Peter Gizzi’s In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011 (Wesleyan; $26.95) draws from five previous collections. The author, at age 55, has published eighteen chapbooks; edited the poems and lectures of Jack Spicer, doyen of the San Francisco Renaissance; and served as poetry editor for this and several other magazines. Gizzi has also won many prizes and taught at Brown and Cambridge before settling at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His felt aesthetic kinships are equally various and grand. Writers and artists whose names and work flit through In Defense of Nothing include Giacomo Balla, Gregory Corso, William James, Jasper Johns, Andrew Marvell, Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Simone Weil, Walt Whitman and François Villon, plus quotes, off-quotes and whispers from many more. Then there’s the title, which references Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), the essay that argues “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” One is tempted to see Gizzi as an acknowledged—well, not legislator, but leader in the art of poetry, a man in whom the powers of tradition meet and mingle. And yet the parallelism between Shelley’s title and his own implies that, even as Gizzi defends it with his life’s work, poetry = nothing.

Small instants of perception, and changes in life pattern too profound to fully assimilate, interest the first-person speaker in these poems. Emotions play across their surface like the tricks of light on winter mornings that also catch the perceiving subject’s eye. About the deaths of two close relatives, Gizzi writes: “How about dirt? I love you / like dirt” (“Tradition & the Indivisible Talent”), and this is moving in the way that the thump of clods on a coffin lid is moving—helpless, basic, a little theatrical. Elegy and lyric are key modes for Gizzi, and he continues to believe in their searching yet formal attitude toward memory and vision, their advice on “How to live. / What to do.” These are the closing lines from the penultimate poem in the volume, “Modern Adventures at Sea.” Years earlier, in “Toy” (from Artificial Heart, published in 1998), he knew the answer: “Go with a simple song, unbind yourself.”

Gizzi appreciates landscapes gorgeous in their service-economy abjection, as in “The Outernationale”:

the truly gnarly
unnecessary -osis
of a steel wind off a boulevard
rich with dog shit and perfume

As can be heard in the interlocking sounds of these lines, American vocabularies—with their lurches from low to high, gnarly to gnosis—fascinate Gizzi too. He uses words like “boojum,” “outta,” “giddy,” “ting,” and loves alliteration, anaphora, palindromes, puns, rhyme. Not many people enter in fleshly ways into the poems, but objects and sonic shapes are nearly personified by the intensity with which they’re rendered. Titles like “The Outernationale” and “Lonely Tylenol” signal that the poems will scramble history and culture, careening from the dream of workers’ unity to (possibly tainted) brand-name analgesics, and understanding both as ineradicably alienated mirror reversals of themselves.

Gizzi’s subject is the weight of the traditions in which he is enfranchised. Picture a son who has inherited the firm of Modernism, once a going concern secure in its relation to other venerable projects—Romanticism, say, or the Renaissance. Now the company has fallen on hard times. The heir walks the aisles of the warehouse, hefting the still-ingenious mechanisms, spinning their beautiful flywheels and wondering what they’re good for. Or switch similes: Gizzi is like an earworm-ridden, used-bookstore-haunting geek, dizzy with the sense that “even the curios seem animated / in their dusty shelves.” The title of the poem from which this line—along with the lines on love and dirt—comes, “Tradition & the Indivisible Talent,” takes another poke at, or offers another homage to, a seminal poet’s essay: T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1920). This is the essay that decrees “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” But something indivisible cannot separate, and so fusions and strange bedfellowships haunt the poet’s thoughts. When Gizzi quotes Aretha Franklin’s “Skylark,” he has Shelley’s “To a Skylark” running sotto voce on a simultaneous track. He hears William Blake (Songs of Innocence and of Experience) and Talking Heads (More Songs About Buildings and Food) collide in the same phrase, and it’s another phrase about loss and belatedness: “More songs about death and dying, songs of inexperience” (“Apocrypha”). The poet assumes we hear these citations too. Why wouldn’t we be as attuned as he is to voices from the pantheon? It’s a shared pleasure, a readers’ lingua franca. But also a shared predicament, because it must mean we too are filled with “nothing.”

“The heart of poetry is fatigue,” one poem states (“Pierced”). Another begs, “Father tell me what you think / of me.” A few lines later, however, this speaker admits that fathers are barely relevant: “As the world was revealed then returned / to your sandwich. I am who sent me” (“Hard as Ash”). “So much depends on X / so much more / on the book in your hand,” writes Gizzi in “The Outernationale,” the title poem of his fourth collection (2007). Any veteran of high-school English might catch the nod to that much-loved, oft-parodied high-modernist statement, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams (1923). But Gizzi knows that Williams’s inwardly glowing, enigmatically self-present implement—“glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens”—has slipped off into the cloud or the landfill. Even the tangible book no longer achieves the essential:

cue the mood
outraged or bittersweet,
vintage etc. and emptier
than the supra-empty
of the mood stabilizer
flat line -less, -let
-like, -ly. The cold parts
of the car body.
Why can’t I just admit
I’m dead, have been dead
since I met me.

The great precursors dispense a protean “mood stabilizer,” the antidepressant that is art. But they’re also just “cold parts,” truncated, empty. Later in the same poem: “Have you a single / new idea? Yes, / I carry the oldest ones.” What else can a faithful but undeceived scion say of the family firm?