10 Reasons Poetry's Not Dead

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This week, the literary world was astir with indignation at Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post article “Is Poetry Dead?,” in which her argument was “well, mostly.” Of Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, Petri writes, “It was a good poem, within the constraints of what poetry means now. But I think what we mean by poetry is a limp and fangless thing.” Claiming that poetry is obsolete in part because it doesn’t “change anything” anymore, she goes on to compare poets to the Postal Service: “a group of people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service.” Ouch.

The “is X dead” argument is a frustrating and perennial one, and often rather pointless. Replace every instance of “poetry” in Petri’s article with “ballet” or “opera” and her claims will work just as well, but be (in this humble writer’s opinion) just as misguided. Is an art form dead just because it is only appreciated by a minority? In that case, many art forms have always been dead. After the jump, we offer ten excellent reasons why poetry isn’t the least bit dead, in the form of excellent books of poetry that have recently emerged — with barbaric yawps, perhaps — in this country. And yes, there are hundreds more — flesh out our list in the comments.

Slow Lightning , Eduardo C. Corral

This stunning debut, published this past April, stalks the borderlands of English and Spanish, fabulist and realist, here and there, with a backpack filled with shifting identifications — Chicano, gay, abnormal — that spill out into the sand. We couldn’t have titled this collection any better than Corral did.

Madame X , Darcie Dennigan

Another triumph of this year, Dennigan’s collection is filled with weight and light in equal measure, her dense paragraphs broken by ellipses and interruptions, her heavy themes (birth, death, sex, religion, but what else is there) chinked by playful, inventive, ever-surprising language. The result is a lilting exploration of the in-between spaces, half-performed actions, ghostly children. A wonder.

My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer , Paige Ackerson-Kiely

We’re not sure we could describe Ackerson-Kiely’s poems any better than she does herself: “Mostly, for me, writing is a feral act. Mostly I am consumed by a hunch, irritated, harassed or made uncomfortable by something I can only clumsily accuse. I approach images and words as though they are a criminal or maybe just a far-flung snarl, and maybe that snarl is coming from me — I don’t always know, though mostly I am the only one in the room.” Dark, full of nature, and full of life, this collection will snarl all the way into your soul.

Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

This, dear readers, is poetry for science fiction fans, something even the reticent are becoming as we whirl forward into the future. Concerned as much with David Bowie as it is with infinity, as much with Smith’s NASA-employed father as with the far reaches of science, this is poetry for the past, present and future.

Bender: New and Selected Poems , Dean Young

Dean Young is a force in American poetry. He’s been around for a while, sure, but there’s a reason for that, and he’s not getting any less relevant as time goes on. Witty, iconoclastic, and often hilarious, Young asks the big questions with a cock of his head, a raise of the eyebrow, a weary but wonder-filled smile. But more importantly, he writes with a firm hand around what makes life life — now, today, here, wherever you are. This collection is, truly, art for living.

Water Puppets , Quan Barry

If you think poetry is all nice descriptions of flowers and fence posts, the gutting, gorgeous, terrible poetry of Quan Barry is for you. Full of brutality both personal and political, her poems linger in the “the dark traps where things collect,” pensive and stark. Her poem “thanksgiving” ends with the moody revelation, “At the end of the road the man driving the truck will eat/ the deer. If I had to watch someone be torn apart by motorbikes/ I would still be me, which is the horror of it all.”

No Planets Strike , Josh Bell

Though this collection, Bell’s debut, came out in 2008, it has achieved a strange sort of cult status in the last few years, so we count it as an emblem of poetry’s survival (with bells on). At least, we still can’t stop hearing and/or talking about it. Bell promises to “burn the very Latin from the world,” and does it in a sort of reverse epic in which the dead make pilgrimages to the land of the living. Ravenously witty, subversive, and wonderful, every modern lover of poetry should read this book.

The Irrationalist , Suzanne Buffam

Buffam’s poems don’t take themselves too seriously — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Though most of the poems sing, this book’s belly is its section of “Little Commentaries” — “On Possibility,” “On Shortcuts,” “On Ghosts V. Zombies.” Direct and deadpan, but not without lyric depth, these poems read like your slightly insane best friend whispering into your ear, telling you all the secrets of the universe.

Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys , D.A. Powell

Like Young, Powell is one of the more established poets on our list, dubbed “the best poet of his generation — and arguably the most important poet under fifty” by Time Out New York and on his fifth book. But his accolades come for good reason. Powell’s poems are steeped in the grit of American life, the camp, the tragedy, the triumph. Contemporary and historical at once, and with unimpeachable style, we think we’ll be talking about this writer for a long time.

Head Off & Split , Nikky Finney

The winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, this book is just the latest achievement for a stellar poet. Engaged with history and society, the African-American experience and the human one, Finney’s is a clear-eyed, incredibly powerful ode to what it means to be alive.