Aside from classic verse, poetry is an extremely personal taste, and who knows what one reader will savor and another disdain. Here’s a selection of recent collections, some introduced for this sampling by a few lines from the title poems.

Wait by C. K. Williams: Book Cover

From the title poem “Wait” by C.E. Williams:

Chop hack, slash; chop, hack, slash; clever, boning knife, ax—

not even the clumsiest clod of a butcher could do this so crudely,

time, as you do, dismember me, render me, leave me slop in a pail …

  • Wait finds C. K. Williams by turns ruminative, stalked by “the conscience-beast, who harries me,” and “riven by idiot vigor, voracious as the youth I was for whom everything was going too slowly, too slowly.” Poems about animals and rural life are set hard by poems about shrapnel in Iraq and sudden desire on the Paris Métro; grateful invocations of Herbert and Hopkins give way to fierce negotiations with the shades of Coleridge, Dostoevsky, and Celan. What the poems share is their setting in the cool, spacious, spotlit, book-lined place that is Williams’s consciousness, a place whose workings he has rendered for fifty years with inimitable candor and style.

Lucifer at the Starlite by Kim Addonizio: Book Cover

From the title poem “Lucifer at the Starlite” by Kim Addonizio:

Here’s my bright idea for life on earth:
better management. The CEO
has lost touch with the details. I’m worth
as much, but I care; I come down here, I show
my face, I’m a real regular. A toast:
To our boys and girls in the war, grinding
through sand, to everybody here, our host
who’s mostly mist, like methane rising …

  • With both passion and precision, Lucifer at the Starlite explores life’s dual nature: good and evil, light and dark, suffering and moments of unexpected joy. Whether looking outward to events on the world stage—the war in Iraq, the 2004 Asian tsunami—or inward at struggles with the self, these poems aim at the heart and against the feeling that Lucifer may have already won the day.

If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova: Book Cover

From the title poem “Is There Something to Desire” by Vera Pavlova:

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.
If there was nothing to regret,
there was nothing to desire.

  • The 100 poems in this book, Is There Something to Desire, her first full-length volume in English, all have the same salty immediacy, as if spoken by a woman who feels that, as the title poem concludes, “If there was nothing to regret, / there was nothing to desire.”  Pavlova’s economy and directness make her delightfully accessible to us in all of the widely ranging topics she covers here: love, both sexual and the love that reaches beyond sex; motherhood; the memories of childhood that continue to feed us; our lives as passionate souls abroad in the world and the fullness of experience that entails. Expertly translated by her husband, Steven Seymour, Pavlova’s poems are highly disciplined miniatures, exhorting us without hesitation: “Enough painkilling, heal. / Enough cajoling, command.”

Mean Free Path by Ben Lerner: Book Cover

  • National Book Award finalist Ben Lerner turns to science once again for his guiding metaphor in Mean Free Path, which is the average distance a particle travels before colliding with another particle. The poems in Lerner’s third collection are full of layered collisions—repetitions, fragmentations, stutters, re-combinations—that track how language threatens to break up or change course under the emotional pressures of the utterance. And then there’s the larger collision of love, and while Lerner questions whether love poems are even possible, he composes a gorgeous, symphonic, and complicated one.

Wheeling Motel by Franz Wright: Book Cover

From “Wheeling Motel” by Franz Wright:

The vast waters flow past its backyard.
You can purchase a six- pack in bars!
Tammy Wynette’s on the marquee
a block down. It’s twenty- five years ago:
you went to death, I to life, and
which was luckier God only knows.

  • In Wheeling Motel, Franz Wright delivers his poetry to us with a wry sense of the daily in America: in his wonderfully local relationship to God (whom he encounters along with a catfish in the emerald shallows of Walden Pond); in the little West Virginia motel of the title poem, on the banks of the great Ohio River, where “Tammy Wynette’s on the marquee” and he is visited by the figure of Walt Whitman, “examining the tear on a dead face.” Here, Wright’s poetry continues to surprise us with its frank appraisal of our soul, and with his own combustible loneliness and unstoppable joy.

Easy by Marie Ponsot: Book Cover

  • Leave it to the graceful Marie Ponsot, now in her late 80s, to view her life in poetry as easeful. As she tells us, pondering what stones can hear, “Between silence and sound / we are balancing darkness, / making light of it.” In this celebratory collection, called Easy, Ponsot makes light, in both senses, of all she touches, and her pleasure in offering these late poems is infectious. After more than a half century at her craft, she describes her poetic preferences unpretentiously thus: “no fruity phrases, just unspun / words trued right toward a nice / idea, for chaser. True’s a risk. / Take it I say. Do true for fun.” Ponsot is accepting of what has come, whether it’s a joyous memory of her second-grade teacher in a New York public school or the feeling of being “Orphaned Old,” less lucky in life since her parents died. She holds herself to the highest standard: to see clearly, to think, to deal openhandedly and openheartedly with the world, to “Go to a wedding / as to a funeral: / bury the loss” and also to “Go to a funeral / as to a wedding: / marry the loss.” She confides that she meets works of great art “expectant and thirsty.”

Pierce the Skin by Henri Cole: Book Cover

  • Henri Cole has been described as a “fiercely somber, yet exuberant poet” by Harold Bloom, who identifies him as the central poet of his generation. Cole’s most recent poems, collected here in Pierce the Skin, have a daring sensitivity and imagistic beauty unlike anything on the American scene today. Whether they are exploring pleasure or pain, humor or sorrow, triumph or fear, they reach for an almost shocking intensity. This collection brings together 66 poems from the past 25 years, including work from Cole’s early, closely observed, virtuosic books, long out of print, as well as more recent books. The result is a collection re-consecrating Cole’s central themes: the desire for connection, the contingencies of selfhood and human love, the dissolution of the body, the sublime renewal found in nature, and the distance of language from experience

At the End of the Day

  • Philip Lopate writes in At the End of the Day, Selected Poems and Introductory Essay, “Though I am known today mostly as an essayist, occasionally as a fiction writer, for about 15 years I wrote poetry. I published poems in countless little magazines, gave readings all over, earned a living of sorts as a poet in the schools, teaching the art to children, and put out two collections: the first in 1972, the second in 1976. When I look back at those years during which poetry formed such an important part of my identity, I am tempted to rub my eyes, as though recalling a time when I ran off and joined the circus; yet at the time it seemed a logical enough pursuit.”

Other Flowers by James Schuyler: Book Cover

  • Other Flowers brings together 165 unseen poems from James Schuyler, one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed writers. This carefully arranged edition presents a broad range of Schuyler’s work, spanning from the early 1950s until his death in 1991. These poems exhibit Schuyler’s virtuosity in drawing from real life, interpersonal history, nature, and pop culture to create reverberant portraits of the everyday. To read these poems is to rediscover the fresh clarity and grandeur of even the smallest things. This collection confirms Schuyler’s status as one of the most important figures in contemporary poetics.

All the Whiskey in Heaven by Charles Bernstein: Book Cover

  • All the Whiskey in Heaven brings together Charles Bernstein’s best work from the past 30 years, an astonishing assortment of different types of poems. Yet despite the distinctive differences from poem to poem, Bernstein’s characteristic explorations of how language both limits and liberates thought are present throughout. Modulating the comic and the dark structural invention with buoyant sound play, these challenging works give way to poems of lyric excess and striking emotional range. This is poetry for poetry’s sake, as formally radical as it is socially engaged, providing equal measures of aesthetic pleasure, hilarity, and philosophical reflection. Long considered one of America’s most inventive and influential contemporary poets, Bernstein reveals himself to be both trickster and charmer.

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