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.
Seamus Heaney, 1970. Photo: Simon Garbutt
One of my favourite poets, who had a significant influence on me, is also one of the world’s most-loved poets, who had a significant influence on the latter half of the twentieth century. Now Seamus Heaney is gone.
The sound of a giant falling is so tremendous that whatever we say afterward must be done in a whisper. It occurs to me that quietly retracing the ways in which this wonderful poet influenced my personal relationship to poetry could serve not only as the telling of a somewhat universal tale, but also as a personal tribute.
The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, has been my field guide to better-known British poets, and a useful overview for me. Having mostly studied British poets dating from before the 18th century, and American poets since that time, I have been reading this book as eagerly as I have been reading the London A-Z map book (which is not faint praise; I am enthralled with maps of London).
For each poet, I have been jotting marginalia on my tube journey to work. I include these notes here, in a similar fashion to the notes I took on Modern American poets during my MFA degree. Unlike those notes, however, these are taken on a short sampling of work, as opposed to a whole book. I therefore intend them as starting points, not summaries.
In my notes I have also included broad designations of geographic origin, since to my outside ear a poet from Leeds and a poet from Northumberland have an auditory relationship to language more in common with each other than they do to a poet from Oxford (hence my coarse-grained designation “Northern England.”) I realize I may be missing out on subtle distinctions in language and even politics. But for now, I am concerned with puzzling out in general how these poems would sound read aloud by the authors themselves, and taking a first pass this broadly has been helpful.
Compiling in this way, I am particularly struck by the complete absence of Welsh and significant lack of Scottish poets from this volume, and the controversial inclusion of so many poets from Northern Ireland. I would be interested to hear who else you think should have made it into this book.
Here are my notes:
“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.
Reading the admonitions against earnestness from the old ghost that appears in Heaney’s “Station Island” part XII brings to mind Patrick Kavanagh. Whether or not Kavanagh was the conscious model for this character in Heaney’s poem, the by turns severe and antic nature of this individual has Kavanagh written all over it.
In his poem, “Prelude”, Kavanagh condemns “Card-sharpers of the art committee / Working all the provincial cities, / they cry ‘Eccentric’ if they hear / A voice that seems at all sincere.” (Collected Poems, 132) “Eccentric” was no doubt an epithet with which the iconoclast Kavanagh was familiar. Yet Heaney’s Kavanagh-esque figure, in arguing against orthodoxy, is not necessarily arguing against sincerity. He is arguing, instead, against earnestness. The difference is more than just an exercise in semantics.
Earnestness is a kind of sincerity, or endeavor toward sincerity, marked by gravitas. It is a determined manner, one that weighs consequences soberly. In this sense, earnestness finds itself at odds with mischief and irreverence. It is different, I think, than sincerity, which can include mischief, irreverence, and other forms of impolite honesty — modes Kavanagh embraced in his work. In differentiating, I would say earnestness involves a serious attempt, whereas sincerity involves a state of unvarnished being, and a willingness to look unflinchingly at what is.
Consider, for example one of Heaney’s most controversial poems, “Punishment”: