This week, Maceo J. Whitaker shares the poetry equivalent of a mix tape, complete with liner notes. –kd
“Hum of the Machine God,” by Jamaal May
I’m a sucker for sestinas, and Jamaal May is probably my favorite poet right now. Hum was excellent—one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Can’t wait to read more from Jamaal.
“County Fair,” by Mary Karr
This is a wonderful poem to teach. I love its rhythm and mellifluous little noises. Mary Karr’s non-fiction is great and has earned her a level of fame, but we poets know she is one of us.
“When an Old Classmate Learns I Am a Lesbian,” by Julie Marie Wade
This prose poem is hilarious and perfect.
“To the Man Who Shouted ‘I Like Pork Fried Rice’ at Me on the Street,” by Franny Choi
I heard Franny read this on the POETRY podcast. Powerful. The last four lines . . . wow. That is how you end a poem.
“In the Drink,” by John Hennessy
I could’ve chosen any of Hennessy’s poems, really. I have both Bridge and Tunnel and Coney Island Pilgrims, and I highly recommend them both. I love Hennessy’s language. You can take almost any line and find a little surprise. Like “cranky grebes.” Go ahead, say it: “cranky grebes.” What mad linguist comes up with something like that? Killer enjambment in this poem, too.
“jasper texas 1998,” by Lucille Clifton
You’ve probably read this one. I wouldn’t be a poet today if I hadn’t been assigned Blessing the Boats in my first poetry class. This was the poem that made me want to write poetry. I’ve gone back to it many times over the years. It’s brutal, of course, but it has so much dignity. Thinking about James Byrd, Jr. fills me with outrage as I write this sentence, but amazingly, Lucille Clifton created such a beautiful piece of art from this sickening, seemingly ineffable act. To those who debate the importance of poetry, I offer this poem. Rest in peace, Lucille.
“The Wheelchair Butterfly,” by James Tate
Some people dislike surreal poetry, but I love this poem. It was another important poem for me when I started writing poetry. Tate’s probably to blame when my poems get a bit too trippy.
“Prophecy,” from The One Day, by Donald Hall
I spent a week of my life reading and rereading The One Day. The “Prophecy” section is astonishing. There’s so much energy in this poem. When my own poems dawdle, I go back to “Prophecy” for some much needed urgency.
“My God, It’s Full of Stars,” by Tracy K. Smith
Life on Mars won The Pulitzer Prize in 2012. This poem is one of the cornerstones of the book; it’s a mini-epic with crystallized gems like “A pair of eyes. The most remarkable lies.” If you don’t own this book, grab it. One or two copies likely sit on a shelf at a bookstore near you.
“Tonsillitis,” by Arlene Ang
This poem is full of memorable images. Expect to read lines such as these: “On one wall, there’s a charcoal sketch / of Death digging up his mother.”
Read Maceo’s own work in our current issue.