Although poetry is often dismissed as an almost anachronistic form, in my opinion, poets are offering some of the most vital work being written today. Like artful reporters from the front line, poets communicate experience one step beyond autobiography, as if they’ve set their heartbeats to music. Great poets record their footsteps as they move through life; their records aren’t exact but are more like sketching an object without looking at the paper, or a tape of one’s self humming a song one hopes to remember—the point lies in the idiosyncrasies of the lines, the particularities of the hum. And these histories are truer and much more representative future relics of our present era, for it is not the facts they report or the ideologies they extol but the rhythm of their soulfulness, and the melodies of their humanity, that best capture what it’s like to live today. Historians should always begin with poetry. So here are 12 books for posterity, and for you, reader, to take the temperature of today.
1. Take This Stallion by Anaïs Duplan
I loved, loved Anaïs Duplan’s Take This Stallion so much. She mixes contemporary pulp culture and vibrant colloquialism with classic forms and subtle allusions. After a brief preamble featuring recurring characters, the collection begins with an astonishingly long poem, “On a Scale of 1—10, How ‘Loving’ Do You Feel?” that brilliantly uses Kim Kardashian and other figures as foils for Duplan’s complex (and culturally-influenced) self-assessment. Later, in a startling sestina (an intricate form going all the back to the 12th century made up of six stanzas of six lines each and a final stanza of three lines in which the same six words are alternately used to end each line) “The Forever Foyer,” Duplan writes, “Water / whatever agrees to stay alive,” a fittingly poignant and melancholy phrase for a beautifully sad and movingly honest volume. She is a poet to keep your eye on.
2. A Woman Without a Country by Eavan Boland
The last collection of Eavan Boland I read was Outside History: New and Selected Poems, 1980—1990, which was published over 25 years ago, so it was an enlightening and refreshing experience catching up with the great Irish poet’s work. A Woman Without a Country brims with Boland’s consummate mastery of poetic concision, as in “Advice to an Imagist,” in which she instructs, “Follow / the line you wrote / as it were salt,” but qualifies that she is not referring to “the functionary / separate selves of sodium / and chloride,” but rather “What a man is worth. / What is rubbed into the wound. / What is of the earth.” But most of A Woman Without a Country deals with Boland’s heritage as an Irish woman, albeit one who grew up and lived in England and America. “What do we grieve for,” she asks in “Port of New York: 1956” (a companion poem to her earlier “An Irish Child in England: 1951”), “when we leave a country / and live for years in / another one?” Such immigrations are no small matter, since, as she notes, “A subject people knows this. / The first loss is through history. / The final loss is through language.” She concludes the book with a poem on Anne Bradstreet, the early Puritan poet, which epitomizes Boland’s crisis of nationality: “I am again / An Irish poet watching an English woman / Become an American poet.”
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3. Divine Nothingness by Gerald Stern
Like Boland, Gerald Stern has had a long, distinguished career in poetry: he taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for many years, he won the National Book Award and the Wallace Stevens Award, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and in 2000 he was appointed to be New Jersey’s first state poet laureate. Divine Nothingness is something like his twentieth collection, and his literary powers are still intact. In nearly breathless verses, with a sprinkle of commas and almost vacuumed of periods, Stern presents the reader with images and portraits from his life, now and past—of women (“Nancy,” “Miriam,” “Ruth,” “Daisy,” “Maryanne,” et al), of places (“Historic Church on Union Street,” “Fort Pitt Hotel,” “From Rome”) and time periods (“1944,” “112th Street (1980),” “Death 2013”). Like Whitman before him, Stern also catalogs the surrounding culture, from Studs Terkel, Mary McCarthy, and Lionel Trilling to Jim Beam, Peter Rabbit, and Amazon. At 91, Stern obviously has mortality on his mind, and his poems in this volume create a melancholy picture of an American era now receding into the distant past.
4. George Washington by Adam Fitzgerald
Also like Walt Whitman (albeit with a charge of youthful vitality), Adam Fitzgerald in George Washington creates a catalog of American experience. But where Whitman itemized the varieties of American identity, Fitzgerald’s index focuses on place names, products, pop figures, contemporary publications, movies, songs, diets—anything and everything of the current zeitgeist amalgamated into a cacophony of culture. The poems range from the personal (“How to Get Over Someone You Love”) to the satirical (“Oregon Trail”) and profuse blends of the two. Of course, there’s a poem called “Leaves of Grass,” the Whitman influence and inspiration directly acknowledged. But there’s also “Vader in Love,” one of the collection’s best, a fascinating philosophical mediation on politics, art, and love. In “How to Get Over Someone You Love,” Fitzgerald recommends, as a technique, to “Become more American,” which, in this context means buy more stuff, because even when, as in “The Lordly Hudson,” the loss you’re getting over is death: “After my family died there was a replacement family.” He goes on to report a replacement dog and house, for the American solution to pain and suffering and loss is to refill by whatever means the holes left by what is gone. New love, intimacy, and genuine affection are rare and hard to risk, but what is America if not a replacement country? And so in lieu of real substance filling our gaps, we’ll accept the remakes, the reboots, even the too-late sequels—anything to quell the hurt that bubbles or rages inside all of us.
5. Marilyn by Amanda Ngoho Reavey
A blend of memoir, poetry, documentary, and meditation, Marilyn recounts Reavey’s itinerant heritage—having in lived in six different countries, Reavey hopes to add one more, since “My favorite number is seven”; later, she tells us she’s moving to Micronesia, “My 7th country”—from birth parents to foster parents to adopted parents, from name to name, and from identity to identity. Born Marilyn Malinao, Reavey explores her transformations, ultimately leading to “Ngoho,” a name she chose:
It is a verb. It is the act of bringing the spirit down into the physical body. Through sitting. In a grounded way. Have you ever lay down in the grass and gazed at the sky? ‘Ngoho’ is that sudden feeling, after laying for a long time, of the earth opening up to cradle you. Like a mother would.
The natural world offers Reavey the constant solace and support her peripatetic childhood often lacked, but even the earth and the soil have their limits, and “The branches hang low from the weight of their fruit.” Deliberately disjointed to mimic the author’s amalgamated self, Reavey’s debut is a challenging and powerful account of gifted writer’s perpetual diaspora.
6. Standing Water by Eleanor Chai
Tracing a different but similarly distant relationship with her mother as Reavey’s, Eleanor Chai’s debut Standing Water is also an autobiographical poetic exploration. While in Paris, Chai comes across Rodin’s Head of Sorrow, a study of Little Hanako, the “Kabuki actor / transvestite / tiny dancer,” which launches her into the story of her lost mother. Chai was never told where her mother went, or what happened to her—“she simply never was.” But when she stumbles on “an old gilt photo // album in the linen / brought from Korea” and sees a woman she doesn’t recognize. “Isn’t she pretty?” her cousin casually asks. “That’s your mother.” Incorporating mythology and the figure of Little Hanako, Chai’s Standing Water is a gorgeous, haunting, and profoundly moving collection. The book’s final image in the poem “Head of Little Death” is one of the most effective and heartbreaking I’ve read in a long time. Chai shows remarkable grace and assuredness and grand promise.
7. Mz N: the serial: A Poem-in-Episodes by Maureen N. McLane
The title page of Mz N: the serial informs us that it is not a novel or a memoir or a lyric, and since it tells a third-person story (of the titular Mz N) but of a clearly autobiographical nature, the book is a kind of unprecedented thing. By using the third-person, McLane is able to present herself in a slightly distant and satirical way, as in the opening poem, “PROEM: Mz N Contemporary,” in which we learn of N’s eternal hope to “be contemporary,” which is pretty difficult because “simply being alive / doesn’t cut it.” But she remains away of contemporariness’s pitfalls: “It is contemporary / to ironize the contemporary / but in a light way.” The narrative moves through, obviously, episodic tales of high school boyfriends, therapy, and even the history of philosophy (“History is what happened / Poetry what could happen”). In “Mz N Trans,” McLane describes Mz N meeting “her first transgender person / though she doesn’t know it / yet,” since Jack has yet to become Jill, and how Jack’s partner Val, who “studies gender” (“It seems impossible / not to study gender,” McLane notes), but who is devastated by Jack’s true identity. McLane wonders, “What is the genre / of gender?” Her narrative technique and her engagingly casual voice, McLane has written an utterly unique work, a true story filtered through the magical prism of poetry.
8. Poems That Make Grown Women Cry by Various
The wonderful thing about an anthology like Poems That Make Grown Women Cry: 100 Women on the Words That Move Them (a companion/sequel to the male iteration from a few years ago) has less to do with the poems themselves (though thankfully this one features a wide variety of mostly not-so-cliché choices) and more to do with the fact that each entry was chosen and introduced by some of the best writers in the world, as well as some of the greatest actors, musicians, critics, and artists: here we learn how Francine Prose sends Theodore Roethke’s “The Lost Son” to “friends whom I know are suffering” because it helped her through grief when her father died; and Annie Lennox recommends the English war poet Siegfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches,” about a “simple soldier boy” who “put a bullet through his brain” in the trenches in First World War and “No one spoke of him again,” which concludes with the poet advising “smug-faced crowds…Who cheer when soldier lads march by” to “pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go”; and the elusive Elena Ferrante picking (with a bit of a wink, one assumes) the equally elusive Emily Dickinson; and Germaine Greer’s heartbreaking introduction to her friend Clive James’s heartbreaking “Sentenced to Life,” which she calls “a simple, straightforward response to his approaching death’’ (James suffers from numerous illnesses: emphysema, kidney failure, and leukemia). Of course, there’s also Yoko Ono, Patricia Clarkson, Joan Baez, Azar Nafisi, Bianca Jagger, Sharon Olds, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Kate Mosse, Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few. Despite the title’s lacrimating suggestion and many of the poem’s somber or even downright bleak tones, the book’s an eclectic collection from some the world’s brightest and most talented people, and therefore a really, really fun read.
9. Pictures of the Gone World (60th Anniversary Edition) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Originally published in 1955, Ferlinghetti’s now classic Pictures of the Gone World—the first book from his own City Lights Publishing (who would go on to publish Ginsberg’s Howl and Corso’s Gasoline), based on the famous bookstore of the same name in San Francisco—was one of my first favorite poetry collections as a teenager. Ferlinghetti, looking back at the poems, is pleased to note that they contain “a freshness of perception that only young eyes have, in the dandelion of youth.” And it’s true that you can feel the undeniable sense of discovery and uninhibited abandon. Take Poem #9, which begins:
‘Truth is not the secret of a few’
you would maybe think so
the way some
and cultural ambassadors and
especially museum directors
you’d think they had a corner
the way they
walk around shaking
their high heads and
looking as if they never
went to the bath
room or anything
This is a wonderfully funny but also recognizably accurate assessment, albeit one totally awash in youthful irreverence. Ferlinghetti is an important figure in literary history even without his contribution to beat poetry in his writing. He published Ginsberg and thoroughly defended him in court, and was a fierce activist his whole life. But through his poetry, in Pictures of the Gone World and his most popular book, A Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti gave the world his vivacious and spirited liveliness, and though the title of his first book evokes a passing era, his voice helped usher in a brand new one.
10. Observations by Marianne Moore
In the years following the publication of Observations in 1924, Marianne Moore, in contrast to Whitman, continually cut and reduced its original contents to fewer and fewer poems, and as a consequence, as biographer tells us in the introduction to this new reissue, “Not since 1925, however, has Observations [in its corrected second edition] been available to the general reader.” Thankfully, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has brought it back, in all its Modernist glory. It famously opens with “To an Intra-Mural Rat,” which goes:
You make me think of many men
Once met to be forgot again
Or merely resurrected
In a parenthesis of wit
That found them hastening through it
Too brisk to be inspected.
Full of unattributed quotations and nary an ounce of sentimentality, Moore’s brilliant poems are not unlike her depiction of a rose in “Roses Only,” which she first warns, “You do not seem to realize that beauty is a liability rather than an asset,” and concludes with the stunning line that could serve as Moore’s poetic motto: “Your thorns are the best part of you.”
11. The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
Not a collection but an essay on poetry, Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry begins, apropos, with Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” which first appeared in Observations as a longer poem but was edited by Moore in 1967 to just four lines:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect
contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
Lerner, a poet himself, though better known for his two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, uses Moore’s contradictory approach to get to the bottom of the following observation: “Many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is.” But Lerner, too, dislikes it, saying he has “largely organized my life around it…and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are for me—and maybe for you—inextricable.” Poetry is inherently about failure, he argues, failure to express the exact idea from one’s mind, failure to communicate adequately, and failure to influence or change things—but this does not mean that poetry can’t push toward the direction of success. “What if,” Lerner asks, “the closest we can come to hearing ‘the planet-like music of poetry’ is to hear the ugliest earthly music and experience the distance between them?” A poem, in other words, may fail to achieve the hyperbolic aims some have claimed for poetry, but no matter how great or poor, the reader will always hear, as Lerner put it in Leaving the Atocha Station, “the echo of poetic possibility.” In a delightful inversion, Lerner makes a convincing claim that even a horrible poem can leave you inspired by the space between its badness and the creative potential of humanity. Lerner is one of the best writers of his generation, and The Hatred of Poetry shows that he could also be one of its best critics.
12. Collected Poems: 1950—2012 by Adrienne Rich
At long last, the collected poems from one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, featuring an introduction by Claudia Rankine, one of the 21st century’s greatest poets—need I say more? Obviously not, but I will nonetheless. Because besides the mere fact of having all of Adrienne Rich’s poems in one beautiful volume, the illuminating wonder of Collected Poems is the chance to follow Rich’s stunning trajectory as a poet and thinker. To read through even casually the pages of the book show a preternaturally gifted writer who managed to get even better and even smarter as she went along. Collected Poems is a necessary treasure. Go out and buy this now! You can thank me later.