by Stephen Burt
Readers who follow any strand of American experiment know about Waldrop as a teacher, a mentor—with his wife, the poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop—for generations of young innovators at Brown University. Some of those readers have never seen Waldrop’s own poems, and almost none have seen them all. This big selection reaches back to 1968 and stretches forward into the last few years, making a case for a poet who has penned long sequences, stand-alone lyrics, miniatures reminiscent of Robert Creeley, ambling prose, and verse-chorus-verse song lyrics in the manner of Stephen Sondheim. Waldrop’s real talent throughout has been aphoristic, generalizing from his own experience to yours, mine, anyone’s, with understated profundity. “It was my own // regard that quickened death, my / interest that made it personal,” he reflects, calling himself in one recent collection of fragments “a light sleeper who finds it impossible to stay awake.” Sleep, dreams, an alternate and almost inconsequential life in a closely held language, keeps coming up: “Remember me only / by what I’ve / said in my sleep,” says one of many self-deprecating asides. An alter ego called Doctor Transom explains why poetic thought can diagnose, but not heal, common existential maladies: “steps of the intellect / a slippery-slide / which of us can even guess / what’s doing on the other side.” Rarefied, various, unprepossessing, and restless, this poet has reinvented himself over and over rather than dwelling confidently in any one mode. That very imperfection lets him shine, in late prose and in early, thin-sliced verse that suggests James Schuyler’s, where “[s]omething is always / pulling, little / balloons full of / sentences.” Wise sentences, a long career, and “a fine irrational / intelligence” await.
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.