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.
Continue reading…

The Page Barrier

I value concision. I have told myself this value is the reason that I often prefer shorter poems. And I have told myself this preference is the reason that I have tended to write poems under one page (~40 lines) in length. All that, however, is changing.

I now recognize that in my work I have had a tendency to want to end a poem after delivering a few good lines, to “look ahead” to the conclusion and shape the direction toward that end. Reading Marvin Bell’s “Dead Man” poems, which always appear in two parts, helped me recognize just how much can still be said even after the conclusion of the first part of a poem. In some ways, every poem could be said to be just the first part of a poem on that topic.

Reading other longer works has also helped me understand how I might go about resisting conclusions in the effort at arriving in more interesting poetic territory. Being halfway through my third semester in the Pacific University MFA program, I have now read over fifty books of poetry and poetry criticism in the last fifteen months of study. I have learned a lot. Perhaps more importantly, I have absorbed a lot, imbibing poetry as much as analyzing it, and letting it shape my aesthetics from the inside out.

Most recently, I have been reading David St. John’s Study For The World’s Body. I am struck by the success of his longer poems. Comparing his work to another poet whose longer poems I also admire, Li-Young Lee, has helped me to understand some of the qualities of longer poems which I hope to deploy in my own efforts at breaking the single-page barrier.

Foremost among them seems to be a tone that reflects confidence. This sense of confidence about the speaker, and by inference the author, helps me as a reader to give the author permission to dwell on unfolding details, provided they remain grounded in concrete images, interesting language, music, or other elements of good craft. Careful examination of details in this way produces the actual poetry, and gives a sense of focus and precision to the work, despite its length.

The stand-up comedian Billy Connolly is a master at delivering humor through seemingly endless digressions. When he finally comes back to the main topic, long since forgotten in the audience’s mind, he earns not only laughs but trust that he knew what he was doing all along. Good long poems can also function in this way — taking time to deliver poetry through the details, but retaining a sense of focus and direction all along.

In some ways, it seems to me that longer poems do not necessarily have to end on lines as spectacular as those required for the success of shorter poems. A rider who has hung on to a bucking stallion with dignity and tenacity need not necessarily dismount with great flourish to win cheers. The sustained quality and duration of the work is a feat in itself. Such feats I look forward to attempting in practice soon.

Li-Young Lee on Poetry

The Summer 2004 issue of Rattle contains a wonderful interview with Li-Young Lee. Among the gems are this passage about wholeness:

…what I really love when I read a poem is the visceral experience of a sense of wholeness … every poem is a portrait of the speaker, right? So if my experience of that speaker is a kind of integrated, a deeply integrated but at the same time highly differentiated psyche … then I get a real sense of satisfaction, a sense somehow that in the poem the intellectual function is informed of the emotional function and they are both informed of the erotic function and the erotic function is informed of the spiritual function. Sometimes I have a problem when I read a poem that’s just the mental function, it seems uninformed of the physical functions or the emotional functions or the spiritual functions. Or even a poem that is just the spiritual function working overtime but uninformed of the other functions. So what I love is a poem that somehow posits, proposes, a condition of wholeness.

which seem to echo and extend a lot of my own thoughts and beliefs about engaging both heart and mind in poetry as the fullest realization of the art. And also this wonderful passage:

We’re living in a time when the word “sincere”, and I didn’t know this, is suddenly a bad thing. I don’t get it. 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. … What do they mean by that? And then I was talking to a poet and I said to her, “Well, for me, poetry is a form of disillusionment, right? It frees you of your illusions in order to uncover the condition of the all which we are constantly in the midst of.” And she said, “Well, I don’t like to be disillusioned.” “Why? You want to be illusioned?” … I mean, Hollywood gives us illusions. People Magazine gives us illusions. TV gives us illusions. But I think art gives us reality. And the reality that’s uncovered is so rich. Maybe that’s what it is — it’s not only rich and beautiful but it’s terrifying, too. So maybe we can’t stand abundance. we can’t stand abundance and so we keep making models of scarcity. … I want to be disillusioned. When I first read the poets that I love, I thought, wow, you mean, this is real existence, this is somebody speaking truthfully about my own experience of the all. And I just don’t want to live in illusion. …

which speaks so beautifully to me about my own ever-unfolding relationship to poetry as disillusionment and a kind of deliberate antidote to the illusion-making of mass media. I find reading Lee’s words on the power and importance of poetry almost as invigorating and renewing as reading his poems. What a remarkable man.

Featured Poet at Artists’ Union Gallery, Ventura

I read a range of poems, many new pieces fueled by the MFA — and even some poems about the passing of our son. It was the first time reading them in public, save for a few I read in workshop at the last residency. It felt necessary — like it was time; another stage of honoring and letting go. I also dedicated the first part of the reading to the memory of Sandford Lyne, opening with one of his poems, reading a couple new translations I had done of Machado and Neruda (two of his favorites) and ending the first section with a eulogy in honor of his great spirit.

The place was packed. Roe, our indefatigable host, joked that the event was a sell-out just like Mary Oliver’s reading last week (though Cambell Hall admittedly does hold one or two more people than the Gallery). Still, it was nice to see standing room only. More high praise and fond support: Doris brought her cookies and of course left with an empty bowl. I could not have had a more supportive group in which to read such intimate and personal poems.

Seeing Li-Young Lee read from his own deeply sorrowful, grief-stricken poems last week gave me a model for what it means to honor the experience and honor the art even though it is deeply personal. I felt in some way that seeing him read gave me the strength to do what I had to do tonight.

Li-Young Lee’s Compelling Tenderness

“…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”

What struck me most about both The City In Which I Love You and Rose was Lee’s tenderness. It is not softness per se or looking only on the gentler side of things — far from it, his poetry encompasses, contains and holds moments of profound suffering and injustice sharply in its lens. Yet there is a quality of seeking to understand the human side of everything this poetry looks upon. This is a compelling kind of tenderness — not the tidy, maudlin tenderness of Hallmark greeting cards, but a profound ability to look lovingly and longingly at the deeper themes of life, which are necessarily complex and unresolved.

I find satisfaction in Lee’s poetry through its sensitive details. He seems to let me in unflinchingly to his most intimate moments. Yet despite such vulnerability, he never steers the experience toward any overt manipulation of what I should feel or think — the dignity of that burden is left solely with me. By focusing on detail in a spare and careful way, and resisting any urge to tie things up too neatly, Lee’s poems ring with an incredible veracity, and leave me feeling as though I have experienced, briefly, another’s life.

For example, this is part of the final section of “My Sleeping Loved Ones” from Rose:

More than the cheekbones I inherited from my mother,
more than my left hand, the spear,
or my right hand, the hammer, more
than humility, like my father’s heavy hand
on the back of my neck,
it is my love
for the sleeping ones
which recommends me.

Continue reading…

Help Me Find Poets

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?