Geosi Gyasi is an avid reader and blogger based in Ghana who has interviewed a wide range of authors over several years.
He discovered my work through a poem recently published in Rattle, and asked some interesting questions in our interview — about how formal study has influenced my poems, about how I see technology shaping poetry, and the best thing that has ever happened to me as a poet.
I also talk about why the human element is so important to me in world of word-play, and give a sneak peek at what readers might expect from my forthcoming collection The Knowledge.
You can read the full interview here at Geosi Reads.
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.
“Our planetary reality has split in two into the so-called West and the so-called East, and I have drunk from both one and the other poisoned well. I have also become convinced that the puzzle of the thirties still cries out for a solution.”
I find myself intensely drawn to twentieth-century Polish poets. Having borne waves of tragedy in the last century, from the Holocaust to oppressive Soviet occupation, the country itself seems have been flung into a kind of national existential crisis. And so, its sensitive and intelligent poets grapple deeply and boldly with questions of faith and reason, tragedy and hope, nihilism and meaning. Many of them, like me, are fascinated with the allegorical dimensions of the Book of Job, with Nietzschean philosophy, with reconciling the tragedies of the great World Wars with the sometimes inexplicable beauty of this world. In short, they face down the deepest questions about what it means to be alive.
Yet I do not think it is only me, or only Polish poets, who must come to terms with these questions. Triggered by the worldwide disillusionment brought about by the global spectacle of the Second World War (brilliantly explained by Miłosz in The Witness of Poetry), it seems that Postmodernism is the first stage of grieving our collective loss of faith in centrality and certainty. I believe we can, and must, move past this stage by confronting the deep questions that surfaced in this time. We must heal the unspeakable wound.
“In art, you’re free.”
— Marvin Bell
One of the delights of my web presence is that I sometimes get emails from writers and readers fairly new to poetry. Recently, a young marketing executive in Singapore wrote to me. In our most recent exchange, he rightly points out that, especially in the US, there seem to be countless poets, poetry awards, and poets with awards. How, then, do we define great poets or poetry? He gave me permission to answer publicly, on this site.
In doing so, I first have to admit that I do not feel qualified in any way to define great poets or poetry. I can really only comment on the poets and poems that are great within me. I have been giving this some thought, and have identified a few common characteristics.
There are many taboos in poetry. Some of them cycle in and out of fashion. For example, in the wake of so much confessional poetry of the last few decades, many contemporary poets now spurn an insecure, dramatic speaker in favor of the quiet power that comes from a more detached, objective presentation. In fact, a large part of the modern mindset eschews sentimentality, even subtly detected, as unpoetic.
Reading Czeslaw Milosz’s “Preparation,” I am reminded of Marvin Bell’s credo: “Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, then break those rules.” Consider the poem:
Still one more year of preparation.
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return.
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.
And that will be the subject, with addenda. Thus: armies
Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.
No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is a man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with a bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.
I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.
Had a great trip down to the South coast, the highlight being a sword fight with a four-year-old on the bowling green of Carisbrooke Castle. We crossed the Solent in the kind of gale that threatened the Fastnet Race. Unfortunately, that meant we couldn’t take the hovercraft — but the fast catamaran only pitched and rolled during the slow going in and out of port. Good thing, too — Val and I were stuffed on two enormous portions (“Those are the mediums?!”) of fish & chips as well as tea and Turkish delight.
I have been reading Zbigniew Herbert on the train, trying to get past the translation. Apart from stunning poems like “Five Men” and “The Pebble,” most of the poems I have read so far smack of romantic Slavic intillectualism and an out-of-tune surrealism. I wonder if his work focuses more on language and lyric device to make what seem like generalizations come alive in new (linguistic) ways. In any case, it is a far cry from Adam Zagajewski, whose poems in Mysticism For Beginners are tight and self-contained — a kind of Eastern European Ted Koozer with a deeper connection to history and a more philosophical bent. Still, I’m ploughing through Herbert poems by the hundreds, hoping to get more inside this poet, hoping to read beyond the language barrier and into the mind of the man that has written poems that make my jaw drop open with their fierce, unflinching gaze.
Meanwhile, it is evident that since I was here three years ago, Polish people have immigrated to the UK in great numbers. There are now Polish grocers and restaurants just down the street. On the tube today, young Poles were poring over a glossy Polish-language magazine sporting the latest PC gaming equipment and games. According to Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish that contemporary poets employ is only nominally different from its medieval counterpart — making their poetic tradition vastly more accessible and vibrant than our own. (Imagine if Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote in English-as-we-know-it.)