Reading Lorna Goodison’s poems is like taking a breath of the “pure serene”—fresh air, Keats might have called it in an unpoetic mood. Born in Jamaica, she writes with such vivid control of description that the pages seem to fall out of paintings by Bosschaert or color plates ripped from Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora:

Keep doing the island’s housekeeping.

Scour and rinse out the mouth of a river,

plastic scandal-bag clogged.

You’re a pin-up girl in a one-piece bathing suit

I saw you sew yourself; it is ruched and tucked

like a washboard across your belly.

Goodison has learned a few things from Derek Walcott; but her images are intimate with their surroundings, not the wedding-cake decorations favored by the Nobel laureate.

Mother Muse is part elegy for, part celebration of, two Jamaican women, Sister Mary Ignatius, who reformed truant boys, and Margarita Mahfood (Margarita Mahfouz), a local rhumba queen.1 Known as the “nun who nurtured reggae,” Sister Iggy produced important local musicians at the Alpha Boys School. (She also taught dominoes and boxing—and was a disc jockey at dances.) According to a bbc article, “If you want to get grown men to cry simply talk to them about her.” The opening of the sister’s dramatic monologue runs:

They say Portugal is lovely this time of year.

The roofs are clay red and bougainvillea

studies new ways to shimmy and cascade

across tiles and wide wrought iron balconies,

hung over with last night’s damp bed linen,

on display as sweat-stained tapestries.

And the sea is a deep dish, silver with sardines,

and long meter waves wash songs of sailors

back to shore as mournas, fado, mournas.

Mahfood, the beloved rhumba queen, was murdered by her lover, Don Drummond, a ska trombonist once a Sister Iggy boy.

Goodison’s monologues and praise songs sanctify, not without sorrow, saints of the usual and unusual sort, well-known women like Mahalia Jackson and Marian Anderson (misspelled “Marion”), and others who might be forgotten: Sandra Bland (who after a traffic stop died in a Texas jail cell, possibly murdered) and a slave named Quasheba. If the poet’s concerns are drenched in familiar tropes, they’re dead honest and unremitting, even about murder: “Because, she dance half naked./ Because, she give him him medicine late./ Because, he said, she stab herself.”

Goodison’s monologues and praise songs sanctify saints of the usual and unusual sort.

The inflections of island patois keep these poems at a distance of unfamiliarity, while bringing close the rhythms of home. The delicious intransigence of Goodison’s work comes through an English slightly out of register—Jamaicans no doubt hear American English that way. It’s pleasing to see the language used in this vivid, off-center fashion. (Walcott’s attempts to write in patois were always unconvincing.) There are words easy to parse—mi (my), fren (friend), fi (for)—and those only a dialect dictionary or a local might explain: dan-dan, galang, fee-fee, shak-shak. When we read poets in an English not our own, we see a world not ours as well.

A portrait of a lioness, an address to a weed in a cane field, and a gutted version of Keats’s “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil” show the breadth of Goodison’s unusual sensibility. If some poems are long-winded plaints with run-on sentences of an unenlivening sort, the poet fills the humdrum of daily life with light. Now in her seventies, the former poet laureate of Jamaica, Goodison in 2019 won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Though she taught briefly at the University of Toronto and for some years at the University of Michigan, her poetry still thrives on her island like a native plant.

The humble and humbling quality of Goodison’s poems has been bedded in a sorrow that is also an exuberance, as if neither can survive without the other. When she uses a striking metaphor, it seems just to have occurred to her, driven by deftness of perception rather than the pressure and labor of invention. Anyone might write such poems; but few poets do, because making something difficult look easy is not in the genes of most. You see that drift of intelligence in Philip Larkin, where juggling three samurai swords and a lit stick of dynamite looks perfectly simple but requires—as his rough drafts show—excruciating labor. Goodison’s poems display what we should always look for, a new way of looking at the world. And a fresh way of speaking it.

With the deaths of so many American poets born in the Twenties and early Thirties, Frank Bidart has become a de facto elder statesman. Now eighty-three, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he’s best known for the dramatic monologues in his early books, especially those of the psychopathic child-murderer “Herbert White” and the anorectic young woman “Ellen West.” Such poems came out of Browning’s hip pocket, perhaps by way of the late Richard Howard, who elegantly continued the tradition of the Browningesque.

The dramatic monologue has haunted—even bedeviled—American poetry since it became American. Leaves of Grass, nearly the first, may be the longest. The Walt Whitman of the poem, an “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,/ Disorderly fleshy and sensual,” appeared in the frontispiece as an open-shirted man of the people, head cocked, broad-brim hat at a rakish slant. He was instead a former Brooklyn newspaper editor, later a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some of the stories he told in “Song of Myself” were pure invention, whether he claimed to have harbored a runaway slave, hunted for seals and polar bears, or watched a western trapper marry a “red girl.” He borrowed the trapper and the woman from a painting by Alfred Jacob Miller but never mentions that such wives were called “sleeping dictionaries.”

Many poets have taken a turn at the monologue’s pure, enticing dissociation, as close to playwriting as poetry comes. (You could say that each one drops from an unfinished play.) Few poets have pursued these rootless soliloquies, or succumbed to them, with the faculty and finesse of Bidart. If his monologues often seem prefabricated, melodramatic, his poems in propria persona are bleached out, the passion and artistic privilege of private life almost inaccessible.

Few poets have pursued these rootless soliloquies, or succumbed to them, with the faculty and finesse of Bidart.

Against Silence, a title that faces the long silence to come, is unfortunately more Dramamine than drama, too much Ralph Richardson, too little Laurence Olivier, except when Bidart tosses in a pinch of Grand Guignol: “natural/ pity// soon ends/ when what pity unleashes is CHAOS.”2 Now short, now long, the lines mostly just lie there, uncertain of their standing, bitter in their very existence, as if Bidart were so neurotically uncomfortable writing in his own skin that the mask of persona proves, not a way to smuggle stagecraft into poetic art, but a device to avoid the privacies of the private. The personal in his poems seems as impersonal as a tax form.

The stanzas in these new poems are cursory, none more than three lines, many just one. Sidelong references to an unhappy childhood and his parents’ miserable marriage are more thoroughly redacted than a cia file: “Thirst no well can satisfy.// The well of affection that bloods the house is poisoned.// Love that bloods the house is poisoned.” Where they dredge up the past, the sincerity never goes further than hesitation, and loss of the colloquial voice displayed in his monologues is never compensated. Even the poems touching on politics sadly lack originality or depth. Everyone hates prejudice; but to attack it you need to go beyond the usual examples, awful as they are, like the dar refusing Marian Anderson permission to sing at Constitution Hall.

The naked longing and self-hatred of these late poems are too often wrapped in maunderings of a gaseous sort (“Each of us is to himself/ indelible. I had to become that which could not// be, by time, from human memory, erased”). Worse, too many pieces plunge into proto- or pseudo-philosophy:

Think of the earth—matter, the mind’s

ground—as an enormous mirror
 

across whose impenetrable surface the individual

soul fears that it merely appears and disappears
 

without weight, another among multitudinous

chimera, without identity or consequence.

Compare these misty whimsies to a new monologue in the voice of the great saxophonist and clarinettist Sidney Bechet after he played for King George V at Buckingham Palace:

There was over a thousand people there.

It was the first time I got to

recognize somebody

from having seen his picture on my money.



We had the whole

royal family

tapping their feet.

Bechet adds in his autobiography that Buckingham Palace “was like Grand Central Station with a lot of carpets and things on the walls. Only it had more doors.”

Here and in a portrait of Bidart’s racist grandmother, this desiccated collection comes to severe and hilarious life, though the heavy-handed enjambment flourishes throughout. By the time the poet explains the “universal law of love,” I longed for a cryogenic nap. A series of meditations on death in the voices of, say, Frederick Douglass, Henry James, and Simone Weil would have offered a stringent longing and structure to Bidart’s gifts.

Amanda Gorman became a phenomenon last year by reading a shallow, uplifting poem at the inauguration of Joe Biden. There have been phenomenons in poetry before—Lord Byron famously woke up famous after publishing Childe Harold. Gorman woke up famous, too, within weeks turning down $17 million in endorsement contracts and appearing on the cover of Time and later Vogue. That February she performed in a pregame ceremony at the Super Bowl. Now she’s shilling for Estée Lauder as their first “global ambassador,” having signed with img Models, where she joins Brooke Shields, Kate Moss, and Milla Jovovich.

Call Us What We Carry is Gorman’s first major collection.3 (An earlier collection, published when she was seventeen, is almost impossible to find.) The prefatory poem is full of the vague pronouncements and lifeless aspirational guff retailed in her inauguration poem:

& what exactly are we supposed to be doing?

Penning a letter to the world as a daughter of it.

We are writing with vanishing meaning,

Our words water dragging down a windshield.

The poet’s diagnosis is that what we have lived

Has already warped itself into a fever dream,

The contours of its shape stripped from the murky mind.

So we’re living in The Matrix, then.

The book is full of such silliness, broad in meaning and narrow in plain sense. Gorman plucks up metaphors as if from a carny grab-bag, stuffing the book with poetic forms now having their moment—mainly erasure poems and concrete poems (a whale, the Capitol, the planet Earth like a deflated balloon)—with others less frequently seen: a poem as newspaper columns and another as a Q&A survey. The poems aren’t better for their containers (Gorman cheats in the concrete poems), which prove just an excuse to write mortally wounded prose instead of wrestling lines of poetry into shape. If you worry that some of the nonce forms might catch on, recall the heyday of the ghazal two decades ago.

In her notes, Gorman spells out commonplace allusions to Homer, Hamlet, and Terence, having picked up the last (“Homo sum, humani nihil, etc.”) from Oprah’s Masterclass series. None of that makes her poems better than a plastic whistle from a Cracker Jack box. At least there you can console yourself with Cracker Jack:

We thought we’d awaken to a world in mourning.

Heavy clouds crowding, a society storming.

But there’s something different on this golden morning.

Something magical in the sunlight, wide & warming.
 

We see a dad with a stroller taking a jog.

Across the street, a bright-eyed girl chases her dog.

A grandma on a porch fingers her rosaries.

She grins as her young neighbor brings her groceries.

Such doggerel leads to “As one, we will defeat despair & disease./ We stand with healthcare heroes & all employees.” Cue audience groaning at Madison Avenue jingles without Madison Avenue talent. It’s not clear if we should be depressed by the attention paid to her work, the publicity and hard cash showered upon her, or should just throw up our hands and say, “That, that too, is America.” She’s today’s answer to Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Rod McKuen.

Even so, you can lament Gorman’s taste for excruciating wordplay:

Grief, like glass, can be both a mirror & a window, enabling us to look both in & out, then & now & how. In other words, we become a window pain.

I almost hope that’s a mistake—but what about “Faces trapped in a prison of a prism./ The petty zoo[m] as it were”? Did she mean to write “petting zoo[m]”? Then there’s “Our souls, so solar & soldiering,” “Empires have been raised & razed on much less,” “As if we are what we eat & not also who we cheat, what we tweet.” What shall we make of a Harvard grad who thinks in clichés and cranks out slogans and corny apothegms as if they had the depth of Paradise Lost?

It would be simpler to dislike Gorman if people didn’t so obviously respond to the empty-headed blather she calls poems. You may take her reception as an indictment of our school systems, which so rarely teach good poetry, or any poetry at all. Perhaps it’s simply a sign that people yearn for a poetry of hope, however meager, in times that seem hopeless. I predict a frenzy come Christmas for a desk calendar with a scrap of Gorman’s wisdom for every day of the year: “There is power in being robbed/ & still choosing to dance,” “Grief commands its own grammar,/ Structured by intimacy & imagination,” “Perhaps our relationships are the very make of us,/ For fellowship is both our nature & our necessity.” The very make?

Her poetic chronology of the covid crisis, titled “Monomyth,” climaxes with the Biden inauguration.

Her poetic chronology of the covid crisis, titled “Monomyth,” climaxes with the Biden inauguration, where “Amanda Gorman, a skinny Black girl descended from slaves, becomes the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. At exactly noon, sheer gray clouds bend & break for the day.” That makes it sound as if George Washington selected an inaugural poet, and every president afterward followed suit. Gorman is only the sixth, all but Robert Frost chosen during the past thirty years. Though she’s probably not the weather goddess the entry implies, referring to yourself in the third person is never a good idea if you want to maintain the pretense of modesty.

A cast of thousands, including God, gets thanked in the acknowledgments, which run to five pages. Gorman is a symbol of change, someone whose yearning phrases please the crowd. (Her reading at the inauguration deserved an Oscar.) Anyone who wants to be a poet, however, should read this book to learn what poetry is not. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was no there there. Gorman is our Oakland.

Anne Carson has already translated the Herakles of Euripides once; but why not do it again, only weirder? (You can pick up the earlier version in Grief Lessons, 2006.) Hēraklēs Mainomenos—in Latin, Hercules Furens—dating from about 416 B.C., is among the few Greek plays to have come down to the modern world intact, and the Labors of Hercules remain among the only Greek myths schoolchildren know. The Labors take place before the play begins but are recounted in a long monologue by the big man himself.

Carson’s take on Euripides is, as usual in her barn dance with the classics, wild, woolly, at times riveting, at times completely mad. She’s published books you can’t put down, and books you want to hurl across the room. H of H Playbook is the facsimile of a private notebook, an Alice in Wonderland version of the play tricked up with elementary-school drawings and pasted-down scraps of text.4 A playbook, historically, held the text for a theatrical company—the Globe would have had shelves of them for Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

Carson slyly never reveals what H of H means. Hound of Hell? House of Hades? Herakles of Halicarnassus? For the irs, it means “Head of Household.” That might be the sort of private joke Carson loves to spring on the reader. The front endpaper displays an old map of Boeotia and Attica with a ruddy ellipse drawn around Thebes, where Herakles marries the daughter of the king and later slaughters her and their three children. (Offset smudges from the lipstick or crayon stain the opposite pastedown. swak?) The remainder of the book consists of a fragmentary and hyper-modern translation reminiscent of Christopher Logue’s now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t variations on the Iliad. Oh, and the book is unpaginated, so bring Post-it notes.

The play opens on an Airstream trailer parked outside the house that Lykos, the Theban tyrant, has seized from Herakles. The star of the show, as so often in her books, is not Herakles but Carson herself—and even Phineas T. Barnum would have been jealous. (It’s as if she not only performs all the acts but trains the elephants and sews the circus tents.) The chief attractions in H of H Playbook are not the scatty remnants of the original that survive in this outlandish rendition but the way Carson has contorted the ancient text like a funhouse mirror, reflecting modern sensibilities. Herakles appears wearing a pair of Olympian Carhartts with the flaming straps of “mortal shortfall”; Lykos is the “totalitarian cracker/ who’s seized power in Thebes”; and the Chorus sings, “Remember Lenin in a factory hat/ declaring the dictatorship of the proletariat . . . ?”

Carson is a peculiarly difficult poet. Though astonishing in conception, her books can be hard going line by line, and not merely because poetry is a foreign country to her—her rhymes are particularly awful, as in this speech by Lykos:

True, in the standard sitcom this is where

the awful hero strides in bare-

chested and saves the day.

Well, you can chew that crust and throw it away.

Or, soon afterward, the totalitarian cracker again: “Let’s speed things up/ or I’ll actually cry./ (They tell me I’m oversensitive for a basically/ outcomes-oriented guy.)” It would not be beyond Carson to be doing all this on purpose. Still, the wholes are rarely the sum of their parts, because the parts just don’t sum. Too often the ideas are radical and provocative but the actual writing, injecting brilliance into the words, tempts Carson much less than the idea itself. That may be why Nox (2010), the giant accordion-book simultaneously an elegy for her dead brother, a family photo-album, and a word-by-word parsing of Catullus’s elegy for his own brother, is the most remarkable thing she’s done. There was little room for guff.

As far as poor Euripides is concerned, the poem is a hatchet job. The playwright has every right to sue. H of H Playbook is by turns self-indulgent, impossible, stunning, dopey, and like nothing else poetry offers. The passages in which Herakles lists his dozen labors are thunderously dull, except when he says, “They sent me to terrorize the Centaurs. ‘Ravaging the plain of Thessaly’ was the official blah blah blah.” Just when you think you ought to quit reading, there’s something so goofy you can’t help but read on. I was delighted to learn in medias res that Shelley (Percy Bysshe) “shot his own thumb off in a duel.” (It’s not true.)

H of H Playbook is by turns self-indulgent, impossible, stunning, dopey, and like nothing else poetry offers.

Carson clearly sees the overlay with the wars and monsters of the present, as well as the violent inner discord of ptsd, which in ancient Greece might have been attributed to the gods. Herakles doesn’t allow himself that escape from guilt for the monstrosities of violence. Her use of the aging hero has infused many of her books—he’s the perfect allsorts (or sap, if you prefer) for her reconditioning of Greek texts for a modern society scarcely less violent, one that now employs proxies, including armed drones and throwaway soldiers, to fight its endless wars. The dead masses of the Iliad were scarcely less ill-used.

Carson’s a bit of a genius, a bit of a scamp, a bit of a nutjob. Her work has a lot of strange, imposing notions—she starts her projects with a bang, has a lot of way stations where you’re glad to linger and a sense of humor as dry as the Gobi; but she rarely comes up with a striking or satisfactory ending. There’s a giddy episode here with Atlas, recounted among the Labors, and another where Herakles says, “I know I have the reputation of being a few sandwiches short of a picnic.” The monster Geryon, you’ll be relieved to know, has founded a girl’s school. Even if Carson’s disasters outnumber her successes, for a high-voltage show where anything might happen, there’s no one like her. She shapes the landscape around her, like a sinkhole or a typhoon.

Kevin Young is a classic workaholic. He has published twelve books of poems, edited an armload more, and written two books of non-fiction. After an academic career at Emory, he became the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and poetry editor of The New Yorker, no easy task. He now directs the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I should mention that he’s only fifty-one.

The list of major poets devoted to public service is slim. Many a poet has sneered at Archibald MacLeish, an editor of The New Republic who later worked for Fortune. Appointed Librarian of Congress, during World War II he helped establish the oss (forerunner of the cia). In a long career he won three Pulitzer Prizes—and proved crucial in springing Ezra Pound from the madhouse. Though J.B. was for decades a standard of high-school curricula, there’s probably no reviving MacLeish’s poetry now (or that of many another antique worthy, like Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, or Conrad Aiken); but he’s a model of the engagement almost all poets lack.

Young’s newest book, Stones, surveys a past out of reach, a past whose evidence is lodged beneath gravestones.5 The last legacy of the dead, such stones are all that remains except aging relatives and ragged scraps of memory: “Kith is what you find/ in the cemetery, names/ effaced from their graves.” Arranged or arrayed in tercets, the lines very short (almost always two to eight syllables), these poems embody a Southern idleness of long, hot days and humid nights. Young trades in the aftermath of anecdotes, no stories rendered entire, no lives presented in full. It’s like walking across a battlefield generations later and finding a few half-buried horse bones and a rusty musket.

If the style is often lackluster, on occasion the poet shows what he can do:

On the counter lengths

                   of boudin curl

like a cat


or a hog’s tail—

                    the woman will cut

you a link like fate


& you got yourself

                     a meal.

Sometimes Young establishes his credentials by dropping into country dialect for a word or two. Unfortunately, these Southern lives are without substance—the cousin who lost her inheritance playing blackjack, even her house, now lies in a grave scarcely marked. That’s all we’re given—she’s a footnote within a footnote. The richness of life despite the meager supplications of this world hardly appears. With their easygoing manner, the poems straggle down the page like snapped kite-strings. Each piece is slightly hypnotizing; but the next has the same shape, tone, the same woozy atmosphere.

The poet must recognize the poverty of means here, because when a poem plods toward its bitter end he’s all too tempted to amp the rhetoric up to eleven and end with a flourish:

                       The chickens who once

woke me early

have strayed far

                    from this yard

into a sky they
 

& I

                    only dreamt of—

the stove calls us
 

like the quiet

                    of this place, the graves

awaiting names.

Have those chickens wandered into some chicken heaven? Attention to the graves tries to conceal the hollow gestures of all the lines preceding. Forced gravitas by nature becomes lugubrious. Geoffrey Hill never slipped into bathos, though his poems were often gravitas all the way down; neither did Anthony Hecht, who had no trouble darkening a tale with a tragic ending. They didn’t force-feed the seriousness.

Puffed-up finales infest the book, becoming irritatingly predictable: “a latrine so deep/ up from the dark// dank bottom springs a tree,” “Till the end/ we sing/ into the wind,” “a fish, flaring,/ yanked from the deep/ after long struggle—// begging to breathe.” An ending like “the things themselves,/ the very stones,/ would tell you what// they wished to be named” seems scored for trumpets and drums, flourishes and tattoos. The simple, suggestive lines in other poems show how skillful Young can be, treating his subjects with compelling dignity. Short-lined tercets don’t ask enough of a poet who settles for half-gestures, the poems exhausted almost before they begin.

Young has never fulfilled the promise of his talent, and too many of his books seem underpowered for the condition of imagination the subjects require. These new poems are at worst ghostly revenants of the stones-and-bones poetry of half a century ago: “Lead me from this/ yard of bones/ these houses of stone.” The laments in Stones for lost land and lost time demand a poetry equal to a Southern past so brutal and insinuating. (You’d think from the current turn in our history that the Pilgrim Fathers should pack up shop.) Young is a competent, unexciting poet of a familiar sort. Blind to their own deformities, these bland poems plonk along like Pooh in the woods, never sure where he’s going and not too sure where he’s been. The poetry lies within Young—he’s just unwilling to drag it out.

Some poets find a style, some seize one by force, and some build one out of twigs and spit. The poems in Tracy K. Smith’s first book, The Body’s Question (2003), were as natural as breathing, plain lines mixed with mystery, sentences shredded from a fairy tale:

Last night, it was bright afternoon

Where I wandered. Pale faces all around me.

I walked and walked looking for a door,

For some cast-off garment, looking for myself

In the blank windows and the pale blank faces.

Something of middle-period Louise Glück floats to the surface, but presented with fresh hands, more found than forced. The title of the poem, “Something Like Dying, Maybe,” does press the issue; but I prefer to read poems without reading their titles first, refusing the poet’s blandishments. Titles clarify, when they don’t work too hard or flat-out lie.

Such Color: New and Selected Poems reviews the work of a poet, now just fifty, who received almost immediate acclaim, winning a Pulitzer Prize on her fortieth birthday and becoming poet laureate less than a decade later.6 A young poet may by accident hit upon a style that profoundly captures the demands of her imagination. Most poets struggle toward a style they may never find or find one they may never master. If The Body’s Question was a dream book, her later poems tried to complicate or confound that early style, often with less attractive results. It’s natural for a poet who discovered her style so easily to want to change things up—few poets want to be the elderly Thomas Hardy, still devoted to nearly the same style of half a century before. The problem for many black American poets comes in trying to confront, not flinch from, the many crimes and cruelties practiced upon their forebears over the past four centuries, and often practiced still.

Political poetry may be the most difficult genre to do well, even to do at all.

Political poetry may be the most difficult genre to do well, even to do at all. In the past century, Auden and Heaney are among the few to whom such poetry seemed to come naturally. There are fine, even extraordinary poems from both world wars, but also thousands of poems that should never have been written. Almost none of the poems of the Vietnam War and the pocket wars since has been worth reading. Perhaps the earliest versions of the Iliad served the Greeks of the day well enough to serve Homer four centuries later. The poems of home-front wars, of a culture attacking itself, are more difficult, too easily slipping into soap-box stumpery or newspaper editorializing. Keats said, at twenty-two, “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket.” “Put your hand in your pocket and please yourself” was a jeer at someone “not . . . pleased with the reasonable offers of others,” Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. The implication is that the poem wanted more from the reader than the reader could bear, presumably after a little buttonholing or lapel grabbing.

The purity and rawness of emotion in those early poems vanishes from much of Smith’s later work—yet whenever she returns to it the style lies waiting. That isn’t meant as prescriptive criticism. (Comes the time, comes the critic saying the poet is doing it wrong.) Smith has some startling, affecting poems on race, though too many are all banner and bullhorn. When she does write with the torsions of her early style, she transfigures the problems of our age, sometimes by using another age entirely. The most successful recent poem gathers letters and statements of often semi-literate ex-slaves, pleading for a Civil War pension or hopelessly trying to unite a shattered family. The primary documents eliminate the problem of many dramatic monologues, the problem of pretense.

Among her many gifts, Smith’s similes and metaphors seem fresh minted without being contrived (“So the hours flow in place/ Like a tin river,” “We hurry from door to door in a downpour// Of days”). They have the conviction to take unexpected rightness as their burden:

The water is full of blue paint

From all the little fishing boats

Corralled for Sunday, abob in the breeze.

What kind of game is the sea?

Lap and drag. Crag and gleam.

That continual work of wave

And tide, like a wet wind, blowing

The earth down to nothing.

I read many of these poems twice for the pure pleasure of it. Despite the work desperate to be politically engagé, despite the political dramas that will soon need long footnotes, as poems about Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing do already, Smith has an original voice, a deep presence, and has already written some of the best poems of her generation.


  1.  Mother Muse, by Lorna Goodison; Carcanet, 88 pages, £10.99.
  2.  Against Silence, by Frank Bidart; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 63 pages, $25.
  3.  Call Us What We Carry, by Amanda Gorman; Viking, 230 pages, $24.99.
  4.  H of H Playbook, by Anne Carson; New Directions, 112 pages, $22.95.
  5.  Stones, by Kevin Young; Alfred A. Knopf, 107 pages, $27.
  6.  Such Color: New and Selected Poems, by Tracy K. Smith; Graywolf, 224 pages, $26.

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