The Hatred of Poetry

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Absence of Inspiration, Absence of God: On Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’

1.
One of the themes that speak most powerfully from Christian Wiman’s writings—poems, essays, memoirs—is that of the absence of inspiration or the absence of God. To begin with the first formulation, Wiman concedes of the texts most close to his heart that for page after page after page they will fail to inspire. For one of the most prominent Christian poets working in North America today, it might seem surprising to see how he calls the Bible, for the most part, “cold ash.” It is also in these pages—his first volume of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)—that Wiman relates his time reading Milton in Guatemala in similar terms: reading for hours on end while getting nothing in return. The poet has to be patient, as his art doesn’t care for him in the same way he cares for her.

The absence of God, the second form that this absence takes in Wiman’s writings, is a motif he takes from Simone Weil and, for the present volume, from the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. The absence of God in the contemporary world is, to Wiman, the cue par excellence for Christian faith to seize on. What presented him decisively with this cue was when, a year after he married the poet Danielle Chapman, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of cancer. Coming from a deeply religious family and culture, in the years following his diagnosis Wiman began to revisit the words, forms, and stories that belonged to his Christian upbringing.

This theme of the absent God and the absence of inspiration connects to a crucial stake of Wiman’s work. This is the redemptive work of the poem itself, how it absolves the poet, and releases him from ambition. The poem, it seems, mediates between the self and grace. This is evinced by Ambition and Survival, as well as Wiman’s poetry, for instance “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing (2010) which ends with the lines “that life is not the life of men / And that is where the joy came in.” Joy, grace, God—as these concepts are not subject to ambition, which means they cannot be secured by the exercise of free will. All of Wiman’s writing brings out how the poet, with his own measure of skill, his form and style, attempts to come to terms with this lasting truth. Within poetry, there is something greater at stake than poetry itself—not just an expression of Christian thinking on Wiman’s, this is an essential stake of his poetics.

Christian Wiman was known in literary circles for his poems and work as a critic, when he came into the spotlight as the editor of the renowned Poetry journal, at a time when that institution was gifted a massive financial bequest from Ruth Lilly in 2003. In fact, the present volume talks about his time working at Poetry’s Chicago offices, and it seems to hint at a running gag about Wiman’s resolution to stay with the journal for a year, maybe two or three at most, while in fact he ultimately held the job for a decade. Notwithstanding his legacy as the editor of Poetry, Wiman definitively made his name as a writer and thinker when in 2013 he published My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. In this book, Wiman uses poetry and theology to contemplate his mortality and his illness as he searches for the words to articulate his faith. Currently, Wiman teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.

With Wiman, absence effectively becomes conditional to whatever presence it denies. This is true for his poetics as well as his theology. In the case of poetry, Wiman often relates his discoveries in reading other poets as well as his own creative process as significantly coming from a place of intense boredom. For example, it matters to Wiman that Milton’s towering Paradise Lost is, for the most part, practically unreadable and certainly disagreeable to the contemporary reader, as it is also important to him that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his prison letters, only seems to find his voice in the correspondence with his friend Eberhard Bethge. These examples are from Ambition and Survival and My Bright Abyss. Similarly, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, his latest publication, takes its cue from a particularly uninspired performance of A.R. Ammons to build its narrative arc (Ammons is also behind the book’s title) while it also tells a funny and moving story about how Wiman finds unexpected joy and insight in the work of Mary Oliver—an experience that is confirmed when they meet. In this respect, the time with Poetry journal must have been highly formative, as it equipped him with the capacity of reading poetry as a desk-based job, describing himself as ”a clerk of verse.”

The absent God is a point of theological principle to Wiman—influenced by Weil, Bonhoeffer, and other avant-garde Christian thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, who take as their point of departure the image of Christ dying at the cross, crying out his abandonment. Importantly, however, Wiman speaks in this sense from experience, about this dangerous and unpredictable form of cancer that he has lived with since 2007.

2.
He Held Radical Light displays the poetical prose familiar to readers of My Bright Abyss: Every sentence is chiseled into stone, beautiful and lasting. Although Wiman can be casual in his formulations—for example when he declares his regret with ever having put Lolita “into his brain”—his ear for the rhyme of a prose sentence, enhanced with great precision and sincerity, makes for a reading experience that is extremely rare. The transparency of the writing is so strong that it illuminates and reflects on the reader. There are also structural similarities between He Held Radical Light and My Bright Abyss, like Wiman’s fondness for telling sobering anecdotes about meeting older poets, as these play their part in preparing the young poet for a lifetime waiting on poetry. These two books are different on another level. While in My Bright Abyss, composed from standalone essays, Wiman is really writing aphorisms, He Held Radical Light consists of one single narrative thread. If the subject matter of the earlier book might have constrained Wiman to short bursts of writing, here his endurance has expanded. This dissimilarity aside, both books are difficult to revisit, to dip in to. The insights or thinking they inspire come with the flow of the writing; they are not reducible to any particular content.

Wiman’s motif of underlining the absence of inspiration invites a comparison with his younger colleague, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner. In his essay The Hatred of Poetry (2016), Lerner has argued the radical inaccessibility of poetical content, one that is waymarked and forbidden precisely by the poem itself. The true poem, to Lerner, is forever absent. Lerner is dissatisfied with the contingent form every poem has to settle on, as it will inevitably fall short of the heavenly music it refers to. In this sense, it is revealing why Lerner values Dickinson over Keats:
Personally, I have never found Keatsian euphony quite as powerful as Dickinson’s dissonance. I think this is because Dickinson’s distressed meters and slant rhymes enable me to experience both extreme discord… and a virtuosic reaching for the music of the spheres.
In Dickinson, embedded into the very score of divine music, Lerner finds an immanent division and critique of poetical form, which is something his taste for poetical authenticity demands. Lerner perceives in Keats’s work a claim to a structural integrity that, to him, is simply untrue to the experience of poetry. In a spot-on digression, Lerner illustrates the divide between poetry and world as he relates the illusion of recognition when laymen hear the names of poets. I think this is phenomenologically accurate. It is telling, then, that even Lerner locates our botched attempts at identifying unknown poets within the capacity of memory, and of soul-searching, as if even those of us whose stated position would take an indifference to poetry think of it as something close to the heart.

Wiman’s stance is remarkable because he never gives up the point of the significance of poetry, even for a world that is indifferent. And this significance depends on the balance between the presence and absence of inspiration, of God, and the question of salvation. To some, perhaps, this explains Wiman as a religious poet. Indeed, Wiman is attuned to the miracle of experiencing poetical content, not in spite of the mediocrity of poetry—as with Lerner—but thanks to its genius. However, for Wiman it is a poetical demand that the poem moves beyond itself, moves beyond artistic or creative accomplishment.

So when for a poet like Lerner there is a clean separation between the divine and profane, for Wiman the poem works as an intermediary, and can unlock eternal truths within a finite context. The existence of poetry has this religious meaning, it plays a part within the soteriological scheme of things. Soteriology means the study of salvation. As a field within systematic theology it has in recent years been taken up more and more in philosophy and political theory. For Wiman, the way he discusses soteriological questions has everything to do with the motifs I commenced this review with, the absence of God and the absence of inspiration. And this implies, crucially, how the poem itself is never enough. The poem is a means to purge the poet of their literary ambitions—not to realize them—and to help its audience navigate a way toward a truth that overrides the beauty of its language. It has to make the self see the innocence and vulnerability of the soul.

One particularly moving motif from He Held Radical Light is that of the lineage of poets, of how the experience of the older poet is not just useful to their younger colleagues but eerily similar. It is as if the poets go through the same life, or at least confront the same ethical dilemma between life and art. Wiman suggests this, and more, by weaving certain patterns into his relationships with the world of poetry: his bad starts with female poets Susan Howe and Mary Arnold—after which reconciliation follows—and the way in which older male poets mentored him, notably Donald Hall, C.K. Williams, and Seamus Heaney. Especially within the context of such a short essay, and even when the writer concedes that perhaps every poet has a choice to make between art and life, these patterns stand out and remain puzzling. They remain puzzling as the poet’s dilemma is overshadowed by strange coincidences of fate, as the book relates an orchestrated scattering of illness striking, almost always cancer, among Wiman’s professional acquaintances. These are of more than superficial interest, and Wiman’s writing—and in this the new publication is more pronounced than its predecessor—works to save by remembering. And remember it does, if only for some time. Highly contingent and uncertain, this is how memory saves. Nothing illustrates this better than Wiman’s brief and entirely parenthesized recollection of another departed friend, halfway through the book, and his final struggle to remember a forgotten word from childhood. This restricted view on salvation, as always falling short, is the most radical idea from He Held Radical Light.

3.
My Bright Abyss and He Held Radical Light—the change of pronoun between these titles indicates the bolder resolution of Wiman’s latest work. The new book is less personal, yet allows for more intimacy. For instance, in My Bright Abyss the poet Danielle Chapman, Wiman’s wife, was only indicated by her initial, while now she is named. In He Held Radical Light, Wiman sounds more at ease, surer of himself, as he is more generous to share his life with his readers. This readiness, by the unescapable paradox that Wiman analyses so well, of course means that he reveals less. Less personal, then, the condition of the absence of inspiration is attributed a more general pertinence, as indeed we see how the poets share their affliction, as human beings share their suffering. At the same time, the existence of the poem—lone bastion within this wasteland of boredom—holds a soteriological significance: The poem saves, yet it is not enough. Indeed, the poem can be soteriologically instrumental because it is not enough, and in Wiman’s reading every poem knows and enacts this insufficiency. This is Wiman’s explicit position, outlined halfway through the book within a brilliant discussion of Philip Larkin’s final poem “Aubade.” This is also the important difference between Wiman and Lerner: The poem’s very insufficiency is drawn into the matter of salvation. We might call it Wiman’s wager:
You must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you.
This stance goes with Wiman’s mature and sobered position of the significance of his, or any poet’s, legacy, as he gives up on the aspiration of his youth to write a poem that would “live forever.”

Can the poet chance his salvation on writing great poems, perhaps on writing a single great poem? This question animated Ambition and Survival before, it remained in the background of My Bright Abyss, and here again it takes centre stage. “Yes and no” is Wiman’s answer, just as any religious stance is flawed in a way. (As Marilynne Robinson, a writer close to Wiman’s heart, has said, ”As soon as religion draws a line around itself, it becomes false.”) Ultimately, the poet has to risk it all on the creative life itself and suspend their share of this finished article that would last forever. To this truth, between these two incomparably accomplished works, perhaps My Bright Abyss will still bear stronger testimony. It successor, however, certainly benefits from its eerie assemblage of poetical recurrences within the lives of poets to bring out the soteriology of remembrance.

Brevity Is the Soul of It: In Praise of Short Books

Lately I’ve found myself collecting short non-fiction books. Collecting makes it sound grandiose, but my stash of 30 or so volumes is smaller in aggregate than a breadbox. It’s also been less intentional than the word “collecting” implies: The books seem to turn up of their own accord like stray kittens or spare socks, orphaned except for the company of their own kind. Each one on its own might not amount to much, but together they comprise a highly portable compendium of human knowledge.

Monographs are in style, from Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry to Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others and Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death, all presenting critical, topical investigations driven by the wry voices of their authors. The format can be a venue for public discourse on pressing issues, too, as in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a harrowing first-person look into the immigration system, or Eula Biss’s On Immunity, with its eloquent delineation of vaccines. Brian Dillon’s Essayism, however, is the ultimate literary ouroboros: a book-length essay on essayists.

The short book can also be a container for the self without the self-aggrandizement of a full memoir. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Gregor Hens’s Nicotine both fit here, as does the Italian translator Franco Nasi’s lovely pamphlet about living in the United States, Translator’s Blues. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments likewise offer only slantwise glimpses of the author through aphoristic fragments sharp as darts. It’s easy to recognize yourself in them: A friend memorably described the latter as “subtweets about your life.”

The Twitter connection is apropos, since social media has contributed to our sense of a depleted attention span. Is the short book popular because we just can’t handle more than 150 pages anymore? The form does thrive in tweets and Instagrams as intellectual plumage. It’s easy to finish them, and thus easier to brag about having read them. “They come already compressed,” Christine Smallwood observed of the trend in T Magazine. “You will learn something, for sure, but not more than you can handle.”

But this gloss gives short books short shrift. Short books are not narratives, but devices: instead of the telescope of a long novel or history tome, they are a pair of sunglasses, allowing you to see the world, briefly and temporarily, in a different shade. Most mornings, I look at the stack on my shelf, a rainbow of thin spines, and pick a few to carry with me—to a cafe, on the subway, to my office. Like choosing an outfit, the books both express and influence how I feel that day.

Say the mood is colorful. Here you have options, because a single color is the perfect subject for a short book. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson can tell you about blue, and patches of blue outside seem to glow with new meaning. Alain Badiou’s Black offers the semiotics of that “non-color,” shot through with his own memories of (literally) dark moments: as a child playing in an unlit room or camping out in the French military. Kenya Hara, a Japanese designer, meditates on the emptiness of white in White; Han Kang has her own version coming up with The White Book.

Each of these volumes frees its mates of the burden of being comprehensive: The short book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only object a reader has at hand. Instead, they are entries in a collective lexicon, a library you can take with you.

For a bracing blast of postmodern ennui, pick up the architect Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace with Running Room, an aria to the endlessness of 21st-century detritus: “The aesthetic is Byzantine, gorgeous and dark, splintered into thousands of shards, all visible at the same time.” Or you could carry Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 38 pages that upend the world: “The instant the criterion of genuineness in art production failed, the entire social function of art underwent an upheaval.” Or George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, a fractured 1981 diagnosis of the impact of mass media on American identity: “Comfort failed. Who would have thought that it could fail?”

These contain potent medicine (or poison, I sometimes think), and it’s a relief that each ends before too long, though still long enough to change your life. Like a pill, their form is always inextricable from their content, just right for proper delivery of the drug within.

The short book demonstrates ways in which to live, but rather than self-help’s prescriptive explanations, it is content to evoke possibilities. The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s aptly titled These Possible Lives gives prismatic recitations of the biographies of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, reducing what could be thousands of pages into a scant 60 of hallucinatory description. Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause sketches an impressionistic biography of Marcel Marceau, a famed French mime. I like the book’s voyeurism into the peculiar life, but also observing the challenge—and Wen’s success—of describing in words Marceau’s absence thereof. (The short book is also great for writer’s block.)

The paragon of the short-book form, for my taste, is In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. In the 42-page essay first published in 1933, Tanizaki contrasts the Japanese appreciation of darkness—the dim of rice-paper windows, candle lanterns, and black lacquered dishes—with the Westerner’s “quest for a brighter light:” electric lamps, glass windows, and white porcelain. The book’s brevity is synecdochic: It contains the world, from Noh drama to Albert Einstein, “murmuring soup,” the difficulties of building a house, an obscure local recipe for sushi, and what the author perceived as the roots of Japanese identity.

Tanizaki persistently reminds readers that the essay is merely his vision, a personal worldview as an elderly novelist perhaps more at home in the previous century than his present. He claims no authority. Yet his ambition is grand, to preserve in writing that particular lens so that it might be experienced by others: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing,” he writes in the book’s final paragraph. Every time I open it, the patches of shade around me are briefly illuminated by Tanizaki’s prose.

I Instagrammed In Praise of Shadows so many times that friends asked how long I was taking to finish it. Rather than some kind of brag, I just liked how it looked—it was fun to put a monochrome book about darkness in patches of bright sunlight, a visual pun. But getting to the end of a short book isn’t the point. It’s about rereading, mulling, flipping it open to see what you find, turning it over like a coin in your pocket.

Tanizaki’s essay accomplishes the highest criteria I have for any book, short or long, which is that it offers an alternative aesthetic imaginary, a toolset to reconstruct the world in real time. Its voice sneaks into your head. And its format makes it convenient to keep hidden away in my bag, with me at all times.

Image credit: Unsplash/Duc Ly.

The Nu-Audacity School of Poetry

From the well-known to the semi-forgotten, the literary isms of the early- to mid-20th century — from Dadaism to Surrealism to Imagism to Vorticism to Futurism to Objectivism — set a subsidiary classification template for all subsequent generations of writers. As each ism elucidated, the importance of delineating one’s work from the work of one’s contemporaries was paramount in terms of attention and accolade. Further, grouping with and against other writers was arguably as integral as the creation of the work itself. Simply, isms provided an immediate context of sorts for the 20th-century reader. In the end it little mattered, then, if said context was sanctioned by the writer herself; Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell famously had very different ideas about what Imagism was or could be, and yet both writers are probably read more today because of their enrollment in the school. Let’s be honest — whether one agrees with their inclusion or not, being a recognizable member of a literary school provides its participant with an attention and focus that the isolated outsider is rarely able to easily obtain. As Too $hort put it, get in where you fit in — and hopefully you do fit in somewhere.

Building off the ism heyday, late-20th and early-21st-century writers group themselves in similar ways — but there is a significant difference from their Modernist counterparts. For contemporary writers at least, the concept of “The New” seems to be one that needs parading. The New Sincerity. The New Brutalism. The New Narrative. Predating those examples a bit yet of a similar designation-based ilk, Ron Silliman’s concept of The New Sentence. There are poetry reading series’ entitled The New Privacy — what’s private is public too now, right? — and post-9/11 poems entitled “The New Intelligence” — after that atrocity, who we are and how we exist has fundamentally changed, evolved. (If one were so inclined, echoes of Virginia Woolf’s famous “On or about December 1910 human character changed” Modernist declaration might be proffered.) Further, regardless of the specific aesthetics of each group, the underlying onus seems to be that day in, day out, the world and its components are new and essentializing that fact is worth doing. The proverbial shock of the new seems to never grow old.

Perhaps it’s inconsequential, then, that the group of writers most commonly known for their sincerity actually characterized and defined themselves by a different name and set of artistic standards, or that, unto a specific group with specific notions about literature, the New Brutalist contingent of writers (of which there are different British and American factions) seem to be inordinately varied. Circa 2016, that single syllable, those three letters — the first proudly capitalized — is all that need be touted and with so many (wildly different) writers writing so much (wildly different) work, being part of a group nowadays is just as important as the beliefs that group espouses and/or repudiates. (In this sense it is no different than the ism-obsessed 20th century.) Get in where you fit in indeed.

In such a spirit of exclusionary inclusion, then, I’d propose conglomerating a group of writers I’d call the Nu-Audacists, ones whose central tenets, as I see them, are as brazen and arguably repugnant as they are nuanced or refined. For the poets of the Nu-Audacity do not believe in Poetry or at least not in the way that many of their contemporaries seem to believe in it. Their work displays an innate awareness to the shrill absurdity of modern life — but they are nevertheless not inured to such absurdity or hardened by it. The Nu-Audacists are largely uninterested in academia or assistant professor, tenure-track academic life. They are post-Internet, meaning that although they often utilize the World Wide Web’s myriad lurings they rarely feel the need to comment on that reality; e-poetry is poetry is Twitter. Broadly and luridly, they believe sex exists. Further, their work is not funny or whimsical; they do not affect poetic “poses” like “sincere” or “confessional” beyond those that they are seemingly unconscious of or uncaring about. For mothers the Nu-Audacity school has Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, and Anne Waldman; for fathers Bill Knott, C.A. Conrad, and John Wieners. Their great-uncles are Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch on Saturday night, talking excitedly after the movie before O’Hara goes to the bar and Koch goes home to his wife; their great-grandparents Antonin Artaud and Mina Loy. Finally and most importantly, many of the writers in the Nu-Audacity school would no doubt protest their inclusion in the group. To varying degrees, most are willful outsiders. They neither want nor need my or anyone else’s collectivist-inspired help. And that’s the point — by refusing to conform in a way that so much of contemporary poetry insists on, they stake their own defiant place in the game. And for the Nu-Audacists poetry is very much a game. Any consideration of getting down on one’s knees and praying to the Muse would be laughed at, scorned. After all, they’re just words, always, little and big, short and long. Besides those poets discussed below, I include among this group figures as disparate as Morgan Parker and Brandon Downing, Ben Fama and Saeed Jones, Sarah Jean Alexander and Danez Smith, Timothy Liu and Sara Sutterlin.

(Why “Nu”? It’s a valid question. Mostly because, as seen above, there never actually was a closely-cohered school of quote unquote Sincere or Narrative writers; such rigid designations are imaginary. Calling something New when its antecedent never actually existed in the first place is forever ironic and the school of Nu-Audacity exists within a similar deception — every worthwhile writer is audacious in some fundamental way and the term thus embraces its redundant nature while simultaneously refuting it. Additionally, most things that begin with the prefix Nu, like Nu-Metal — think Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park — roundly suck and such a premise would, I think, hold audacious hilarity for certain Nu-Audacity members.)

Roundly emblematic of the various Nu-Audacity attributes are Joshua Ware’s second and third collections Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention (2015). Per the publisher’s press release, as an artifact Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention is a tệte-bệche, which sounds fancy and (is) French. All that really means, however, is that the book is two books; turn the 69-page Unwanted Invention upside down and you’re faced with the 67-paged Vargtimmen. That, certainly, is a lot of poetry to foist on any reader; in this respect it’s much like Eileen Myles’s 2012 tệte-bệche Snowflake/ different streets. (In Vargtimmen Ware references this fact via the poem “Snowflakes Et Al.”) The major difference, of course, is where Myles, aged 67 and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other accolades, is to many poetry readers a living legend of a sort, one who possesses the necessary readership to publish two collections in a single artifact, Ware is at the beginning of his career. It thus takes a certain panache to assume the interest in Ware’s work is there to warrant publishing so much of it in one solidified volume. (Warranted or not, this confidence isn’t unique to Ware. Other recent multiple-collections-in-one books by younger poets include Dan Hoy’s The Deathbed Editions and Sampson Starkweather’s The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that other than Myles I personally am unaware of, young or old, any women who have recently published such weighty non-collected or selected volumes.)

Nevertheless, the work in Vargtimmen / Unwanted Invention does hold its place, and, in droves, many of the aforementioned Nu-Audacity traits are prominently displayed. “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole,” the first poem in Unwanted Invention, begins:
fragments of a mustache spruce your upper lip
shirt unbuttoned mid-torso, suggesting amateur gay porn
or an all-day fuckfest at a seedy bathhouse in NYC
its lone entrance tucked back in an alleyway behind a green recycling dumpster
Most days no one cobbles together Wyatt and Surrey
To write contemporary poems; instead, we pick-and-choose from whatever
our search engines offer us. I want to redeem an obsolete style
in an effort to create a new history that begins and ends
with the memory of something that never existed
It’s what we’ll call an aesthetic of unwanted invention
For another poet a mustache might merely be hair on an upper lip, a “shirt unbuttoned mid-torso” simply designating the hotness of the weather, but for Ware both circumstances are steamily lascivious; they are rabbit holes that surface on “amateur gay porn/ or an all-day fuckfest at a seedy bathhouse…” From that opening “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole’s” speaker makes clear their poetic composition method and its hopeful intent. These days reading and studying the work of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt—both 16th-century English poets, the latter of whom is credited with introducing the sonnet form into English –is beyond passé, near useless. Why do that when it’s far easier to “pick-and-choose from whatever/ our search engines offer us?” Because in the end, anyway, what will be eventually created will matter only in the way that nostalgia matters, as something that involves “the memory of something that never existed/ It’s what we’ll call an aesthetic of unwanted invention.” Poetry is thusly an “unwanted invention” of the sort that, unbidden, invades the speaker’s life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean poetry or the poetic matters, at least not in the way it once did. It’s also worth noting that both the Wyatt and Surrey references are contained in the volume’s epigraph, one by John Ashbery. It reads:
And one is left sitting in the yard
To try to write poetry
Using what Wyatt and Surrey left around,
Took up and put down again
Like so much gorgeous raw material,
As though it would always happen in some way
But where the speaker of Ashbery’s work seems optimistic with regards to poetry’s province and shelf-life elasticity — “…so much gorgeous raw material…it would always happen in some way” — “Out of the Dimly Remembered Whole’s” speaker is anything but. Ware’s poem ends with the following lines:
…We wait and wait and wait and wait
and, while waiting, cry for that which we left behind
until we cry simply for the sake of crying
and the comfort habitual behavior affords us
In all reality, nothing changes
as drastically as we would like to believe
On the horizon, a dense mist hangs above the churlish sea
an infinite occurrence spelling wonder every time
“In all reality, nothing changes/ as drastically as we would like to believe” and this includes the reality of poetry. For a poet of the Nu-Audacity like Ware, no savior will be found via the imaginative word, no substitute for God or Satan, mother or father, gold or glitter. In “Kenneth Koch Is Dead,” a later poem in Unwanted Invention, the assertion is made that “The poetry bubble burst/ shortly after Pindar; since then no one’s really given a fuck” and this playful yet ceaseless fatalism is a central Nu-Audacist tenet. Further reference here can be seen via the entirety of “Prefaces” from Chelsey Minnis’s collection Bad Bad (2007) which, among (many) others, includes gold stars such as “Poetry is for crap since there’s no money or fast cars in it” and “A poet is not to be praised for anything/ If I write something then let me be killed.” Still more “unwanted invention” cynicism resides in the stanzas “I mean I love meaning but I hate words I like sounds/ I used to like words but now I hate them because I love them without reciprocity which means with every day I love them more and more because of hate,” taken from Laura Solomon’s “French Sentences” (contained in her 2011 collection The Hermit) and, found in her 2013 volume Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, the entirety of Jenny Zhang’s “Ya Done Cunt,” wherein, riffing in both the first and second persons, the poem’s speaker’s denigrates the way others write poetry, the way she herself possibly writes poetry and the vapid pseudo-profundity otherwise known as Poetry:
she doesn’t like the way you write
it’s pretentious
yah
I know it is
that was her talking as you
Yah, she’s annoying
that was me talking as me
about her
For the Nu-Audacists, being a poet is nothing to celebrate, at least not in any conventional sense. It’s neither an exalted vocation nor a divine calling. For those in academia it’s simply the means of (hopefully) getting tenure and outside those moldy ivory towers it’s merely a game, one that isn’t — or shouldn’t — be taken all that seriously. The fact that “[p]oetry is for crap,” that its “bubble burst”  shortly after the heraldic utterances of the 5th-century Grecian lyric poet Pindar and since then “no one’s really given a fuck” isn’t cause for lamentation or grieving, though. Instead, it’s something to celebrate. The Nu-Audacity school reserves as sacred that which the academy — or at least those in the “professional” poetry world —  disdain or revile. In Minnis’s Bad Bad an “Anti Vitae” is even included; entries include:
1995
Poems rejected by Paris Review, Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, New American Writing, Fine Madness, Black Warrior Review, etc.
Sit outside local bar and flash cigarette lighter at firefly.
Intensely disliked by older female fiction writer.
Told that poetry is “loose” by future poet laureate
Commitment to waitressing questioned.
 

2001
Don’t receive NEA grant.
Fail to send any new work to literary magazines. Not published in any magazines.

This is an “Anti Vitae” in name only, however; upon subsequent inspection it reads more like a humblebrag. And Minnis’s contention is clear — poets shouldn’t be overly concerned with where they publish or how much; what grants they do or do not receive; even the social and artistic perception of their persons by more established literary figures. Beyond all matters of status or livelihood, they should be preoccupied with writing poems, i.e. playing with words, canoodling with nouns, verbs and syllables. Because ultimately the more one professes to hate what they do the more it’s made clear how invested they are in the doing. (Hatred, of course, implies passion, concern, care. But never indifference.)

Featured in Vargtimmen, in the fifth section of his poem “Satanic Intervals” Ware too, like Minnis, articulates the social and market-based forces that seem to shape so much of contemporary poetry, writing:
A poem about money is merely an act of finding
what will suffice in the mouths of a creation that
has escaped its maker. By which I mean
$$$.
“Satanic Intervals’” speaker later pointedly asks, “Where is the money in all of this?/ & why am I so poor?//The poem is merely a substitute for emotions not becoming of everyday speech. Nothing will suffice./ Everything outside of me is insatiable.” On the transparent face of things most “emotions not becoming of everyday speech” rarely involve money or prestige. Instead, they’re relegated to the fringe side of the street, where creative freedom exists but filthy lucre does not. To trot out an overused saw for the billionth time, “[p]oetry makes nothing happen” and for the school of Nu-Audacity that’s the point — it shouldn’t have to.  It’s only when writing poems begets economic opportunities and social climbing and clout that poeming goes wrong. Or as Jenny Zhang writes in “Being jealous for the first time today since I woke up one milliseconds ago,” “this is a poet’s poem/written by a degenerate/ illiterate/literal/piece of crap.” Every poet, however, should aspire to such illiteracy and crappiness; it’s the only way to know for certain that the reasoning behind what you’re doing is true, pure. And in our personal brand and self-promotion-obsessed culture that purity is truly audacious.

If the Nu-Audacists aren’t interested in climbing the corporate-academic poetry ladder or proselytizing about the glorious aims and scopes of their art, what are they interested in? The internet and sex, mostly. The former topic, then, they take as something that is as integral to writing poetry in the 21st century as paper was to every previous century. Its ramifications and merits need not be discussed — they simply are. And the latter reads simultaneously boisterous and clinical; lusty yet distant. In the words of the speaker of Mira Gonzalez’s poem “the main purpose of the heart is to make heart sounds,” as featured in her 2013 book i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together:
the next time you are driving your car
you will think about that day we had sex in my dad’s bed
when the bright sun was shining on us through the white curtains
and we felt comforted by the inevitably of death
Our digitally-enhanced Information Age is one that obfuscates artistic distinction and the two youngest poets of the Nu-Audacist School, Steve Roggenbuck (b.1987; 18.1K Twitter followers) and Mira Gonzalez (b. 1992; 23K Twitter followers), are paradigms for such expansiveness. For Roggenbuck and Gonzalez, poems can be tweets or YouTube videos; they need not exist on the physical page and if they do they certainly need not be published via any traditional means. Circa 2016 none of this might seem particularly audacious — and yet even today a substantial portion of literary publishing houses and magazines use their online presence as merely a way of touting what they have created in-print. They often tweet and post excerpts from their latest print issues; they host a (sporadically updated) blog featuring a medley of literary-craft based essays and occasionally new literally work. Yet for these outlets there is a wide divide between what they physically and virtually create; different submission processes for print and online publications and different standards for print and online publications. The prevailing cultural sentiment is still that a YouTube video cannot be a form of poetry, nor can a tweet; e-books are less substantive than actual physical artifacts. In essence much of our current literary climate believes, even now, that print is king, and that publishing a dead-tree based book is what every self-respecting writer should aspire to achieve.

Recent surveys have shown, however, that certain (younger) members of (1st world) society would rather have a smartphone or computer with a steady internet connection than a car. Meaning for so called millennials, aka the Internet Generation, physical transportation is less important than virtual. And although survey participants were not asked about their predilection for reading or viewing literature on the internet as compared to procuring it from a brick-and-mortal library or bookstore, one can’t help but think that favor would land in the Internet-sourced technological realm rather than its IRL binary.

Being destroyers of artistic distinction, however, Roggenbuck and Gonzalez would find the above Internet vs. print meanderings meaningless, moot, as for both writers there’s no such thing as “Internet poetry” or “e-poetry;” there’s only poetry. Or, thinking about it another way, Internet poetry exists in the same way as, say, pastoral poetry exists or poetry of witness; each holds a separate but equal stake unto a broader umbrella. Firmly ensconced in the digital present, Roggenbuck and Gonzalez’s work has little time for the wrinkled arguments of the past. “make something beautiful before you are dead” is the title of Roggenbuck’s most viewed YouTube poem and one much talked about.  It largely consists of him yelling at a self-held camera (more likely his iPhone) while orchestral-by-way-of-electronica music ebbs, arcs and crescendos in the background. “make something beautiful…” features lines as varied as:
Two words, jackass: Dog the Bounty Hunter

Back in my grandfather’s day they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO! We have to harness this gift.

I love hugging. I love hugging people. I love stars.

Rain is beautiful! Grass is beautiful! Cows are beautiful! Maybe you should stand in the rain. Maybe you should stand in the rain. You’re alive right now! You’re alive right now! I love the world.
In the middle of “make something beautiful…” there’s also, fittingly, a collaged video excerpt from the yet-still relevant film Dead Poets Society. In it Robin Williams (as the prep school teacher John Keating) illuminates his students to the fact that “…You are here. That life exists. And identity. That the power for play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” Older viewers might find Keating’s earnestness here maudlin or overwrought but for Roggenbuck it is something to savor and expound into. Because 27 years after the movie’s release life and identity do still exist; the power for play still does rollick on and so many of us still do hope to contribute a verse to it.

Other Roggenbuck YouTube videos are in a similar vein as “make something beautiful…;” they are over the top and irreverent; high-energy and enigmatic. Combining stream-of-consciousness riffing, overt sentiment and juxtaposed video footage of both Roggenbuck and others reading their work, some videos are more successful than others. But the best of them are mysteriously gripping and grippingly mysterious in the same way that, for instance, Weldon Kee’s “For My Daughter” is, or Hilda Morley’s “Sea-Map.”

In addition to his video and social media work, Roggenbuck writes “regular” print-based poetry collections and he’s also a relentless reader and tourer of his work. (Which isn’t to say he much believes in traditional poetry publication ordinances and processes; a Roggenbuck Tweet from July 5, 2016 states, “i support my individual friends who r poets but i generally do not feel that the small press poetry world is worthy of their attention/labor. for example i think ppl who put much of their writing directly on Twitt (@postcrunk @yunawinter) r making a more exciting impact… even books could still be great..but theres just so many stagnant tropes in poet land. we gota be free.”) But it’s Roggenbuck’s electronic presences that have gained him the most attention, both positive and negative. And just like the other Nu-Audacists the author of “make something beautiful…” simply doesn’t believe in Poetry — or at least not the kind that doesn’t take into account the fact that the century we live in today is vastly different than every previous one. For Roggenbuck being a poet in 2016 means availing himself of all possible technological stimuli; it’s the only way he’s able to fully inhabit his poetic sense of self. Twitter and YouTube aren’t, poetically or otherwise, things to scoff at. Instead, they’re fertile sources of creative abundance.

Mira Gonzalez’s latest volume is a shared collection with the poet and novelist Tao Lin. It’s entitled Selected Tweets and, unsurprisingly, the book wholly consists of selected tweets by Gonzalez and Lin. For a lot of contemporary writers this could be an aesthetic defiance of some fashion, but in her post-internet era Gonzalez rightly views Twitter as an artistic norm rather than an outlier. As she stated in a 2015 interview conducted with the magazine The Fader, “…this book shows how Twitter, and by extension the internet as a whole, is an undeniably valid platform for creative expression. No matter how trivial Twitter might become, the internet is now, and I’m confident it will continue to be, a place for people to display their writing in whatever form that may be. Anyone in your MFA program who is denying that now will probably feel really stupid in 10 years.” Gonzalez later goes on to assert in the interview “…I absolutely view Twitter as an equally valid platform as poetry or prose or fiction. With this book, I hope to show people that there really isn’t any difference in value between poetry and Twitter, the same way you wouldn’t say poetry is more or less valuable than a short story.”

We live in the world of now, a now where on average each American citizen checks her phone 46 times a day. (Or even more often, depending on one’s age group.) And what is regularly being checked are websites likes Twitter. Across the cultural spectrum it provides entertainment, art and information in concise, bite-size increments. Readers are found on Twitter and, by virtue of the existence and acclaim of Lin and Gonzalez’s book, eager readers at that. On the face of it, then, her 23,000 followers might not call Gonzalez’s Twitter feed poetry exactly — but she herself does and that’s enough.

Gonzalez’s Twitter account is where most people access her writing, but it’s her first book of poetry, i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, that initially gained her literary-based prominence. Like the other members of the Nu-Audacity school, the speakers of many of Gonzalez’s poems are alienated by others and vaguely nauseated by themselves; victim of so many “unwanted inventions” that each must now attempt to make whole, wanted. A typical poem in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together deals with matters of isolation and profound anxiety. “ryan gosling,” the second poem in the book, reads:
I am becoming hostile and unsympathetic
social interaction makes me feel tired and irritated
I have alienated myself
I don’t have meaningful relationships
I don’t have romantic relationships
I read a lot of depressing books
I like being alone
I am a bland person
I am an afterthought
I am a bag of unsalted pretzels
I don’t know
I am constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal
I am not a mean person
I am not a bad person
I am only okay
Like the speakers of Minnis’ “Prefaces” and “Anti-Vitae” and Zhang’s “Being jealous for the first time today since I woke up one milliseconds ago,” the self-loathing here is near suffocatingly thick. And is it of a confessional bent? An absurdist one? Suicidal? The “voice” of many of Gonzalez’s poem is so deadpan as to be crippling, and yet it also stings uniformly true. The vast majority of the world’s 7+ billion citizens are “only okay;” many of those citizens are also “constantly reaching towards some nebulous goal” that is largely devoid of substantive how’s and why’s. This, of course, makes us want it to achieve said goal — whatever or whomever it is — all the more. Gonzalez’ poetry has been accused of being “a paragon of flat writing,” containing an “ambivalence toward emotion.” More specifically, “Gonzalez’s desire to not have a feeling is leaky and uncontained. She attempts to write about the leakiness in an affectless way, trying to use tone and form of the poem to contain the shame of having a feeling. But the poem is itself a leaky vessel, inadequate to the containment or flattening of those messy feelings.”

Certainly the work in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together refuses to console its reader in any accommodative way. When, in “mcsweeney’s caused global warming,” Gonzalez ends the poem with the line “I am concentrating on becoming 40mg of adderall right now,” she plays into a certain disaffected, apathetic, ostensibly “neutral” millennial stereotype, one very much focused on the singular syllable “I” and no one and nothing else. At the same time, however, Gonzalez’s poetry is deeply attuned to the fact that it is only during moments of extreme emotionality that we’re rendered “speechless.” The best poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together exist within an interstice of exasperation and exhalation. They are grandly luminous in their naiveté, repeatedly. In “symbolic interactionism” Gonzalez writes:     
and we will understand that the phrase ‘alone together’ is not an
oxymoron anymore

and I will resolve to never be happy enough to forgive you

and I promise that from now on I will only have emotions that can be
perceived as neutral

I wonder how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world
yet I am the only person on the planet
Here, the speaker of the poem is not an inhibited bystander but an astronaut of unfathomable capacity. During certain moments of great joy or despair all of us (consciously or unconsciously) contemplate “how it is possible that there are billions of people in the world” and yet our own indefatigable I is “the only person on the planet.” Certain excesses of self necessitate survival mechanisms that solely deal in neutrality and sterile isolation. Without acknowledging and commenting on one’s flatness of character — “I will only have emotions that can be/ perceived as neutral” — one will never be able to move constructively forward as a living, breathing human creature. (“I am neutral of love and neutral of death” writes Chelsey Minnis in her poem “F-Lute.”) Multi-dynamic and impossibly nuanced, our self is always, of course, our selves and Gonzalez’s best poems strive to negotiate the terms and conditions with which one must accept the malleability of being from mood to mood, minute to minute. Her poetry is a “leaky vessel” only in the sense that humanity itself is a leaky vessel—and that reality is something we’ll have to make a frail peace with until we grow up and die.

The speakers of many of Gonzalez’s poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together don’t know how or if to feel, what they truly want — but they do know what they’re interested in. And, baldly, that is sex. So when, in “heartbroken people with extreme personality flaws,” Gonzalez writes, “I want to feel orgasms in the tip of my nose and the back of my ear/ in the cartilage between the vertebrae that make up my spinal column” the feeling is not exclusive to “heartbroken’s…” speaker. Being largely concerned with the present era the school of Nu-Audacity is the school of sex tapes and “comefarts”; transparent sexual practices and liking to watch themselves liking to watch. They are unabashedly sex-positive in a way that is poetically refreshing. In this lack of sexual subterfuge they harken back to their poetic mothers and fathers. Eileen Myles’s “I always put my lover’s cunt/ on the crest/ of a wave/ like a flag/ that I can/ pledge my/ allegiance/ to. This is my/ country” (“I always put my pussy”) and John Wieners’s “I spit him out on the floor/ Immensely relieved/ After ejaculating/ Imagining myself up my lover’s ass/ he coming by himself” (“The Loneliness”). Frank O’Hara’s “You are Gorgeous and I’m Coming” and, excerpted from her Feminist Manifesto, Mina Loy’s “The fictitious value of a woman as identified with her physical purity — is too easy to stand by…therefore the first self-enforced law for the female sex…would be the unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty.” Like those writers, the school of Nu-Audacity refuses to feel sexually ashamed and they further feel an obligation to impart the virtues of sexual freedom and curiosity to their readers.

One of the central themes of Ware’s Unwanted Invention is sex’s illusory nature and how the act is both ethereal and all too real. In his poem “Imaginary Portraits” he writes, “Bent over the end of a wood-paneled partition/ and wearing nothing/ but a pair of red cowboy boots…you cannot help but look at ourselves in the mirror/ when singular becomes plural/ and everything is/ double of what is double/ already: naked bodies entwining/ imaginary into real.” And in “Portrait” nine short pages later the red cowboy boots appear once again—but this time they are less a sexual document than a poetic one:
In a portrait

you wear the red cowboy boots

with intricate white-threaded designs

stitched into their sides

that I fucked you in

during a poem written weeks ago

in Nebraska. In a portrait

you wait for me, as I wait for you

while I write this poem

so we can fuck at noon

in a friend’s apartment.
In this case the poetic reality for the speaker of “Portrait” is also a sexual one; “I fucked you in…a poem written weeks ago” and “imaginary into real” both encounters are given the same weight. The difference between “making love” and just plain “fucking” also comes into play in “Portrait” — its ending lines read “In a portrait/ I document our love. In another portrait/ you document our love. In these portraits/ our twenty-first century digital urns/ we will live forever”– but the emphasis is on the physical act as much as it is on the romantic implications that are so often tied to it. Fucking can be making love and fucking can be fucking and the school of Nu-Audacity bears witness to both realities. “I show you my virtue when I come farting” is the opening line of Jenny Zhang’s “Comefarts;” midway through the poem the speaker imparts “I was wet because I was wet…I was wet and you didn’t notice it on your leg…I was wet and in my dreams I was wet/ I was wet and asked a stranger to jerk off onto my face.” Virtue is being honest with one’s lover about sexual habits, predilections and desires, coupled with a staunch refusal to mask the sexness of sex, its inherent fucking.

For Minnis and Roggenbuck, then, this circumstance is one of professional and personal bemusement. “…poetry//is a suck & fuck//there is a smell of horseshit//and it is so vulture//like you should jack it all off//like adjunct//and lick it up//for nothing like a stipend $” asserts the speaker of Minnis’ “Don’t Do It Some More.” Sardonic and satiric, “Don’t Do It Some More” again offers the valuelessness of academia-tainted poetry, but here a sexual element also pervades. Sure, the “suck and fuck” of poetry legitimately wretches, but it nevertheless is still worth engaging in and writing towards.  As Minnis writes in Bad Bad’s “Preface 65,” “I can fail to be loved but I can’t fail to write this.” And even if a desire to fail exists — to scream to hell with it, “jack it all off// like adjunct//and lick it up// for nothing…” — that desire will be subverted by some innate poetic steadfast, steadlong.

Unto Steve Roggenbuck’s scope sexual activity is, like his poetry, playful, mischievous. Although his work is not transparently sexual in the same manner as the other Nu-Audacists, sex still plays a role, albeit one that is less erotic than exhibitionist. From his video “why i own a backhoe”: “sometimes I put things up my asshole. I’m like, that hurts in there. But then I just let it sit there for a little longer and…it starts to not hurt.” In order for pain to be felt, though, one must possess a willingness to put “it” up there in the first place—and having done so gratification, either poetical or sexual, might soon follow.

Finally, as touched on earlier many of the speakers of Mira Gonzalez’s poems in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together are fervently sex-positive; in this respect her work refreshes in the same manner as does that of Ware and Zhang does. Throughout i will never be beautiful… sex is mentioned in a variety of different ways — sorrowful and orgasmic, sometimes in the same poem — but noteworthy is the fact that Gonzalez’s speakers always couch the sexual as liberating. To be alive is to want to have sex and that want is powerful and seductive. Coitus in Gonzalez’s poems can be masochistic; in “induced-compliance paradigm” her speaker states, “I enjoy being bitten during sex/ because of the causal connection/ between the act of biting and/ the feeling of being bitten” and the flat assertion “starving to death during sex is something I would like to do this week” is the final line of “this friday I woke up at 2 pm.” Yet elsewhere in i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together sex is investigative, poetically so. See the sly euphoria of the previously noted “I want to feel orgasms in the tip of my nose and the back of my ear/ in the cartilage between the vertebrae that make up my spinal column” and, taken from “mcsweeney’s caused global warming,” the lines:
I am going to consume your entire body
by lying down on top of you and breathing very hard
and we will feel alienated by way of osmosis
would you please push your head against my head
until we can mutually confirm our place in the universe
did you know that I can only have an orgasm
when I am lying down on my back
also I have never seen snow
The sex isn’t always good in Gonzalez’s poetry, certainly. (In fact it’s often quite bad.) But even that failing is candidly, assertively discussed, sans moral judgments or antiquated male or female stereotypes. Sex is in your face in Gonzalez’s work because the same holds true in contemporary culture and to hide that fact or be ashamed by it designates a refusal of self, artistically, culturally, personally. And as Joshua Ware’s “Imaginary Portrait” puts it, “All that is new/ transforms into the marks of misguided lovers/ shaping themselves/ into another season’s aesthetic rituals/ to prolong the poem/ within sex sweat of bodies/ and the breath of wine-socked mouths.” Under perfect circumstances sex is new every single we time we do it and the same holds true for the writing of poems — the best poets write their first poems every time they sit down. In their most successful works the school of Nu-Audacity elucidates that phenomenon.

Recently appearing on the popular podcast Another Round with Heben & Tracy, Jenny Zhang read her poem “I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love,” one that features lines such as:
I think fucking is P in V but later
my mom tells me there’s more
Is p pussy and v vagina, I say
You must try everything, she says
I say it too always striving
to be someone’s mirror
everyone tells me I am my mother’s mother
both of us were born with curly pubes
Discussing her work later in the show, one of the hosts asks about “intimacy” in Zhang’s writing, specifically if vis-à-vis her family’s reading of her work she ever feels bashful or “vulgar.” Zhang’s response is telling. In part, she states that, “Being shameless is kind of important [to me] because…as a woman of color in this world I’m constantly being told that I should be ashamed, like I should have some shame, I should…accept how other people see me as like someone who’s not much, who’s not worth much.” Not everyone in the school of Nu-Audacity is a person of color. But all of the school’s members do represent sex — in all its lurid, vigorous and ultimately positive, affirming and healthy actualities — in a way that suitably represents our current cultural climate; no matter’s one’s personal tastes or proclivities, sexual openness, honesty and transparency are paramount. The Nu-Audacists know that vague metaphors and similes are sometimes just lazy, especially when it comes to sex, when it comes to fucking. Better to name and, having named, empowered. If only every poet, then, could be similarly audacious.

Reviewing Susan Wheeler’s book Smokes in Boston Review all the way back in the netherera of 1998, Stephen Burt introduced the world to a school of poetry he dubbed Ellipticism; gaining prominent advocates and naysayers, it proved to be greatly influential. (The name comes from the grammatical ellipsis, the omission of an unnecessary connection or connections within a sentence.) To Burt’s way of thinking the Elliptical poets sought to “manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-“postmodern”: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the “language writers,” and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively “poetic”) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning “I am an X, I am a Y.” Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Emily Dickinson, John Berryman, Ashbery, and/or W.H. Auden…The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.”

Subsequently expanded on by Burt in his essay “The Elliptical Poets” in an Elliptical-focused issue of the journal American Letters & Commentary in 1999, Ellipticism got a great swathe of attention in the late 90’s and early 00’s poetry world. In Burt’s own words, taken from his 2004 essay “Close Calls With Nonsense:”
Some of the feedback I got was jazzily positive, even thankful. Some of the feedback was negative but attentive: readers pointed out (as my essay acknowledged) that some of the poets I grouped together were hardly friends, and that the books which founded the putative school had come out years apart. Outweighing both the supporters and the disputants, however, were the curious: students who planned term papers on the Ellipticals, academics who wanted to hear more about it, poets who wondered if they belonged in the school…I’m not sorry that I wrote “The Elliptical Poets”: if it created new readers for Mark Levine, or [Lucie] Brock-Broido, or [C.D.] Wright, it did what I meant it to do.
(In 2009 Burt introduced his vision for a post-Elliptical world, discussing the terse, epigrammatic lyricism he saw as poetically in-vogue in his essay “The New Thing.”)

I hash all this up now for several reasons, the first being the similarities and differences I see between the Elliptical and Nu-Audacity schools. Like the Elliptical writers — a group which also included Karen Volkman, Claudia Rankine, Mary Jo Bang, and Liam Rector — the Nu-Audacists regularly fluctuate between high and low poetic diction. Steve Roggenbuck’s work is hallmarked by his purposeful misspelling of easy-to-spell words — see his recent print collection Live My Lief: Selected & New Poems, 2008-15 — whereas, High-Modernist inspired, Laura Solomon’s poems occasionally shift from English into French or Italian. Her poem “Nicola, Hello!” begins with the stanzas “á quelle heure veux-tu/ me recontrer?// you don’t know me but we speak anyway” and ends with the line “that is the meaning.” (Unlike many of the Modernists, however, Solomon does provide the reader of The Hermit with an English translation at the end of the volume; “á quelle heure veux-tu/ me recontrer?” translates to “when do you want to meet me?”)

Another shared trait between the two schools is the telling of “almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones.” Although all of the Nu-Audacists dabble in narrative, none of them could be called narrative poets; the half-stories told in their poems are devoid of firm beginnings, middles or ends and, like a Twitter feed, are perpetually rendered in media res. At the same time, however, the typical Nu-Audacity poem is never muddled down by obscure language. Even if one isn’t at all sure where or how she’s going, there is an identifiable poetic entrance and exit, a readerly way in and out.

The differences between the two schools are indicative of the changed cultural and poetical mores. The largest difference, of course, involves Burt’s contention that “[the Ellipticals] want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.” Pre widespread usage of the Internet, in 1998 this Elliptical desire would have made perfect sense; entombed on the printed page, their work could not be television but ideally it could entertain its readers as thoroughly as that visual medium was once able to. For the Nu-Audacity school, however, their work has the potential to be or in fact already is the Internet; positively or negatively, no resemblance notions need be discussed. And this World Wide Web based reality is taken for granted by the school’s members in the same way that Wi-Fi access at your favorite coffee shop is taken for granted. There’s simply no use arguing for or against what already is.

The difference in utilization of a poetic sense of self is also markedly different between the Elliptical and Nu-Audacity schools. If for Ellipticism a major goal entailed the manifestation of “a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves,” than for the Nu-Audacists the opposite is the case; their work predominantly strives to be mask-less and gizmo-less. Writing in the midst of revelations by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, during an era where the private is public and every smartphone holds a thousand different selves, the Nu-Audacity poets offer their transparency as a badge of poetic honor. Their work insists that someone real, someone authentic, wrote the poems and that realness is not a pose or an affectation; it is an actuality. Unlike the Ellipticals they don’t wish “to undermine the coherence of [their] speaking selves” because to do so would be a poetic sabotage of a sort, one that puts more emphasis on artifice than art. In this regard they salute Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto,” specifically his belief that “the poem [should be] squarely between the poet and the person…between two persons instead of two pages.” Even at the risk of writing work that might be considered bad or maudlin, the school of Nu-Audacity desires their individual voices (and collective voice) to burn through.

Further, the inadequacy of their chosen art form simultaneously reinforces its essentiality. Because once upon a time poetry wasn’t wholly filled with “stagnant tropes” that all its practitioners consciously or unconsciously adhered to; it was “free” in the same way that Twitter is or YouTube or sex. The writing and publishing of it didn’t have much to do with “professional” success and that lack invigorated the non-rules of the word-game otherwise known as Poetry. Such a freedom is what the school of Nu-Audacity writes toward and believes in. “Poetry is, (and should be,) for the poet, a source of pleasure and satisfaction, not a source of honors… [it] is the gaiety (joy) of language” is how Wallace Stevens put it in his “Adagia” way back in the 20th century, and whether the Nu-Audacists look to Stevens as a sinner or saint his declarations are ones that they themselves hold.

Canonical poet Marianne Moore hated it almost 100 years ago and contemporary poet and MacArthur Genius Ben Lerner still hates it. In his aforementioned essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” Stephen Burt already noted that, circa 2004, so many poems also functioned as games, writing that such works are successful when “we can imagine a personality behind them. The poem carries, as people do, a social or regional or ethnic context; it leaps, as a person’s thoughts do, from topic to topic, and it lacks — as real people usually lack — a single all-explaining storyline or motive. Being like a person, such a poem can also ask what exactly makes us persons, how we know a person when we see one, or how we tell one another apart.” Poems and poeming existed on the Internet far before Steve Roggenbuck and Mira Gonzalez and graphic sex in a poem isn’t at all new either, to this millennium or any of the previous ones. Not everyone who writes poetry nowadays is in academia, not by a long shot. And in terms of audacity, 20th-century Surrealists like Benjamin Péret used to, spittingly, insult Christian priests to their face due to virulent hatred of the religion; the Futurists espoused destroying, among other things, “museums, libraries, academies of every kind.

So what, in the end, makes the school of Nu-Audacity actually new, actually audacious? Simply this: these poets are writing in ways that embodies and encapsulates the frustrating, abhorrent and ultimately inspiring contemporary world, writing in new ways that no one has written before. And in this way they are Nu and in this way they are Audacious. As lines from Joshua Ware’s poem “I Believe In Everything” articulate:
For life to enter a poem makes a poem worth reading
but for a poem to enter life means
pronouns transform from pro-form to flesh
in ways we can never imagine…

A poem is not…disappearance
but a second life saturated with the ether of the real
always present as an invisible aura
As Jay-Z said, what more can I say? The poetry of the Nu-Audacists is filled with life “saturated with the ether of the real.” Happy birthday, beautiful ones. Never grow old, never grow up.

Image credit: Flickr user lookcatalog

Most Anticipated, Too: The Great 2016 Nonfiction Book Preview

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Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the first half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 45 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new biography of the late Leonard Nimoy by his Star Trek crewmate William Shatner to a book-length essay on art, modernity, and the city by Olivia Laing to a pair of new studies looking at the legacy of the 1960s-era War on Poverty. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jhumpa Lahiri, Annie Dillard, Tama Janowitz, Thomas Piketty, Roxane Gay, and many more.

Set aside some space on those bookshelves, Millions readers. This is looking to be a very, very good year for nonfiction.

January

Eternity Street by John Mack Faragher: Long before The Big Sleep or Boyz N the Hood, Los Angeles was a lawless, violent city better known for its murder rate than for its orange groves. Faragher, a Yale historian, follows L.A.’s tumultous rise from its origins as a small Mexican pueblo at the edge of the loosely governed frontier in the 19th century. “[T]here is no country where human life is of so little account,” one Angeleno wrote in 1853. “Men hack one another to pieces with pistols and other cutlery as if God’s image were of no more worth than the life of one of the two or three thousand ownerless dogs that prowl about our streets and make night hideous.” (Michael)

The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky: A memoir of two long-term friendships, one with a woman novelist and the other with Lisicky’s ex-husband, a poet. Written in a collaged and non-linear way, it’s an honest and fierce examination of the ways that platonic and romantic loves inform one another — and how their losses devastate in equal measure. (Hannah)

 

 

Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr.: A syndicated columnist and NPR commentator, Dionne is a pundit for people who hate pundits: lucid, funny, ideologically coherent without being rigid. Here, he argues that today’s radical conservatism is rooted not in Tea Party opposition to Obamacare but much further back in history with the Republican Party’s choice of Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. (Michael)

February:

Leonard by William Shatner, with David Fisher: Anyone with fond memories of the original Star Trek has to be rooting for this book to be good. With his music and photography, Leonard Nimoy always came off as a fascinating, multi-faceted man. Shatner, on the other hand, often came off as a serious cheeseball. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to learn that, beneath the bluster and bad acting, Shatner is a sensitive and observant friend and biographer? (Michael)

 

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri: New Yorker readers got a sneak preview of this beguiling memoir of Lahiri’s struggle to learn Italian, a language she found herself drawn to for mysterious reasons. Written in Italian and translated by Ann Goldstein (who also translated the Elena Ferrante novels), Lahiri explores what it means to think and write in another language, and how a new language can give a writer a new voice. (Hannah)

 

 

Pandemic by Sonia Shah: Beware germophobes! This book may stoke your fears as Shah describes how vibro cholerae, a marine bacteria in the Bay of Bengal, caused a global outbreak of cholera in the late-19th century. Shah draws parallels between the technological advancements that allowed cholera to spread (steamships, canals, urbanization) with today’s rapid globalization, reporting on modern pathogens found all over the world. (Hannah)

March:

The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan: At the height of the Great Famine of the 1840s, the hero of Egan’s new book, Thomas Meagher, led a failed uprising against British rule, for which he was banished to a Tasmanian prison colony. He promptly escaped and turned up in America, where he led the New York-based Irish Brigade in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and later won a post as territorial governor of Montana. A Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter and columnist, Egan is the author of The Worst Hard Time, about America in the Dustbowl years, which won a National Book Award. (Michael)

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister: Despite what De Beers would have you think, only 20 percent of American women are married by age 29, a startling demographic shift that Traister examines in this group portrait of America’s female singletons. Based on interviews with academics, social scientists, and, of course, single ladies, this book shows how unmarried women have historically brought about great social change — and will continue to do so in the future. (Hannah)

 

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli: The title says it all. This 78-page primer was a bestseller in Italy, and came from a series of popular newspaper articles. It’s written to be accessible and to appeal to the imagination of the liberal arts major — as opposed to aspiring physicists already well versed in the theory of relativity. In writing for a general audience, Rovelli highlights the beauty of theories of gravity, time, and consciousness. (Hannah)

 

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This book­length essay offers an alert and moving exploration of art, anonymity, and modernity as they collide in that great crucible: the city. As in her first book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Laing deftly blends memoir and criticism; the chapters on David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger, in particular, are not to be missed. (Garth)

 

 

The Abundance by Annie Dillard: Forty-two years after Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which netted the author a nonfiction Pulitzer at the age of 29), Dillard has chosen both old and new essays to fill out her latest collection. In the older pieces corner, “Total Eclipse” exemplifies the author’s naturalistic bent, while “This Is the Life” adds her voice to the 9/11 canon. In the younger pieces corner, she follows a teenager memorizing Arthur Rimbaud, as well as a man who takes a snowball fight a little too seriously. Geoff Dyer provides the foreword. (Thom)

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter: Best known as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe was a prominent abolitionist and an early feminist who campaigned for women’s rights and social reform. This new biography focuses on her unhappy marriage and lack of independence from her husband, a private life at odds with her public achievements. (Hannah)

 

 

Charlotte Brontë by Claire Harman: Arriving just in time for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, this biography will speak to those already familiar with her life story as well as those who have never read a word of her novels. This isn’t the first or last biography we’ll have of Brontë, but according to advance reviews from across the pond, it may be the most novelistic. Harman brings a storyteller’s finesse as she synthesizes decades of research and scholarship, and a realist’s eye to some of the more romantic Brontë myths. (Hannah)

 

Heads by Jesse Jarnow: Subtitled “A Biography of Psychedelic America,” this new history suggests that psychedelic drugs and the Grateful Dead form a “secret American through-line between the 1950s and the present.” Jarnow, a Brooklyn-based musician and music journalist, uses the history of the legendary jam band and its loyal followers to explore an alternative America packed with “utopian homesteaders and self-taught black market chemists, spiritual seekers and pranksters, graffiti artists and government-wanted hackers, entrepreneurs and pioneering DJs.” (Michael)

Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein: The author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter delves into the adolescent years, taking a look at a subject that most parents prefer to turn a blind eye to: the sex lives of teenage girls. Drawing on extensive interviews with young women, Orenstein explores the effects of pornography and social media on a new generation’s sexual coming of age. (Hannah)

 

April:

The Gunning of America by Pamela Haag: “God, guts, and guns made America free,” goes the old line. This revisionist history by the author of Marriage Confidential begs to differ. Drawing on documents from the archives of the Winchester and Colt companies, Haag shows how the gun industry, not freedom-loving anti-colonialists and frontiersmen, sowed the seeds of the bond between Americans and their firearms. (Michael)

 

All Tomorrow’s Parties by Rob Spillman: A memoir from the founder of Tin House, who was born in Berlin and grew up among West Berlin artists and intellectuals, the son of two musician parents. As a young adult, Spillman made his way to literary New York, only to return to Germany in his mid-20s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As much a travelogue as a memoir, Spillman portrays the changing cultural landscape of Berlin while documenting his own coming of age and search for a place to call home. (Hannah)

 

One-Man Band by Simon Callow: This is the third volume of Callow’s four-volume biography of the great American icon and enigma, Orson Welles. In this volume, which covers the years 1947 to 1964, Callow tracks Welles’s self-exile from the United States when he produced some of his most lasting work, including Touch of Evil. Watch the video of Welles slurring his lines in a late Paul Masson wine commercial, then read Callow’s bio to be reminded why this is so sad. (Michael)

 

67 Shots by Howard Means: For many Americans, the 1960s ended on May 4, 1970, when a National Guard troop fired 67 bullets into a peaceful crowd of Vietnam War protestors at Kent State University, killing four and injuring nine others. Means uses recently compiled oral histories to piece together the inside story of the campus tragedy that sounded the final death knell for popular support for the war in Vietnam. (Michael)

 

 

Why Save the Bankers? by Thomas Piketty: Remember when everyone was obligated to pretend to have read Piketty’s 700-page tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century? Now, the wise folks at Houghton Mifflin have produced a Piketty for the proletariat, compiling eight years of the economist’s columns written for the French magazine Libération. The book begins in September 2008 just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and takes readers through the aftermath of the crisis that followed, offering Pikettian analysis of the Obama presidency and the European Union’s debt woes. (Michael)

CRUSH edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton: An anthology of essays about formative celebrity crushes from the likes of Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Roxane Gay, James Franco, Emily Gould, and more. Swoon-worthy subjects include Jared Leto, River Phoenix, Mary Tyler Moore, Paul Newman, and of course, Donny Osmond. It’s hard to resist a book that’s having this much fun with its subject. (Hannah)

 

 

True Crimes by Kathryn Harrison: An essay collection from the author of the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot. Written over the course of 10 years, these personal essays are about the author’s family: her parents, her children, her in-laws, and even her dog. Katie Roiphe describes the collection as “the most honest family album ever.” (Hannah)

 

 

We Are As Gods by Kate Daloz: In the early 1970s, as war raged in the jungles of Vietnam and in the streets of America’s cities, millions of baby boomers headed for the hills in search of rural authenticity. Shunning life in America’s “plastic” suburbs, these back-to-the-landers built geodesic domes and formed non-traditional families to populate them. Daloz, herself a child of former Peace Corps volunteers who decamped to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, focuses on a small group of communards who struggle to hold fast to their high-minded ideals as they endure brutal Northern winters without indoor plumbing or electricity — and, some might argue, basic common sense. (Michael)

The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth: Those who like their true-crime leavened with historical insight may want to take a look at this tale of “America’s first serial killer” who terrorized frontier Austin, Texas, in the 1880s. Hollandsworth, executive editor of Texas Monthly, chronicles the hunt for a vicious murderer who attacked women with axes, knives, and even steel rods. “Skip Hollandsworth has a bloodhound’s nose for a great tale,” writes Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers. “Through scrupulous research and a finely tuned sense of the gothic, Hollandsworth has brought this Texas-sized true-crime story, more than a century old, to vivid, chilling life on the page.” (Michael)

Kill ‘Em and Leave by James McBride: A biography of James Brown, one of the great musical artists of the 20th century and among the most influential. McBride, who is a musician as well as the award-winning author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird, is the perfect biographer for Brown, finding universal American themes in the musician’s life story: the divide between the North and South, rich and poor, and black and white. McBride also delves into the legal battles over Brown’s estate, a subject that sounds so complicated and epic that it could probably warrant its own book. (Hannah)

Pretentiousness by Dan Fox: In this book-length essay, art critic Fox wants to make an argument for the virtues of pretentiousness. “Without pretension,” Fox writes, “we would never have 99% of the art, literature, music, buildings, theater, fashion, cinema, poetry, philosophy, food or design that we love.” Drawing on a wide variety of sources from literature to film to fashion and the art world, this energetic and entertaining book is written with a clarity and humor that is decidedly lacking in pretension. (Hannah)

 

Violation by Sallie Tisdale: “A Buddhist woman who’s written about porn,” one critic has said of Tisdale. “Do you really need another reason to read her?” Well, if you put it that way, probably not. Portland-based indie press Hawthorne Books has compiled this first-ever essay collection by the author of Talk Dirty to Me and The Best Thing I Ever Tasted. The essays span Tisdale’s 30-year career and range in subject from the biology of flies to the author’s experience of working in an abortion clinic. (Michael)

May:

Labor of Love by Moira Weigel: In this thoughtful work of social history, Weigel likens modern dating to “the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship.” Weigel examines the history of dating, and explains why dating not only feels like work, but is a particular kind of unpaid labor shaped by larger economic forces. Our dating rituals (and apps) have long needed the context that this book provides. (Hannah)

 

 

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen: Galchen is to fiction what Ferran Adrià is to gastronomy, serving up the whimsical, the startling, and the revelatory in the guise of the delightfully familiar. And here she comes again, bearing a tray of amuse-­bouches: a short book of linked stories and essays about parenthood. (Garth)

 

 

White Sands by Geoff Dyer: Originally titled “Where Do We Come From, What Are We, Where Are We Going,” this collection of travel essays asks those three very questions as its British author tours Beijing’s Forbidden City with a guide who isn’t in fact a tour guide, journeys to French Polynesia to soak up the atmosphere that inspired painter Paul Gauguin, and picks up a hitchhiker near a prison at White Sands, N.M. (Michael)

 

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips: The latest from the prolific author of Missing Out, On Balance, On Flirtation, and Side Effects — to name just a few of Phillips’s curiously addictive essay collections, which marry Freudian theory with a literary sensibility. This new collection examines the relationship between prohibition and pleasure, pushing back against the notion that things that are forbidden are necessarily more enjoyable. (Hannah)

 

Robert Parris Moses by Laura Visser-Maessen: No one was as central to the battle for voting rights for African Americans in Mississippi in the 1960s as Bob Moses, and few figures of that era are more deserving of a full-dress biography. This book, like an earlier Moses biography And Gently He Shall Lead Them, is an academic title, written by a Dutch historian and published by the University of North Carolina Press. No matter. Any treatment of Moses’s role in the violent crucible of the 1964 Freedom Summer and his later work with the math literacy program, The Algebra Project, is bound to be riveting. (Michael)

Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore: Legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell first discovered Joseph Gould on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In Gould, Mitchell found an eccentric and charismatic writer who was supposedly working on an epic manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.” When the manuscript went missing after Gould’s death, Mitchell concluded it had never really existed in the first place. Nearly 60 years later, New Yorker writer Lepore picks up where Mitchell left off, to further investigate one of the magazine’s most elusive subjects. (Hannah)

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton: How did the “land of the free” become the home of the world’s largest prison system? Hinton, a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard, traces the mass incarceration of America’s young black men to a surprising source: President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. With America’s inner cities ablaze with urban riots, Hinton writes, Johnson combined his famous “War on Poverty” with a lesser-known call for a “War on Crime” — which, over time, helped create a penal system that now locks up one in every 11 black men in America. (Michael)

You May Also Like by Tom Vanderbilt: “I like, therefore I am” is the motto of our social media avatars, and yet — red heart and thumbs-up emojis aside — what does it mean to like something? How are preferences formed? By something in our biology? From our life experiences? Do we shape our preferences or do our preferences shape us? Vanderbilt tackles these questions and more in this book that you may or may not like, but will certainly find interesting. (Hannah)

 

 

The Apache Wars by Paul Andrew Hutton: Fans of Philipp Meyer’s epic novel The Son may want to check out this nonfiction account of Mickey Free — born Felix Telles — a mixed-race child whose kidnapping by Apache Native Americans set off a 30-year war between the Apaches and federal troops. Hutton, a professor at the University of New Mexico, relates the violent history of America’s Southwest borderlands where dwindling Native bands, led by legendary chiefs Cochise and Geronimo, made their last stand against the American war machine. (Michael)

Oneida by Ellen Wayland-Smith: A history of the Christian utopian sex-cult cum cookware and flatware makers, by a descendant of one of the group’s founders. As the book would have it, this was possibly the oddest moment in America, when extreme religious fervor in the 19th century resulted in a free-love commune for the devout, which in turn became a major corporation and one of the hallmarks of bourgeois respectability in 20th-century America. (Lydia)

 

June and beyond

Hunger by Roxane Gay: A powerful new memoir about food, weight, self-image, and what it means to feed yourself. Fans of Gay’s Tumblr blog will recognize these themes from her disarmingly diaristic posts about cooking Blue Apron meals. In an era of Instagrammed desserts and lifestyle blogs, Gay’s writing about food is refreshingly sensitive to the emotions we bring to cooking and eating. (Hannah)

 

The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner: An award-winning poet before he became known as a novelist (and recently crowned as a MacArthur genius), Lerner defends his life’s work in this book-length essay about what it means to resist poetry. Lerner examines poetry’s great haters, as well as the work of some of the best and worst poets. (Hannah)


I’m Just a Person
by Tig Notaro: Low-key, little-known comedian Tig Notaro had a run of bad luck to rival Job’s: first she was hospitalized with a near-fatal intestinal infection, then her mother died, and then she went through a break-up. Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. A few days after her cancer diagnosis, Notaro took her grief on stage and delivered a brazenly honest stand-up set that went viral. Notaro then found herself on a completely different roller coaster as she experienced fame and national acclaim. Her aptly named memoir reflects on an unexpectedly eventful year. (Hannah)

Battle for Bed-Stuy by Michael Woodsworth: The Johnson-era War on Poverty, despised for its over-reach by conservatives and lamented for its under-performance by liberals, hasn’t fared well in history, so it is a surprise to see a book-length study touting its successes. Battle for Bed-Stuy details how LBJ’s antipoverty programs tapped into existing networks of black residents in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to battle endemic crime and shore up the local social safety net — in the process, ironically, setting the stage for the present-day gentrification of the once solidly black neighborhood. (Michael)

The Secret Lives of Web Pages by Paul Ford: Every week, it seems, some starlet’s outsized derrière or surgically reconfigured cheekbones “breaks the Internet,” but how is the Internet built in the first place? Ford, an early blogger and adviser to sites like Medium and Kickstarter, explains it all for you in this breezy overview of the hows and whys of what happens when a web page loads onto your browser. (Michael)

Behind the Glass Wall by Aleksandar Hemon: In 2012, Hemon, a Bosnian-American fiction writer best known for his novel The Lazarus Project, spent a few months as a “writer-in-residence” at the United Nations, meeting with officials, attending staff meetings, and sitting in on sessions of the Security Council. In Behind the Glass Wall, Hemon struggles to come to grips with the daily reality of a troubled institution that responded all too slowly to the humanitarian crisis that crippled his home city of Sarajevo, but whose charter allowed for the prosecution of Serbian war criminals. (Michael)
Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers alongside Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney — famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)

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