I’m as surprised as anyone to say that I have a couple of favorite contemporary poets.
For most of my life I didn’t pay much attention to this world, but now I follow the work of a couple of poets pretty carefully including Morgan Parker, Ilya Kaminsky and the brilliant Danez Smith. This new book from Smith is perhaps even better then Don’t Call Us Dead. I found myself saying “wow” out loud at the end of one of the poems here. Gorgeous language, gut-wrenching honesty and style approachable to a non-expert like me. Smith moves from the playful to the heartbreaking, sometimes in a single poem, like this one.
Opening myself up to poetry and getting invested in the careers of a small group of young poets has been a great experience – exposing to ideas and lives often far from my own and I look forward to their books now like I used to look forward to new album releases. Even if contemporary poetry isn’t really your thing, Smith’s is a voice worth hearing.
Danez Smith. (Photograph by David Hong)
Carmen Gimenez Smith
Contemporary poetry can be very hit or miss for me. If the writers voice connects with me, it can resonate in ways literature doesn’t (see Danez Smith, Morgan Parker, Ilya Kaminsky) but if it doesn’t connect in the first few poems, generally I’m lost.
Smith is clearly a talented writer and others may love this complex little work, but it never caught fire for me. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps I wasn’t reading close enough, perhaps the subtlety of the structure was lost on me. Smith is widely considered an important voice in poetry, so I must be missing something, perhaps you’ll find it?
Recommended for the enthusiast.
This little book of poems is stunning. In a straightforward voice it tells the story of a town that goes silent in the face of the atrocities of an occupying force. Illustrated with simple drawing of hand signals the towns people use to communicate, the book is both odd and deeply resonate with our times. This one made many people’s lists of best poetry book of 2019 and I can see why. The writing is beautiful and accessible and the message incredibly relevant. Next time someone tells me they don’t like or understand poetry I am going to recommend they read this.
Carson is a genius. An actual genius. She’s a Greek scholar, and a gifted poet and novelist. She’s also someone I’ve admired for years. In fact, I have a whole page of this website devoted to her.
Sometimes her work, which often mixes the ancient with the modern, can border on the too difficult for simpletons like me. But this play — a brilliant mash-up of Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe really delivers at the sweet spot of gorgeous, funny and clever. I regret I didn’t see this when it was performed in Brooklyn. If there’s ever a revival, I’ll be there.
I don’t really follow contemporary poetry, but there a couple of writers who I adore and I pick up their new work whenever it comes out. Parker (of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce) is one of those writers I follow.
Magical Negro is another round of beautiful writing marrying the political to the personal, the love story to the manifesto. I am sure some of these took a long time to work out, but on the page, this book has an immediacy and urgency that feels rare and special. I’m looking forward to what Parker does next.
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
A slim, early volume by one of my favorite working poets. You can see the visceral power and honesty here, (some of the poems here are repeated in the more comprehensive Don’t Call Us Dead) but perhaps it isn’t as fully developed as I think it is in his later works.
There’s many wonders to poetry, some of which are just opening up to me in middle age, but one is, frankly, the brevity. It allows you to quickly dive deep into a writer, and with someone like Smith, who’s published relatively little, almost immediately read his collected works and see his development as a writer.
I was blown away by “Don’t Call Us Dead” and you can see the roots of that brilliance in Black Movie. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
American Sonnets to My Once and Future Assassins
Another gut punch of a book of poetry by a black man. Viscerally moving sonnets about race, love and America. Most pointedly what its like to reflect backwards, and think ahead, in Trump’s America.
For many years, I didn’t read much poetry, but lately, I’m drawn to it. There’s only so many tweets you can read, so many Washington tell alls you can consume, before it all feels the same and you need someone brilliant, like Terrance Hayes, to capture the moment in a perfect turn of phrase, the reflect back the world to you in a sonnet that leaves you staring at the page long after you’re done reading.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we need poetry and poets to give voice to what its like to live today.
Layli Long Soldier
Another book of contemporary poetry, this one short listed for the National Book Award. More formally experimental than Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, this one left me feeling a bit cold. While stylistically interesting, I found it a bit cold, and I prefer my poetry rawer, I think.
Still, and all, in the last couple of years I’ve come around to the idea that its important to keep up with contemporary poetry, even if only modestly. Where things are headed, especially in the minds of our smartest young people, can come from reading their poetry and even when it doesn’t resonate, perhaps it is worth the effort.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
A strange and beautiful little book collecting the surviving fragments of poetic writings of Heraclitus, a pre-socratic philosopher and poet. None of the fragments collected here are complete, so it difficult to under how exactly they fit into the longer works to which they once belonged, but here, in a relatively new translation, and presented one to a page, they have a kind of mysterious and compelling beauty. I read the whole thing in one sitting and now it sits by my bedside, frequently re-read when I need a moment or two of beauty before bed.
Heraclitus by Moreelse
Don’t Call Us Dead
A stunning work of poetry. A book that left me breathless, and thrusting it into my wife’s hands, saying “you need to read this”. A work both political and deeply, deeply, personal full of poems that address race, love, manhood and more, tackling the deeply toxic race relations in America with nuance, compassion and serious writing chops.
Many many years ago I heard Tariq Ali say that if you want to understand a culture, read its poetry. He was talking about Iraq, but the same holds true for U.S. If you want to understand America, in all our horribleness and beauty, read Danez Smith.