At the moment I’m reading an interesting debut novel called The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. An English nerd’s paranoid trip, it documents the outbreak of a technologically-induced “word flu” which causes language to become debased and corrosive. Definitions are bought and sold in an online marketplace and almost no one can recall even everyday words without the use of their device (the Meme). But without getting too far into Graedon’s fictional world, it’s worth reminding you that there’s a simple cure for this kind of malaise: it’s called poetry.
We asked two talented poets and public library supporters, Jessica Baran and Ted Mathys, to curate shelves for Central Library this month. Thankfully, they agreed, which means I will get to spend a lot of time hunting the poetry stacks this April! Here are a few of their language-enhancing prescriptions. They’ve made many more selections which will be on display in the Entertainment, Literature, and Biography Room at Central Library throughout the month.
Because, as an assistant lexicographer in The Word Exchange puts it, “Language seems to be the only means for linking consciousness, the most effective way to stifle loneliness and pull us from our night-like pits.”
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, John Ashbery. Lyrical detachment, queer irony, displaced pronouns and warped self-reflection: what more could you want? A now-canonical poetic text, this book has a brilliant rhetorical knack for always coming across as a sly, private revelation.
The Emily Dickinson Reader, Paul Legault. If you ever needed confirmation that Emily Dickison was in fact a zombie gardener, here it is. An English-to-English “translation” of the Masteress’s elliptical poems, rendered with tear-inducing wit into tweet-length Americana.
Inferno, Dante (translated by Mary Jo Bang). Bang’s version of this well-known trip to hell is a fresh reminder of a day-to-day moral order perhaps only alive in books. There is a moment when Virgil advises Dante not to stare too long at certain vulgar sufferings; it should make any reader blush. We are all implicated. Beyond all the well-known grotesqueries, this is a long poem about indiscretion’s finer grain and the equally delicate texture of loss, which Bang powerfully harnesses.
Sprawl, Danielle Dutton. It goes everywhere. This novel, which takes its title as a formal cue, explores the psychology and lived reality of the contemporary suburban condition, which manages to pull identity, time and language to a point of blurred and horrific thinness.
Dictionary of Received Ideas, Gustave Flaubert. Speaks for itself. Here are a few sample entries: AMBITIOUS – In the provinces, any man of reputation. “Me, I’m not ambitious!” indicates an egoist or an incompetent. AMERICA – Fine example of injustice: Christopher Columbus discovered it and it takes its name from Amerigo Vespucci. Without the discovery of America, we would not have syphilis or phylloxera. Praise it nonetheless, especially if one has not been there. Inveigh against self-government. AMUSING – Must be attached to all remarks: “How amusing!”
Jessica Baran is the author of two poetry collections: Equivalents (Lost Roads Press, 2013) and Remains to Be Used (Apostrophe Books, 2011). Her art writing has appeared in Artforum.com, Art in America, Art Papers, and BOMB, among other journals. She is the director of fort gondo compound for the arts and teaches at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Art.
Ted Mathys’s Selections:
Hart Crane, White Buildings
Hart Crane was my first poetic hero. I grew up on a farm in northeast Ohio, about an hour from Crane’s childhood home. In the lyrics of his first collection, White Buildings, I found both a mesmerizing poetry unlike anything I’d read before, and a kind of implicit license to write poems. His springy, tensile lines are charged with energies – at once sensual, desperate, and optimistic – and his diction is lush. While Crane’s poems are difficult to assimilate logically, their emotional friction and imaginative leaps are remarkable. It’s not what his poems mean, but how they mean.
Wallace Stevens, Harmonium
Stevens’ meditative playfulness, wonderful music, and formal architectures make me return to him often. His poems give a sly nod to philosophical rigor and formal arrangements of thought, but never yield to them, giving his voice a gnomic quality. Harmonium contains some of my favorite American poems, including “Domination of Black,” “The Snow Man,” and “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”
C.D. Wright, Deepstep Come Shining
C.D. Wright has developed an unmistakable idiom in contemporary poetry, incorporating folk wisdom and the vernacular of her native Arkansas while turning her fierce powers of observation toward the social, racial, and political dynamics of American culture. In Deepstep, Wright uses avant-garde techniques of composition and documentary assemblage to create an eerie book concerned with the nature of sight, memory, and art against the backdrop of a road trip through the Deep South.
Arthur Sze, The Redshifting Web, New & Selected Poems, 1970-1998
Arthur Sze is a poet of simultaneity. His poems dare to take on the structures of reality, charting the complex relations among matter, language, and thought that together make up what we call “the present.” He often proceeds by a process of accretion – privileging the present tense, using semicolons as little hinges among unrelated units, and layering lines on top of each other like strata of rock to form gorgeous canyons. These poems marvel at cacti and quasars equally, traveling the interconnected webs of the human and natural worlds.
Inger Christensen, Alphabet
Christensen’s Alphabet is a classic in Denmark and a stunning, book-length experiment in form. The poem combines abecedarian form (poems that proceed through the alphabet, in this case from “A” to “N”) with the Fibonacci mathematical sequence, such that the number of lines in each section of the poem is the sum of the previous two numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34…). Published in 1981 amid Cold War tensions and geopolitical changes in Europe, her poem reckons with how to name and experience the beauty and joy of a world always at risk of annihilation, shuttling from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic as the book spirals out into its own, uncontainable form.
Ted Mathys’ third book of poetry, Null Set, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in 2015. The recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America, his poetry and criticism has appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, BOMB, Conjunctions, Fence, Ploughshares, Verse, and elsewhere. He currently splits his time between Iowa City, IA, where he is completing an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and St. Louis, where he is co-curator of the Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts Poetry Series.