Reading lots of list in the papers and on line put me in a reflective mood. A number of different things that I have read have moved me this year and will undoubtedly stay with me and worm their way into my own writing.
This has been very much a year of poetry for me – including, of course, the release of Soil. My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of slim volumes. The best advice ever given to a writer (ten times more important than the second best bit of advice) is read.
1) Lorine Niedecker - Lake Superior and Paean to Place. I discovered Niedecker in a bookshop near the Cooper Union in New York. On the table of recent and recommended was an attractive beige (not two words normally seen together) slim plain volume with the words Lake Superior on the cover. Inside is one poem that manages to be both long (over several pages) and slight at the same time. Short lines, each word doing the work it needs to. The rest of the book is voluminous notes and essays. In poetry workshops we are told to think about each word and get them in the right order – get rid of words that do not need to be there. If everyone did that then poems would be like Lake Superior – geologically precise. An inspiration for my own writing of a sequence in progress set in Svalbard. Niedecker lived in Wisconsin and scrubbed floors – her work loved by important (male) poets but largely ignored by most – a kind of objectivist Emily Dickenson. Much of her life and her relationship to place is conveyed by the moving and watery Paean to Place – sometimes Wasteland-like in its aqueous insistence. The best use of alliteration I can remember. Beautiful spaciness.
Water lily mud
in the leaves and on water
My mother and I
in swale and swamp and sworn
A great reading (once you get past the superfluous watery noises) can be found here
2) Frank Bidart – Metaphysical Dog. Sometimes you have to see and hear a poet for it to hit home. I have read and admired Bidart in a cool kind of way for a while. But listening to him in Cambridge (MA) library did it for me. This book manages to ruminate on highly abstract and consequential themes while operating on emotional, intellectual and bodily levels all at once. Elegy for Earth imagines looking back at Earth after it has ended.
“Those who are the vessels of revelation
or who think that they are
us with the promise of rescue”
3) Jorie Graham Place. Another poet I tried hard to ‘get’ for the longest time and it suddenly clicked with this collection and a title I could not ignore. Graham inhabits forms she uses over and over again. This time, long lines with shorter ones hanging off of them. Ruminations on the space between the microscopic detail of life (pruning a wisteria) and the grand themes of space and time. A book more about the idea of place (and time) rather than places (and times). I have written an essay on this and sent it to the American Poetry Review. Here’s hoping.
4) Sue Goyette Ocean and Outskirts. I find Canadian poetry speaks to me in unusual ways for someone brought up in a nondescript town in Oxfordshire – all domestic interiors and vast tracts of wilderness. Don McKay and Karen Solie remain huge favourites. But this year I discovered Sue Goyette in beautiful books produced by Brick and Gaspareau (as a side note – why do these presses manage to produce such stunningly beautiful books with thick paper and appealing covers – the future of books I think). Goyette layers languages from specialist texts with her own embodied take on the wild world of oceans and suburbs. Ocean is 56 poems about the ocean set in Halifax or there about. Here is an extract from ‘Five’
The incline to our streets was first invented
as an easy way to feed the ocean tethered
to the end of them, We’d roll down bottles
of the caught breath of our gifted sermons.
We’d drag skeins of dream talk. Little hoofed
arguments. The ocean was a beast in our care
and it was in our best interest to keep it fed.
Outskirts has plenty of ocean and fog in it too – but uses slightly longer lines to interlace reports on erosion (for instance) and more human landscapes in startling ways.
5) Katherine Larson - Radial Symmetry. Science and poetry brought together by a research scientist. I find the language of science extraordinarily rich for the poet. And it is used to great effect here. Love at Thirty-Two Degrees starts with dissecting a squid.
That was the thing
there was no blood
only textures of gills folded like satin,
suction cups like planets in rows.
and then, at the end
beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone,
every time I make love for love’s sake alone,
I betray you.
6) Tony Hoagland - Incorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. A very different collection of poems – amusing, political, populist even. Brilliant pacing and timing. Acute observations of popular culture and everyday life. I was laughing aloud in the London Review of Books Bookstore where I found it.
After I heard It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall
played softly by an accordion quartet
through the ceiling speakers at the Springdale Shopping Mall,
I understood: there’s nothing
we can’t pluck the stinger from
The collection includes a hysterical take on Britney Spears, cell-phone sounds, the differences in language between parents and their children – you get the picture. The contrast between the poems here and the poems in the books above is quite stark but I love both the spacy reflective engagement with the stuff of the earth and the funny, sharp engagement with the modern human world. I find myself writing in both these ways and it can be quite disorientating getting a continuity in tone while doing that.
7) D.A. Larson - Useless Landscape, or, A Guide for Boys. This one had to be for me with a title like that. The insides are full of poems and prose-poems on history of both the land and the self. It mixes some of the concerns for the land with sly references to the popular now. And plays with form and space in interesting ways too. There is more body in this book too – in this case, a gay body. Geography, history and libido all mixed up thoughtfully. Here is The Price of Funk in Funkytown
Because I have no sense
and I like the way it sounds:
if I was to buy me a little place,
I’d buy me some bottomland.
The reason that the bus is always stopping here
is that it used to stop here.
Nothing’s bound to change until we make it change.
“I’ll get off when I want,” the gentleman announces.
“I’m getting very old. Besides
I realise that all of these poets are north American. That seems to be where my head is at at the moment. I have really enjoyed many British poets too. Nick Laird’s new book is great for instance (though a kind of trans-Atlantic sensibility permeates it with one foot in NYC). I keep returning to Kathleen Jamie to get a sense of a spare and beautiful reflection on humans in ‘nature’. Jean Sprackland’s earlier books are great though I have not read the most recent yet. My ‘stablemate’, Claire Trevien, is a wonderful poet who is getting a lot of deserved attention.
But perhaps the thing that has moved me most is this video of Matthew Dickman reading – I was lucky enough to see him early in the year at the Poetry Cafe in London.