Not that you need more reading right now, but let’s suppose you’ve got a favorite poetry columnist, and that you have no clue what to get him (or her) for the upcoming holidays. You can’t rely on The New York Times Notable Books of 2010 list because, even though one of its categories is allegedly “Fiction and Poetry,” you’ll find only three poetry listings among the 48 books included there. Fortunately, you have a somewhat more respectable newspaper available to you in Ann Arbor, and it has seen fit to allow me to suggest some of the notable poetry books of 2010:
Sarah Barber, “The Kissing Party” (National Poetry Review Press, $17.95)
Full disclosure: Barber was a classmate of mine some years ago. Fuller disclosure: I’m still jealous of her. She makes the language I thought I spoke seem unfamiliar, disconcerting and miraculous. So that in one poem, “the women’s college girls pass / pert and jodhpured by;” in another, the “parks of our childhood” are “endless afternoon” where the “sun (is) as hot as a mouth.” Like those childhood kissing parties, these poems are mysterious, sexy and memorable.
Anne Carson, “Nox” (New Directions, $35.00)
I don’t always understand Anne Carson, but I don’t always understand Einstein either. “Nox” is poetry, but it’s also translation, collage, photography, a time capsule and — most important— an elegy to a dead brother. I often don’t know what to make of it, but I am thankful it has been made. As we enter an age when readers read readers instead of books, “Nox” demonstrates that the book itself can still be a poetic text, an art object, an offering, a shrine.
Deborah Digges, “The Wind Blows Open the Doors of My Heart: Poems” (Knopf, $25.00)
Much poetry of our age is about as self-consciously cool and unaffected as a vodka martini. What a thrill it is, then, to read poems so linguistically and emotionally risky. When you read a poet willing to say “Call out the names in the procession of the loved,” you know you are in the presence of one who cares deeply about sound and not at all about sounding cool. Digges’s poems remind us that poetry fulfills a need; these are poems we need now.
Terrance Hayes, “Lighthead” (Penguin, $18.00)
OK, OK, I haven’t actually read this yet. But poets and readers everywhere celebrated last week when Hayes won the National Book Award, because he’s been writing so daringly and so freshly for so long. Hayes is playful without ever sounding precious, current without ever seeming trendy. “Not what you see, but what you perceive: / that’s poetry,” he writes. “I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry.” In Hayes’s poems, poetry is the one, the other and more.
Seamus Heaney, “Human Chain: Poems” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.00)
A fountain pen takes up a “snorkel” of ink and becomes “guttery, snottery.” The “clunk” of a mechanical baler is “cardiac-dull.” There’s a reason Seamus Heaney’s poems are as popular as they are admired. He reminds us that the English language is spoken just as zealously in the peat fields of County Derry as in the lecture halls of Oxford. Heaney’s English has drunk deeply of both and still speaks with clarity, sympathy and wisdom.
Kay Ryan, “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems” (Grove, $24.00)
I’m astonished, first, when I read Kay Ryan’s poems — then I’m envious. Her rhymes are so subtle and inventive, her patterns of thought so surprising, that I wish I had written them myself. “Insult is injury / taken personally,” she writes. I think, “of course it is,” then realize it’s her thought, her lines, not mine. Her poems outsmart me, line by line and thought by thought, and all I can be, finally, is grateful.
Richard Wilbur, “Anterooms: New Poems and Translations” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $20.00)
Poetry is supposed to be a young person’s game, and Wilbur will turn 90 years old on March 1. I’m not going to suggest that he’s sold his soul for poetic youth, but here is Wilbur’s description of dreams:
“a cobwebbed pane.
Where, before our eyes,
All the living and the dead
Meet without surprise.”
Too often overlooked because he failed to be one of the dramatic early deaths of his generation, Wilbur deserves the sort of attention he has so long given the world.
Of course, I’ve overlooked a shameful number of good books and poets in order to focus on those I’ve mentioned here. I hope, though, that any one of these books will lead you to those books, and those to others still. The volume of what’s good should compensate for my own biases. And if you find the good or the great, I would accept that as an adequate end-of-semester gift.
I would also accept cash.