Friday, April 23, 2010

Can 21st Century Poetry Matter?

OKAY, okay, I'll admit it's a bit corny to post on verse during National Poetry Month, but I couldn't resist. I turned to some distinguished friends of The Misread City, from different walks of life, to tell my readers which recent books they're excited about. (I'm eager, too, to have some new titles to augment my on-again, off-again collection of Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, James Fenton, Philip Larkin and Rilke.)

Let’s start with the fact that most educated people – including many literary people – read little or no poetry, especially recent poetry. It’s an issue that two members of my kitchen cabinet, poet/critic Dana Gioia and poet/ book publicist Kim Dower, have very different takes on.

"When people tell me -- and this is what they always tell me -- that they don't like most new poetry, I agree,” Dana says. “Most new poetry isn't very good. Poetry is one of those odd arts in which the work either has to be wonderful or it isn't worthwhile.  A mediocre movie might be watchable, but no one wants to spend two hours with a mediocre book of poems. It's like striking a book of soggy matches. None of them ignite.”

Kim, whose first poetry collection, Air Kissing on Mars, comes out in October on Red Hen, says this: “The state of poetry is so alive it's hyperventilating,” thanks to  an “abundance and variety of voices, styles, ways of seeing the world. Poetry is indeed the highest art and needn't be difficult or esoteric. Poetry should be enjoyed, read aloud, felt, inhaled.”

My third enthusiast has inhaled a lot -- maybe too much. “See, I can’t seem to stop myself,” Jeff Gordinier, a jet-setting Details writer and author of the Gen-X manifesto X Saves the World, wrote on this piece for the Poetry Foundation. “A compulsion to feed my poetry fix as soon as I hit town — any town, every town — seems, at least on the surface, like a safe indulgence.” But is it? (Read Jeff’s piece to find out.)

     Here are a few recommendation from Dana Gioia:

Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010).  Kay Ryan is funny, weird, and wise.  Her poems are very short, intricately written, and interwoven  with hidden rhymes.  This is not just one of the best books of poems this year. It will be one of the best books of the decade and beyond.  Ryan is the brilliant outsider looking at life from the odd and revealing angle. 

Katha Pollitt, The Mind-Body Problem (2009).  This is Pollitt's second collection of poems. Her first appeared 27 years ago.  This book is smart, witty, and consumately urbane -- depicting the highs and lows of the smart middle-class in middle age.  It is one of the few recent books that I have read cover to cover.  And then I read it again. Maybe more poets should wait 27 years between volumes.

A. E. Stallings Hapax (2006). Stallings is a Southern gal living in Greece, and she has a classical turn to her imagination.  Over the past ten years she has published so many ingenious and memorable poems--from the comic to heartbreaking--that she has become one of my favorite poets now writing.  If you doubt me, read her "First Love: A Quiz," a multiple choice poem that simultaneously tells the story of Persephone and a potentially murderous white-trash date in rhymed free verse.

David Mason, Ludlow: A Verse Novel (2007).  There are very few good book-length contemporary poems.  If the story is good, the poetry is usually missing.  If the language is strong, there is often very little happening.  Mason is a compelling storyteller who recreates the the violent Ludlow Massacre of 1914 when hired guns attacked striking Colorado miners and their families. This book reads better than most novels but adds the particular power of poetry to hit our emotions and imagination.  I was delighted to see the book belatedly featured a few weeks ago on the Lehrer News Hour--proving that poetry really is news that stays news.

    Here are Kim Dower’s recs:

Frank O'Hara, Selected Poems, A New Selection Edited by Mark Ford, published by Knopf (2008) - no one beats O'Hara when it comes to a fresh and original voice, New York school, the one poet who inspired and influenced so many. Everyday stories that linger for life.  Every word and beat is an exciting experience to cherish!  

Move right into Billy Collins who takes an ordinary experience and stretches it into a whole other way of seeing life. Any one of his books will toss readers into the appealing and unprecedented joys of poetry, and his latest, The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems is as accessible as the others, with poems that show us ordinary moments as ways to explore ourselves and the world around us: lying in bed, eating a ham sandwich, the heads  of roses beginning to droop . . .  

Denise Duhamel is an exciting and vibrant poet and KA-CHING published last year by the University of Pittsburgh Press is an invigorating and smashingly original book about luck. Funny and twisted, one of Denise's poems is also in a great new anthology that all poetry lovers -- old and new -- should have at their bedside: The Best American Poetry 2009, edited by David Wagoner, published by Scribner.  Her poem, "How It Will End," is a provocative and humorous look at relationships and takes the "he said, she said" theme into a divine dimension.  

Thomas Lux's newest book, GOD PARTICLES, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin is gorgeous, dark heartbreaking and funny.  

Zen monk Seido Ray Ronci, winner of this year's PEN Award for his marvelous book, THE SKELETON OF THE CROW, Ausable Press, 2008, offers readers his life's work, a book rich and simple, beautiful and intimate.  

And Kim Addonizio, delights with her newest, LUCIFER AT THE STARLITE, published by Norton - imaginative, luxurious, intimate and kickass. 

    Finally, these are some picks from Jeff Gordinier, who goes book shopping with Keanu Reeves here:

Take It, by Joshua Beckman (Wave Books, 2009) Beckman surveys the fractal dementia of our landscape ("The neighbors were going at it / with gas plungers again" and "Big eaters of America, I join you in your parade") with the eyes of a doomed and displaced Romantic.

Wind in a Box, by Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2006) Living, breathing, swiveling, shape-shifting poems about (or not) Michael Jackson, Dr. Seuss, David Bowie, Jorge Luis Borges, Melvin Van Peebles, and picking up a woman in "deep blue denim" at a bus stop.

I Was the Jukebox, by Sandra Beasley (Norton, 2010) The wispy mists of contemporary poetry tend to make you yawn? Beasley is the bracing antidote. Consider the opening lines of her poem "Osiris Speaks": "I left my heart in San Francisco. / I left my viscera in the Netherlands. / I left my liver on the 42 Line, headed / from Farragut Square to the White House."

Rain, by Don Paterson (FSG, 2010) Paterson is a Scotsman who is skilled at writing vibrant, exquisite poems in just about every emotional and intellectual mode: He can be brusque and tender (consider "Why Do You Stay Up So Late?") and scholarly and sexy and hauntingly mystical and uproariously funny, sometimes all at once. His poems are so alive that it can feel as though they might start crawling across the page. 

Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Rodak said...

For anyone who'd like to start at the top of the Gioia list, I recently discovered Kay Ryan myself, and have posted some of her poems here.

Scott Timberg said...

Yes she is, among other things, US Poet Laureate. Lean, mean little poems.

linda said...

Very interesting point about the mediocre movies being watchable but mediocre poetry being intolerable. The thing is, people are surrounded by poetry and are rabid consumers of it in song lyrics, rappers and troubadours being just a few examples. Could it be that the rise of a recorded music industry led to the fall in consumption of written poetry by 'common folk' outside of universities/academia/coffee shops?

Scott Timberg said...

Linda makes an interesting point here. There's a parallel here that's not quite coming to me. But I'll make an obvious point -- as much as I love rock n roll. there is almost no rock lyric, including those by Dylan, that compares to even a second-level poem by Donald Justice, Bishop or Wallace Stevens, just to pick three names almost at random.