“Sleeping It Off in Rapid City features on its cover a nighttime photograph of a White Castle hamburger franchise. Like White Castle’s pint-size hamburgers, Mr. Kleinzahler’s poems are of uncertain if not dubious nutritional value. And while there is nothing made-to-order about them, his poems arrive salty and hot; you’ll want to devour them on your lap, with a stack of napkins to mop up the grease. Mr. Kleinzahler is an American eccentric, a hard man to pin down. Born in New Jersey, he writes poems that have a pushy exuberance and an expert recall of that state’s tougher schoolyards—of bullies with names like Stinky Phil and of 'fire trucks and galoshes, / the taste of pencils and Louis Bocca’s ear.' And he writes with elegiac insight about life’s losers, the people he calls 'strange rangers,' the addicted, insane or destitute . . . Mr. Kleinzahler, who has lived for several decades in San Francisco, writes most often in a strongly accented free verse that is among the most articulate and alive sounds American poetry is currently making. He plays effortlessly with forms, voices, registers. And his range of cultural reference—from Catullus to Custer, from Lorca to Eric Dolphy—is wide and artfully deployed. Rarely does high, learned poetic art sound this casual. As 'Sleeping It Off in Rapid City' demonstrates, you can find in Mr. Kleinzahler’s verse echoes of poets as disparate as Frank O’Hara (the appraising eye and metropolitan ease), Jim Harrison (the life-affirming appetites), Tony Hoagland (the deft grasp of high culture and low) and Charles Simic (a certain satirical angularity, and attention paid to food and drink and their sorrows and delights). It’s easy to troll through any of Mr. Kleinzahler’s books and pick out fresh, alert observations. (Flipping almost at random through this one I find: 'Say, who among us does not care to be undressed?' and 'If butter can’t cure what ails you, / no cure is there to be found.') But beneath their surface charms, the reverberating subjects of nearly all of Mr. Kleinzahler’s poems, particularly his later ones, are brute human longing and loneliness.'—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"From the point of view of lyric poetry—poetry that is defined by the concise and musical utterance of personal feeling—the basic environmental question is: Where are you, and how do you feel about it? August Kleinzahler's best poems, nearly all of which are present in his new and selected Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, deal with this question directly and well. They reveal him to be a poet of place, a member of a diverse lineage that includes Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Anne Stevenson, Lorine Niedecker and William Carlos Williams. The title poem is the most sophisticated in the collection. Within the first twenty lines we get a taste of Kleinzahler's aesthetic in the form of a neat splice from the first tercet of Dante's Inferno . . . Were the poem nothing more than an ample portrait of the area around Rapid City, it would demonstrate Kleinzahler's keen eye for landscape, one that perceives time as well as space. But the poet also asserts that 'This is a sacred place'; 'I can tell this is a sacred place, I needn't be told / It's in the air / I feel it' . . . Sleeping It Off in Rapid City is undeniably the disgruntled rant of a man depressed by the cultural impoverishment of Americans hinterlands however attunded he maybe to the local concentration of history. I think, however, that Kleinzahler gives is something more than a critical landscape poem. He asks us to consider the ways in which a place like Rapid City, as our poet has described it, may actually partake of the sacred . . . A mix of irony and sincerity in fact characterizes many of Kleinzahler's poems. His style is as playful and humorous as it is direct and nostalgic. How many poets can use the word 'heart' without sounding trite? . . . Kleinzahler has a well-tuned and well-disciplined ear, a trait that would make him worth reading even were his sense of place less intricate and rich. He combines the poet's lyric and descriptive functions to imbue locality with meaning."—John Geltner, Chicago Review“Start out with Frank O’Hara (as Kleinzahler himself admits), add the Northumbrian music of Basil Bunting, a lust for women and the tough-guy ironies and rue of noir at its most genuine (his memoir is rather brilliantly titled Cutty, One Rock) and you’ve got one of the great living poets. Among other anti-pastoral things his work is full of, a la O’Hara, are movies (Ava Gardner tales are a particular fondness), music (he used to write a music column for the San Diego Reader) and art (one poem is called ‘On First Looking Into Joseph Cornell’s Diaries, a surely, post-modern swat at the Keats AND Cornell. The results can be equally strong as poetry and as penetrating musical commentary. In ‘A History of Western Music: Chapter 13’ he writes about Theolonious Monk ‘on the stage of the Salle Pleyel’ in 1954, instructing his French rhythm section how to play his tune ‘Trinkle Tinkle’ by getting up to dance and show them ‘where the accents drop / where not / and those weird spaces in between.’ Which, to vast credit, is what so much of Kleinzahler’s work does too.”—Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News"Offbeat, offhand, subtle, and unsettling . . . Longer acquaintance with Kleinzahler's verse brings greater admiration."—The Voice Literary Supplement
"Sleeping It Off in Rapid City is the first career spanning collection of Kleinzahler's poetry. Issued originally in hardcover in 2008, it won that year's National Critic's Circle Award. Though he is a poet worth a more thorough reading, this wonderfully organized collection, which includes some new material, is a great place to start. Within any of the 234 pages of this book you will see the protean ability of this poet. A single poem can display beatnik homage to jazz, Robert Lowell-esque (pardon me) historical obscurity, subtle literary allusions and (always) a healthy dose of sardonic observations on everyday life, and its routine functions. If you miss one aspect of the poem, there will always be another. If Kleinzahler can't poke your brain, he'll waft the smell of cheap, greasy but good food across your nose. If that doesn't phase you he'll remind you of the low life, of sleeping off hangovers and temporal frailties in our relationships. If still unfazed, he will point out the absurdity of modern life—the falling petals and roaring semis of Northeastern boulevards. If all else fails he'll tell you a joke, probably dirty. It's rare to find so much in one place, and this belies a poet who has lived as much as he's looked. Essentially, reading a Kleinzahler poem is like being invited to a party at an eccentric's genius' house. As a host, he'll pours you glass after glass of fine wine, but later on when he gets the munchies, he'll ask you if you'd like a hot dog, since he's microwaving a couple. It's conflicting, sophisticated and ruggedly charming. In other words: it's American poetry."—The Phoenix (Phoenixville)"Set firmly from the beginning in the Objectivist tradition, Kleinzahler's writing has assumed a density over time that approaches the philosophical meditations of Robert Duncan. But whereas Duncan wrote from the persona of Self, Kleinzahler focuses on a (sometimes imaginary) Other: 'He wasn't English, of course/ The great man/ But that need not concern us, not here/ Rather, how that famous open plan of his/ Would abhor these little, closed-off rooms' . . . Astonishingly, Kleinzahler is capable of a concrete view influenced by what is not present: 'There is a bureau and there is a wall/ and no one is beside you./ Beyond the curtains only silence/ broken now and again by a car or truck./ And if you are very still/ an occasional drip from the faucet/ Such are the room's acoustics./ It is difficult to place exactly where from.' Featuring both old and newer work, this is a masterly, breakthrough collection and an important purchase for all libraries."—Rochelle Ratner, Library Journal"The witty, gritty poet and memoirist Kleinzahler has produced chiseled, sometimes curt and finely observed free verse for decades. Kleinzahler has lived in Montreal, San Francisco, Vancouver, Portugal and Berlin; his sketches of characters and places from at least four continents include affectionately cynical portraits of hoodlums, odes to the autumn failures of baseball teams and swiftly cinematic depictions of Tartar hordes in medieval Europe, 'ripping the ears off hussars.' Hackensack, N.J.; the foggy Bay Area with its foggier ex-hippies; and northern European lakes and mountains all receive their due in a poetry that aspires to the feel of bebop and the delight of travel writing, that never bores and rarely repeats itself. New poems add to, rather than swerve away from, Kleinzahler's strengths in close observation and all-over-the-map diction, from slang to technical terms. Overheard speech in 'Above Gower Street,' a poem about the loneliness of international travel, ranges from an answering machine's anodyne messages to an explicit sexual come-on; in 'Vancouver,' 'the neon mermaid over the fish place/ looks best that way, in the rain.' This ninth book of poems and first trade press new-and-selected should bring this master of free verse lines even more admirers."—Publishers Weekly
August Kleinzahler was born in Jersey City in 1949. He is the author of ten books of poems and a memoir, Cutty, One Rock. His most recent book of poetry, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, was awarded the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize. He lives in San Francisco.
Listen to August Kleinzahler reads the poem "Portrait of My Mother in January."
August Kleinzahler reads his poem "Almost Nothing."