Poetry makes a difference in 'Please Excuse This Poem'

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
'Please Excuse This Poem' gathers 100 contemporary poets who write from the center of their experience

“Most poets,” Carolyn Forché writes, in the introduction to Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick’s anthology “Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation” (Viking: 290 pp., $16.99), “begin writing poetry in secret.” It’s a great line, and true as well. The 100 poems gathered here all got their start in those private moments, the intersection of the writer and the line.

There is Monica de la Torre, who begins “Letter From One Practitioner to Another” with a simple admonition: “For the love of words, stop describing!” Or Ada Limón, who tells us, in “The Unbearable”: “My grandmother only wants to tell me who died / and how. She tells me of all the traffic accidents / as if she was reading a menu to me out loud.”

In private, in secret, the succession of simple moments, the bedrock bits and pieces of reality by which we compose our days.

“Please Excuse This Poem” comes billed as a book for younger readers; hence, its low price tag. This is part of the sneaky power of the collection, which recognizes that poems are for readers of all ages, that it is not age but intention, empathy, clarity that counts.

“If there is a prayer, there is a mother kneeling, hands folded to a private sing,” Dawn Lundy Martin writes in “Untitled.” “… This is a prayer for prayers, you know, a wanting something equal to a prayer, even though I am not a mother.”

A wanting something equal to a prayer. Yes, for isn’t this what poetry promises? At its heart is the intention to get at something, some emotion or state of being, that cannot quite be rendered in words. That’s the tension, the essential give and take of the best poems, their reliance on language even as they understand that language can never be enough.

Just look at Jericho Brown’s “My Father,” about a father not quite coming to terms with his gay son: “Daddy squeezes me close. / But I cannot feel his heartbeat / And he cannot hear mine — / There is too much flesh between us, / Two men in love.”

“Please Excuse This Poem” features a wide array of poets, established and newcomers, including Matthew Zapruder, Maureen McLane and D.A. Powell. In “Amaretto Sour (Drag Night at the Nines),” Stephen Burt recalls “[t]he ninth-grade girl who called, but never asked you out, / Or the boy who never gave you the time of day,” while Cate Marvin’s “Yellow Rubber Gloves” insists “I’m wise enough / to know no great plans are afoot, I’ve no // hope of launching any ships, and, besides, / I’m done with beauty.”

This is poetry that’s direct, accessible, but even more, poetry that speaks from the center — not of the culture (is there really a center to the culture?) but rather of the poets’ lives.

Or, as John Murillo reminds us in “Sherman Ave. Love Poem”: “Thought then. And believes / now more than ever: this is / the one true act.”

Twitter: @davidulin

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