2012 was the year of the Poetry Parnassus in London, focusing on the global importance of poetry by inviting famous poets from around the world to participate. Guardian guest columnist Stephen Burt extolled America's contribution of former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan to the mix as defying stereotypes of the "bombastic" American. Atypical or not, Ryan kindled trans-Atlantic interest with her unique voice and unassuming style. The addition of America's much-loved poet Sharon Olds to the short list for the T.S. Eliot Prize, whose winner is to be announced imminently, has no doubt fanned the flames.
Yet there are so many wonderful American poets who have not achieved the fame (or notoriety) sufficient to carry their names or poems across the pond. Here are five such diamonds in the rough, selected for their energy, tenacity, and all-around fine work, that are worth keeping an eye on in the coming year. Some have published widely, others are just breaking in. Many hail from the West Coast. Each has something to contribute to the wider conversation of American poetry.
Michelle Bitting is a poet in the tradition of Sharon Olds, whose work peers unflinchingly into human topics ranging from the violent and sexual to the household mundane. A mother of two and wife to a Hollywood actor, she has taught poetry to inmates at the Twin Towers prison in downtown Los Angeles. She has published a pamphlet and two full-length collections to much acclaim. In the poem "Strange Flesh," she thanks a nameless donor after a gum graft for, "inking the little O / on your DMV form, / for prettying up my smile." Through moments of bold perception and remarkable honesty, we share with Bitting in a bittersweet "education in love / we didn't know we needed / and never asked for."
Jonathan Harris' debut collection The Wave That Did Not Break is astonishing for the emotionally ambitious nature of the project. On facing pages, Harris converses through time with his mother, the Beat poet Barbara Harris, who committed suicide when Jonathan was a teenager. Both Harrises enjamb with surgical precision, reminiscent of Louise Glück, as in when Jonathan says of his widowed father: "His children were his life / sentences." The American poet David St. John describes the work as "supremely redemptive", and I must agree. To call this work "courageous" understates its personal significance; to call it "important" downplays its universality. My full review of this book is forthcoming in Poetry International (SDSU).
Chicago-born Tim Krcmarik is a firefighter in Texas. In the opening poem of his pamphlet The Heights, he tells us "I like my Shakespeare mixed up with my Dante / the same way I like hot sauce dumped over my fried / ham steaks and scrambled eggs." Tim wrestles with God, house blazes, and anarchic surrealism. Thrilling for their recklessness and a truly American mix of high and low diction, Tim's poems are no less affecting for their acrobatic conceptual leaps. A love scene in "Smell the Veronicas" turns sinister: "'What is your name?' he asks in his phony Latin / accent. 'Sorrow,' she whispers cupping his canned ham / of a face in her porcelain hands, sliding her tongue / in his pie hole's gristle, swallowing his head whole."
Sarah Maclay is a student of experimental reductionist poet Ralph Angel, whose poems are dark, obsessive, and hauntingly fine. In "Ocean in White Chair" she admonishes, "The sea is dangerous, they say, but not if you're the sea." Her startling observations, deep sensuality, and a ravenous fascination with human concerns are balanced by a fine-tuned sensitivity to the music of language. She is a generous and tireless teacher and promoter of poetry readings throughout Southern California, and a wickedly good example of contemporary West Coast noir.
Abby Murray is a soldier's wife who tells it like it is. Where military-veteran poets like Brian Turner leave off, Murray takes up the domestic aftermath of America's wars, writing poems at the bedside of a wounded soldier that describe the blast in slow motion: "crescent moons and teardrops of shrapnel / spiraling up the leg from ankle to groin like / morning glories curling round a fencepost." Brimming with fierce love and tough questions, Murray's two pamphlets bring flesh and blood to dispassionate headlines, and poetry to the stark realities of human violence.
For each American poet that came to mind, several others could have as easily taken their place. Information overload and globalisation can lead to the deceptive notion that the best a culture has to offer will invariably find its way to us. In fact, so many fascinating writers--from firemen to soldiers' wives--go about their good work in private. Here is just a taste of a taste, in hopes that it will encourage interest and exchange of so many worthy poems and poets "separated", as Oscar Wilde so famously quipped, "by a common language."