Volumes with verse-atility
Among other more dubious tags, April is National Poetry Month. That's an easy designation to forget or dismiss in light of the cruel tax deadline which causes many to stammer through the spring season much as a spiritless character from Eliot's Wasteland.
Perhaps it is times such as these when we ought to lift our heads from necessary work and consider that:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
William Carlos Williams's deft poem is one of nearly 1,500 gathered in a new, impressive anthology, American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volumes 1 and 2 (Library of America, $35 each, 1883011779). The first two volumes of the four-volume set cover roughly the first half of the century, with the next two volumes to follow and complete the project. The work of such noted masters as Williams, Ezra Pound, H.D., Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore are generously represented and foregrounded with newly researched biographical sketches. Given the explosion of literary modernism in America in the early part of the century, the first two volumes serve as a representative history of the period, but are not limited to that. The volumes also contain important works by undervalued poets and experimentalists, witty versifiers and accomplished songwriters. The volumes are handsomely produced and provide an excellent introduction to the richness of American poetry in the past century.
For those interested in an even broader account, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry is a must. The 685-page volume chronicles a variety of movements and trends that have helped to develop and establish the presence of the individual - the outlaw - within the mythos of American culture. From canonical poets like Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg to popular artists like Tupac Shakur and Patti Smith, the volume is inclusive and produces a varied texture of experience and consciousness that is wholly American and decidedly lawless.
Another recent anthology of interest is The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (Vintage Books, $14, 0375703004). It covers a broad historical range and includes work from slave-born writers, members of the Harlem Renaissance, and those writing today. In this respect, the book charts a remarkable development in American letters that has flourished through adversity and established an important presence on the literary scene. The book represents a vital tradition filled with talented and distinctive voices that advance the true American theme of identity. From poets as varied in style and period as Phillis Wheatley, Paul Dunbar, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Derek Walcott, Audre Lorde, Rita Dove, and Cornelius Eady, this anthology is a critical piece in the jig-saw puzzle of American culture.
Once the reader has set aside the anthologies, he or she might be interested in some contemporary work, to see how the legacy of the 20th century will carry into the 21st. For, now as ever, poetry is an open field, and the range of books available attests to the adage that anything is suitable material for poetry in the hands of the capable poet. Richard Wilbur is indeed a capable poet and has been for about half a century. He is an original new formalist and in his new volume, Mayflies: New Poems and Translations (Harcourt Brace, $22, 0151004692), he continues to produce memorable verse in traditional forms.
The title poem in Mayflies involves the speaker's experience with a small wonder of nature, the emergence of mayflies from a small pool.
In somber forest, when the sun was low,
I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies
In their quadrillions rise
And animate a ragged patch of glow
With sudden glittering - as when a crowd
Of stars appear
Through a brief gap in black and driven
One arc of their great round-dance
As the poet watches, the "muddled swarm" is "composed" into a "figured scene." Wilbur's ability to reconcile such paradoxes has proven to be his life's work, the rendering of indefinite imagery into traditional verse forms. While the poem concludes with the speaker feeling "alone in a life too much [his] own" he is quickly, if partially, restored by his "task . . . joyfully to see" and experience this timeless dance of nature. Lucky for us, Wilbur's task includes forming that experience for others to enjoy as well.
Anne Carson's recent volume, Men in the Off Hours (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 0375408037), draws on her vast knowledge of classicism and history. For Carson, the subject suitable for poetry seems to be anything that has ever happened. And within that anything, Carson is free to interpret, reinvent, and juxtapose, all in the service of producing a greater understanding of what it is to be alive. As she states, "The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection" but therein lies the possibility. "From the true mistakes of metaphor a lesson can be learned" from the juxtaposition of " 'what is' and 'what is not' the case." Through a generous and natural combination of wit and sensuality, these poems ask to be read again and again for their insight and their personality, but mostly for the pleasure they produce.
A pair of recent books, The Ledge (Houghton Mifflin, $22, 0618050140) by Michael Collier and A Working Girl Can't Win (Modern Library, $7.95, 0375755403) by Deborah Garrison employ the colloquial use of narrative to explore the mysteries and intensities of the everyday. In both collections, a kind of persona emerges from poem to poem that compels interest and compassion in the reader. In "Argos," the first poem in the Collier collection, the poet reveals part of his approach. If "you read Homer as I did, too fast, knowing you'd be tested for plot and major happenings," then you probably missed the emotionally memorable events of the tale (or life). The charge seems to be two-fold. First, and more immediately, read the present volume slowly and with care, but also, as to life, "the past is what you study" because with the pace of our lives we miss the parts that hold the most meaning.
Garrison's persona engages the domestic milieu and its relations in a style that is unique and refreshing. Her balancing act between career and marriage allows for such musings as "I'll claim I was a girl before this gin, then beg you for another." On her refusal to become a seductress:
Such women are a breed apart.
I'm the type
who likes to cook - no,
really likes it; does the bills;
buys towels and ties; closes her eyes during kisses:
a true first wife.
What emerges from Garrison is a personality, a poetic sensibility that the reader is compelled to encounter and root for. This is one woman speaking, and ultimately we care very much for her speech and for her fate.
And that's only the beginning; April is a long month and there are a lot more poems to be enjoyed. Use the month as an excuse to develop the habit of reading poetry and then maybe, if we are lucky, the temptation will persist and sustain us for a lifetime.
When tax season ends, the poetry lives on!
Alex Richardson is a poet who teaches literature at the University of Southern Mississippi.