Book review of Modern Poetry by Diane Seuss

Books

For a collection titled Modern Poetry, the latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Diane Seuss spends a fair amount of time communing with the past.

In the title poem, named after a textbook she studied in college, she reminisces about how she and her roommate referred to William Carlos Williams as “Billy C. Billygoat,” and how she managed to fake her way to an A on a paper about Wallace Stevens despite “having no clue / what he meant by ‘The deer and the dachshund are one.’” That fake-it-till-you-make-it approach has apparently served her well, because she has not only become a highly regarded poet, but also gone on to a two-decade-plus career teaching poetry to other young people with impostor syndrome.

While the spirit of the avowedly modern ‘60s poet Frank O’Hara hovered over her last collection, 2021’s frank: sonnets, which won her the Pulitzer, her guiding star for this outing is a poet who is decidedly not modern: John Keats. In fact, the final poem of the volume, “Romantic Poet,” is at once an homage to Keats and a comment on the contemporary tension between loving an artist’s work and having mixed feelings—or outright disdain—for the artist. After being told the many reasons she would not have liked the unnamed “him” at the poem’s outset, she rejoins with a simple “But the nightingale, I said.”

Ah, the nightingale, the bird that sings. Seuss’ song is not the A-B-A-B rhyme scheme that was pounded into our middle school heads. It’s more subtle, and evinces itself when read out loud. “Rhyme,” Seuss said at 2023’s Great Lakes Poetry Festival, “can just do a thing that nothing else can do; it appeals to our bodies, not our minds.”

In “Romantic Poetry,” Seuss writes, “I was twenty three when I sold off / Modern Poetry and sailed to Italy, seeking / Romantic poetry . . . and found my way to Rome, / and Keats’s death room. / His deathbed, a facsimile.” Feel it, in your body, as you read it? Twenty three, Italy, poetry, facsimile. It’s all there for the taking. To co-opt the famed slogan from the unsung McCann-Erickson ad agency poet who created it for milk, “Modern Poetry: it does a body good.”

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