Saturday, December 11, 2010

year's end

No, it's not Santa Claus, but Geoffrey Hill, as pictured in this Oxford Today feature on his entry as Oxford Professor of Poetry. Not much in the way of news here, but some nice stanzas from a work in progress.

I'm feeling the usual semester's-end weariness; the last grades were turned in this morning after a frantic few days of grading & number-teasing, & now I face the horrors of our department's moving to a new building over the holiday break. My office is probably 60% packed; another day's cursing and throwing books in the general direction of cartons should do it. But whether the new office has enough space for the old office's books, now that's another issue altogether.

To celebrate the end of semester, and to take my mind off of Milton final exams, I went thru a splurge of poetry-reading over the last few days. Quite a number of books, in fact, in no particular order. First, a run of Keith Waldrop chapbooks from all over the last 40 years:
my nodebook for december (Burning Deck, 1971)
Intervals (Awede, 1981)
Water Marks (Underwhich, 1987)
Two-Part Invention (Meeting Eyes Bindery/Poetry New York, 1999)
I've always been fond of Waldrop's work, which has struck me as falling usually into the category of the spare and precise, a sort of post-Objectivist work that I associate with Cid Corman (most prolifically); but KW is inevitably a far more careful and thoughtful craftsperson – and his work has a muted sense of humor that I enjoy immensely.

Then Phyllis Rosenzweig's more substantial (page-wise) chapbook Reasonable Accomodation (Potes & Poets, 1998). I knew PR glancingly when I was a lurker on the fringes of the DC scene a couple of decades ago, but had never really read her work. It's quite good: disjunctive on the order of much Language writing, name-dropping in the best New York School manner (tho the names dropped are usually of DC folks I know), & showing a sometimes surprising sense of closure – ie the poems actually end, rather than simply trail off.

Kenneth Fearing's Selected Poems (Library of America, 2004) isn't as good as its editor Robert Polito would like you to believe. That is, Fearing really isn't the great American hard-boiled poet, the fellow who actually marries the grittiness of James Cain to the social conscience of Muriel Rukeyser. Rather, he's a kind of lefty Whitman which a strong dash of second-hand surrealism. A congenial combination, to be sure, but the catalogues & the socio-political hectoring get old after awhile.

Donald Wellman's A North Atlantic Wall (Dos Madres, 2010) is a welcome new piece from a poet who's more than content to work in the footsteps of Pound and Olson – a "late modernist," that it. Wellman's deep in the culture of contemporary and historical Spain here, drawing from the works of medieval thru contemporary Spanish poets and writers, musing over the ruins both concrete and metaphysical of the Third Reich's "Fortress Europe."

Two from Laura Sims, Practice, Restraint (Fence, 2005) and Stranger (Fence, 2009), exemplify contemporary "elliptical" poetry in its purest form. I'm enraptured by the spareness of Sims's writing, and she has a wonderful lyric ear. I wonder, however, whether the poems' very evanescence won't have them floating off the page entirely at some point. (Even as I write that, I find myself admitting that Stranger, an extended elegy to Sims's mother, has a kind of emotional gravitas that keep the wee stanzas pretty well anchored indeed.)

The great discovery, however, is Linda Russo's Mirth (Chax, 2007). Of all of these books, Mirth is the one I most wish I'd written – and the one I find myself most admitting is beyond my abilities. A first section of excellent, cutting political poems – then extended fantasias on Ovid (among others) exploring, in a theoretically sophisticated & often deeply funny manner, what it means to be a politically engaged female poet in what alas is still too often a man's man's man's world. By the time you're thru with Mirth, however, you've forgotten that the dour Mr Hill is arbiter of poetry & morals at Oxford, & are enthusiastically following Russo into the twenty-first century.


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