My flash fiction piece “Standing Next to the Afternoon” has just been published in 52\250 A Year of Flash. Thanks to John and Michelle.
Two more of my favourites are Phillis Levin and Katie Ford. Both of their poetry deal with spirituality in nonconformist ways: subtlety of language, deft musicality, all with a humane severity evident in their varied poems.
Phillis Levin is one poet whose work I came to by accident. But it is through this sense of the unassuming, the unpredictable that her poems first showed themselves to me. And I was hooked at once by her intelligence, and her art. Reading Levin is an exercise in caution and articulation. You don’t want to let anything go amiss—i.e., you want to get to everything the poet points to or shows you. There is an urgency in the work that you hang onto, that leaves you to want to understand it at your own risk. This is poetry that strives to be beautiful without needing to. There is also a sense of careful craft at work here. You can almost picture the poet hunched at her table at work, measuring the words, weighing them carefully to scale. A magnificent balance between form and content is achieved without fanfare, just a deftness to it you allow into your reading of it. You have a nagging sense of wanting to get to the bottom of things when reading her poems. You want to encompass the whole of the world of the poem or book. Is it because of its beauty, its aching specificity that you want to do this? Or is it just a response to good work in general?
With Levin, you are first carried away with the flow and force of the poem before you come back to it, ready to discern the meanings behind. There is awe, of course, and unexpectedness. Even through repeated readings, you are sure of its surprise. As if the spirit of the poem inhabits you with each pronouncement of intrigue by you.
Reality is reflected in Levin’s poems with an almost untarnished sheen. It is not quite romanticised but said in the high of spirit, in the guise of a faithful human aspiration. Romantic love is dealt with with pessimism and harshness. But at once, you are taken into a territory of love so ardent and yearning, you forget which side of it the poet is inhabiting—love or loss. Or both.
To say that reality is seen with a light that glows, is to say that some of it is dark but that darkness itself is converted in memory and seen from this similar light—nostalgia? But one comes away thinking instead of arguing in the face of Levin’s poetry. It is with delight that one finally takes it. Wholly.
To say nothing of the metaphors, the lyricism in Levin’s work shines with remarkable perfection. She is a formalist and her work is balanced and poised without being mannered. A reader with an ear for music will be richly rewarded.
But overall, it is the great command of language, the impulse of the subtle that most impressed me about Levin’s work. It is poetry that surprises and never stops giving.
Katie Ford‘s work is complex, multi-layered, and beautiful. Again, I came to her poetry by accident. I was looking for a poetry of spirituality to ground me in my own writing when I was struck by the sheer beauty and grace of her poetry. It comes upon you as suddenly as you let it affect you. And it stays long after you think you’ve forgotten it.
Her poems have the gravity of maturity unlike the work of many other poets who write beautiful poems. And they have an empathetic courage which binds you to your own sense of cause. At times, the poems are so humane, you forget you are reading and welcome the subject the poems are about into your essential understanding. Only later do you think them beautiful, after they have affected you in a most satisfying way—after reality has transversed into some indefinite yet recognisable form.
The layers in Ford’s work show themselves acutely, with regard for your patience and awe. Often it is the most subtle work which turns out to be the best. There’s a sensuality there too that is buried under the intelligent facility of her language. You have to dig deep but once unearthed, your mind has been changed a little by it, by how you searched for it often without knowing you are searching.
Her poems couldn’t be reduced to easy or permanent conclusions. They shift as often as you think they are unmoved.
There is a rare quality of having been understood after reading her poetry. That there is consciousness and that it affects you and that it is akin to being understood. Often the poet would show the facets of reality to you and let you decide what to bring to understand. Often you are left with a question or an intimation in your mind. Hers is a poetry that allows you to question after being asked.
Ford’s poetry is able to be subtle without being vague. There is a difference. And a difference of how well the poet handles ambiguity and restraint.
We come to her work with a mind ready to be engaged, to be affected. And we come away thinking and feeling that we have been more than a little transformed.
There is a delight and a pensiveness. There is hope and aspiration behind the seemingly pessimistic stance. For to question a little of the world is hopeful. It is the opening of your truest self.
Phillis Levin’s May Day (Poets, Penguin)
Katie Ford’s Colosseum: Poems
As a reader, I’ve come across a few modern and contemporary poets whose work has astonished me into loving poetry all the more. Poets like W.S. Merwin, Stephen Dunn, Mark Strand, Lavinia Greenlaw (one of the first poets I liked when I started reading poetry books in the 90’s), Laura Riding, and Lisa Russ Spaar (whose wonderful book Satin Cash, published by Persea Books, I’ve just been reading).
For me, these poets’ work, especially Mark Strand‘s and Lisa Russ Spaar‘s, merge the particular with the overarching, the sensuous with the unreachable, so well and with intelligence. Though with an intelligence that is not strained or dare I say, learned, but is come upon or discovered seemingly, partly, unconsciously. I say partly because a lot of work prepares itself too readily; theirs is a result, an end which nevertheless could mean, but mean less than the reader might desire. The poets I mention here, though, give just the right amount of details, a balance of language and the thought behind, the articulation and the once-blurred memory, and any combination of unrehearsed, original, received wisdom but received in active making.
The reader also is made a part in their discovering. I think, speaking personally as a reader, that a great number of poets can write in brilliant language but only a few dare to trust the reader enough to puzzle, irritate, and transform her with their own uncertainties (not in their art but in their willingness to appear human and humane).
I get an overwhelming sense of compassion, generosity, and empathy in Stephen Dunn‘s irreverent yet equanimous poetry. Mature without trying to be, his best work comes across as self-deprecating without beating itself over the head. The writing is luminous—filled with real light but balanced with a dark rendering, given over to be felt and perhaps even misunderstood first before we are ready to receive it ourselves, having, in the course of a reading or even half a lifetime, grown to appreciate it. This poetry poses no easy questions and doesn’t pretend to answer anything other than to reveal its humanity that we may find or hold on to ours.
Unlike a lot of work of substance by others, Dunn’s poems are also fun to read—marvelous, even beautiful. At times, we are embarrassed by our own goodness or irrelevance when faced with a poetry of such honesty—honesty which, I suspect, the poet tries hard to hide. There is nothing of self-righteousness here, or condemnation. The only right such a work seems to condone is the right to live and live fully—but also, to leave room for emptiness to thrive, lest we forget our other sadnesses.
I first had the good fortune to read W. S. Merwin‘s poetry while I was searching for possible new ways of writing spiritual poems. At that time, my own writing had become stale and common. I love poems which are so subtle and confident, they simultaneously hide and reveal in appropriate circumstances. Merwin opens up a world where art and spirit, effortlessness and brilliance coexist in artful and masterful ways. His poems not so much as inspire but elevate and inspire in equal measure.
Having read a lot of contemporary poetry wherein the same themes come up again and again, Merwin is a welcome change. There is an incredible complexity in his work that, with his remarkable touch, doesn’t overwhelm its subtlety. Poetry such as this is never pedestrian. I have many times been so moved by particular Merwin poems that reading them has ceased to be an occurrence but a meeting with purity, with coincidence and soulfulness.
We don’t just read a Merwin poem, we let it begin in us. We inhabit its mystery and echo. And soon, in effect, it is us changing ourselves.
I first read Lavinia Greenlaw‘s work in the late 1990’s. Even at that stage, as an inexperienced reader of poetry, I was intrigued by the subject matter she tackles with poise and simultaneous heat and cold. She is known as a poet who writes about science, or perhaps the metaphors of science. Multifaceted yet strangely singular, the depth in this work is unmistakable. Edward Hirsch does a great job of describing Greenlaw poetry in his foreword to her third book, Minsk (Harcourt, 2005). The poems grow into their meanings and into our understanding right before our eyes—transformative, alchemical, and dangerous. It is easy to get addicted to work that manages at first to slip out of our hands, disappear until we build it with our eagerness and fascination yet never quite hold it completely. The very best poems by Greenlaw has this effect on the reader.
Greenlaw’s effect on the reader is at once deliberate, tangential, and complementary. Sometimes we don’t know if it is awe or recognition we feel, which to allow, when reading this work we’ve quietly construed. This is poetry that demands our full attention—not just looking or seeing, but thinking the distances through to awareness.
I am encouraged and sustained by these poets’ adherence to individuality, originality, and mastery. As a reader, and especially as a student of poetry, having work such as theirs to look up to and emulate, keeps me feeling as if I am beginning again after every attempt at writing.
Many other favourite poets whose work I’ve read which, in one way or another, offer wisdom or even better, suggest a vulnerability, an occasion or an intricacy, a truth as much as it can be revealed, anything else that adds or takes away but maintains an essential morality, etc…include Paul Celan, Kapka Kassabova, Li-Young Lee, Sarah Quigley, Michael Longley, and many more.
The most important poets are those who we cannot give up on as a reader. The work waits for us to understand it. It doesn’t hurry us or give us what we want—it hesitates patiently to encourage until we grow past our misconceptions. It stands. The poet stands by his work, I imagine, sometimes quite helpless and vulnerable, though perhaps at peace with himself.
W.S. Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius
Stephen Dunn’s What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009
Mark Strand’s New Selected Poems
Lavinia Greenlaw’s Minsk
Lisa Russ Spaar’s Satin Cash: Poems
Issue #20, the southern summer 2011 issue, contains work by nick-e melville, Jim Meirose, Satu Kaikkonen, dan raphael, Philip Byron Oakes, Barrie Darke, Dorothee Lang & Karyn Eisler, James Davis, Morgan Harlow, Tyson Bley, John M. Bennett, Raymond Farr, Matthew Johnstone, Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán, Jeff Crouch & Satu Kaikkonen, Theodore Worozbyt, Howie Good, Michael Farrell, Stephen Emmerson, B. T. Abrams, Jeff Harrison, Andy Frazee, Mariah Hamang, Reed Altemus, Andrew K. Peterson, Felino Soriano, Carlos Rowles, Robert Gauldie, Tom Beckett interviewing Joel Chace, Joel Chace, SJ Fowler, De Villo Sloan, Eric Hoffman, Cecelia Chapman, Wayne Mason, Jill Chan, Anatol Knotek & Márton Koppány, Paul Siegell, Peter LaBerge, George McKim, Carlyle Baker, sean burn, Chris Moran, Stephen Nelson, Alexander Batkin, Keith Higginbotham, J. Crouse, Orchid Tierney, Rachel J. Fenton, Ana Viviane Minorelli, Russell Jaffe, Vernon Frazer, Samit Roy, Sam Langer, Michael Jacobson, Heller Levinson, Mark Cunningham, Marco Giovenale, Charles Freeland, Clark Lunberry, J. D. Nelson, Susan Gangel & Terry Turrentine, Bobbi Lurie, Tim Wright, Bob Heman, Thomas Fink, Spencer Selby, & Richard Kostelanetz.
Thanks to the editor, Mark Young.