Paul Salvator Goldengruen, The Painter Prince, 2007, acrylic on canvas.
Much contemporary poetry gets written off as too “experimental”—perhaps because of how crazy the poems look on the page, because they’re full of fragmentary images and half-finished thoughts, because they’re slathered in irony, or because they take poetry itself as their subject. Yet many of the most off-the-wall poets are actually writing about the same things—parenthood, love, sex, the environment, and the joys of literature—as their more straightforward contemporaries but have chosen to describe experience using untraditional means. Here are a few great books that embrace the experimental side of poetry.
This is one of the best unsung (or quietly sung) books to come along in the past few years. The poems look downright nerve-racking—Baker’s stanzas are jagged and spread wildly across the page—and sometimes flirt with nonsense: “and now I am nested in the cardboard beak of what is not / a bird,” reads a typical line. There’s even a sequence in which the text is set beside stick-figure drawings. But this book is not meant to be read from a distance. Under scrutiny, it reveals its magic: intimate portraits of nature, domestic life, marriage, love, motherhood, and sex, all wound gracefully together in lines like “product of my sexual love, this is my child.”
Volkman doesn’t just flirt with nonsense, she makes high art of it. Though these poems appear as blocks of inscrutable prose (“I do not love the question of strangers, which tug close to the loop and haggle in the throat”), they’re careful dramatizations of the ways we simply can’t say what we need to about love. Volkman understands that words, first and foremost, are sounds and that sounds are often the closest approximations of what we feel.
Ramke is a poet’s poet, and those who love his wild, heady lines are really wild about them. Amid a flurry of quotes from obscure texts, sentence fragments, and dire, disjointed pronouncements—“the movement of stone upon stone / is a kind of burning”—Ramke explores what it means to be a son’s father and a father’s son.
Powell may be the greatest poet of our moment; he is certainly one of the most important chroniclers of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath. Even still, his best poems—colored with layers of campy catchphrases, quotes from classic gay dancehall tunes, glosses of seemingly silly movies like Hook, and extensive biblical references—can be damn difficult to wrap the mind around. You have to read closely and keep Google open on the nearest computer, but no one knows better than Powell what a contemporary poem can do.
This recent National Poetry Series winner takes much of its inspiration from W. G. Sebald’s novels, whose sentences Ronk refracts through her prismatic poems. “There are never enough pages to describe / the expanse of a valley where a low-lying cloud / rims the view and blankets out everything one might see,” writes Ronk in a characteristically self-conscious poem, one that is as much about the natural world as the act of writing. Ronk has studied her source closely and demands the same kind of attention from her readers, but she makes her work worth the time and concentration it demands.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems (University Press of Colorado, 2008) and Cradle Book, which is forthcoming next year from BOA Editions. He is a vice president of the board of the National Book Critics Circle and poetry reviews editor for Publishers Weekly.