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Poetry Picks for the Holidays

Santa Barbara’s Poet Laureate Recommends 10 Gifts


Dorothy Barresi, American Fanatics (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2010): “Reading the newspaper lately,” Barresi writes in the title poem, “you’d think America had been educated // in a single ray of handsome and murderous light,” and the poems in this powerful book don’t turn away from that murderous light, even as the poet finds a dark beauty among the lives of cynical night nurses, aging film stars, lapsed Catholics, and the pimps of Akron, Ohio. A can’t-miss collection for anyone who’s ever admitted, “Lord, I’m scared.”

Kamau Braithwaite, Elegguas (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2010): If this is the most uneven collection here, it is also the most ambitious: part history lesson, part screed, full of different fonts and different voices. As its title suggests, elegies predominate. The poems are surrealistic, expansive, political, and the poet is nearly always in visionary mode: “i sweat / cause i man am wearing the tam of i dream in i head.”

Stephen Burt and David Mikics, eds., The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard Univ. Press, 2010): If you’ve ever taken a literature class, puzzled over a poem, and wondered, “What am I missing?” this book will go a long way toward answering that question. Burt is one of our most insightful critics and Mikics proves himself to be equally astute. Together, they explicate 100 sonnets, from Thomas Wyatt to D.A. Powell. The result is a thorough history of the sonnet: “[A] shape where strong emotion might make sense, where lyric invention might still take place.”

Amy Clampitt, Selected Poems (Knopf, 2010): The late-blooming Clampitt—her first full-length collection wasn’t published until she was 63—was nevertheless much published and much fêted in the 11 years between The Kingfisher and her death. Marianne Moore has nothing on Clampitt when it comes to dense accumulation of detailed imagery, but Clampitt’s intense love of sound suggests [Gerard Manley Hopkins is just as strong an influence.

Nicole Cooley, Milk Dress (Alice James Books, 2010): How difficult it is to write about motherhood without descending into sentimentality, and yet Cooley does just that in poem after poem. In “Self-Portrait with Morning Sickness,” she acknowledges “My body is its own shipwreck. / No map. No vision of the shore.” And yet a luminous, if provisional, map does gradually emerge over the course of the book, one which will be easily recognized by any woman who has clasped her children “so tight none of us can breathe.”

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, The Sun-fish (Wake Forest Univ. Press, 2010): The winner of Canada’s prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize, this book contains poems that are vividly imagistic yet nearly always mysterious. Like so many contemporary Irish poets, Ní Chuilleanáin’s ear is pitch-perfect, which makes every poem a delight to read aloud. Questions like those, she asks in “Update for Paul Cahill”—“How long in the ten o’clock heat / Will the one seed twirling on its thread / Disturb the silence?”—may be unanswerable, but they are no less compelling for being posed.

Bradley Paul, The Animals All Are Gathering (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2010): Fans of James Tate and Charles Simic will relish Paul’s humorous, often surrealistic takes on everything from “Instructions on Administering Nitrous Oxide” to “How to Stop Your Doppelgänger from Plagiarizing You.” The poems are short, sharp and—blessedly—never end where one expects them to.

Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, ed., The Poets Laureate Anthology (Norton, 2010): This collection includes generous samplings of work from every United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the original title of the post) since 1937. While it’s always a pleasure to reread the familiar work poets of like Robert Haas, Stanley Kunitz, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Elizabeth Bishop, the real treat is the poetry of talented but now largely forgotten poets such as Léonie Adams, Josephine Jacobsen, and William Jay Smith.

David Young, Field of Light and Shadow: Selected and New Poems (Knopf, 2010): Inventive, playful, precise, eminently readable, Young makes poems out of anything and everything that comes to hand. Surprises abound. As he notes in “Six Ghosts,” in the book of his life, even the chapters “where nothing happened” are “unbearably full.”

Matthew Zapruder, Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon Press, 2010): This book is proof, if proof were needed, that it’s possible for a poet to be both formally experimental while remaining emotionally honest. “Come on all you ghosts,” Zapruder writes, “all of you young holding hands / or alone, all you older // people and people of middle / indeterminate ago, / we need you, winter is not // through with us.”



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