Last week’s annual Poets House Showcase held in the West Village displayed more than 2,000 poetry books and related materials published in 2007. As impressive and even overwhelming as that number might seem, it represents a sliver—as any overview must—of poetry’s current state, a large portion of which also exists off the page in readings and classrooms, on the Internet, and via word of mouth. The amount of time spent with other poets in bars, living rooms, and, more recently, online usually counts as much as the writing done while sitting alone at a desk.
Among contemporary poetry’s most notable trends is a post-9/11 surge in translation. The “blockbuster” anthology published during the past six months is Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry From the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton), devotedly compiled by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar. Collecting and translating work by more than 400 poets from 61 countries or territories—including writers who’ve relocated to the United States—the anthology confirms that although poetry may aspire to express universal conditions, it remains engrossing only when rooted in specific cultures and locations. But as the poetry world exemplifies, smaller can also be substantial. Stefania Heim and Jennifer Kronovet’s slim journal, Circumference, dedicated entirely to poetry in translation, was a breath of fresh air when it was started in 2003, and it continues to present some of the most compelling translations in print. So too does Action Books; it recently published South Korean experimental writer Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, which situates the female body as the primary site of social and psychological struggle.
Three new titles use early American history to illuminate the promises and failures of the democratic project. Frank X Walker’s When Winter Come: The Ascension of York (University Press of Kentucky) speaks from the point of view of a slave named York who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition. The many poems about sheer survival shouldn’t only be taken literally: “Nah, killin’ is what we do/’n the reason he sleep with his fingers/’round my throat.” Dale Smith’s Susquehanna (Punch Press) revisits Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey’s half-baked plan to start a utopian community in central Pennsylvania. As with most things Coleridge, the magnificence of the dream supersedes its reality, but isn’t diminished as a result. Similarly, Susan Howe’s Souls of the Labadie Tract (New Directions) unearths a “Utopian Quietest sect,” and in the process confirms Howe’s stature as the still-new century’s finest metaphysical poet.
Frances Richey began writing the poems in The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (Viking) after her son was sent to fight in Iraq, and she ably captures a single parent’s cares and fears. Yet other than a poem reflecting on a photograph of an Iraqi woman mourning her dead child, the book isolates its mother-son relationship, thereby steering clear of the sticky issues surrounding his deployment. Indran Amirthanayagam takes a different approach in The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems (Hanging Loose), which narrates various stories in the imagined voices of the 2004 disaster’s survivors and deceased. Expansive in its framing while remaining intimate in address, his book shows that the aftermath can be as devastating as the event: Just ask the poorer residents of New Orleans.
On the MFA-writing-program front, John Ashbery’s poetry and its companionship in the work of James Tate remain a dominant flavor. Ashbery’s Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems and A Worldly Country: New Poems (both Ecco) further solidify a unique style that gets taken for granted the more widely it’s imitated. Tate’s The Ghost Soldiers (Ecco) disconsolately engages with the current political and cultural climate—that is, to the degree to which his (or Ashbery’s) work is one of direct engagement; linguistic slipperiness is obviously a part of their respective charms. A different form of detachment was practiced by Zen Buddhist monk Philip Whalen, whose Collected Poems (Wesleyan) might get the nod for the most beautifully produced poetry book of the past six months. Barely pausing to catch its breath, Wesleyan University Press followed it with an affiliated volume: The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest. Guest was a rare female member of poetry’s original New York School, and both she and Whalen were residents of the Bay Area who used an urban savvy to sharpen their works’ ephemerally registered impressions.
Jay Wright remains, unassumingly, one of the most significant poets writing today, though three new books may help garner him more attention: Polynomials and Pollen, The Presentable Art of Reading Absence (both Dalkey Archive), and The Guide Signs (Louisiana State). Wright’s work effortlessly draws from African, Latin-American, and European intellectual and poetic traditions. The Guide Signs, which completes a 10-volume cycle commencing with his first book (published back in 1971) is a good place to start: “Such is our symmetry,/surfacing long after we have encountered/and abandoned the solitude and scurry/that defined our possible/light.” These lines might just as readily describe Cole Swensen’s Ours (California). Perhaps her best book yet, Ours fuses Swensen’s long-standing interests in lyric poetry, visual art, geometry, and French culture—in this instance, 17th-century French royal gardens—to investigate the shifting boundaries between private and public space. Fluid borders of a more subjective sort—between inner and outer worlds—are strikingly rendered in Forrest Gander’s translations of Mexican poet Coral Bracho, gathered in Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Coral Bracho (New Directions).
Swensen teaches at the fabled Iowa Writers Workshop, which in the ’90s began to shed its image as ground zero for cookie-cutter workshop verse. The results have been mixed, and readers can be confident that whenever they hear work described as “combining language and lyric,” it’s usually shorthand for the application of avant-garde poetry techniques to emotional and perceptual platitudes. An antidote? Maybe one of the prefaces to Chelsey Minnis’s Bad Bad (Fence): “Someone once thought that a poem should be more than an elaborate ‘fuck you,’ but I did not think it.” Other recent “bad”—in a good way—girl/boy poetries include the most accomplished book (if superlatives are appropriate for such intentionally offensive work) produced to date by the Flarf group, Sharon Mesmer’s Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo), as well as the messy body politics of Garrett Caples’s Complications (Meritage) and Dennis Cooper’s limited-edition The Weaklings, from the newly inaugurated Fanzine Press. Cooper’s book distills into dark verse crystals the obsessions with eroticism and death that saturate his more widely read novels.
Reversing Richey’s mother-to-son correspondence, the tour de force “Son2Mother” concludes Kevin Powell’s No Sleep Till Brooklyn: New and Selected Poems (Soft Skull). Poets raised on the spoken-word scene are increasingly concerned with finding a way to translate their words to the page, and Powell is another successful example, following in the footsteps of Tracie Morris, Suheir Hammad, and many more. It’s difficult to overestimate the contributions that spoken word and hip-hop have made to poetry as an art form, however much they’ve yet to be recognized in the official histories or anthologies—or to leave a large mark with individual books. But poetry is spacious enough to include Ashbery, Bracho, and Lil’ Wayne, too.