Winter Reading – Poetry

Nouns & Verbs: New and Selected Poems by Campbell McGrath. Ecco, $24.99.

Campbell McGrath might be our best living poet. Combining the polymorphous acceptance of Walt Whitman with the wide-ranging critical acumen of a Roland Barthes, McGrath is forever at play in the fields of language and culture. His joyous, overflowing language is a collision of (often low) pop culture and high philosophical concepts, though it would be a mistake to consider him postmodern; despite his buoyant ironies, he is dead serious, an Old Testament prophet in a ripped Ramones T-shirt. His nominal subject is America — and more distinctly late-capitalist consumerism (“the pure products of America go crazy,” etc.) — and he is as comfortable writing a poem about Guns N’ Roses as he is mining the Dickenson out of our most abysmal theological suspicions about God and being. His latest offering of new and old work finds the poet at the crossroads of life, to which he applies his trademark wit and wisdom: “Turning fifty, at last I come to understand/ belatedly, unexpectedly, and quite suddenly/ that poetry is not going to save anybody’s life/ least of all my own…” Despite the darkness he mines, McGrath remains hopeful and affirmative, bemused and awed by the eternal play of our cultural markers, whatever they may be — a kind of free-for-all in which he searches for meaning with an optimist’s embattled sense of affirmation. Even in the midst of social disintegration and, indeed, apocalypse, McGrath, like Whitman, says, “Yes,” seeking our humanity in the everyday flux and swarm of life. If you’ve yet to encounter McGrath’s poetry, this fresh retrospective of past and present verse is a fantastic place to get started. His work has the power to strip the scales from tired eyes.

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