Palmer is an influential poet of the avant-garde whose work has been associated with the language school of poetry. Palmer's work builds on the American modernist poetic tradition of such poets as Ezra pound, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude stein (see modernism), and his work also has been influenced by the poetry of Robert duncan and Robert creeley. Since Palmer is concerned with how sound and meaning function in poetry, the images in his work are often abstract, and he plays with the slipperiness of the words' meanings. However, Palmer's poems certainly are not meaningless. Echoes of common experience create multiple interpretations that are not directly explained in the poems. According to Palmer his poetry has "a resistance to the static image and, in fact, an invocation of one that is more nomadic and that forces the reader into a somewhat more active mode of reading" (109). Palmer expands on the modernist tendency to break away from narrative or lyrical poems that depend on formal devices (such as meter or rhyme), storytelling (such as the dramatic monologue or confessional lyric), or explanations of political or philosophical positions (see lyric poetry and narrative poetry). Instead his work opens up a field of semantic possibilities for the reader.
Palmer was born and raised in New York city. To date, he has published 10 collections of poetry, from Blake's Newton (1972) to his most recent collection, The Promises of Glass (2000). Palmers influence extends beyond poetry, as he also has collaborated with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company on renowned works of modern dance during the last 30 years. He has received several fellowships, and in 1999 he was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets; in 2001 he received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry society of America.
In "Untitled (April '91)" (1991) Palmer engages the idea of a narrative in a poem, stating that a narrative demands that one must "paint a flower with a death's head." The combination of "flower" and "death" seems contradictory and subverts the reader's expectations regarding the function of a narrative, that the flower would be related to life or fertility. The poet then writes that the words in the narrative are subject to gravity; therefore, they bend "as if suns would flower as sparks of paint / then fall before the retinal net." In this surreal image, the bending or manipulation of words is compared to suns that bloom in bursts of color before one's field of vision. Palmer's innovative use of language can have the same effect, allowing for the experience of a fresh outlook on the world through the bending—and reading—of words.
Palmer's poetry explores the dichotomy between the personal and the philosophical, creating a destabilizing tension that the reader may find unsettling. However, the controlled uncertainty of his work allows for a response and engagement with language that is at turns sensual, paradoxical, musical, and frequently beautiful.
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