Even before Anne Carson’s book Red Doc>
hit stores last week, I knew it would have me puzzled and enraptured. The book's title — is that
angled bracket supposed to look like a mistyped period, or does it mean
something more? — hinted at the strangeness inside.
Loosely centered on the red-winged hero of her 1998 book, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, the new installment also follows Red's friend Sad (short for Sad But Great) and a newcomer named Ida, and how they all intersect in their middle age. As I delved into dialogues chopped up and relineated, run-on sentences encompassing the entirety of one character's perceptions, and a series of choruses by a choir calling themselves the Wife of Brain, I knew I was dealing with something wild and new — as if Anne Carson had just decided one day that she was a cannon and she would call whatever exploded out of her a poem. Collecting myself at the book’s end, I started thinking of other works that had surprised me as much as hers.
Poetry is inherently strange: it compresses experience and emotion and philosophy into handfuls of words. And yet there are so many ways to make poetry even stranger, whether that means repeating "I'm with you in Rockland" nineteen times (#7 below) or employing an Ouija board (#5). Here, then, are ten of the strangest works of poetry of the last hundred years.
10. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons
99 years ago, Gertrude Stein published this series of baffling and utterly charming prose poems. “The difference is spreading,” she wrote of a carafe, and I thought it was strange but vaguely sensible. By the time I got to “Water astonishing and difficult altogether makes a meadow and a stroke” (under the heading “Water Raining”), I had no idea what she meant, but I loved it.
9. Jorie Graham, The End of Beauty
In comparison, Jorie Graham's cinematic poems seem easier to grasp. The titles caught my attention first — “Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them,” “Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay” — but as I came to the end of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which famously has a blank where no word could possibly work, I felt a shiver go up my spine. This was strangeness in its purest form: unexpected and wholly necessary.
8. Frank Bidart, Star Dust
Frank Bidart's uncommonness seems to rest in his precise typographic choices — large gaps, unconventionally placed words, carefully calibrated capital letters and italics — but all that is overturned by “The Third Hour of the Night,” a poem that originally took up the entire October 2004 issue of Poetry magazine and blends together the biography of Benvenuto Cellini, a mystical act of black magic, and the human need to create:
Brooding on our origins you
ask When and I say
7. Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Before James Franco brought the story of Howl to the big screen, I’d read the countercultural classic in college. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” the poem begins, and I listened as Ginsberg's voice guided me past “angel-headed hipsters” and through frenzied exhortations to Moloch, a horrific deity, before ending with a series of unsettling dream-visions: "the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worm of the senses"; "fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again"; "you will split the heavens of Long Island."
6. Ezra Pound, The Cantos
Pound’s poems embody his own Modernist dictum to “make it new,” and the sprawling Cantos is his greatest work. I found myself flipping between disparate sections centered on different historical periods and cultures, drawing connections where none might exist — and gawking at pages studded with Chinese characters and even Egyptian hieroglyphics.
5. James Merrill, The Changing Light at
James Merrill used an Ouija board and a willing companion to communicate with spirits — and, in The Changing Light at Sandover, he turned their mystical pronouncements into metered, epic verse. “We take the Board upstairs,” Merrill writes at one point, “And here is Michael...” I’m not sure whether the poem is a record of genuine belief or something the poet wanted to believe — but the voluminous transcript of conversations with old friends, as well as W.H. Auden, is both hilarious and deeply human.
garbage is spiritual, believable enough
to get our attention, getting in the way, piling
up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and
creamy white: what else deflects us from the
errors of our illusionary ways.
And then I couldn’t write for a week because language had been turned to trash for me.
3. John Ashbery, Flow Chart
When an 80-year-old is picked as the poet laureate for mtvU, you know he’s strange and good. I loved John Ashbery from his first book, Some Trees, but Flow Chart might be one of his best — a book-length monologue and meditation upon random objects, his life, and the process of writing the poem we’re reading at that very moment:
I am what some people would call "hard," though
I'm really a pussycat underneath the austere façade. Speaking of cats, when was the last
time you spoke to one, calling it by its name? Out here on the prairie things are much too quiet...
2. D.A. Powell, Tea
When I got D.A. Powell's first book in the mail, I realized it was bound sideways, along its short end. As I opened it, it became clear that the lines were so long —
tall and thin and young and lovely the michael with kaposi's sarcoma goes walking and when he passes each one he passes goes “whisperwhisperwhisper.” star of beach blanket Babylon…
— that there was no other way to fit them on the page. Tea is crammed with allusions to music (“The Girl from Ipanema” here) and history and fragments of real life. Fifteen years later, Powell won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle award in poetry. It wasn't a surprise to me: no other poet I know can compact such a welter of experience into a single line.
1. Christian Bök, Eunoia
When I told Christian Bök that my favorite vowel was i, he wrote in my copy of Eunoia, “Sign this, kind sir.” Each of the book’s five main sections is written with words consisting of only one vowel; they also describe nautical journeys and refer back to the act of writing. “I have in fact adhered to many other unmentioned constraints (most of which testify to my obsessive-compulsive disorders),” Bök confessed in an interview. And now he’s encoding a poem in the genes of a bacterium…
Emily Dickinson's saying that a genuine poem makes one "feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off" has become a cliché in the poetry world. But every one of these books, including Red Doc>, had me wondering how I'd screw my head back on. Which isn't a bad thing, actually.
Credit: Flickr user Joanna Bourne. Used with a Creative Commons license.