This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

December 2, 2002 — It's a phenomenon I've attributed to the September 11 tragedies and the need to find a more emotional way of relating: an upsurge in interest in poetry.

But while recently reading a terrific collection of poetry by Matthew Cooperman called "A Sacrifical Zinc" (Pleiades Press, $12), it occurred to me that some other trends were developing, too, that might be contributing to the phenomenon.

"Zinc" came out last winter, and it now seems to me that Cooperman was leading the pack in some ways, especially a pack of poets showing a renewed interest in form, or at least an interest in experimentation that was about something other than, well, lack of form. Cooperman also showed a refreshing interest in poetry that stretched beyond the insular and self–referential, and exists in reference to other art and to history.

This winter, a surfeit of wonderful new poetry books press the case most eloquently.

For instance, amongst small house publications, Melanie Braverman's "Red" (Perugia, $12) contains poems of such elegant form that the power of Braverman's already moving elegies is compounded. Similarly, the reflective quality of Joseph Somza's poems in "Cityzen" (La Alameda Press, $12) benefit from the combination of short lines and long stanzas; the form seems to mimic the way meaning is spotted nowadays in the ongoing busy–ness of middle America — that is, in glimpses.

Sandra Meek also uses forms that seem analogous to her themes, in "Nomadic Foundations" (Elixir, $13). There, her work shape–shifts as she studies differences between her own culture and that of places she's travelled, particularly focusing on her time in Botswana.

University presses, too, are releasing some exciting work.

Reginald Gibbons, for example, in "It's Time" (Louisiana State University Press, $15.95), takes an energizing look at the wonders of the ordinary, and the interplay between language and perception. And "The Powers of Heaven and Earth: New and Selected Poems," by the late John Frederick Nims, provides a welcome overview of the witty, humane work of an important poet (also well known for his years editing Poetry Magazine).

In "Black Swan" (University of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95), Lyrae Van Clief–Stefanon combines colloquial language with classical mythology to give powerful voice to women past and present. In "Rouge Pulp" (Pitt, $12.95), Dorothy Barresi plumbs a seeming contradiction of modern life — plenty of everything except spirituality — with an invigorating, humorous verve. And in "Brave Disguises" (Pitt, $12.95), Gray Jacobik conducts a rigorous yet graceful search for beauty amidst the mundane.

Some big–house releases, meanwhile, nicely showcase widening interests, too.

Take this year's co–winners of the Bakeless Prize: Melinda Markham's "Ninety–five Nights of Listening" (Mariner, $12) explores a fascination with Japanese culture, art, and history, and the unexpressed experiences of women, while Miranda Fields' "Swallow" (Mariner, $12) considers the wild and the tame within each individual.

In "The Nerve" (Houghton Mifflin, $22), Glynn Maxwell turns a Brit's wry and discriminating eye on football, TV weatherman, and other wonders and oddities of American culture, while Rodney Jones' "Kingdom of the Instant" (Houghton Mifflin, $22) studies the influence of history and religion on the author's experience in the South, ranging gloriously from the down–and–dirty to the transcendent.

A new, expanded version of Adrienne Rich's selected poems, "The Fact of a Doorframe" (Norton, $15.95), is the perfect introduction to the lyrical but sharp–edged work of one of our leading poets. And in "Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest" (Norton, $22.95), another great lyricist, B.H. Fairchild, creates an intoxicating, semi–magical landscape populated by some very moving American dreamers.

And from what is perhaps the country's leading independent publisher of poetry, Copper Canyon (which publishes nothing but poetry, by the way) comes three more evocative books.

In "The Truth Squad" (Copper Canyon, $14), Dennis Schmitz creates an astonishing synthesis of the ordinary with greater emotional psychological truths. Alfred Corn's powerful collection "Contradictions" (Copper Canyon, $20) searches beyond transience for the vital truth of what remains. And "Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930–1950" (Copper Canyon, $17) by Cesare Pavese, one of Italy's greatest poets, is a vastly overdue collection. Pavese's use of everyday language was revolutionary in Italian letters. This wonderful bilingual edition includes work that was originally censored by the Fascists, as well as poems discovered after his death.

Finally, some of the most moving new poetry out this season comes D. Nurkse's "The Fall" (Knopf, $23), a collection of exquisitely shaped poems highlighted by the poet's gift for delicate yet piercing epiphanies, and the first posthumous release by W.G. Sebald. "After Nature" (Random House, $21.95) is a collection of blank verse that seems as authoritatively experimental, and as relentlessly unflinching, as his revolutionary prose.

Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg. The point is it is getting so it doesn't really matter what started the resurgence; if it started in tragedy, then at least we've something gained, something helpful toward a better future. It's a lesson in the mutability of literature. But regardless, good poetry seems to be breeding good poetry these days. Reader, rejoice.

Last Week’s Column: ACCEPTING REJECTION If you're a writer, you quickly get desensitized to rejection letters ... don't you?


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.