April's New Poems Continue to Bloom, Even in June

June 2, 2009

in Bookish Babble

Perhaps T. S. Eliot was right. April can be one of the cruelest months, especially if you are trying to keep up with the deluge of new poems and poetry books.

You see, several years ago, I signed up to allow press releases, newsletters, news alerts, and suchlike other electronic detritus to rain down on me, at will, from the heights of the Academy of American Poets. I was especially interested in their offer to deliver one new poem each day (culled from new books scheduled to be published in that year), emailed to my inbox, during the month of April, which has been designated “National Poetry Month” (for better or worse) for more than a decade.

If I recall, the inaugural “Poem-A-Day” program didn’t quite live up to its promise; it started somewhat in the middle of the month, and poems arrived higgledy-piggledy for a few weeks, then it abruptly ceased. No big deal, I thought. On the whole, I managed to read (and like) what I received. In the ensuing years, however, the Web site has been more successful, with poems beginning to emerge on time, as advertised, and continuing to blossom in my inbox on a daily basis throughout the month and — as was the case last year — well into May. I have to admit that it has gotten increasingly harder to keep track of, let alone read and appreciate, all the new arrivals. (I know, beggars/choosers…)

And this year’s April showers have produced an especially bountiful (and overwhelming) crop of poems, because the Academy, in honoring both the national “holiday” and its 75th anniversary, enthusiastically extended the delivery period even further. So far, since the first, I’ve received 60-plus daily poems, pulled from books published or scheduled to be in 2009, and they are still arriving. Most (at least in terms of the ones I’ve read) have been good, some are of no interest, but a few grabbed me right away — and were compelling enough to make me want to reread and, better (in the eyes of the publishers and retailers, no doubt), go out and buy the whole book.

So I thought I’d share the wealth with you by mentioning a few of the standouts, in the hope of promoting the cause, bandying ideas about why I think poetry matters (in these dubious days, especially), and introducing you to some poems and poets you may not have heard of in the hope of sparking your interest. I want to point out that I’m partial to short, lyric poetry, so you won’t find much in the way of long-form or otherwise complex poems here (except as an excerpt). To me, the purpose of a poem is to capture a brief moment in time, or an emotion, and express that experience in both personal and universal terms, in as succinct a way as possible. Therefore, by nature, a poem should be fleeting, free of too much decoration or distraction, and fairly easily understood in one or two readings. Anything else is, well, something else and not a poem, at least to me.

Also, I understand that, just as one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, one should not assume that the following poems are representative of the quality of each overall collection. However, you gotta start somewhere — and I can pull a number of volumes off my shelf that I picked solely on looks, reputation, smell, etc., and that have proved to be my favorites. My hope is that you’ll find something you like here, want to read it again, and even track down the whole book, on a store or library shelf.

So, here are my selections. Be sure you click on each link below, which will take you to the poem’s individual page at Poets.org, where you can read it in full, as well as find links to additional poems by the author, along with biographical and other information. There is also an archive of the full roster of this year’s Poem-A-Day selections, available here. Enjoy!

Ann Lauterbach, “Elegy for Sol LeWitt,” Or to Begin Again. There’s a lot going on in this compact, painterly poem. Most obvious are all the “lines” that weave throughout: lines on the weather map that look like “casts of fishing lines,” lines “drawn on walls” and “drawn across the canvases” that make geometric shapes, the colorful horizon line depicted at the end, and even the lines of the poem itself, which loop back and forth across the page. There are also the intriguing, differing shades of “pale” — the weather map is pale, so we are told, and so is the evening sky, along with “two pale squares / on a blackened field,” the pale “blue northern cold,” the “pale green / at Hartford,” and (most cleverly) “the blank newsprint of the sea.” There are other, more subtle similarities, as well. But after reading this poem a few times, I’m still not entirely clear about who is being elegized or why. (I could Google it, I suppose.) It doesn’t really matter, though. There is in this poem, as it itself claims, “a kind of logic / charged with motion” that’s compelling, drawing me in, encouraging me to wonder in delight.

Stacie Cassarino, “Goldfish Are Ordinary,” Zero at the Bone. This poem has one of the least poetic opening couplets I’ve encountered:

At the pet store on Court Street,
I search for the perfect fish.

And yet it captivated me right away and held my attention long enough for the pay-off, from the colorfully descriptive fish names — “black moor, the blue damsel, / cichlids and neons,” etc. — to an explanation for the search: to buy “Something / to distract your sadness, something / you don’t need to love you back.” (Isn’t that why everyone ultimately buys a pet?) As it turns out the title for the poem is a statement made by “the boy selling fish,” but there is nothing ordinary about it, from the vivid descriptions of the tank and its contents (“all of this grace and brilliance, / such simplicity the self could fail / to see”) to the way the poem moves from the concrete to the enigmatic at the end. Perfect.

Gregory Orr, “Untitled [This is what was bequeathed us],” How Beautiful the Beloved. As a writer I’m easily smitten by the sight of a beautiful turn of phrase, and the opening of this short excerpt from a book-length poem caught my eye right away and caused me to stare up and down at it several times:

This is what was bequeathed us:
This earth the beloved left
And, leaving,
Left to us.

Believe me when I tell you that much effort went in to making those four lines seem so effortless.  And this little taste, along with some other beauties, like the matter-of-fact elegance of “No meaning but what we find here. / No purpose but what we make,” leave me wanting more — to discover who “the beloved” is, for instance, and the meaning of the musically instructive last line, “Turn me into song; sing me awake.” How beautiful, indeed.

Pamela Spiro Wagner, “How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual,” We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders. I have to admit I was a little caught off guard by this clever bit of poetic didacticism. I chuckled at first at some of the silliness –

To read poetry requires only courage
enough to leap from the edge
and trust.

You mean, like cliff-diving? But eventually I was won over by the seriousness of Wagner’s Whitmanesque appeal to poetry’s most important audience — the folks who are afraid to read it. If you or someone you love is not a regular reader of poetry, you should follow the steps outlined in this “manual.” The advice herein is sage (“First, forget everything you have learned”), the observations are keen (poetry is “language … doing holy things to the ordinary”), and the instruction is simple (“Read just one poem a day”). If the component parts of the poem live up to its credo (“the best poems mean what they say and say it”), you will soon find you don’t need its assistance.

Mei-Yao Ch’en, “An Excuse for Not Returning the Visit of a Friend,” Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind. This tiny, 12-line poem, translated from the ancient Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth,  is one of my favorites and I was delighted by its unexpected arrival. What gets me every time I read this poem, written nearly 1,000 years ago, in a land that couldn’t be more foreign to me, is how easily I can connect with the speaker’s dilemma. He blames his inability to be sociable on the behavior of his two children, For instance,

One has just begun to talk.
The other chatters without
stopping. They hang on my clothes
And follow my every step.

The palpable regret he feels for not being able to “get any farther / Than the door,” and presumably go out with the guys, is balanced by the barely understated joy he feels from the trappings of fatherhood. What parent of young children can’t relate to this situation? My three are more teen than toddler these days, and I still feel their tugging and, like the speaker, I am often “slow to go out” and leave them behind.

Charles Wright, “Little Ending,” Sestets. This is a strange, yet strangely appealing poem. Only six lines long (which, given its title, must be the case for the whole book), it nonetheless packs a wallop, freighted with mystery and meaning. There’s an odd, Eliot-like foreboding in some of the phrases: for instance, “Bowls will receive us, / and sprinkle black scratch in our eyes,” while “on the untouchable road, / It won’t matter where we have become.” No matter how “little,” though, the poem seems to be over-reaching for a dead-end. And yet, the last few lines appear full of hope — with the admonition that “Someone will take our hand, / someone will give us refuge” — even if we’re feeling hopeful for something unknown.

C. P. Cavafy, “Since Nine –,” Collected Poems. Sometimes the simplest poetic tricks can be the most effective. For instance, the repetition (and slight modification) of the same few words and phrases in this poem  (“the time has quickly passed,” “since nine o’clock when I first turned up the lamp,” “the apparition of my youthful body,” etc.) produces both a feeling of tempus-fugit tension and a soothing, lullaby-like release, as the speaker looks back on a life’s worth of pleasures and losses. It’s an incredibly moving (and deceptively tricky) conceit, typical of Cavafy, a remarkable yet little-known Greek poet from the last century whose work deserves to be rediscovered. Especially these days, as we cling to our nostalgia like a life-ring. And if this translation by Daniel Mendelsohn is any indication of the quality of the new collection, then this book should go a long way toward reviving his (and our) spirit.

There you have it, just a nosegay from this year’s sprawling garden of verse. I hope you found something you liked or were inspired to seek out more. I’ve already picked up the Rexroth translations and plan to acquire more titles, when I’m able. Though don’t ask me when I’m going to have time to read them.

As always, leave a comment about this week’s selections. What didn’t you like? Did I overlook a poem or author you think should have been included? And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (http://tinyurl.com/oozg5l), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

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