The Chronicle's Books section on Sunday had a review of four new poetry collections.
The Chronicle's Books section on Sunday had a review of four new poetry collections.
Looked at like that, clouds almost start to resemble crusty politicians, or mammoth corporations, anything that operates with too much power and from too great a remove.
If I'm not mistaken, that is a reference to Timothy Donnelly's recent book, The Cloud Corporation, winner of the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.
Poems move quickly. Sometimes the best thing you can do as a reader is trust them and hold on tight.
William Logan writes thought-provoking reviews for The New Criterion:
The image of the apron seems merely decorative, until you realize it’s there to introduce the butchery.
Takeaway: each image should serve a purpose.
The poems witness a degrading world where manners and the grace of language have been eroded by technology.
Takeaway: what does your poem witness?
and too many poems that end on a little pneumatic—or perhaps Plathetic—urgency
Takeaway: "Plathetic." Like "Shakesperian" or "Homeric," right? I get it.
There are many poets writing now in what might be called the New Breathlessness.
Takeaway: how hard it is to avoid accusations of pretension.
on the secret life of mirrors
Takeaway: OK, that could lead to an actual poem. But would you have to give credit?
These fragments of rural life are like outtakes from Frost, but without the Yankee cunning that made American pastoral so unpredictable.
Takeaway: what could possibly be said about nature that would be new? There must be something.
Here is an essay on the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In a Tranströmer poem, you inhabit space differently; a body becomes a thing, a mind floats, things have lives, and even non-things, even concepts, are alive.
This is from a David Kirby review of the latest book of poems by Yusef Komunyakaa:
In A Few Good Voices in My Head, writer and critic Ted Solotaroff says that a piece of writing is often a writer’s “only way to organize and to some extent comprehend life’s fullness and perplexity.” I love that phrase “to some extent.” A piece of writing that led to complete comprehension would turn us all into mute mystics. Isn’t being organized and partly enlightened enough — isn’t it plenty?
Kirby calls the Komunyakaa book "beautiful and hard, too. ... Komunyakaa is not dealing in easy truths."
Here is an essay by Adam Plunkett called "Why Critics Praise Bad Poetry." It never really answers that question, but the second half reads like a (favorable) review of Radial Symmetry by Katherine Larson, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize.
Larson gives a clear image of her poems’ mystery, of how she explores like a sailor and builds like a craftsman and analyzes like a scientist, and of how she, as an artist, renders and deepens the problems that caused her to wonder. She complicates the ideas she offers most clearly, to enrich the basic mysteries.
This is a stunning ending. But why? I wondered when I first read the poem. Aside from the dramatic situation itself, which is certainly powerful, what makes this so affecting? I think the answer has to do with a series of savvy formal maneuvers, which nuance and strengthen the personal testimony. .... Young knows that drama often works by taking one more additional turn, after the central realization, .... [This] complicates the poem and makes it more powerful.
How do the letters relate to Dickinson’s poetry?
There are many examples, but here’s just one: When Dickinson loses her housekeeper, who quit to get married, she writes that she really misses the maid—a common enough statement—but then writes, “To all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” This merging of the minor and the vast is a key trait of Dickinson in the poems and in the letters. The leaps of imagination are stunning. One needs privacy and silence, and flourishing genius, to live in such a realm. Otherwise, one stops at, “Gee, I miss Maggie the maid so much.”
The letters are part of the poetry, launching pads for her crises, joys, and observations. Being in seclusion, everything is pitched high, allowing her to roam free and to explore states of awe. There is nothing to hold her in check. The concrete becomes the abstract. The personal becomes the universal. Her letters transcend the factual and biographical and ascend into the realm of poetry.
On April 22, 2011, writing for the New York Times, David Orr used recent work of Matthew Zapruder and Rachel Wetzsteon to illustrate "How Poets Achieve Their Styles":
The achievement of a style is like the achievement of an individual poem writ large: it’s a delicate balance of confidence and guesswork, as the writer simultaneously relies on what’s worked in the past, bets on what might work right now and tries to leave a little room for things that might work in the future. .... Some poets manage the feat in their first books (Bishop), others take a couple of outings to get things right (Larkin) and still others pass through multiple styles over the courses of long careers (Yeats, Auden). The process is fascinatingly byzantine, but it’s not really a matter of “divine prompting”; rather, a poet arrives at a style through the same combination of staggering labor and jolts of luck that most complex activities depend on.
The latter idea echoes the theory Malcolm Gladwell espoused in his book Outliers: The Story of Success -- or at least the "staggering labor" part of it.
David Kirby, writing for the New York Times Book Review, considers Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr (Harper/HarperCollins Publishers 2011).
The Poetry Foundation has released a new "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry," which is described as "an aid in interpreting the copyright doctrine of fair use as it applies to creating and quoting poetry."
As a lawyer, I'm cognizant of the concept of fair use and try to stay within its confines in both of my blogs. However, I do not specialize in copyright law, so this new guide is helpful.
It's interesting to note that the guide draws a distinction between fair use on a blog and fair use in other media. Critics generally are cautioned:
Under fair use, a critic discussing a published poem or body of poetry may quote freely as justified by the critical purpose; likewise, a commentator may quote to exemplify or illuminate a cultural/historical phenomenon, and a visual artist may incorporate relevant quotations into his or her work.
Code at p. 11. This language appears as part of principle no. 4, which sets forth guidelines for "scholar[s], critic[s]. [and] reviewer[s]."
But in principle no. 6, "Poetry Online," bloggers get this special warning:
A blogger quoting a poem in a blog should use only as much of the poem as is necessary to the blogger’s specific goals, whether the purpose is providing commentary or making some other discursive point.
Code at p. 14 (principle no. 6).
A blogger is a journalist and if that journalist is writing a poetry review, the same rules should apply.
At the blog City Brights, Dean Rader asks "Is San Francisco to Poetry What New York is to Fiction?" The post mentions some of the established and emerging poets who are working here:
With Emily Dickinson, it might seem as if we were talking about the poetry of survival--a restabilizing of self through poetic ordering. But subjectivity is so rampant and intense for Dickinson that the truest thing we might risk saying is that subjectivity itself could be said to constitute her trauma. Her emotional life was so excruciatingly volatile and her solitude so deep that simple conscious existence represented a potential shattering of self. And she responds to this curious threat with an equally powerful ordering self, a self created in and through the poems.
It seems that for both Dickinson and Orr, "the language in poetry [can be] 'magical,' unlike language in fiction: ... it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it."
[An] interweaving of the physical and the spiritual is a commonality Kaminsky and Abramson share, and while many other poets aspire to illuminate moments of beauty in the everyday, or, more ambitiously, to transform the mundane through their slanted perspective, Kaminsky and Abramson differ in that their narratives take for granted that the two qualities are inseparable, already fused together. And what may simply be “beauty” transformed by a poet’s sharp eye in other writing is often the residue of divinity for Kaminsky and Abramson. And the manner in which both authors continually incorporate the myths and folklore of their Jewish history with the boredom and drudgery, or worse, the brutality and violence of everyday life, lends each volume an air of magical realism reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salvador Plascencia.
For Strickland, an ability to see the world slant can make you a yeoman poet. But the real stars take the slant to yet another level.
Must be a wo –
A loss or so –
To bend the eye
Best Beauty’s way –
But – once aslant
It notes Delight
E. Dickinson (Fr538)
I’d like to suggest two largely unalloyed reasons for [poets to write] criticism. The first is that it can be an act of generosity, a mitzvah, an opportunity to draw attention to a poet or a work that might otherwise be passed over or ignored—criticism as recuperation. .... Writing an essay or review about an unrecognized or underappreciated talent should be considered not a drudge but a duty. ....
The most compelling reason by far for a poet to write criticism is that it is a useful, almost indispensible, adjunct to writing poems. .... Poets who [become critics] are hungry to know how the best poems work, how the poet has done what he has done. When I read a good poem, I want to know what went into the mystery of its success. I feel that any chance that I might have for my own success depends on it. When I read a less-than-good poem, I want to know—or rather I think I know too well—where it has gone wrong. ....
Who better than the poet to fulfill Jarrell’s role of the ideal critic—“an extremely good reader—one who has learned to show to others what he saw in what he read.”
David Yezzi, "The Rest is Criticism," Contemporary Poetry Review (Nov. 21, 2010).
The September 2010 issue of Poetry has an essay by Tony Hoagland, "Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness," discussing two schools of contemporary poetics. They are, if I'm not mistaken, the ones Ron Silliman refers to as "quietude" and "post-avant"; the two that the editors of American Hybrid theorize are merging into an intermediate school; ones that might be more broadly referred to as "mainstream" and "experimental."
Hoagland says this:
In our time, this bifurcation of motives among poets has become so pronounced as to be tribal. The polarization in premises has been further enhanced by a whole generation of poets who have been intellectually initiated into critical perspectives on language and meaning which render all forms of “recognition art” suspect, problematical—or, even worse, boring. Because the fit between the human mind, the actual world, and language is imperfect, is fraught with distortion, to manifest those distortions in poems has come to constitute a subject matter ....
His essay focuses on "the poetics of vertigo"—one he says (citing Stevens) "engages and resists the intelligence of the reader"—and surveys a number of sample poems of this type. Hoagland's "vertiginous" poetics seems to me to resemble what Stephen Burt referred to in 1994 as "elliptical" poetry (but later all but repudiated). Hoagland's essay is very helpful in elucidating this more inaccessible type of contemporary poetry, the characteristics of which seem to keep shifting. His contributor's note says he is working on a "craft primer" on "associative poetry," which I look forward to seeing.
The October 18, 2010 issue of The New Yorker has a review by Dan Chiasson of Timothy Donnelly's new poetry collection, The Cloud Corporation. (The full review is available online to subscribers only.) An excerpt from the first two paragraphs:
Poets tend to be lingerers or barrellers. .... Some of the most affecting moments in poetry happen when a born barreller stops to linger (as Frank O'Hara does in "The Day Lady Died," after the death of Billy Holiday halts him in his tracks) or a natural lingerer has to barrell (as John Keats does in "Bright Star," considered his last complete poem, a plea for steadfastness and rest that takes the form, despite itself, of a fourteen-line frenzied single stanza).
It used to be that contemplatives were all, by nature, lingerers. Yet ours is the age of inner barrellers, poets of ultrafast interiority. Its muse is Adderall mixed with Google. Much of this work is daffy and pointless, as though to be wired were to be inspired. But the best poets writing in this mode know that an unsorted list of data is not a poem. If anything, the current situation gives particular urgency to the task of finding meaning inside the data stream, along with forms of beauty both intellectually credible and ethically palatable. Reasons, that is, to linger.
(Hyperlinks added.) The review goes on to call Donnelly, 41, "the barreller-in-chief of the younger generation of American poets."
My new book of Helen Vendler essays includes a piece called "Ammons, Berryman, Cummings," which first appeared in The Yale Review in 1973. (The piece does not appear to be available online. The Yale Review's online archive goes back only to 1980.)
I've loved Cummings' poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town" since the first time I read it (in an anthology of poems to be read aloud). Vendler's review of Cummings' Complete Poems, published in 1968, introduces several other poems of similar style and feeling, including "my father moved through dooms of love" (heartbreaking), "somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond," and "may i feel said he."
Many of Cummings' more experimental poems are, in Vendler's words, "unreadable-aloud." She also observes that "[C]ummings' first and last lines are nearly always ... his memorable ones, and most of his poems sag in the middle. .... Cummings was capable of stunning parts, and these parts glitter on the page like sparklers ... but the scraps don't organize into constallations, the music falls into notes and remains unorchestrated." (Vendler follows the convention of not capitalizing the poet's name, although Wikipedia tells us he did not actually prefer this.)
Vendler criticizes Cummings' works for their "stereotyped," "utopian affirmations," which she says represent "a guerrilla war against intellect." Perhaps the poems linked to above are exceptions (and indeed Vendler quoted "may i feel said he" as such), but I do not think there is anything particularly utopian about them. They perhaps reflect a yearning for a utopia, but they certainly acknowledge that our world is not one.
Women and men(both dong and ding)(from "anyone lived in a pretty how town") That having been said, Vendler unquestionably has read more of Cummings' poems than I have, so her impression of his work's overall import is no doubt valid. Makes me want to take another look and find out.
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
Here is an excerpt from a book review by Peter Campion in the December 2009 issue of Poetry:
Whatever their derivation and however they operate, the groups of ideas in whose light the best poets perform their work are what make their poems so often feel estranging. This is because those ideas, taken together, form a wholly original view of life. We encounter and explore these views as if learning new languages, by immersion. The habits of perception in a newly discovered poet’s work are so unique that they often force us to break down our own pre-conceptions and learn the world afresh.
If a poet has a "wholly original view of life" it should not be surprising that her poems might come across as pleasingly ambiguous ("temporarily baffling") on a first read (or perhaps even on many reads).
When I was in school I read, besides anthologies, books about poets to find new poets and new poems and to reassure myself that there were people in the world who, to paraphrase Auden, "exchanged messages" about poetry. I did not care, or even notice, who had written these books, but I was glad they existed. In agreeing to collect these pieces, I remembered my younger self in the library; it is for her counterparts today that this volume is intended.
That would be me, thirty years later (except that, at least in the case of this particular author, I do care and did notice).
The first essay I read is a review of Sylvia Plath's Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems, which appeared in the New York Times Book Review on October 10, 1971. (A version of the essay is available here.) Vendler says that in many of the poems in this collection, "all of nature exists only as a vehicle for [the poet's] sensibility," "till we ask whether there ever was, in Sylvia Plath at this time, a genuine sense of something existing that was not herself. (Later, her children became real other beings to her, if we can judge from the poems in Ariel)." Vendler quotes the title poem, "Crossing the Water," as an example of a poem in which "the imposition of self on the world attains a beautiful if deceptive, coherence."
"Crossing the Water" is one of my favorite Plath poems. I would readily make all nature a vehicle for my sensibility if I could do it as beautifully as she did there, or even as a writing exercise.
I was an English major before I became a lawyer with a full-time practice in San Francisco. Contact me at kimberlyann [at] gmail [dot] com.