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12/21/2012 11:25 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2013

December 2012 Contemporary Poetry Reviews

Each month, this contemporary poetry review series selects between five and ten collections published since 2000 to recommend to its readership. These collections are selected from a pool of more than two thousand books of supplied and already-held contemporary poetry. Publishers interested in submitting review copies to the series should contact the author of this article. All submitted books remain eligible for inclusion in the series for a ten-year period. For a partial listing of books received and considered, see here.

This month, the series focuses on just one collection: a recently-published work of extraordinary merit and historical significance that requires a longer-than-usual critical treatment. Next month the series will return to its usual format.

1. Pink Thunder, by Michael Zapruder, ft. Carrie Olivia Adams, Mark Allen-Piccolo, Gene V. Baker, Joshua Beckman, David Berman, Doug Boyd, Nate Brenner, Ryan Browne, Kyle Bruckmann, Tony Calzaretta, Sean Coleman, Gillian Conoley, Tyler Corelitz, Lark Coryell, Eli Crews, Matt Cunitz, Arrington de Dionyso, Angie Doctor, Shayna Dunkelman, Dale Engle, Jem Fanvu, Evan Francis, Darian Gray, Bob Hicok, Steve Hogan, Jed Holtzman, Tyehimba Jess, Michael Kaulkin, Noelle Kocot, Kurt Kotheimer, Georgiana Krieger, Dorothea Lasky, Brett Fletcher Lauer, Alan Lin, Anthony McCann, Chris McGrew, Dave McNair, Ava Mendoza, Lynne Morrow, Valzhyna Mort, Sierra Nelson, Hoa Nguyen, Travis Nichols, John Paddock, Melody Parker, Scott Pinkmountain, D.A. Powell, Matthew Rohrer, Mary Ruefle, Kevin Seal, Michelle Solomon, Carrie St. George Comer, Janaka Stucky, James Tate, Beth Vandervennet, Jeff Watts, Joe Wenderoth, Dara Wier, Franz Wright, Jesse Yules, Jessica Zapruder, Levi Zapruder, and Matthew Zapruder (Black Ocean, 2012).

Imagine, for a moment, two competing narratives of the history and development of American poetry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: The first, one in which the postwar explosion in the number of graduate creative writing programs nationwide plays mustachioed villain to the blinding sunburst of creativity attendant only upon the nation's coastal bohemian enclaves; the second, in which the Program Era and the literary bohème are siblings--the former acting, in large but not exclusive part, as a necessary delivery system for the inventions of the latter--with both, in their own subtle ways, gregariously rebelling against their shared parental unit: the High Modernists. (We might say, too, that this latter history would have both Program Era children and children of the literary bohème secretly idolizing their crazed European grandparents from the WWI-era historical avant-garde.)

The first of these narratives is, at present, the gospel; the second, a gnostic reading of events only lately receiving its proper attention and due. The prediction made in this space is that within less than five years the latter reading of the history and development of American verse over the last century and a quarter will entirely and permanently eclipse the former. And if and when that happens, it will be because literary criticism begins, once again, to contextualize its scholarly obsessions and also, as importantly, because of stellar, iconoclastic, multimedia literary-art productions like Michael Zapruder's poetry anthology-cum-musical album, Pink Thunder.

In a lengthy essay this reviewer wrote recently for Spoon River Poetry Review (available from same this coming spring), entitled "The Golden Age of American Poetry Is Now," the following claim appears:

"What we might expect to find in poets whose work encapsulates this singular moment in the historicity of letters...[is] an aspiration to unify literary arts communities with those of other artforms already admired in the bohemian enclaves poets increasingly live and write in...an embrace of the performative elements of the written word...an especially vigorous willingness to produce collaborative works...a desire to produce mixed-genre or non-generic artifacts, by way of acknowledging that the sociocultural and curricular spaces of creative writing programs and non- or quasi-institutional literary communities are often mixed- or non-genred spaces...and a sensitivity to the costs and benefits of social media."

Not a week later, Michael Zapruder's Pink Thunder (a Black Ocean and, indirectly, Wave Books joint) appeared in this reviewer's mailbox.

If an objective correlative could be said to exist for the myriad phenomena of the present Golden Age of American poetry, it would be Pink Thunder. In short, it's a genre-mixing, community-driven, performance-oriented, collaborative project that represents everything that's right with American poetry and everything American poetry is fast becoming. More specifically, Pink Thunder is the culmination of a six-year project initiated by Michael Zapruder, brother of poet and editor Matthew Zapruder. After a week spent riding on Wave Books' Poetry Bus in 2006, Zapruder gathered together poems written and performed by poets on the tour and began turning them into vehicles for musical composition. According to Zapruder's Artist's Statement, "my inviolable rule was that the poems must control the music and not vice-versa. I made a rule that I would never change a single word, nor would I reorder or otherwise alter any of the poems, and I stuck to that."

Indeed he did; the songs of Pink Thunder are in every respect poems set to music, meaning that they lack choruses of the traditional sort, for instance, or much in the way of rigid melodic schemes. What's stunning is that they're the better for it: Zapruder, clearly a consummate professional as a musician, produces songs which are in every respect "real" songs but also, too, "real" poems. This is not your daddy's sixties-era, bongo-playing poetic accompaniment; these are songs you'd want to listen to, not just once but many times, because they're both lyrically and compositionally superlative.

When this reviewer originally received Pink Thunder, he made the mistake--seeing that the poem-songs were anthologized in the book portion of the package--of reading along with the poems-cum-liner notes as the music was playing. It became clear, soon enough, that this was the grave mistake. (And a mistake, one fears, that too many of those who will purchase Pink Thunder are likely to make.) These artifacts are meant to be experienced as ineluctable wholes, not as bifurcated literary and musical experiences. Once one puts down the beautifully-produced hardcover book that partially comprises Pink Thunder and just listens to the sounds one hears, one realizes that Zapruder may well have taken the largest step any artist, literary or otherwise, has taken in years toward reminding us why we love poetry. Ultimately, the physical product of Pink Thunder is superfluous, just as it is poetry we value--its invisible sound and core-felt sense--not the publishing scene. This reviewer wanting to read words on a page simultaneous to hearing those same words recited or sung was, it now seems, a mere habit--a fetishizing of a narrow way of experiencing poetry, one that belongs more to the twentieth century than this one.

Without question, if you are yourself a poet and you decide to purchase only one poetry collection in 2013, it should be Zapruder's Pink Thunder. The reason is that you can't fully understand what will be expected of you as a literary artist in the next decade until you listen to the album that comes with this poetry collection. The synesthesia of the collection's title--a combination of image and sound--heralds the important gestures contained therein, gestures which had their birth in various bohemian enclaves in the sixties but have since taken on new life in the literally hundreds of graduate creative writing programs and small, independent publishing institutions now dotting the American landscape. The mid- and late-century avant-garde gave us sound poetry and cross-generic investigations of language (from Charles Bernstein's recovery of folk tunes to the professional Googlers of flarf; from Carla Harryman's flirtations with generic fiction to Susan Howe's unpacking of documentary techniques); but it is the Program Era that has found a way to disseminate these advances across the entire nation and thus change poetry permanently--something that was impossible when good ideas about Art were just things that occasionally popped up in remote coffeehouses in New York's Greenwich Village and San Francisco's Mission District.

Music is moving closer and closer to poetry, and poetry ever closer to music, even as neither is sacrificing any part of what makes it valuable. At first this seems a paradox, but it's one that begins to make sense when one considers that the roster of truly great sixties lyricists includes Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and only a handful of others, whereas today a thoroughly idiosyncratic singer, harpist, and lyricist like Joanna Newsom can be reviewed in Rolling Stone and represent only the smallest portion of America's increasingly poetic musical pantheon.

The line between musical concert and poetry reading is slowly blurring, indeed is already blurred, which means the dirt piled atop the grave of Language poetry will now, too, be urinated upon by additional passersby. Is it fair? Probably not; the contributions of Language poets and their kin to the roster of what academic poetry is willing to risk and what it can accomplish has undoubtedly, via the Program Era, profoundly influenced the far greater stock of American poets whose only intersection with the Academy is in largely non-academic fine arts degree programs. But the more important point remains: In the future, poetry readings will once again be cultural happenings of significant note, the sort of social event any right-thinking, even-marginally-educated American would want to check out at least a few times per year.

Is it wise that poetry turn so violently from its recent history as a predominantly "page" phenomenon ripe and ready for academic scholarship and canonization? Again, probably not. The less poets participate in Art primarily on the page, the less accountable they are to strangers, and a lack of accountability in poetry (whether in publishing, book promotion, reading series organization, networking, program admissions, program funding, or any other realm that deeply touches the lives of literary artists) has often served to harm Art and artists alike. But it's hard to see poetry that doesn't perform exceedingly well--or, better stated, poets who perform exceedingly well, whatever they're writing--having much of a leg to stand on in the years ahead. (Which is not to say this trend hasn't been evident for many years, albeit only on the corners of the poetry-publishing scene; Patricia Smith, a star performance poet, was recently a National Book Award finalist for her collection Blood Dazzler, for instance. And certainly several of the great post-avants of the 1960s were also great performers--Charles Olson comes to mind--though one would be hard-pressed to say that the literary project of these poets was as much a "stage" as a "page" phenomenon, and few of these men and women hailed directly from the non-literary performing arts.)

In one of the finest tracks--in one of the finest poems--on/in Pink Thunder, "Pennsylvania," contemporary American poetry literally touches its Resurrection. The song-poem/poem-song (or, as you like, "song" or "poem") illustrates Zapruder's ability to suss out, in a piece of literary art, those rhythms and turns and peculiar syntactic constructions and thematic obsessions that are now, and have always been, printed poetry's companion phenomena to similar reifications of spiritual detritus in music. In the repetitions of the word "tree," and in Zapruder's decision to soften his voice and playing whenever the poem's whimsy bleeds through ("I found a tree, a naked tree...a big f*cking deal tree"; "I've been your girlfriend...for several minutes" [ellipses added]); in his ability to attach the appropriate keys (minor or major, higher- or lower-octave) to words and phrases of different diction ("starcase" [sic] gets an ethereal, higher key; "Denver" a lower, minor-or-warbling one), and in his mirroring of chord progressions across far-flung sections of the poem differently constituted syllabically but sonically linked by their textures; in all of these artistic decisions Zapruder reveals poems to already be songs-in-waiting, and music simply a different form of poetic logic and rhetoric. While this hardly means every song can function as a poem, or every poem as something you'd listen to for pleasure or edification with no liner notes or lyrics before you, Pink Thunder is that remarkable historical happening that's both a great album and a great poetry collection.

Poetry is not, of course, synonymous with song lyric, and this review stops well short of that dubious claim. In fact, the divergences between the two endeavors are not just instructive but strike at the core of what makes poetry an essential artform in any civilization. The twenty-two works of Pink Thunder do not, as noted, have choruses, though Zapruder has clearly studied the units of measure in the poems received by him from friends and family, and gives equivalent units (rhythmically, syntactically, temporally, and/or thematically) similar enough musical treatment that we can understand, indeed cannot fail to miss, how it is that poetry preceded song lyrics in the history of inventions--and will always eclipse its stepchild when given the opportunity and resources. It goes without saying, then, that the "lyrics" in Pink Thunder outstrip in every conceivable aspect the lyrics found everywhere this side of--well, anyone. Joanna Newsom, Fiona Apple, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan: From a purely literary standpoint, all of these superstars are relative neophytes, at least when compared to poets of the caliber found in Pink Thunder.

Soon, then, we must surmise, the circle will be complete, the worm will turn--choose your metaphor--and the distance between an obscure, independent-press poetry release and Joanna Newsom's Rolling Stone-reviewed music will disappear completely. It is then that America will discover it actually still does (in fact never did stop) liking poetry. Not because poetry and song lyrics are indistinguishable, but because there is, in the human, a form of imaginative impulse we may term poetic, and it can and does make itself manifest in countless media. For Zapruder, those media include the visual arts: A music video for the poem-song "Florida" can be found here, and it further entrenches Pink Thunder as the sort of project that spits in the face of Kenneth Goldsmith's defeatist "Peak Language" theory. It is not that we have too much language, but that (and in this Goldsmith might agree) we exhibit too much possessiveness over language. One can easily imagine, watching "Florida," further poem-music collaborations in myriad generic spaces long absent of poets' presence: For instance, we might predict post-hardcore poetry albums, country poetry albums, electronica poetry albums, and so on. (Zapruder, for his part, is, as a musician, three parts Wilco and one part something else.) And many would argue that we already have indie-rap albums of sufficient lyric complexity and poetic sensibility to earn shelf-space next to the likes of Pink Thunder.

All this sea change suggests that something, somewhere, is gradually getting washed away, and one suspects it is, by and large--Language poetry excepted--the academic rat race-cum-publishing scene. If that specter of the 1970s and 1980s is becoming increasingly flimsy in the view of contemporary American poets and poetry, the reason is not the one most think: It's not that the conventional lyric-narrative favored in many university-based creative writing circles is dead (though it is), or that no one has quite the same faith in old-guard university publishing that they once did (though they don't), it's that the foundational premise of the publish-or-perish ethos is that we're all in this alone and the problem is--or, rather, the opportunity is--we're not. Not anymore.

This series has contended, before, that the archetypal Romantic-Era literary-genius isolato, however celebrated by both post-Language Poetry scions and hordes of would-be "professional" poets now working in academia, is in fact a dying breed; poetry is more and more a communal and community-oriented enterprise. On the seedier side of things, that means a lot of cronyism, nepotism, crass networking, and high-school cliquishness masquerading as aesthetic gestalt; on the less seedy side of things, that means a lot of cronyism, nepotism, crass networking, and high-school cliquishness masquerading as aesthetic gestalt with, somewhere in the bargain, some pretty amazing poetry to boot.

So it is--if we approach the subject of this review socioculturally--with Pink Thunder, a friends-and-family-publishing-friends-and-family enterprise that has the unique distinction of a) involving some pretty darn talented friends and family, and consequently some of the more striking literary art published in America this decade; b) having a distinct vision for what it means to be a poet living and writing in the Golden Age of American Poetry; and c) further revealing the well-intentioned ephemera of top-down (merit-based, "blind," and contest-oriented) publishing and the historic ascension of grassroots (relationship-based, relationship-based, and relationship-based) publishing.

So, we might well ask, whither a geographically isolated, shy, prickly, impolitic, awkward, or infamous poet in a literary publishing scene that rewards going along to get along, and getting along to publish along with? The hope here is that, in time, so-called "objective" assessment of Art (such as it is) will, like the cockroach, persist despite all threats foreign and domestic, and the seemingly universal view, in contemporary American poetry, that--despite a national scene suffused with 70,000 poets--one's ten best friends are likely also the ten best poets in America will come in for some serious scrutiny. Until then, grassroots publishing will now and again strike solid gold--as is the case with Pink Thunder--and we'll all be green with envy but also much the better for it.

Read strictly as "page" poetry, the poems of Pink Thunder are pretty good but, in many spots, unspectacular. The individual poems are, like so much hip-lit these days, a little funny, a little ironic, a little despairing, and a little in love with themselves. These poems don't go in much for caged-page technical artistry like clever enjambment, nor do they have much truck with subtlety; they love people and their quirks and hate Big Ideas-qua-Big Ideas. There's a lot of mash-notes-to-the-way-we-live happening here, which is fine, though it doesn't stick around in the gut as long as it should, perhaps because it doesn't want to or perhaps because it can't. Great Art-qua-Great Art is in its rear-view mirror. But having said that, the poems of Pink Thunder are also more viscerally enjoyable than four-fifths of the poetry one is likely to encounter on the shelves of the local bookstore (if you can remember bookstores), so there's that. And in the final accounting, that's far from nothing.

But if, as this review argues, we do better to speak of the literary art of Pink Thunder than its poems--which literary art enfolds but is by no means limited to poetry--we can only conclude that there's ample excellence in evidence here. This includes a gorgeous physical product (and yes, artistry in production increasingly matters to Golden Ager, multi-generic artists) filled with glossy photographs, ample prose surrounding the poetry, and, most importantly, a musical album that holds up better than nearly any poetry you've read on the page in years. It's so good, somewhere in America John Darnielle is nervous.

Here's hoping that Pink Thunder, or something of its ilk, becomes an annual anthology, indeed one that casts its net even wider in the future. This means including poets and poetics presently unknown to whatever artist (or, better still, whichever different and varying artists) shall collaboratively act as their anthologists-cum-musicologists. By any accounting, though, Pink Thunder is an idea whose time has come, and an idea worth sharing and spreading outside the provincial boundaries of any and every literary subcommunity extant today.

This review closes by noting that it's this generation of undergraduate and graduate creative writing students that developed the book trailer, gave birth to the band the Decemberists, put a credible and abiding reading series in every state in America, made possible a sufficient national audience for poetry that ten-city "book tours" became possible for poets as well as novelists, convinced state and federal governments to hand out millions of no-strings-attached dollars in public patronage to bucolic college campus-dwelling artists around the country, created vibrant online workshops and social-media communities where poets could share their poetics and their poems 24/7/365, and even supplied us with poetry's first supergroup--all while being told by their elders that they lacked any of the imaginative gusto of their mid-twentieth-century predecessors. (These were predecessors who were, for their part, doing their utmost to court--almost exclusively--the attentions of remote academic chairs with a narrower knowledge of contemporary poetry than most first-year MFA students.) Children and stepchildren and friends-of-the-family of the Program Era--now virtually synonymous with the Golden Age of American poetry--have brought us Pink Thunder and, it says here, the rebirth of poetry in America. If we could speak to an entire historical era, we could imagine the Program Era first admonishing us for being ingrates and then, second, saying, "And you're welcome."

[Excerpt: "Florida"].

Note: When an album is reviewed, top billing is generally given to either a band name or single singer-songwriter; the liner notes of the album, however, thank all those who participated in the making of the album, including those who collaborated in its songwriting or musical production. Poetry collections have a slightly different history. While many or most collections include acknowledgments sections, these are generally regarded as a personal indulgence rather than a vital aggregation of collaborators. For this review, every major player in the collection under consideration has been acknowledged because, it suddenly seems, this is both a more accurate and more honest portrayal of how literary art is produced in this century. The critical introduction to Pink Thunder matters, as do the musicians who helped Michael Zapruder produce the CD that accompanies the collection; just so, each of the poets who contributed work to this project is an essential collaborator.

In the years ahead, we may well find poets less and less willing to feature their name--and only their name--on their collections' front covers, as increasingly the debt literary artists who write into and out of vibrant bohemian and/or institutional communities owe to those communities will be impossible to elide. Pink Thunder expands our understanding of the institutions literary artists move through and within; the graduate creative writing program that offered teaching and learning opportunities to (say) D.A. Powell, whose work appears in this volume, ought be considered no more or less an institutional support to this project than (say) Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco, the likewise non- or minimal-profit art institution in which Zapruder mixed the songs appearing on the Pink Thunder CD.

How long will we have to wait until a literary-arts composition appears that borrows even more fully and literally than does Pink Thunder from the ethos and ethic of the sonic arts? Not long, is the thinking here. That is, we could choose to narrow our understanding of what it takes to produce a poem until not even a single author is observable--some of the newer Conceptual Poetry stretches in this direction--or we could engage in a perhaps more generous, honest, and contemporary act: Acknowledgment that the production of novel language and the use of novel compositional methods is not now more difficult (or less rewarding) than it has been in the past, it merely involves an ever-increasing number of players and intersecting communities. So we end up with more art, produced by more artists, operating within more and more (and more and more intertwined) communities of artists. In what possible way should such developments displease us? Or, more broadly, displease America?

Earlier Editions in the Series:

August 2011
September 2011
October 2011
November 2011
December 2011
January 2012
February 2012
March 2012
April 2012
May 2012
June 2012
July 2012
August 2012
September 2012
October 2012
November 2012