Poetry

The Library of America has published massive anthologies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American poetry that include work from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, so why now another large book devoted exclusively to African Americans? Because it needs to be said and said again just how profoundly American this poetry is, how it enriches culture and should not be ignored among the more conventionally canonised. The fact that this book appeared in 2020, the year when Black Lives Matter protests went global, only underlines its importance as a historical marker. Poetry by Black Americans is not only unignorable but central to American literary life. Reading African American Poetry: 250 years of struggle and song may change your way of reading poetry, particularly modern poetry. It is that rare thing among anthologies, a moving book, enlivened by fire and soul.

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Toby Davidson’s first collection, Beast Language, was published nine years ago. That feels surprising: its freshness then makes it feel more recent now. Much of the movement in that book is present in his new collection, Four Oceans (Puncher & Wattmann, $25 pb, 93 pp), literally so, as we begin with a long sequence aboard the Indian Pacific from Perth to Sydney. It’s his younger self again, leaving home for the ‘eastern states’, but with an esprit de l’escalier twist, as that younger self gets to see and describe everything with the eye and language of the older, freer, more assured Davidson.

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Prose Poetry: An introduction by Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton

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May 2021, no. 431

It speaks volumes that almost a century and a half after Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen announced the modern prose poem, James Longenbach influentially defined poetry as ‘the sound of language organized in lines’. An otherness, bordering on illegitimacy, pervades what Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington argue is ‘the most important new poetic form to emerge in English-language poetry since the advent of free verse’. The book vindicates this claim. No less compelling, however, is the way the prose poem, long defined in negative terms, here becomes the whetstone over which old assumptions – about the prosaic, the poetic, and the daylight between the two – are run to a fresh sharpness.

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These three new poetry collections are works by established poets at the top of their game in terms of poetic craft and the honing of insights into both life and art. These are voices developed across a significant number of previous collections, allowing for an emergence of innovation, confidence, and ease of style and mood.

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Oliver Driscoll’s note on his first book I Don’t Know How That Happened (Recent Work Press, $19.95 pb, 74 pp) praises the inclusive flatness of David Hockney’s still life paintings, and it is to this inclusiveness that his poems and prose pieces aspire. Droll reported speech creates a comic atmosphere but also moves into Kafkaesque alienation where nothing seems to follow any pattern.

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Peter Steele is a meditative poet with a gift for aphorism: joy / has more of gravity than of gaiety’; ‘You cannot find / your way, but it is finding you’. And of God he saysZ: ‘I’m lost for words except for those to ask / He’ll look my way and make me see it his.’

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Dislocations is a product of the Irish diaspora. Its editor is a Western Australian who claims his Irish heritage from Carlow and Wicklow; its subject was brought up on the border between counties Armagh and Tyrone in Northern Ireland, and emigrated to the United States in 1987. There is, then, a biographical precedent for John Kinsella’s sharp characterisation of Paul Muldoon’s work as ‘a liminal poetry that lives both sides of any given border … in an ongoing state of visitation with its roots in linguistic and cultural reassurance’.

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Stephen Edgar, over the past two decades or so, has earned himself an assured place in contemporary Australian poetry (even in English-language poetry more generally) as its pre-eminent and most consistent formalist. His seemingly effortless poems appear in substantial overseas journals, reminding readers that rhyme and traditional metre have definitely not outlived their usefulness.

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Dearly by Margaret Atwood

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March 2021, no. 429

Margaret Atwood began as a poet and transformed herself into a factory, producing work of great energy and range. Since her first collection, Double Persephone, appeared in 1961, she has published more than sixty books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She is a librettist, a maker of eBooks, graphic novels, and television scripts, and, with the serialisations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, a beloved global phenomenon. Much of this work builds on genre fiction bones: the gothic romance, the dystopian novel, and speculative fiction. But now it has become difficult to see her poetry as anything more than an adjunct to her prose, attracting attention less because of its merits as poetry than because it is an Atwood production.

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The immediate virtues of this book are not difficult to see: Andrew Taylor is a skilled poet who understands the workings of syntax and rhythm, and who knows how to shape his poems into unified patterns with an apparent minimum of fuss. The poems tend to have a regular and easy pace; their fluency is considerable. Taylor writes with a genuine confidence and a literary awareness which is for the most part sophisticated and supple. His diction is uniform and he is careful not to overreach himself. There is no visible strain in the whole performance.

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