Some of the finest titles to enjoy during National Poetry Month aren’t, strictly speaking, collections of verse. Instead, they’re biographical studies, letters and/or interviews with poets: Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, which swoops back and forth temporally like one of the poet’s odes; Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s correspondence, Words in Air, the loving story of poetic friendship that lasted 30 years; Letters of Ted Hughes, hailed as the best since those of the aforementioned Keats; and Stepping Stones, a hefty new collection of interviews with Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll.
Heaney is one of a long line of poets to graduate from—and teach at—Queens University in Belfast, and he might be called the grandfather of The New North, an impressive anthology edited by Chris Agee and recently published by the premier house for Irish poetry in this country, Wake Forest University Press. The collection intersplices, with the work of younger poets, several “seniors,” from Heaney to his students Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, as well as Ciaran Carson, whose signature twining, long-lined narratives are continued in his collection For All We Know. Perhaps the most interesting and best known of the newer names here is Nick Laird, the last poet in The New North and the author of this year’s On Purpose. Laird typifies these younger Northern Irish poets in that his work is less concerned with the “Troubles” that haunted the two previous generations; their poems, as Agee notes in his introduction, “are much more likely to be interested in new technology, ecology, Eastern Europe, or bilingualism.”
J.D. McClatchy, the longtime editor of the Yale Review and the recently appointed president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has just brought out Mercury Dressing. Quintessential McClatchy, the poems balance mandarin wit with enormous learning, a fully 21st-century sensibility and a deft use of the demotic: “At the second intermission of Manon / We were bored and on a third vodka. . . .”
There are comparisons to be drawn between McClatchy’s poems and those of the late John Updike, though the latter had a sometimes derided lighter touch. Endpoint and Other Poems, assembled in the weeks immediately before his death, consists of the last eight years of Updike’s verse. In “Requiem,” one of the book’s last and darkest works, Updike laments that his age dictates that he will not die a prodigy; indeed, indifference or bewilderment that he hadn’t already died is more likely to greet his passing. Endpoint’s last three poems, however, strike a brighter note, in particular the final work, which celebrates his wife’s new vision after a cataract operation on her birthday, offering “A cake of love from your own / John.”
Rita Dove, former poet laureate and longtime professor at the University of Virginia, mastered the formal narrative with her third verse collection, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Thomas and Beulah. She continues in that vein in Sonata Mulattica, the tragic, fact-based story of a virtuosic violinist. Son of a white woman and “an African prince,” George Polgreen Bridgetower is possessed of fingers “agile as the monkeys from his father’s land” as they play the strings of his instrument. He travels to meet the young genius Beethoven, whose plans to dedicate a sonata to Bridgetower are incinerated by—guess what?—trouble over a woman.
Many of the year’s best collections have been published by small publishing houses, which, along with university presses, comprise the backbone of poetry publication. For example, Graywolf’s Elizabeth Alexander wrote and read the inaugural poem, and Coffee House Press author Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler ($16, 90 pages, ISBN 9781566892186), a Category-5 sequence about Katrina, was a National Book Award nominee. Overlook has just issued a collection not-really-for children (unless their parents are willing to pay for years of therapy), Shut Up, You’re Fine ($14.95, 144 pages, ISBN 9781590201039), by Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-nominated author Andrew Hudgins with illustrations by the acclaimed Barry Moser; and BOA Editions recently issued one of the year’s most interesting books, The Heaven-Sent Leaf ($16, 72 pages, ISBN 9781934414156), a collection of parable-like poems about that seemingly most unpoetic of subjects, money, by former hedge-funder Katy Lederer. Finally, Copper Canyon’s 2008 list included C.D. Wright’s Rising Falling Hovering ($22, 100 pages, ISBN 9781556592737), whose singular mix of Ozarkiana, the avant-garde and social consciousness has made her one of today’s most interesting and admired poets.
Diann Blakely’s most recent poetry collection is Cities of Flesh and the Dead (Elixir Press).