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.
“It is a great privilege … to celebrate through poetry what is sacred between species…”
Here is the voice of my friend and mentor, Sandra Alcosser, reading her own wonderful poem about a bear:
(Video no longer available, here is the text.)
You can read more about the good work she is doing, combining poetry and conservation, in this article in the current issue of SDSU’s 360 Magazine.
The poetry craft talks so far have been broad and encompassing in their scope, and, true-to-form, Sandra Alcosser’s talk this afternoon was no exception. She spoke of the 4,000-year-old wisdom tradition that is literature, as the room filled up with the white Northern light of a solstice afternoon. She cited Shakespeare’s education in reading, translating, and memorizing the rhymed iambics of Ovid, and Whitman’s conversion from disdain of “un-American” opera to his assertion later that he could not have written Leaves Of Grass without having heard Bellini’s “Norma.”
In contrast to all the academic banter (especially among Americans) about eschewing received forms, Alcosser cited example after example of how genius in art consists not only, as Bell stated earlier, in getting in touch with one’s own “wiring” — but also in synthesizing tradition with newness. In fitting parallel with the theme of the talk, the question-and-answer session afterward opened out into a dialog among journeyman and accomplished writers alike about the remarkable and necessary tradition of literature, and the courage it takes to enter such a conversation with greatness.
There is much to admire and learn from in Ilya Kaminsky‘s Dancing In Odessa. Above all, there is bravery. Kaminsky weaves through a hybrid of forms and — more than just precluding poetry sections with introductory prose — in this book he includes anecdotes, recipes and even a list of new “definitions” for English words. What emerges is a kind of personal and cultural impasto — broad, thick strokes of lyrical “thoughts.”
This passage comes toward the end:
Then my mother begins to dance, re-arranging
this dream. Her love
is difficult; loving her is as simple as putting raspberries
in my mouth.
On my brother’s head: not a single
gray hair, he is singing to his twelve-month-old son.
And my father is singing
to his six-year-old silence.
This is how we live on earth, a flock of sparrows.
The darkness, a magician, finds quarters
behind our ears. We don’t know what life is,
who makes it, the reality is thick
with longing. We put it up to our lips
Couplets add energy and weight to this poem, since you are always either at the start or the end of a verse. The couplets in this passage, like so many of the poems in this book, eschew narrative in favor of impression and association. Quick shifts from thought to thought are balanced against a sense of unification — these are not random images, but carefully chosen pairings of diaphoric metaphor. Here is a coherence that is not so much plot- or idea-based, as something that rings true on an impressionistic level.
Though crafted, these poems are also bold. This is also definitely a book of poems that works together as a whole. Kaminsky’s poems in this book seem to feed off each other, and I see how certain individual poems I’d be reticent to call powerful in their own right do, in fact, move me and carry me along in this larger project. More than anything, here is a poet my own age writing poems that make me say, “Yes!” Thanks to Sandra for recommending this work.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
-Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”
It was worth flying back and getting a short night of sleep last night to hear Sandra Alcosser speak about brevity in poetry this morning. I am no stranger to shortness — my most recently published poem (Askew, Issue 3) is eight lines long, the longest line being eleven syllables.
But Sandra really spoke to what makes a poem compelling, independent of length, focusing in particular on the technique of diaphoric metaphor. She explained that diaphoric metaphor was taken up in American letters after the opening up of Eastern culture to the West, when Asian literature became available for translation. This method creates energy in a poem through juxtaposition of dissimilar lines to create new meaning. In a sense such associations strike me as the essence of creative thought. In its modern presentation, however, the approach comes unburdened with the conceits (“is” or “is like” or “as”) of its sibling, epiphoric metaphor.
In my own work, I started out — as I learned today that apparently the ancient Chinese poet Li Ho did as well — collecting individual lines to stitch together. This technique seems to naturally focus itself around compelling imagery (though the music can often be just as important). Alcosser also pointed out that if post-modernism is a kind of “random-access literature,” this technique of stitching together diaphoric juxtapositions represents “random-access observations for a random-access world.” Depending, therefore, upon the intensity of the leap — and whether the valence of the line tends more toward imagery/music/rhetoric or language itself as an elemental tool — this technique seems to me to be well-suited to both the personal lyric and the bold avant garde.
Sandra’s is a voracious creative intelligence that is always a pleasure to behold. I am looking forward to having her be my faculty advisor in the coming semester.
The 2007 Ojai Poetry Festival has come and gone. Whew! We started deep planning back in 2006 — and the day-and-a-half of readings and discussions, as well as all the between-the-lines schmoozing and feasting — absolutely flew by. It was great to have Sandra Alcosser in town. She teaches at Pacific, and I was really impressed, during the January residency, with her generosity and keen interest in each student’s development. She gave up her lunch hours to meet with us individually and discuss the larger project of our work as a whole. A truly delightful woman, and a force to be reckoned with in the intersection between environmentalism and art.
She gave a dynamite reading alongside Sherman Alexie on Friday night. Alexie is a natural entertainer and wry comedian. He interspersed observational humor into poems of deep pathos about growing up on the reservation. He rarely missed an opportunity to quip about the insular attitudes of white liberals or to denounce himself as a “bad indian” for his modern urban lifestyle. He is no doubt a complex person grappling with many issues both personal and universal, articulating through the funny and poignant, glib and sincere.
María Meléndez read from what can only be called the most experimental body of work in the group — involving song, audience participation, word fragments and pictograms (such as a hand with upraised middle finger) printed in the middle of her poems. Alongside Alcosser and Gary Snyder, she spoke about the intersection of art and science during the Saturday morning panel. This is a topic squarely in Alcosser’s domain as well, who is fresh from a project of choosing nature poems to display in Central Park — a project which is reputed to have raised environmental awareness by 48% among the park’s four million visitors per year.
A host of outstanding regional poets read on Saturday afternoon — equally eclectic and engaging. The festival closed on Sunday night with Gary Snyder reading at length from Danger on Peaks and discussing the environmental implications of poetry and Buddhist philosophy — including how hope and compassion can reign even in the face of death. Both evenings all four poets were joined by a chorus of spring peepers, crickets and birds. Sunday night we were also treated to Venus in almost perfect conjunction with a crescent moon — like a great question mark blazing in the night sky.
I am grateful for having played my small part in bringing this festival to Ojai for another season and, frankly, glad to know it is all done — and done well. Thanks to all four poets for gracing us with their presences, to the regional poets and all the tireless organizers and volunteers — especially Tami Haggard and Jim Lenfestey — for bringing another magical season of poetry to Ojai’s Libbey Bowl.