What is Contemporary Poetry?

by on Apr.05, 2013

Recently a lot of people – a lot of them younger, a lot of them people with a fiction background who apparently used to think poetry was boring and a lot of Swedish and foreign poets – have asked me to tell them what contemporary poetry I read or I think they should read. Well, people often ask me to talk about contemporary US poetry, but so much that I love is in translation and I prefer to see US poetry in connection to other places. So here are some books of contemporary poetry I feel you need to read. I’ve excluded all Action Books and books that I have translated (all of which it goes without saying, you should read and read and read until you vomit!), but these are the books that really matter in contemporary poetry in my opinion:

The Drug of Art by Ivan Blatny (Ugly Duckling) – selection from a Czech poet, whose work ranges from Eastern European modernist poetry to the great late stuff, a glorious interlingual mish-mash. Read some poems here.

Raul Zurita, Dreams for Kurosawa – amazing visionary dream poems by one of the world’s great living poets. I love all his books: Prugatory, Songs for his Disappeared Love, Anti-Paradise etc. Here he is reading at Notre Dame.

Percussion Grenade by Joyelle McSweeney – Seth Oelbaum recently called Joyelle one of the three greatest living US poets, and that’s probably right. This is Joyelle’s best, most rambunctious, radical and necropastoral jam. (Also check out her new prose book Salamandrine: 8 Gothics.). Here’s something Joyelle recently wrote about the play, “Contagious Knives,” which is part of the book. Here’s a recent review in HTMLGiant. And another.

Chelsea Minnis, Poemland – Contemporary American poetry who blends fashion and ultra-violence. I love all of her books. This one is didactic in the best possible sense. I think she was also in Seth’s “top three.” It was also Minnis whose work first prompted Arielle Greenberg to coin the phrase “gurlesque,” a controversial and insightful concept that is now being hotly debated all over the Swedish newspapers, journals and webzines (here for example) due to Maria Margareta Österholm’s book of criticism, The Girl Laboratory in Pieces: Swedish Prose 1980-2005 (we published a translation of the intro here).

Alice Notley, Descent of Alette – It’s of course notoriously impossible to say who’s the “top three poets” in any country, but Notley has certainly been one of the best US poets over the past 20+ years. I love most of her books, but for me Alette – a feminist, visionary epic set in the subway of Reagan’s America (thus increasingly realistic, correct) – is probably still the best, the one I teach most often and the one I always recommend to people from other countries who want to know about the best contemporary US poetry.

Ronaldo Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object – African-American poet writes brutal, grotesque, gorgeous poems in prose and in pretty lyrics. I wrote this post about him a while back. This book really moved me.

Maroosa di Giorgio, The History of Violets – Aerie, mysterious necropastorals saturated by art, flowers and violence by the late Uruguayan super star (in the Warhol sense of that word). Swedish readers might see the incredibly close connection to Swedish poet Ann Jäderlund, the superstar of Sweden.

OK, I said I was going to ignore Action Books, but really I can’t talk about contemporary poetry without mentioning Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, who is really one of the greatest living poets. She’s got two books out with Action Books and a few more on the way, and one chapbook from Tinfish, all translated by Don Mee Choi. Here’s something Lisa Flowers wrote about her. She too partakes with some of the gurlesque/necropastoral vibes I’ve mentioned above. THere’s a whole bunch of awesome poets in South Korea right now, though they have not yet been translated to English (we’re working on it).

OK, that’s my quick post for the day. I’ve no doubt missed some great ones but this is a pretty good image of my idea of the greatest “contemporary US” poetry, or at least a start.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Maybe I like In the Pines as much as Descent of Alette. Those two books are really so amazing.

  2. Johannes

    Also this list is obviously limited to work in translation. I could of course make a whole list of Swedish books that are my favorites, but almost none of them have been translated (for example Eva Stina Byggmästar or Eva Kristina Olsson).


  3. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    “So Why Don’t You Marry It?”

    I love Poemland by Chelsea Minnis.

    G C-H

  4. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    “My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me.
    Tell me where did you sleep last night.”

    “In the pines, in the pines, where
    The cold wind blows . . .”

    I believe this song is a traditional. I have it from Nirvana Unplugged.
    I sat once w/ Alice N. in a Paris gallery while she pretty much ignored the “business” of art by singing traditionals to herself sweet & low.

    G C-H

  5. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    Huddie Leadbetter wrote Where Did You Sleep Last Night, a song i referred to above as In the Pines, as that is its most chilling chorus.

    G C-H

  6. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle

    You Don’t Get It from a Toilet Seat

    “When I snub I really snub.” (Iggy Pop)

    On the first page of her In the Pines, A. Notley intones “I got hepatitis C from shooting speed thirty-three years ago.”

    I once published an article in the Brooklyn Rail entitled Fauxhemia: The Same Old Same Old New York School, deploring the 10th Gen NY School still redumdating itself today, in which I declared, “[Ted] Berrigan bought the fatal bottle.” For which I caught snubs. “You make it sound like he drank himself to death.”

    Deploying a strategic listening system symptomatic of poets and psychotics alike, fakes evade by fixating on some minor word, willfully missing the point.

    Does it make you feel a whole lot better if I say Ted got hep C off dirty needles shooting speed?

    Last year I was treated successfully for both hepatits C and cirrhosis. Boy do I know how I got it. Plus, it was hell on wheels. At the time of TB’s death these may not have even been eligible of treatment.

    In her notes to his Collected Poems, Alice has it that Ted died of cirrhosis due to complications by hepatitis C. Definite cause in hep C cases cannot be determined, too many variables. All involve swapping blood with carriers. This virus runs high among Asians simply because they share dinner plates. In the U.S. tops is swapping needles. While cirrhosis can be aggravated by hep C, it is (duh) caused primarily by drinking.

    I got a near fatal dose of both from doing tons of both, and I don’t regret it. (BTW an overdose of heroin will not always kill. I know; I overdosed twice. Mainline coke? Iraqi oil pipe fire: O.D. worse than water boarding.)

    So much for setting the record straight. My five words in the Brooklyn Rail hit harder, sound better and for any IQ over idiot* mean the same damn thing.

    During his recent Brooklyn reading Clark Coolidge, a contemporary of T. Berrigan allowed, “You know how Ted always read for an hour then said he’d finish with just eighty-eight more poems . . .”

    “I love to talk.” (TB) You may draw your own conclusions as to TB’s drug-z of choice.

    Logo Po

    Also Ran: In a telling aside (yawn) “new” New York School™ poets 40 years younger, though no longer young themselves, read with this truly unruly originator I’ve named up above, copping out & copying every language move he’d long since courageously invented.


    * The Idiot (Iggy Pop) Correct spelling in previous comment: Ledbetter.