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Diane Seuss

Modern Poetry
Graywolf, 2023


reviewed on February 21, 2024

Like Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, tempestuous in its evocation of young Frédéric’s romantic coming-of-age, Diane Seuss’s Modern Poetry tracks its speaker’s literary education and self-education with great richness and depth of feeling, treating literature itself as a kind of social and cultural pedagogy through which—and sometimes in spite of which—Seuss’s speaker escapes the severe poverty of her childhood.  The book reads, therefore, like an especially gorgeous syllabus or curriculum vitae, as Seuss recounts her speaker’s conflicted relationship with institutionalized education and her related movement, through autodidactic reading and writing, into the realm of poetry:


The best I ever wrote was in an attic.

No chair.  Manual typewriter on an upended box.      




No ethics.  No lock on the door.




I knew no forms.

Just a swarm of bees in the rafters who agreed to leave me be.

I made a line break when I took a drag on my Salem Light.

Menthols were pure as poetry.


Even as she celebrates the expressive freedom made possible through poetry, however, Seuss demurs on overstating the genre’s social or salvific potential.  “[T]he simile,” she writes, “with its like and as, confesses / failure in its very nature,” later confessing herself that neither can poetry “warm / the corpse and bring a throb back / to its temple.”  In related fashion, Modern Poetry warns against the kind of anti-academic posturing peddled everywhere at present from Silicon Valley dropout culture to contemporary poetry itself, in which it has become de rigueur, for instance, to deride not only the idea of the MFA but the very program from which one has matriculated.  “Those of you / raised similarly,” Seuss urges regarding her own self-education, “I want to say: this is not / a detriment and it is not a benefit.”


For Seuss, rather, the task of the poet is to preserve one’s voice while drawing from literary tradition those techniques most meaningful to one’s writing, a challenge which situates the modern poet in ambivalent relation to the past, like Joyce’s artist operating through “silence, exile, and cunning.”  Seuss articulates this situation in the early poem “My Education,” which centers in large part on her speaker’s experience of poverty:


But your poems, with all of their

deficiencies, products of lifelong observation

and asymmetric knowledge, will be your own.

Built on the edge of tradition, they will

rarely be anthologized.  I have camped

at this outpost my whole life, as did my mother,

who slept on sugar sacks in the basement

or on the front porch, in early spring,

when snow still clumped around fugitive

crocuses, just to keep herself forsaken.


Seuss’s poems are themselves, of course, now widely anthologized, and reading Modern Poetry one appreciates precisely why this is the case.  Aligned in some ways with the Ultra Talk movement of Mark Halliday, Seuss’s work is voice-driven in its evocation of a real speaker behind the language, a speaker equal parts charm and wit, humor and humility.  Whereas a great number of male Ultra Talk writers exude smarm and self-satisfaction—one thinks, for instance, of a Dickman or David Kirby—Seuss’s voice feels entirely winsome and wise, self-serious to just the appropriate degree.


In Modern Poetry, the Ultra Talk mode remains somewhat muted when yoked to a rhetorical poetics—that is, when asked to carry the weight of an intellectual discursiveness or what one might think of as a kind of “thinking-on-the-page,” thought which sometimes too closely resembles musing or philosophizing, as in the Ultra Talk movement as a whole.  Such is the case in Seuss’s poem “Poetry,” which at moments reads with the turgidity of a textbook.  “As for beauty,” she writes, “a problematic word, / one to be side-eyed lest it turn you / to stone or salt, / it is not something to work on / but a biproduct, at times, / of the process of our making.”


Such prosaicism is rare in Modern Poetry.  Far more characteristic of the collection, evidence of Seuss’s graceful touch, is the situational poem in which Seuss’s voice, even as it delivers a fairly straightforward narrative, leaps and flits restlessly around that narrative, contextualizing the narrative like Cliffs Notes.  Playing on the familiar “death of the father” elegy, for instance, the poem “Ballad” nonetheless displays great rhetorical nimbleness:


Were they wearing suits?  Death such a formal occasion.

My sister, angry-crying next to me.

Me, encountering a fragment of evil in myself.

Evilly wanting my mother to say it.

What? I asked, smiling.  My lamb on full display at the fair.


He’s dead! my sister said.  Hit me in the gut with her flute.

Her flute case.  Her rental flute.  He’s dead!

Our father.


Modern Poetry is filled with such agility, as Seuss’s finely tuned lyricism counterpoints in stunning ways her almost bathetic directness.  At no point does this collection about poetry feel insular or solipsistic; rather, it leaps from the page with great urgency, in no small part because of the charm and affability of Seuss’s speaker.  She is someone with whom one wants to get a beer.  She is someone to who one wants to listen.

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