Washington is obsessed with language. Whether lobbying, legislating or campaigning, this has always been a city of wordsmiths. At their best, our politicians have written phrases to inspire the world; at their worst, they’ve deliberately tortured phrases into nonsense. But the greater Washington area is also home to another group of people devoted to the careful parsing of language. Several of the nation’s finest poets live or have lived here. And the publication of four new collectionsgives us a chance to reflect on the remarkable literary resources of this region.
1The title of Michael Collier’s new book, An Individual History (Norton, $25.95), may lead some readers to expect an autobiography in verse. But this collection is more diverse, more fragmented, ranging not only between various levels of the personal and the social, but also between various degrees of the real and the imagined. “History,” the longest piece in the book, is a travel memoir and a troubling meditation on political evil and anti-Semitism. Collier, who teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland, remains intriguingly coy and evasive as he speculates about the destiny of various passenger liners he might or might not have been a passenger on: “Who knows the fate of the U.S.S.R. Felix Dzerzhinsky, / perhaps it’s a casino aground on the Aral Sea, / or like his socialist-realism sculpture, toppled by a crane.” These speculations give way to questions about the author:
The ship I sailed, the U.S.S.R. Baikal, was a lake,
and how a lake could be a ship, I don’t understand,
and I don’t understand Michael Collier, then or now,
who loves the idea that truth is great.
Collier weaves himself in and out of his poems like a boxer and can go from caressing to slapping a reader with almost no warning. The book’s first poem, “Piety,” is a personal recollection of being an altar boy that suddenly turns brutally suggestive: “Any of us who served Mass / knew the inside of his mouth — ” he writes of the church organist, whose lower lip was “moist with holy / adhesive and reptilian in its reach.” But Collier can also write lovely lyrics, moving family reminiscences and even funny poems about dogs.
2Stanley Plumly, Maryland’s poet laureate and the director of the University of Maryland’s creative writing department, combines stateliness, formal beauty and emotional urgency in rich and musical tapestries of language. Like Collier, he mixes history with personal experience in surprising and resonant ways. “Glenn Gould,” one of my favorite poems in Orphan Hours (Norton, $25.95), reenacts a single day in 1960 when Plumly heard the famous pianist perform. The poem takes in not only Gould’s visit to Cincinnati but John F. Kennedy’s as well, then projects ahead to Gould’s retirement and ends with a description of the era expressed, as so often is the case in Plumly’s writing, through nature imagery:
This was the fall, October, when Ohio,
like almost every other part of the country,
is beginning to be mortally beautiful,
the great old hardwoods letting go
their various scarlet, yellow,
and leopard-spotted leaves one by one.
“Glenn Gould” moves with tremendous agility from each thought, image or memory to the next, while leaving the deepest connections implicit. In a similar way, “The Best Years of Our Lives” weaves together Plumly’s recollections of his parents with the plot of that 1946 filmand memories of first seeing it with his grandmother. The poem is a masterpiece about a masterpiece. Indeed, every poem in “Orphan Hours” is masterful, and I hope this collection helps bring Plumly, one of our best poets, the wider attention he has deserved for a long time.
3Jane Shore’s poetry leaves the events of the larger world mostly untouched, focusing almost exclusively on memories of parents and other relatives, of childhood experiences, of her marriage and of the experience of raising her child. The domestic territories surveyed in That Said (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22) feel familiar, perhaps overly familiar: One would like to see these modest anecdotes pushed a bit into unexpected areas, to manifest a bit more complexity, ambivalence or doubt. There are, here and there, memorable passages. I liked, for example, the conclusion of “Workout,” a poem about a beautiful younger sibling:
Like a dress handed down
from sister to sister,
in time one body will inherit
what the other has outgrown.
Shore, who teaches at George Washington University, writes poems that are pleasant and accessible, and there will be many who enjoy them, but the cost of their accessibility is their unwillingness to challenge or trouble their readers. Insulated from the larger landscape of history and thus from any possibility of historical resonance, these individual stories feel small indeed. People sometimes complain about the difficulty and obscurity of contemporary poetry, but a self-contained poem whose author’s intentions, meanings and methods are completely apparent is unlikely to haunt us or linger long in our minds.
4Lucille Clifton’s poems, on the other hand, tend to look simple but usually aren’t. Clifton, who died in 2010, engaged both the personal and the political in her work and often made it hard to tell one from the other. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 , coming next month (BOA, $35), contains more than 700 pages of poetry, including three substantial sections of poems not previously available in book form.
Clifton, a National Book Award winner who taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, was an African American poet in the obvious sense: That is, she was African American and a poet. Moreover, much of her work explicitly concerns the African American experience. Yet that characterization is limiting and unfair: Clifton’s concerns, particularly in the later stages of her career, extended beyond the interests or history of any particular cultural community.
The early pieces are small, precise and chiseled. Their short lines, lack of capitalization and fragmented diction now seem emblematic of a certain sort of socially aware poetry arising out of the ’60s. As her work evolved, one of her innovations was to use many of these formal features to express an increasingly broad scope of voices, drawn from history, from myth, from her copious imagination:
“people who are going to be / in a few years / bottoms of trees / bear a responsibility to something / besides people,” she writes in “generations,” a poem from her first book. It’s a good message, and one still worth paying attention to. Clifton was a prolific, always interesting, sometimes fascinating poet, and her “Collected Poems” is a gift, not just for her fans — although they will surely appreciate having the previously uncollected work — but for all of us.