American poetry is exploding. From Manhattan subway billboards to Library of Congress lecture halls, in small elementary schools and big-city bookstores, poetry is experiencing a revival. The most pleasant of addictions, poetry is no longer just something to read alone at home. It's now a public event -- as the rising number of readings at coffeehouses, slams, and university auditoriums attests.
A major reason for poetry's renewed prominence is the success of National Poetry Month, celebrated every April. Not surprisingly, a spate of new poetry collections is slated to appear this month, including several of the year's certain blockbusters.
Written entirely in couplets, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott's Tiepolo's HoundTIEPOLO'S HOUND is a masterful account of a love of painting and a commitment to the art of seeing. But that's just the beginning. Art is used as the framework for a story of movement from boyhood to manhood, threaded with a struggle to understand the secular and the sacred.
In Walcott's distinctive, lush language, the secular and the sacred engage in a tentative dance. In Book One, part III, the dance begins:
Precious, expensive in its metal cruse,
and poured like sacred, sacramental wine,
I still smell linseed oil in the wild views
of villages and the tang of turpentine.
This was the edge of manhood, this a boy's
precocious vow, sworn over the capped tubes
like a braced regiment, as his hand deploys
them to assault a barrack's arching cubes.
Where did we get the money to paint?
Out in the roaring sun, each road was news,
and the cheap muscatel, bought by the pint?
Salt wind encouraged us, and the surf's white noise.
Walcott offers the pleasure of the breathtaking individual phrase throughout the book. In fact, a single memorable passage is part of what led another very accomplished poet, W. S. Merwin, to tackle Dante's Purgatorio in a new verse translation. In his informative introduction, Merwin details how he was both captivated and baffled by the prospect of translating the opening stanza of the first canto.
Merwin's translation of the Purgatorio preserves Dante's elegant tercets. In Merwin's experienced hands, the Purgatorio retains its balance of the lively and the tender, and the poem is at turns furious and soothing. "Of the three sections of the poem," Merwin writes in his introduction, "only Purgatorio happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain. All three parts of the poems are images of our lives, of our life, but there is an intimacy peculiar to the Purgatorio."
Merwin likes something else about the Purgatorio -- the presence of hope. While there is no hope in Hell and no need for hope in the idyll of Paradise, the Purgatorio, in Merwin's view, is about longing for the good:
"Hope is central to the Purgatorio, and is there from the moment we stand on the shore at the foot of the mountain, before the stars fade. To the very top of the mountain hope is mixed with pain, which brings it still closer to the living present."
Trying to meld the living present with the remembered past is one theme of Kenneth Koch's new book of poems, entitled New Addresses. Nothing like the strict meter of the new volumes by Walcott and Merwin, Koch's book has long-lined odes that are often hilarious. "To Testosterone," "To Stammering," and "To Marijuana" are some of the more memorable. After all these years of living in great cities -- London, Rome, New York -- and reading great books in the drive to write good poems, Koch can look back and laugh at all the places he's called home. Here is the opening to his poem "To My Old Addresses":
Help! Get out of here! Go walking!
Forty six (I think) Commerce Street, New York City
The Quai des Brunes nine thousand four hundred twenty six Paris
Georgia Tech University Department of Analogues
Jesus Freak Avenue Number 2, in Clattery, Michigan
George Washington Model Airplane School, Bisbee, Arizona
By the end of the poem Koch speaks directly to these addresses:
If I address you
It is mostly to know if you are well.
I am all right but I think I will never find
Sustenance as I found in you, oh old addresses
Numbers that sink into my soul
Forty-eight, nineteen, twenty-three, o worlds in which I was alive!
Meanwhile, the talented poet Thom Gunn has just published a book titled after his big motivator -- Boss Cupid. The wishes of the flesh seem to govern many of Gunn's poems, and now, as he gets older, he mixes poems about the commands of sexual attraction -- often addressed to "Love-god, Cupid" -- with terrific writing on God and aging as a poet.
Here is a delicious excerpt from "The Artist as Old Man," from a section of the book called "Gossip":
The little cousin dashed in
from her friends outside:
do we think about God?
My aunt's brisk answer:
"We think God is silly."
My cousin dashed back
with the news
Gunn can really get to the point, and he can be uproarious when he lets loose. Here is the opening to "Classics":
Bartending is a branch
of show business. Your bartender
can flirt as heavy as he wants
without danger of being taken for real, thanks
to the wide spread
of wood between
him and the customer. There
are the stars of course
and the bit players.
In poetry, too, there are the stars and bit players. One of America's longtime stars is Galway Kinnell, who has been on the national stage long enough to offer a New and Selected Poems, which includes new poems and revisions of his first Selected, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. One of Kinnell's themes is the effects of living alone for a long time. In "Oatmeal," he writes about how solitude has affected every corner of his life:
I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with.
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal with John Keats.
What's wonderful about Kinnell is his ability to capture the "glutinous" texture of oatmeal just millimeters away from references to Keats. Another longtime and much-loved fixture on the American poetry scene, Gerald Stern, contributes Last Blue to April's offerings. The book showcases Stern's trademark ability to turn a tiny anecdote into a long rumination. Here, he transforms buying an orange one day 40 years ago into a long poem called "The Sorrows." This is how the poem begins, letting flashback run loose:
I was outside on the street picking up a
plum tomato when I remembered the vile
Moroccan in Paris and how we argued over
his oranges. I remember Gilbert was shocked
when I turned the cart over and oranges rolled
down the sidewalk -- into the street. I wanted
to make it up to him for years; I felt
ashamed whenever I saw him. Here I am
forty years later on my knees on First
Avenue, maybe paying for that, or maybe
paying for my grandfather's sin, eating
a pear on Yom Kippur, burying the core
underneath the hats of towels or in
the starch and cleanser -- garbage clung to it
and it grew black and withered, a withered mouse
behind the Brillo; or maybe I am only
paying for a broken bag.
Stern's mix of the humorous with larger questions of guilt and religious belief make him interesting, but he never takes himself too seriously, as the "broken bag" aside indicates.
C. K. Williams, a poet who normally writes on large and serious topics, has just published an unusual book titled Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself. Although it's a prose memoir, it's divided into brief chapters that are full of a poet's language, digressions, and minute observations.
Williams's father, a shrewd businessman, is not presented as wholly good or wholly evil, but shown in a series of episodes that take place both before and after his death. What's powerful here is not only what's mentioned, but what's not. That, of course, is part of the point -- this is only one person's point of view. The father and mother are silent.
As this month's books indicate, poetry is often about silence and the unsaid. In a brief form where space is at a premium, what could have happened or what might have happened is often the main event. While Williams takes that mystery and transfers it to prose, award-winning poet and novelist Nicholas Christopher is used to moving between poetry and fiction -- and manipulating mystery in both mediums. His new book, Atomic Field, which chronicles a young man coming of age during the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s, is composed of poems which quickly tell a story.
Here, in poem 34, the absence of detail creates poetic mystery:
There is the woman who like Leonardo buys caged birds
in order to set them free.
And her husband who prefers sitting on their front porch
for hours killing flies with a fly swatter.
He works as an electrician in the opera house.
But the only music I ever hear from their living room
through the green chintz curtains,
are her LPs of show tunes:
Gypsy, South Pacific, West Side Story,
over and over again...
One day she brings home a caged bird,
a kind of blackbird with red-tipped wings that sings,
which she actually keeps.
Within a week it dies,
and the husband buries it in their garden,
and for a long time I hear no music from that house.
This is today's poetry in English -- voices veering from the classical to the contemporary, the plaintive and descriptive to the lighthearted and humorous. Whether it's odes to testosterone or ruminations on living alone, this month's offerings prove poetry is not only alive but thunderously relevant.