Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Katherine Soniat Writes Good Poetry

Musings for June 4
Katherine Soniat Writes Good Poetry

Most poets “specialize,” which is to say they find a particular type of poetry they’re comfortable with and they write most of their work in that genre. They may be classified as narrative poets, or symbolist poets, or language poets. They may favor nature imagery, or political themes, or write heavily-allusive academic verse. They may use traditional forms, or imitate Whitman’s breathy lines, or prefer the minimalism of much Eastern poetry. It’s not an uncommon practice; nor is it one necessarily to be criticized. We don’t ask Shaquille O’Neal to hit 3-point shots, James Patterson to write lusty romances, or Bobby Flay to prepare haute cuisine. Specialization is the way of the world these days, and it results in high quality if admittedly sometimes predictable work.
One poet, however, who, either consciously or unconsciously, has avoided the temptations of specialization is Katherine Soniat. I have to admit that before Soniat agreed to come to Hickory to read as part of Poetry Hickory on June 9 (6:30 at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse), I was unfamiliar with her work. This is surprising because her 6 books of poetry have won practically every poetry award that exists: the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Jane Kenyon Award, the William Faulkner Award, the Anne Stanford Award, the Virginia Prize for Poetry, etc. And she has taught creative writing at Virginia Tech and Hollins. And she has been to Bread Loaf, Yaddo, and the McDowell Colony. And her poems have been in Kakalak, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, The New Republic, and dozens of other journals that I subscribe to and read pretty religiously.
Whatever the cause for that omission in my poetic education, I have since corrected it and been very pleased to discover a poet whose comfort zone extends across a wide variety of forms, themes, aesthetics, approaches, tendencies, and simple urges in writing without sacrificing quality. Typically in these columns as I’m previewing a poet coming to Hickory, I try to give the reader a sense of what to expect. I find, despite having now read dozens of Soniat’s poems, that the only thing I can say with any certainty one attending Poetry Hickory on June 9 will receive is good poetry.
Not that I’m entirely at a loss to characterize Soniat’s work. I can say, for example, that it features evocative detail, that it frequently juxtaposes natural imagery with human needs, conflicts, and motivations, which are often revealed in understated suggestions of loss, regret, and persistence, all of which might suggest that there is an existentialist at work there somewhere. But these are things that I would expect to be able to say about all good 21st century poetry. So, I’ll leave at that. Katherine Soniat writes good poetry. Here is an example:


That evening she painted her nails metallic rose,
placed the opal on her finger, and walked

down the block to a party in the moss garden.
A friend held her hand, getting involved

with the milky luminescence of the ring. Before
long he was telling her how his uncle loved

to float down the river with a favorite cow. And
indeed that bovine figure was a fabled swimmer.

The river had a bluish tint and swirled slowly
beneath the trees. The cow with a hoop in its nose

swam on a rope near his uncle. This uncle, who had
lived alone his whole life, always spoke of the cow.

By some accounts, both could be seen as flying.

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