(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although Mary Karr is known because of her memoirs, she regards herself as primarily a poet. She published her first poem in Mother Jones magazine, and her poems appear regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, and American Poetry Review. Eschewing the ornamentation of New Formalism (against which she inveighed in her essay “Against Decoration”), Karr writes poems that explore in plain style the daily struggles of balancing the needs of the flesh with the desires of the spirit, of staying sane and fending off madness, and of trying to discern light in the midst of darkness. Her poems often deal with family and friendship but are not sentimental, and they often are melancholic or deal with the topic of depression but do not descend into the jagged chasms of madness that characterize poems dealing with these topics by poets such as Anne Sexton. In her poetry as in her memoirs, Karr strives to create meaning out of the random disorder of the universe. In each of her collections of poems, Karr wrestles with the depravity of human nature and the mysteries of the divine love that has the power to transform and redeem individuals. Karr’s poems deal with loss and despair, hope and deliverance.


Karr’s very short first volume of poems, Abacus, appeared in the Wesleyan New Poets series, an indication of the confidence that many established poets had in her craft. On the strength of her memoirs, this volume was reprinted by Carnegie-Mellon University Press in 2007. The poems range in length—though most of them are seldom longer than one page—and the poetic styles vary from one poem to another. Karr’s poetry is confessional and colloquial; these poems deal with her relationships with her relatives (“Aunt Gladys”), her adolescence (“For My Children”), sex and her relationship with men (“Insomnia”), and women’s issues (“My New Diet”). Karr dedicates a series of poems about Diogenes to a number of her friends. (Diogenes was the leader of a group of Greek philosophers known as Cynics, and according to legend, he carried a lantern and peered into dark corners searching for the truth.) Many of the poems are laced with humor and irony. For example, in “Insomnia,” the speaker likens her relationship both to a rough sea voyage and to the ideal images of a trip to an ocean island in the pages of magazines. Such ideal images—of palm trees swaying near a blue sea—belie the typhoons that lurk in the waters of the relationship, and the speaker concludes that men and women are unable to travel anywhere without work and argument. In “Hard Knocks,” the speaker recalls the veneer of her Catholic school girlhood, where life appeared to be orderly—nuns rapping on desks with rulers, menstruation and sex hidden from view—until the day that she and her friends parted and they entered the world of women, where the struggles between life and death—bearing children, abortions, still births—would begin. In this soulful collection, Karr demonstrates her canny poetic power to confront courageously the agonies and difficulties of life.

The Devil’s Tour

Like the poems in Abacus, those in The Devil’s Tour are written for ordinary readers in a plain style—though with control and careful attention to precision—with a natural-sounding meter. Karr once called her poems “humanist poems” because they deal with the stresses, the minor agonies, and the petty despair of everyday life. Karr uses the image of Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) to explain the themes of the poems in The Devil’s Tour. In Milton’s epic, Satan remarks that the mind is a place all its own, and in their minds, people can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell. In this collection, the poetry deals with standing in the darkness, trying to come to terms and comprehend the bad news about life. Karr does not flinch as she explores topics ranging from divorce (“Divorce”) and miscarriage...

(The entire section is 1658 words.)