Now in its fifth year, the Sarah Lawrence College Poetry Festival continues to attract big, and up-and-coming names. I have read Brenda Shaughnessy's book, Human Dark with Sugar, winner of the AAP's James Laughlin award for a second book of poetry, but did not like it much. Not enough dark and too little sugar, it belongs to the School of Clever. Hearing her read at SLC only confirmed the impression. Lynn Emanuel read a few of her dog poems. The one written after Kafka's Metamorphosis remained too close to the master, but I liked her poem about the dog-catcher's interrogation of the dog.
Faculty members, and, husband and wife, Kurt Brown and Laure-Anne Bosselaar read from their new books. After hearing Shaughnessy, I was grateful for their passionate modesty and quiet wit. Brown's poems titled after fellow poets (Sharon Olds, Tom Lux, Gerald Stern, Carolyn Forche, Mary Oliver, among others) paid tribute to their subjects and styles. His poems were not intended to be parodies, but they were not homage either. They worked because those poets' subjects and styles are well-known enough for the reader/audience to judge Brown's closeness to, and distance from, them. They had the effect of simplifying and heightening the poets' corpus to a gesture.
In the evening, Bob Hicok, Carl Phillips and Ron Padgett read. I liked Hicok's opening poem about Michigan, for its original approach to a worn theme. The other poems seem to me to lack a shape, and so their profusion of details and phrase-making loses me at times. Carl Phillips had my attention throughout his reading. Vijay Seshadri, who introduced him and the other two, described his project well: to prove ecstasy is more common than we think it is. My impression after hearing him: a tremendous refinement of the body into sensuous and intellectual abstractions. Ron Padgett could not be more different: determinedly everyman, and self-deprecating. He read a 14-minute poem about the world's meanness and kindness. It was the kind of poem I enjoyed listening to, but not reading on the page.
The Festival, since its inception, has always paired an undergraduate and a graduate poet to read before the featured reader. Last night I was taken by Natalie Park, an undergrad. Her poems thought their way out through metaphors.