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Poet Reviews Poet Reviewer

So what is it that a good book of poems maketh that reaches it to the level of New York Times best poetry 2018? I have no idea of who the reviewer is but what qualities of fine poetry does he reveal?

These are the books:

HUMAN HOURS, by Catherine Barnett
THE POPOL VUH, translated by Michael Bazzett

YEARS, MONTHS, AND DAYS, by Amanda Jernigan.
DARK WOODS, by Richard Sanger.
WADE IN THE WATER, by Tracy K. Smith (our poet laureate)
A MEMORY OF THE FUTURE, by Elizabeth Spires

LIKE, by A. E. Stallings
TRANSACTION HISTORIES, by Donna Stonecipher.
BLOOD LABORS, by Daniel Tobin.
HEY, MARFA, by Jeffrey Yang.

Now meander over what he says:

a superb ear
devastating slant rhyme
deliberately casual
domestic poem command
unique and subtle challenges
quiet showcase in tone management
formal agility
classical expertise
attractively darkened
mordant yet romantic
seemingly unrelated observations
meticulously knit together
poetic equivalence of a chord
appealing effect
robust formally dexterous writing
hypnotic deeply strange creation saga
elegant precision
playfully exacting lines

Combine all these together – ah! wishful thinking. But study them at least, and you shalleth be proud. The task now is to check and see which of these titles appear in other end-of-the-year lists and to ask why.


Ideas from Poet Watcher Elisa New

If you saw the original manuscripts, you will notice that Emily Dickinson – whose 1800 poems were never published – used dashes. In this interview from Harvard poet critic Eliza New describes Dickinson’s work: “The exquisite craft of the individual poems. The extraordinary metaphors that just pay off and pay off and pay off.” I had mentioned to another writer the power of Dickinson’s metaphor and I don’t think the writer got the point. Dickinson: “I felt a Funeral in my Brain.”

Dickinson is important because interviewer Tyler Cowen got New to admit the the best poets in our country were Dickinson and Walt Whitman. What I am saying here is that any ‘poet’ worth their salt would have experience these two in the most deepest of ways and would not be writing Hallmark stuff and call them poems. But alas, that’s what 95 percent of facebook poems are, HALLMARK DRIVEL.

New says without Dickinson or Whitman, there would probably not be a Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Sandburg, C. D. Wright, C. K. Williams; a Susan Howe, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath.

If you don’t know these poets, then KNOW THEM – try to have deep and meaningful experiences with them.

Then there’s John Ashbery, whose early long narrative poetry I frequently post as contrasted to his recent nearly indecipherable poetry. New describes the latter as “the cut-up way, in the media-fied way that he saw earlier than the rest of us.” – which helps me view his difficult work in a different way. The interviewer then mentions some Canadien ‘Rupi Kaur’ whose poetry grew through Instagram two million followers to 77 weeks on NYT Best Seller List. New doesn’t criticize the poet. Instead she notes “we are in the middle of an interesting king of generational shift.” This younger generation has “a lot of sharing and a lot of sociality [and] wants to hear about the personal lives of their peers.” She simply says she is “too old” for such sorts.

And then she mentions Billy Collins, a well crafted poet who seems to defy the nonpopularity quotient. I immediately viewed some of his work and it’s the power of both his craft and his thought, both in ordinary language (of metaphor) that reign supreme – yeap, he’s my new flame. (LOOK HIM UP!)

Other poets New identifies are T.S. Eliot – “too fastidious”; John Milton; William Carlos Williams; Poe: “no poem should be longer than 108 lines,” which is wrong because then we wouldn’t have such as Dante (nor Milton!).

She points out the power of Herman Melville that did not exclude nor marginalize the female experience, did not confine such to the domestic realm but, I guess, gave much thought. Later in the interview she answers the question of the most important work to help others understand the american experience is “The Scarlet Letter”. There’s Willa Cather to help us understand our diversity, writing of the Midwestern modern America (1900s thereabout) such as My Antonia. I have recently made a light touch into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these were some of the immigrants that populated a great potential America.

New makes prompted comments on Robert Frost; of “that Puritan tradition” (from California), he “tells us it’s good to acknowledge our pain.” Prompted on Gwendolyn Brooks, how she is a people’s poet. Ezra Pound, whom she would naturally first rebound from for his anti-Semitism, she yet notes his “beautiful, musical effects” as he tried to go cross-cultural and traditional, a “technician par excellence”. The problem with Pound and Eliot for her: “But I like my poets to give me some wisdom, and I don’t find him [them] wise.”

“For whatever reason, great art is often fertilized by bad character.” Eliot “was always a person of too much privilege and a person who made such bad choices…” And “The Waste Land, then, becomes a “magnificent accident”.

Positive mentions of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Robert Pinsky to say that poems should be read out, shared ‘around a fire,’ “or recited after school in a pageant or sang with music and jesters.”

She defines Thomas Hardy, Melville (his “Battle Pieces,” “Clarel”), great novelists as great poets even though, in “a very banal way of saying it – they really do call on different skill sets. The sort of distillation and often asocial concentration that it takes to be a lyric poet is quite different from the crowded, cacophonous, socially alert set of faculties one needs to write a great novel.”

What is wonderful – years ago, among one of my several life book collections, I had this small but really LARGE THICK book of poems. They were all expert, superb haikus. Well, New mentions this work. The volume of haiku by my absolutely fav life-changing writer RICHARD WRIGHT (of Native Son and Black Boy novels fame – as if you didn’t know!) Wright was a great poet, jesus!

The interviewer (Tyler Cowen) is apparently as fascinated with Bob Dylan as a poet as he is with Dickinson – who New located as being fascinated with Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

“[I]t is our humanity that poetry most meaningfully serves… I hope…we will cherish more the things about us that are just humans.”

She advises printing out poems “It’s better than reading it on your phone. And put it in your pocket,” take the advice of Whitman: “Loafe with me on the grass.”

New: “I really believe that human language — even encoded in some of the arcane ways, poems, and code — language is fascinating to other human beings.”

And i think that’s what it’s about to me, then, the fascination of language, it’s ability to communicate things and provide me silently indisputable things of beauty.

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The Sea Stories of T.D. Euwaite by Richard Brotbeck

“The stars in a pitch-black night sky a thousand miles out to sea are breathtaking. It’s easy to see how religions were born The majesty is overwhelming.” Pop Eye would have never transverse these haunts but perhaps he should have, for this is a rousing tale of our present day military sea man attached oiled down at the gaps with plenty of humor, charm and a rumpus beat. I think of the lightness of heart I had along with the respect for the crew when I first road the pages of the classic ‘No Time For Sergeants’ many years ago. And there’s this kid’s thirsty fascination with riding submerged on the submarine that even the several sub hunt movies have yet dissolved. It’s all here in The Sea Stories of T.D. Euwait, a ripping ride with Richard Brotbeck, ‘dolphin’ designated submarine sailor. We take our hats off to the piercing determination that moves this tale through choices, training, travel, exotic foods, roasts and frozen steaks, and plenty of pot and fights and yes, women. Breathing the nuclear sub’s metallic air, engaged in seaman tasks listening to sonar, Shore Patrol duty, even the final engaging brig scenes, the truth is that “Submarine patrols are long and tedious… You need some comedy once in a while to keep everyone loose.” And occasionally you wonder if the sea has this much water in it, for the easy rippling humor flows nonstop.

Perhaps it’s the matter of man who Richard represents. His dad took the family from its Midwest Missouri origins to Guam where he served as an FAA flight standards officer. It’s the late seventies and Richard forages with fellow seamen, the new ones, who yet to have seen war in a culture of American rock, drugs and motorcycles. Across waters, over lands, they were able to advance the much-fabled innocent, sweet, anti-communist American nonchalance while equipped with the most powerful of the instruments, “wire-guided acoustic-sensing torpedoes, nuclear warhead tipped ballistic missiles, a nuclear reactor.” They had machines producing copious gallons of fresh water. The missiles stations had the near genius ‘weird scientists’ while crew-cut bunches of sailors pursued practiced care to manage the “boat”. Cramped quarters, manufactured air, fire watches, roving shore patrol duty, a spam fondness, ‘monochrome green explosions’ with garbage, the wonder of seamanship is all here. Not a thing’s missing from Popeye’s Brotbeck sightings that could be called out of his sight.

He was initially trained in Groton, Connecticut at the Basic Enlisted Submarine School (BESS). The love of the New England small town never leaves Brotbeck, where he eventually returns to retire. Frank Zappa, Queen, some group called ‘Journey’, there’s more training near San Diego, jungle motorcycle riding, Liar’s poker, pool, and shifts between Pearl Harbor’s Ford Island, Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach, and his familiar second home, the Navy’s refitting quarters at Apra Harbor, Guam.

Being part of “America’s Drunkest Generation,” its ongoing spectacular competition between weed and drink; the pages flip through large flying roaches, unqualified chief petty officers, destroyer escort duty, a Dante-like Olongapo, Philippines, bar knockouts, becoming of age via an Aussie woman, the Indian Ocean and wildebeests and astonishing orgasms in Kenya but no Kilimanjaro. Shellback Day passing the Equator, Jinhae, South Korea, ‘cleaned, painted, and lubricated,’ tarp and tackle, throwing line and chain, the artist in Richard, the t-shirt designer, has so many marbles on his plate, one does wonder of his plunge into the brig, solitary at that, at the end of the tale. Five years a navy man, an ‘evil genius’ of astonishing creative character, was it merely weed or the chaotic thought of not being allowed passage to his father’s funeral who, with his brother, flew B17s in WW2? I don’t know, but over a richly written tale, Richard Brotbeck manages to recoup his good military status and now grows foodstuffs while tendering word craft on his New England farm. From this seamanship arises an admirable man who, in “The Sea Tales of E.D. Euwaite,” you get to like a lot, very much.

Richard Brotbeck (Author), John Nebraska (Illustrator), Nessa Shields (Editor), Joe Cavallo (Photographer), Jim Herold (Photographer), Rick Macionis (Photographer)

RELLIK: An Anti-Novel by Dom Ritter , Tina Lewis

Now here I’m sitting here about to read this novel. I gots me drink, a little smoke and I’m thinking I need like a little more to blow me head away. You know what I mean. I was getting ready to make that cell call. Well, so I decided to go on and read a few pages and I say, ‘god d—, what!!!’ Me head gets BLOWN AWAY! It’s like this dude Toby, the main character who’s been looking for a satisfying lay and now working it nice and proper in coitus with a real fine woman, and about to make another nice satisfying thrust when Bam! Right in front of him APPEARS MIA, the ex whom he had only just broken up with a few weeks ago. The beautiful rider atop him screams from the man’s shockingly abrupt grip on her breasts and it appears right from there on, this dude, who had just broken up with Mia a few weeks ago, is headed to a whole series of volcano gripping shocks and stuff because MIA IS A GHOST.

Okay, alright. Another lady appears somehow on the scene. She’s a little older than our protagonist. So it’s like I’m sitting here, my drink (little wild turkey bourbon yall) helps me recover a little bit, take a little toke, reading along. So like at Toby’s place – hey, did I tell you how somewhere, a feature of Somerset Maugham appears on Toby? You remember Betty Davis in ‘On Human Bondage’, a cub-footed Leslie Howard hopelessly pursuing his life’s love thing on her? Well yes, it appears that crazy man, author Dom Ritter, loads Toby down with a special feature of deformed toes. ‘Chinese bums’ he calls them. Let’s skip that, and I’m wondering here should I make that call when somehow the dude appears in Dr. Webb’s office where she weasels his life to the final embarrassing question: ‘You ain’t never had no committed long-term relationship with a woman’ and our gent wants to stop it right there. Any other dismissal of his existential angst could not have been more fatal, even Toby’s apparent lack of control of his bowel movements when unconsciously under severe stress. ‘Get off my back, I ain’t gay.’ He says something similar. And it’s like immediately his luck turns and something continues in the same pace, the same way and manner of the near quixotic searching and questing similar to the ongoing pounding on that Gunther Grass tin drum. Only ringing out before Toby’s eyes as svelte and mysterious as she wants to be is….

No, wait. There’s too many angles to all of this. Too many morsels, too many delectable features of these routes turned out in an anti-novel whacking and morphing and photoshoppng Toby’s sexy Philip Roth-like romps through some brilliant and fantastic twists of multiple duplicitous personality syndromes. I want to say that Dom Ritter handles this funny, sophisticated, and whacky tale of sex, love and mystery with thorough and mischievous aplomb. Ceaseless times you will retrieve your head and sanity through Toby’s near miraculous escapes only to have it again caught and BLOWN AWAY. Goodness god, gracious. And I never did have to make that call.