It was a great lineup, featuring four poets who had all had early poems published in Bethesda’s Poet Lore: Traci Brimhall, Terrance Hayes, Cornelius Eady, and Lina Pastan. I’d seen Hayes read before, had never heard of Pastan nor Brimhall and Eady, at least partly on account of co-founding Cave Canem and having taught at American University, casts a pretty wide shadow ’round these parts. I brought with me a collection by Pastan which I had bought earlier. I chose one by Pastan for the excellent reason that it was the only one available at Barnes & Noble by any of the four poets.
The reading was briskly paced, with Poet Lore editors Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller providing engaging commentary and introduction. Hayes was probably the most engaging of the poets, with Eady (unsurprisingly) a close second.
I don’t regret getting Pastan’s collection, though. I’d picked up Traveling Light, a nicely elegiac collection with mostly short lines (though a couple of denser pieces with longer lines that almost resemble prose poems). The positive quote from NPR on the front talks about the ‘rhyming lyrics,’ but honestly, there are very few rhymes. There is a comparison with Emily Dickinson that can be(and has been) made, but Pastan is not nearly so elliptical as Dickinson. There’s a combination of a certain melancholy of growing older with a heaping dollop of the pastoral that reminds me of the Yves Bonnefoy poems I’ve been reading lately (but nothing so amazing as Bonnefoy’s poems about snow). The combination of short lines and two or three line stanzas really works for me, which is why I’m disappointed when I come to a ‘block’ poem. Subject-wise, too, the denser typographic poems tend to be more narrative and a little… I don’t know… flighty? That’s not right. But something.
But there’s something in the comparisons I’ve made. Pastan is very, very good. Really good. But she does frequently remind me of better poets, which pulls me out of the work itself.
Late September Song
With the sound of
a freight train
through the trees
the first strong wind
sing the song
of its own
Tell me that doesn’t sound like Dickinson (though less elliptical and erotic than Dickinson’s best works)?
There is one very weak section entitled somewhere in the world that contains political poems. The poems, I’m sorry to say, are made of sentiments and conceits of the most trite variety. Sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial and then, in the last lines, thinking about one of his slaves or the 9/11 poem which avoids the terrorist attack until the very end before explaining a version of ‘it changed everything.’ It’s all basic ‘talk about something else and then BAM! as if someone will actually be surprised that you’ve changed the subject to something serious but ultimately uncontroversial.’ Punches pulled. These are the politics of checkbook liberalism outrage.
Finally, congratulations to Hayes who just won a so-called ‘Genius Grant’ (formally, a MacArthur Fellowship – this year, it’s an award of $625,000 over five years).