Saturday, 22 December 2012

10 Modern Poets You Might Like

Highlights from a.m.k.'s experience with modern poetry.

I recently read a 600-page introduction to modern poetry (for fun), so I've had that on my mind lately. The book had a lot of dry parts (as you might imagine) but I enjoyed learning about poets I've never heard of before or getting some of my misconceptions of certain poets/movements sorted out.

I am by no means an expert -- there are many poets I haven't read, and many others who I've only read a bit of. But I've been reading poetry for several years now, and the modern period is what I am most comfortable with and arguably like best. I am not up-to-date enough on contemporary poetry to make a list of anything more recent than 1970 (and there is a lot to keep track of -- damn internet/damn globalization), but one day I will be. For now, I'll share my knowledge and interest in poets most active from about 1890-1970, which includes the period preceding modernism and the bulk of post-modernism as well. I realize this is well past the scope of what most scholars consider to be modern, so if you are a scholar you can ignore the term and just think "he's listing poets he likes from (approximately) an 80-year period."

It is also my firm belief that people should read more poetry. Attention spans and TV are big competition, but for people generally interested in literature, art and self-expression, poetry is really worth it, and it’s much less of a commitment than novels. I get that no one has the time to read War and Peace, but most poems in the past 100 years are one page or shorter, and good poems can stimulate your thoughts or emotions in only a moment.

So for poetry enthusiasts old and new, here are ten "modern" poets I'd recommend:

E. E. Cummings
And if i sing you are my voice,
     "hate blows a bubble of despair into"

Cummings was the first poet I read intensely, and many of his poems are locked in as all-time favourites of mine. His ideas and emotions are often ordinary, but he expresses them in ways that are really novel, often because of his syntactical inversions and somewhat personal use of symbols. You can understand the deeper meaning by thinking past what he’s saying to what's implied.

My favourite line, from one of his sonnets, is the one quoted above, "And if i sing you are my voice,".  Here, singing can mean an artistic eruption or any sort of self-expression, or it can mean a general feeling of jubilee. The lover in the poem is the vehicle that allows the speaker to have this eruption. Many of us lovers can relate to the feeling that the one we love lets us express our creativity or individuality in ecstatic ways.

Although I like his political or heavily experimental poems less, I was able to get into him (and poetry in general) because of the payoff I felt I received when I spent some time reading and re-reading his poems.

Gwendolyn Brooks
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
     "kitchenette building"

Many of Brooks' poems have an inner-city feel that most other poets of this time period don't have and cannot fake. If some aristocrat from New England wrote a poem like "kitchenette building", for example, I doubt that he could do it convincingly. Brooks has a few poems that are still talked about and recited, such as "We Real Cool", but she wrote lots more that isn't talked about much. Reading thru a collection of hers, it's easy to see the quality in her writing and pick your own favourites. Maybe it's from growing up downtown, but her poems have always seemed a lot more real to me than most other modern poets.

Charles Bukowski
"                   ...I didn't fly all the
way to Galveston to play

     "the 6 foot goddess"

Dying within the last twenty years, Bukowski gets the least amount of love from critics out of all the poets on this list, though he’s still popular with readers. Someone once told me that he was the most stolen author from the Ottawa Chapters. He has so many excellent poems I'm not even going to link any here, but I would recommend reading him for an hour straight, sober, drunk, high, whatever.

His stories (in poems) have a way of taking you over, mostly thru his voice but also thru his unabashed confidence in subject matter. He will tell you all the details, which frankly is refreshing. He might be unpolished, but when you read Bukowski, you really feel like you know Bukowski. The first book of his I picked up, Sometimes you get so alone it just makes sense, isn't nearly as good as slightly earlier Love is a dog from hell. Like him or not, I highly recommend spending some time with him to feel his persona fully take control. He does that better than perhaps any poet I have ever read.

T. S. Eliot
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
     "The Hollow Men"

He gets called the father of modern poetry, even though he emerged after it commenced. I don't respect T.S. Eliot as much as many others do, but I still find a handful of his poems completely engrossing. The Waste Land and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" are two of the finest poems written in English as far as I'm concerned, and he has a handful of other poems that are also quite excellent.

The main problem I have with Eliot is that he was a major elitist and assumed that certain types of poems should be more heralded than others. I've read many of his nonfiction pieces, like "Tradition and the Individual Talent", and he makes some good points, but I can't help but think he must have been kind of an asshole.

Nevertheless, he completely revolutionized poetry, for better or for worse, and his allusions create a world that you can get enveloped in. Even if many of his lines are allusions to other works of art, they can still stand on their own (most of the time), and some of those lines I find myself remembering and re-reading.

Pablo Neruda
I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

     "Tonight I can write the saddest lines"

Some argue the best poet of all-time, Neruda is one of the first poets I ever actively read. Around the time when I started reading poetry, I took one of those bizarre online quizzes that tell you "What kind of dog you are," or in this case it was "what sad depressing poem are YOU?!". I answered about four scientifically rigorous questions and got "Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines", one of approximately four poem options you could land on.

Unfortunately, with translated poems you never get the full feel for the work like you would in the original, and I find that, at times, Neruda borders on the cliche, though I can't be sure how much of that is Neruda and how much is bad translation. Still, the reposeful feel of his poems can sweep you away as if sitting by a fire in some cottage where you never have to work or feel tired again.

Frank O'Hara
And he was 

there in the hall, flat on a sheet of blood that
ran down the stairs.

      "[The eager note...]"

Some of his poems that I read I find so-so, but others offer images/scenarios that make you re-read them and try to dissect the situation that he paints. He has a New York feel about him which makes me a bit weak in the knees, since I associate that with some idealized version of alcohol, drugs, easy women and the 1950s that might be less cool in reality. This poem is excellent and haunting.

Wilfrid Owen
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

     "Dulce et decorum est"

I used to hate the so-called war poets until I read Owen. He died young in World War One, but he wrote some very good poems before he did. He didn't write free-verse, but there are some innovative elements to his work, namely his oft-gruesome subject matter and the variation of stanza lengths. "Dulce et Decorum Est" is his best and most recognized poem; the second stanza and proceeding couplet make such excellent use of imagery that they stand up 100 years later.

Fernando Pessoa
Metaphysics has always struck me as a prolonged form of latent insanity. If we knew the truth, we'd see it; everything else is systems and approximations.
     #87 in The Book of Disquiet

Fernando Pessoa’s work survives translation surprisingly well. I was first introduced to Pessoa through Erin Moure's excellent book Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, which I would recommend to anyone who likes poetry. I haven't read all his stuff, but from what I have read he seems to have an uncanny ability to get into the minds of his speakers, who seem to have various personalities (this is actually a huge point about Pessoa -- read up on his heteronyms). He can express complicated ideas in a way the reader can relate and take you swimming thru his mind with seeming ease. He can sweep you away, not in the cliche romantic way, but in the sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat way.

Gertrude Stein
A closet, a closet does not connect under the bed. The band if it is white and black, the band has a green string. A sight a whole sight and a little groan grinding makes a trimming such a sweet singing trimming


Another poet who really gets in your head is Gertrude Stein. Tender Buttons is full of what I consider to be largely nonsense, but I can see how some of the prose in it is tied to the objects and food that serve as sub-titles throughout the book. The way her prose poems flow gets stuck in my head is like an annoying song that you can't help but repeatedly sing, and some of the phrases she unleashes are still surprising 100 years later.

From a creative standpoint, I think Stein is an excellent writer, but it’s her rhythm that really makes me interested. Try reading her aloud for several minutes. Like Bukowski, she can really overwhelm you, and that kind of artistic power I find invigorating and mystifying.

William C. Williams
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself
     "Danse Russe"

Often considered an ideological opponent to T.S. Eliot, William C. Williams was a doctor as well as a poet, which puts him in a pretty select group. Williams preferred to use the local and common in his poems instead of grandiose allusions like Eliot or syntactical play like Stein. I'm not a fan of his most famous poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow", but he has countless others that I love dearly because of their simple, specific images. The images are easy to picture and relate to, but the ideas they suggest can be complex or profound.

I prefer poetry that is accessible to most educated people but that, for the detailed observer and analyzer, offers more. I think that is true of Williams.

And a few honourable mentions:

Stanley Kunitz
Kunitz is a poet who is full of quality work, though none of the individual poems strike me so much as to read and re-read them. Perhaps if I spent more time with him, he would become a favourite. His clarity of expression makes him easy to like.

Mina Loy
An interesting poet/artist who had many admirers more famous than her, Mina Loy published avant-garde poems that are still interesting today. Her writing is quite different from many others of her time period, though you can see various influences within her work. Didn't publish much in terms of collections of her own work -- most of the work she published was in literary journals and anthologies.

Marianne Moore
I never really got into her, but her style is fierce and original. Syllabic metre is always interesting, but she strikes me most with her unique vocabulary and unexpected comparisons. Ironically, this particular strength makes her writing tougher to relate to.

Jean Toomer
Toomer is someone who I just need to read more. Some of his poems have had a lasting impression on me or at least make me smile and nod. I recommend "Her Lips Are Copper Wire".

Elinor Wylie
I picked up a book of hers and wasn't very impressed, but her poem "Wild Peaches" remains a favourite of mine for its vivid imagery and imagination, framed in a style that was old-school even at the time. “Wild Peaches” cultivates a sort of local colour that sweeps you into the environment.

a.m.k. is a poet, blogger, technical writer, and editor of academic journals. He lives with his poetry books in Centretown.

[Images are all from the authors' Wikipedia pages.]

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