The Best 10 Poetry Books of 2012

The Best 10 Poetry Books of 2012

I’m talking, of course, about the books that came across my desk—a limiting factor because I almost never receive a “review copy.” (They’re always welcome, though!) I buy all but a handful of the books I read, so my reading is skewed by my own interests right up front. This unprofessional status frees me from the angst suffered by professional critics, according to Stephen Burt and Marjorie Perloff, as they fight to stay atop the wave of new poetry books that maliciously seeks to drown them. Poets themselves? Most, I think, feel the same as most musicians feel about other musicians: the more the merrier. If poetry is generally a good thing, and writing poetry is a cathartic practice (at the very least), why shouldn’t everybody write it? 

My other advantage is that I buy books without regard to when they were published, so my list isn’t limited to books published in 2012. It is, however, limited to books I read this year, regardless of when they found their way into my library. I’ve also taken the liberty of leaving off this list any books I simply can’t recommend—books either infuriatingly bad, seriously disappointing, or vapid in the extreme. There were only a baker’s dozen of duds.

One more reason a book I liked may have slipped off the list is my distaste for record keeping, so you can guess at the duds, but just because something isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean it’s among them.

Best Five Poetry Books Written in English
Five: Bob Arnold, Yokel
Arnold’s work offers a unique combination of human tenderness and working-guy toughness. In an era when poets vagabond from campus to campus, at the mercy of PoBiz and MFA trendiness, Bob Arnold writes poems that spring from a rooted consciousness (and conscience), making them both distinctive and refreshing. I wrote about Arnold’s book here.
Rich was a person who remade her life and art under the pressure of personal and political forces that were widely at work in American society. Where many poets wrote as if nothing at all of significance was going on in the streets and in the halls of power, Rich welcomed these forces into her poems so seamlessly that it’s impossible to read her poems as either personal or political, for both impulses exist in every verse.
Like Adrienne Rich, Dale Jacobson integrates the personal and political. He writes as well as Rich but, for reasons I’ll never understand, has never gained the recognition he deserves. It strikes me, reading him, that if he’d presented his poems as translations from lost originals by a fictive Latin American poet, his books would have been widely praised. After all, the gatekeepers of American culture like political poems from abroad but dismiss them if they’re written here.
Two: Bill Knott, Collected Poems
Bill Knott dispraises himself and dares his partisans to contradict him. I’m forced to contradict him here because the sheer imaginative energy of his verse, his sometimes violent reshaping of the language to accommodate his expressive needs, and his wicked sense of humor make him an indispensable poet. I hope he’ll forgive this encomium.
One: Linda Hogan, Indios
Linda Hogan works at the opposite end of the language scale from Bill Knott. Her diction is generally direct and familiar, her syntax straightforward, her metaphors natural and anything but showy. The marvel is that she achieves such multidimensional resonance with this restrained approach. I’ve loved her work for thirty years or more, and Indios strikes me as a major advance—her first book-length poem, and one intended for public performance. (I can only hope it attracts an actress with the adventurous spirit necessary to take it on as a one-woman show.) But Indios is more than that: it is quite simply a masterpiece, as I hope I clearly argued here.
Also Recommended:
Bob Arnold, I’m in Love with You Who Is in Love with Me
Elena Bell, Eyes, Stones
Kurt Brown, Fables from the Ark
Kurt Brown, Return of the Prodigals
David Constantine, Nine Fathom Deep
Natalie Díaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec
Michael Dickman, Flies
Conrad DiDiodato, Bridget bird and other poems
Juliana Aragon Fatula, Crazy Chicana in Catholic City
David Giannini, Rim/Wave
David Giannini, Inverse Mirror
David Giannini, AZ Two
David Giannini, Antonio & Clara
David Giannini, When We Savor What Is Simply There
Penny Harter, Stages and Views
Michael J. Henry, No Stranger than My Own
Michael Hogan, Winter Solstice: New and Selected Poems
Dick Jones, Ancient Lights: Selected Poems
Bill Knott, Sixty Poems of Love and Homage
Bill Knott, A Salt of Seasons: Winter Spring Summer Fall Poems
Bill Knott, One Hundred Sonnets
Bill Knott, Aloft: Poems from the Heights
Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, 1925-1948
Khaled Mattawa, Amorisco
Valzhyna Mort, Factory of Tears
Valzhyna Mort, Collected Body
Sholeh Wolpé, The Scar Saloon
Best Five Poetry Books Translated into English
Five: Pura López-Colomé, Watchword (translated from the Spanish by Forrest Gander)
López-Colomé tests received ideas, impressions, and memories in a hermetic quest for authenticity. Her poetry is as strange and metaphysically charged as that of her spiritual mentor, Emily Dickinson, and is rendered—sometimes with great audacity—by Forrest Gander, a fine poet in his own right. This collection won Mexico’s prestigious Villarrutia Prize, and it’s easy to see why.
Four: Meir Wieseltier, The Flower of Anarchy: Selected Poems (translated from the Hebrew by Shirley Kaufman with the author)
Meir Wieseltier is perhaps the greatest Israeli poet of the post-Amichai generation. Unlike Pura López-Colomé, Wieseltier is more interested in food than metaphysics, more interested in politics than in contemplation. His language is demotic and activist, his stance anti-conformist and steeped in irony. He is flat-out fun to read.
Three: Luljeta Lleshanaku, Child of Nature (translated from the Albanian by Henry Israeli and Shpresa Qatipi)
This book follows on Lleshanaku’s fine collection (Englished as Fresco: Selected Poetry in 2002), delving into issues of identity, repression, politics, and family conflict. As a poet who could not freely publish until the 1991 overthrow of Albania’s Stalinist regime, Lleshanaku sounds notes that are entirely missing from American poetry, with its taste for linguistic games, mercurial abstractions, and techniques worn out by the avant-garde 70 years ago or more. Sometimes we have to look beyond our borders for poetry whose matter matters.
Two: Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Rising of the Ashes (translated from the French by Cullen Goldblatt)
Ben Jelloun is a Franco-Moroccan essayist, novelist (his novel The Sacred Night won the Prix Goncourt in 1987), and poet whose poems spring from a powerful humanist impulse. He grieves, as all humanists must, over the substructure of racism and nationalism that feed what I call fundamentalist Capitalism. Not that this book strikes some overtly political stance. It doesn’t. It grieves, and it names names. Like Lleshanku, this poet—otherwise so different from her—sounds notes we simply don’t hear in our vitiated poetry.
One: Heinrich Heine, The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine (translated from the German by Hal Draper)
A quick story. In a wonderful Albuquerque bookstore, Acequia Books, I stumbled upon a sweet copy of Poems and Ballads, by Heinrich Heine, translated by Emma Lazarus. Right beside it was Heine’s The North Sea, translated by Vernon Watkins. And beside those, Max Brod’s biography, Heine: The Artist in Revolt. I bought them all, and in the process of reading them, fell in love with Heine’s sensibility—at once Jewish, German, socialist, and (artistically) elitist. But both collections of his poems contained only his early work, so I began scouring the Web for the book that I’ve placed first on my list. I have to be honest and admit that I haven’t read it from cover to cover yet (it weighs in at just over 1000 pages), but I’m more than halfway through and have yet to be disappointed. Hölderlin, who is currently in fashion, can’t match Heine for energy, humor, humane impulses, and fundamental honesty of feeling. And Hal Draper’s translations are remarkable, almost always outdoing Lazarus and Watkins—a surprise since they were poets and Draper is not.
Also Recommended:
Amal Al-Jubouri, Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation (translated by Rebecca Gayle Howell and Husam Qaisi)
Basil Bunting, Bunting’s Persia: Translations by Basil Bunting (translations from the Persian)
Pura López Colomé, Aurora (translated by from the Spanish Jason Stumpf)
Mahmoud Darwish, Almond Blossoms and Beyond (translated from the Arabic by Mohammad Shaheen)
Mahmoud Darwish, Mural (translated from the Arabic by Rema Hammami and John Berger)
Marosa Di Giorgio, Diadem: Selected Poems (translated by the Spanish by Adam Giannelli)
Forugh Farrokhzad, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (translated from the Persian by Sholeh Wolpé)
Margherita Guidacci, Landscape with Ruins: Selected Poetry (translated from the Italian by Ruth Feldman)
Heinrich Heine, Poems & Ballads (translated from the German by Emma Lazarus)
Jaan Kaplinski, Selected Poems (translated by the author with Sam Hamill, Hildi Hawkins, and Fiona Sampson)
Ko Un, This Side of Time (translated from the Korean by Clare You and Richard Silbert)
Giacomo Leopardi, Canti (translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi)
Nikola Madzirov, Remnants of Another Age (translated from the Russian by Peggy and Graham W. Reid, Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed)
Eugenio Montale, The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale: 1925-1977 (translated from the Italian by William Arrowsmith)
D. A. Powell, Tea
D. A. Powell, Lunch
D. A. Powell, Cocktails
W. G. Sebald, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (translated from the German by Iain Galbraith)
Goran Simić, Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman (translated from the Serbian by the author)
Gleb Shulpyakov, A Fireproof Box (translated from the Russian by Christopher Mattison)
Saadi Youssef, Nostalgia, My Enemy (translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon and Peter Money)
Prose About Poets, Poetry, and Poetic Ideas (also Anthologies)
Max Brod, Heine: The Artist in Revolt
Chicago Review 57:1/2, Summer/Autumn 2012: A. R. Ammons
David Constantine, In the Footsteps of the Gods
Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence (translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon)
Madelyn Garner and Andrea Watson, Collecting Life: Poets on Objects Known and Imagined
Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave: A Memoir
Robert S. King and David Chorlton, American Society: What Poets See
Cary Nelson, Repression And Recovery: Modern American Poetry and Politics Of Cultural Memory
Richard Paul Roe, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels
Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman, The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry

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