Poetry for the Occasional Poetry Reader
I haven’t read a poet in a while that made me laugh while he was making me think and feel at the same time, but Terrance Hayes pulled it off. That’s saying something, isn’t it?
I met Hayes a few years ago at a post- awards party for the National Book Critics Circle award winners. It was one of those New York parties where everyone tries to do three or four things at once
~Eat while standing up.
~Be brilliant and entertaining while standing up and eating.
~Attach yourself to the smartest and trendiest people in the room.
I have never gotten comfortable with eating while standing up. So I flopped down on a chair next to a pleasant looking man, who introduced himself as Terrance Hayes. For the next half hour, I was a. hugely entertained and b. filled in on all the most delicious gossip of the poetry world (the poetry world, a very small world, is full of colorful characters who often do very strange things). I was grateful to him!
Hayes was in a good mood that night – he had just won the National Book Award for Lighthead, a collection of poetry that covered everything from love to sex to racism to music. I would say that Terrance Hayes is a poet you can read and enjoy, even if you don’t read that much poetry.
Which brings me to an admission: I don’t read that much poetry. I think it requires powers of concentration that I just don’t have at the moment, though I aspire to read more of it in the future. I have read enough poetry to compile a short list of poets I can recommend.
If you, like me, don’t read that much poetry, a good place to start is a slim paperback that came out in 2003 and has been reprinted several times since. It’s called Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. It’s an anthology of contemporary poems selected by the great Billy Collins, an Irish poet and a rock star in the poetry world.
Collins made his selections with an eye to poems that are “an immediate pleasure.” Each one of these poems is reasonably short, but each one packs a punch, and many of them left me slightly breathless at the end. This collection is highly recommended if you want to put your toe in the water of reading poetry. It’s kind of like a poetry buffet.
Next up is a poet I saw a few years ago when he was speaking at a local high school. Yusef Komunyakaa was a guest at a local lecture series, which also runs a program that tries (with quite a lot of success) to get kids in local public schools interested in writing. Yusef agreed to read and talk about poetry.
The local high school in question was one my kids attended, and I knew what a tough audience awaited any poet, even an esteemed one. So I sat in the small auditorium and felt an anticipatory anxiety for the guest.
I needn’t have worried. A Louisiana native, Yusef had a deep,musical voice, a no-BS approach and street cred — his poems covered subjects like basketball and war (the Vietnam version, where he served). He read a poem he wrote about basketball – “Slam, Dunk and Hook” – and when he was done, the room was completely quiet. For a second, anyway.
Like Terrance Hayes’ poetry, Komunyakaa’s poems are visceral, musical and wrestle with everyday life, especially as it is experienced by black Americans. He has published many books; one that interests me in particular is called Magic City, which tells the story of his upbringing in Louisiana. If you’re more interested in his poetry of Vietnam, try Neon Vernacular.
Speaking of the South – I was raised in a small town in Arkansas. The poet C.D. Wright is one of that state’s most famous daughters.
A few years ago I was reading poetry for a prize committee I’m on, and Wright’s epic poem One With Others was a finalist. I had one of those out-of-body reading experiences that only happens a few times in a lifetime.
As I read along, the realization dawned, and then hit me over the head – this poem was about events that occurred in my home town in 1968 and 1969, when the community was torn apart by the fight to end segregation (my home town was Forrest City, Arkansas, though Wright calls the town by another name in the poem). It’s about the black community’s struggles, and about one very brave white woman who decided to join the Civil Rights marches. This poem was a revelation to me, someone who thought she knew more or less what happened in those tumultuous years. It also captures the sights, sounds and smells of the Mississippi Delta as well as any book I’ve ever read. It won the National Book Critics Circle poetry award for 2010.
I want to mention a more lighthearted book that won the NBCC award in 2007 – Tom Thompson in Purgatory by Troy Jollimore. This poem, published by a very small press, is a sequence of sonnets, involving a character named Tom Thompson. Some are about are about a real person, Tom Thomson, a Canadian landscape painter who drowned in Ontario’s Lake Canoe in 1917. In other cases, Tom Thompson is a modern guy who eschews the life of airless intellectual pursuits in favor of a more Thoreau- like existence. Jollimore is a Nova Scotia native with a PhD in philosophy – this poetry collection is lyrical, brainy and a lot of fun.
Finally, if you like your poems shorter, with a philosophical punch, try Kay Ryan’s The Best of It. Ryan, a former U.S. poet laureate, writes poems that grab you by the lapel and make you think. The New York Times said that Ryan’s “voice is quizzical and impertinent, funny in uncomfortable ways, scuffed by failure and loss.” Ryan is the daughter of an oil-well driller who began her academic career in community college. She has come a long way, and these poems have a visceral quality that reflect life in a way that almost anyone can relate to.