Category Archives: Reviews

Claudia Rankine on the Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks

Claudia Rankine on the Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks-2The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks
Edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith

278 pp. The University of Arkansas Press. Paper, $29.95.
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Claudia Rankine on the Legacy of Gwendolyn BrooksREVISE THE PSALM

Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks

Edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku

Illustrated. 416 pp. Curbside Splendor Publishing. Paper, $24.95.
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Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kan., at 1 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, 1917. But her family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, and she was a Chicagoan until her death, in 2000. The author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, Brooks holds the distinction of being the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950, for her second book of poems, “Annie Allen”), and she received numerous accolades, including the National Medal of Arts and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. In honor of the centennial year of her birth, two anthologies have arrived: “Revise the Psalm,” edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku; and “The Golden Shovel Anthology,” edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith.
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In their shared mission, these books complement each other without too much overlap. The novelist Richard Wright, in a reader’s report for Harper & Brothers in the early 1940s, declared Brooks essential: “America needs a voice like hers.” Confirming Wright’s claim are the hundreds of artists represented in these two new anthologies, poets who have used her work as a prompt or a point of engagement.

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Technical mastery and peculiar intimacy: new Irish poetry

Review: Strictly No Poetry by Aidan Mathews and Europa by Sean O’Brien

Caitriona O’Reilly

Technical mastery and peculiar intimacy-1
Technical mastery and peculiar intimacy-2The career of Aidan Mathews is an interesting case study. Mathews published his first collection of poetry,
Windfalls, in 1977 with Dolmen Press. There have been only three since, each appearing at increasingly lengthy intervals and with a different publisher on each occasion (The Gallery Press, Jonathan Cape, and The Lilliput Press, respectively). If he were puckishly conniving at his own obscurity he couldn’t manage it better, so counter to the prevailing ethos of brass-necked, twittery self-promotion does he seem. The pressure to push product with grinding regularity – driven by the twin demons of overproduction (“Elbow room! Elbow room!”) and the haunting, pervasive anxiety that no one actually cares about or reads much contemporary poetry, except the poets writing it – seems to have left no mark on his work, judging by the poems in Strictly No Poetry. He’s been here all the time, quietly getting on with it.
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The material in Strictly No Poetry could not be described as a departure for Mathews. The voice here is still assured, confident, self-delighting in the true Yeatsian sense, and still circles around familiar themes: family, history, religion, the persistence of memory, illness, the body. But such a neutral gloss cannot give a flavour of the peculiar intimacy of a Mathews poem: the clash of sacred and profane; the sui generis brio of his image-making; the obsessive sexual synecdoche; the breadth of reference; and the weirdly hippyish buoyancy that sustains it all. I cannot think of another male poet, for example, who has written a poem of celebration on the occasion of his daughter’s first period. Yet Mathews has done this in the tender love poem Menarche. There is little that he cannot turn to poetic account; he makes syringing an ear seem like a profound metaphysical event: “Now the other ear is light as a moccasin slipper/Tracking the stickiness of a slug’s slow glister/Through the pulverised grass outside, the Jew’s harp//Of the hairs in the cashier’s nostril at reception…”

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Ian Hamilton’s collected poems are a source of wonder

Ian Hamilton influenced a generation of writers, including McEwan and Amis. Christopher Tayler admires a collection of his poetry.

Ian Hamilton's collected poemsIan Hamilton’s Collected Poems, published in paperback this month, is what the poet, who died at the age of 63 in 2001, sometimes called a “slim vol”. The meat of it – the poems he put between hard covers in his lifetime – takes up 62 pages; only one poem, a part-pastiche called “Larkinesque”, runs to more than a page. For Hamilton as a “creative” writer, narrowly defined, that was it. “Not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think,” he wrote in 1988. “And, in certain moods, I would agree.”
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Yet these sorrowing, hard-bitten poems about dying fathers, mad wives and the rigours of the writing life, darkly impressive and moving as they are, get added force from a wider myth around Hamilton, a myth in which their scarcity is the point. That myth – a skein of Grub Street lore involving booze, women, football, bailiffs and high-handed interactions with figures ranging from Stephen Spender to Ian McEwan – is also brooded over, sometimes covertly, sometimes less so, in his writings in prose, which are extensive, clever and very funny. Combined with his activities as the editor of, among other things, the best serious magazine of the Seventies, it all adds up to a body of work that makes him, it seems to me in certain moods, one of the most interesting figures in British cultural life in the second half of the 20th century.

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A Literary Life by Michael Dirda

STEPHEN SPENDER: A Literary Life

By John Sutherland.

A Literary LifeHe must have been incredibly charming. Stephen Spender (1909-1995) pops up everywhere in Anglo-American literary history and seems to have known everyone. In his most famous poem, Spender wrote “I think continually of those who were truly great.” In his life he did more than think; he came to know the eminent as disciple, friend, confidant and adviser. He is like Zelig in Woody Allen’s film, there in the background or off to the side everywhere one turns — at a garden party with Virginia Woolf, hunched in the boy bars of 1930s Berlin with Christopher Isherwood, near the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War with Hemingway and Malraux, co-editing Horizon with Cyril Connolly during the Blitz.
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And that’s just the start. When young Spender — scion of a comfortable middle-class family — traveled up to Oxford, he fell in among poets, and before long was part of “Macspaunday,” as a contemporary critic dubbed the cutting-edge group consisting of Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis and the tall, shock-haired Spender. Soon T.S. Eliot welcomed him as the lyric poet of the age, while Woolf urged him to devote his manifest talents to fiction.
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Penguin Modern Poets 6: Dark Looks

Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine and Denise Riley

Penguin Modern Poets 6From the publisher:

The Penguin Modern Poets are succinct, collectible, lovingly-assembled guides to the richness and diversity of contemporary poetry, from the UK, America and beyond. Every volume brings together representative selections from the work of three poets now writing, allowing the seasoned poetry lover and the curious reader alike to encounter our most exciting new voices.

Volume 6, Die Deeper into Life, features the work of Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine, the two American poets who, in hybrid books bridging the divide between poetry, lyric prose, life-writing and theory such as Bluets, The Argonauts, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen, have transformed the literary landscape over the last 15 years, alongside that of Denise Riley, who for decades has been exploring closely related concerns – motherhood; identity and oppression; loss; the language and words that build, or assault, our selves – as one of the best-kept secrets of British poetry, now fittingly recognized by a string of shortlistings and awards. These are writers who combine deep thought with deep feeling to illuminate our world, how we suffer in it, how we resist it, and how we can live with and love it.

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‘The Complete Poems’ of A.R. Ammons amount to a profound experience of empathy

Craig Morgan Teicher

The complete poems of AR AmmonsA.R. Ammons (1926-2001) was one of the great curmudgeons in poetry — he actually made an aesthetic out of a kind of reticent fuddy-duddiness spiked with a whole bunch of other moods and modes, from mischief to randiness. But it’s as if his willful resistance to some things makes sure there’s room in his wildly questioning mind for openness to so much else.
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In his poems — all of which are collected in these two long-awaited, definitive volumes — we get to watch someone brilliant and deeply capacious thinking through everything he encounters. He is different from his peers like the hipper John Ashbery, who is ever-fascinated by popular culture and who writes, much of the time, like he’s making smart conversation at a party. With Ammons, one feels more like one is in the presence of a capital-P poet, someone at a desk, or sitting on a bench under a tree, who is busy pontificating, although perfectly sociable and friendly, with a bit of a wink and a grin and a healthy helping of informality.
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But to describe Ammons as a lovable grouch only gets at the most obvious feature of his poetic personality. More deeply, he was a relentlessly prolific armchair philosopher, a metaphysician of the everyday, a thinker who never abandoned his grade school love of the sciences and who made a permanent place for biology, physics and mathematics in the highest orders of American poetry. He was a successor, as the critic Harold Bloom famously noted, to Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost. Though all of this taxonomy does little to give a sense of how fun it can be to read his poetry.

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Pride and Poetry

BY MICHAEL SCAMMELL

Pride and PoetryJoseph Brodsky: A Literary Life

By Lev Loseff

Translated by Jane Ann Miller

Joseph Brodsky caught the attention of the outside world for the first time in 1964, when he was tried in Leningrad for the crime of writing poetry. That is not how the indictment read, of course: his “crime” was that he did not have a regular job, and was therefore a “parasite.” But a scurrilous article attacking Brodsky in the Evening Leningrad newspaper not long before his trial gave the game away. He was charged with being a “literary drone,” a writer of pointless doggerel, and therefore useless to society unless he was made to do “real” work. The newspaper attack and the subsequent trial were badges of honor for someone as young as Brodsky. He was only twenty-four and virtually unknown outside the narrow circle of his admirers, and campaigns of this sort were ordinarily reserved for famous older figures, such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova.
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Brodsky was in fact the victim of political events far beyond his control. Khrushchev’s “Thaw” experiment of 1956–1962, designed, among other things, to do away with such embarrassments as show trials, had badly backfired in 1962 with the sensational success of Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which scared the living daylights out of the Soviet leaders. They needed scapegoats, and so they launched a crackdown on all branches of the arts, especially literature—always a bellwether in Russia—looking for young and vulnerable writers less able to fight back than their elders.

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A Life’s Study

Why Robert Lowell is America’s most important career poet.

By A.O. Scott

A Life's StudyIn his introduction to Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Frank Bidart writes that Lowell, his friend and sometime mentor, was “above all an audacious maker—in poetry, one of the greatest makers of the twentieth century.” This is, of course, what the editor of a book like this—nearly 1,200 pages, with textual variants, explanatory notes, and no fewer than seven appendices—is supposed to say, but there is something implicitly revisionist (and even slightly defensive) about Bidart’s claim. When Robert Lowell died at 60 in 1977, he was a literary celebrity with the kind of renown granted few poets. The two biographies that have subsequently appeared—the first by Ian Hamilton and the second by Paul Mariani—are both, accordingly, high-minded exercises in celebrity dish, full of gossipy detail about Lowell’s marital troubles, mental illness, and illustrious friendships.

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Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s supra-theoretical poetry

By Peter Riley

Veronica Forrest-ThomsonI’VE KNOWN VERONICA Forrest-Thomson’s poetry for a long time, and never felt that I fully understood it, while recognising a great deal of talent in it — mostly in the virtuosity of the writing in a highly wrought formal structure. But I’ve never fully grasped, I think, the purpose of most of her poems, or what was the reason for all the leaps and pitfalls with which her work is crowded. This is strange because she herself stated exactly what it was all about, and she did this in poems, in introductory statements which are included in this volume, and much more fully in her book Poetic Artifice1 The trouble is that I find the exposition in the book more subtle and extensive than the same exposition in poems and short statements. Veronica Forrest-Thomson was very much an academic poet with a programme for poetry which was worked out in her study, but, unusually, here the academic seems to be rather more imaginative than the poet, though in later poems in which the programme is less dominant or is interfered with by authorial need, the poet is more fully in charge.
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Her work raises acutely the question of the place of the academy in poetry. We are never allowed to forget it: the poems not only vaunt the learning and the knowledge, but the very scene of the poetry is the academy: study, lectures, syllabuses, courses, examinations, terms, the company of poets and students, libraries, lawns, cups of coffee… that whole society is where the poems take place, unashamedly. The reader is often addressed as if an academic in the same field who will recognise all the local terms. The poets and philosophers involved in her study are repeatedly named and quoted, sometimes by short-hand or unidentified. Everybody knows who “EP” and “LW” are. There is very little intrusion from any other cultural phenomena, as if an English student never goes to the cinema or a concert. There are reasons for this constriction (for surely nobody actually lives such a monastic mental existence) in Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s theory of poetry, but it was this context which first troubled me about her work, rather than the thesis itself. It was either a bold and defiant realism, or a wilful disregard for the unknown reader beyond the pale.

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Stuck on You, John Ashbery

Now out from Rizzoli, a new book collects the collages of the recently-deceased poet and erstwhile art critic

BY CRAIG BURNETT

Stuck on You, John AshberyThey Knew What They Wanted, edited by Mark Polizzotti and out with Rizzoli this week, places a lifetime of John Ashbery’s collages in conversation with his poems. The book selects poetry that either references the visual arts or uses collage as a compositional method, such as the ‘The Painter’, from his first book, Some Trees (1956), the pantoum ‘Hotel Lautréamont’ (1992) and the fragmentary ‘37 Haiku’ (1984) (‘Old-fashioned shadows hanging down, that difficulty in love too soon’). The collages share many traits with Ashbery’s poems: the collision of literal and figurative meanings, and of high and low culture, hilarious mise-en-scène, the intrusion of the comic on the sentimental and emphasis on games and formal playfulness.
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The best of Ashbery’s collages date from the early 1970s, when he made a body of work from postcards in the company of artist and poet Joe Brainard and poet James Schuyler, including one called ‘Diffusion of Knowledge’ (1972) that shows Captain America and some other sinewy superhero looking inappropriately triumphant while blocking our view of the Smithsonian Institution. The collages offer a useful glimpse into Ashbery’s impish mind, and while almost always entertaining they could never match the range or inventiveness of the poetry. Sometimes the title – ‘Bingo Beethoven’ (2014) anybody? – outwits the collage itself. Yet the book serves to demonstrate the enduring importance of collage, in both poetry and the visual arts. Comte de Lautréamont, in his long poem Les Chants de Maldoror (1869), may have invented the collage when he couldn’t find a metaphor that would adequately express the beauty of a 16-year-old boy. ‘As beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!’ he wrote, replacing conventional emotion with comic violence. Lautréamont’s collision of images summoned a fresh, unstable beauty. Driven by juxtaposition, the poem becomes a self-rejuvenating machine. It’s a method that Ashbery has taken to heart.

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