The poetry section of a bookstore can present potential challenges for any reader. More often than not, poetry books are precociously slim, slipping past first glance; it's far easier to quickly name 10 famous living novelists than 10 famous living poets; and even when you know exactly what you're looking for, small print runs may have rendered the book unavailable. Despite these occasional pitfalls, people who persist in the hunt tend to become lifelong devotees. I don't know what provokes such dogged interest in one person and not another, but I'm convinced that finding a good entryway (even if it's not the front door) is essential. One arresting poet can point the way to at least two others, owing to influence, peer, or predecessor, ad infinitum. In honor of National Poetry Month
here are three poets I love, each a potential portal, each a thread end to pick up and map some way through a labyrinthine and manifold art.
Alphabet by Inger Christensen
My engagement with Danish poet Inger Christensen's work was pretty limited prior to her death last year — I liked the few poems I'd read and had the recurrent recognition I'd do well to read more. Then I encountered her 1981 work Alphabet, comprised of 14 sections, each one corresponding to the first 14 letters of the alphabet and ending pointedly on n (as in number n). Christensen structured it further by determining the length of each section according to the Fibonacci sequence, a pattern in which the next number is equal to the sum of the previous two numbers (this occurs widely in nature, such as the arrangement of pine cones, sunflower heads). Under such constraints, Alphabet risks losing its lyricism, but it never does. Instead, what unfolds is an exquisite symmetry of idea and content, by way of its surprising, tactile, and ranging language and a luminously specific imagery ("cicadas exist; chicory, chromium, / citrus trees; cicadas exist; / cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum"). Beautifully realized in Suzanne Nied's award-winning translation, Alphabet is an expansive but precise vision of the accreting, refracting world. (If you like Inger Christensen, you might enjoy poets such as Cole Swensen, C. D. Wright, or Susan Howe.)
Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry by Kenneth Koch
A central New York School figure, Kenneth Koch and his inventive, playful poetry helped usher a little levity through the doors of American poetry. Though his output is prodigious — his Collected Poems is 784 pages — rather than highlight his poems, I want to instead tout Koch's Making Your Own Days as essential reading for anyone relatively new to poetry who's seeking a peephole into what may appear at first impenetrable. Koch's candid discussion about poetry asserts a cardinal yet overlooked truth — that poetry is, in fact, a separate language, however deceptively it may dress itself in our own, and like any language, must be learned for fuller appreciation. His investigation is so resonant with the realities of inspiration and process that veteran poets can also find worthwhile and pleasurable review. Making Your Own Days includes a basic anthology of poems, each supplemented with a brief interpretation by Koch. This insightful book, culling from over 40 years of teaching and writing experience, is one of the most approachable introductions to poetry I've read to date. (If you like Making Your Own Days, you might consider The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, or poets John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara.)
Collected Poems by James Merrill
James Merrill's early poem "The Black Swan" is handwritten in my journal, copied just after my first reading because I loved it instantly. A poet I often revisit, his Collected Poems has become an indispensable book in my library. There's a quality to his poems akin to soft suede; they are polished and variant and when brushed against the grain, their surfaces reveal depth and buried color. Over the span of his prolific career he proved his remarkable ability to simultaneously subdue and highlight the tragic, to create tremulous undertone:
Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.
Merrill's later poetry paired this sensibility with occult dimensions, most visibly in the fascinating 560-page epic poem "Changing Light at Sandover" (not included in this collection), which uses messages transcribed from a Ouija board. Merrill's father was Charles Merrill, of Merrill Lynch Investments, and James helped support fellow artists and close friends, notably Elizabeth Bishop and avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren. Though the size of this volume may intimidate, it is well worth its weight in justly representing the work of an incredible American poet. (If you like James Merrill, you might consider poets Elizabeth Bishop, William Butler Yeats, and W. H. Auden.)