3 Contemporary Poets Worth Reading
One fallacy that the classical Christian education movement might be vulnerable to is chronological snobbery in which we fail to appreciate contemporary literature on the grounds that it is contemporary. It is also possible that we might not read contemporary literature because we don’t know what merits our time and, it’s true, it is more difficult to know what is worthy because this work is not ‘time-tested’. I have selected some books that have proven rich and remunerating and are in close and informed dialogue with poetry’s past. All of these authors know the formal tradition well and some use them in ways familiar to their poetic ancestors, but many use open verse that borrows and haunts those old forms in remarkably skillful ways. All tradition is a conversation.
Furthermore, even forms that we admire as ancient were altered and developed over time. We know that Dante used the vernacular Italian—for the first time, because he wanted to grant access to a wider readership. Indeed, in every period it is important to be able to hear literature spoken in a voice that you might use yourself—to hear yourself in literature and to find a language which you might select which is adequate to experience. This is not to say that one can’t do this with old voices, but rather that it is worth having different flavors and textures with one of them being that of your own period.
With that in mind, here are several contemporary books of poetry that I unreservedly recommend.
The Art of the Lathe by B.H. Fairchild
This book opens in Florence, Italy where the speaker is standing in front of Donatello’s David in the Bargello when his wife asks, “what are you thinking.” What follows are the memories and textures and delicate Vermeer-like portraits of the people and the place that raised him in rural Kansas. The book is a carefully crafted story of backward vision, of painfully earned insight into the desolation of a world where men could only say the word Beauty to speak of Oswald’s fatal shot of JFK. William Carlos Williams says “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
The speaker of these poems is the boy-man who “will grow so tired of, / so weary of years later that I will leave” (67). He explores such richness of person and place in his backward glance, in the mirror which he holds up to the past as he looks at the self that was formed by the world of Kansas and the machine shop of which his father was the foreman. He examines the characters in this story of Midwestern life in the mid-19th century who must have felt as he did but who were not able to leave as he has. He wants to do justice to their labor and to his need to leave. He is “sick now/ with memory” alongside the welder’s wife and with Eliot who, in the Wasteland, calls it place “with no water (60)”.
The memory in this book is at turns pitiless in its sharp description of the hollow men and grey linoleum, but the poet also admires these men who were craftsmen in the machine shop, who took their work and play seriously, and who had sacrificed much to be called men in the eyes of their fathers. He sees them in the light of Edward Hopper and seeks to heal the rift of these disparate and welded parts of himself. Fairchild excels at metaphor, and the weaving of themes and images throughout the book are remarkably precise and historically alert to the industrial heartland of America. He is a storyteller par excellance.
Native Guar’d by Natasha Trethewey
Tretheway, former poet laureate, examines the first regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards who were mustered into service in 1862 and were made up of men who had been slaves only months before enlisting in the Union army. Francis Dumas was an officer (son of a white Creole father and mulatto mother) who had inherited slaves when his father died. Although he could not manumit those slaves, when he joined the union Army he freed them and encouraged those men of age to join the Native Guards. This book weaves together the author’s own mixed-blood parentage alongside the nations’ race-mix in the efforts of the Civil War and in this early black regiment, the Louisiana Native Guards.
The speaker of these poems’ own African American mother is dead and she explores her southern childhood as she seeks to contain and interrogate individual and corporate memory. The power sources of this book are not only located in its content but in its deep skill and engagement in the craft of poetry—in syntax, line, stanza, rhyme. It tells its story through image, figure, juxtaposition, and silence. It meditates on a complex national and personal history and the intersection between the two. Thus it instructs how to meditate, how to let the complexity of experience be complex. The book is by nature political but it lacks the truncated polarization of our conversational moment. Hence, it teaches us how we might get closer to history, ask better questions, and in so doing honor the multiple realities that are always at play in our past. Tretheway’s use of traditional English language forms is proper to the subject and part of the investigation and impressively skillful. This book, of the list I recommend, is by far the most traditionally formal and thus gives a delicious taste of what a contemporary voice sounds like in verse.
The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck
Gluck justly won the Pulitzer Prize for this book, which is set in the garden and presents the book of nature in three voices: the flowers, the gardener (with labels of matins and vespers) and God. They serve as dramatic monologues that create a single human voice exploring the nature of God and of our time on the earth. From the fear of not having a voice (and the anxiety of our transience) to the understanding that, yes, “all, all/ can be lost…” the human consciousness that traces the pageant of voices seeks eternity (as do all human voices). We are wounded by time—even when time does not mean death it means loss, it causes the good moments to end, it causes us to forget and lose track of our central purposes and concerns, it limits us. The speaker in these poems makes an arc that begins locked inside the time series of the seasons, the life span, even the day, and ends by having accessed eternity in the beloved. Gluck has a remarkable capacity to help you hear thought in a stark stripped down voice that shaves things to their essence but names our sehnsucht in luminous particulars. Her achievement includes being able to make flowers talk in a way that tutors humans.
Here follows a short list that I don’t have space to unfold further. Olio by Tyehimba Jess, is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner and beautifully weaves spoken word and written word poetry together and draws deeply on jazz and blues, thus achieving what Langston Hughes advocates in his essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. Goldbeater’s Skin by G.C. Waldrep whose reward system is utter delight in words and intuition and who is a deeply committed Christian. Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda, is full of some of the best and most accessible poetry that has been widely heard and loved in the US in the last hundred years.* This last collection is actually the libretto for a musical and must not be missed, it achieves a great deal in its drawing on multiple sources of our cultural inheritance and combining them (or architecting them) into a mesmerizing and moving story.
Both of these texts include profanity. In my studied opinion they treat it well and the text calls for it in the places that it appears. Fairchild especially demonstrates the absolute ugliness of the profanity. But you probably want to know it is coming, and hear from a reader that it is well placed and resolved. Fairchild himself is publically Christian. I do not have time and space to write an apology for the presence of this language in this case but would be happy to dialogue on the subject the next time I see you. To read more of my writing about Hamilton visit circeinstitute.com.