On April 6, 2014, the Hoboken Historical Museum was abuzz. One hundred people crowded the exhibit floor, overflowing the chairs and standing wherever a space could be found. What brought so many people out on a beautiful Sunday afternoon? A poetry reading, organized by CavanKerry Press and funded by the New Jersey Historical Commission.
But “Something Old, Something (New) Jersey” was more than a typical poetry reading, as suggested by its poster which included Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams as readers. As part of the commemoration of the 350th anniversary of New Jersey taking place throughout 2014 (https://officialnj350.com/), this event had contemporary NJ poets reading the works of iconic NJ poets and then pieces they wrote that were inspired by these icons. Two living iconic poets, Alicia Ostriker and Herschel Silverman, read their own works.
As this suggests, New Jersey has an impressive legacy of poetry that dates back to the colonial period with the work of Philip Freneau (1752-1832), whose politically themed poems earned him the sobriquet “poet of the Revolution.” But when most people think about the importance of New Jersey, they probably think of Washington crossing the Delaware or the invention of the light bulb, movies, and sound recording technology, rather than poetry. As a historian, I’m interested in two related questions: why are there so many poets from New Jersey? And why doesn’t anyone associate poetry with New Jersey?
One answer to the first question has to do with New Jersey’s unique history, which has made it, without exaggeration, one of the most diverse places in the U.S. since its founding. If we look back to that founding moment in 1664, we see how diversity became part of our state. The British crown took New Jersey from the Dutch and split the territory in half. The east half, really the shore and South Jersey, was given to Sir George Carteret and the west half to Lord John Berkeley. They wrote the “Concessions and Agreement,” which provided freedom of religion in the colony of New Jersey, making it quite different from other colonies, like Massachusetts, which was extremely intolerant in terms of religious ideas. Because New Jersey allowed its settlers to have religious freedom—which equated with political freedom in those days—it drew diverse peoples to it. Also, Berkeley and Carteret sold land at low prices to encourage people to settle there bringing a variety of classes to the colony.
In addition to that diversity, New Jersey is a small, crowded state. Although in the 2nd half of the 19th century, New Jersey sank in terms of its rank by population, by the 1920s, this was reversed, suggesting the importance of immigration, industrialization, the Great Migration, and suburbanization on the state. Now, of course, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S., with a higher population density than India or China, suggesting how tightly packed in we all are.
Diversity plus density means that we’re constantly rubbing shoulders with people who think differently than we do. New ideas are being created, challenged, and modified, which is perhaps part of the reason New Jersey has been home to so many inventions. That diversity means, very literally, that there are lots of languages, dialects, accents, and ways of speaking which have inspired poets like William Carlos Williams, from Rutherford, immeasurably.
Think of Walt Whitman, who spent the last part of his life in Camden. His writing is full of the flavor of diverse peoples and voices, which is why he’s cited as the poet of democracy. While he lived in Camden he wrote a prose piece called “Scenes on Ferry and River-Last Winter’s Nights” (1891) that captures the feel of the Camden ferry through its people. “Mothers with bevie of daughters, (a charming sight)—children, countrymen—the railroad men in their blue clothes and caps—all the various characters of city and country represented or suggested. Then outside some belated passenger frantically running, jumping after the boat….Inside the reception room, business bargains, flirting, love-making, eclaircissements, proposals—pleasant, sober-faced Phil coming in with his burden of afternoon papers—or Jo, or Charley (who jump’d in the dock last week, and saved a stout lady from drowning,) to replenish the stove, after clearing it with long crow-bar poker.” That diversity of people leads Whitman and so many other NJ poets, to an empathetic interest in their stories and lives.
But it would not be very New Jersey to only focus on the positive. Packing lots of people into a small space causes conflict, too. New Jersey’s poets have been at the forefront of analyzing those conflicts as a way to push our understanding of social structures, examining with razor-precision how we treat the working class and people of color and asking who has power and who does not—and what we can do about it. Amiri Baraka, the Newark poet, was a master at this, but so was another poet from New Jersey, Ntozake Shange. Shange, best known for her choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, was born as Paulette Williams in Trenton. Although she left Trenton when she was eight, her experience of growing up in that industrial city, especially in a middle-class black family, shaped her unflinching perspective that so beautifully connects race, gender and sexuality using a language infused by jazz in its riffing and improvisation. As in this piece, “Blood Rhythms, Blood Currents, Black n Blue Stylin’”
we gonna take this
new city neon light
volumes for million to hear
to love themselves
enough to turn back the pulse of a whippin’ history
make it carry the modern black melody from L.A.
to downtown Newark City
freedom is the way we walk that walk
talk that talk
Such musicality of language shapes our musician-poets, too. I had the pleasure of being in a session led by Robert Pinsky on poetry and democracy for teachers a few years ago. One of them asked how to get boys interested in poetry and he recalled that when he was a young man he didn’t love poetry. He loved rock music. Lyrics were his first poems. Add to that the poetry of rap music (which one could argue began in Englewood with Sugar Hill Records) and now New Jersey’s poetry legacy has grown even richer—and become even more expansive.
Who else has captured the pathos of working-class New Jersey better than Bruce Springsteen? I remember being in 10th grade English class at Middletown South High School when my teacher Mr. Lynn had us analyze the lyrics to “Born to Run” as poetry. He was right, of course. Springsteen speaks to our more recent New Jersey, one in which the shift from an industrial economy to a postindustrial one combined with the rise of middle-class suburbs meant that the opportunities that had existed for working-class men and women that had existed during New Jersey’s “glory days” in the mid 20th century were ending. To take Camden, again, as an example, the city was once home to Campbell’s Soup’s manufacturing facilities, RCA-Victor, and New York shipbuilding. They are all gone and it is struggling to figure out what’s next.
Why Doesn’t Anyone Realize New Jersey’s Poetry Legacy?
Like Ben Franklin said, New Jersey is a keg tapped at both ends, with New York and Philadelphia draining us. Patti Smith, the punk poet from Woodbury, left NJ and helped create an art movement for disaffected youth everywhere. A poet like Allen Ginsberg, born in Newark, left New Jersey to join the beat movement and then the counterculture in New York and California. Ginsburg used New Jersey in his poetry, but also clearly suggested that he saw it as a place of dead ends. In “Howl” he describes those “who vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall, suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China under junk-withdrawal in Newark’s bleak furnished room.” New Jersey can inspire, but its smallness can also be a limitation.
But I don’t think that we should be disappointed by the fact that few people realize what New Jersey has given the world in terms of poetry. When we talk about great American poetry, so much of the time we’re talking about poets from New Jersey. That’s because New Jersey is really America writ small. For this reason, New Jersey has had an influence on poetry well beyond what its small size would suggest because America can be found in our borders. Our poetry is America’s poetry.
And it’s not just a legacy. Poetry is a living, breathing thing in New Jersey today, with poets from Alicia Ostriker to Steven Dunn to Rachel Hadas to Peter Murphy, to CavanKerry’s amazing roster of poets, keeping these traditions alive.
On this point, let me close with an image from a poet who currently works in New Jersey, Tracy Smith, at Princeton University, from her Pulitzer winning collection Life on Mars. What I love about these lines is how she describes the universe as a small, deeply connected community. To me, that also describes the poetry community we have in our state and why New Jersey will always be a home for poetry:
Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.
The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,
A pair of eyes.