In the poem "Riding Westward," from his new collection, Sugar Run Road (Autumn House Press), Ed Ochester challenges "obscure" avant-garde writing to become more readable. He sums up his poetics: "I like the complexity / not confusion / plain surface texture / free of mere complicatedness." It's an approach Ochester has championed for decades, an outlook sometimes derided by academics more interested in theory than substance.
Ochester, an "exiled" New Yorker, Armstrong County resident and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, has been a force in publishing both local and national poets for decades. As editor of the esteemed Pitt Poetry Series, he has published collections by former U.S. poet laureates Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, as well as recent inaugural poet Richard Blanco. As founder and co-editor, with Judith Vollmer, of respected poetry magazine 5AM (now shuttered), he let many young poets (myself included) rub elbows in its pages with more established writers.
That accessibility is bedrock in his ethos is evident throughout the 75 pages of sometimes-didactic Sugar Run Road. Ochester's subject matter runs the gamut: Poems on literature, music and politics stand alongside correspondence with colleagues and a sprinkling of family history. His sly humor informs the haiku "Karaoke Night at the Serbian Club, South Side, Pittsburgh": "two young toothless men / with enormous gusto sing / ‘Stairway to Heaven.'" It's a moment worthy of 17 syllables.
In the poem "Poetry," Ochester writes, "yet I think of O'Hara's delight / in the endless pleasures / of quotidian life." Ochester is acknowledging the influence of poets like Frank O'Hara and Edward Field, both known for emphasizing small moments of the present, rather than dwelling in the past. That approach is illustrated in "Steel City," where he writes, "as now teenagers / make out on park benches after eating / lard infused fries and the little kids / on the carousel yell ‘MORE! MORE!' / to their sagging parents as endless / automobiles circle looking to park." The poem celebrates Pittsburgh in the here and now, its straightforward observation paired nicely with the energy of lines flowing from a near lack of punctuation.
Simple, yet substantial, Sugar Run Road works as a reminder that while poetry can take many forms, it should ultimately be both interesting and fun to read.