Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. His book on poetry and theology in the modernist period is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.
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Saul Bellow is arguably the greatest American novelist since World War II. His best works—The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Humboldt’s Gift—offer varied and lasting delights: they’re smart and funny, philosophical and lyrical, committed to the body and to the mind, one part Joyce to two parts Dostoevsky. It’s safe to say that if American literature is taught a hundred years from now, Bellow will be on the syllabus.
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.
Denis Donoghue once wrote that James Merrill’s poetry was “a net of loose talk tightening to verse.” This is also a good way to describe Spencer Reece’s new poetry collection, The Road to Emmaus (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).
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":
Christian Wiman is the former editor of Poetry magazine and a current faculty member at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is the author of three collections of poetry, the most recent being Every Riven Thing, as well as a translation of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry.