Anne Carson's newest book of poetry will be called Red Doc>.
Anne Carson's newest book of poetry will be called Red Doc>.
Now that we're done with all that fiscal cliff wrangling (sort of), it's time to move on to priority No. 2: the next year in poetry. Just kidding. But, with the whole year stretching out before us, it is a good time to get excited about what literature has in store.
2012 was the year of colossal books of collected poems (from Jack Gilbert, who passed away shortly after his book's publication; Louise Glück; Lucille Clifton and one or two others). While 2013 doesn't promise so many monumental doorstoppers, it's packed with powerful, important and comfortably slim volumes of new poems by famous poets, as well as some books poetry lovers will love from poets whose names might be new to them. Here's a look at the eight you won't want to miss.
Rarely do books of poetry get sequels, but the big collection of 2013 is sure to be Anne Carson's follow-up to her now-legendary 1999 verse-novel Autobiography of Red, about the coming of age and erotic awakening of a (literal) boy-demon named Geryon. He is simply called "G" in Red Doc>, which, in prose poems and blocky verse-strophes, takes him through today's complex, technologically infused world. With a wise naivety he wonders things like, "...Why is/ everyone always angry on/ TV." He journeys with a lover named "Sad," facing death, love and maturity with Carson's trademark sharpness and her uncanny ability to make the strange seem familiar and the familiar strange. G observes the modern world as both citizen and stranger, wonderstruck, perplexed and disgusted by humanity: "How or what in their/ minds animals call us we/ hesitate to think," Carson observes, as her cast of characters converges around a volcano eruption. A classics scholar by training, Carson has made an extraordinary career of knitting old myths into contemporary culture. She is justly famous and beloved, and her many fans are always clamoring for more. This book, especially, will set them on fire.
Frank Bidart is one of the true living masters of contemporary poetry: His unwaveringly intense inward gaze (which is offset by his need to constantly analyze and consume both high and low culture) is revered by poets and readers alike. He picks his words as though his life depends on them, because for him, it does. In his eighth volume, Bidart, who is now in his '70s, looks back at a long and, as his poems portray it, lonely life of writing and reading. He mixes in healthy doses of penetrating self-critique, as in a poem in which he revisits his young self writing his most famous early work, the long poem "Ellen West": "Unlike Ellen he was never anorexic but like Ellen he was obsessed with eating and the arbitrariness of gender and having to have a body." He also describes, often bittersweetly, the decades through which he's lived, as in "Queer," which recalls his tortured coming out in midcentury: "Lie to yourself about this and you will/ forever lie about everything." The weight of Bidart's guilt and anguish is palpable — it seems to force itself up from the page at the reader, but so does his faith that art can make hardship not merely bearable, but almost unbearably beautiful.
Juan Felipe Herrera, though the author of many books and long considered an important writer, had his reputation sealed when he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his selected poems Half of the World in Light. His follow-up is this startling new collection of poems in prose and verse in which he adopts the voices of those suffering through or perpetrating the violence that has racked Sudan. With unrelenting intensity and compassion, Herrera speaks in the voices of traumatized, Senegal-bound children whose "mud drawings" he narrates in a sequence spread throughout the book. In one, a Kalashnikov AK-47 speaks: "After the ashes cleared I fell/ by the stumps of flesh." A kind of fragmented story also unfolds through a series of transcriptions of imaginary interviews mostly between news anchors and representatives of the Janjaweed militiamen: "Eh. Ahh. I kill many like him. Rebel African boy, heh." It's rare that a book of this kind is so moving and immediate. Herrera has the unusual capacity to write convincing political poems that are as personally felt as poems can be.
Poetry readers in the know have been waiting a decade for this book, the second by Szybist. Her first book, Granted, was among the most remarkable debuts of the new century. Szybist is a skeptic who thinks a lot about faith, a believer in doubt, though as a series of "Announcement" poems attest, she finds God all around — in everything from the distracted discourse of former President Bush to the sound of "a vacuum / start[ing] up next door." She's also a restless formal experimenter: It may actually be possible to catch a glimpse of the divine in a thrilling concrete poem called "How (Not) to Speak of God," whose lines radiate outward in a circle from its empty middle. More than anything, though, Szybist is a humble and compassionate observer of the complicated glory of the world and humanity's ambivalent role in it, as inheritors and interlopers: "... here is the quince tree, a sky bright and empty./ Here there are blueberries, there is no need to note me." This may well be a permanent book.
Stephen Burt has long been regarded among the most important critics now writing, but this year marks his emergence as one of his generation's most interesting poets. Though this is Burt's third collection of poems, until now his essays and books of criticism may have gotten the better part of his mind. But, as is often the case, the right subjects have beckoned great poetry. Mostly Belmont is a book about domestic life: fatherhood, marriage in a Boston suburb, days spent in the city — and these are some of the tenderest, most beautiful, most sympathetic poems to have been written about life with children, and about the kinds of things children like to imagine (like talking socks) in decades. Most of us spend our lives trying to figure out how to recall these lost feelings and thoughts; Burt can help: "Yes, another/ poem about flowers and kids. Our son/ thinks this one is a ball,/ or full of balls: like jesters' caps with bells." The book also has other, less kid-centric subjects, such as an obsession with women's college basketball and hintings at an interest in cross-dressing ("I have never been that flirty girl") which was recently the subject of a profile of Burt in the New York Times Magazine. In the best of these poems, through a delightful assortment of small details, Burt asks the big questions, such as, where does the soul reside? "Respectable people have found it in a guitar./ Consider where it lives, or hides, in you," he urges.
Alice James Books is one of the pure sources of American poetry, an independent publisher of nothing but poetry, based in Maine, that has started the careers of too many poets to name. At 40 years old the press is still chugging, bringing out debuts and midcareer collections each season (this spring, look out especially for Obscenely Yours by Angelo Nikolopoulos). This anthology is a birthday celebration in book form, edited by the current director of Alice James and one of its poets. It gathers a couple of poems each from nearly 150 writers. Alice James' most notable author is probably Jane Kenyon, whose poems, many of them about her struggles with depression, won her national fame; other past "Alices" as they're called, include Laura Kasischke, who recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Forrest Gander, a finalist for last year's Pulitzer and Matthea Harvey, a poet loved by almost everyone who loves poetry — that same wide audience will want to own this jam-packed book.
"[S]ometimes forgetting the panorama/ these poems focus like a tunnel,/ To a way of seeing time past,/ a way of seeing the dead," writes Dawes of his own writing, which is often deeply concerned with the long aftermath of the African diaspora. Raised in Jamaica, Dawes takes some of his cues, and this book's title, from reggae music. But his voice in these long and short poems and sequences selected from each of his many books, which began appearing in the mid-1990s, is crystal clear, accessible and serious, mixing a timeless myth-making energy with a strong contemporary conscience: "Your history is scattered across the city," he writes, "even strangers have seen you stumble, your heartbeat/ echoing in your head. They have shown pity/ and collected your story; given you food/ like alms for the poor. You dignify their pity." While Dawes has long been a force in various forms of art — he's even won an Emmy! — this book, which includes a generous selection of new poems, will bring him to the notice of a wide audience for the first time, perhaps initiating Dawes' arrival as a major poet.
Born in 1942, Ron Padgett was a founding member of the second generation of the New York school of poetry, following in the footsteps of John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara and others, whose talky, urban poetry has been hugely influential. His poems are conversational, extremely accessible, willfully casual and consistently funny, but also laced with a lightly worn sadness, a symptom of everyday heartache. At stake are nothing less than life, death, love, community and friendship, all of which unfold against the backdrop of a normal, if culturally attuned, urban existence. This volume brings together poems from all of Padgett's previous books, which were published over the last several decades by many different presses. Here are poems to and about famous friends, as well as poems of love and domesticity ("When I wake up earlier than you.../.../ I take a chance and stare at you,/ amazed in love and afraid") and, more recently, poems that look mortality in the eye. Wondering about how he will die, Padgett writes, "Now that I'm officially old,/ though deep inside not/ old officially or otherwise,/ I'm oddly almost cheered/ by the thought/ that I might find out/ in the not too distant future." No one accepts life's hard truths with a friendlier face.
And here are a few quick looks at four more books poetry fanatics will have to have:
Begging For It (Four Way Books, March), a searing, self-deprecating but ultimately celebratory debut from NYC poetry tastemaker Alex Dimitrov (who curates a renowned GLBT-positive poetry salon called Wilde Boys) will no doubt get lots of attention with absolutely vulnerable but relentlessly self-searching lines about things like "the scene where the boys undress/ and color the river with sex."
Lucie Brock-Broido, a patient seamstress of subtle and ornate poetic tapestries, returns in the late fall with her fourth book, her first in almost a decade. Called Stay, Illusion(Knopf, Fall), it ponders the imagination as a fleeting, life-giving force.
One can never have too much Pablo Neruda, one of the most beloved poets of all time. Translator and editor Ilan Stavans brings out a monumental new volume: All the Odes, a doorstopper containing all of the Nobel-laureate's famous songs of praise for everything from socks to sadness.
And make sure to check out The Book of Goodbyes by Jillian Weise, whose debut, The Amputee's Guide to Sex, was that and much more. This second collection is a swirling set of love poems to a beloved as omnipresent as he is illusive. (Full disclosure: Weise and I share a publisher.)
Craig Morgan Teicher's most recent book isTo Keep Love Blurry. He is director of digital operations and poetry reviews editor of Publishers Weekly, and he was also an NPR NewsPoet.