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Jason Camlot

MCDOWELL, ROBERT (1953- ) Robert

McDowell is considered a pioneer in the New Narrative movement in contemporary poetry (see new formalism). His keen sense of poetic formalism led him to reevaluate American poetry in the wake of modernist and postmodernist free verse lyrical experimentation (see modernism). As a cofounder with Mark jarman of the magazine the Reaper, established in 1980, McDowell revived narrative poetry and thereby created signif icant awareness of this medium of expression. Arguing that "poetry, more than ever, is harnessed by and subordinated to its criticism" (Jarman and McDowell 4), he challenged the status quo of American literary criticism by stressing the importance of narrative verse. McDowell is best known for his narrative poetry in loose iambic lines. The critic Kevin Walzer has observed that his "poems draw on, without simply imitating, the example of the three twentieth-century masters of narrative verse: Robert frost, Robinson jeffers, and Edwin Arlington robinson" (63). The dominant themes appearing in his poems include American society, culture, and history; the family; and the complexity of familial and conjugal relationships. Using deftly constructed plots presenting everyday characters leading ordinary lives, McDowell's engaging narrative shows how small yet significant moments can alter one's life.

Born in Alhambra, California, McDowell's formal education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, (1971-74) and Columbia University (1974-76) culminated in six years of teaching at Indiana State University, Evansville, where in 1980 he colaunched the Reaper. In 1985 he founded Story Line Press and in 1987 published his first collection of poems, titled Quiet Money, followed by The Diviners (1995), then On Foot, In Flames (2002). He is actively involved in criticism, editing such works as Poetry after Modernism (1991).

The sense of narrative in all of McDowell's work is palpable. In the single narrative poem "The Diviners" (1995), McDowell presents the struggles of a California family over the span of two generations. We witness Tom, the only son, growing up in a family plagued by alcoholism. Trying to find some meaning in his life, since "Tom's sense of loss and pain won't dissipate," he finally escapes to Ireland after his father's death. In "The Pact" (1994), McDowell explores the theme of forgiveness and redemption, showing how the main character, John-Allen, betrayed by his wife, Sarah, comes to terms with her deceit.

McDowell's narrative poems engage at many levels. His imaginative story lines craft intricate plots and subplots that expose his characters' strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, though, his poems present a larger and more significant vision of humanity as a whole.

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