Kay Ryan is one of the best living poets writing in English. She has won a Pulitzer Prize and served two terms as United States Poet Laureate. Unlike some other Pulitzer winners, she creates work that is always undeniably hers without writing the same poem over and over. This is why it is a special pleasure to begin my holiday column with an ovation her newest collection, Erratic Facts. Here is her typical attentive heft without being overbearing, and a beautifully precise music no one else can claim. “Velvet” could be twee, with possible associations to little girls, or that unpleasant place where patronizing meets hackneyed with thoughts of “Elvis on velvet.” She names the majestic and the ache to connect to it without a false step, so longing comes as close to being answered as is humanly possible:
Ryan is brilliant at the discipline of short lines that can mistakenly seem easily done, and at longer poems than this that never lose balance. She uses mysterious configurations of craft, inspiration and time spent living and breathing an idea that seems instantly arrived at while flawlessly expressed.
Fred Moten is bravely aiming for a poetic prose language that sketches the ineffable. He is also deeply engaged with the geometry of poetry and his journey makes for fascinating apprehending in The Little Edges. “wait for it” is a handsome example:
you remain the future in our present like an accent pause that gramsci had to measure. living better now that double tap stop till that is your time we’re in love with waiting. we can’t so we can surprise so we can
attend and take urgent care. the erotic cure, which shows up as, which gives us, so that it ought to give us, pause is our propulsion. who do what’s been done can’t wait for it and can’t walk off . who recognize the
future don’t wait on us, but because they don’t know about service, about what it is to be an instrument, decide they just ain’t gon’ wait. they miss something. they missing something, our liveness in reverb, this re:
that we refer to something, that we regard something, that we in regard to something else. they tell us what they think they know and we wait till they understand. I’m tired of waiting till they understand. see you later.
Are you there, Langston? It’s me, Fred, I am weary but I also have a calling to face the song and the trap it tries to speed past. If some of this feels a little too much like a riff-gift just for poetry geeks, I declare it not so and say keep reading and rereading this and the rest of The Little Edges.
Michael Robins is another jumpy, reverent poet always worth reading, and In Memory of Brilliance & Value does not disappoint. “Anecdote for the Flowering Dogwood” is like much of what he does, a bounty for the senses with a variety of shadings:
Missouri runs late where language stands
beside the station at the end of a tunnel.
Missouri starves for a story. She’s setting
out, suitcase on either side of the tracks
replete with fireflies for the tired cliché
blinks true. It bursts through darkness.
Language in that shine need not beguile,
treasure opened by the rim of Missouri.
Animals take turns, boosted & gathering
about the brilliance of greenery spilled.
Language is useless as Missouri : she mates
sensibly, whispers the name of each city
& garlands, the sheer number of cardinals
breathless, naked atop the Missouri trees.
We have a richly American ride, with many places to stop and get tickled. That suitcase on either side of the tracks can take you far, and Robins’s own bag has tricks sans trickiness, as the beginning of “Feeding a Body to the Mountaintop” also displays:
Animals resumed grazing, all engine
Senses get a full workout in all the pages in this slim container that packs above its weight.
I am not saving the best for last. I am saving the most varied. The 60th Anniversary Edition of City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology is the kind of collection the publisher has produced for years. It keeps the brand alive and necessary, and wow, there are some special treats, like poems by Pablo Picasso.
Its old news that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who edited this, has been looking at art with devastating erudition since the middle of the last century . (See ‘in goya’s greatest landscapes’’ in A Coney Island of the Mind. ) As anthologist, he has lost none of his edge, and so he gives us a fabulous stew of the familiar, in Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and other beats mixed in with Marie Ponsot, has earned more attention than she usually receives. What a dancer she is in “Matins and Lauds,” connecting the sacred and the physical:
Excited as a sophisticated boy at his first
Passion of intellect , aware and fully free
Having lost title to full liberty ; struck
Aware, for once, as I would always be;
It day and I still shaken, still sure, see
It is not ring-magic nor the faithing leap of sex
That makes me your woman; marks our free
And separate wills with one intent; sets
My each earlier option at dazzling apex
And at naught; cancels, paid, all debts.
Restless, incautious, I want to talk violence,
Speak wild poems, hush, be still, pray grace
Taken forever; and after, lie long in the dense
Dark of your embrace, asleep between earth and space.
Ponsot is Catholic, and rightly admired by doubters and non-believers who recognize her gift for shaping passion.
Shaping passion is what almost every poem in this collection can be said to do, and it is wonderfully fitting that Denise Levertov is not only here, but right next to Ponsot. They are of the same generation, and continue to inspire, as does an example I will end with by Picasso, whose visual editing was a huge part of his genius on canvas. In a poem composed in 1959 he speaks of:
the splinters and splices of sun
licking the chair rugs crying
the whole rockinghorse afternoon in
an austere corner the
harrowed by mules.
with a clean peal of laughter
the dawn’s brass
cauterizes the wound.
There’s more in this poem that takes you into Picasso’s blazing head, just as there is so much more in this blazing gift of a volume that provides another example of the range of the City Lights endeavor. Allen Ginsberg. Gregory Corso. Diane di Prima. Check. Check. Check. Plus imported and domestic surprises. Pocket Poets has always been a project that enabled people to carry fine poems comfortably in their clothes, next to skin, so that this great stream of poetry could seep right in.