Sunday, August 23, 2009

Vintage Poets: Joanne Kyger and Susan Griffin

According to Wikipedia, both of these poets are alive, so I don't want to insult them. Let's just say the poetry I'm looking at, the earlier poems in one book and poems '79 to '89 in the other. I'm pretty sure 60's, 70's and 80's are vintage now and those are the poems I'm talking about here.

There's an awkward time period in poetry for young poets coming up today, a time period not old enough to be taught as literature, as the critical foundation of poets of old, and not contemporary enough (or for some other reason not in the cannon or in vogue) and so it doesn't make it onto the required reading lists. Vintage poetry! In fact nobody you know, or maybe even your teachers, might have heard of some of the poets writing in the decades just before you were born. I think there are a lot of poets like that. Awesome poets that you have just never heard of.

You might encounter these poems from the 60s, 70s and 80s that you buy at used book stores or book rummages or you get randomly for Christmas presents because you're a poet, or are dusting up the shelves of your local library because somebody coming through your town at some point donated it. And you might read this book that posterity has put in your hands and notice how incredibly outdated or naive or just bad it is. Or maybe you are like, holy crap, this is different.

Being a reader of the winners of the last years' contests and the last years' poetry journals and journal submissions, I see the same sorts of things, the same images and words and poetics popping up in different genres, but still pretty much the same excercises (like a slew of villanelles, or, all of a sudden, a bevy of sonnets, or like, 15 poems with a parrot in it). That's what is so awesome about these books, is that people you know aren't reading them, people you know aren't writing these poems. You've been introduced to something new.

I have two of these books that I think have been almost more helpful to me than most of the books on the required MFA reading list, because these poems just say something in such a way that you think, ok, I could do that. I went through the first book, Bending Home: Selected and New Poems by Susan Griffin, and literally wrote "exercise," "line breaks," "hueristic," on the pages. I felt like I had learned about what a poem could do from this book. The line is super short in most of the poems, the content is often more abstract than I believed we were allowed to be before reading Anne Carson.

Some of my all-time favorite poems are in this book: "Her Sadness Runs Besider Her Like a Horse," and "Love Should Grow Up Like a Wild Iris in the Fields." While I'm trying to get rid of all the books I can live without, xeroxing beautiful poems and jettisoning the book, this book is full of gems, of things I didn't think were possible but can't wait to try.

A little quote from "Summer Night":

"This is civilization.
We have inherited it.
We love the glitter."


The second book, Just Space: Poems 1979-1989 by Joanne Kyger, I literally just started reading to microreview and give it away this upcoming week. Two weeks in a row and I'm not parting with the book I've begun to read! It's just too different, and too long. I want to take everything I can from it before/if I give it away.

From a poetics point of view, it's really interesting. The poetry is verse but has the feel of a prose poem. It sounds a lot in tone and in the way it leaps like The Rooster's Wife, by Russell Edson, or maybe anything by Russell Edson. It's got a narrative pretense but the leaps are lyrical and move the poems toward surrealism even though they are accessable and clearly about everyday narratives. The overall effect is like a dream where you are going through ordinary life but with dream logic, and everything is skewed.

The poems also use white space in a way I haven't seen before, with indentations, terracing, using almost concrete poetry-esque shaping but without any form emerging. The block of text, sometimes very narrow with short lines again, takes up more mental space because it isn't clinging to the left margin like a rat drowning in a bucket. The three or four word lines take up space and that somehow justifies them and gives them weight. It's cool. And then sometimes the indentations are like brackets seperating the different points of view, the narratives of different characters.

The tone of the poems in Just Space is different too, assured, confident, political but not taking itself so seriously. I don't think a fair-use quote is going to do these poems justice, so I won't try. These aren't super condense feeling poems with a bunch of stand-alone lines. The whole thing is an organic, sweeping, relaxed, scattered thing that comes together like an abstract painting. I really enjoy it.

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