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Poetry, both new and old, for the word lovers on your list

By Graham Christian

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Poetry is a fabulous beast, like Argus of Greek myth: it looks in many directions at once, and never sleeps; it brings us news that never stales. For all the fretting that readers and writers have done over the future of literature, the last few years have seen an astonishing production of poetry new and old, from John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, Louise Glück, and Mark Strand, not to mention new editions of Frost, Stevens, Eliot, and Dickinson. Here are a few of the recent and less familiar dispatches from the many tireless witnesses to American literary life, for you or your favorite reader.

Perhaps the most astonishing poet to appear in the English language recently is 1996 Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska, whose Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997 (Harcourt Brace, 320 pages, $27) has been published in a translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. A student of science and Baroque French verse, Szymborska consistently discovers laughter in tears, and reason to rejoice in an unreasoned, even meaningless existence: "And [nature] does permit a fish to fly,/deft and defiant . . . But the best is that/she somehow missed the moment when a mammal turned up/with its hand miraculously feathered by a fountain pen." As our own language increasingly becomes a battlefield of political and cultural stances, Szymborska's Polish-born clarity, confidence, and wit reinvent the vocation and meaning of poetry for everyone who reads her.

This year has also seen the publication of Appalachia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 64 pages, $20), the last volume of Charles Wright's three trilogies. Wright, whose Black Zodiac just netted him the Pulitzer Prize, has produced poems in Appalachia that are equal to their predecessors. His marvelously distinctive style is rich, accessible, and flowing; with it, he confronts the difficult seasons of experience: "Winter is in us./Hard to be faithful to summer's bulge and buzz/in such a medicine . . . All the world's noise, all its hubbub and din,/now chill and a glaze." Wright's mind is one of the most profound at work in poetry today.

One of the poets Wright loves and invokes is the Italian Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale, whose Collected Poems 1920-1954 has just appeared in a splendid translation by Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor Jonathan Galassi (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 600 pages, $40). In the obliquely autobiographical lyrics of his great middle period, Montale found the restorative voice, images, and experiences that had eluded T.S. Eliot in the brokenness of The Waste Land: "In the spark that flared/I was new, and ashes." Montale, who has been ably translated by Wright, William Arrowsmith, and Robert Lowell, among others, has been rewarded in Galassi with not only a translator but an ardent student, and his version is a boon to the English-speaking reader.

Even poetry, ever the refuge of the outsider, has its outsiders, and two of these have published worthy books recently. Kenneth Rosen's No snake, no paradise (Ascensius Press, 625 Forest Avenue, Portland, ME 04101, 207-780-1288, 60 pages, $10) ably displays the curious light his droll mind casts on contemporary life, where "there's more to think than to believe." It is a procession of sad stories told in verbal wisecracks and pratfalls. Edward Field's A Frieze for a Temple of Love (Black Sparrow Press, 200 pages, $27.50) gathers the recent poems, translations, and diary jottings of this most unpoetic of poets, whose "rescue from incoherence" at its best has the unfussed intelligence and plain expressiveness of a portrait photograph.

Another poet who famously distrusted poetry, yet found a solution to the dilemma that could scarcely have been more different from Field's simplicities, was the great modernist Marianne Moore, whose The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore (Knopf, 608 pages, $35) appeared last year. Friend and correspondent of Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop, and many others, Moore is revealed to us more completely here than perhaps ever before, yet she remains elusive. How did this Presbyterian exemplar of rigor, exactitude, and filial devotion become one of the midwives of the literature of our century? She loved language and letter-writing, and her correspondence is an abiding pleasure, the unconscious autobiography of a remarkable mind.

Persea Press has recently issued a new selection from the poetry of another American woman who, like Moore, had an immense and underestimated influence on the direction of literature in this century: Laura Riding. Riding's infamous and disastrous love affair with Robert Graves has unfortunately overshadowed her strange, piquant, and unforgettable poems; editor Robert Nye's A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding (Persea Press, 163 pages, $12.95) shows Riding at her best: "The wind suffers of blowing,/The sea suffers of water,/And fire suffers of burning,/And I of a living name."

All literary prizes, by their nature, are surrounded by gossip, infighting, and controversy, but from time to time they hit their mark. Few of the poets who have been awarded MacArthur Fellowships thus far have been more worthy than 1998 winner Linda Bierds, whose The Profile Makers: Poems (Henry Holt, 80 pages, $12.95), like its predecessor, The Ghost Trio, movingly makes the past a necessary prelude and lesson for our own experience -- as her poem about William Wordsworth's sister Dorothy asserts, "all we have passed through sustains us." Amy Gerstler, whose Bitter Angel won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991, has just published Crown of Weeds (Penguin, 96 pages, $14.95), perhaps her most striking volume yet. Gerstler shares with Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith the ability to make us laugh through our discomfort: "I was brought here to recover/my presence of mind--/a pear-scented essence/which slipped through my fingers/like disobedient lotion."

Since November 11 marked the 80th anniversary of the first Armistice Day, it seems a good time to remember British poet and composer Ivor Gurney, whose gradual physical deterioration and descent into madness after a gassing at Paschendaele was as great a loss to literature as the deaths of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. George Walter's new selection of his verse, Ivor Gurney (Everyman Paperback Classics, 108 pages, $1.95), ably demonstrates the singular music, remarkable experimentalism, and profound feeling of an outstanding poet: "What did they expect of our toil and extreme/Hunger -- the perfect drawing of a heart's dream? . . . Out of the heart's sickness the spirit wrote/For delight, or to escape hunger, or of war's worst anger."

And if none of these please, you could do very much worse than to pick up The Best American Poetry 1998, now in its 10th year under the diligent general editorship of David Lehman (Touchstone, 320 pages, $14), which includes many of the poets discussed here and many more besides. Necessarily provisional and subjective, it remains a fascinating overview of the hundreds of vigilant, insightful poets at work in America today.


Graham Christian will spend this holiday season in Somerville, writing the screenplay for a Muppet version of Howl.


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