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The 2012 Attention Span List Is Up and Up

By Harriet Staff

The last time we had this much peer-to-peer nourishment, it was…uh, 2011. That’s right, it’s time for the great compiler of Maine Steve Evans’s annual ATTENTION SPAN! Rumor has it that this might be the last. We’re saddened to hear this, but it’s all the more reason to take a peek at the shortlists of our contemporary casuals, large or small. Those who have so far posted favorites of their year: Anne Boyer, Barry Schwabsky, Marjorie Welish, Pam Brown, Meredith Quartermain, Carl Schlachte, Brent Cunningham, Laura Moriarty, James Wagner, Vincent Katz, G.C. Waldrep, Andrew Schelling, Brian Ang, and Patrick Pritchett.

The books, manuscripts, chapbooks, films, shows, and other forms cited run various gamuts and even vary from oldish to newish, providing not only a cross-section of what other poets are reading/influenced by (avec comments!), but an interesting sense of what might resonate despite its “currency,” if you will. Though what’s recently published in poetry is certainly well represented. For a good example, check out Carl Schlachte’s list, below. Head over to Third Factory for more; it’s updated frequently.

Anselm Berrigan | Notes from Irrelevance | Wave | 2011

This book-length poem is one of my favorite recent reads. Berrigan has said that he wrote it in sections, but then later combined them, and while I can acknowledge that, my brain resists any claims against the poem’s inherent unity. Plus, the poem has a good deal of vitality and a steadiness that keeps it interesting and a pleasure to read. I think the poem is at its best when Berrigan slips into autobiographical narration, made all the better by the way that these moments crop up only occasionally. His language, as always, is beautiful and precise.

Cyrus Console | The Odicy | Omnidawn | 2011

Console is not the only poet on this list to make interesting use of pentameter in his work, but he’s probably the most conspicuous about it. This book, which deals with the seemingly boundless issues of religion, global corporations, and processed sugar products, is carefully written and never feels heavy-handed, despite the lack of ambiguity or equivocation in what is being said. The third section of the book, “The Ophany,” is made up entirely of the repeated acrostic “RAINBOW,” which is amazingly devoid of kitsch. That, if anything, is a testament to Console’s skill.

Lyn Hejinian | The Book of a Thousand Eyes | Omnidawn | 2012

Hejinian’s an acknowledged master, but I find myself continually surprised by the way her books work within their modes to utilize and re-activate many of the traditional concerns of lyric poetry, filtered through what is left of the Language sensibility 30 years on. In this case, Hejinian is working with folklore, sleep, and the night, in the framework of Scheherazade’s thousand tales. But frequently, the tales that Hejinian is telling acknowledge the fact that they are being told (one common device is to declare a moral), in a way that seems artful without being irritatingly coy.

Liz Kotz | Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art | MIT | 2007

There’s a long history of poets being involved with the art world, and this book of art criticism feels as if it was written for poets, or poets interested in art, at least, due to its focus on the linguistic aspects of the 1960s art scene. (It also features jacket quotes from Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin, so my claim may not be unoriginal.) There’s a lot of focus on inter-media arts, with chapters about John Cage, Fluxus, and even two specifically about the use of poetry in the arts. I appreciate how it is able to contextualize much of the single-discipline art developments of the 1960s in relation to other contemporary art developments.

Ben Lerner | Mean Free Path | Copper Canyon | 2010

Much has been made of this book’s fragmented composition structure, but I find that as I continue to return to it, the less fragmented it seems. This is not, however, to the work’s detriment; the poems feel increasingly personal as they are experienced as pure representations of a mind at work. Instead of offering declarative answers to the questions they raise, they offer disjunctive uncertainty, and the result seems more truthful than if any answer had been given.

Christian Marclay | The Clock | Film | 2010

I have finally managed to see (repeatedly) the conceptual art film sensation that’s sweeping the nation(s). A number of good critical pieces have been written about the film, so I won’t add much description here, except to say that the film should perhaps have bearing on the ongoing debate over conceptual poetry; as Robert Baird notes, the film is “a powerful demonstration that boredom is not a necessary response to conceptualist art.” He adds: “So maybe the trouble with conceptualism in poetry is just that we haven’t found our Christian Marclay yet.”

Lorine Niedecker | Handmade Poems | CUNY Poetics Project | 2012

This chapbook is a facsimile reissue of one that Niedecker made in 1964 and gave to friends, and is now held in the New York Public Library’s archives. Though these poems appear among Niedecker’s Collected, seeing them here in her own handwriting is a well-conceived stylistic touch that only further serves to emphasize the mundane and beautiful simplicity of her verse.

Geoffrey G. O’Brien | Metropole | California | 2011

A book that is purposefully difficult without being insensitive. The concerns of the poetry are frequently political, and are insistent without being didactic. More interesting, however, are the formal concerns (constraints?) as the poems mediate their use through iambic pentameter in a way that feels contemporary, even as it purposefully invokes and challenges the traditions and histories of that form. Also notable is the way that O’Brien hinges and twists phrases in the title poem. For example: “They have a second life in prison time moves slowly in the middle of their sentences” (58).

Michael Palmer | Notes for Echo Lake | North Point | 1981

Palmer’s trilogy of books published in the 1980s was reissued in 2001 by New Directions as Codes Appearing, and as I’ve been spending time with these volumes (particularly Notes for Echo Lake) I think that the collected title is rather apt. Reading much of Palmer’s best poetry feels like waking up, in that I feel like I’ve been gone, and missed something while I was out. The “Notes from Echo Lake” series in the book that bears its name provokes in me the greatest feelings of wonder, and is well worth returning to repeatedly.

Rosmarie Waldrop | The Road Is Everywhere or Stop This Body | Open Places | 1978

I’ve been going through the back-catalogs of poets whose work I particularly enjoy and admire, and this book of Rosmarie Waldrop’s was a pleasure to find. It’s early work—her second book—but it’s completely realized in its project: a road chronicle of trips driving around the United States. I find particularly interesting her inclusion of graphical representations of road signs among the words of the poems. This element seems (to me) to be a precursor to more contemporary works that also include graphical elements, like Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely or Tan Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking.

Tyrone Williams | On Spec | Omnidawn | 2008

Williams’ poetry manages to do two difficult things, things that are even more difficult when done together: it manages to be both formally and thematically interesting. One of my favorite features of his formal innovations is the use of words or parts of words within parentheses, to create multiple possible and equally valid readings of poems, almost like printing all of Emily Dickinson’s variants directly into her poems at once. It makes the role of the reader in relation to the poem much more (excitingly) active.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, September 27th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.