Praiseworthy poetry

Think poetry is just for dead white guys? No way. National Poetry Month is going strong in April. Here are 10 books to get you started.

Poetry is many things to many people—beauty, truth, a blue guitar, a blood jet, a blackbird, a convex mirror, a red wheelbarrow, a dog from hell, a house that tries to be haunted, a sullen art, lilacs in the dooryard—to suggest but a few. Since 1996, poetry has even had its own national month—April—perhaps to counter T.S. Eliot’s assertion that it was the cruelest one. These 10 recently published poetry books are worth checking out during any time of year.

Migration: New & Selected Poems
W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon

This National Book Award-winner is a generous collection of poems from 15 books published over the past 50 years. Merwin’s earlier, more traditional poems have, over the decades, opened up to an array of attitudes and possibilities. His landscapes blend the natural, historic and purely invented—alphabets of insects or wondering if there was a morning when modern was there for the first time. He ponders the tone of falling and how to speak to gestures of time. He realizes that mortal hurry is hard to see. Through it all, the arc of his concerns is consistent and consistently engaging.

Jagged with Love
Susanna Childress
University of Wisconsin

Love poems—long elliptical lines taking off in one place then lighting out for the unknown and unpredictable, allowing us to discover the way things are connected and why they get disconnected. Whether inspecting her face in the mirror, pondering the relationship of negligees and negligence, considering how the drowning drag you down, or sneaking up on the wildness that love can spring, Childress unearths what we’ve yet to know—that laudanum of finality like acres of winter wheat surrounding a farmhouse. These lines are doubtful, in-the-dark and hesitant, yet also ecstatically hopeful of the possibilities that torn and jagged edges might bring.

A Word Like Fire: Selected Poems
Dick Barnes
Handsel Books

Barnes lived on the edges of the Mojave in Southern California, and his poems draw deeply from that landscape. His desert is multi-partite—a fusion of weather and background with evocations of the people, plants and animals living there. Whether dealing with the Silver Dollar Bar in Boron, the succession of species in a climax forest, the relationship between physicist Neils Bohr and Western movie shoot-outs, or the soul’s longing for absence, his tightly wrought, often metrical poems are imbued with wry social commentary and religious spirit. His plain American speak that dogs can understand is elegant, animistic, satirical and humane.

Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems
Jonathan Williams
Copper Canyon

A great title for Williams’ work—a tightly woven, joyous pubic thatch. He loves words—"gom,” for instance, which means a “big mess of.” And that’s what this is—a strange, big mess of ideas, words and witticisms that have obsessed him for more than 55 years. Williams tries to put words in the proper places to open up new territory. There’s “meta-fours,” a poem in which each line must have four words; “poem-acrosticals,” which are Rococo definitions for Modesto. Others are constructed from the headlines of supermarket tabloids or backwoods mountain vernacular—limerick lyrics and nude drivers throwing lard. Many restive souls may not consider these poems at all—yet another inkling that Williams is in a class where it doesn’t take long to call the roll.

Late Wife
Claudia Emerson
Louisiana State University Press

The necessity of killing snakes; arrowheads and artifacts as emblems of solitude; standing in a fog-frozen field while looking into the house occupied by the new woman; pitching horseshoes in the dark; the late wife’s driving glove floating up unexpectedly from car-trunk junk. These are just a few of Emerson’s metaphorical conjurings, which dance between past and present. These searing, emotional poems of love and loss consider things through not-quite 20/20 hindsight and the hazardously vague binoculars of future prospects. Rendered in a personal, conversational tone, the poems ask what is most transient: heartbreak, healing or desire?

The Trouble with Poetry
Billy Collins
Random House

The former U.S. Poet Laureate’s newest collection showcases his ability to use simple language to apprehend the unexpected, the magical and the weird lurking within the everyday. Collins wonders how salt-and-pepper shakers, standing side by side for years, become friends. He muses upon the importance of windows to poets. He suggests that poetry speaks best to those in the same time zone. He notes the importance of waitresses’ name tags as conversational gambits when traveling alone. These playful, spare and witty poems capture the metaphysical ripples of moments scuttling by him.

The Dig and Hotel Fiesta
Lynn Emmanuel
University of Illinois

Two volumes under one cover where the poems—many set in an all-too-real Ely, Nevada—combine shimmering metaphor and Emmanuel’s insistent voice to conjure mirages of meaning from the past. They undertake an archaeological exposition of memory by using spare, elegant, elegiac yet direct lines to unearth notions of isolation, displaced desire, heartbreak and, finally, inspiration—a new breath—as the way out of town.

Delights & Shadows
Ted Kooser
Copper Canyon Press

The poems in this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection consistently craft small, subtle snapshots, haiku-like imagistic impressions of salient yet often overlooked details of daily life. An old man’s fading tattoo at a yard sale; a hungover student with a backpack ascending the steps of the library; people at a funeral discovering that in coming to say goodbye, they are busy saying hello; and a jar of buttons, a core sample from the sea of mending. These simple things are imbued with unexpected emotional heft, revealing the ordinary as remarkable.

Making Love to Roget’s Wife: Poems New and Selected
Ron Koertge
University of Arkansas Press

Koertge uses off-kilter, idiomatic lyricism to zero in on mundane idiocies. He suggests that one moment may have more in common with another than we realize; that somehow, being up against a wall in East St. Louis with a knife against his throat can relate to the perfect Sunday dinner, his wife wiping her hands on a nice pink tea towel. Sixth-grade toughs, Herman’s Hermits, Michelangelo’s Sistine Sweater, and the pantyhose that lead young women to hate the lives their mothers dreamt for them are all safely tucked into Koertge’s Percy Shelley lunchbox. Using wit and educated insolence to confound us with a profound sense of the absurd, he laughs at both himself and life’s seriousness.

Search Party: Collected Poems of William Matthews
Houghton Mifflin

Matthews used his favorite things—jazz, romance, wine and travel—to craft tersely articulated notions of loss and need. From short, imagistic works to longer narrative pieces, the offhand riffs allude to Coltrane, Lester Young and smoky jazz bars. Like the amalgam of solos they invoke, the poems are deceptively simple on the surface—cars drink tongues of light that lead them home; beer warms to room temperature. They can be seen as a series of gigs—the poet and the itinerant jazzman both trying to say what they don’t know how to. The result is a series of ruminations on loss—a reluctant realization that what mattered most was measuring what he’d lost by what he kept.