Canon Fodder: Joshua Weiner
[Note from the editors: Maybe some poems just don’t get the respect they deserve. Starting this week we’re asking nine poets to recommend nine poems that they think should be added to the canon: poems that should be taught, anthologized, revered. Joshua Weiner starts off the series.]
1. “The Noise of Time” by David Antin
David Antin composes something he calls “talk-poems,” poetic texts that use transcripts made from recordings of his extemporary “talks,” or performances in front of live audiences. In a conversational register, Antin thinks aloud and tells stories, all the while discovering within the improvised narrative an element of poetic form. “The Noise of Time” is one of his best performance texts, a personal, poignant work that brings together meditations on time and mortality that is also self-reflexively about the nature of narrative, repetition, and interruption.
2. “A Wave” by John Ashbery
One of Ashbery’s longish poems (about 20 pages), this piece is often neglected in discussions of his work, perhaps because the language here is so transparently accessible; its radical nature, however, is in just such clarity and directness of address. As moving as it is inventive, the poem develops the figure of the wave as a form of consciousness itself.
3. “Herbert White” by Frank Bidart
Reviving the power of the dramatic monologue to address the darkest human impulses, Bidart casts this hair-raising poem in the voice of a sociopath who murders young women. What makes the poem work above its obvious luridness is Bidart’s depth of treatment, such that the awful occasion for speech draws forth an act of recognition that sounds like the real voice of spiritual despair.
4. “Duncan” by Thom Gunn
An elegy for the American poet Robert Duncan, a friend and a mentor to Gunn, this poem engages one of the central aesthetic struggles of the last century—the attempt to reconcile open and closed forms—by enacting the tension between these art-making impulses. A kind of essay in verse about Duncan that honors his imaginative openness and his feeling for literary inheritance, it also marks one of Gunn’s greatest achievements in the lyric.
5. “The Pleasures of Peace” by Kenneth Koch
“So now I must devote my days to The Pleasures of Peace— / To my contemporaries I’ll leave The Horrors of War, / They can do them better than I—each poet shares only a portion / Of the vast Territory of Rhyme.” Koch’s portion was larger than most, his powers more formidable; both are on display in this poem from the late 1960s that showcases Koch’s zany blend of parody, pastiche, and expansive lyric address. There’s nothing else like it in American poetry, a great welcoming voice of healthy delirium and happy sanity.
6. “Falling Water” by John Koethe
A professional philosopher dedicated to Wittgenstein and the problems of plain speaking, Koethe is also one of the most moving and convincing meditative poets now writing. His authority derives, however, not from his intellectual powers, which are considerable, but from the quality of emotional life that such philosophical questioning releases. “Falling Water” is the best contemporary poem I know about moving through time and trying to come to some understanding about who one is in relation to past experience.
7. “Itinerary” by James McMichael
“Itinerary” begins in the contemporary Pacific Northwest, which the poet renders in a voice naturally his own; as the poem moves eastward, and simultaneously back through time, the language changes, melding with other historical voices, some of them belonging to Lewis and Clark. The poem ends in Virginia, in the voice of an early settler considering the New World. Such a summary, while accurate enough, says nothing about the unique power of this poem to carry a reader through time and space by virtue of an experience in the very textures of the English language, its syntax and diction. The only precursor I can think of is Joyce’s tour de force in “The Oxen in the Sun” chapter of Ulysses.
8. “History of My Heart” by Robert Pinsky
One of the most convincing and richly evocative autobiographies in contemporary poetry, this longish poem (210 lines) blends social and personal history with panache and a seductive interweaving of motif, and every line sounds great. Pinsky is a master of the telling narrative detail and the expressive poetic figure, and here he plays the changes with the aplomb of a great jazz improviser.
9. “The Mill-Race” by Anne Winters
In this beguiling and quietly radical poem, the water mill becomes the figure for the ceaseless grinding of human labor. Winters’s imagistic flexibility and sense of historical connection is stunning, her music unsurpassed, her moral vision eloquent and unyielding. This opening poem is from The Displaced of Capital, the best book of poems published in 2004.
Joshua Weiner was born in Boston and grew up in central New Jersey. He is the author of three books of poems, The World’s Room (2001) and From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013).Weiner earned a BA from Northwestern University and a PhD from...