Turns out, 2012 was a fine year for poetry. The following is a selection of 13 (my lucky number) books that deserve consideration if you find yourself hankering after something a tad more lyrical than prose and a bit less weighty than Kierkegaard. Consider any of the following: they won’t do you wrong.
Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert – Gilbert, who was born in Pittsburgh, PA, attended Peabody High School and worked, among other jobs, as a steelworker, died in 2012 after battling Alzheimer’s. He was one of the finest American poets of the last 50 years and this volume contains all his published collections, in addition to some previously unpublished poems. There is a lyrical ennui to his work unsurpassed in recent years.
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds – Sharon Olds is another prominent poet with a Pittsburgh connection (her early volume, Satan Says, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press). Stag’s Leap is getting lots of positive buzz, hence the occasional wait for her books. Olds digs deeply into the events of everyday, and what she comes back with is always unflinchingly honest and emotionally fired.
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton – Lucille Clifton, who passed away in 2010, finally gets her due with this voluminous collection of her life’s work. A leading poet of her generation, her poetry addresses issues such as her African American heritage and women’s rights. She was a master of concision, straightforward, and direct, as few modern poets are.
New Collected Poems by Wendell Berry – Like Lucille Clifton, the work of Wendell Berry serves as a moral compass for the American experience, if from a different perspective. This is yet another outstanding career-spanning collection (I told you it was a good year). My partner reads everything by the man: essays, poetry, non-fiction, lectures, and luminescent fiction.
Thrall: Poems by Natasha Trethewey – A brand new volume by the brand new Poet Laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey, Thrall is an exploration the poet’s mixed heritage as seen in the greater arc of all of American history. This volume is a must for all those interested in modern American poetry and the all-important subject of race in America.
A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver – There are many things that have been said about Mary Oliver, some of them not so pleasant, particularly within the ‘poetry community.’ In the real world, however, the work of Mary Oliver might best be described in one word: transcendent. Her new collection, A Thousand Mornings, is her best in years, and that is saying something. Do yourself a favor – don’t know where to start with poetry but want to give it a go? Start here.
Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins – Here’s a title I bet you didn’t expect to see on this list: Alien vs. Predator, by poet Michael Robbins. Jordan Davis, in his Nation review, gives you a good idea what to expect: “These poems are bad for you, the way alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, bacon, carbohydrates, television and the internet are bad for you.” And, of course, by bad, like any incisive critic, he means good.
Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral – A new selection in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets, Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral is a winner in more ways than one. Selected by Carl Phillips for the series, he observes that “Corral’s point is that language, like sex, is fluid and dangerous and thrilling, now a cage, now a window out. In Corral’s refusal to think in reductive terms lies his great authority. His refusal to entirely trust authority wins my trust as a reader.”
Place by Jorie Graham – A new volume of work, in this case entitled Place, by Jorie Graham is always a welcome event. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and oft cited as one of the most celebrated post-war American poets, she has been compared to both Rilke and Yeats in her philosophical and political scope by James Longenbach. Find out why in the pages of this acclaimed new collection.
Poems: 1962-2012 by Louise Glück – Many of my favorite poets appear on this list, not the least of whom is Louise Glück. To describe her work as strange and wonderful and accomplished just doesn’t begin to glean the depths spanned in this comprehensive 50 year collection. Though I prefer her early work, the appeal of a collection of this type, as with the volumes by Gilbert and Clifton above, is that you can dip leisurely and at random throughout, picking and choosing and heading off in myriad directions, sparking connections that perhaps might astonish even the poet.
Engine Empire by Cathy Park Hong – Cathy Park Hong has been about the business of poetry for 10 plus years, her innovative novel told in poems, Dance Dance Revolution, in 2007 bringing her work to wider attention. Slate Magazine called Engine Empire “a remarkable book of poetry about the speed at which we’re rushing toward the future.” Rumpus.net observed that “underlying the narrative is strong poetic style and an eagle eye for searingly memorable imagery.” That’s what others think. To find out what Park Hong thinks, read this Paris Review interview with her specifically about Engine Empire
Best American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty – Maybe this is just all too much – so many poets, which do I choose? Well, there is another solution – the annual publication of the series entitled Best American Poetry, the 2012 edition. Each volume over the years has a general series editor (David Lehman currently) and a different specific editor for each year. What this means is the general editor assembles a boatload of work considered the best of the year and the annual editor then whittles it down to a standard book size selection. Each editor has their quirks – if you don’t like one year, another may do the trick. You’ll find a list of all the guest editors, from 1986 through 2012, here.
Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po, edited by J. P. Seaton – Last comes a favorite of mine – a new translation of the poems of Li Po, composed fourteen centuries ago. Li Po (aka Li Bai), along with his friend Tu Fu (aka Du Fu), are among the most renowned and celebrated poets from China’s classical golden era. This new selection, edited and translated by J. P. Seaton, continues a long line of distinguished English language renderings of the lyrical wonder of Li Po. The apocryphal story of Li Po’s death – how, drunk, while out boating, he drowned attempting to embrace the reflection of the moon – actually captures something of the romance and flavor of his poems. In closing, here’s a very brief poem from Bright Moon, White Clouds:
Jade Stairs Lament
Jade steps grow dew.
Night, late, has its way with her silken hose.
So let the crystal curtain fall . . .
In its jingling glitter, gaze on many Autumn moons.