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What Are the Best Poems of the Past 25 Years?

July 24, 2012, 12:30 AM

In 2006 the New York Times asked a select group of literary sages: “What’s the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years?” The results of the poll stirred chatter, passions, and healthy controversy. Toni Morrison’s Beloved emerged as the voters' favorite, followed by Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet compiled a similar list for poetry. I find this slightly surprising: whereas it might take a reader years to plough through the fiction list, anyone can consume an equivalent number of poems in a single afternoon, and so feel encouraged to join in the parlor game. Besides, while the contemporary fiction canon is fairly well established (most people interested in the Times list would already have been familiar with Beloved), contemporary poetry is a vast hodgepodge through which critics have only just begun to wade. Kvetch if you like about the reductiveness of literary “canons”: in this case, a little winnowing couldn’t hurt.

Though I can’t match the Times’s ability to survey famous authors, I thought I’d at least try to start the discussion by suggesting a few choices of my own, then soliciting other picks from readers. Below is a list of five poems I predict will stand the test of time, accompanied by brief commentaries (justifications?) for each. The poems are ranked in no particular order—I have about equal confidence in all of them—and I can’t call them a “Top Five” because my knowledge of recent poetry is nowhere near exhaustive. They’re simply five poems that I think belong on any best-of list. I’ve also mentioned a handful of “runners-up” that I greatly admire.

My criteria for judgment were few and straightforward. I stuck to works in English, the only language whose poetry I’m competent to judge, and disqualified poems by writers I’ve known or worked with. I did not, however, confine myself to American poets. I looked for poems that have lodged in my memory—that I’ve returned to with pleasure over and over. Most of all I looked for poems that seemed to me “word perfect.” That is, I privileged shapeliness over sprawl, self-contained achievement over vaulting ambition. (One arguable exception is choice #5, an excerpt from an uneven but wonderfully daring book-length poem.)

Again, I hope this list is the start of a conversation. I invite readers to comment on it, add to it, or offer thought-provoking reasons for subtracting from it. If nothing else I’m excited to share these pieces, the full texts of which I’ve linked to wherever possible.

1. “Sentimental Education,” Mary Ruefle

I stumbled across this poem two or three years ago and still find it remarkable with each rereading. It’s unlike anything else Mary Ruefle has written, but then many of her poems are oddball experiments unto themselves. Randall Jarrell famously defined a poet as someone who “manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times”; Ruefle prefers to chase her storms into a variety of exotic provinces, and in “Sentimental Education” the result is a triumph of well-made luck.

The poem is set amidst a tangled web of schoolhouse crushes, during an era that Ruefle renders deliberately vague. The Flaubertian title seems to point to the nineteenth century, and many of the names mentioned sound Victorian (“Cortland Filby,” “Ogden Smythe,” the teacher “Ursula Twombly”); but other names (“Olina Korsk,” “Yukiko Pearl”) would be out of place in a Victorian classroom, and we hear of a florist who “punches the wrong code” at the register, a modern enough detail. This may be late twentieth-century Britain, or it may be an imagined country. Either way, Twombly’s class is a petri dish of longing, of hopeless affection for even the least endearing people and traits (“Nadine Clair loves Ogden Smythe / who loves blowing his nose on postage stamps”).

All this thwarted passion fulfills itself in two rhetorical climaxes, one in the middle of the poem and one at the end. In the middle we get a startling but strangely moving tribute: “Please pray for William Shakespeare / who does not know how much we love him, miss him and think of him.” Ruefle’s insight here cuts deep: the great, dead authors we fall for in classrooms are as painfully unavailable to us as the cute boy or girl the next desk over. (And vice versa.) After several more images of futility we encounter a girl who has been forced to wear a dunce cap, its “paper cone” mirroring the one with which the florist wraps bouquets of roses. This humiliated student, who has been “singled out” among her equally lonely peers, is “trembling” and “sincere in her fervent wish to die.” As the poem closes, even that dark passion finds an unlikely object: 


Take it away and give it to the Tartars

who roll gloriously into battle.


2. “Outsider Art,” Kay Ryan

This poem fascinates me in part because its topic fascinates me. Treat yourself sometime to a perusal of Wikipedia’s “Outsider art” page, including the list of “Notable outsider artists.” There you’ll learn about the half-blind English orphan who created thousands of ink drawings at the behest of an inner “medium,” the American janitor who built a shining religious monument in a rented garage, and the French postman who constructed an entire palace out of stones he found on his route.

As these examples suggest, outsider art is not just folk art or art created by anti-establishment types (though it can take on those meanings also). In its specialized sense, it refers to the art of “amateurs” whose severe eccentricities or diagnosed disorders—schizophrenia or autism, for example—place them genuinely outside the mainstream. Such art varies widely but is often marked by one or more classic features: ardent religiosity, obsessive symmetry, narrow thematic preoccupations, horror vacui (literally, abhorrence of a vacuum; in art, the compulsive filling of blank spaces). It tends to awe and disturb in equal measure, to shake up our ordinary understanding of "beauty" and "inspiration."

All of this background is implicit, not spelled out, in Ryan’s “Outsider Art.” In a few swift strokes she captures the homeliness (“too dreary / or too cherry red”), the religious oddity (“covered with things / the savior said / or should have said”), the sublimated violence (“they gouge and hatch”) of typical outsider artworks. Also the horror vacui: “There never / seems to be a surface equal / to the needs of these people.” This sly observation could apply just as well to artists in general, all of whom are outsiders in their own minds, none of whom will ever have time or material enough to exhaust their creative urges. And of course the “outsider artist” mantle could be stretched to fit Ryan herself. Though she has by now received mainstream recognition, including a U. S. Poet Laureateship, she worked for most of her career very quietly on the margins, confining herself zealously to her signature formal mode. Her brief, self-effacing lyrics with their jaunty internal rhymes seem at first digestible, even friendly. Only on closer inspection do we feel like the audience in her poem: “not / pleased the way we thought / we would be pleased.”

3. “Homage to Pessoa,” Frederick Seidel

Seidel is a great provocateur and, sporadically, a great poet. The scion of a mining millionaire, he has fashioned a legend for himself as a man of wealth, mystery, and taste, as well as scorn for the boundaries of taste. His stance—or rather, that of the poetic persona he has created for himself—can best be described as “too rich to give a damn.” Too rich to give a damn whether you know he’s rich (in fact, he makes sure you do: poem after poem name-checks Savile Row, Ducati motorcycles, the Carlyle Hotel); too rich to give a damn whether he offends you (in fact, he baits you as often as he can: “A woman my age naked is just a total nightmare”); too rich to give a damn about you at all (he pointedly avoids poetry readings, book signings, audience relations in general).

Unfortunately his insouciance often extends to form, making it hard to pick individual Seidel performances—as opposed to the Seidel character, the overall repertoire—that will live on. He loves throwaway gestures of all kinds: deliberately ridiculous rhymes, one-off puns, endings that seem already to have boarded a private flight to the next poem. As a result, his most finished and satisfying poems are often his least characteristic. Such is the case with “Homage to Pessoa,” a short lyric in which (after the example of Fernando Pessoa, who juggled a cluster of poetic personae) he offers a variation on his typical autobiographical character.

The speaker of “Homage” seems to be an aristocrat from another era, perhaps another century. He wears white gloves and carries a gold-knobbed cane, which he “set[s] aside” as he prepares to kill himself. The reason for his despair? “I once loved. / I thought I would be loved. / But I wasn’t loved.” Seidel is blunt as a rule, but the tone here is nakeder, less arrogant, than he usually allows himself to be. The cane is an obvious phallic symbol, an emblem of ineffectual desire. So is the pen with which the speaker tries to write. So is the shotgun he slides in his mouth, knowing that his death won’t win over the beloved any more than his wealth or art will. And so is the chilling final image of the hunting dog, which may be “pointing” toward the speaker himself, or toward the object of the failed erotic chase, or (like the horses in a famous Dickinson poem) “toward eternity.”

4. “The Scale of Intensity,” Don Paterson

The last 25 to 50 years have been a golden age for prose poetry. James Tate, Mark Strand, Russell Edson, and Matthea Harvey, among others, have all done notable work in this once obscure form. Though it’s a whisker-close call, Don Paterson’s “The Scale of Intensity” may be the most bizarre and challenging prose poem I’ve come across yet.

It’s certainly the least cheerful. Its form is based on those charts that explain certain scientific scales, like the Fujita for tornadoes or the Richter for earthquakes, in terms of the effects of the disasters they measure. Here, however, the catastrophe is neither fully natural nor fully human; it’s a nameless horror spreading over nature and civilization alike. At intensity level 9 of 12, the following effects are observed:

Small trees uprooted. Bathwater drains in reverse vortex. Wholesale slaughter of religious and ethnic minorities. Conspicuous cracks in ground. Damage to reservoirs and underground pipelines.

That line about wholesale slaughter isn’t even the darkest in the poem. Does Paterson “earn it," as the saying goes? Nothing in the context leavens its brutality, but that’s because this is a poem about our worst fears realized, a pure distillation of fear itself. It reminds us that real mass tragedies occur for no detectable cause: genocide isn’t linked to malevolent forces in the earth or air, just as natural disasters aren’t linked to human sinning. By imagining a world in which evil is unitary and measurable, if not controllable, Paterson paradoxically highlights the cruel randomness of our own universe. If the “intensity” is more than we can easily stomach, it’s also far more than most poems are willing to risk.

5. “Sublimaze,” Gjertrud Schnackenberg

I would have loved to represent Schnackenberg by her comic gem “Two Tales of Clumsy,” but it just missed the 25-year cut, having first been published in 1985. Fortunately, her output has remained as marvelous as her name. Her most recent book, Heavenly Questions, consists of a linked suite of elegies for her late husband, the philosopher Robert Nozick. It follows the meanderings of the speaker’s mind as she sits by his hospital bedside, watching him fade and pass, confronting for herself all the old philosophical problems: time, identity, infinity, love, death.

It’s a work that aims to touch the heights, intellectual as well as emotional, and sometimes overreaches in the process. But where it succeeds, it succeeds grandly. The second section, “Sublimaze,” is the centerpiece and high-water mark of the volume. The title is the brand name of a powerful painkiller; it also puns elaborately on “maze,” “amaze,” “sublime,” and “sublimate,” in both the scientific sense of vaporizing a solid and the Freudian sense of converting socially unacceptable impulses into creative ones. As the husband dozes under the influence of the drug, the speaker, nodding off also, wanders a dreamlike maze: a conflation of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, the Hagia Sophia, and a network of hospital corridors.

The section begins: “The door I crazed with knocking reappears”—another pun, this time on “crazed” (cracked, maddened). “A transitory door, lit on the wall…” All the doors the speaker encounters are transitory; none is the door, the one that will bring escape or death. The frustration of the dream at times threatens to craze the reader also. Yet the intricate stanzas, the narcotic rhythms of Schnackenberg’s iambic pentameter convey uncannily the sense of waiting for death—one’s own or someone else’s—in the sterile purgatories our society has built for the purpose. With deceptive calm the poet plays at the threshold between reality and hallucination, existence and oblivion, madness and revelation. Her lullaby is the kind that may inspire nightmares.

Runners-Up:Angels,” Russell Edson; "Distressed Haiku," Donald Hall; “Chekhov: A Sestina,” Mark Strand; “Baked Alaska, A Theory Of,” Matthea Harvey; “In Paris With You,” James Fenton

Special Mention: Omeros, Derek Walcott—the definition of a sprawling, uneven, hyperambitious work, but also the only major epic poem of the past 25 years, and a formidable achievement by any standard.


[Image via Shutterstock.]


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