Poetry We Admire: Form
I had not been seventeen so long when Patter was published and Douglas Kearney came to town. In those days my world was small. My best friend and mentor was the aunt of a classmate, and in her I found an adult who not only recognized my fledgling interest in poetry but was kind enough to mirror and support it. She brought me to workshops, open mic nights, award ceremonies. It is hard to overstate the kind of difference care work such as this can make in a person’s development. The world sees you, I thought in those months, and so I could see myself.
Kindly. I could see you kindly.
Douglas Kearney read in the basement of Moe’s Books, one of several spaces in town which held frequent poetry readings — A Thousand Minds on Fire has closed down now, and the Albany Public Library Poetry Reading Series has been defunct for years. I can’t remember who he read with. The performance was electrifying. Kearney delivered the poems with a kind of timing, care, and attention that was all the more shocking later, when I began reading the book that night.
I’d never seen poems like Kearney’s before. The words in Patter seemed not to leave the page, but to transfigure it, into something greater than I had previously imagined a page could signify. I keep the collection with me always, for the times it reminds me of and the way it pushed me, as reader and writer, to abandon what I had previously conceived to be the “necessary limits” of formal and poetic innovation.
Though Patter was my introduction into formally innovative poetics, Kearney is one of many, many poets who work outside of (or against) normative conventions of what makes a poem, and according expectations of how a poem should, could, or might appear on the page. Among these many poets are Diana Khoi Nguyen, Anthony Cody, Fatimah Asghar and Eve L. Ewing, Johnny Damm, and more.
For them, for Catherine, for the ever-earlier approaching nights that mark this season, this month’s Poetry We Admire is dedicated to poems which play — in ways varied or specific — with form.
I thought of nature —
with something fair,
…………………watched a man take his citation and walk.
from "Weak Magic"
by Nick Visconti in GASHER
I admire Visconti’s poem for its marrying of a repetition of content to a repetition of formal structure, meticulously organized in a way that recalls the poetry of Arthur Sze (poems such as “Kintsugi” and “White Sands”). “Weak Magic” lives first and foremost in the mind’s idea of itself, signified here in language and the steady patter of em dashes.
black, too, / is the night we first held hands
from "5. spell to trace a rainbow to its apogee"
by Keith S. Wilson in The Georgia Review
This poem, dedicated to Trayvon Martin, is better described in Wilson’s own words than mine: “To offload the burden of labor and injustice to a machine in order to keep one’s hands clean is the birth of the cotton gin. It is the driving force of capitalism and the prison industrial complex. Systems and machines are not racist because they don’t have to be: their owners and operators are. But the soul of us is uncapturable, even despite America’s use of science and math and forensics—the objective—to weigh our bodies. In this piece, I hope to trouble science with spell and prayer. I hope to upset Christian forgiveness by acknowledging that its methods are empirical too, and often destructive in their transformation of rage into acceptance. And I want to remember Trayvon Martin, who wanted many things he will not have. This poem is part of a larger project in the works that calls on as inspiration mathematics and equations and draws inspiration in part from W. E. B. Du Bois.”
1. Never call an ambulance and never ever need one.
from "Family Medicine"
by Madison Frazier in Had
Madison Frazier’s hybrid Family Medicine at once calls to mind Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale” while adding layers of stifling masculinity, class, family, and tradition, accomplishing all this and more in a few short stanzas. Here the technique of listing is used to expert effect, with language fashioning order from the unspoken.
How ordinary: light.
Its currency, dust.
from "Beloved Litany"
by Carly Joy Miller in Waxwing
When I first see the poem it’s as it is: A chevron, flock of words. Miller’s “Beloved Litany” reads with a kind of facility that’s envy-inducing, the poem, in turn, pointing the reader towards the inevitable, guided by its arc as much as its language: “Biblically, we’re doomed for. How shall I clean the yolk of us off the floor?” The shape of the poem makes the reading so easy here it feels almost automatic, as outside of agency as the very kind of fate the piece concerns itself with.
Let me tell you the story of my own shucking: Language [the English
kind], with its razor fang and riptide appetite
from "About Solace and My Need to Shuck Oysters"
by Ariana Benson in Great River Review
It can be easy, if one isn’t careful, to slip into thinking of excellent poetry as one thing, and marvelous formal innovation as another, perhaps even as mutually exclusive phenomena. Benson’s poem, perhaps more than any other collected here, collapses this false notion. Available as an audio file, in its intended form, and as Alt-text, this Finalist for the 2021 Pink Poetry Prize is not only striking to see, but to read as well, exemplified by lines like “How peaceful it must be to have no memory,” and “I’ll admit…sometimes I forget ° that I / was born”.