Novels might bore, and short stories can frustrate, but poetry is the only genre of literature that elicits consistent hate. People hate poetry because it is obscure, elitist, vague, complex, somber, trite, ornate, pretentious, out-of-touch, and dated.
William Shakespeare is blamed. Secondary school teachers are blamed. Contemporary poets are blamed. Poet voice is blamed. Tumblr is blamed. Greeting cards are blamed. James Franco is blamed.
Perhaps it is the way we talk about poetry that is to blame — we being those who have already been converted, who read and write and share poetry. Love is a private emotion; it risks withering when shown public light. We who love poetry think it will save the world. Why must it save the world? It should be enough to save a single minute. If a poem pauses someone, that is enough.
This list is an olive branch to the poetry skeptics. Prose is great for fiction, essays, and belabored introductions to lists, but poetry has its own place in this world. Poetry is the grand language of ceremony and spectacle, as well as the whispered language of secrets and fears. Many wonderful poems exist, but the following selections will appeal to readers of prose: work that is approachable, funny, smart, but still verse. Take a chance on these 10 poems.
“It’s not law but the sprawl / of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing.” Our world is a perfect mess: just when you think things could not get any worse, small miracles right the course for a few important moments. Poetry is a snapshot form, and Karr’s poem captures the feel of the city, the world unraveling in a million directions. The narrator watches the “unprecedented gall” of piano movers “shoving a roped-up baby grand / up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.” Those movers “knew what was coming, / the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black / as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant / it burst.” They are saved by unlikely heroines. “A Perfect Mess” ends on an ellipsis, because, she says, “You only unplug from [the city], the current never stops …”
I might have chosen Olzmann’s hilarious and sweet “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem,” but there’s something extra special about his Isaac Newton poem. It has been said so often that poetry makes the ordinary extraordinary, and yet that transformation is often a romantic one (think a farmer standing in front of a field moved by wind, or someone looking down at Earth from an airplane). Yet equally appealing to me is how a great poet can make you appreciate stasis and even boredom. “Matthew Olzmann / is an object at rest, and will remain at rest, / reclining on the couch while drinking Guinness / and watching football.” I can’t trust a poet without a sense of humor. Olzmann has my trust, so I’m willing to follow his lines everywhere. Next time someone calls you lazy, share this poem and proclaim your leisure art.
If Jones wrote a two-line poem it would still hit me with the power of an epic. “Last night, the ceiling above me / ached with dance.” What brings me back to poetry are those single-word decisions: “ached,” how that one note pulses through the entire line. We’ve all known the feeling of longing, of being so close to joy and yet so far away, and Jones follows the emotion from that upstairs room to the empty bed of the narrator. There he “dreamed / the record’s needle / pointed into my back, spinning / me into no one’s song.”
“I’ve been told the internet is / an unholy place — an endless intangible / stumbling ground of false deities / dogma and loneliness.” I’m worried that a poetic traditionalist would make such a claim, but thankfully poetry has embraced the online world. Wicker packs so much material into his lines, modulating speed and pivots with care: “The camera pans to another / pocket of the room where six kids rocking holey / T-shirts etch aerosol lines on warehouse walls.” The beautiful thing about language is that it makes ugly action sing—in the right poet’s hands. This poem is an ode to sitting in front of a “holy streaming screen / of counterculture punks,” blinking the day away “without care for time or density.”
For years I’ve been sharing Nezhukumatathil’s poem “Baked Goods” as an example of a perfect love poem, and “Break-Ups” might be the perfect explanation of how poets must lie. In popular culture, poetry is often presented as the purgation of unfiltered feelings — a genre of writing where writers lose all self-control and bleed on the page. Catharsis without craft. Poetry is actually a space for play. If every love in Nezhukumatathil’s poems were real, “Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many / slices of cake?” There would be husbands making a “great meal,” one could change the baby while another reads the newspaper, “and every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home.”
When I read a poem, I expect a poet to surprise, shock, or confuse me with language. If you hate poetry, than you might have read poets who only confuse — or who don’t speak to your particular experience or anxieties in life. I have called Robbins “the most provocative Christian poet in America” with appreciation, but he is truly one of the most inventive writers working. For the uninitiated, it might take a Robbins poem or two before you get his style, but once it clicks, you feel as if you’re part of a very smart inside literary joke. Robbins is like a poetic machine who takes the entirety of popular culture, history, politics, music, and God, and then remixes them into poems with beats worthy of recording.
Often people who hate poetry hate the poems that served as their introduction to the form. Inevitably that poetry is “older:” formally staid, metered verse that feels antiquated. Of course older poetry is beautiful, the foundation of modern verse, but to the new eye, older poetry feels like a series of abstractions without contemporary reference. Say what you will about our embrace of free verse, but many contemporary poets mix detail and sound to create magic. Pardlo, a recent Pulitzer Prize winner, hails from the Garden State, and I haven’t found a better contemporary poet to capture the songs of my home state’s peculiar mix of asphalt and grass. Give “Double Dutch” to someone who has never studied poetry, but has spent hours on the blacktop like those girls “shadowing each other, / sparring across the slack cord / casting parabolas in the air.” Watch them nod when they recognize the truth of his lines: “she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish / as she flutter-floats into motion / like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos / thumbed alive.” Watch them smile at how a poet renews youth: “She makes jewelry of herself and garlands / the ground with shadows.”
If we share song lyrics to ease the pain of loss and distance, than why not great poetry? Limón’s short lines in “Before” arrive as a sequence of phrases and breaths. In poetry, so often honesty has become another word for brutality; a poet is only authentic if she is raw. Limón’s authenticity is on another level; it is like hearing the confession of a friend. She is able to capture the particular grief of separation experienced during youth. “Before the road / between us, there was the road / beneath us, and I was just / big enough not to let go.” A great poem brings us back to our own tenuous moments, to our own “hazardous bliss.”
McCadden, a fellow high school English teacher, knows how to offer poetry to a skeptical audience. There is an accepted narrative structure to prose. Sentences scaffold paragraphs, and paragraphs are the links for pages. Poetry is somewhere between a dream and a scream. “Intersection” moves in a surreal manner; first, there is that tedious interaction at the four-way stop. Then, love: “Your hands cup the wheel / at ten o’clock and two, then float / past my knee and only sometimes land.” How quickly, and yet how smoothly, McCadden moves us. If this were prose, we would ask: is this really happening? In poetry, we ask: why does this not happen more?
In many great poems, there is a space of absence. It might be a chasm or a pinhole, but it is a space of uncertainty, and it must not be so big as to swallow the rest of the poem. “Nothing is Haunted” is that type of poem. The first lines are surprising enough to invite us in: is it true that “Nothing is haunted / in quite the way small Midwestern farms / are haunted”? Longhorn convinces us. The source are these lithe girls who “lie awake through summer’s / liquid heat and listen to the rattling window screens.” We can hear the panting between the lines; this is horror in verse. “The girls throw off / their bleached sheets and untangle their legs.” Hot and uncomfortable, they want to run, but instead “huddle” while “quivering in one weak circle of light.” Are these girls or ghosts? Longhorn carries that absence, that confusion, on to the final lines, and then hands it off to us, to you.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This was the year in which I first became aware of my annual Holy Trinity of reading: End Zone by Don DeLillo, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass. Whatever happens to me during any given year, these are the three books I re-read, front to back, like ritual. But this year those books began to speak to each other during my reading experience. Perhaps appropriate to their respective content, I read End Zone during the summer, sufficiently inspired to do sprints on wooded trails during thick July afternoons. I settled into Gass’s book, particularly “The Pedersen Kid,” while the snow piled and piled. Hansen’s story of a stigmatic novitiate was fodder for Lent. This year I noticed that each book values atmosphere over plot, mystery over clarity. Those books are likely brothers.
I returned to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I still wonder over the narrative economy of “The Way It Has to Be.” Perhaps moved by similar nostalgia — I began reading Pancake as an undergraduate, around the time I spent most mornings fishing — I read The Art of Angling and Fishing Stories, two rich pocket books with words that will reawaken the souls of even the most cynical anglers. Not to mention that you can find a poem by Ron Rash about a fisherman who hooks his own eye: “My hair sweeps back like an evangelist’s, / as I cross the heart of the lake / toward Swaney’s Landing where I will testify / to those sunburned old drunks / of careless moments that scar us forever.”
I was able to review a few books this year for The Millions, and they are certainly worth revisiting in future years: Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney, Hold the Dark by William Giraldi, The Second Sex by Michael Robbins, 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, and Fat Man and Little Boy by Mike Meginnis. Each left a mark on me.
My reading year ended with two gorgeous new books of poetry, both debuts, both formed in the shadow of Roman Catholic culture and thought. Reliquaria by R.A. Villanueva offers shades of parochial school and the Meadowlands and how “my brother told us about the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre, / cut in half by the Parkway.” Villanueva’s volume is a lyric documentation of, among other themes, Filipino faith, a belief absolutely bound in the corporeal. Saints populate this book. Bodies, living and dead, real and imagined, are broken. It is also a book of the venial dissensions of childhood: a botched biology class dissection that turns heretical, and when the narrator dares a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out at Christ’s face.” Any book authentic to the Catholic tradition will have its eye toward ashes, and Villanueva’s elegiac moments are sharp: “When you bury me, fold / my arms, neat // over the plateau of a double-breasted suit”; “I promise my ghost will find you / should you want someone else to love.” Villanueva’s book wonders about childhood, family, the distance from original culture, and of things eternal: “So what is it we’ve saved? Skull? Soul? Vulture? / Maybe this earth, turned in on itself and made.”
The second book, Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, is well-paired with Reliquaria (what minor miracle of publishing that two secular presses — University of Nebraska Press and Milkweed Editions — release exquisitely crafted, meditative books about God and absence during the same year). I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s verse in literary magazines for some time; her poems have the ability to clear the air, to pause the mind. I am preternaturally disposed to love a book that begins with an epigraph of that wracked, devoted disbeliever, Ingmar Bergman. I thought of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf while reading many of her pieces, including “Deer Rub.” A deer rubs its forelock and antlers against a tree, and the “velvet that covers the antlers // unwinds into straps, like bandages.” And then she manages quite the poetic turn; rain falls, “washes the antlers / of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones // of a saint in the crypt beneath a church / at the end of a century, when the people // have begun to think of the bodies / as truly dead and unraiseable.” This is why I read poetry: to see how words transfigure, how associations bring new life. By the end of the poem, the deer is dead. The bark has regrown. But the scene has a permanence “long after this morning / when the country wakes to another way, // when two people wake in a house / and do not touch each other.”
Johnson’s poems feel like a series of engravings discovered in an abandoned cabin deep in the forest; each is its own folkloric song. In “Confession,” one of the few prose poems in the book, a dream becomes a myth: “I hide under a thought of light, not incineration. The thought is a cloak I wake into gently; it is cold in the room, and I am hungry but whole.” I thought also of “Sea Psalm,” which begins so powerfully: “Lord, this is not your world. I am not yours / but also not mine. Not your passenger. Not your saint at the helm, the machinery // of my hands turning like clocks.” These moments of distance become full when the collection ventures further and further into the cold, as in “Letter from the Ice Field, January,” which is beautifully grotesque, Catholic gothic: “I stopped, and walked down into the crypt, knowing a saint had lain there for centuries. Her mouth lay open, as if to ferry over the word of a messenger. The saint had my face. The saint woke and rose from her coffin, and gave me her skin, which is a map of the earth, and her eyes, which see every planet. I took out my eyes and put hers in, then climbed into her empty coffin, my body glowing as hers had: like a femur in a fire, its marrow burning across the length of me.” The poem ends “Inside me you have learned to speak impossibly.” Bone Map was a reminder of how it felt to be devastated, made new by poetry. I can’t expect much more from a book.
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Piety and profanity both require devotion. Graham Greene knew that. Greene was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1926, and announced the conversion to his mother by writing “I expect you have guessed that I am embracing the Scarlet Woman.” He later identified as a “Catholic agnostic,” which complemented his baptismal name of Thomas, “after St. Thomas the doubter and not Thomas Aquinas.” He found God, but hadn’t lost his wit.
To say that Greene was a troubled Catholic would be the same as calling him a Catholic at all. He dramatized the obscenities of a Mexican whiskey priest hunted by Tomás Garrido Canabal’s Red Shirts in The Power and the Glory. In one scene, the priest has been jailed for possessing brandy, and shares a dark cell with others, including a couple having sex. A “pious” woman, jailed for having religious books, calls the copulating pair “brutes” and “animals.” She hates their “ugliness.” The whiskey priest knows better. He tells the woman to not believe that, “Because suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty.”
Michael Robbins is our contemporary poet laureate for beautiful sins of language. The New Republic calls Robbins a prankster. He rather reminds me of that whiskey priest, his lines by turns abrasive and aphoristic, but never apathetic. Robbins’s 2012 debut, Alien vs. Predator, set the mold for his poetic play, but I think Robbins’s center might reside in his criticism. In a review of theologian David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, Robbins punctures the silkscreened divinity portrayed by the New Atheists (they “ingeniously deny the existence of a bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them”). At the same time, he says “showing up American fundamentalism is about as hard as shooting the deck of an aircraft carrier when you’re standing on it.” His problem, of course, is with literalism: the Word made flat.
Critic Matthew Sitman has recently called Christian Wiman the “most important Christian writer in America.” Robbins, then, might be the most provocative Christian writer in America. For Robbins, the “incoherence” of naturalism “is the external warrant for my belief in God.” His one criticism of Hart is the theologian’s dismissal of the “possibility that our bafflement before ontological mystery is the result of our being the kind of limited animals we are. A badger cannot understand differential equations, but that tells us something about badgers, not equations.” It is refreshing to discover a poet critically concerned with God, and to do so with humor.
The Second Sex is formally tight and theologically fragmented. In his criticism, Robbins eschews literal pronouncements of the divine. For him, “where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description.” The latter seeks to catalog; the former simply seeks. Books & Culture editor John Wilson was correct in comparing Robbins’s method to that of fellow believer T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. Both poets mixed and matched. In “Springtime in Chicago in November,” Robbins writes “First comes love, which I disparage. / I blight with plagues a baby carriage.” If his entire collection were merely reworked pun after reworked pun, the result might be a trite book. But that would be mistaking his form for his function. The Second Sex is equal parts obscene and oblatory. Robbins, like a good preacher, paces his presentations. The shifts within “Country Music” are emblematic of his entire poetic project:
God bless the midnight bus depot,
the busted guitar case.
God bless diazepam,
its dilatory grace.
Those lapsed or elapsed in religious faith will recognize a certain method to Robbins’s poetic heresies. Who hasn’t wanted to say, “You must’ve been high as a kite / when you created us.” Whether or not “Country Music” is a genuine hymn, it ends on a particular note:
God keep the world this clean and bright
and easy to believe in
and let me catch my bus all right,
and then we’ll call it even.
Robbins’s verse is pared to be swift. “Lose Myself” starts flippant: “Yeah, I got the bug. Got razzle dazzle, / dazed and refused. I’m with stupid.” Four stanzas later, it ends with truth: “It takes three miracles to make a saint, / just one mistake to make a man.” The same pivots happen in “Peel Off the Scabs,” where the narrator reminds us that “God became a man, / surely I can do the same.” He follows:
O Captain! my Tennille! the Eagles
will come and pull out his eyes.
Jesus coming back, they say,
and we’ll all shout Surprise!
Robbins says “most reviews are merely serviceable, because reviewing is a service industry. Readers want to know whether they should read a book or skip it.” Elsewhere, he admits it is “remarkable that we’re driven to write about art–to explain, judge, describe, elucidate, analyze, hate, rhapsodize, tell a story. We can’t let them be–cathedrals, blockbusters, poems, pictures, statues, songs. They demand words from us.” In that vein, to identify The Second Sex as parodic would be reductive. Of course we steal from other poets. What matters is how we sharpen what we steal. Robbins employs a midrashic approach in his poetry. Whether he is pilfering from Led Zeppelin or Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robbins does so with technical agility. The Second Sex is a confident, skillful work that will make readers reconsider poetry. Who could end a poem titled “Sweat, Piss, Jizz & Blood” with “God is great”? A poet who finds divinity in all things, especially “a billion points of glitter / in a fathomless abyss.”