Wednesday, January 14, 2009



A couple of years ago, my friend Lisa and I sat on the floor of the Green Apple and created two piles: fiction and poetry. We were exchanging favorites. We work in different mediums, but our tastes, interests and pursuits often overlap and I always pay attention to anything she wants me to read. Among the books she recommended:

Jack Gilbert: "The Great Fire"
Jorie Graham: "Dream of the Unified Field"
Louise Gluck: "Wild Iris"

At the end of last year, and the start of this one, I found myself reading a lot of poetry. Maybe "reading" isn't the right word. I was seeking out poetry. I wanted to find something that encapsulated what I was feeling. A novel wasn't going to help. Music wasn't literal enough. Psychology too reductive. I wanted poetry that had been written for me. Occasionally, I would come across something that resonated with me: Atwood's "Variations on the Word Sleep," which spoke to me of love and grief, and Plath's "The Rival" which also made me think about strange and hungry way that grief seems to stalk us. I've also been reading and enjoying Linda Gregg, and Jeffrey Yang's debut collection, Aquarium.

Poetry, like music, is able to distill a complicated emotion, but refer to it at an angle, the way that a clinical definition cannot. Poetry is also very dependent on word choice, and as such, requires a kind of concentration that is very different from reading a novel.

I asked Lisa who the young poets today are who are working with emotional language, and what she thought of the old guard poets we'd been reading. I told her that I liked Plath, but had difficulty relating to everything she wrote. I said that I wanted poetry that spoke to the heart, but didn't become embarrassingly maudlin. I said that I don't like the way our society tries to corral difficult emotions into a safe package: that if you just do A, B and C, you will be guaranteed happiness. People are more complex than this. I said I didn't want to read poems that were brain-teasers. I didn't want to read 50 year old poetry that was a reaction to an older and more formal aesthetic. I didn't want to read anything that made me feel my failure to understand must be mine. I wanted something human and intelligent.

"Oh," she said, "That's what I want too and it's what I'm working on." And of course, it dawned on me that this is why I'm so wild about Lisa's poems. It is also the kind of material I'm drawn to, and working with too. And I was reminded again of how wonderful it is to have friends who can understand you--and challenge you.

Lisa went ahead and dictated a list of new poetry books for me to read, and I hopped onto Amazon and ordered a few. I'm now awaiting:

Richard Siken: "Crush"
Charles Wright: Black Zodiac
Brenda Hillman: Loose Sugar.

It's been a while since I anticipated a shipment from Amazon the way I am today. I'm particularly curious about Siken. There are snippets of his work online. Here are a few lines:

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
Until they forget that they are horses.

Of his work, it has been written:
Although he is quick to point out that his book is not autobiographical, and he is not the speaker, he does allow that the 1991 death of his boyfriend influenced his work. “It made the book a little more about elegy,” he says, “and I guess a little more desperate because everything seemed fragile and temporary.”

I guess this is what I am seeking right now: something frantic, and soaked through with the sense that life is terribly fragile and temporary. You can buy the book here. I also randomly stumbled across an Irish poet named Meirion Jordan. Alas, his collection doesn't come out in the US until April.

Yay! New books! This moved me to order Linda Gregg and look into Jorie Graham. Already love the Wild Iris.

I find that when I'm emotionally exhausted, sometimes the effort required to read poetry seems like too much - uck, all of those lines, and I have to read each word and think [tosses book down, stares out of window] - but that is not poetry's fault.
Marla (and Marie), I feel the same way - a kind of poetry depression. And I usually turn to novels, or TV, for a bit at that point. The poetry always comes back, eventually.

That said, once I'm ready, pushing through to actually read poems does get me reexcited by the medium, once again.

*and* I've obviously been away from what's been going on in new poetry the past few years. *That's* my next dive back in. Any suggestions? Anyone?

- Lisa, who's forgotten my Google password for the moment
Marla--Poetry is seasonal for me too. But when I want it, there is no substitute. I hope you enjoy the books!
I ought to add that my friend Orlando White's new book of poems, "Bone Light," comes out from Red Hen Press next month!
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