University of California Press/W W Norton & Co/Copper Canyon/Graywolf
MORE IN THIS SERIES:
Adam Roberts: The Righteous Skeptic's Guide to Reading Poetry
Adam Roberts: What Makes a Poem Worth Reading?
Adam Roberts: Flarf: Poetry Meme-Surfs With Kanye West and the LOLCats
Adam Roberts: Good Poetry Is Like Good Food: How to Find It ... and Savor It
I'd like to end this poetry "tour" simply by taking you through some of my favorites. What are the poems and poets that have filled a craving (spiritual or otherwise), even (or especially) as they pushed me deeper and deeper into uncertainty? To be pushed out of myself, only to be returned back to it... (repeat...)
That answer, of course, is going to differ from me to you—and that's a good thing. Taste—in the "slow," non-high-cultural sense—is not going to be universalizing, but particularizing: what has made a difference, in my life? This is the difference between caviar at a high-end restaurant and the eggs & green bean scramble that Eric, the farmer at a farm I help out at, cooked me and his other helpers—after a morning of endless green bean picking—and the salsa I blended, at his patient instruction, using tomatoes that had almost, but not quite, rotted off the vine.
In other words: I may not be able to explain it, but it was delicious.
For the sake of space, I'm forced to skip over some of the more well-known poets on my list—Whitman and Dickinson, Basho, Shel Silverstein—but I mention them, to begin with, because they're contextually important. I like things that are expansive and rhetorically athletic (Whitman); dense and strange (Dickinson); small and huge, sad and uplifting (Basho); and as wacky and obliquely moral and fun as that other guy.
But onto some people, and books, you might, otherwise, miss.
George Oppen, Of Being Numerous / New Collected Poems
I start with Oppen, as he's a kind of holy grail for poets like me. Oppen wanted clarity for poetry—not simplicity, not certainty—but a poetry that encountered, instant by instant (and line by careful line), the time and place saw itself caught in. He often wrote in long series, eschewing the logic of the single, closed poem for more extended, contingent meditations. Of Being Numerous, probably his most well-known book, won the Pulitzer in 1968. You can find it, in its entirety, in his New Collected Poems, or you can read the first twenty-two sections online at the Poetry Foundation here. It's as close to a foundational text as I come to having.
Juliana Spahr, This Connection Of Everything With Lungs
Spahr, whom I mentioned and linked to in my previous post, is a contemporary poet much in the spirit of Oppen (and Whitman, to whom Oppen is also greatly indebted). Spahr wrote This Connection Of Everything With Lungs in the aftermath of 9/11, glued to the news cycle, and it has the feel of a kind of relentless accounting process. If Of Being Numerous and Song of Myself are presences here...so are the UN, Iraqi encampments, and J Lo. And our bodies.
There are these things:
cells, the movement of cells and the division of cells
and then the general beating of circulation
and hands, and body, and feet
and skin that surrounds hands, body, feet.
This is a shape,
a shape of blood beating and cells dividing.
But outside of this shape is space.
A Danish poet who passed away fewer than two years ago, Christensen is a little less well known here in the US than in Europe, but we're lucky enough to have gotten some incredible translations of her work recently courtesy of Susanna Nied. Christensen works with almost fanatical constraints—abacedarians based on the fibonacci sequence; 66 line poems of 66 characters-per-line each—but with a spirit that's as generous and human as it is technical. It and Alphabet (the latter of which you can catch the first few sections of here) are two of my favorite book-length poems ever. (You can probably, tell, already, that I am drawn to whole-book form, for poetry—probably for the same reason that I am drawn to long sprawling novels.)
Speaking of novels...Anne Carson. Her novel-in-verse Autobiography of Red is a contemporary re-writing of Hercules' tenth labor, from the perspective of the red monster he slays (now an artsy teenage boy-monster named Geryon). I won't spoil the plot, but I will say the mechanism of "death" is heartbreak, and that the book is about much, much more than that—an exploration of what it means to exist in time, to try to survive each other's bodies, and to wager any kind of creative act in the midst of that. And with sentences like this:
He could feel the house of sleepers
around him like loaves on shelves.
Carson's Nox, an accordion-book released last year by New Directions, is more autobiographical in the traditional sense—an elegy to her brother—but every bit as moving and formally diverse as Autobiography of Red. It's the kind of book that, at the time I holed up and read it last spring, transformed everything I was thinking and feeling and writing. It's lucky for an author to cause even one of these spells in a lifetime, but Carson's now pulled it twice on me in the span of a decade.
Claudia Rankine, Don't Let Me Be Lonely
Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, another book with a flexible relationship to genre, has to be—in pacing, form, and spirit—a relative to Carson's Nox. (Is it a photo essay? A memoir? A documentary? Poetry, as a genre, tends to take on the misfits.) See a small excerpt here at the Boston Review. Rankine has also worked in video, and her project The Provenance of Beauty, an "audio tour" of the Bronx (completely pushing the limits of the essay), ran this September and October.