Poetry has, for better or worse, been far outstripped by the popularity of the novel as the fashionable literary form (although this too is in jeopardy in the face of the golden age of television). Even the non-literature students with whom I’ve had this conversation profess that poetry is too esoteric, too dense and too self-referential for their casual consumption. T.S. Eliot might posit that that is the point, that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” but if you’re still turned off of poetry at large, the following five poetry collections are palatable while still being powerful, and can hopefully serve as an introductory primer to modern verse, especially in the face of our approaching spring break.
1. Ariana Reines, “Coeur de Lion”
Ariana Reines’ poetry piece “Coeur de Lion” is both clever and contemporary, a self-published poem that challenges conceptions of confessional poetry, literary catharsis, and poetic form. “Coeur de Lion” is a self-contained meditation on desire, devotion and the toxicity of tenderness, and as such the book is chaotic and sincere, somehow exquisitely monstrous and achingly vulnerable. Reines’ writing is deeply unapologetic, messy, both frenetic and gentle, a poignant exploration of where and how indulgence and identity intersect. Reines succeeds in her wholehearted celebration of complication and contradiction and the honesty with which she lays bare her imperfections, an ambitious and self-righteous literary endeavor that is too dramatic, too dynamic, to be melancholy. Reines is not always likable as a narrator, but it is in that in which her genius shines.
2. Lawrence Raab, “Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts”
Raab is an experienced poet; “Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts” is his eighth published poetry collection, and this manifests quite clear in his pithy quotability, his understated musicality and his concise lyricism. He utilizes mythological allusion in the most effective way – to amplify and reflect universal human truths – and as a result links his monologic introspection with monomythic relatability. Raab’s strength is in his storytelling, and his thoughtfulness and attention to detail produce a compelling narrator with an incisive and ironic wit. His poems can be aphoristic, paradoxical, absurd, contemplative, and as such they handily lend themselves to comparative literature and anthropology (in the most layperson-accessible way, of course) and challenge the lonely reader to find community in the margins.
3. Gregory Pardlo, “Digest”
The winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, “Digest” is the warmth of the charmingly domestic mixed with the discomfort of the overlooked. Pardlo’s writing is gentle but rooted; he is imaginative in his voice and firm in his vision, anchoring his poetry with themes of fatherhood, community, social conscience, racial identity and pop culture, wrapped up in a lofty and lovely poetic melody. He is both nostalgic and forward-thinking, and as such is a much-needed read in the modern literary world.
4. Anne Sexton, “All My Pretty Ones”
Anne Sexton is no new poet — she died in 1974 — and yet her work remains intuitive, salient and vital over forty years later. She follows the confessional tradition perhaps more popularly associated with her contemporary, Sylvia Plath, and “All My Pretty Ones” is her second full-length collection, published in 1962. Sexton is highly educated in literary allusion and uses this to her advantage, bridging the impropriety of the intensely personal and the prestige of the academically respected. As a result, Sexton’s poetry is raw, razor-sharp and resonant, a volume tinged by defensive derision and reluctant heartache. (“Transformations,” published in 1971, is a feminist revision of Grimm and Perrault fairy tales, and is also very much worth pursuing, but “All My Pretty Ones” is perhaps a more complete introduction to Sexton’s style.)
5. Steven Zultanski, “Bribery”
Zultanski’s poetry is not appealing in the traditional sense; that is, it is not literature made for reader projection or for easy digestibility. The poetry of “Bribery” is self-indulgent, arrogant, pathetic, psychotic and yet disturbingly compelling in its paranoia and uncomfortable truths. Written as an almost play-like extended poem, “Bribery” is a microcosm of modern anxieties and narrative intimacy, a visceral manifesto written in graffiti on an alleyway wall. The book’s narrator is wildly self-aggrandizing, obsessing over unsolved crimes and barely-coherent political diatribes, but the clear-eyed observational dexterity buried beneath the rhetorical invective inspires a lot self-reflection on the part of the reader. “Bribery” is gritty, pointed, exposed and shameless, somehow simultaneously garish and stripped bare.
To return to T.S. Eliot, “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.” Read and be free, my friends.
Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.