Saturday, November 28, 2020

Best poetry books of 2020


Best poetry books of 2020

Clive James’s joyous farewell, David Bowie speaks to Simon Armitage – and sounds of the city from Caleb Femi

Rishi Dastidar
Sat 28 Nov 2020 09.00 GMT


hile the pandemic might have stopped poets gathering physically, poetry itself is in good health. This year books of urgency and contemplation have jostled for attention, and striking new voices have emerged. Prime among these has been Will Harris, whose RENDANG (Granta) won the Forward prize for first collection. Harris writes with a piercing clarity and intelligence, his voice warm as it crisply ruminates on big issues such as our shared cultures and identities, as well as more intimate moments.

My Darling from the Lions

Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions (Picador) is another debut that has illuminated the year, its wit and sensuality alive with a winning energy. With a similar verve, Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire (Cape) braids together simple and economical descriptions of the natural world with scenes of tenderness, intimacy and ecstasy, graceful in its balance. The most vital first collection of 2020 is Poor (Penguin) by Caleb Femi. Combining startlingly inventive language with his own photography, the book is a pioneering tribute to the lives of the young black men he grew up with in south London. His devotion to celebrating a sense of now and what happens when this meets with death gives Poor an unexpected spiritual dimension; it makes you think of George Herbert in its intensity and importance.

Also intense is Caroline Bird’s Forward prize-winning The Air Year (Carcanet). Her sixth collection is a centrifuge of careening energy, where riding love’s rollercoaster is also an opportunity for self-knowledge and acceptance, “blobs of miscellaneous optimism”. It is one of the most generous and open-hearted books of the year. Another title that gives shape to the ineffable is JR Carpenter’s This Is a Picture of Wind (Longbarrow). It’s a digitally tinged pillow book full of staccato language inspired by John Ruskin’s “sky-bottling days”, Francis Beaufort’s wind scale and Luke Howard’s observations of clouds: “Matter invested with a luminous quality … The breath became visible.”

Natalie Diaz’s meditations on stolen land, stolen water and erased bodies in Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber) are equally luminous: “I am your Native, / and this is my American labyrinth.” Her language is rich and epigrammatic, its physicality enhanced by its unruffled cadences. Mining in similar territory, How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion) by Bhanu Kapil sharply explores what it is like to be permanently on edge when you feel like you are permanently a guest as an immigrant.

Just us

The lyric essay has proved vital in examining subjects often difficult or ignored. Notable in this regard is Just Us (Allen Lane) by Claudia Rankine, the follow-up to the award-winning Citizen. Subtitled “An American Conversation”, it’s an interrogation of how it might be possible for people to accommodate and make sense of our differences, in race, class and status. Rankine is as hard and unflinching on herself as she is on her interlocutors. Also using a mix of memoir, image and poetry is artist Abi Palmer in her debut, Sanatorium (Penned in the Margins). An account of her stay at a rehabilitation spa in Budapest, she brings the actuality of her physical pain vividly to life, communicating its texture viscerally and without pity.

Magnetic Field- The Marsden Poems

“‘Always had you pegged as a bit of a stop-at-home, curled up in your Yorkshire foxhole’,” says David Bowie from the dead to Simon Armitage in Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems (Faber), a wide-ranging personal poetic topography drawn from throughout his career. It is a Rough Guide to the poet laureate and the village that formed and continues to inspire him. And if you are missing traversing a city in search of adventure, find solace in Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem (Faber). A neglected feminist modernist poem, and forerunner to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, this is a journey of typographical and linguistic exuberance through the mourning cityscape of the French capital one day in 1919.

Clive James Fire of Joy

Finally, the last books from two of the most important poets writing in English came out this year. The Historians (Carcanet) by Eavan Boland, who died in April, zooms in with characteristic musicality and intelligence on what the stories that are often overlooked – those of women. Meanwhile, in The Fire of Joy (Picador), Clive James restated his belief that noise is the thing when it comes to poems, and the “fire of joy” it produces in those hearing and declaiming it. From Thomas Wyatt to Carol Ann Duffy, this valedictory volume features 80 poems he learned and loved, each accompanied by an essay to persuade us of their brilliance. Not that he could ever hide his. “I chose the right profession – poetry – and followed it to the end.”

• Rishi Dastidar’s latest collection, Saffron Jack, is published by Nine Arches.


Friday, November 27, 2020

Hurricane by Mary Oliver


by Mary Oliver

It didn't behave
like anything you had
ever imagined. The wind
tore at the trees, the rain
fell for days slant and hard.
The back of the hand
to everything. I watched
the trees bow and their leaves fall
and crawl back into the earth.
As though, that was that.
This was one hurricane
I lived through, the other one
was of a different sort, and
lasted longer. Then
I felt my own leaves giving up and
falling. The back of the hand to
everything. But listen now to what happened
to the actual trees;
toward the end of that summer they
pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.
It was the wrong season, yes,
but they couldn't stop. They
looked like telephone poles and didn't
care. And after the leaves came
blossoms. For some things
there are no wrong seasons.
which is what I dream of for me.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Lost Poems of George Oppen


Mary and George Oppen on their boat in California, circa 1930

The Lost Poems of George Oppen

George Oppen, introduction by David B. Hobbs

Newly discovered poems by George Oppen, published as 21 Poems, nearly doubles the size of Oppen’s early and influential corpus, and happily, the poems themselves are fascinating.

September 1, 2017

In the summer of 2015, I went to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library with a difficult question. I had been researching the relationship between city life and conceptions of “the lyric” and was working on a chapter about the poet George Oppen’s Discrete Series (1934), a book that remains enigmatic even eighty years after its initial publication. A group of thirty-one short, mostly untitled poems that evoke the experience of modernity but prefer subtlety and syntactic contortion to direct emotional expression, Discrete Series received astonishing support upon release. Ezra Pound contributed a preface that concluded: “I salute a serious craftsman, a sensibility which is not every man’s sensibility and which has not been got out of any other man’s books.” William Carlos Williams wrote a glowing review of it for Poetry magazine, praising Oppen as “a ‘stinking’ intellectual” whose verse rests “on a craftsmanlike economy of means,” and went on to predict that Oppen’s work would push readers to remember that “poems are constructions.”

But their shared awe of Oppen’s craftsmanship was not broadly predictive. Oppen would not publish another book until the 1960s, and would not win the Pulitzer Prize until 1969. The poems in Discrete Series appear rather seamless and gnomic, leaving readers with few clues as to how to read them. For the most part, the poem sequence has been seen as a kind of momentary eruption rather than a slow accumulation of effort—a brief poetic apprenticeship before Oppen turned to political activism and chose not to write any poetry for almost twenty-five years.

As Oppen’s political convictions whisked him around the United States, then to France and Germany in the Second World War (where he was wounded), back to New York, and then to California, he came to the attention of the FBI. The first entry in his heavily-redacted file is dated 1941: “The subject was Kings County election campaign manager for Communist Party in 1936 elections. Voted Communist Party ticket in 1936….Subject not found and therefore not being considered for custodial detention.” Oppen couldn’t be found because he was already in Detroit, working as a pattern-maker in the Machinists Union, and then in Louisiana, where he received basic training.

FBI surveillance increased after he returned from the war until a dramatic confrontation with two agents in early 1950, at their home in Redondo Beach, led Oppen and his wife Mary to flee to Mexico. Whatever correspondence or manuscripts George had maintained from the 1930s were lost in the urgency of their departure, and as a result, there has been little in the way of surviving material to provide us with insight into what he was thinking and reading as he wrote Discrete Series. I visited the Beinecke with the hope that Pound and the poet Louis Zukofsky, both of whom were in correspondence with Oppen, would have discussed his early writings in their extensive exchange.

What I found was something far more exciting than I could have imagined: an early Oppen manuscript. “May have 32pp of poems by George Oppen for you,” Zukofsky had written Pound on March 6, 1930. Scholars have long assumed that the “32pp” to which Zukofsky referred  comprised a draft of Discrete Series that had been lost, like the sheaf he sent to Charles Reznikoff in late 1933, now held in the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego. But the assemblage Zukofsky sent Pound six weeks after he wrote that letter—an unbound sheaf of typewritten poems varying dramatically in voice and style, one per page, with the heading “21 Poems by George Oppen” handwritten in pencil on the first page—shows a larger, more dynamic body of work. Only one poem in the typescript can be found in Discrete Series—the final poem, “The mast”—but Oppen published (and tried to publish) these poems for several years after sending them to Pound, suggesting that elements of both collections coexisted for a period of time. In fact, the second, fifth, sixteenth, and twenty-first poems were originally published together as four sections of a different “Discrete Series.” These poems can be seen as precursors to Discrete Series in theme and approach. Oppen’s love for his young bride, his love of sailing, his skepticism about the impact of modern finance and technology on social life, are evident in both sets. Some of the earlier poems seem like the Imagistic experiments that readers might have expected from an acolyte of Pound, tempered with a Williams-esque fascination with everydayness (“One remembers the smell of warm paint”).

But there are also many differences between the two collections. Although Discrete Series includes several poems about seafaring, rural highways, and the metropolis, it rarely seeks to bridge the conceptual distance between these disparate living spaces. (Williams noted “the colors, images, moods [that] are not suburban.”) The work in 21 Poems, however, often seeks a resolution outside of the urban setting. As a whole, this earlier collection has a much greater breadth of tone and mood, and certain poems function in rhetorically theatrical ways that Discrete Series rarely allows. Some even read like burlesques of poetic clichés (“The moon rose like a rising moon”) or as critiques of cosmopolitan habits (“Your coat slips smoothly from your shoulders to the waiter: / How, in the face of this, shall we remember”). 21 Poems also includes more individuals who are identifiable beyond a spare “he” or “she” pronoun, some of whom are addressed with remarkable intimacy (“Here put your head, that desires nothing except familiarly”). These poems eagerly display a skeptical intelligence and turn to irony to comment on the scenes they describe. The first of the earlier sequence, which dramatizes the experience of giving birth, is by far the longest of Oppen’s early career. It is nearer a poem like “Parturition” by Mina Loy, who the Oppens would eventually meet in New York, than anything about fatherhood written by other male modernists. The poem shifts constantly between narration, exclamation, and query—the total effect more impressionistic than “objective.”


There has been a recent surge in Oppen scholarship, supported by published volumes of interviews (Speaking with George Oppen, edited by Richard Swigg), prose (Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers, edited by Stephen Cope), and reminiscences from the Oppens’ many friends (The Oppens Remembered, edited by DuPlessis). But this is the first publication of new material that precedes Oppen’s storied twenty-five years of silence between the publication of Discrete Series and his next book, The Materials, in 1962. 21 Poems nearly doubles the size of Oppen’s early and influential corpus, and happily, the poems themselves are fascinating. The simple act of sending them to Pound indicates Oppen’s ambition, as well as Zukofsky’s confidence in his younger friend’s work. When I first shared my find with one of my professors, he grabbed my shoulders and said, “Don’t get used to this feeling, David, it may never happen again.”


This a vacant lot;
Impenetrable ground
Of embedded stones,
My shoes grow
Dusty, not of soil.

No nor elsewhere. Simply
This, and my dissatisfaction.

Between eyes and shoes, a plane,
A spaced companionship, opposing
This dust, and some immovable watchfulness.



The revolving door swings load after load into the lobby;
There is a sound of secrets,
A scattering of feet, a crossing, recrossing.
But now, with the sudden weight of prophecy,
Incredibly caught stillness,
The carpet level to the door.      From outside,
Short clatter of a street-car—    a policeman’s whistle
Barely heard.
                             Now first visible,
Steadily back and forth,
Past and past the newsboy (straining, silent),
Unvaryingly waiting, overcoated,
Walks the doorman.      As in a dark house
A wicker chair cracks suddenly in the attic.



One remembers the smell of warm paint:
Bread and butter left on the wood step of the porch.


Round clouds above;
Everything very brightly
Not there.



So he stood on the island— over the sea
Until creation was a cone with polished sides.

Starring— a man before a bill-board.

Looked to where the shallow-edged sea drew at a pebble, white
Whole; pebble even nowhere. Emerged
Clearly into solitude.

Possibly saw creation


Barely curve the water,


Circumscribe his unshaping feet.


We, you and I, will go all over the world.
Will feel minutely, adequately heavy as a curving kite-string from a
Fields, the porches of houses, the cornered ways of cities—

We will walk everywhere as at each step our toes spread on grass.

              Heads above them, interval planed by chins.

On the island (if he smiled ever smiled)

Sank his feet slightly into sand. Filling nothing.

21 Poems by George Oppen, edited by David B. Hobbs, is published by New Directions.

George Oppen

George Oppen (1908–1984) was best known as one of the members of the Objectivist group of poets. He abandoned poetry in the 1930s for political activism, and later moved to Mexico to avoid the attentions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He returned to poetry—and to the United States—in 1958, and received a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1969.

David B. Hobbs

David B. Hobbs is a PhD Candidate at New York University, writing a dissertation about lyric modernism and the city. (August 2017)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

George Oppen / Five Poems about Poetry


Five Poems about Poetry

                               THE GESTURE

The question is: how does one hold an apple
Who likes apples

And how does one handle
Filth? The question is

How does one hold something
In the mind which he intends

To grasp and how does the salesman
Hold a bauble he intends

To sell? The question is
When will there not be a hundred

Poets who mistake that gesture
For a style.


                           THE LITTLE HOLE

The little hole in the eye
Williams called it, the little hole

Has exposed us naked
To the world

And will not close.

Blankly the world
Looks in

And we compose

And the sense

Of home
And there are those

In it so violent
And so alone

They cannot rest.


                                  THAT LAND

Sing like a bird at the open
Sky, but no bird
Is a man—

Like the grip
Of the Roman hand
On his shoulder, the certainties

Of place
And of time

Held him, I think
With the pain and the casual horror
Of the iron and may have left
No hope of doubt

Whereas we have won doubt
From the iron itself

And hope in death. So that
If a man lived forever he would outlive
Hope. I imagine open sky

Over Gethsemane,
Surely it was this sky.



Impossible to doubt the world: it can be seen
And because it is irrevocable

It cannot be understood, and I believe that fact is lethal

And man may find his catastrophe,
His Millennium of obsession.

                                            air moving,
a stone on a stone,
something balanced momentarily, in time might the lion

Lie down in the forest, less fierce
And solitary

Than the world, the walls
Of whose future may stand forever.


                               FROM VIRGIL

I, says the buzzard,


Has evolved
Too long

If ‘life is a search
For advantage.’

‘At whose behest

Does the mind think?’ Art
Also is not good

For us
Unless like the fool

In his folly

It may rescue us
As only the true

Might rescue us, gathered
In the smallest corners

Of man’s triumph. Parve puer . . . ‘Begin,

O small boy,
To be born;

On whom his parents have not smiled

No god thinks worthy of his table,
No goddess of her bed’

George Oppen, “Five Poems about Poetry” from New Collected Poems