Hey there, everyone, this is Alan from the Will Library! Believe it or not, it is April out there and that means it’s also National Poetry Month, an occasion launched by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to remind the public that poets have an integral role to play in our cultural lives. That role is even more important in times of societal crisis. As Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, explained, “[m]ore and more people are turning to poetry at this moment, because amid fear and uncertainty, poetry can help bring needed strength. At a time of anxiety and alarm, poetry can help bring tranquility.” When we are scared and isolated, poetry can make us feel less alone. It also has the power to bring us together.
Toward that end, the Academy of American Poets has invited everyone to share a poem that “helps to find courage, solace, and actionable energy.” If you’d like to contribute a poem, you can send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or just use the hashtag #ShelterInPoems on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. You can peruse the continuously updated selection of submissions at the Shelter in Poems page of their Web site.
While our buildings are closed and our print collections are inaccessible, you can call our Poem of the Day phone line and hear one of our staff read a different poem each day (call: 914-639-5014). YPL also has some great contemporary poetry for you to check out digitally through OverDrive (and we’ve got a handy guide to using OverDrive in another blog entry). Here are a few collections that I’ve been reading lately:
Jericho Brown’s third collection, The Tradition, offers a riveting and technically dazzling exploration of race, religion, myth, and history; of bodies and violence done unto bodies, both past and present, personal and national. His book was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award.
Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic is a really unusual and profound contemporary epic. It is a collection of lyric poems presented as a play in two acts. Its narrative traces the fate of the fictional town of Vasenka, trapped in the grip of martial law after soldiers disrupt a protest and murder a deaf boy. The townspeople choose silence as a form of resistance—deafness against hearing—and Kaminsky (who is hard of hearing himself) considers the moral complexities of this decision: It is, at once, a gesture of defiance, of solidarity against tyranny, but also a shield against the outside, and perhaps even a cloak over our own indifference.
Another recent collection I’ve enjoyed is Carmen Giménez Smith’s Be Recorder. In lines that are urgent, funny, linguistically playful and complex, her poems reckon with the vicissitudes of late-stage–capitalist America, pushing hard against complacency and self-delusion. It, too, was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award.
Mostly, though, I’ve found myself digging into Charles Wright’s massive new volume of selected poems, Oblivion Banjo. For me, Wright always makes for fine company; his poems often strike a casual, conversational tone, even when they’re ruminating on darker themes. It is this lightness—the way the odd detail or sudden, striking image drops in out of nowhere—that makes him even more valuable for me in times of stress and anxiety. There is also a timelessness to his work—where the past easily intermingles with the present, as though he were moving forward while always looking back—that seems to mirror the ambiguities of our quarantined days. To listen to Wright read one of his poems, “Early Saturday Afternoon, Early Evening”, click here.