FREE Express Shipping for Club Members
Not a member? Join Today!
Don't be cruel: appreciating the year-round joys of poetry
For those of us who write poetry, this time of year is always occasion to reflect upon T.S. Eliot's dictum that "April is the cruelest month." For the past decade or so, April has become even cruelerparadoxically enoughbecause of the Academy of American Poets' proclamation of it as National Poetry Month.
While the brief and slightly heightened attention paid to poetry during these 30 days is, of course, welcome, it also serves to remind us of the diminishment of poetry in our time. Just as we need Black History Month or National Women's History Month to remind us of the historical invisibility of particular populations, we apparently require a special month for poetry.
Or perhaps the situation is more dire than that. Could it be that National Poetry Month is as necessary National Breast Cancer Awareness Monthas a kind of public service attempt to decrease a high mortality rate? However we may view the privileging of the form during the month of April, it is always a relief to come upon truly excellent and profoundly readable volumes of poetry that offer the promise of winning audiences back to the genre. Here are three.
In Song & Dance, Alan Shapiro continues the beautifully agonizing chronicle of the demise of his family. Earlier works have addressed the death of his sister from cancer and the aging of his parents. "Did you ever have a family?" he asks himself in the title poem. This new volume takes as its subject the struggle of the poet's brother, David Shapiro, with an incurable brain cancer. It is almost unbelievable that any one family should have suffered from terminal illness to the extent that Shapiro's has. And yet, Shapiro's real contribution lies in showing us how ordinary his family's suffering ultimately is. His poems impress upon us his vision of the great, ongoing human misery, and how that misery can be balanced out by the loving and loyal attentiveness of family and friends who stay the course. In the inventive, well-wrought forms of these poems, Shapiro reveals the company and solace that can be offered the dying and the bereaved. "By god it's summer and/you've cleared the bases," he says in "Up Against." "There's no one out./The inning could go on forever." With the testimony of poems like these, the author's brother is sure to "go on forever," and in that way no one shall ever lose him.
Charles Wright's new volume, A Short History of the Shadow (Farrar, Straus, $20, 96 pages, ISBN 0374263027), gives us his familiar, laconically philosophical voice and the long, limpid lines for which he has become famous. Though Wright is known for his elegant ruminations on nostalgia and the mysterious passing of time, this volume, with its plethora of seasonal allusions and insistent referencing of times and images past, has an even more elegiac cast than his earlier work. Perhaps it is the titling of one section, "Millennium blues" or even our realization of the poet's age (67 this year), that makes these poems sound almost like a last will and testament. "I think of nightfall all the time," he says in one poem. This is a hauntingly lovely volume of mature ruminations on memory, aging and the inevitable, but not unfriendly, approach of death by a poet who has lived richly, courageously and with profound dedication to the unsentimental practice of his art.
In her six volumes of poetry, Linda Bierds has revealed herself as one of the most imaginatively interesting of the mid-generation of American poets. Her most recent book, The Seconds (Putnam, $24, 88 pages, ISBN 0399147861), gives us more examples of her sure hand with imagery and the delicate voicing she brings to narrative. Here, the poems often originate in a painting or in the details of an artist's or a writer's lifeVermeer, Marie Curie, Andrew Wyeth, Zelda Fitzgerald, Franz Kafkaand they are alive with the narrative imagery that Beirds is so good at evoking. This is a book for readers who love to lose themselves in the minutiae of poems constructed around a substantial thematic core. Decorative and detailed, Bierds' poems do not stop there, but address themselves to subjects that resonate with the realities of contemporary readers' lives.
Kate Daniels is a poet who teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt University.