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The Boston Phoenix My Favorite Things

Poetry collections that will please the novice and the sophisticate

By Adam Kirsch

JANUARY 10, 2000:  For the past few years, US poet laureate Robert Pinsky has been conducting a "Favorite Poem Project," asking ordinary Americans to record their choices on audio or video. According to Americans' Favorite Poems (Norton), the anthology he compiled from the project, Pinsky received more than 17,000 responses. On the one hand, it's a discouraging number in a nation of 250 million; on the other, it's a sign that poetry still has its audience, that all kinds of people still turn to it for beauty and human truth, as they always have.

The hundreds of poems here represent a range of styles -- from the canonical ("Hope Is the Thing with Feathers," "Dover Beach," "Tintern Abbey") to the contemporary (poems by Adam Zagajewski, Carl Phillips, Louise Glück); and each is introduced by a short statement from the person or persons who chose it. This makes the book the perfect rebuke to the literary academy, which is obsessed with the ways that class, race, gender, and power limit literature -- for here we find a 16-year old Arab-American in New York talking about how "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" "just pulled me in," a Cambodian woman finding "a description of me" in Langston Hughes's "Minstrel Man," a Boston construction worker convinced that poetry like Whitman's "Song of Myself" "is a universal celebration that exists in everything and everybody." The eclectic selections make this an interesting book to read, and the simple idea behind it makes it a testament to the power that poetry still possesses. It would be an excellent gift for any reader just beginning to get acquainted with poetry.

A number of major American poets published new collections this year, and for anyone who follows contemporary poetry, their books will be welcome gifts. After last year's epic-length poem about 19th-century Hawaii, "The Folding Cliffs," W.S. Merwin returns with The River Sound (Knopf), a substantial book of lyrics featuring his hypnotic, unpunctuated lines. Its highlight is "Testament," an homage to Villon in which the poet reflects on age and the friends he will leave behind.

Sharon Olds's Blood, Tin, Straw (Knopf) returns to her trademark themes -- the body's pains and pleasures, the joy and suffering of family life, sex and death -- all treated with great immediacy and rhetorical force. And in The Mercy (Knopf), Philip Levine writes plainly about his Detroit childhood, the difficulty of manual labor, and the rewards found in simple things.

Two British poets living in America also gave us excellent new books this year: Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love, published in paperback, and Glyn Maxwell's The Breakage (both from Houghton Mifflin). Hill's formidable erudition, formal mastery, and moral concern are all on display in his book-length poem about the evils of this century and the poet's possible role in redeeming them; he has taken on one part of T.S. Eliot's legacy: his Christian judgments on a fallen world. And Maxwell's book, his first to be published here, introduces the true inheritor of Auden's musical sophistication, a major poetic talent who's able to make beautiful poems out of the most unlikely subjects. "Hurry My Way," a comic and moving love poem, is worth the price of the book all by itself.

Jacqueline Osherow's new book, Dead Men's Praise (Grove/Atlantic), is another beautiful and skilled collection. Taking inspiration from Jewish and Biblical history, but never ignoring the difficulties of writing Jewish poetry in English, Osherow is able to infuse complex forms with an ironic, personal voice. Her versions of the Psalms are wonderfully intimate adaptations of classical Hebrew poetry. David Ferry works a similar transformation in his new edition of The Eclogues of Virgil (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Like his translation of Horace last year, Ferry's Virgil makes accessible to the Latinless reader one of the canonical poetic texts; this is a good way to get acquainted with poems that have influenced all subsequent literature. And Ted Hughes's translation of Aeschylus's The Oresteia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) matches a violent drama with a contemporary master of violence, struggle, and obsession.

The new Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition of Dorothy Parker's Complete Poems is great fun; it includes all the famous rhymes ("Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,/A medley of extemporanea;/And love is a thing that can never go wrong;/And I am Marie of Roumania"), as well as a series of less-known "Hate Songs" on Actors, Bohemians, the Office ("I hate the Office;/It cuts in on my social life"), and other targets. The book also includes her "straight," sentimental poems, mainly in the Edna St. Vincent Millay mode, which show that there was a heart behind the wit.

Finally, 1999 produced several important books of poetry criticism that would be valuable for any library. Randall Jarrell's selected essays, in No Other Book (HarperCollins), are classics of appreciation; there are still no better introductions to Whitman and Frost, Williams and Moore. (Real Jarrell fans will also enjoy Remembering Randall, a short, affectionate memoir by his widow, published by HarperCollins.) John Berryman's scattered writings on Shakespeare, gathered as Berryman's Shakespeare (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), show that this impassioned poet was also a skilled textual and dramatic critic; his insights into the plays and their history are always worth reading. Allen Tate's star is much dimmer than it once was, but the re-publication of his Essays of Four Decades (by ISI Books of Wilmington, Delaware) reminds us that he was one of the best "New Critics," skilled at the minute analysis of texts and very intelligent about such larger issues as "Tension in Poetry" and "The Function of the Critical Quarterly." And though his lamentable essays about the glories of the antebellum South will find few supporters today, they are still interesting reading, if only as relics of a bygone intellectual climate.


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