by Gabriel Valdez
Poets are our most powerful magicians. No one else can summon the Divine with just a handful of words. In celebration of the last week of National Poetry Month, I’d like to share some of the poems that have impacted me the most.
There was a girl at Hampshire College, Alison, who would regularly champion Bukowski in our writing classes together. She wrote like him – quite well, in fact – but as an influence, the rest of us would often dismiss him as a mean, drunk misogynist. We failed to understand how, through his work, he constantly faced these great demons that had built up inside of him, interrogated them and didn’t give them the excuses many of us learn to give our own.
Whether he was a mean, drunk misogynist or a mean, drunk satirist will be debated into eternity. Either way, he consciously made himself the great anatomy lesson of poetry’s step into the modern, splayed out with nothing hidden, the worst parts of himself exposed for the rest of us to poke and prod.
“The Fury of Sunrises”
The legend goes that Anne Sexton once told her therapist that she believed her only talent might lie in prostitution. He suggested poetry as an alternative. I don’t know what that says about poetry.
She was a master of imagery and tonal shifts. When I compare her to other writers, the one she most immediately evokes is Ray Bradbury. Both could capture a moment in its stillness, describing it in pages of detail, and both could describe pages worth of detail in a single sentence. But those details all come to a head, to the briefest and most frightening realizations. Neither one ever ended a story. They always left their poems and stories exactly when the reader’s mind was brimming with ideas, conclusions, and questions. In that way, they were each immensely generous writers, masters of handing ownership of their work over to the reader.
“Father Death Blues”
Ginsberg wrote this on the flight out to his father’s funeral. In our best moments, this is how we might approach and think of death.
Mayda del Valle
Few poets match the insistency and intensity of Mayda del Valle. She’s housed squarely in the Slam movement of poetry, in which performance can sometimes be as important as the words themselves. Contemporary poetry has long resisted this movement, as if the television and computer are still too new to entirely be trusted as primary modes of delivery. And then contemporary poets wonder why their work is so rarely absorbed outside of academic circles.
“And Still I Rise”
Angelou’s voice was one of resistance and progress through celebration and hopefulness. She’s rarely called upon or referenced as a precursor to Slam and contemporary of the Beat poets because she was so unique a voice, focused on cultural experience and the future rather than personal history and the past.
“What Teachers Make”
Taylor Mali is the funniest poet we have going, but he’s probably most famous for this performance of “What Teachers Make” at the National Poetry Slam several years ago. It’s still a funny poem – and one of my favorites – but it also has a grudge to bear. Perhaps more than any other poet reading these days, he knows how to fold an audience’s reaction into his performance.
“Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’”
It’s been suggested to me that this blog talks too much about sexism. I’d like to say, “Damn straight,” but in truth, I publish and write the articles that most interest my closest family of critics and myself. We talk about the things we like in films, and the things we dislike. When half of the films made can’t bother to have two women talk to each other about something other than a man, you can expect me to call out half the movies I see on that point.
It was pointed out to me a week ago that sexism cuts both ways, and that we haven’t written about the negative effects it has on men and our self-image. My immediate reaction – which I didn’t speak – was, “What negative effect on our self-image?” I knew exactly what negative effects, but we’re trained to treat them as strengths and points of pride. In a way, calling out for women to be represented equally on-screen while being relatively silent about the unfeeling, Rambo-esque power figures men are made to idolize is its own form of sexism. We need to be aware that we can’t properly address the one without addressing the other.
Saul Williams is challenging. His poems reference everything from astrology and ancient religions of the world to The Golden Compass and hip-hop, and his sheer speed gets a 10-minute T.S. Eliot poem’s worth of allusions done in three-and-a-half. It’s common to bounce off the first minute of a reading and fall woefully behind, only to realize a minute later that you’ve ingested a time-release capsule of ideas that spring forth at the same increasing speed as Williams’s words.
This is our country’s current poet laureate. There’s nothing I can say about her as a poet that this poem can’t say better.