A Few Favourite Poets

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.

Check out:

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

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