Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.
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There's a long tradition of poets annotating their own work: think of T. S. Eliot's notes on The Waste Land, or Amy Clampitt's notes on The Kingfisher. Joshua Mehigan, whose new book, Accepting the Disaster, I'll be reviewing in an upcoming issue, has just provided annotations for "The Cement Plant," one of his collection's many poems about work. Here is his explanation of the phrase "killed some of them":
A Twitter hashtag has informed me that it's officially #NovelsByPoetsWeek.
This week, while browsing at St. Mark's Bookshop, I picked up James Longenbach's The Virtues of Poetry, a book of criticism published by Graywolf Press in 2013. To call this a "book of criticism," however, is to make it sound stodgier and more specialized than it is. Longenbach's book is a collection of linked essays, all examining what constitutes poetic virtue: what, in other words, are the distinctive excellences that poetry possesses, and how can we recognize these excellences when we see them?
April may be over, but poetry lives on! Here are some poetry links worth clicking on.
Today, I have two poetry suggestions. The first--and a poet who I'll be writing about in a forthcoming column--is Geoffrey G. O'Brien, whose People on Sunday came out from Wave Books in 2013.
O'Brien is a formalist, and we tend to associate formalism with conservatism. But O'Brien uses his regular verse forms--regular, stately seeming quatrains; clipped tercets--for radical ends. O'Brien has been associated with the Occupy Movement, and his collection expresses anger at the ceaseless commodification and endless suffering created by our market economy. Here is the opening to "At the Edge of the Bed":
No one yet has ever chosen misery
Those that seem to have done so
Haven’t any more than they have
Chosen this mist or is it rain
We would first have to own ourselves
Then give up on them entirely
Every day rather than once
And for all …
Several of O'Brien's concerns are expressed here: the sense that, in our current moment, the self is something that is bought and sold, that individual agency has been lost, if not given away. The collection's title indicates O'Brien's interest in what he has elsewhere called "desperate lesiure"--the enforced leisure of weekends and holidays that serves to distract us from a more radical rethinking of the relationship between labor and life. In “Thanatopsis,” O’Brien writes that “we’re taught to imagine days / As reprieves from other days,” and his poetry seeks to break out of this bind, to imagine, through collective and creative action, a new and less exploitative world.
I could take the easy way out and tell you to read Christian Wiman, whose words are currently featured in the magazine. But instead I'm going to suggest Mary Szybist, whose 2013 collection Incarnadine won the National Book Award.
In Incarnadine, Szybist returns again and again to the Annunciation--or, it might be more accurate to say that she returns to "the annunciations," since she's interested not in a singular incursion of the eternal into the temporal but in an intersection that is more habitual. Think of Eliot's Four Quartets. There, Eliot describes epiphanic moments as "hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses," and goes on to claim that "The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation." For Szybist, the hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Annunciation, and this revision hints at some of the collection's major themes: motherood; the female body; the bewilderment and ecstasy of being called by love.
Like Wiman, Szybist is haunted by transcendence: yearning for something beyond her that can't be articulated completely but must be brokenly, desperately gestured towards. Take these lines from "Yet Not Consumed":
Last week, I talked briefly about the prosy-yet-still-poetic work of Spencer Reece. This week, I wanted to draw attention to a very different writer: Tracy K. Smith.
To celebrate National Poetry Month, every Friday during April I will be recommending a contemporary poet worth checking out. Today, I suggest you give Spencer Reece a try.
The Hold Steady--my favorite band and the subject of a great post here by Eric Bugyis--just came out with a new album called Teeth Dreams. It offers all the pleasures fans have come to expect from the best bar band in America: smart lyrics, rocking music, and an epic, 9-minute song to cap things off. It also offers an example of one great writer, the band's Craig Finn, responding to another: David Foster Wallace.