We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Patrick Kurp, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is a review of Uncollected Poems by R.S. Thomas.
To read all entries in this series, click here.
David Yezzi: Birds of the Air (Carnegie Mellon University Press)
Just when you thought poetry was as moribund as Linear B, Yezzi reminds us of the virtues readers once expected of poems and poets: narrative, formal mastery, linguistic energy and wit. His blank-verse monologues are short stories in an age when that form, too, is almost dead. In “Dirty Dan,” dedicated to his late friend Tom Disch, Yezzi says “we’d people / the vastness with our stories and we’d laugh.” In Yezzi’s rousing company, we do.
Ed. Jonathan F.S. Post: The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (The Johns Hopkins University Press)
Dead these nine years, Hecht seems in his letters more alive than almost any living poet. Like his poems, Hecht’s letters are funny, learned, scabrous, gossipy and wise, making him a veritable Proust of American verse. The darkness always shines through. Writing of his great poem “Green: An Epistle” to the poet L.E. Sissman, Hecht asks: “How can we recognize evil if we are untainted with it ourselves? Who is not tainted with it; and who, in the end, can be a reliable witness?”
Ed. Erik Reece: The Guy Davenport Reader (Counterpoint)
A smartly chosen sampler of our best essayist’s work in many genres, and a good place for tyros to get their bearings. Davenport remains sui generis, offending and sometimes flattering every literary tribe. He possessed the rarest of qualities in a writer – independence militantly indifferent to reputation and fashion. When he said his friend the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard “had invented himself,” Davenport was writing autobiographically. He was our Ruskin, though sane, and never wrote a boring, stupid or dishonest sentence.
Ben Downing: Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
You’ll wish you had learned about Janet Ross (1842-1927) years ago. She was a writer but her chief work was her life and the expatriate community in Florence. She knew everyone from Mark Twain to Bernard Berenson. Downing is a fine poet, his prose is comparable and there’s no feminist tokenizing of his subject: “Though intelligent and learned, especially for an autodidact, she was by no means brilliant. She had little imagination or inner life, and she made no towering contribution to humanity.” Praise the Lord!
Terry Teachout: Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books)
The relentlessly multi-tasking Teachout brings to Ellington, a cipher of a man, a jazz musician’s insight and a critic’s willingness to dispense with correctness, whether political, racial or musical. Teachout isn’t taken in by this slyest of dogs nor his putative admirers. Teachout’s research is exhaustive, not exhausting, and he never forgets to keep the story moving. Marvel at the way the author demythologizes Ellington without diminishing him, juggling mini-profiles of Duke’s great sidemen. The best, most readable jazz biography since Pops, Teachout’s 2009 life of Louis Armstrong.