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New York Times notes Alaska poet Tom Sexton's new book

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published May 31, 2011

Former Alaska poet laureate Tom Sexton's new collection of poems, "I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets," was mentioned in a round-up by The New York Times of several notable mid-career poets who have new books out this summer.

Even though books of poetry have plenty of other media competition when they have summer debuts, Times reviewer Dana Jennings says Sexton's book and the four others mentioned offer "... a bracing warm-weather antidote to the clankety-clank-clank of Stieg Larsson's alleged thrillers, or the kohl-smeared smirks that make up the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies."

Jennings says that Sexton's newest work presents a "modern monk seeking refuge in Asian poems," and further, that Sexton is "an atavistic avatar of how to look hard yet write simply."

And writing simply doesn't only refer to the diction. Each poem in the collection is just eight lines long. Sexton chose the small form to facilitate composition and creativity, according to the University of Alaska Press's publishers' description, and to avoid turning form into a puzzle or end-to-itself barely related to content.

"And his Alaskan-Asian poetics are quite practical," Jennings notes, closing by quoting four lines of Sexton's "Aurora Borealis," in which the speaker decides to stay next to the wood stove on an apparently deeply cold day, to read Chinese poets and to drink "another glass or two of wine."

Read the Times' write-up, here. And if you don't know much about Sexton or his craft, be sure to listen to this July 2010 interview of him by KTNA-FM in Talkeetna, which follows the 2009 publication of Sexton's new and selected poems, For the Sake of the Light.

'Alaskan-Asian poetics'

Incidentally, the Times' review is the first time I've seen the term, "Alaskan-Asian poetics," used. No doubt it applies well to Sexton's work overall, and especially to his newest book, the stated goal of which is to blend the ancient Chinese poems he loves with his own experiences. But the term also applies to qualities shared by the work of other prominent Alaska poets in recent decades, especially those who, like Sexton, concern themselves so much with the natural world and humanity's relationship to it.

It's a quality I've been trying to describe for myself for years, that stark, risky simplicity and bare images (though not necessarily "deep" ones, in the manner of Robert Bly) driving many poems written by Alaska's post-war generation.

Anyone else notice that? Is it simply a matter of poetic influence? Or does place itself play a role? If it's simply a matter of influence, why Asia? Why not Canada, Russia or Scandinavia? What is it about Asia's ancients that has so consistently appealed to Alaska's literary life?

I have a few ideas, and I'm undecided how much of the tendency is nature and how much is nurture. But I do know that Alaska's nature is full of radical, totally apparent cycles. And it settles into severe dormancy during the winter, granting heightened import to even the smallest bird or animal. If while traveling in sub-zero woods the only non-self motion one sees is a spruce bough letting loose a pile of snow with a whump, what other responses could be as likely as a joyful acknowledgement of impermanence and a kind of awe at indifferent, external reality? It's not exactly a tree full of peach blossoms along the river to the self's interior, but maybe it's close enough.

Contact Scott Woodham at swoodham@alaskadispatch.com.

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