Since 9/11, folks have been saying we need poetry more than ever, but perhaps now we need poetry even more than "more than ever." 2014 will go down as the year of Ferguson and Eric Garner, of the CIA torture report, of lost elections and more than a few dashed hopes.
As 2015 begins, I find myself craving the uneasy questions and answers of poetry, its middle spaces, ambivalences, complexities, and also its precision and fierceness. The best poetry coming in 2015 may not have the solutions to last year's problems, but it offers plenty of the balm and fervor we need right now. So, here are my picks for the must-read poetry collections of the coming year; I hope you find things here that both soothe and incite.
The big event in poetry for 2015 will likely be the long-awaited resurrection of Frank Stanford, a legendary badass from Arkansas, much of whose poetry has been unavailable since his suicide at the age of 29 in 1978. This doorstopper, the product of archive-diving and patient editing, clocks in at over 600 pages — few readers will get through the whole thing. Which is okay: Stanford was a hell of a metaphor-maker and simile-slinger, and could cast a spell of extreme intensity with a flick of his wrist — "I dreamed the mad dog bit the gypsy/ And they tied him to a tree," he writes in "The Singing Knives" — but he was the kind of poet who wrote the same poem fifty different ways, a hundred different times. But it's a damn good poem. Including all nine of his published volumes, selections from the epic The Battlefield where the Moon Says I Love You, plus hundreds of pages of unpublished poems (with killer lines like "The burned field bends over the moon"), this will be a book to dip into whenever a dark mood strikes.
Amiri Baraka began his career as LeRoi Jones, a late contemporary of the Beats with a lyrical bent and an ear for beautiful, incendiary words: "How dumb to be sentimental about anything/ To call it love." By the end of the 1960s, he was a leading figure of the Black Arts movement, a fierce proponent of political art, and an imperative critic of the blues and new jazz erupting out of that decade: "We want 'poems that kill.'" Under his new name, Baraka developed a knack for courting controversy and contradicting himself. He will always make people angry: The Sept. 11 poem "Somebody Blew Up America" points a flurry of hateful fingers, most of them aimed at powerful white Americans "Who bought the slaves, who sold them," but also at Israelis and many others. At his worst, he risks sowing the kind of hate that elsewhere he seems to want to defeat. But this volume, all the poems Baraka wished to preserve, is also a monument to what he was first and foremost: A great poet who stood against oppression of blacks, against capitalism, for music, and who remains difficult to categorize, sometimes difficult to countenance, and necessary.
It may be the case that Ossip understands the elasticity and capaciousness of contemporary poetry better than anybody. Her poems bubble out of what Seamus Heaney called "the word hoard," which has grown, lately, beyond the primordial mulch of language to include the impossibly overlapping registers of the Internet and mass media, along with all the basic grunting and cooing of the human condition. By which I mean her poems are fun and deadly serious at once; this book is obsessed with death, which Ossip accepts with a half-sarcastic shrug — "Cancer is my default horror," she writes, as if everyone realized they have such a thing, which they do. But she takes mortality seriously: Mourning a lost loved one, she says "we accept/ These processes or are repulsed by them." In an elegy for Steve Jobs, she finds that "Just like the bug in a string of code, the body defies the mind/ Or looks in the mirror of the mind and shudders." We are our own worst friends, our own best enemies. This is our book.
You'll have to look under some pretty obscure rocks to find poetry fans not excited about a new Terrance Hayes book. And now that People magazine named him one of its Sexiest Men of 2014, even some regular folks might be giddy — though it's for his books, not his looks, that Hayes will always win the most attention. In his first collection since 2010's National Book Award winning Lighthead rocketed him to literary stardom, Hayes is up to his old tricks — long, sonically driven poems that mix the sounds and rhythms of pop music with the sensibilities of old-fashioned poetry, and some new twists. Hayes practices what he preaches — "nothing is more durable than feeling" — in poems that pay tribute to and argue with artistic forebears ("hubris in Ralph Ellison,/ Duke Ellington's shadow, a paragraph/ on the feathered headdress of Marcus Garvey") and comment all over on the act of artistic creation itself. A series called "Portrait of Etheridge Knight in the Style of a Crime Report" is the most novel repurposing of a non-literary form since Jennifer Egan's PowerPoint. Hayes continues to be one of the best.
A new poetry book from beloved National Book Award winner Mark Doty is obviously an occasion to celebrate. As much a master of transportive description as Heaney, Doty is able to weave philosophical inquiry, personal anecdote, and awe at people and nature into a voice that is simultaneously warm and tinged with a useful measure of doubt. These new poems gorge Doty's "pure appetite" for the extraordinary hidden in the everyday — "A month at least before the bloom/ and already five bare-limbed cherries/ ringed in a haze of incipient fire" — but also highs that begin with a needle and take you where there's "an anemone/ swallowing its own blossom, and what lies/ on the other side of that." These poems, among Doty's most vulnerable, also bear some sympathetic words of caution: "Don't you wish the road of excess/ led to the palace of wisdom, wouldn't that be nice?"
This may be the most anticipated poetry book of the last decade — because lots of poetry fans have spent the last decade waiting for it. In 2005, Siken's debut, Crush, won the Yale Younger Poets prize; since then, it's sold a ridiculous number of copies (by poetry standards) and is read widely for its breakneck intensity and fearless investigation into gay desire, sexuality, and fear — though Siken's cracked love poems appeal to anyone with a heart. His slim followup turns toward the archetypal simplicity of the fable for its metaphors and subjects. The action here is interior, as in Crush, but also mostly imaginary: "I cut off my head and threw it in the sky. It turned/ into birds. I called it thinking." The title poem, a long sequence, follows foxes, birds, even some people; it's the stuff of Aesop, but twisted for today. These poems are full of almost-aphorisms like "You cannot have an opponent if you keep saying yes." Make of that what you will, but expect it to haunt you.
Phillips' amazing debut, The Ground, was an extended elegy for pre-Sept. 11 New York City. His follow up makes a more direct approach to the hereafter, attempting a view of "The Mind After Everything Has Happened," a place where "This night sky won't always have a meaning." Yet Phillips doesn't spend the whole book in the clouds. He also recalls the musical follies of his youth, jamming with friends in a garage "As though we had a gig to get ready for,/ Or a demo to cut, the cassette deck/ Rolling its eyes as it whirred." Phillips is a casual classicist — he even translates a bit of The Odyssey into a contemporary idiom. He's accessible, but never more than a couple of rungs down from high art, never far from beauty, able at any moment to toss off poetry's most ponderous questions without answers, like "Is a poem the wonder or the matter?"
Watch out for Cate Marvin: she takes no prisoners in her lush, unapologetically aggressive poems. They may look neat on the page, with their square four and five and six line stanzas, but they go wherever they want, do as they please. Motherhood is one thing on their mind, but how many new mothers have you heard say, "Whoever/ heard anything so sad as what that baby will/ have to go through?" I think she means plain old life, that sad old thing. Oh dear! Marvin, co-editor of the seminal anthology Legitimate Dangers and co-founder of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, has axes to grind in her third collection: Love's another subject, and it ain't pretty. Thinking back on Millay's famous poem about a silly drunken night on the Staten Island ferry (Marvin used to live on Staten Island), she notes, "You could not have your romance in / this century, Lady. Someone would either step/ on your foot, or puke on your shoe, and that / someone would not apologize." You won't leave this book feeling inspired, but, somehow, you'll feel fortified. Marvin understands that this is a cold world.
Everyone ought to stop reading Danielle Steele and start reading Eileen Myles: that would make for a better world. With off-the-cuff delivery that is classic New York School — imagine Frank O'Hara had been writing between the '70s and now, and had loved pop culture as much as high culture, and had been totally rad, and you get some sense of Myles' aesthetics. In this career-spanning retrospective, she sounds off on everything from "When I was a coke-dealer" to "the first thing I really loved." Myles' eyes are wide open and looking everywhere, and these poems are like a city: Everything's in here. This is the first time poems from her many books, many of which are impossible to find, are available on one place — you'll want to go there.
And here are quick takes on a few more amazing 2015 poetry books you won't want to miss:
Fanny Says, by Nickole Brown, coming in March
Brown's sprawling sophomore collection is a lyrical biography of and tribute to her wise and irreverent southern grandmother. Along with a memorable lesson in the use of the word "flitter," what'll stick most is this book's unknown "word for all things left unbroken, a word for breakable yet unbroken things."
Void and Compensation, by Michael Morse, coming in April
In this debut from a grownup poet, heartfelt scenes are filmed by a jittery cameraman, making for a moving read that will appeal to those who don't take their poetry quite straight, who want to be led, like "wayward bees to open windows."
Tender Data, by Monica McClure, coming in July
McClure may be the poster-girl for a new generation of poets: irreverent, well-read, sexy, even dirty, snarky, but ultimately fighting an earnest battle against reductiveness and easy answers to the complex problems of the Internet age: "Every citizen of this world is on trial/ I'm learning to speak legalese/ as I stroll through civil law like/ a gamine through a sample sale."
Craig Morgan Teicher's latest collection of poetry is called To Keep Love Blurry