“What Can Poetry Be Now?” Diane Seuss’s Modern Poetry


Here’s an awkward secret: I began writing criticism only five years ago. Only five years prior, after a significant life change, I fully committed to in-depth study of American poetry, not through traditional academia, but via a popular massive open online course called Modern & Contemporary American Poetry

In short, I’m an imposter. I’m no poet. I don’t have an MFA. English is my second language. Yet one of the subjects I love most and am presumptuous enough to write about is poetry, a scholarly land with a long lineage and a space in which I often feel I have a short-term visa at best.

So you might forgive me for reading so personally into “My Education,” from Diane Seuss’s absorbing and multitudinous collection, Modern Poetry:

“Not just what I feel but what I know
and how I know it, my unscholarliness,
my rawness, all rise out of the cobbled
landscape I was born to.


“If you are like me, to learn of the gods you must
beg, borrow, or steal. Eavesdrop, as gossip
is sagacity, a word I learned from Emily
Dickinson. Don’t underestimate direct
experience. Ants know earth. Dragonflies
know air. A cobbled mind is not fatal.
You have to be willing to self-educate
at a moment’s notice, and to be caught
in your ignorance…”

If Seuss’s multiple award-winning frank: sonnets offered one fourteen-line poem on each page—experiments through form that echoed the experiment that is life itself—Modern Poetry serves up a multiplicity of pieces representing the broad landscape suggested by the book’s title. Many of the individual poem titles reference poetic and musical terms, and the collection as a whole resembles a composition, where Seuss’s confident intentions and attentions accumulate and crescendo. 

The collection is a glorious origin story, describing the coup de foudre that Seuss encountered with her chosen profession, her calling really, grounded in experiences that didn’t follow the traditional—or patriarchical— trajectory of academe and ivy, though if you read the news these days, that ivy is fast wilting off those formerly impregnable brick edifices. 

Modern Poetry is an insightful and intense rumination about what modern poetry may or may not be, and notably, what it is for Seuss. She effortlessly blends a kind of democratic workingperson ethos along with a craft that brings to mind Lorine Neidecker’s mighty yet brief poem “A Poet’s Work:” “Grandfather / advised me: / Learn a trade // I learned / to sit at desk / and condense // No layoff / from this / condensery). 

And yet what Seuss proves repeatedly in her work, and most emphatically in this expansive collection, is how rooted her authentic voice is in the lineage of modern poetry, and the branch she’s created, from which other contemporary poets also bud. There’s also the delight that Seuss—not born to the academy, yet firmly of it—was just named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Seuss’s playfulness, her ability to not always take solemnly in content what she treats seriously as a craft is seeded throughout the collection. On the other end of the spectrum are a number of ars poetica pieces, perhaps better considered ars vita poetica, poems that mark a poetic life. If you follow literary social media, several times a year, there is earnest debate about what is poetry, or its more judge-y counterpart, how is that poetry? Seuss offers a response in “Poetry:”

“So, what
can poetry be now? Dangerous
to approach such a question,
and difficult to find the will to care.
But we must not languish, soldiers,
we must go so far as to invent
new mechanisms of caring. 
Maybe truth, yes, delivered
with clarity. The tone is up
to you.”

How striking is the address to poets as “soldiers,” with the implication of coming together to battle, so at odds with any bucolic poetic tenets, followed by a rendition of the modernist command to “make it new.” And after such a declaration is the suggestion that there are no hard and fast answers, that every pronouncement is always tempered with an asterisk of possibility. 

Seuss contends with the limitations of poetry, but in defining what it may not be, she is also confirming all that it can be for the writer and reader. I’m taken with the contradictions she explores, often in few words, such as in “Coda:” The best poem is no poem. / In a swath of poems, or a swathe of poems, / the best poem is without genealogy or fragrance.” Regardless of whether it is the width of a scythe that slices or that which enfolds in comfort, regardless of the past, or our senses, perhaps the best poem is one that questions itself, that is open to interpretation. By demystifying or democratizing poetry, by unassembling it from conventional notions of beauty and rightness, Seuss makes it all the more powerful. 

There is motion and urgency in Seuss’s poetry, and she flawlessly manages distance and intimacy in poems that are singular to her experiences, yet ring an echoing thrum for others, the way a singing bowl reverberates throughout a room, and perhaps, one’s soul.

Later in the title poem the speaker notes:

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“…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…”

So what is the role of modern poetry in the contemporary world? And what is the role of the poet in society? Seuss doesn’t make overly authoritative avowals, unsurprisingly, yet throughout this collection, she offers welcome signposts to illuminate our complicated modern lives in such a fractured world, as in the closing lines from “Poetry:”

“Maybe there is such a thing
as the beauty of drawing near.
Near, nearer, all the way
to the bedside of the dying
world. To sit in witness
without platitudes, no matter
the distortions of the death throes,
no matter the awful music
of the rattle. Close closer,
to that sheeted edge.
From this vantage point,
poetry can still be beautiful.
It can even be valuable, though
never wise.”

Here at the bedside of this dying world, Diane Seuss is one of the exemplars of our modern poetry, and Modern Poetry is a resounding, enduring and yes, beautiful companion.

Modern Poetry
By Diane Seuss
Published by Graywolf Press
March 5, 2024


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