Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.
“More than half / of life is death but I can’t die / enough for all the life I see,” writes Shane McCrae in his powerful new book, Sometimes I Never Suffered: Poems (FSG), a book that so movingly, and with such imaginative scope, gives us a portrait of an individual in America. That is: a creative mind in a country that is in the midst of crisis. As we read through, what we first think is a dislocation of a person soon becomes apparent as a dislocation of a nation itself: a nation that can’t come to terms with itself, that can’t seem to face its truth. Over this nation flies “the hastily assembled angel,” as McCrae puts it, “with patchwork wings red patches / and white patches.” This dislocation is mirrored in Sometimes I Never Suffered: Poems in lyrics that are both formally impressive, beautifully imagined, and also full of pain: “human beings made in the image not of God / directly but of the angel […] who changes / the way light changes.” A powerful book.
QUESTION: Many questions arise, but I only have space for one: Your poems are often very poised, formally accomplished, in conversation with a larger poetic imagination, poetic tradition — and also very much of this moment: can you speak a bit more about that duality? I said one question, but here’s also an invisible question that seems to lurk behind all we say these days: what is the place for lyric in a time of crisis, in your opinion?
SHANE McCRAE: Lyric poetry, it seems to me, is almost ideally suited for times of crisis — I might have said it’s ideally suited, but I have difficulty putting an unqualified “ideally suited” and “times of crisis” in the same sentence. Lyrics are portable; you can take them with you even when you are required by circumstances to leave everything else behind. And because, if you commit them to memory, they reside in you, they are available to you when everything else has been taken from you. So, I would say that the place for lyric in a time of crisis is everywhere human beings are.
As for duality: I don’t think of it as duality, a poetry that is not in some way in conversation with some kind of poetic tradition would be a poetry not suited for any moment, and certainly not a moment as thick with difficulties as the present moment. One way to think of tradition is as a record of how people have survived this long. When one is trying to live through difficult times, it’s a good thing to have a record showing one how folks lived through difficult times in the past. A poetic tradition — and there are as many poetic traditions as there are readers and writers of poetry, though many traditions have poets and poems in common — always serves as a reminder that people continue to live in the face of death.