As the year comes to a close, I find myself in a reflective mood. Having compiled a list of the more than 350 poets I have mentioned on my website since I began writing about poetry in 2003, I was curious to discover which poets I have mentioned most often in the last ten years.
What follows is that list of poets — most alive, some dead; most writing in English, some not; many I have met, some I won’t and never will. Click on the name or image for a brief summary of who each one is and and what they mean to me, and to read what I have written about them over the years.
Proofs & Theories is a remarkable collection of essays in which Glück speaks candidly about her experience and thoughts on writing. I want to read these notes on craft not so much because she is a great essayist or critic, but because I value illumination into the mind of such a remarkable poet. Most striking to me was her essay, “Against Sincerity” — the very title seemed designed to shock. After all, I found myself ruefully laughing along with Li-Young Lee in an interview he gave with Rattle when he said:
I heard a poet say to me, ‘Oh, I hate sincerity.’ And I thought, oh, what do you like? Insincerity? I don’t get it.
I didn’t get it either. Perhaps partly because the title is so iconoclastic, Glück begins by defining terms, equating her use of the word sincerity with “telling the truth.”
Clearly, the truth is not always interesting. Nor can a poet force a reader to like a poem simply because “it really happened.” This seems to be the single greatest mistake of poets engaged with the personal lyric in our time.
Contemporary sonnets are not easy to write.
Yet some have done it surprisingly well. Of the poems I liked best toward the latter half of this anthology, there seemed to be three general types of poems that employed either dense music to drown out the form; an “absurd” subject matter juxtaposed against the intricate, labyrinthine turns of the form; or a very faint adherence to the form, giving a vague echo or nod to the tradition while also breaking free.
Not all moments of frustration in poetry create pleasure. Sometimes, they bring pleasure and pain together in a compelling moment of poignance. Take, for example, the start of “Purple Bathing Suit” from Louise Glück’s collection Meadowlands:
I like watching you garden
with your back to me in your purple bathing suit:
your back is my favorite part of you,
the part furthest away from your mouth.
You might give some thought to that mouth.
Also to the way you weed …
This is the same kind of stroke as in “Snow” from Ararat, where she says of being a young girl on her father’s shoulders:
My father liked
to stand like this, to hold me
so he couldn’t see me.
The incisive mind invades the expectation of tenderness, cuts it off and makes it sinister — the same experience as feeling shocked by cruelty in a moment of vulnerability, the same thing — in essence — as heartbreak itself.
Studying Ararat, the earlier book, has helped me to understand a bit of the trajectory of poetic development Louise Glück undertook towards arriving at her masterpiece, The Wild Iris. In both Ararat and The Wild Iris, Glück employs bold declarations, often at the beginning of her poems, to remarkable effect. For example, the first line of the first poem in The Wild Iris is, “At the end of my suffering / there was a door.” The first line of the first poem in Ararat is, “Long ago, I was wounded.” These are simple statements, issued in a very bold, clear, undecorated voice. Both plunge us immediately into her world, and leave lots of room for further development in many possible directions, making them compelling first lines. Glück’s repeated use of these kinds of statements gives both works an allegorical and at times almost prophetic feel.
When I was writing technical articles regularly, my blog was an invaluable tool. I could float ideas to a global audience and get great feedback that would help shape my thoughts before my writing went to press and international distribution. Given I have enjoyed dialog with a number of readers and writers whose poetic sensibilities seem similar to my own (Nick, Pearl, Michael, Collin, Carol and Jenni just to name a few), and given Pandora For Poetry doesn’t exist yet, I thought I might likewise solicit feedback on part of my reading list for my upcoming semester at Pacific. Here’s what I have so far:
B.H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems…
Robert Wrigley, In The Bank Of Beautiful Sins
Gregory Orr, Concerning the Book that is the Body…
Renate Wood, The Patience Of Ice
Li-Young Lee, The Winged Seed
Louise Glück, Ararat
Dorianne Laux, What We Carry
Joseph Millar, Fortune
Joan Aleshire, This Far
As well as a number of books (at least one each) from faculty members with whose work I am less familiar. I strongly suspect I will really like those books as well, but the ones above are an even stronger suspicion based on previous experience with the author.
So, given that list, what else would you recommend? Or do you think some other book by one of the above authors is stronger, or more in line with the rest? Or, if you’ve been following my blog for awhile and think you know what I like, what else might you recommend that has nothing to do with the above list, but still is something you think would inform my study of poetry? Or what do you like, that doesn’t have anything to do with what I might like, that you still think I just have to read?