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A person can love puppies, sunsets, chocolate or sleeping. People who like these things do so in a very general fashion; they hardly ever say, “I only love brown puppies. Furthermore, the ones with floppy ears make me want to puke.” Or, “Oh, that sunset’s a little too pink for my taste.”A sunset is not a steak.And poetry is not as reliable as chocolate.Nobody loves poetry – that is, all poems or even the majority of published work. In fact, if one’s affection for poetry were based on a ratio of poems one loves to poems of which one can’t believe anybody else, let alone an editor, can bear even a single caesura, then everybody would hate poetry.So-called fans of the genre constantly insult poets for rhyming or not rhyming, using too many metaphors or not enough, or for writing about nature, love, souls, rain, things that should remain in their journals, arcane crap that doesn’t mean anything, etc. Some people despise poems about poetry or worse, about teaching poetry or taking poetry classes. I once dismissed a poem about the death of a spouse because the man who wrote it had never been married.I suspect most of this rudeness comes from one basic fact: People who like poetry tend to write poetry, and see other poets either as inspiration or, more commonly, competitors. Unpublished and barely published poets hold huge grudges against those who receive acceptance letters, regardless of whether these resentful poets send out their work.In contrast, people who like sleeping have no problem with other people sleeping. It’s not like there’s a limited number of beds.Anyhow, as a member of the barely published stock, I have to overcome a great deal of self-pity in order to really like a poem, especially one by a living poet.I can forgive the dead for out-writing me. They no longer receive acceptance letters.Here are a few poems and living, breathing, writing, snogging poets who’ve recently been worth the effort:
• Ben Lerner – I’m reading “Angle of Yaw” (Copper Canyon Press). His lines all fit together like those in a Picasso painting, so it’s hard to read them one at a time. Nevertheless, I’ll give you a taste of his urgent, declarative voice. In his poem “No Matter How Big You Make a Toy,” he announces, “Last year alone, every American choked to death on a red balloon.” In “When We Saw the Pattern,” he proclaims, “If the meaning is clear, it’s already too late. For God's sake, people. Open your hearts.”
• George Szirtes – He’s reason enough to subscribe to Poetry magazine, or at least to pick up the February issue, which includes selections from his “In the Face of History.” Each poem connects to a black-and-white photo, and seems to buoy it: to act like water under its strong, sharp helm. My favorite is “Kolr: Housing Estate,” based on an untitled photo by Viktor Kolr. The photo depicts a child standing between two partially built walls in an otherwise open landscape. The poem discusses, in two short but beautifully lyrical stanzas, what you cannot see in the picture – in “those windows / beyond the bare hill.”
• Mary Jo Bang – She proves you can be smart and have deep feelings. Even her poem titles in “The Eye Like a Strange Balloon” (Grove Press) blare this fact, swinging from promises of the personal to those of high art, and often combining the two: “The Three Lies of Painting,” “Atrabiliarios (Melancholy),” “The End (Or, The Falling Out),” “Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters,” “The Tyranny of Everyday Life,” “The Phenomenon of Ecstasy,” “Physiomythological Diluvian Picture,” “Birthday.” The poems deliver every promise, singing.
• Anne Carson – I can’t remember if I’ve written about her before, but her poetry in “Glass, Irony and God” (New Directions) remains the highest example of experimental genius I know. Parts of the book remind me of William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson” in the way they sound both epic and understated. “Think what it means / to be a stranger / and to walk into the word ‘Live!’” she writes in “The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide” (sic), a 32-page poem.
Here’s a few I’ve definitely written about before – so I won’t gushingly repeat myself – but continue to recommend:
• Billy Collins – “Sailing Along Around the Room” (Random House)
• Elisa Gabbert – “Thanks for Sending the Engine” (Kitchen Press)
• William Heyen – “Shoah Train” (Etruscan Press)
• Joan Logghe – “Twenty Years in Bed With the Same Man” (La Alameda Press)
• Franz Wright – “The Afterlife” (Knopf)
Please send red balloons to Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.