In this instalment, my focus is on highlights of my poetry reading in 2013 of works published prior to 2013, arranged more or less in chronological order by publication date.
Lorine Niedecker: All of Niedecker—the early dense surrealist stuff; the experiments with dialogue; the subversive nursery rhyme riffs; the stark, minimalist later poems that so powerfully evoke her watery Wisconsin landscape. I can’t choose, and so point you to the definitive Collected Works, a book that includes all of the poems Niedecker wrote between 1928 and 1970. And while you’re at it, also pick up Lake Superior, recently published by Wave Books. It contains Niedecker’s Lake Superior poem, and also her journal of a 1966 road trip around the shores of the lake from which she drew in writing the poem.
George Oppen: My quest to gain more context for Niedecker sent me to the objectivists (I hasten to note that in the realm of poetry the term has nothing to do with Ayn Rand or her political philosophy) including Oppen, and he was the one that took with me, so much so that I read his entire poetry oeuvre as well. The collection to which I keep returning is Of Being Numerous (1968) and, in particular, the long title poem that starts it off. I marvel at how, in so few words, he could be simultaneously broadly philosophical and also precise, material, imagistic. And it is, it seems to me, the city poem to end all city poems (though it also makes me want to write about my city). The early sections of the poem can be read here.
Mark Strand: I had heard of Strand, of course, but was familiar only vaguely with some of his later poems. Encountering his early work, particularly his second book, Reasons for Moving (1968), was a revelation. Taut, perfect narrative poems, some of them with plots worthy of Philip K. Dick—surreal, sinister, and thrumming with anxiety. Truly mind-bending stuff. After a few times through, my favourite poems from the collection include “Eating Poetry,” “The Tunnel,” “The Man in Black,” and “Keeping Things Whole.”
Charles North: My first and so far sole encounter with North’s work is in his recently published What It Is Like: New and Selected Poems but, containing selections from his books spanning 1974-2011, it seems to me to give a good idea of his range. And what range! I’m dazzled by his formal inventiveness and charmed by his weirdness. Reading him is emboldening.
Rae Armantrout: I read several of Armantrout’s collections over the course of the year, but Versed is the one that I keep coming back to. Spare, allusive, elliptical poems full of wordplay. Her meaning is often opaque to me but I don’t think it matters. Even if I’m not making the same connections when reading the poems that she’s making in writing them, I’m making connections, thoughts spinning out in every direction. Reading Armantrout makes my synapses crackle. Everything feels sharper when I emerge from her books, as if the optometrist has clicked the magnification up to just the right level to correct my blurry vision.
Mary Ruefle: I’ve been carrying Ruefle’s Selected Poems around with me all year like a talisman. These poems have everything in them: joy, sorrow, surprise. Reading Ruefle makes me giddy. I’ll say more in my next post, as her latest book, Trances of the Blast, is high on my list of favourite poetry books published in 2013.
Selima Hill: I read as many of Hill’s books as I could get my hands on this past year. Again the descriptors surreal and sinister are apt. Hill employs bizarre images to delve into the darkest corners of intimate and domestic life. Her poems are dark, sometimes violent, yet frequently funny. Also powerfully, though not explicitly, political. She just gets better and better, so I’d point you to her most recent collection, People Who Like Meatballs.
Ange Mlinko: Occasionally, I get sufficiently lost in a book to miss my subway stop—usually a suspenseful, plot-driven book, say, a murder mystery. Mlinko’s Starred Wire has the distinction of being the first poetry book that caused me to miss my stop. In Mlinko’s poems, it’s the richness of language and allusion, the layering on of words, that so captivates me. How could I not fall head-over-heels for the work of a poet who has the audacity to put “dudgeon” and “burgeon” in the same line? I immediately acquired two more of Mlinko’s books and they too are proving a treat.
Ana Božičević: Božičević strikes me as an utterly fearless poet. She will go anywhere in a poem and the reader, certainly this reader, will go with her. Each poem somehow feels at once a joyride and deadly serious. At the moment, I’m particularly taken with the two long poems, “Some Occurrences on the 7:18 to Penn” and “The Stars that Come Before the Night,” that open her first collection, Stars of the Night Commute.
See what a stimulating year of poetry reading it was? And I haven’t even reached the 2013 publications yet. That’ll be Part 3.