It's National Poetry Month—what should you read?

It's National Poetry Month—what should you read?

It's National Poetry Month—what should you read?

Reading between the lines.
April 29 2008 3:02 PM

Best in Verse

It's National Poetry Month—what should you read?

Poets talk about the attention brought by National Poetry Month the way kids talk about food at summer camp—it's terrible, and there's not enough of it. For the rest of the reading world, the initiative has all the appeal of a charity drive. While there's plenty of good poetry being written today, there's at least six times as much of the not-so-good variety. Take heart: Slate has winnowed the stack down to a manageable few.

Mark Doty is one of the premier elegists of the AIDS crisis, and his best poems seldom have time for mere description. In early pieces such as "Days of 1981," the speaker hovers, bewildered, on the border between spectator and active participant, the poem moving in and out of rhyme:

The smokestacks

and office towers loomed, a half-lit backdrop
beyond the baseball diamond. I didn't want him ever to stop,
and he left me breathless and unsatisfied.

He was a sculptor, and for weeks afterward I told myself
I loved him, because I'd met a man and wasn't sure
I could meet another—I'd never tried—

and because the next morning, starting
off to work, the last I saw of him, he gave me a heart,
ceramic, the marvel of a museum school show

his class had mounted. No one could guess
how he'd fired hollow clay entirely seamless
and kept it from exploding.

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In later poems like "My Tattoo" or "Theory of Marriage," Doty displays a gift for interweaving arresting image with tender narrative. A selection of 80 of Doty's best pages along these lines would be a pleasure; Fire to Fire, however, is four times that length.

Doty is on record defending his right to make verbal art out of something other than plain (straight) speech, but this principled refusal to pin meanings down isn't the only obstacle the reader encounters. In his less successful poems, nothing ever is; it always seems. Doty habitually conflates yearning with minimizing—a little, nearly, almost, and not exactly are his go-to qualifiers. And he asks a lot of questions, mainly unanswerable ones ("how could they/ compete with sunset's burnished/ oratorio?"). These are quibbles, though. Doty's new work is getting clearer without giving up its hard-won beauty.

Sidney Wade, Stroke

Sidney Wade's imagination is as powerful as any American poet's since Wallace Stevens. The poems in her fifth collection, Stroke, are apocalyptically cheerful elegies for the body politic. They sometimes sound like an arts section taking back material (and a mood) long abandoned to the science or front pages:

The imperatives of the dominant glib prevail

and there's no hope for the culture.
It's monopoloid and tick-rich,

filled with words that will kill you.

(from "Nothing but the Truth")

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Wade studs her poems with $10 words—say, manumission and necrosis—some of which she turns into portmanteaus worthy of George W. Bush's "misunderestimate": protruberant, hystericalectomy, immargination. She rhymes in an equally confident manner, matching barges with largesse, ruthless with toothless, and corrosive with explosive.

Though they are often transporting, Wade's poems always yield to paraphrase, pointing to something recognizable in the real world or the news. Her project—to remain sane despite the gloom these words point to—requires that she reassure herself and the reader that while we really are seeing what we're seeing, the consolations of light and love still exist:

I didn't have a forever grant,
but we dealt with that as masterful adults.
We approached the ultimate adding machine
and grabbed us a statue bereft of sin

and some mausoleum gear.
There's not enough shriek and swagger
in our utterly transgressive faith, he confessed,
but he looked down on the others

in their cold, crawling context.
Those people are injured by the time of day,
he sniffed. As we entered a carnelian cloud,
I suggested we leave early and often.

(from "The Visionary from Apopka")

The poet-critic Richard Howard has referred to the Parnassian quality of Wade's poems, to their insistence on beauty, glory, and exalted feeling, and he is exactly right: She believes that "A planetful of pure desire/ Is all a poet should require/ To set the commonplace afire." She persists in this belief even as she diagnoses irreversible national damage. Having enlarged her scope with each collection, she's becoming something of an oracle of the outlook for intelligence and happiness. Here's hoping more and more readers come to consult her.

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Prizewinning books sometimes resemble the work of the judges who choose them. Fordham Poets Out Loud winner Darcie Dennigan and judge (and MacArthur winner) Alice Fulton both favor cleareyed lyricism and overboard neo-metaphysical conceits. Dennigan is as comfortable intercutting the legend of St. Ursula with a girls'-night-out birthday party at a bar in Boston as she is imagining a foundling hospital where the nurses simulate maternal heartbeats by putting swaddled clocks in the cribs:

And the papers covered it—a new invention from orphans' nurses—a babybalm device, a mother apparatus—but really it was just meter, after all, just a pattern of beats—but the papers liked that too—that meter was portable—they thought it was cute that we were teaching the babies to say meter instead of mother.

(from "The New Mothers")

There is little chance of mistaking the cadences of Dennigan's long lines and paragraphs for ordinary prose. Her rhythmic phrasings come in consistently pleasing variation, not in lock-step imitation of the ones coming before and after. She also makes music when signaling her themes. Taking literally Pound's poetic command to "make it new," she includes the word new in the titles of four poems; every poem in the first half of the book includes the word mother.

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New poets, when they are very good, can transmute confusion into excitement. Dennigan is excellent. "I didn't know exactly what I was doing there, so I was going/ to do it harder," she writes. It should not take another contest to bring Dennigan's next book to print.

Eavan Boland, New Collected Poems

Director of the creative writing program at Stanford University, Eavan Boland is a commanding poet, capable of great intimacies and public gestures: Her 1998 collection, The Lost Land, is dedicated to Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and the U.N. high commissioner of human rights. In the narrative of her collected work so far, the turning point from Irish national treasure to international ambassador of letters comes about halfway through, with the 1987 poem "The Glass King":

If we could see ourselves, not as we do—
in mirrors, self-deceptions, self-regardings—
but as we ought to be and as we have been:
poets, lute-stringers, makyres and abettors

of our necessary art, soothsayers of the ailment
and disease of our times, sweet singers,
truth tellers, intercessors for self-knowledge—
what would we think of these fin-de-siecle

half-hearted penitents we have become
at the sick-bed of the century: hand-wringing
elegists with an ill-concealed greed
for the inheritance?

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There are passages in her work up to this point that attain similar intensity, some metrical sentences six or seven lines long, but nothing like this verse paragraph, a moving dragon of fiery righteousness.

After Boland catches onto the power of packing an extended speech in a compressed space, her phrasings get clearer and stranger: A water bucket makes "zinc-music," a neighbor's stream makes a "fluid sunset," bad luck might see "an unexplained/ fever speckle heifers." In her more recent collections, she aims to soar from a standing start. She interrupts her fable "Embers" to pierce the reader with a look:

When he woke in the morning she was young and beautiful.
And she was his, forever, but on one condition.
He could not say that she had once been old and haggard.
He could not say that she had ever … here I look up.

You are turned away. You have no interest in this.

Among her near-contemporary countrymen, two have already become last names: Heaney, Muldoon. Boland is due to join them, and New Collected Poems is, for the moment, the book to find and read.