21 Most-Mentioned Poets

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.
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Why Sharon Olds?

Sharon Olds

“You must revise your life.”

-Wiliam Stafford

 

The audience at the T.S. Eliot Shortlist Reading were the real winners. They were treated to Gillian Clarke’s quiet tenderness, like a swan navigating a near-frozen lake. They relished the sweet sibilance of beekeeper Sean Borodale. Julia Copus gave visions of ova during IVF as ghost-like “luminous pearls.” Michael Schmidt wove Jorie Graham’s linguistic basketwork into their ears. Simon Armitage read out passages of “the British Illiad”. Kathleen Jamie let us witness how she, like her “Roses”, “haggle for my little portion of happiness.” They gasped overhearing Jacob Polley’s conversation between a mum and her stoic stabbed son. They were dogged by Deryn Rees-Jones into regarding “man’s best friend” a little differently. And wisecracking Paul Farley made them all laugh out loud.

Then a girlish woman with long grey hair, pinned back by three small sparkling barrettes, took to the stage. She seemed to read for the shortest span of time–just two poems. Yet what was remarkable is that just as these poems, in their simple, plain-spoken way, were getting good enough for most poets to consider them complete, hers go further. An impressive meditation on breasts transcends the obvious observations, as the poet tells us that, just as this one part of them was once adored by boys when they were teenagers, what all women really want is to be as adored in their entirety this much.

This is the mature Sharon Olds. This is the winner of the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She joins Mark Doty, another poet of intense observation, as one of just two Americans to take home this prize.

Yet this American poet, who pushed the envelope of confessional poetry and inspired a generation toward the genre in its heyday seems at first a somewhat unlikely choice for a British award. Continue reading…


10 Transcontinental Poets for 2013

Transcontinental 2013The Internet gives us the illusion that the best a culture has to offer will invariably find its way to us. But when it comes to art, I find that so much still comes down to local knowledge. Americans and Brits alike have long maintained a fascination with the literary work of their overseas cousins, but usually only the biggest names make the trip across the pond.

Hoping in some small way to remedy this, I have written an article for the US edition of The Huffington Post on “5 British Poets to Watch in 2013” and, for sake of symmetry, an article in the UK edition of The Huffington Post on “Five American Poets to Watch in 2013“.

How closely you watch is, of course, up to you. My hope is that you will seek out the work of these ten fine poets out for your own sake, to bring a little transcontinental mischief and mirth to your poetry reading in the year ahead.


The Power and Peril of Written Words

America, A Prophecy by William BlakeI believe that it is important to intelligently question the modern relevance of our ancestors’ words. It is as important to literature as it is to government. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution was enacted on December 15th, 1791, exactly 221 years ago today.

I currently live in England–a country with no written constitution. Upon discovering this, the American comedian Jon Stewart laughed out loud, insinuating that the British were “too polite” to set their thoughts on government down in a single document. In reality, countless legal documents, and their interpretation, make up the “unwritten constitution”–allowing it to be continually debated, updated, and adapted to the practicalities of modern times by parliament.

After a hard-won Revolutionary War against a British government that restricted freedom of speech and assembly, only permitted firearms to be purchased through them in limited quantities, and also forced Colonists to quarter soldiers without warning, it makes sense that the First, Second, and Third Amendments to the US Constitution were soon passed. The First one has proved vital to a healthy democracy; the Third one seems pretty irrelevant these days.

However, as soon as you suggest that the Second Amendment, and its subsequent interpretation allowing citizens to own firearms for self-defence independent of a militia, might not be well-suited to the Twenty-First Century, you will probably be called “unpatriotic” or even “un-American.” Continue reading…


In Praise of Autodidacticism

Photo by Sylvain Pedneault

I was born and raised in a town that recently ranked as the worst place in the nation to live, due to unemployment. My father relocated to the Imperial Valley of California before I was born. He went there to run experimental community-oriented education programs in a school for troubled teens located three blocks north of the U.S.-Mexico border. In the second week of his tenure, students burned the school to the ground.

He went on to receive one of California’s highest awards for education, as well as to testify at trials for drive-by shootings. In the end, his approach to education succeeded in changing the lives of many troubled and disadvantaged students. Conventional schools had given up on them. His new approach succeeded with two key elements: a community of support, and an emphasis on practical skills. He is still remembered fondly as an agent of positive change.

Coming from this background, I adopted the idea that all education is ultimately self-education; that it is my responsibility to seek out books, people, institutions, and other resources to learn what I need, when I need it, on a practical basis. This is part of why, despite a lifelong love of computer programming, I left the computer engineering department at a top school after the first year.
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Notes on Form in Poetry

In preparing for a upcoming workshop on poetic form, it occurs to me to ask (and answer) the question: why should form matter to poets in the twenty-first century? After all, the majority of poems written in English today are written in free verse. Certainly it is important to have a grasp of form in academia, if one is studying verse written before the Second World War. Most poetry written in English, from Beowulf to Wilfred Owen, employed elements of form, and could rightly be called verse. But poets nowadays write poems which often seem to have little connection to the strictures of the past.

What, then, can poets writing today, in the vers libre form that has dominated the past sixty years of poetry, gain from studying English-language forms that moved in and out of fashion over the previous thousand years?

One answer is that the poet can gain a sense of connection to poetic lineage. Discovering that poets have been re-inventing our relationship to language for thousands of years can be deliciously humbling. Perhaps this is what Emerson meant when he said that poetry must be “as new as foam, and as old as the rock.” Even more than this important universal perspective, though, I feel that I have also gained personally as a poet through studying form.
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Tactics for Sneaky Poets

Big Tent PoetryI had a great time facilitating the “Tactics for Sneaky Poets” workshop at Theater 150 this morning. The workshop is a flurry of creative exercises designed to demonstrate various “tactics” that poets can use to be “sneaky” with themselves in the creative process–to outwit the negative critic and analytical mind, and keep on keeping on in a free, creative space. While none of these ideas are are “new” in any universal sense, they are all tried-and-true techniques that have helped me along in my own creative process.

I have also been remiss in my role as a “sideshow barker” for the excellent Big Tent Poetry project. So here is a contribution to that ongoing poetic circus–a list of sneaky ways to keep the plates of poetry spinning.

Get inspired. Prime the pump before writing by reading poems you love by poets you love. Transcribe them. Memorize them. Carry them inside you.

Trigger yourself. Smells, sights, sounds, textures. Let your eyes and your mind wander. Memories, fantasies, reflections. Start anywhere. Just go.

Keep going. Try pushing past where you think the ending occurs. Write a “Part II.”

Use constraints. Use word groups, poetic forms, made-up assignments from friends. Constraints spark creative freedom.

Read and listen. Read your own work aloud, get others to read it back to you. Listen to the music. Tune it up.

Focus on language and lines. Read the poem bottom-up, focus on each line. Does it stand alone on its merits?
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