Literary Criticism

Well, I’ve been busy . . .

Although I have not posted anything in a while, I have been writing, albeit very little publishable work at present. My profession and associated work take a great deal of time, so I often have to steal from some leisure or family activity to make room for creative writing. To make matters more difficult, as usual I have been reading a lot in order to keep up to speed on contemporary literature, primarily poetry. Fortunately, I am one of those people who can’t be left alone anywhere without a book (or smartphone running Kindle) in my hand.

On the reading front, a number of important poetry books were published this year, chief of which has to be Louis Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night  (Ferrar, Straus, Giroux 2014).  Although I have read Glück’s poetry and prose for years, I am one of those that believe her later work is her best. I saw her read many poems from Faithful and Virtuous Night last year in Rochester, NY, and since then I have been waiting eagerly to be able to sit down and finally read the work.  While Glück has won every prestigious poetry award there is (including U.S. Poet Laureate in 2003, in addition to the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes), I believe this volume may finally give her the right to be called the best living poet in the U.S. While I do not like reducing such a great book of poetry to facile description, in Faithful and Virtuous Night Glück often seems a modern Dante walking among the ghosts of her past and finally coming to terms with her life. There is a sure grasp of the material without the lingering uneasiness that made her earlier poetry so uncomfortably bracing. The imagery is lush and sensual and the language is conversationally clear, yet freighted with great poetry. You may sample the book at Google Books  Also available online are “A Sharply Worded Silence,” “A Summer Garden,” “Aboriginal Landscape” and “Visitors from Abroad

A selection of John Wilkinson’s poems from 1978 to 2008 may be found in Schedule of Unrest (Salt Publishing 2014) and should garner him more visibility as one of the most accomplished contemporary British-born poets.[Wilkinson has been living in the U.S. for many years and now teaches at the University of Chicago as Professor of Practice of the Arts.] Although often associated with Cambridge group of experimental poets that includes, most notably, J.H. Prynne, Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady, and Simon Jarvis, Wilkinson has wrought a very individual style and continues to develop as a poet of great sensitivity and substance.  The selection stops short of his most recent volume, Reckitt’s Blue (Seagull 2013), which is stunning and also recommended, as is his wonderful critical work, The Lyric Touch: Essays on the Poetry of Excess (Salt Pub. 2007).

Michael Robbins’ Second Sex (Penguin 2014) has just been published and if you liked the first rollercoaster ride through the contemporary American consciousness in Alien vs. Predator, then you are going to love this one.  Robbins can still eke out the ninja rhymes better than anyone, as in “Rhymes”:

I went down to Nag Hammadi.
What’s your name and whose your daddy.

Hamper’s full, the laundry’s dry.
These pots might have some jinn inside.

That whale must answer for his crimes.
He ate four trainers and some lions.

Devil horns and nothing else on.
Matthew Murdock, Foggy Nelson.

Foggy notion just crossed my mind.
Trouble ahead, lotion behind.

There is still the same manic surface, the encyclopedic allusiveness, the topless and bottomless wit, but Robbins’ special gift is the ability to surprise us with his poetry’s unassuming poignancy, as in “Sunday Morning.” Other notable poems are “Live Rust,” “Sonnets to Edward Snowden,” “To Anthony Madrid,” “Not Fade Away,” “Poem Beginning with a Line from Samuel Johnson,” “Friend of the Devil,” “The Song Remains the Same,” and “Political Poem for Michael Robbins to Sing.” You can sample the book online at Amazon and Google books.

Scarecrone (Publishing Genius Press 2014) represents a departure for Melissa Broder. Her mordant irony and gruesome caricature are the scalpel and clamp with which she eviscerates society’s thin skin and exposes its pretenses for all to see. Now she turns those tools on herself, as Scarecrone is primarily devoted to discourses on spirituality and faith. In poems like “Hi Humanity,” “The Saint Francis Prayer Is A Tall Order,” “Judgment,” “Donut” (“Thirsty for milk and humping / god’s knee until god feels like a doll / passed from suffering person / to suffering person”), “Proper Disposal of Holy Water,” “Trompe L’Oeil” (“I really love your work / the way it is nailed / to a cross / I mean to say / the way it gushes / from nothingness”), “Varieties of Religious Experience,” “Spirit Fear” (“The room where I die is everywhere”) and many others, her relationship with the divine is frequently a battle for the self against the repressive forces of traditional religious belief. In “Consecration,” faith in God is translated into sexual subjugation where the union can never be consummated:

I made a muscle
out of every trashy wing
and crawled to you
and your soft dick is shit to me
holy shit
in this way
I am sucking on your shit
I am trying to help your softshitdick
reach a miracle dimension
and I don’t blame you
for being unwilling
to comply with my dream.
. . . .

I hear dogs inside of me
some are good and some are wrong
I keep feeding the wrong dogs.

The language is toxic and brutal in a way we have come to expect from Broder; yet it is not placed in the service of satire and pillory as much as it reveals an internal dialectic that clearly reflects how earnest and anguished the struggle for faith is for her. Where her earlier volumes, When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother (Publishing Genius P 2010) and Meat Heart (Publishing Genius P 2012), were scalding critiques of contemporary society, Scarecrone carries between the lines a personal drama that gives this work extra heft. You can read more of her work here.

Abide (Southern Illinois Press 2014) by Alabama poet, Jake Adam York, whose sudden death in late 2012 shocked the poetry world, is another confirmation of York’s immense talent and how great his loss will be felt in the coming years. As York explains in his foreword, Abide is a combination of two works, one that works in the elegiac form in memory of the martyrs of the civil rights movement and the other delves into ethical question that explore the meaning of elegy and its application with respect to civil rights and racial politics. He invokes the spirits of Orpheus, Sun Ra, Howlin’ Wolf, Thelonious Monk, Woody Guthrie and the American folk, blues, jazz, and hip-hop. Two poems are viewable at Google Books.

Vijay Seshadri won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize with 3 Sections (Graywolf Press 2013) and it seems that every new work is better than the last, building on a well-deserved reputation for thoughtful and inventive poetry.  Born in Bangalore, India and a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, his work tends to explore ethnicity and family, as well as ways of encountering and dealing with the gradually encroaching alienation of the middle class man in America. While Seshadri’s language does not often dazzle the reader, his workmanship, perspective and insight grow on you and make his work well worth reading. If you like this one, you owe it to yourself to also read his earlier books, Wild Kingdom and The Long Meadow. A sample of 3 Sections may be viewed at Google Books

I have been slowly making my way through Sina Queyras’ MxT (Coach House 2014) and trying to catch up with other establish poets like Mary Jo Bang (The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans, Louise and The Bride of E.) and Karen Solie (Pigeon, Modern and Normal, Short Haul Engine and The Living Option), and venerable ones like John Koethe (ROTC Kills, North Point North: New and Selected Poems and Ninety-fifth Street), Ali Agha Shahid (The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems), C.P. Cavafy (Poems – Everyman’s Library), John Yau (Further Adventures in Monochrome, Borrowed Love Poems, Radiant Silhouette: New and Selected Work, 1974-1988), and Michael Burkard (Envelope of Night: Selected and Uncollected Poems 1966-1990).  For more than venerable, I became acquainted with the work of American Objectivists, George Oppen (New Collected Poems) and Lorine Niedecker (The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems).  I began reading the work of Mary Ruefle (Selected Poems and Trances from the Blast) and Paula Bohince (Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods and The Children), and also discovered the provocative poetries of Allan Peterson (Anonymous Or), Graham W. Foust (Necessary Stranger and To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems), and Devin Johnston (Traveler, Sources, and Aversions).

Because I tend to follow writers who are politically engaged, I am still reading People on Sunday (Wave Books 2013) by Geoffrey G. O’Brien, who is one of the most responsible and important poets writing in America today. His writing is serious and intelligent, and as much as it commands respect it also touches the heart. In contrast to many brilliant poets who put on the sort of dog and pony shows they must in order to attract an audience (and believe me, this is no backhanded critique of those poets, who are vital to the poetic renaissance in America), O’Brien’s work does not attempt to entertain the reader with theatrically comic, ironic, surrealistic, cryptic or “literary” postures, but rather his meditations are rhapsodic and achieve symphonic proportions in the longer poems and the intimacy of chamber music in the shorter pieces. He treats the great American themes with the kind of sobriety and thoughtfulness you often want to see more of.  Although I purchased Green and Gray (Univ. of Cal. P. 2007) several years ago, I went back to that volume and also picked up Metropole (Univ. of Cal. P 2011) and The Guns and Flags Project: Poems (Univ. of Cal. P 2002).  With each new volume, O’Brien’s poetry becomes more accomplished. As I have previously written, I thought People on Sunday was one of the best poetry books of 2013.

Also on the political front is 99 Poems for the 99 Percent (99:The Press 2014), an anthology of contemporary political poetry edited by Dean Rader, which is another example of the continuing poetic discourse on the social and economic upheaval of the Great Recession. Rae Armantrout’s Money Shot, reviewed by me here), was a high-profile response to what is more aptly framed as a crisis of faith in America’s dedication to the betterment of each new generation. At the same time (2011-2012), reacting to the daily news coverage of, among other things, the Occupy movement, Rader began posting one poem a day on his “99 poems for the 99 Percent” blog. The contributors, who submitted poems in response to Rader’s open call, include professional and non-professional poets, among which are such notables as  Robert Pinsky, Edward Hirsch, Dana Levin, Bob Hicok, Dorianne Laux, Fred Marchant, Martha Collins and Matthew Zapruder. And, oh yeah, my poem, “Surf’s Up on Wall Street” may also be read among the poems of this august rag tag band of rebels.

This year I purchased Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (Oxford Univ. P 2014), the testament to the great British poet’s sprawling genius. The variety and depth of Hill’s gifts are undeniable at this point, and his reputation will undoubtedly increase in coming years as readers take the full measure of his work. I have been dipping into this book periodically, as one goes to any collection of a great poet, to savor the expert crafting of literary and cultural history.

Also on the British scene, Andrea Brady’s Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street 2013), Heather Phillipson’s Instant-flex 718 (Bloodaxe 2013) and Clare Pollard’s debut, Changeling (Bloodaxe 2011), are must reads. And Liz Berry released her debut volume, Black Country (Random House UK 2014), which has just won the 2014 Forward Prize for best first collection, fulfilling the promise of her pamphlet, The Patron Saint of School Girls (which I reviewed in January 2013). I did an online workshop with Liz last year at The Poetry School and it was a very rewarding experience, not only because I got to work with one of the brightest new talents in English poetry, but also because of the many great friendships I formed there. Lastly, I have to put in a special plug for the British wunderkind, Luke Kennard, on whose brilliant work I hope to be able to shine a light in a future post. In the meantime, read Kennard’s published work, particularly Planet-Shaped Horse (Nine Arches Press 2013), A Lost Expression (Salt Pub. 2012), The Harbour Beyond the Movie (Salt Pub. 2010), and The Migraine Hotel (Salt Pub. 2009).

I recommend all these books to the reader who is tracking poetic excellence on and off the beaten path.

But that is not all. On my recent trip to Bordeaux I read the first of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn.  If you like fiction that has wit and intelligence, as well as a tablespoon of acid on every page, read Never Mind.

[This post has been updated and expanded since its initial publication.]


1 comment on “Well, I’ve been busy . . .

  1. Thanks for the book recommendation….never mind…Pat

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