A Few More Favourite PoetsPosted: February 18, 2011
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