As the dubious “National Poetry Month” limps to its grave, I’ll be glad not to have to pretend that poetry is anything but marginal in American life—but there’s so much good stuff out there that the “Quid Plura?” kobolds and I can’t help but offer a few recommendations. Some things are worth reading (and writing) regardless of popularity or relevance.
If you think there ought to be at least one good poem about the horrific life of the tomato hornworm, then you’re going to like Bruce Taylor. In No End in Strangeness, Taylor shows that even poems of personal reflection need not begin or end with the self, and that there’s much to be learned from peering at bread mold or using a microscope to marvel, as van Leeuwenhoek did, at the zoological wonders in backyard muck. (That poem, “Little Animals,” justified my purchase of this 2011 collection.) Taylor isn’t necessarily a “science poet,” but he also doesn’t indulge that romantic urge to dismiss or dream away technology, and I like that his poetry sent me to YouTube to look at digenea, rotaria, and amoeba for myself. (Check out a review of No End in Strangeness in the Contemporary Poetry Review and a nice appreciation of “Little Animals” by Anita Lahey.)
I first knew Alan Sullivan through the lively, form-conscious translation of Beowulf he published with his partner Tim Murphy, but the Psalms of King David were clearly the work of his life. While dying of cancer, Sullivan partnered with an Israeli textual scholar to translate the Davidic psalms with a particular emphasis on replicating the alliteration and meter of the originals. The resulting poems are lucid, lyrical, and fresh; through Sullivan, King David sings anew. Read selections from the Sullivan Psalter in this review and remembrance by poet Maryann Corbett, and don’t miss Sullivan’s famous villanelle about cancer.
Part Virgil, part “Thundarr the Barbarian,” Frederick Turner’s The New World is a classical epic about an America yet to be—and holy crow, is it fun. Picture this: It’s 400 years in the future, and North America has evolved in bizarre ways. Brutal mutants rule formerly prominent cities (now known as Riots), and religious fanatics threaten the borders of the world’s last civilized place: an enlightened, chivalric, polytheistic republic based in Ohio. According to Dana Gioia, when Turner first published his epic in 1985, it ”was met with bewilderment or abuse by academic commentators, even while it earned high praise in nonacademic journals.” Love triangles! Lofty language! Laser swords! Turner does a great job of fusing classical epic with science fiction, and while The New World is great fun, it’s also far more moving and beautiful than I’d expected. Late in the epic, there’s a passage about pregnancy and childbirth that really shows off Turner’s poetic chops; it’s one of countless images that will stick with you long after you put the book aside.
For half a century, autodidact and occasional actor Christopher Logue rallied all the gimmicks of modern poetry to craft a loose, idiomatic version of Homer’s Iliad. “[I]t’s some of the best poetry being written in English today,” wrote Jim Lewis at Slate in 2003, “and it should be read widely and with great pleasure by anyone still interested in the art of verse.” Literally irreverent, Logue freed himself from the tyranny of the Homeric text through one curious advantage: his ignorance of ancient Greek. Instead, he based his still-unfinished poem on English translations published between 1720 and 1950. His Homer—currently collected in three separate volumes—includes scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, he cribs a passage from Paradise Lost. If you like the idea of blatant anachronisms perfectly deployed—Ajax likened to Rommel alongside references to helicopters and camera angles—then start with War Music. This is exciting, engaging stuff. (I wrote about Logue after his death in December 2011.)
Agha Shahid Ali raised the profile of the ghazal in the English-speaking world. Not every poem in Call Me Ishmael Tonight hews strictly to the Persian form, with its unusual use of couplet-based rhyme within, and not at the end of, every other line, but Ali knows when to be flexible, and he never fails to strike strange, memorable chords. Some poets gripe that ghazals are tricky to write, but there’s an impressionistic quality to them that should excite Westerners: A ghazal’s couplets each tell tiny stories that don’t add up to a coherent narrative but do convey a consistent wistfulness that registers somewhere between heartbreak and hope. Ali adored the ghazal, and he makes the form look easy—even as he uses it to document a creeping awareness of his impending death.
Most fantasy fans know Robert E. Howard as the pulp writer who invented Conan the Barbarian, but he was also a prolific poet. Some of his verse served as epigraphs to his own stories, a few poems appeared in magazines like Weird Tales, and most of it was never published at all. Howard’s Collected Poetry is already out of print—I wrote about it a couple years back—but this hearty Selected Poems should be enough for nearly anyone. As you’d expect of a writer in his late twenties who wrote thousands of poems, Howard composed plenty of clunkers, but his best works are loud, brawny fun. We’ve forgotten that poetry need not be about flowers and personal reflection; Howard knew that it’s also the province of Satanic wizards, voodoo queens, blood-flecked Vikings, Puritan swordsmen, and barbarous hordes. He ought to be “the poet laureate of restless boys, whose lives these days lack poetry, but who, as Howard comprehended, crave it more than most.”