On Poetry: January 2024

New collections to make life more lyrical.

On Poetry: January 2024

Intellectual abstraction, technical brilliance, and wordplay take us only so far in poetry. They can even make it seem boring and irrelevant. The most important question we should ask of poetry is, “Does it make us feel?”

In light of AI, which is going to change the world, this becomes crucial. I’m told AI can come up with adequate poetry if it’s fed the right information. But I like to think poetry is an antidote to AI’s more chilling implications. Poetry reminds us of what it means to be human. It underscores the importance of deep contemplation and focus. Most of all, it calls on the heart.

The books I’ve chosen this month call on the heart in different ways. My first selection asks us to think and reflect. The second summons our tenderness. The third requires us to empathize and grieve.

Jay Rogoff’s Becoming Poetry: Poets and Their Methods (LSU Press) is a collection of essays written over his long career. These essays display a keen understanding of poetics, but they are especially meaningful when he writes from the heart as well as the head.

His range is far-reaching: slant rhyme and Emily Dickinson’s influence on his work; Shakespeare’s sonnets analyzed by Helen Vendler, and sonnet sequences by other poets; William Carlos Williams on Ezra Pound; the works of Hafiz and Edward Thomas, which fell out of print. I learned a lot. Reading Rogoff also reignited my interest in poets like Randall Jarrell and Kay Ryan.

His section on “The Ear,” in which he explains why poetry doesn’t count as song, is particularly compelling. “The special demands of musical setting turn the poem into a song — that is, into music — and the resulting changes remove the text from the sphere of literary experience and turn it into an object of musical interest.” It’s a fascinating distinction. Good poetry sings, only in a music made of words.

Which brings me to this example from Anne Pierson Wiese’s new collection, Which Way Was North (LSU Press):

The rest of human history will have to be lived
without typewriters, but perhaps when we are
gone, the landfills will spawn strange jungles
in which gargantuan flowers will open, revealing
at their centers a trace: the words SHIFT and SPACE.

Typewriters, dial telephones, and cracked plaster walls are a few of the relics from the past that Wiese saves as poetry. When an ancient bridge collapses in a flood, a new view and new sense of community replace it. She praises paper and what will be lost in a paperless society. Her focus on small things stands in for larger ones, but she never resorts to sentimentality. She captures old habits of human behavior — pinning a dress pattern onto fabric, for instance, or peeling an apple in one continuous spiral. And listen to these lines on the loss of the waltz:

This is the century in which we will lose
the waltz. There will be one or two more
generations who know how, who have learned
in their youth to swoop and twirl…

Birds swoop into her poems, too — wild turkeys, a robin, a hawk she once observed on a pergola but which remains there in memory (“…my hawk is there:/beauty by surprise overrides all succeeding/days — and so the part of us that isn’t us survives”). My favorite, though, is “Airport Sparrow,” which concludes:

The corridor is windows from ceiling
to floor, but despite the natural light
and the uncontested food supply —
a bird should be outside to die.

There are lots of quietly beautiful books, but not many such sweet ones.

Four Way Books has several interesting new titles right now, but I found Yerra Sugarman’s Aunt Bird exceptionally powerful. “I walk on ghosts one time joyful in their skins,” she writes. It’s 2020, the year children were locked in cages, the year of the pandemic, when Sugarman, “so unencumbered” herself, begins researching the life of her aunt Feiga Maler, killed by the Nazis in 1942 in Kraków, Poland. She was a teacher in a girl’s school and just 23 years old.

Sugarman pictures her aunt’s soul slipping into her bedroom and blossoming like a pear tree:

“Her life was like a thick soup in my mouth. Her name the Yiddish word for ‘bird.’ Feiga. She wiped a grain of soil from her lips, and I could hear the meat of her voice speak. It climbed up and down my mind, so that she inhabited the core of each thing.”

She conducts her research in the glow of a muted TV or the blue light of a computer screen. Gradually, she inhabits Aunt Bird, bringing her experience to life in muscular, lyrical, and unsentimental language. Poems like “She Lived Amid the Tumult of an Occupied City” made me think of Jaroslav Seifert conjuring Prague during Nazi occupation. It made me think of Gaza:

Those who sat under a café’s awning
stirring a cup of tea

Were also rounded up: those bargaining
for beets piled high in the market,
those hanging wet sheets over balcony railings
were dragged from their apartments

While the city endeavors to get on with being itself, occupation envelops it and changes reality. In Sugarman’s mind, her aunt revisits religious stories in an effort to make sense of what her world has become. She tries to survive on gratitude and prayer and dreams of returning home to her mother’s kitchen. The poems are heartrending, their immediacy undeniable:

She wondered: why is God doing this?
And the thunder thundered: why are people doing this?

Despair swooping over her, her grief a kind of wingspan:

Delirious as the rain the river guzzled,
she became a stranger to herself,
circling her own shadow, searching for her beliefs,
Her mind like shattered glass,

and the world stuck in her throat like a bone-

How do we mourn the disappeared? Or those who died before we were born? Or those dying now, whom we will never know? I found myself asking these questions. Sugarman writes:

She taught me I was made out of crumbling
and to bring into the open the damaged

heart of even my self-willed dark,
although fear sprouted from my skin

and my voice was a wing flapping wildly

In these verses, written for a young woman whose remains were never recovered, Aunt Bird becomes all our lost innocents — and we become her.

Imagine again how poetry can counterbalance the unsettling elements of AI. When poetry communicates emotional experience like this, we connect to one another. “We think by feeling,” as Theodore Roethke put it. And that’s the kind of transformation the world so desperately needs.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a columnist and poetry editor for the Independent and the voice of “Read Me a Poem,” a podcast of the American Scholar.

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