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New translations and collections of modern masters have helped make 1997 a good year for poetry.

By Adam Kirsch

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  This year has been an unusually rich one for readers of poetry. Many of the nation's best poets have published new books, and there have been several noteworthy new translations, biographies, and editions of poets' letters. Here are some of the year's highlights.

The Bounty (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18) is Derek Walcott's first book since winning the Nobel Prize in 1992, and in it he returns to his perennial themes: the West Indies, Europe, and his imaginative relation to each. Walcott is drawn to both the history-soaked atmosphere of Italy ("The foam out on the sparkling strait muttering Montale") and the proud newness of the Caribbean ("It/is nothing, and it is this nothingness that makes it great"); out of the conflict between these much of his poetry is born. The book also contains moving elegies for his mother and for the poet Joseph Brodsky, poems that move beyond sentiment to a kind of ecstatic contentment in the face of death. In the book's long, rich, propulsive lines, Walcott shows again that he is one of the most musical poets now writing.


Robert Pinsky has long been a fixture of the Boston poetry scene; since his appointment as US Poet Laureate, he has become, in a way, the public face of poetry. To coincide with that appointment, Pinsky's The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996 (Noonday Press, $15) has been reissued in paperback. The collection shows that Pinsky's style and concerns have been remarkably consistent over the years: he writes an intelligent, meditative verse, taking on large subjects in Pope-like essay-poems -- "An Explanation of America," "History of My Heart," "Sadness and Happiness," "Essay on Psychiatrists" -- and writing with affection about city life, his childhood, and his Jewishness. For Pinsky, poetry is a tool of investigation, and he makes it serve, he writes, as philosophy's "ally in the service of the good."


A.R. Ammons's new book-length poem, Glare (W.W. Norton, $25), departs from lyric eloquence; with its short, casual lines, it reads more like a diary or an internal monologue, showing us the course of the poet's thoughts over days and months. The issues that confront Ammons as he enters old age are familiar ones, both metaphysical (the absence of God and meaning, the possible destruction of the earth by manmade or cosmic violence) and personal (the approach of death, the loss of potency). In the face of such questions Ammons maintains a note of skeptical, humorous resignation, putting his faith in nature and in writing ("wouldn't it be better to let the words/come out of and go into breakage in/the usual way we, too, come and go"). This attitude in the face of first things, so characteristic of our time, is here given a pure and vigorous expression.


Geoffrey Hill, an English poet who now lives and teaches in Boston, is perhaps the last important poet to write in a high modernist idiom: his lines are knotty with ambiguities, Latinate diction, and abstruse literary and historical references. In Canaan (Houghton Mifflin, $21), Hill sees the contemporary world as the biblical land of iniquity; many of the poems here denounce the sins of England ("now of genius/the eidolon -- /unsubstantial yet voiding/substance like quicklime"), of Europe ("the high-minded/base-metal forgers of this common Europe,/community of parody"), and of democracy itself ("Wild insolence,/aggregates without/distinction"). His poems always demand as much from the reader as they give in return; but it is this very difficulty that makes many critics think of Hill as today's most intelligent poet.


Jorie Graham, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, has developed a highly personal, idiosyncratic style. Her abiding theme is the longing for perfection, fulfillment, spiritual stillness; in this, she is an heir of T.S. Eliot, whom she often echoes in her new book, The Errancy (Ecco Press, $22). Graham's poems are splintered monologues, in which casual events -- a party, leaves blowing in the wind -- lead her back to the desire for an impossible perfection: "How razor-clean was it supposed to become,/the zero at the core of each of these/mingling with leaves as they fork up in wind . . ./how clean, how denuded of their foliage. . . . " Thick with philosophical and literary allusions, the poems of The Errancy are not easy, nor were they meant to be; but they eloquently set forth Graham's vision of the world as a place where error and wandering (the two implications of the title) conceal a hidden, guessed-at truth.


It will come as no surprise to readers of Frank Bidart that his latest book is called Desire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20). Desire -- in the sense of Romantic longing, as well as sexual passion -- is Bidart's great theme; in poems like "Ellen West" and "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky," he has created characters whose longing for perfection leads them into obsession and madness. In Desire, he returns to this theme with the long poem "The Second Hour of the Night," which tells the story of Myrrha, the mythological princess who slept with her father. Bidart's style -- with its hurried pacing, odd capitalization and punctuation, and irregular line lengths -- is perfectly suited to the story, and he succeeds in drawing the reader into Myrrha's sexual guilt and frenzy.


As Dana Loewy notes in the introduction to her translation of The Early Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert (Hydra Books/Northwestern University Press, $25), the Czech Nobel laureate is still not as well known in America as some of his fellow Eastern Europeans, such as Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert. Loewy's edition ought to change this; in the four early books translated here, Seifert comes across as a funny, passionate, and thoroughly endearing poet. These books appeared in the 1920s, and they show Seifert in the throes of modernism -- there are radical Communist polemics, futurist odes to skyscrapers, Dadaist wordplay and wild typography. But the sensibility that emerges quietly subverts all these fads and dogmas -- witty, humane, and romantic, with a tone reminiscent of Frank O'Hara, Seifert emerges by the end as a wonderful, distinctive voice. Those new to Seifert's poetry should start with this book.


If the poetry of Eastern Europe has become fairly well known here in the last two decades, we are still in the dark about the poetry of East Asia. Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quang Thieu, a major figure in his country, has just been translated into English for first time (The Women Carry River Water: Poems, University of Massachusetts Press, $27.50 hardcover, $13.95 paper) by Boston poet Martha Collins. The surface of Thieu's poetry is deceptively simple; he writes a great deal about his village and family, and uses imagery (clouds and rivers, his mother's hair, his lover's breasts) that would seem too pretty and naive if used by an American writer. Yet if Thieu is frequently sentimental ("Let my childhood smile again in the sun"), he also has a strong comic and satirical streak, as well as a taste for surrealism (in one poem, "my navel cord/. . . . became an earthworm/. . . . Pushing up red earth in its path like blood"); and he writes movingly about the grinding poverty of Vietnamese peasants and the loneliness of exile. In Collins's translation, he speaks out directly and forcefully.


Between 1968 and 1993, Audre Lorde published 11 books of poetry, which have now been brought together in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (W.W. Norton, $35). One doesn't have to read very far to get a sense of Lorde's twin themes -- anger toward the Establishment (most whites and males, the military, the government, the media, and so forth) and a sense of fellowship with her allies (women, lesbians, blacks, and the poor). Lorde's brand of scattershot denunciation ("obscene priests/finger and worship each other in secret/and think they are praying when they squat/to shit money-pebbles shaped like their parents' brains") may generate more heat than light; but the volume bears witness to an era, and to a style of radical politics that is fast disappearing.


Rainer Maria Rilke, like Yeats, was a poet who had to struggle to forge a mature style. Before publishing the symbolically titled New Poems in 1907, Rilke undertook a long intellectual apprenticeship, whereby he learned to replace his early virtuosity with a more objective, tempered style. In the diaries he kept from 1898 to 1900, now translated for the first time as Diaries of a Young Poet (W.W. Norton, $27.50), we see him struggling with this development. Rilke writes an ornate, sometimes feverish prose and skips from one subject to the next -- quattrocento art, Nietzschean philosophy, personal acquaintances, drafts of stories and poems -- but the overall impression is that of a genius just coming into his powers. The title suggests a similarity to Rilke's famous Letters to a Young Poet, which is misleading; these diaries were never meant for publication, which is clear throughout. But they add a valuable new dimension to our understanding of Rilke and his poetic growth.


The selected letters of Hart Crane, recently published in an excellent new edition (O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, edited by Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber, Four Walls Eight Windows, $35), perform a similar function for that arch-romantic poet. Crane's letters are exceptionally rich; they contain passionate defenses of his poetry to critics such as Harriet Monroe, Yvor Winters, and Allen Tate, as well as documents of friendships and rivalries, financial crises and literary success. We tend to think of Crane as a passionate naif, and certainly that image comes through here; but we also see him as an earnest critic of poetry, with a range of literary friendships. This correspondence has a drama that few poets' letters provide.


Wallace Stevens's collected poems have long been available from Vintage, but the new Library of America edition of Stevens's work (Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose, edited by Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson, $35) adds some interesting rarities: uncollected poems, abstract Kabuki-like plays, early drafts (including an early version of "The Comedian as the Letter C" titled "From the Journal of Crispin"), essays and speeches, and excerpts from the poet's notebook. And, as always, the Library of America edition is beautifully bound and printed, making it the ideal Stevens book for any poetry library.


Adam Kirsch will be spending a snowless holiday season in Washington, D.C.


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