the use of my models.” He viewed his second collection as one in which he looked for “self-acceptance, and the struggle to create a voice that’s more individual.” It is not unusual for a poet to grow into his or her own voice over a number of poetry volumes, nor is it always easy to shake the influences that inspired the poet in the first place.
Wojahn strives to give the attentive reader new and intriguing perspectives on American history. There is an ambition in the poet’s work to enlighten, educate, engage, and amuse. It is no easy task, and it is possible for any poet to incorporate too many things, to “juggle too many balls” at once. Wojahn has stated that “poetry is the most conservative of the arts.” Poetry has “its roots . . . deeply embedded in early literate culture.” Wojahn sees contemporary American society as having no regard for...
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