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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Doomed in Good Company

Thoughts for Dispossessed Poets

“There is another world, and it is in this one”

-Paul Éluard

“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.”

-John 1:10

Skull with Top Removed by Leonardo DaVinciBoo hoo. The modern world we live in does not appreciate poetry. Not like it ought to, not like you and I do. We get it. We eagerly await that new journal or book of poems, smuggle it like contraband into our grey morning commute. We find the one poem that, as Dickinson put it, takes the top of our head off. And it stays with us all day, as we go about our work counting beans or scrubbing out loos. It changes who we are and how we see the world. But nobody else really gets it, and the lack of money is there to prove it.

So maybe we’re doomed.

But poetry has already changed the world — yours, mine — irrevocably in altering how we see it. It is in the world, making and re-making it, and the world has not a clue. But we know. And so we go on reading and writing, having great conversations long past bedtime, walking through the gentle misery of everyday living with this secret knowledge, this little spark that could light the whole world on fire — but doesn’t. Perhaps never will.

Maybe we’re doomed. But we are doomed in good company — you and me — which is to say we are blessed indeed. Ask anyone. The poets always throw the best parties. They dance like they have nothing to lose, because it’s true. And you and me, we’ve made it this far somehow, getting by, doing our thing, making life just about work. John Keats died largely unrecognised. But ask his friends at the time, and he meant as much to them then as he does to many of us now. Do we really expect better for ourselves than the respect of a few respectable peers?

The audience is dwindling. Fine. If you need someone to write for, write for me. I mean it. I need your poems as much as I ever did — the ones I can carry around with me, the blue flame, the chip of ice in my heart. Continue reading…

First Year in London: Lessons in Negative Capability

“Not wrong, just different.”

 — Valerie‘s mantra for overcoming culture shock

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of my arrival in London. This afternoon I attended a reading at Keats House in Hampstead. Four volunteers read poems and excerpts from his letters dealing with the concept of Negative Capability. This ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is something I have cultivated in my writing process, and admired in the work of others. However, it occurs to me that living in London has exercised this quality in my life as well.

My first time living abroad has also been my first time living outside of California. Stepping off the curb while looking in the habitual (but wrong!) direction can cause a visceral shock. But the same can happen in conversation. Learning to navigate the labyrinthine streets of London can feel stressful and overwhelming. Likewise, the literary terrain. And semiotic estrangement produced at least one new poem.

Challenged with startling newness, the temptation is to make a split-second decision: either “they” are doing it wrong, or I am. But neither decision is sustainable, or leads to positive adjustment (for there are more of “them” than me, but in the end, I have to live with myself). So instead, I have been repeating my English wife’s third-way statement, which she used extensively while living in California: “not wrong, just different.” This in itself expands my capacity to abide the contradictory.

Also, faced with so much newness, the temptation is often to compartmentalise. Continue reading…

John Keats, Blogger?

“His letters are not simply a wonderful adjunct to his poems, but a vital and valuable part of them: they often serve as testing grounds for his theories and ideas, and always blend spontaneity and calculation in a way which allows us to see him in the round.”

-Andrew Motion, Keats

There are many reasons why poets take up other forms of writing. Not the least is a practical aspect. John Ashbery once pointed out that he, like most poets, can only write poetry for an hour or so per day — and so what to do with the rest of the hours in a day? Poets often write prose simply for the love of writing.

Baudelaire instructs us to “Always be a poet, even in prose.” Writing prose can be for some poets what it is for a specialized athlete to visit the gym — a way to stay limber and fit. But there are other, deeper needs fulfilled by supplementing poetry with prose. Keats’s letter writing is analogous to the modern phenomenon of poet-bloggers. And clearly, there are some timeless impulses held in common between the two.

One is the need for directness. Andrew Motion points out that “in his poems Keats cultivates a language which is carefully distanced from normal discourse. In his letters he writes with brilliant directness.” The gap has closed in most modern poetry between the diction of poetry and the diction of direct address (and now some poets even experiment with Tweets or, like Paul Muldoon, craft poems in the form of text messages). Yet despite the plainspoken nature of contemporary poetry, the art of poem craft differs considerably from impromptu direct address. Poetry is inherently self-conscious in that it is word-conscious and form-conscious — even in free verse.
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The Power of Not Knowing

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.”

-John Keats

In my life, my writing, and my appreciation of literature, I strive for awareness and understanding. I have done so in my life through the disciplines of theology and philosophy, in my writing through the tutelage of other writers, and in my appreciation of literature through the study of literary criticism. I have engaged each discipline, formally and informally, throughout my life. And so, I am myself one common denominator among these fields.

That said, I also recognize a dynamic interrelationship: my life influences my writing, and my writing influences my appreciation of the written word; conversely, my appreciation of the written word influences my writing, and my writing influences my life. With this interconnection in mind, I am also beginning to discover, and attempt to articulate, an important principle held in common among the three.

It stems from a phrase coined by an eighteenth-century English poet named John Keats, who said:

…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

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“Bright Star”

Ben Whishaw plays John Keats in Jane Campion's Don’t listen to him. Mr. Voice-Over-Man. He’s one man, with one vocal timbre, and an uncanny knack for taking a sensitive, intelligent, nuanced film, and making it sound like corn syrup. Don’t listen to the voice in the preview. I did. It made me queasy. I suppressed the gag reflex only by remembering that a trusted, smart, literate friend recommended the film to me after seeing it at the Toronto film festival. And I’m glad she did.

“Bright Star” is visually stunning. But beyond this, the immediacy of the acting, the intensity of commitment in each moment, and, of course, the respectful treatment of poetry, make this a movie that stayed with me long after the final recitation of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the simple scrolling credits. This is a romance with no sex, and no happily ever after. In fact, after witnessing the scene in which Fanny learns of John’s death, if your heart isn’t smashed into glittering pieces, you probably don’t have one.

I memorized “Bright Star” as a teenager, shortly after memorizing Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” — and was led from one to the other by Frost’s mention of “Keats’ Eremite.” This film brought back the magnificence of adolescent angst, that deepest yearning for some ineffable ideal — the very essence of romance. It is a fitting tribute to the man himself — who died young after a life marked by external suffering, and great inner beauty. If you love poetry, and especially the Romantics, do yourself a favor — along with your cheapskate bag of microwave popcorn, sneak your own inner romantic in to the darkened theater, and witness the fleeting brilliance of this portrayal one of literature’s bright falling stars.