This is the first of a series of articles focusing on the very best works of contemporary poetry in the United States.
Of late there's been a strong sense in the national poetry community, and not entirely without warrant, that those with the largest megaphones for their opinions -- including certain writers for The Huffington Post -- have more commonly used their pulpit to bully contemporary poetry and poets than to effectively promote either one. There have been, from this media outlet as well as others, wild claims regarding the demise of poetry in America, each more haughty, vitriolic, and (dare we say) desperate than the last. Don't believe it; the poetry scene in America is the largest, most diverse, and most vibrant it has ever been, and it's time for poetry-lovers associated with online media to strike a solid blow against the seedy, nigh-incoherent malcontentism of certain contemporary poetry critics. The robust state of poetry in America is evidenced, in part, by this non-exhaustive, unranked list of superlative books from the past 15 years, all of which are must-reads for those looking to push back against the gloom-and-doom of poetry's ambient naysayers:
1. The Disastrous Tale of Vera & Linus (2006), Jesse Ball and Thordis Bjornsdottir. Ball is both a poet and a fiction writer, and Vera & Linus undoubtedly occupies a broad swath of the verse-prose spectrum. But at its core, this series of highly poetic (and stridently violent) vignettes about the homicidal escapades of two juvenile sociopaths is just the sort of metaphysical exploration of the relationship between organisms and objects that poetry does better than any other medium. A chilling read, and one not soon forgotten.
2. Push the Mule (2001), John Godfrey. If Vera & Linus hails from the more prosaic end of the prose-poem aesthetic, Godfrey has laid powerful claim to its poetic counterpart. Gritty, raw, stinking of real lived experience and a tangible landscape, Godfrey's poems are the work of one who has suffered and seen suffering (the poet has worked as a community health nurse clinician in New York City for years). Never less than exhilarating, the associative poetics in evidence here is highly visual, richly woven, and emotionally charged. This collection is an object lesson for younger poets who see glee in quasi-surrealist romps but cannot access or manifest the heavy heart such indulgences can also invoke.
3. 100 Notes on Violence (2009), Julie Carr. Carr's bag of tricks is bottomless: filled with citation, reportage, collage, snippets of what appears to be found poetry, faux literary criticism, blocks of prose poetry alongside sinuous, white space-laden lyricism, Notes on Violence is exactly what it purports to be, and tackles its colossal topic as achingly and harrowingly as is both deserved and required. Rarely has the psychological and cultural toll of localized violence been treated so intelligently.
4. The Little Red Door Slides Back (1996), Jeff Clark. Few poets have so elegantly combined the three building blocks of contemporary lyricism -- diction, image, and rhetoric -- as Clark does in this mid-nineties collection, which proves once and for all that the post-confessionalist instinct so common among today's younger writers need not lead to insular, coded, or abstract verse. Whether acknowledged or not, the influence (or at least the prescience) of this collection would appear undeniable, given its similarity in tone and affect to subsequent and more highly-lauded efforts by other young men of Clark's generation: Joe Wenderoth (Letters to Wendy's, 2000); Zachary Schomberg (The Man Suit, 2007); Matthew Rohrer (Satellite, 2001; Rise Up, 2007); and various late-nineties and early- to mid-aughts collections by Joshua Beckman, Ben Lerner, and many others.
5. The Last 4 Things (2009), Kate Greenstreet. Spare, stark, and relentlessly intelligent, Greenstreet's poems exhibit a propulsive intensity that belies their often less-than-ten-word building blocks of thought and action. Few poets are willing to risk being as aphoristic and even didactic about the conceptual as is Greenstreet; she's living proof that poets are not, in fact, afraid of voicing hard-won, bittersweet truths.
6. The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway (2010), Jennifer L. Knox. Who says poetry must always take itself so damn seriously? Jennifer L. Knox is undoubtedly writing some of the funniest verse ever set down in print, which in itself is a revolutionary, countercultural act given the insufferable gravity of the vast bulk of poems ever written or published. Yet Knox's approach is also resolutely historical, as it hearkens back to an earlier Age when the stories of the times were all told in verse, and there were no better lips to hear the missteps, misfires, and mischiefs of a nation's culture from than those of the Poet. You won't necessarily laugh at -- or even get -- every joke, but you'll laugh plenty, and you'll certainly be thankful poets like Knox are keeping us all on our toes. Precious few poets have worked this particular vein of late, but they're out there: others include, but are not limited to, Matthew Guenette (American Busboy, 2011), Peter Davis (Hitler's Mustache, 2006), and to a lesser (but by no means less interesting) extent, Anthony McCann (Father of Noise, 2003).
7. War Music (1997), Christopher Logue. Logue's contemporary take on Homer is so blindingly fresh it takes you a moment to realize that you hadn't, in fact, been expecting or even hoping for a contemporary revisitation and reworking of the Blind Bard. Yet here it is, and it's glorious -- somehow bringing new life to characters and events long felt by many to be primarily, at least at this stage in American history, the province of college English courses and classical scholars. With elegant anachronisms, Logue simultaneously renews Homer and creates a mythic space entirely of his own devising.
8. Up Jump the Boogie (2010), John Murillo. Murillo's urban narratives are spellbinding and deceptively simple; the rhythm and pace of these poems captures the experiences of the author in a voice and with a grace every listener can appreciate and admire. These are not necessarily stories we haven't heard before, but that's part of their irresistible charm: one senses, with Up Jump the Boogie, that stories which have long needed telling, and continue to need telling, have in Murillo found the right person to do just that.
9. Mule (2011), Shane McCrae. McCrae's poetry achieves a syllabic sublimity, attending to the fits and starts of language, of human hopes and designs, and of visual space in a way few other poets can match. One would never guess this is McCrae's first collection, so evident is his mastery and so sure and terrifyingly true are his accounts of fracture and confusion. The syntax of Mule is elegantly complex -- a language so attuned to the bellows of the lungs, you may find you've forgotten to breathe. It's that good.
10. Poems 1959-2009 (2009), Frederick Seidel. Seidel is one of the very few American poets of whom it could accurately be said that his work cannot be replicated, emulated, or approximated. It is a unique phenomenon of the sort witnessed perhaps only once a century. Seidel's poetry is consistently stark, terrifying, and grotesque, and yet one senses in it the frozen passions of a fully realized and fully capable poetic persona. Reading Seidel is not exactly like rubbernecking; it's like being strapped to a chair with your eyelids forcibly peeled back and then made to watch the slow, gentle slaughter of an infant. Anyone who says contemporary poetry has nothing to match its predecessors from other generations has either not read Seidel or simply did not understand what he was reading when he did.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of two collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). Presently a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also the co-author of the forthcoming third edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Bloomsbury, 2012).
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