Not Your Parents' Poems: A 2012 Poetry Preview

A bookend shaped like a person, holding up a row of books i i
A bookend shaped like a person, holding up a row of books

I can't tell you how the 2012 presidential election is going to turn out, nor can I say for certain whether The Office will outlast its first year without Steve Carell (though things are looking promising so far). What I can do is assure you that 2012 is full of exciting, enduring poetry.

Like music and fashion, contemporary poetry is often about looking at things from the past and dressing them up for the present. Today's average poem (if there is such a thing) takes us to the frontiers of language, borrowing from Twitter memes to overheard conversation, from the classics to bad movies. These are not your parents' — and certainly not your parents' parents' poems — in fact, some of these poets, in their 30s, 40s and 50s, are practically babies in poetry years, though some are among the wisest we've ever had.

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was a prizewinning poet whose poems celebrated African-American lives and feminist themes. i i

hide captionLucille Clifton (1936-2010) was a prizewinning poet whose poems celebrated African-American lives and feminist themes.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was a prizewinning poet whose poems celebrated African-American lives and feminist themes.

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was a prizewinning poet whose poems celebrated African-American lives and feminist themes.

Mark Lennihan/AP

If you only read one poetry book in 2012, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, out in September from BOA, ought to be it. This landmark book collects all the published poems of this major poet, plus a handful of unpublished ones, edited by the poet Kevin Young with an introduction by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

Clifton (1936-2010), who died after a long struggle with cancer (the disease pushed her to some of her most powerful poems), wrote with startling immediacy about subjects as far-reaching as the continually echoing injustices of American slavery, and as intimate as the daily whisperings between a mother and child. At her best, she produced such succinct and subtly layered works as "The News": "... the faces / of men dying scar the air / the moon becomes the mountain / who would have thought / who would believe / dead things could stumble back / and kill us."

But why stop at one? Here are seven equally essential collections.

Useless Landscape, or a Guide for Boys

Useless Landscape, or a Guide for Boys

Poems

by D. A. Powell

Hardcover, 80 pages, Graywolf Press, $22, published February 14 2012 | purchase
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  • Useless Landscape, or a Guide for Boys
  • Poems
  • D. A. Powell

I'm willing to wager we'll be reading D.A. Powell — closely — in a hundred years, because his poems tell a whole lot of the story of America's last four decades. Powell's poems arose out of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s gay community in San Francisco (Powell himself is HIV-positive) and in recalling the parties and lives AIDS brought to an end, Powell created a whole new poetic instrument, a blend of hip, contemporary reference — to '80s bands, campy movies and gay porn — and a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible and classical mythology. Powell finds the seams in the language, the places where the old knits with the new. In this, his fifth and most elegant and accessible book, he watches himself aging, his disease making off with his body, his energy and his hope — but not his humor: "You face your wrinkles, daily, in the mirror. / But the wrinkles are so slimming, they rather flatter." He entreats us, by book's end, to "triumph over death with me." It's an invitation — and a poet — you won't be able to resist.

Place

Place

New Poems

by Jorie Graham

Paperback, 96 pages, HarperCollins, $15.99, published April 24 2012 | purchase
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  • Place
  • New Poems
  • Jorie Graham

You need to watch a Graham poem closely — it's going to move quietly, subtly, so slowly it may even seem, at first, boring. But there's a lot going on there if you can bring down your heart rate to the poems' trance-like pace. For Graham, observing the movements of her mind and the action in the world are the same thing. In these mature poems, memories come alive with a vividness you could trip over: "I am the only one who ever lived who remembers / my mother's voice in the particular shadow / cast by the skyfilled Roman archway," she writes. Elsewhere, the present turns ethereal as, for instance, a dog hit by a car becomes "the loved still-young creature being carried now onto the family lawn." At the end of each of these winding, harrowing poems, you always end up having inched miles from where you started. Graham is in top form.

Inferno

Inferno

A New Translation

by Dante Alighieri, Mary Jo Bang and Henrik Drescher

Paperback, 288 pages, Graywolf Press, $20, published August 7 2012 | purchase
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  • Inferno
  • A New Translation
  • Dante Alighieri, Mary Jo Bang, et al

Where do the Rolling Stones belong in Dante's Hell? In Canto XII of Bang's contemporary reinvention of Dante's epic, in which Dante and Virgil are summoned by hell's denizens with a quote from "You Can't Always Get What You Want": "Each had a bow and well-chosen arrow. / One called across the distance, 'Are you two coming down / To get your fair share of abuse?' " But it ain't all rock lyrics. Bang uses anachronisms when they'll add some punch — hell's hot wind is like a "massive crimson camera flash" — but it's still Dante, wordy, guilty and full of splinters that don't come out. Hell is where Bang went after her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Elegy, about the death of her son, and her Inferno is a classic recast for our age, a hell we'll find ourselves in, an old poem made new by one of our most surprising and innovative poets.

Collected Poems

Collected Poems

by Jack Gilbert

Hardcover, 320 pages, Random House Inc, $35, published March 13 2012 | purchase
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  • Collected Poems
  • Jack Gilbert

Gilbert has always published slowly — about a book a decade — but this retrospective is hefty, containing all of his books to date, plus some new poems. Gilbert writes with worldliness and authority, his poetic speaker seems to have been everywhere, done everything, had everything, lost everything and returned, wounded and enlarged. He takes in a panoramic view in every line, so we believe he knows precisely what he's talking about when he says things like: "Desire perishes / because it tries to be love. / Love is eaten away by appetite. / Love does not last, but it is different / from the passions that do not last. / Love lasts by not lasting." This book, though — with its wisdom and revelatory natural detail, its knowledge of sex and grief — will endure.

1000 Eyes

The Book of a Thousand Eyes

by Lyn Hejinian

Paperback, 350 pages, Independent Pub Group, $24.95, published April 1 2012 | purchase
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  • The Book of a Thousand Eyes
  • Lyn Hejinian

Fans of Hejinian, a difficult-to-categorize cornerstone of the contemporary American experimental writing scene, have a lot of book to look forward to. Her latest is a doorstopper, a kind of impractical almanac of avant-garde poetry: It won't tell you when it's going to rain, but it will tell you, for instance, that "there were seven clouds. They were quite distinct from each other, and each bore its own rain." Hejinian sets this jumble of poems, prose fables and writings that don't fit neatly into any category in a "bed ... made of sentences," using dream-logic to skip from Da Vinci on painting ("my heart is driven wild") to "two jazzy jellyfish setting up to jam." You probably won't read this one cover to cover, but wherever you dip in, you'll find something to linger on.

The Eternal Ones

The Eternal Ones of the Dream

Selected Poems 1990 - 2010

by James Tate

Paperback, 240 pages, HarperCollins, $19.99, published March 27 2012 | purchase
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  • The Eternal Ones of the Dream
  • Selected Poems 1990 - 2010
  • James Tate

The wildly funny and wildly influential Tate has been up to something sinister in the latter half of his long career, represented by this new selection. While spinning silly yarns about guys who befriend goats and have statues erected in their honor without their knowledge, he's also created a new form — a hybrid of prose and poetry that is neither prose poem nor story. He usually starts somewhere plausible but unlikely: "On Monday, Miss Francis told her sixth-grade / class that she was getting married soon" begins "Shiloh," a poem about a teacher who bends her students' ears about breakups and reconciliations with her husband-to-be rather than teach the Civil War. Tate free-associates his way across the American consciousness deep into the human heart: The poem ends with Rory, a young Civil War enthusiast seething at the back of the classroom, imagining his gabbing teacher "camped beside the battlefield, / nervously waiting for her man, who would never return." You'll laugh out loud then wonder uneasily if Tate has been holding up a fun-house mirror — or if you've ever seen yourself so clearly.

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths

On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths

by Lucia Perillo

Hardcover, 96 pages, Consortium Book Sales & Dist, $22, published April 10 2012 | purchase
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  • On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
  • Lucia Perillo

Pulitzer Prize finalist Perillo has always written poems that managed to be hilarious even as they described her struggle with debilitating multiple sclerosis. In this, her most intimate collection, she unsparingly confronts her own mortality and the fragility of life in general, though not without flashing a bit of a smile. "When you spend many hours alone in a room / you have more than the usual chances to disgust yourself — / this is the problem of the body, not that it is mortal / but that it is mortifying," she writes. These poems study her failing body, others' bodies and memories that slip further into the distance while gaining an aching poignancy. Perillo (who also has a collection of stories coming out this year) considers the afterlife — "I am not sure / I have a soul, a corny soul, a little puppet / made of cream and feathers" — but mostly shrugs it off. Yet, finally, these poems are deeply compassionate, buoyed by a gently held faith in life, or at least in its cycles: "my speck can blip out / on a stem sprouting out of the fork of a branch, / the afterthought of a flower / that was the afterthought of a bud, / transformed now into a seed with a wing." She offers a rare kind of sobering inspiration.

And if those eight don't satisfy your poetry cravings (when it comes to poetry, eight is never enough), here are four more books you should check out this year.

September will bring about the release of Must A Violence (University of Iowa/Kuhl House), the third book by Oni Buchanan, an experimental poetry favorite who nonetheless shows a lot of heart amid tricky aesthetic gymnastics.

In her third collection, Engine Empire (May, Norton), Cathy Park Hong does everything short of inventing her own language in order to show cultures clashing and spilling into each other in poems that range from traditional verse forms sequences to prose to her own version of the extended cowboy song.

Paisley Rekdal is up to some ambitious stuff in her fourth book, Animal Eye (March, University of Pittsburgh), which offers an edgy take on nature poetry as well as meditations on love, domesticity and getting older, plus some impressive long poems.

Finally, in an unusual take on the posthumous poetry collection, Last Poems (January, Copper Canyon) by Hayden Carruth combines the remaining unpublished poems by this major American poet with the last poem from each of his previously published books, creating a bittersweet memorial for a poet known for his rough-edged version of homespun wisdom.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems, Cradle Book and the forthcoming To Keep Love Blurry. He is director of digital operations and poetry reviews editor of Publishers Weekly, and serves as a Vice President on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

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