BACKLIST (Best poetry books 2000-2010)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 — A follow-up list of best poetry books from the preceding decade

Lid Three

Several days ago, I posted a list of books worth looking at if you want to be part of a complicated discussion involving contemporary poetry. A few of the books I listed would probably be regarded as belonging to the category known as “difficult” poetry, which no doubt left some people wondering exactly where I stand. Like some people’s relationship, it’s “complicated.”

I know some poets don’t like “difficult” poetry, but I don’t hold that against them. Some of these poets have written work I truly admire. The late Steve Kowit, for instance, is one of those whose poems I often savor and reread, but he was still haplessly beating a dead horse the last time he read at the Long Beach poetry festival, in mocking the influence of critical theory on contemporary poetry. I had heard it years before, and it really wasn’t that funny then. To lambast the alleged deleterious effects of theory on contemporary poetry in this decade came across like a comedian in 1969 telling jokes about beatniks. Anachronistic humor is so tedious. (Fortunately, the best poems of Steve Kowit will be work that endures, in part because the emotions that these poems summon end up being difficult ones to think about.)

I often wonder how academic poets, especially those whose primary job is training aspiring poets in MFA programs, expect discussions about poetry not to be difficult. I’m not just referring to the acolytes of Billy Collins, by the way, whose anecdotal, mildly humorous verse has worn all too thin, all too quickly. Metrical verse can be “difficult,” too, and poets who espouse avant-garde poetics often flounder when they encounter metrical verse. For that matter, all too many MFA teachers seem to have no idea of what a caesura in a line of metrical verse actually does. I am not, under any circumstances, defer to the massive and inexcusable ignorance that seems to be acceptable at the university level right now. If you can’t hear the poem, then you haven’t read it. Then, too, if you’re one of these purists who has to have it one way or the other, then take your homogeneity elsewhere and clone away, baby, clone yourself away into insipidity. I intend to have the best of both ways.

I’ve been fine-tuning the list for the current decade, and in the process discovered that I had mistakenly assigned one book to the “backlist” of the previous decade’s “Best of.” Ultimately, by 2020, what I aspire to compile is a list of books that will intrigue those who read contemporary poetry enough to make them want to investigate the unfamiliar titles. As a brief installment of books that will certainly be substantial contenders for that final list, and which appeared in the first decade of the century, here goes:

Mean Free Path — Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon, 2010)
(This book owes more than has been generally acknowledged to Barrett Watten’s poetry. Whether Lerner has read him or not, he’s absorbed much of the implications of Watten’s formidable and inspiring writing. The dispersal of a poet’s influence often leads casual commentary into overlooking the commitment required by those who prepared the way.)

Lighthead — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2010)

Odalisque — Mark Salerno (Salt, 2009)
(This book deserved a major prize.)

Lucifer at the Starlight — Kim Addonizio (Norton, 2009)

Easy — Marie Ponsot (Knopf. 2009)

TIRESIAS: Collected Poems — Leland Hickman (edited by Stephen Motika; afterword by Bill Mohr) (Nightboat/Seismicity Editions, 2009)

Hilarity — Patty Seyburn (New Issues Pres, 2009)

Indigo — Ron Koertge (Red Hen, 2009)

It’s Go in Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006 — Leslie Scalapino (University of California Pres, 2008)

The White Bride — Sarah Maclay (University of Tampa Press, 2009)

Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems Charles Harper Webb (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

Half the World In Light: New and Selected Poems — Juan Felipe Herrera (University of Arizona Press, 2008)

My Piece of the Puzzle — Doren Robbins (Eastern Washington University, 2008)

God Particles — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

Backscatter: New and Selected Poems — John Olson (Black Widow, 2008)

The Alphabet — Ron Silliman (University of Alabama Press, 2008)

The Messianic Trees: Selected Poems — Kit Robinson (Adventures in Poetry, 2008)

187 Reasons Mexicanoes Can’t Cross the Border —Juan Felipe Herrera (City Lights, 2007)

The Age of Huts (Compleat) — Ron Silliman (Futurepoem, 2007)

Murmur — Laura Mullen (Futurepoem, 2007)

Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 — Robert Hass (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

All that Is Not given Is Lost! — Greg Kozma (Backwaters Press, 2007)

Elegy — Mary Jo Bang (Greywolf, 2007)

Vertigo — Martha Ronk (Coffee House, 2007)

The Wind-Up Gods — Stefi Weisburd (Black Lawrence Press, 2007)

The Pleasures of the Damned — Charles Bukowski (edited by John Martin) (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007)

DRIVE: The First Quartet (1980-2005) — Lorna Dee Cervantes (Wings, 2006)

Facts About the Moon — Dorianne Laux (Norton, 2006)

The Persistence of Objects — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2006)

Toward the Winter Solstice Timothy Steele. (Ohio University Press/Swallow, 2006)

Red Snow Fence — Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2006)

A Wreath for Emmett Till — Marilyn Nelson (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

A Word Like Fire — Dick Barnes (Handsel, 2005)

Ostinato Vamps — Wanda Coleman (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004)

The Face: A Novella in Verse — David St. John (Harper, 2004)

The Temperature of This Water — Isle Yi Park (Kaya Books, 2004)

Sparrow: Poems — Carol Muske-Dukes (Random House, 2004)

Late — Cecilia Woloch (Boa Editions, 2003)

Collected Works — Lorine Niedecker (edited by Jenny Penberthy) (University of California Press, 2002)

Memoirs of a Street Poet — Frank T. Rios (Sawbone/Temple of Man, 2002)

The Splinter Factory — Jeffrey McDaniel (Manic D Press, 2002)
(It is worth noting that he is one of the few poets on this list to have a substantial number of poems translated into another language and published in a stand-alone volume in that language. Tom Lux is another such poet, as are Ben Lerner, Tracy Smith and Cecilia Woloch.)

Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry — Alan Dugan (Seven Stories, 2002)

walking barefoot in the glassblowers museum — ellyn maybe (manic d press, 2002)
NOTE: One of the best titles for a book of poems since Stephen Keller’s The Nostalgia of the Fortune Teller.)

Hip Logic — Terrance Hayes (Penguin, 2002)

Tsigan, The Gypsy Poem — Cecilia Woloch (Cahuenga Press, 2002)

Embarrassment of Survival: Selected Poems 1970-2000 — Paul Vangelisti (Marsilio/Agincourt, 2001)

The Laugh We Make When We Fall — Susan Firer (The Backwaters Press, 2001)

The Street of Clocks — Tom Lux (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Mercurochrome — Wanda Coleman (Black Sparrow, 2001)

Rancho Notorious — Richard Garcia (Boa Editions, 2001)

No one should think, by the way, that having a book just listed means that everything he or she has written deserves equal attention. Past success is not a reliable indicator of future success, at least in art. In sports, past success can be useful in creating gambling odds (for bettors) and WAR (“Win above replacement”) statistics (for coaches). In poetry, past success more typically is a source of bewilderment. How did a poet who wrote many very fine poems (among some of the best of his generation, in fact) in Shadow Ball turn out such a mediocre collection of poems in Brain Camp? One can only hope that it was a temporary lapse, and that his next book will mark him as comeback poet of the decade. This falling off, however, should not efface the level of accomplishment in Shadow Ball. With the exception of a few poets, Webb’s poetry is far better than the bulk of the work published by Tupelo Press, for instance. I will have more to say about that press in a future post. In the meantime, rest assured that the absence of its books from my list is not an accident.

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