Modern Poets: Selected Annotations

This semester, like last semester, I am writing brief annotations on the books I read. As I mentioned earlier, I am focusing on late modernist poets. Here are a few notes on some iconic books that have had a great impact on my relationship to poetry:

Jarrell, Randall. The Lost World: New Poems. New York: Collier Books, 1966.

This collection of poems is strikingly different from Jarrell’s body of work about wartime aviation. These are mostly dream-like meditations on childhood, told from the perspective of a child, and sometimes as persona poems in the voice of a woman. They employ deliberately prosaic language and a stocky, often single-stanza form.

Merwin, W.S. The Lice. New York: Antheneum, 1967.

A forceful, strong-voiced body of poems. Possibly a predecessor of Glück’s ventriloquistic style? Also somehow reminiscent of Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares. Haunting, powerful, and impossible to summarize.

Merwin, W.S. The Moving Target. New York: Atheneum, 1979.

The soldered-together sentence fragments, lack of punctuation, and disruptive repetition of certain phrases in this collection of poems is highly reminiscent of Paul Celan. This collection seems clearly more influenced by French than The Lice, which, by compare, moved into a more distinctly American voice, while retaining the high-voltage associations and also adding metaphoric elements reminiscent of Pablo Neruda. Merwin was striking out in new directions in The Moving Target, no doubt heavily influenced by his translation work.

Moore, Marianne. Selections from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.

Poems of observation, many of which follow a pattern of syllabic counts from stanza to stanza. Many of these poems employ a wit akin to that of the Algonquin Round Table (Dorothy Parker et al.), and certainly possess a kind of period charm. But beyond this, the work is interesting for its celeritous musicality, and in particular the ways that Moore works with enjambment and slant internal rhymes to create pleasurable disorientation.

Silkin, Jon. Poems New And Selected. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1966

These are compelling meditations on life and death, at once seemingly plainspoken and yet intellectually intricate and refined. His poems about the death of his son, as well as similarly resonant poems about the death of animals, betray a deep sensitivity and a beautiful use of forms that invent themselves as they go along.

Snodgrass, W[illiam] D[eWitt]. Heart’s Needle. New York: Knopf, 1959.

This is a collection of meditations upon failure, written in a variety of somewhat formal structures. The title sequence focuses on failures in parenthood. This collection does not strike me as “confessional” in the sense we have adopted since the 1980s of direct revelation and admission of shortcomings, as much as it attempts to find language suitable to relate a sense of futility in the speaker’s voice, and the speaker’s relationship to the world.

Stevens, Wallace. “Ideas of Order.” and “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1977. 117-188.

A collection of musically-driven poems, which seem to find their way by musicality into strange ideas and sensibilities. “The Man With the Blue Guitar” is an ars poetica composed in couplets, simultaneously explaining and demonstrating Stevens’ poetics through the metaphor of the blue guitar.

Williams, William Carlos. “Spring And All” Imaginations. New York: New Directions, 1970. 88-151.

An experimental work interspersing poems with fragmentary prose commentary on the importance of imagination in art and life. An incredible sense of freedom is achieved by the deliberate meanderings, starts, stops, and intentionally mis-headed sections. The poems, set apart from the surrounding experimental-style commentary, demonstrate Williams’ characteristic style.

I Hate Shakespeare and Literature

That is the comment someone left on one of my posts about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29. Their IP address came from Panama. Based on the email address (amigas por siempre), the commenter is likely young and female — probably a student.

You see, posts I made about Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens are placing high in Google searches. And these days, a remarkable number of students use Google as a means to gather materials for English essays. In fact, a lot of them simply plagiarize what they find. Cut. Paste. Grade.
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Wallace Stevens: the Emperor of Ice Cream

Read The Poem

What is so great about this poem is the way it feels in your mouth when read aloud (try it!) and the way it delights the senses — all the while evading much in the way of prosaic meaning. Yet despite its lack of solid, linear, non-symbolic meaning, the poem is profoundly assertive. Rather than examine the lush (concupiscent, perhaps?) language elements of this poem, I would like to take a moment to talk about the line breaks, and how the few artificially broken lines in the poem serve to strengthen the simultaneous sense of certainty and delight.

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