The Illusion of Allusion
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
—Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
My best friend met a physics professor on match.com and seems to have accidentally conveyed the impression that she has a masters in English lit, with a concentration in poetry. She wrote him that she likes to come home from work, open a bottle of pinot and kick back on the porch with Neruda or Rilke—never mind that she hasn’t read either one. Even though she hasn’t met him in person yet, she really likes this guy. Since I used to work at an advertising agency, I offered to ghost write some responses, complete with poetic allusions commensurate to her “education.” What can you recommend?
—Stacy, West Hollywood
We could recommend Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Lord Byron, but perhaps it would be even better to use poets he might not have studied in Lit 101—the majority of our poet picks are still writing and teaching today. We won’t get into the ethical implications of all this. As they say, “All’s fair...” But be forewarned—and do read Cyrano.
Collected Poems, by C.K. Williams
Often compared to Walt Whitman, Williams is the most famous poet people haven’t heard of. After four decades, a Pulitzer Prize and many national book awards, his poems are still hidden treasures. “Love: Beginnings” makes you want to fall all over again: “They’re at that stage where so much desire streams between them / So much frank need and want / Just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin...” You get the picture.
The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, by Kay Ryan
A cross between Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, Ryan—who was the U.S. poet laureate for two years, beginning in 2008—starts her intense, disconcerting poems with natural observations and then hones in on a startling fact of life that feels like a punch in the gut. “Spiderweb” ends with this: “It’s heavy work / everyplace, / fighting sag, / winching up / give. / It isn’t ever / delicate / to live.”
Lucifer at the Starlite: Poems and Tell Me, by Kim Addonizio
Even the least poetic among us could hardly resist lines like “I want a red dress. / I want it flimsy and cheap, / I want it too tight, I want to wear it / until someone tears it off me.” (Tell Me’s “What Do Women Want”). This mouthy Bay Area poet with a long list of national awards has a brilliant gift for pacing and reels off verses about love, loss and sex in a seriously cracked but wholly affecting first-person voice. “I love you but I’m married... / I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone, / except for this one guy” (Lucifer’s “Forms of Love”).
Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins
The U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, Collins fills auditoriums like a rock star. Booklist magazine calls him “a jazzman, a Buddhist, a charmer and a prince.” But it left off the word romantic: “If there is only enough time in the final / minutes of the twentieth century for one last dance / I would like to be dancing it slowly with you” (“Dancing Toward Bethlehem”).
Air Kissing on Mars, by Kim Dower
Sensual and evocative, these poems traverse the chaos of everyday life with a light touch that can turn ironic and edgy without you even noticing it. Some are lyrical snapshots of life’s bittersweet moments, while others seamlessly combine humor and heartache. “You hate kisses unless they send you to the other place where you can’t remember what you hate... / You hate not knowing how it will end, / you hate that it isn’t already over, you hate that it will end at all” (“The Things You Hate”).
Complete Poems, by Dorothy Parker
Enough Rope, Parker’s first poetry collection, was published in 1926 and became a national bestseller, catapulting the author to instant celebrity. Initially called a cocktail poet, Parker—a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table—penned sophisticated, witty verses that are now classics. She had a thing or two to say about pretending to be someone you’re not in order to please a man: “But now I know the things I know, / And do the things I do; / And if you do not like me so, / To hell, my love with you!” (“Indian Summer”).
Have a question? You can reach Mack and Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org.