November 2011 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

11/30/2011 02:24 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012
  • Seth Abramson Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire; Series Co-Editor, Best American Experimental Writing

1. Rae Armantrout: Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Those of us who've long been enamored with Armantrout should do better at letting others in on the secret: This poet is the sort of Master whose poetics can inform, instruct, and inspire an entire generation of writers. Armantrout's short lines, use of rhetoric, aggressive lineation, disjunctions and juxtapositions, discursiveness, parataxis, and myriad condensatory techniques are all exemplary, but never overbearing. She proves that a poetics of interrogation and linguistic self-consciousness need not be exclusionary or obtuse; she says much with little, and while her poems consistently require of their reader a measure of negative capability, they also consistently insist upon and permit profitable re-readings.

2. Robin Blaser: The Holy Forest: Collected Poems of Robin Blaser (University of California Press, 2008). This is non-declamatory, endlessly self-revisionary, thinking-through-the-poem poetry, and consequently individual poems seem to land everywhere and nowhere all at once. If that sounds like chill praise, it's not: Blaser's new collected (the first came out in 1993) further entrenches him as a seminal figure in postwar North American poetry. His extroverted but contemplative poetics bridges The New York School (of which he was not a member) and Charles Olson's projectivism. Blaser (1925-2009) may have felt, as did Ezra Pound, that things did not cohere, and perhaps further believed that things ought not cohere, but the awesome beauty of his things is nevertheless evident. A single mid-eighties poem gives us these remarkable phrases: "the mind I want, like an / apple, childish"; "I've followed every great friend / I've known"; "not to own it I would write / it"; "I / wonder, / the words wound, / splendid gifts of guilt and wit"; "Night-birds, someone said, / are those men and women who try / to force their way into the reality / of others." Blaser, willfully or otherwise, is one of our great night-birds: His poems, often at the level of the phrase, will force their way into your reality by the sheer force of their authentic confusions. That is, Blaser gets to us, in the end, because he hardly seems to want it.

3. Jean Follain (trans. W.S. Merwin): Transparence of the World (Copper Canyon Press, 2003). Follain (1903-1971) deserves to be considered an Important Poet -- not just in his native France, but on this side of the Atlantic as well. His advances are quiet but necessary ones: For instance, a backgrounding (rather than foregrounding) of the ego; an insistence on archetype, atemporality, and minimalist punctuation; and a preference for the non-metaphorized image. These are sparse, harrowingly simple and direct, noun-intensive, and spiritually unsettling poems. Today's younger poets too rarely read poetry in translation, it seems; that's a pity, as the sort of generative flattening of language necessitated by translation would likely appeal to the aesthetic instincts of many self-aware twenty- and thirty-something poets.

4. Gabe Foreman: A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House Books, 2011). These eccentric vignettes, alphabetically ordered in encyclopedic fashion -- there are, for instance, entries for Androids, Queue Jumpers (out of alphabetical sequence, of course), "Dish Bitches," Doodlers, Fall Guys, Kleptomaniacs, Late Bloomers, Old Flames, and "Steven" -- make gleeful use of poetic form even as they offer all the unabashed, plot-driven fun of flash fiction. And yet even that catch-all description is inadequate: These are poems which include pie charts, textbook insets, a half-finished game of hangman, Mad Libs, artwork, Venn diagrams, and even a modified optometry chart. Foreman quite evidently had a lot of fun writing these poems, and readers will reap the benefits of his pleasure-driven efforts. The dominion of "pleasure" (both writer's and reader's) as a critical touchstone may have been toppled, in poetry at least, in the late nineteenth century, but Foreman seems poised to carry poetry forward by recapturing the spirit of a century gone by.

5. Douglas Kearney: The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009). If you can't fall in love pretty quick with a book equally committed to VisiPo, race relations, and Voltron, you shouldn't be reading contemporary poetry, anyway. This is the age of post-postmodernism -- an age of both inoperative language and linguistic reflexivity, of "meaning" as both immaterial material and material immateriality -- and Douglas Kearney pushes hard against all of this by rendering language as active, operative, and (indeed) a locus for Spectacle. These poems pop. They're fiery and frenetic, but also funny and flip. And yet this merely describes (or circumscribes) their gloss; they employ collage as a means to an end, and that end is a deadly serious one whose cultural and political implications are significant. If the world, as Kearney envisions it, is a jumble of mixed messages and mixed media, it is also one in which the pen is still mightier than the sword for those whose swear fealty to the Word. The book's first poem literally dissects a single word -- a font-size-exploded, star-spangled "Negro" -- by noting that "it knows... it feels... it guesses... it argues... it." Language has ever been political, but too many of those poets who've foregrounded that fact have had no particular agenda other than to deconstruct (often argued as its own agenda). Kearney is up to something much more than that, and we should be damn thankful for it. If you care about both the justness of language and the language of justice, this is your book. Read it. Many times.

6. Jared Stanley: Book Made of Forest (Salt Publishing, 2009). In a 2009 essay entitled "Slow Poetry: An Introduction," poet Dale Smith both described the titular new poetics and identified Jared Stanley as a foremost practitioner. Whether Stanley himself has adopted the nomenclature or not, it's clear that he's heavily engaged in an innovative poetics worth a serious look by anyone searching for the Next Big Thing in Western poetry. Smith posits that Slow Poetry is uniquely capable of capturing an "affection and affinity for disclosure of what is so often barely perceptible -- life raw and undefined... Slow Poetry values communication between author and reader. Its strong preference for the local, the personal, the hand-made, and the accessible invite broad participation in the ideas and potential exchanges art can foster... it is the position of Slow Poetry that we must learn to once again inhabit the local, and to abide by its claims, if we are to avert catastrophe." If that sounds expansive, it is, and deliberately so. In more immediate terms, both the form and content of Slow Poetry force the reader to appreciate each syllable, line, and image. Ideally, a Slow Poem cannot be read in any other way than Slow. It's a novel idea in an age defined by the speed and ease (if not the efficacy) of communication. Stanley's poetry is always lush, frequently visionary, and sometimes sublime: It lights upon existential nanoseconds without affixing itself so doggedly to any one natural phenomenon that the presence and significance of the human is diminished (a claim sometimes leveled against younger poets working in the New Minimalism, a kissing cousin of Slow Poetry). Book Made of Forest is exactly that; its poems exhibit a sort of humble, subtle, contemplative organicism that cannot be taught, and that connotes an earnest and unaffected attachment to the natural both literally and aesthetically.