#24: SOME CONTEMPORARY POETS. Even those of us who love poetry end up baffled by the sheer mass (and expense) of verse now being published. Where to begin? How to choose? Here at least are a few titles I’ve loved. I suspect I have fairly limited taste: I can go a long, long time without most surrealist poetry, concrete poetry, “language” poetry and must admit that every time someone is introduced as a “performance poet” my eyes go to the nearest exit sign. Call me….classical. In any case….
---Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, by Gary Snyder (Shoemaker). Snyder has had a long, brave, lively career as the bedrock voice of Beat/West Coast poetry: as a writer and thinker, it’s possible to take him seriously when Ginsberg—for all his virtues—may make you snort or roll your eyes. The prose pieces in A Place in Space and The Practice of the Wild are supremely worth reading—and his verse has retained its voice long after the conventions which first defined him have passed. Riprap, now fifty years old, is a sharp, plain young man’s book and helped introduce a whole tone and range of experience into American poetry: where the West Coast reaches for the Orient. The second section, Cold Mountain Poems, is his translation of Han-shan, one of the wonderful cases of a foreign poet convincingly reincarnating in a modern poetic voice.
---A Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New Directions). Snyder notwithstanding, I’ve never been a big man for the Beats. That said, this 1958 collection by the marvelously longlived San Francisco bookseller remains one of the original and delightful books of American poetry—it’s wonderful to be able to sneak it in with the contemporaries. The wholly modern diction, the wistful humor cheek by jowl with the anger at what the world’s become, the melancholy that is so affecting, the easy quotatiousness (nobody appropriates a classic line of verse more appropriately than Ferlinghetti, and uses it so completely to express, not impress)—all the best features of the Beat writers are here, and in a voice entirely the man’s own. Fifty-plus years old and still a lighter-than-air delight.
---Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, by Galway Kinnell (Houghton Mifflin). “Mortal beauty, acts and words have put all their burden on my soul,” says the epigraph from Petrarch, which captures exactly the particular gravity of Kinnell’s work. He had burst into full voice with a book-length sequence, The Book of Nightmares, and it was followed by Mortal Acts, in which the simplest lines seem bathed in emotion. Kinnell has gone on to other great work—When One Has Lived A Long Time Alone and Imperfect Thirst are terrific—but this remains one of my favorites.
---What Work Is, by Philip Levine (Knopf). Like Kinnell, Levine can use a short narrative poem that becomes sheer emotion, but emotion which has a tough, feisty air. This collection has all the particulars of factory, working-class life, and is a catalogue of how people survive it and wear its scars. Levine captures the meaning of going on and, in the title poem, what you know out of that experience that you can’t get any other way. In the face of the monotonous academic style of so much American verse, Levine speaks with an authority no professorship can confer. Read The Simple Truth too.
---Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Towards the Distant Mountains, by Hayden Carruth (New Directions). The title— my favorite for any poetry book since Ted Hughes’s Wodwo or Maxine Kumin’s Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief—may not say it all, but it says a good deal. Carruth hits upon a wry exaggeration—a sort of blowup of folksy New England speak—to carry the humor and
feeling of the verse, a rushing-river style full of surprising exactitude. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind book, even in the midst of Carruth’s long career.
---Jejuri, by Arun Kolatkar (NYRB Books, 2005). Kolatkar was born in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, in Kolhapur, not far from Mumbai; he died in 2004, before his reputation had really established itself. Jejuri is the name of a small temple town in Maharashtra, and the title of a miraculously moving cycle of some three dozen poems, first published in 1974. A pilgrimage of sorts, a day-trip really, is the narrative structure of the sequence; modest in its means and language, this little book goes as deeply into the subjects of our relations with traditional religion and our experience of the sacred as any work of contemporary poetry I know of. It’s a marvel of a work—a genuine unknown masterpiece.
---Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, by John Berryman (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). I know that Berryman’s official masterpiece is his Dream Songs, but I’ve never been able to work up much interest in “huffy Henry,” its protagonist, or, for that matter, the whole alcohol-and-adultery decades of American confessional poetry. On the other hand, I found his long sequence to Anne Bradstreet interesting and moving. Rexroth spoke of Longfellow’s attempt, in “Hiawatha” (with its trochaic meter incongruously cribbed from the Finnish epics) to give his American generation a connection, a mythic root, in its new country, via the stories of its native inhabitants. For me Berryman’s poem gave me a newly remembered connection to my own New England past, with the gnarl and fractured syntax of Berryman’s style as one way back to the raw winters, the raw land, the passions and puzzlements of both a people and one woman torn from an old home. It’s a remarkable achievement, and Ben Shahn’s illustrations are an apt accompaniment.
---True Stories, by Margaret Atwood (Simon and Schuster). In her eighth book of verse Atwood achieves a rare success in fusing the personal with the political. She has stripped her language down to an urgent leanness, rather like the great Quebecoise poet Anne Hebert, and this allows her to go where most poets fail: “The place / you would rather not know about…where the word why shrivels and empties / itself.” This is northern air, where safety and happiness are always provisional; a landscape without tidiness or emotional ease; where nature is red with your blood as likely as anyone else’s. Perhaps the stance of address—there is always a “you” Atwood is speaking to—is what keeps these sparely beautiful poems from despair, with their tentative hope of community or communication: “An east wind which includes / both of us and the stained river.” In True Stories Atwood sends you past the shedding of luxuries, to a place earned and luminous. This is the language of the poverty and famine and violence of the world we know: “Witness is what you must bear.”
---District and Circle, by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). Heaney has written with a sure hand since the beginning—touch him where you may, you’ll find good work, and I’ve had trouble selecting a favorite. In the Glanmore Sonnets, in Field Work, he tackles that worn form with vivid off-rhymed success, and in The Haw Lantern there are startling visionary poems: “The Mud Field,” “In the Republic of Conscience,” and others. But the work in District and Circle (his newest, 2006) is so good throughout that it seems like an amused nose-thumbing at the old tradition that no one does good work after getting the Nobel. No working poet has been more joyously earthbound and seabound than Heaney; his poems are full of wonderful, mud-squelchy noises. And in District and Circle there is a high richness in the movement and sound of the verse—Heaney has learned his craft and is writing with a master’s late ease. His prose is also good, particularly The Redress of Poetry, his book of Oxford lectures. Opened Ground (Faber) is a generous skim off the top of his earlier collections.
---The Astrakhan Cloak, by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, translated by Paul Muldoon (Wake Forest). It was one of the accomplishments of the marvelous generations of Irish poets born in the nineteen-fifties and after—what I think of as the Heaney-and-after set—to help Irish verse get loose of its rural, parochial voice; many of them were and are university educated, well-travelled, and comfortable with the other European poetries. The voice of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill—born in Lancashire, one-time resident of Turkey and Holland, multilingual—has the confidence of wide experience but, in returning to the Irish language of her Gaeltacht childhood, she has accomplished a kind of poetic switchback: she uses the animism, the intense natural vocabulary, the mythic ground of the Irish language to collapse and criticize life in contemporary, EEC Ireland—the contemporary world around us everywhere. And in The Astrakhan Cloak she has found her translator—Paul Muldoon’s versions have given her a witty and resonant voice in English. In an interview once, Ni Dhomhnaill recalled being greeted by an elder, “An de bheoaibh no de mhairbh thu?”—“Are you of the living or the dead?” Very much of the living, I’d say.
---Selected Poems 1946-1968, by R.S. Thomas (Bloodaxe). Thomas is the premier late-twentieth-century Welsh poet, known in his own country as a nationalist, defender of the native language and culture, and Christian minister. This is an impressive lot of chains for any writer, but in Thomas there resided that buggy, unpredictable thing, a poet. Christianity is among the themes and stances of his work, but his is no hand-clapping, folk-guitar religion: it has the windbared fields reminiscent of Sorley MacLean, the great Scots Gaelic poet. The language is as plain as can be imagined; not the stark down-to-the-bone of, say, Guillevic or Anne Hebert, but completely face-on and unadorned. “Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious” (Larkin’s words, from “Church Going”), Thomas’s work has a real necessity to it. He is not well-known in the States, but these stark, curt narratives are worth seeking out. This is northern music at its most powerful and satisfying. The volume I cite here is the selection that introduced me to Thomas; he was a voluminous poet, and currently there are two volumes of his collected poems and, most recently, one volume of uncollected poems, all published by Bloodaxe. There are also a variety of selected poems from Penguin and other publishers. For Sorley MacLean, read From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems in Gaelic with English Translations (Carcanet/Birlinn, corrected edition 1999).
---Let Evening Come: Selected Poems, by Jane Kenyon (Bloodaxe). Kenyon died of leukemia in 1995, and since then a kind of heroine’s myth has been gathering around her memory. Kenyon without leukemia would be like Plath without suicide, but it’s a curious myth, that cannot be attached to any cause, national, political or feminist; as with Keats, it was an unsought martyrdom. The danger of any such myth is that it distracts from the verse. Kenyon’s poetry was domestic without being banal, religious without being cloying, New England without being folksy; it had a kind of illuminated everyday quality without eccentricity or hobbyhorses, and was intelligent and penetrating without the academic manner. “Woman, why are you weeping,” written at the end of her life, is one of the most beautiful poems of religious loss I’ve ever read; however desolated the experience, we feel gratitude for this kind of honesty, worthy of Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
---The Beauty, by Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe). Part of the power of the verse of Emily Dickinson is her natural bent for metaphor: her intense inspection of the narrows and vistas of her life stares at her subject matter until it turns into something else. Some of this is in Jane Hirshfield as well: “Once I / was seven Spanish bullocks in a high meadow, / sleepy and nameless.” Note how the dandelions in a Durer drawing become “Exiles / writing letters / sent over the mountains by friendly horses and donkeys.” She has come to a wonderful mastery not just of the breathing and natural cadences of poetry that has escaped the chains of meter, but to a nimble way of noticing what we do not, of letting her imagination run away with her: “Riddles are soulless. / In them, it is never raining.” This is a rich, bracing, beautiful, warming collection--something to help keep you alive.
---Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, by Mark Doty (Harper). The emotional quality that greets you first in Doty’s poems is joy, joy in the material, corporeal world. The verses are full of flowers, fish, people, dogs, even atmospheric conditions (he loves fog, God bless him), all ecstatic in particulars, in their varied weight of cadence, in their wild elegance of wordplay. Then I thought of Doty’s background and experience—he has been one of the most eloquent elegists of the AIDS epidemic; I was reminded of Johnson’s “Courage, sir, is the first of virtues,” and thought I might reconsider which quality is Doty’s first. But whatever. Fire to Fire is one beauty after another, and you could run though whole vocabularies of praise to describe his work. Technically, he is an answer to those who worry about the exhaustion of the means of poetry: Doty starts from wherever he is and goes. And emotionally he anchors us in delight: “The city’s inescapable / gorgeous and on fire. I have my kingdom.” He does.
---Songs of Unreason, by Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon Press). Since the Romantic period, poets have loved to speak of themselves as agents of the intuitive, the irrational, of divine madness—probably in hopes of disassociating themselves from the sad mansion of academic poetry that killed so many trees in the twentieth century. This kind of language gets all over Jim Harrison—he describes his thinking as “atavistic, primitive, totemistic”—but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Harrison has obviously found his own way through the poetics of modernism, but has retained an elemental, Antaean quality—an awareness of ground and plant and insect and air—that gives weight and weather to his imaginative and symbolic flights, a mordant gravity. Harrison’s 2011 collection alternates independent pieces with a “Suite of Unreason” which one might call surreal but for its stubborn human appeal. It’s a great book.
---The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992, by Jack Gilbert (Knopf). Gilbert is another poet of mythic presence—his name is always in the air among people writing poetry. Mythic in part because the two collections preceding The Great Fires are out of print and difficult and expensive to find; and in part because he seems to have lived well away from the literary scene of appearances, awards, academe and so forth. This solitude is the breath of the poems; they give the sense of a man marching with enormous courage and confidence into unfamiliar and dangerous country. His sense of invention, the moulding of rhythm to mood, is extraordinarily sure-handed; he has taken from the Modernists as much as he needed and sung with his own voice. Written in the ten years after the death of his wife, the poems are marked by an imagination wild without excess and by a deep, blessing gravity. (His two earlier books, Views of Jeopardy and Monolithos, were long out of print and the prices being asked for them were simply vile, but Random produced, shortly before Gilbert’s death in 2014, a Collected Poems—all six of his books and a grand selection of uncollected pieces. Solves that problem.)
---Pictures from Brueghel and other poems, by William Carlos Williams (New Directions). It’s cheating a bit (as it was with Berryman) to include Williams among the contemporaries—he died over forty years ago—but of all the books of modern and contemporary poetry Williams’s last collection may be the one I would most hate to do without. In it Williams took all his fascination with the rhythms of American speech, the experimentation and Imagism of his youth and middle age and went past them into a classical, almost mysterious mastery of form and emotional equipoise. Affection, dismay, humor—and, in the long poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Williams’s most beautiful verses on marital love as the victim and vanquisher of death—all crystalline, all written as if in a state of grace. A lifetime of doctoring is behind these poems, and very, very few twentieth century poets were granted the time, luck and determination to achieve this late-Shakespearean wisdom—Yeats himself, combative to the end, stopped just short of it, I think. Plain as they are, pawkish and teasing as they can be, these poems are wine, and you neglect them to your loss.