As I was saying the book that I bought and then did not read and which caught my eye recently is Now & Then: The Poet’s Choice Columns 1997-2000 by Robert Hass. There is not a page when I have not learned something, or had my excitement about poetry renewed and refreshed. What more can you ask for in an anthology?
Mostly Hass chooses to draw on poetries from the Americas, including Native American and Mexican poetry, with the odd smattering of poets from Europe and beyond, even our own storm-lashed island. He is nothing if not catholic and inclusive in his taste. Again, what more could you ask for?
There are the poems. And there is the writing about the poems. This post will be about the latter. (The poems will appear another time.)
What do I want in a critic of poetry? I am a slow and basic reader: clarity, first of all. Everything else, the enthusiasm, the insight, even little bits of esoteric knowledge, can all come later. I need to see what is going on. Which is a good thing, because Hass writes like a dream.
Here he is on Susan Wheeler:
Postmodern poetry —experimental poetry— has been for the last fifteen years or so trying to figure out how to wriggle out of the sort of direct, personal poetry that the generation of Allen Ginsberg and Adrienne Rich made. Not necessarily because the younger poets didn’t like it, but because they felt that work was being done and it was time to do something else. The project has gone in a lot of directions, but almost all of them have had in common an effort to subvert narrative, undermine the first person singular, and foreground the textures and surprises in language rather than the drama of context. [p.74]
You might not agree with his assessment, but that is still a beautifully put summary. We can debate with it, we don’t even have to like it. But, gosh, what a place to start.
Or how about these lines, on the political poetry of James Wright?
One of Wright’s themes as a political poet was that the need of Puritan America to subject everything to the light came from a prurient fear of its own darkness. […]American light for him was fear of the unconscious, and its form was love of judgment. It judged sin, it judged poverty, and it judged people’s class and their color. [p.93]
Again, isn’t that brilliant? And so prescient: he was writing this in 1998.
Or this, on Chase Twitchell, again from 1998:
[Her] newest book, The Snow Watcher (Ontario Review Press), has just arrived in bookstores and is a surprise again. Its setting is in her territory, the beautiful Keene Valley not too far from Lake Champlain, and the subject, or the background of her subjects, is her work as a student of Zen Buddhism. I recommend the new book, but if you go to poetry partly for a a taste of the movement of the inner life, I recommend all three [of her books]. They track the inner movements of one life with an unexpected freshness.
Reading the poems in The Snow Watcher is like breathing cold air. [p.104]
Two more quotes for you. The first is about Charles Wright’s three-book sequence of poems, Chickamauga, Black Zodiac and Appalachia:
Some of his best poems come from moment when his imagination seems to be idling, letting his attention find its focus, letting the world seep in, waiting for a music to come up. Almost like someone plucking at a guitar, waiting for the melody to take him, to tell him who he is or where he is. [p.151]
And finally, a sensational summary of the procedures at work in Claudia Rankine’s The End of the Alphabet:
So—an adventurous young poet, willing to be difficult: the poem begins in a restlessness of spirit that needs to describe its condition. It picks its way, phrase to phrase, like music. Reading it, you have to be willing to give the poet a little of the indefiniteness of the state of feeling she’s trying to describe and work through. That’s what gives the poem its intimacy of voice, the sense that you are overhearing language the self speaks to the self, underneath the “light piled on indisputable light” of our more organized daytime speaking, in which the obligation to be clear is like the obligation to be cheerful and keeps everyone’s obscure unhappiness or strangeness its own secret. [p.144]
As I say, brilliant and insightful and generous. And it was there on my shelf all the time, unread, a state of affairs I am happy is changing.