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If you’re a poet, there’s probably nothing you want more than to publish your next book of poems. Then when you do, you’re reminded that few experiences are more frustrating or painful.
You give readings, hoping you’ll have an audience. You sign copies, but maybe not as many as the poet you’re reading with. And you wait — and wait — for reviews. Some poets even write reviews: “That rarest category of talents,” as Robert Lowell wrote, “a poet-critic.”
As a poet and an occasional poetry reviewer, I know how hard it is to be completely objective. The poetry world is small and intense, and just about everyone knows or knows about everyone else. Three degrees of separation -- max! I know critics aren’t supposed to favor their friends, and yet for the holiday season I want everyone to share the work I’m most enthusiastic about.
This year was especially complicated for me because, after a very long gap, I published a book of my own, and I’ve been feeling unusually competitive with other poets. But I’ve read some extraordinary poetry, some of it by friends and colleagues. It’s been challenging to single out only a handful of books. Nevertheless, here’s my handful:
'New Collected Poems: Marianne Moore,' edited by Heather Cass White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Of the numerous editions of Marianne Moore’s collected poems, volumes Moore assembled herself, why is this one so notable as to be at the top of my list? Well, it’s partly because Moore is a true and quirky original, a member of the real avant garde. She was even a pioneer in the now fashionable art of sampling. And because she was so — what? -- cheeky, perverse, compulsive, self-destructive (or just never satisfied?), she kept changing and revising and even eliminating her poems, including some of her most famous. So that with each new book, her previous books and the poems in them began to disappear, and what startled and delighted her original readers could no longer startle and delight new audiences because they essentially didn’t exist anymore.
We know that when Elizabeth Bishop, for example, was still an undergraduate, she became a close friend and disciple of Moore because she was so thoroughly fascinated by her 1924 volume “Observations.” But up until this year, it’s been hard to find a copy of the volume that intrigued Bishop so much because Moore had so thoroughly disassembled it. Now Heather Cass White has re-created a volume of Moore’s collected poetry that comes close to reproducing her poems as Moore originally collected them. It’s an ambitious and exciting project, and the result might just as easily been called “The Untamed Poems of Marianne Moore.” Moore never stopped being cheeky, quirky and perverse (my current favorite forgotten Moore line, from “People’s Surroundings,” is, “When you take my time, you take something I had meant to use”). But now here she is in all her newborn originality.
'Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016,' by Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
I’ve been reading Frank Bidart’s poems since before he started publishing them, when we were in graduate school together. He’s the only poet I know whose first book, “Golden State,” was made up only of poems that had never previously appeared in print. Journal editors in the 1960s just didn’t get what he was up to: his profound ambition for his work, his often harrowing subject matter combined with the deepest philosophical and psychological penetration, let alone his extravagantly expressive punctuation. Now “Herbert White,” the first poem in “Golden State” — a dramatic monologue in the voice of a child murderer and rapist — has been turned into a short film directed by James Franco (whose first book of poems is called “Directing Herbert White”). Bidart has now been nominated for all the major awards, and has won many of them, including this year’s National Book Award in poetry for this staggering 700-page collection — a life’s work. The critics and the judges are finally catching on.
His series of “Hours of the Night,” so far four novella-length poems, are vast explorations at the center of which are historic or mythical figures: Genghis Khan, Benvenuto Cellini, Hector Berlioz and perhaps most devastating, Ovid’s incestuous Myrrha. An entire issue of Poetry Magazine was once devoted to one of these virtually epic poems.
One of Bidart’s great subjects is the need to create in order to survive. His landmark “Ellen West” is the shattering case history of an anorexic woman (who writes, among other things, some of the most eloquent passages ever written about Maria Callas) — but it’s really a poem about the necessity and torment of having a body. The title character says:
…trying to stop my hunger with FOOD
is like trying to appease thirst
'The Aeneid,' by Virgil, translated by David Ferry
University of Chicago Press
Virgil’s epic about the founding of Rome may be the greatest poem ever written that almost nobody wants to read. But with David Ferry’s profoundly moving new translation, we now have no excuse. Ferry, a National Book Award-winning poet, treats this epic not as a Monument of Western Culture, but as a powerful, emotion-filled poem about the human condition, where “lacrimae rerum” (“the tears of things”) are inherent in the very nature of existence: “The story of/ The mortality of men strikes to the heart.” In Ferry’s previous widely admired translations from the Latin — Horace’s Odes and Epistles, Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics — he has found an uncanny voice in English that seems to channel the originals, balancing witty and easy elegance with convincing colloquialism, very close to (yet distinctly different from) the voice in his own poems. “The Aeneid” is more challenging, but Ferry again succeeds magnificently, adding to all of these qualities a far-seeing, bardic, almost Shakespearean elevation:
Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light,
And with it bringing back to sight the labors
Of sad mortality, what men have done,
And what has been done to them; and what they must do
'The Amoeba Game,' by Tara Skurtu
Tara Skurtu is a young Floridian who studied in Boston (with Robert Pinsky, Louise Glück and, some years ago, with me) and now lives in Romania. She’s just published a remarkable, irresistibly engaging first book. It centers on a good story, about a painful romance in a distant country. But what’s most impressive is the skill with which each poem and the whole volume are put together. She really knows how to end a poem! You can tell from the title that this book will be interesting. And you can tell from the very first poem that you are not about to embark on an ego trip; that the poems will have an element of mystery, fantasy and tenderness; and that you are in very confident hands. (The title of this poem, Skurtu’s note tells us, is the diminutive for “mouse” in Romanian.)
The soul is a white mouse
burrowed inside the mouth
of a sleeping child until he yawns.
Easier to leave the soulless boy
asleep than catch the mouse
by its tail.
The book is shot through with images you can’t forget, like “a snake in the blade of a lawn mower.” And here’s the ending of one of the best love poems I know:
It’s hard to say I need you enough.
Today I did. Walked into your morning
shower fully clothed. All the moments
we stop ourselves just because we might
feel embarrassed or impractical, or get wet.
'Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire — A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character,' by Kay Redfield Jamison
Clinical psychiatrist and MacArthur fellow Kay Redfield Jamison is probably best known for her book “An Unquiet Mind,” her memoir about suffering from bi-polar disease, the very disease she was studying and helping to treat. She has now taken her knowledge and personal experience and extended it to write an incisive, comprehensive and sympathetic biography of Robert Lowell, who also happened to share Jamison’s illness. This is a long book (560 pages) and at times painfully clinical. I confess that I had to put it down from time to time because it was so overwhelmingly sad. But it is also eloquent about Lowell’s heroic comebacks from his mania and depression and deeply understanding of both his helplessness and, in Jamison’s illuminating discussions of his poems (she never forgets that he was a great poet), his genius. One doesn’t have to be crazy to write great poetry. But in case one is, we should be indebted to Jamison for her profound illumination of everything that allowed Lowell to write, both because of and in spite of his illness. She helps restore one of our greatest poets, after years of hostile misunderstanding, to his rightful place in the American pantheon.
Here are a dozen more poetry books you might enjoy, by writers with Boston connections:
- “Personal Science,” by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram (Tupelo)
- “Advice from the Lights,” by Stephen "Steph" Burt (Graywolf)
- “Children with Enemies,” by Stuart Dischell (University of Chicago Press)
- “Not Elegy but Eros,” by Nausheen Eusuf (NYQ Books)
- “Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country,” by Rebecca Morgan Frank (Carnegie Mellon)
- “Fast,” by Jorie Graham (Ecco)
- “After Jubilee,” by Brionne Janae (Boaat Press)
- “A Dangling House,” by Maeve Kinkead (Barrow Street)
- “May All My Wounds Be Mortal,” by Karen Locascio (Hanging Loose)
- “Said Not Said,” by Fred Marchant (Graywolf)
- “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast,” by Megan Marshall (Mariner Books)
- “Reaper,” by Jill McDonough (Alice James)
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