Wolf Moon Blood Moon is a debut poetry collection, but I’ve been reading and writing poetry since I was a teenager. It wasn’t until grad school at Syracuse University, in my mid- to late- twenties, when I came under the influence of the writer George P. Elliott, that I fell deeply in love with the short story and started focusing most of my writing energy on fiction. Even during those years, I wrote very short stories—pieces ranging from a paragraph to a few pages—and much of that work was published in literary journals as prose poems. For a long time, I thought of fiction as writing that emphasized characters living through, and usually being changed by, a significant moment or event or series of events in their lives; and I thought of poetry as writing that emphasized the use and arrangement of language in patterns of meaning, with the focus on language and meaning rather than on character and event. I still find that largely true, but these days I’ve come to think of all writing as one kind of fiction or another.
For me, the act of writing is always an act of invention shaped by a set of constraints, is a daily meditation, a way of thinking about my relationship to the world. Always, I’m trying to say something that’s true by listening to what I’m writing as I’m writing, by discovering the direction of the writing and being directed by my discoveries. And when things are going well, this seems to come from someplace below the level of consciousness. That’s the great pleasure of writing, the immersion in that creative space. Truth in that space, for me at least, is never the truth of what actually happened, but rather the truth that evolves out of the relationship between invention and design. A play has one kind of design (or set of constraints), poetry another, short fiction another, the novel another, etc., and each genre, each form, leads to a different kind of dreaming and another kind of fiction. Poetry is an especially intense kind of dreaming, which is why I read it with exponentially greater regularity than I attempt writing it.
I have scores of favorite poets and favorite poems, and I read them first of all for the experience I find in the reading, and second for what I can learn from them about how to write. The great poets are, of course, also the great teachers. (I don’t know how many times I’ve read and reread Theodore Roethke’s The Lost Son, but I’ve worn out a least a couple of editions.) The list below, however, is made up of ten contemporaries, all of them, with the exceptions of Ai and Claudia Emerson, still living and writing. They’re poets I read because I admire their work, and because I like trying to figure out just how they achieve such powerful effects with such regularity. I’ll highlight one of their books, but in every case the whole body of their work is worth exploring. Unfortunately, there’s not enough room or time to list every contemporary poet I admire, let alone even a smattering of the magnificent voices that still speak to us across the ages, but hopefully this will be a good starting place.
Ai, Sin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986). A magnificent story teller, Ai’s poems are daring explorations of the complex and often troubling recesses of the self, told through the appropriated voices of others. She’s a poet to read for her riveting dramatic monologues as well as the forthright, powerful, and convincing use of plain, austere language.
Denise Duhamel, Two and Two (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005). It’s hard to pick one collection of Duhamel’s to single out for praise, but I’ll go with Two and Two for the stunning 9/11 poem, “Love Which Took Its Symmetry for Granted.” Duhamel’s mastery of poetic forms, received and invented, is on display in this poem’s weaving of multiple voices into a chaotic narrative that captures the essence of that shocking moment and its effect on the American psyche. Duhamel is a wonder, and this is one of her best collections.
Stephen Dobyns, Black Dog Red Dog (Carnegie Mellon UP, 1990). Another terrific story teller, Dobyns is a writer to read for his use of the long line in poems that straddle the boundary between poetry and prose. With language that is subtly musical and bold, Dobyns’ poems speak with the power of the best, most concise, fiction.
Claudia Emerson, Late Wife (LSU Press, 2005). Late Wife is a book of poems that somehow manages to harness the narrative scope of a novel and the precise, compact language of a sonnet in chronicling the dissolution of a first marriage and start of a second. This is a book I’ve returned to again and again both for its imagery and its insight, for the way it speaks about the personal and makes it universal.
Alice Fulton, The Powers of Congress (Sarabande Books, 2001). Fulton is a magician who writes complex, multifaceted poems that explore a daunting range of subjects in a variety of poetic voices. There seems to be absolutely nothing she can’t do or won’t try. One hardly knows where to start praising the poems or the striking intelligence that informs them. I’m singling out Powers of Congress because it was my introduction to Fulton’s poetry, but since that collection she has continued to produce a body of stunning work. Start anywhere.
Stephen Gibson, Self-Portrait in a Door Length Mirror (University of Arkansas Press, 2017). I haven’t yet encountered a formalist poet more accomplished than Stephen Gibson. In this, his most recent collection, selected by Billy Collins as winner of the Miller Williams Prize, he writes carefully constructed poems of stunned outrage at the violence humanity has always endured and commonly condoned. The deep interest of Gibson’s poetry through all his collections is the chaos of the human heart; and here, in Self-Portrait in a Door-length Mirror, he writes in full command of his subject and its formal expression.
David Kirby, House on Boulevard St. (LSU Press, 2007). Kirby’s big, inclusive, generous voice is irresistible. I love what the National Book Award committee wrote about Boulevard Street and happily repeat it here: “Digression and punctiliousness, directed movement and lollygagging, bemusement and piercing insight are among the many paradoxical dualities that energize and complicate the locomotion of his informed, capacious consciousness.” I especially like the use of “locomotion” in describing Kirby’s work. His poems often move like a locomotive rumbling across some new territory: you never know what you’ll see next out the window, but on Kirby’s train you can bet it will be entertaining and informative and you won’t be able to turn away.
Sharon Olds, Satan Says (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980). With a frankness that can at times be shocking, Olds explores states both emotional and sexual with great intensity. Her control of language, her magisterial manipulation of the line and image, her powerful figurative language as well as her direct, forthright speech, her skills both narrative and lyric—all are impressive and moving.
Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard (Mariner Books, 2007). In Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner wrote his two most commonly quoted sentences: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He might well have been talking about Natasha Trethewey’s poetry, a body of work that explores the historical and personal in meticulously constructed, deeply affecting poems. These are poems to read for their craft, their power, and their insight into the many ways in which the past clings to the present.
Robert Wrigley, In the Bank of Beautiful Sins (Penguin Books, 1995). Wrigley’s sensual language is often so exact and accurate in its depiction of the natural world that the experience of reading feels visceral. I first read In the Bank of Beautiful Sins more than twenty years ago, but I return to it often to remind myself of the immense power of carefully chosen words to render a story unforgettable.
Ed Falco lives in the mountains of Blacksburg, Virginia. He teaches in the MFA program at Virginia Tech and edits the New River, an online journal of new media writing. A poetry contributor to the Southern Review, he has also published novels, short stories, and plays.