7 Poets I Love


University of California Press/W W Norton & Co/Copper Canyon/Graywolf

This is the final post in a five-part series about the value of verse in the 21st century. Read the first three installments here, here, here, and here.

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.

Inger Christensen, alphabet and it

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.)

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red and Nox

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.

Robert Creeley, For Love / Selected Poems

Ah, Creeley—whose late-in-life blurb floats on the back of Rankine's book, and who truly, truly, broke open poetry for me.

For Love
Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all

that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,

different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.

Creeley's "For Love" (the rest of which you can read here) taught me that poetry did not have to be raised, eloquent speech—that it could, quite simply, be failed speech, leaned so far into that it became a kind of singing. Here's the beginning of another poem:

The Language
Locate I
love you some-
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

Through Creeley's poems, I was finally able to look at my own halting, broken pattern of expression not as something to erase, but to let be. We all have access to this incompetence! Try writing into it, rather than running away...

Listen to the rest of "For Love," "The Language," and other Creeley poems on PennSound. (Creeley is an amazing reader, and PennSound is an incredible resource—explore around.)

Ben Lerner, Mean Free Path

I'll end with the youngest author here, and a book that also happens to be influenced greatly by Creeley's "For Love"—Ben Lerner's Mean Free Path. This is the Creeley of broken love (as its hope); it is the Whitman of our broken social body (as, also...). From its opening poem:

For I felt nothing,
      which was cool,
totally cool with me.
For my blood was cola.
For my authority was small
involuntary muscles
      in my face.

For I had had some work done
      on my face.

For I was afraid
      to turn
left at intersections.
For I was in a turning lane.
For I was signaling,
despite myself,
      the will to change.
For I could not throw my voice

I feel my generation here, utterly. But Lerner goes through the mirror: as a poet of the Nevermind generation, he could also be playing us Stevie Nix as he writes this. What follows is a series of collaged, broken meditations on what it means to love when so much conspires against that....and what that means right now, in our particular (and peculiar) historical circumstances. I feel myself returned, as a poet, in spite of a deep, deep cynicism about the world, and language, to actually giving a shit....having something to say...wanting to share that...

As if Jon Stewart started singing.

Reading for Pleasure, Reading for Life (Conclusion; Or, "The Poetry App")

The reason to read poetry, for you, has to be because you love and get something out of it. If that's not happening, it doesn't mean stop reading--it might be a signal to "read again"—but I'd be a fool to legislate anything other than pleasure here. Your poetry "curriculum" is only to look for that spirit of joyous optimism wherever you can find it.

Or is it? Delusionally or not, I always feel, when reading, as if quite a bit is at stake. At their core, poems remind me of at least one thing: that I have only one life, and that it's a life with others: other people, other creatures, complicated and interrelated systems of life. Urgency—right—that's what calls me back to read. Here's an excerpt from "Like Something Christenberry Pictured" by C.D. Wright:

...stepping out of the story

      (ineluctably over, fellow travelers)

      here just long enough to testify

      to a blinding intensity

      under that big dry socket of god

      the camera mounted to capture

      ordinary traffic violations

      fixes instead on your final face

      a single frame of unadulterated

      urgency is what you see, urgency it is.

I don't think these two things—pleasure and urgency—are at odds, here. Not in a poem.

I hope that this series has given you some new ways to approach poetry in the 21st century. Please comment here or email me if you'd like to keep up the discussion. I've enjoyed spending the time with you.