Rhyme is not a lost art anymore, if it ever was, and Hannah Sullivan’s work shows, among other things, why that’s thrilling. Straight rhyme—song, gong; time, rhyme—is still relatively rare in serious contemporary poetry composed in the English language, flaring only here and there in one-offs and sudden heightened interjections of one lyric kind or another. But off-rhyme—Sullivan rhymes “epicenter” with “two-bed rent,” for instance, “shit” with “website,” “Bidart” and “art”—rhyme which is sometimes called slant rhyme and which I love, and love to think of as bad rhyme, the kind that would be at home in a poem by Robert Browning or Emily Dickinson, is having a minor renaissance. Sullivan’s work is a crucial example of this, though to point that out is to risk obscuring all the other ways to think about the bounty of gifts in her poems. Flexibility, range, breathtaking confidence of voice. Rigor and music. And rhyme in another sense too—there’s a dark lightness to her work, and a droll irony (she’s trained in Classics, a scholar of T. S. Eliot) laces her tone—underwriting her use, for example, of so many brand names, colliding the crass with the classic: “And as you are dancing in a suit skirt to the Killers’ ‘Mr Brightside,’ / Feeling the anthem soar and rise, he makes the PowerPoint slides …” Or: “The window cries with droplets, and the long line of Fifth / Is lost behind the IKEA curtains and yet, despite all this, …”—the poet goes on to compare the sex the speaker is having just then to “a Noh play where a blind man beats a cripple, or like a ballet / Still in rehearsal …”

Three Poems is the first collection by this London-born Oxford professor of literature who spent ten years of her life living in the United States, particularly New York and San Francisco, and whose poetry seems to have skipped the magazines entirely and gone straight to Faber and FSG. Her book appeared when Sullivan was beginning middle age, the age at which Frost and Stevens started publishing. So the first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” sketches the rambunctious and vertiginous life of a young woman scrambling and reading and lovemaking—above all surviving—in New York City. The poem is a tour de force. It begins in a kind of loosened terza rima, like a gorgeous descent into hell, veers into italicized prose, then blank verse, then long-lined five-liners, couplets, quatrains, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, sometimes fixing that chime at the end of long lines so that its music is muted, maybe not even consciously heard. It leaps from reading W. H. Auden to getting a Brazilian, to the “bad banana taste of Durex on your tongue.” The poem is a long aubade, a farewell—part of the story here is, in fact, of a last tryst one New York summer night with an ex who the speaker knows she should be avoiding. The poem ends in “pink flamingo dawn,” and inescapably melancholy laughter.

The second poem—the second third of the book—riffs on Heraclitus and his river of time. We get glimpses of California viewed from a seat on CalTrain train speeding up the peninsula toward San Francisco, which is the city that haunts this book—you could even argue that Sullivan’s New York, in the first poem, is really a disguised San Francisco—“7 p.m.: commuting home: arrest. / Trader Joe’s, the Daly City multiplex. / Repetition’s sense of comedy / Unsheathed as architectural poverty: / Beige curves on Taco Bells, / And fog, the old dry ice machine.” The third poem in the book narrates, again in stunning visual brilliance—detail upon detail with a wry gloss of voice driving it—the pregnancy and eventual C-section the poet experienced around the same time her father died, the awful twinning of events. “The sound of dying” married to “the shriek at dawn from the other room, / The toddler’s quick crescendo of wanting.” At one point she conjures J. R. R. Tolkien writing The Two Towers and “Thinking and not thinking of his mother dying, / Tapping on his teeth the Greek reduplicated perfect.” Tolkien, only glanced at, seems nonetheless a fitting sidelong cipher for our age of uncertainty and collapse, his opus written as war-ravaged Europe and as his own parent passed away. Events can rhyme, imperfectly and sometimes badly, beautifully. Sullivan is a poet of rhyme, a poet with the talent and range of Auden and the formal dexterity of Merrill. Who is writing the exhausted sensibility of the already partways rotten twenty-first century.

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JESSE NATHAN: Your poems have the feeling of someone observing herself at a slight distance. As if one’s own life is a little bit comical. Is the idea of detachment an important part of the writing process for you? And does it maybe have something to do with satire?

HANNAH SULLIVAN: To the first question, a hearty, unqualified yes—though a yes in two parts. I used to think that when Barthes describes the traditional author, the Author-God, as antecedent to his work, “he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child,” he was exaggerating for rhetorical effect. But we seem to be living in a period wholly committed to the idea that the identity of an author is the stamp and guarantee of the work. And by identity, I mean not so much the author’s actual, muddled, various set of autobiographical experiences, but identity as a social and political label, something given and not made.

I was at a well-attended reading the other night and it was glorious after almost two years of no live poetry to hear some outstanding readers performing their work. But I was also struck by the energetic activism of some of the introductions, as if the poems being read were licensed only by the quality of the political and moral thinking that they could do, or because they explored some until-now neglected aspect of human experience. Perhaps this is related to the contemporary tendency for poetic speakers to be, on the one hand, nice, speaking with care and judicious attentiveness, concealing all ugly feelings, saying nothing that the poet wouldn’t be happy to talk about, after a reading, in propria persona and, on the other, personal and sincere in their use of semi-verifiable autobiographical material. (By contrast, the speakers in a very wide range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century poems—from Browning’s early dramatic monologues, right up to the confessional poems of Lowell and Plath—are more peculiar—histrionic, violent, egotistical, fantastical often, quite simply, unpleasant. “It little profits that an idle king… matched with an aged wife,” “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” “The child’s cry / Melts in the wall. / And I / Am the arrow,” “I myself am hell,” and so on.)

Why this should have happened, I don’t know. Is it because a high proportion of poetry books are sold at readings, to people who meet (if they don’t already know) the author in person? Is it because creative writing programs encourage a self-scrutinizing look at the relationship between the person who sits down to do the writing, and the thing that comes out, so the poet is precisely (contra Yeats) the man or woman who sits down to breakfast, before class, and there is no “phantasmagoria”? Is it because of a more general autobiographical turn in our culture, a changing set of ideas about shame and sincerity?

Either way, I think it’s a pity. I say this as someone who has, to date, written mostly from the limited viewpoint of autobiographical experience. Now I’m trying to get off it as a staple diet. Poetry is not the best form for talking carefully and judiciously about social and political questions or for presenting rhetorical arguments. Poetic language is by its nature constructed, artificial, and fabulous, highly organized in some respects (often but not always prosodically) and disorganized (often but not always syntactically) in others—this is as true, I think, for someone working in free verse as for someone writing a sestina. Often poems are reworked and revised for a long time. Their shape and meaning changes again when they’re gathered into collections or anthologized, often after a significant lapse of time. A single poem might concertina together many instances into one, for example, or swap out the more straightforward word for the one that sounds good. This is detachment in general, and it seems to me completely unavoidable in poetry.

The more specific kind of detachment that perhaps you have in mind is a kind of double-vision about the self. I don’t think this is part of the writing process, exactly, it’s more a mode of cognition. And I don’t think that it’s necessary at all. I was surprised at first that readers of Three Poems often commented on its coolly detached gaze (cool meant in the sense of “cold,” rather than “hip,” I’m afraid) and on the tendency to see a past self moving about in the world from without, from a third-person perspective. The use of the “you” pronoun in that poem is part of this, of course; a self (not delineated in any detail) in the present is talking in a hortatory way to or in a nostalgic or amused way about another, somehow vanished or lost, self in the past. Surprised: only because I imagined this framing of past time to be more universal than perhaps it is.

This may partly be to do with technology. I was born in 1979, “Video Killed the Radio Star” was a UK no. 1. My generation grew up pressing the fast forward and rewind buttons. Some of our parents (not mine) recorded us on camcorder. In our twenties we got smartphones, and as parents, we try to video everything. Perhaps this makes a filmic or external framing of past time more natural? It might also have something to do with the distinction that Galen Strawson makes between diachronic and episodic selves: like him, I find it relatively difficult, even bewildering, to construct a straightforward all-embracing narrative through time that carries me, a single self, from childhood to the present. Some moments or images pop out in technicolor, much is lost.

As for satire: well, I like satire. And I think it’s an underappreciated and certainly underused mode in contemporary writing, not only poetry. I suppose that quite a few parts of Three Poems are satirical in mode, from the description of McKinsey consultants sending mocked-up PowerPoint slides to Madras (as we did) to be created overnight by people much more highly trained than we were, but on a fraction of our salary, to the sonnet ending “iPhone afterlives” about gentrification in San Francisco. This is a very indirect way of being political, a via negative for those who know that something is wrong, but not how it could be got right: in fiction, writers do it more ably and more often, I think—Sally Rooney skewering the way we use our phones, David Foster Wallace walking around a supermarket. It’s also the case that some of the linguistic effects that I most enjoy, particularly complex rhymes, seem to lead tonally in this direction. I like light verse (another question: what happened to light verse?), and all kinds of bravura, virtuosic, fancy-fancy effects in poetry. My heart skips a beat when I come to this triplet in “A New Year Letter,” for example:

Art is not life and cannot be
A midwife to society,
For art is a fait accompli.

Isn’t the fait accompli brilliant, in its witty negation of the plodding “cannot be”?

Of course, these effects are not always satirical or in any way light. Last term I was co-teaching a course on Wordsworth. The way that the big, devastating question—beginning mid-line in the two-book Prelude—comes in, almost cacophonously, hiking up the minor melancholy mood “like a false steward who hath much received / and renders nothing back” into passion—“Was it for this / That one…”—well, these effects are why poetry matters to me.

So detachment, yes, but only because the basic subjects of poetry—how short life is, how quickly beautiful things are lost, how unwitting we are in the face of time—threaten otherwise to be unbearable.