P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.34 - March 2019
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2019 March No. 34
MY POETRY ADDICTION
MY POETRY ADDICTION
Recently I discovered a new poet, Amy Miller. Of course, when I say I discovered her that’s like saying Columbus discovered America. It was already right here, fully peopled for thousands of years, before that feckless Italian bumped into some nearby islands while searching for something else, then announced he’d found a New World.
Also I might mention that I did not discover Amy Miller the comedian, Amy Miller the Canadian filmmaker and activist, nor Amy Miller the actress (who, if you’re interested, played “Girl, uncredited” in Star Trek: Insurrection in 1998, among other roles.) Until I spent some time Googling, I’d never heard of any of those Amys, either. It’s a pretty common name.
Amy Miller the poet turns out also to be an essayist, blogger, and editor, and when I checked her out via Google and Amazon, I found her to be the author of a number of books, the winner of several contests, and in short someone I could well have already known. Why? Because I read an enormous amount of current poetry, compulsively and daily. She has her own Author Page on Amazon. But because the world of contemporary American poetry is vast and deep, she was new to me.
There are thousands of good poets out there, most of whom neither you nor I have heard of, and that is in fact a key point to bear in mind whenever you encounter one of those tedious, predictable screeds that keep appearing in newspapers and magazines about how Poetry Is Dead, or Here’s the Problem With Contemporary Poetry, or similar axe-grindings. I always think they resemble nothing so much as the blind men describing the elephant in the old fable. Nobody—not even I—has ever seen the whole elephant.
What triggered my “discovery” was that I chanced upon one of those poetry roundup reviews commenting on new books, and was especially struck by this poem, quoted in full by reviewer Grace Cavalieri:
The Poet Laureate in the Laundromat
For Lawson Fusao Inada
He stands to watch the comforter
hug and unhug itself
as the dryer muscles on and hums
its white-noise lullaby.
Even in the warm, overlit room,
he wears a leather jacket, hands
pushed deep in the pockets. Music,
perhaps, is what he hears
in the tinning and rumble,
notes dopplered to a shriek. Or poems,
spinning and powered
by their own unseen magnets.
He is not writing this down.
It washes over, river
and color and metal. But sometimes
something catches --
there, you can see --
he tilts his head, surprised.
--Amy Miller. The Trouble with New England Girls. Concrete Wolf, 2018.
Isn’t that a sweet, imaginative, surprising poem? Any poet who peers into a clothes dryer and sees a quilt “hug and unhug itself” is immediately someone I want to spend time with. (And by the way, isn’t her book title also fabulous? Needless to say, I’ve never heard of the press Concrete Wolf, either, but that’s a cool name too.) Yes, as has happened to me countless times, I was immediately smitten. And off to my laptop I went to learn more. Unfortunately, none of the public libraries near me have any of her books, but there are a fair number of poems online. And in short order I was the owner of her chapbook, I Am on a River and Cannot Answer—which is offered as a free PDF from BOATT Press, another publisher new to me. I downloaded onto my Kindle another chapbook, Beautiful Brutal: Poems about Cats, which we are promised “turns the ‘sentimental cat poem’ upside down, reminding us of the deep, wild mysteries we seek in cats -- and see reflected in ourselves.” My interest fully whetted, I then ordered the full length book containing “The Poet Laureate in a Laundromat.”
Frankly, I don’t know how many other poets and readers do this sort a thing, or how often, but I do it all the time, have for years, and can’t seem to stop, despite the fact that my bookshelves groan under the weight, I regularly take more books out from the library than I can finish before they’re due, and I spend way too much time on the internet. I read essays and reviews about poetry. Blogs and recommendations on Facebook or Twitter. I also browse the poetry sections of any bookstore I come across, even though I’ve usually got two dozen unread poetry books on my New shelf at home. Yes, I’m addicted.
Five years from now, or ten, Amy Miller may or may not have become a crucial poet for me. Our acquaintance has not yet had time to mature. In the past, some of my infatuations have been brief, I admit. Yet others deepen into serious affairs, and I never know which new crush will blossom. A few, such as Charles Simic, have become lifelong obsessions: I pretty much buy every new book he issues, most of them in hardcover because I can’t stand to wait a year or two for the paperback. Since he turned 80 years old in 2018, and since I know that even such an immortal will in fact not be around forever, I’m eager to drink in as much of his work as I can while he’s still with us. Though I’ve never met the man, at such time as he passes on I will mourn him almost like a friend. And, assuming I’m still able to read then, I’ll no doubt check out whatever pricey doorstop of a Collected Poems eventually appears, hoping for a few rarities I’ve not seen before.
My relationship with poets like Simic is, I like to think, special. But an outside viewer might call me fairly promiscuous about it. It’s true I tend to go on binges, and when I find a poet I truly adore, I love to collect, when I can afford it. Since I’ve been at it for more than forty years now, my poetry library is, well, let’s just call it on the larger side. Besides Simic, I have fairly extensive shelf space devoted to poets both famous and not, including near complete gatherings of more than a few besides Simic. Naturally the classics are well represented, too, with especially deep collections of my poetic parents: Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Williams. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I own more books than you do by William Hathaway, Tim Seibles, Joseph Donahue, Karla Huston, Tom Wayman, Betsy Sholl, Dennis Finnell, Marianne Boruch, Eric Nelson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Martha Silano, Albert Goldbarth, and Lee Upton—to name just a few favorites. Most poetry fans probably have a Patricia Smith book or two in their collection, perhaps the indeed dazzling Blood Dazzler, or maybe her breakthrough book Teahouse of the Almighty. But how many also went out and hunted up her early collections, Close to Death, Life According to Motown and Big Towns, Big Talk, as I did? When I find a poet I love I yearn to know as much of their work as possible. I can’t help it.
Two years ago we moved from the house where we lived for almost three decades, accumulating thousands of books along the way. Thus I had to confront, handle, and select which ones would survive the move. (Our new house is considerably smaller.) So, many hundreds of books had to go, and went. But spared in the great downsizing were a great many of my volumes of contemporary poetry, which even after the big purge now occupy most of the wall space in my new study. I tell myself that this is sensible, because contemporary poetry books go out of print quickly, and probably the majority of them on my shelf are hard to find in libraries, even quite large ones. Many are signed. Quite a few are by my friends. And I never know when, in the middle of some winter night, I may need to re-read some early Ellen Bryant Voigt poems, or find that Mona Van Duyn sonnet that has floated into my mind.
Still, of necessity I did jettison quite a few poetry books along with a dump truck’s worth of textbooks, novels, histories, criticism, and gift books I hadn’t looked at in twenty years. I even discarded most of my classics, especially fiction, once it dawned on me that Austen, Twain, Hardy and the rest are to be found in most libraries. Thank heavens for public libraries! Also, it turns out there are a remarkable number of public domain classics available for free on Kindle, too—and yes, my addiction to physical books doesn’t preclude a large and growing collection of e-books. But honestly, I regret every absent friend. More than a few times in the past year I’ve gone to my shelves to grab a book I remember well, only to discover it’s gone. A very sickening feeling, every time.
Am I bragging? Yes, I suppose so. But I’m also confessing a dark and at times expensive truth. Addiction is surely the right word for my condition. Among other things, I am addicted to the hunt itself. Some folks love haunting junk shops or thrift stores searching for bargains, others collect musical instruments or dishware; I am ever on the lookout for poets I’ve not heard of, books I’ve not read. I find them everywhere: in reviews, blogs, journals, Facebook and other social media sites, used bookstores, public readings, word of mouth, libraries, publisher websites, recommendations from friends, open mics, or interviews with poets I admire. (No, I don’t always purchase books, thanks to the library and the internet: in my new life I’m trying to cut down. Really.)
And I’m equally addicted to the pleasure of sharing my discoveries. If anything, this hunger grows with age. Or perhaps I feel it all the more keenly since I retired from teaching. I no longer have classes of students to share my infatuations and old favorites with, so I need to share them with you, dear friends.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, I am slow on the uptake. I never paid much attention to the poetry of the novelist Ursula Le Guin, for instance, until after she died. But recently on the new-book shelf at my public library I stumbled across her posthumous volume, So Far So Good: Final Poems 2014-2018, and was blown away by her delicate, understated, gorgeously musical lyrics, such as this one:
Where the ways grew narrow
Where the ways grew narrow
there above the sea,
tall flowers of yarrow
brushed against my knee
All I have kept
from a time of sorrow
a cold twilight
and the white yarrow
Or this one, an elegy for her cat that manages to avoid the trap of sentimentality mostly with Le Guin’s makes-it-look-easy command of rhythm and mouth-music:
where’s my little fleeting cat
a year a year an hour a day
where’s my little girl at
fleeting along sleeping away
found the way clear away
nowhere far nowhere near
a day a day an hour a year
When I shared samples of Le Guin’s poetry with friends, some of them wondered what took me so long to discover her work. Fair enough. She’s not exactly an obscure writer. Still, it’s fun to swap enthusiasms, always. And at other times when I push my discoveries I have the great satisfaction of introducing folks to poets they don’t already know and have no preconceptions about. Several years back this happened with Tricia Knoll, a poet I discovered right here on the virtual pages of Verse-Virtual. I’ll leave you with this little recent beauty:
Where Little Wildnesses Are Whole
In this jigsaw puzzle of missing pieces,
when you figure how a few jagged edges come
together…a rock wall where the garter snake
hides under a stepping stone or suns in long grass
near where the pond fidgets with tadpoles.
An old man pushing the lawnmower
stops to tell his stories about the flames
of the tail of the red fox in a field or
wild turkeys pass through on their way
to the birdfeeder next door... Where bats
flicker through the night sky along side
fireflies, you may see true darkness
remote from masses of forced light –
that parking lot or mall, and the lethal
heat wave breaks in favor of summer
winds that roil the hickory crowns,
even frogs pop out of the pond to boom
at the white bloom-cup on the lily pad.
Tricia’s become one of the first poets I look for when each new issue of this journal appears. When I first encountered the above poem in the November 2018 issue, I was won over immediately by the striking title, and then its richness of imagery and metaphor. I enjoyed the sonic density of its language. And I loved how its meaning keeps widening toward a range of wholenesses, natural, philosophical, and artistic, suggested by the governing “jigsaw” metaphor. Like many classic lyrics, it dives deep into particularity, closely observed and carefully rendered, in order to reach toward a larger whole.
Lucky you, you can read more of Tricia Knoll’s wonderful poems right now just by hitting the Archive button at top or bottom of this page, and putting her name in the search box. You’re welcome.
©2019 David Graham
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