Although his intentions were, in all likelihood, good, Ralph Waldo Emerson did little to increase the palatability of poetry when he called it "nothing less than divine communication." This was sky-high praise, but it only served to reinforce the old clichés that make the genre seem so intimidating—namely, that poetry is the loftiest type of literature, that its authors breathe a rarer air than the rest of us, that a poem is a morass of meaning and metaphor, to be unraveled instead of read.
In an effort to de-mystify the form, the Academy of American Poets began promoting the genre a decade ago through National Poetry Month, which features a wide range of readings and educational activities each April. In honor of this annual literary event, BookPage is spotlighting new collections by three of America's most esteemed poets.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic came to the U.S. at the age of 16 from his native Yugoslavia, and the selections in his new book My Noiseless Entourage bear traces of his immigrant experience. The narrator of many of these poems is something of a bemused outsider, a tragic figure not quite at home in his surroundings, who nevertheless maintains a sharp sense of humor and an awareness of the ironies of human existence. Simic's subjects insomnia, the absurdity of talk radio, dreams, a dice game underscore this quality. Inquisitive in spirit, the collection as a whole documents a quest for larger meaning: "To our Lord who has withdrawn/Into a corner with his wounds/I say, That world out there is a riddle even you can't solve," observes the narrator of "Ask Your Astrologer." A similar sentiment forms the basis for "The Absentee Landlord," a list of complaints against God, who has abandoned man in a world where nothing works/And everything needs fixing. These are themes of large proportions, but Simic renders them in miniature. His poems are often designed on a relatively small scale three or four trim stanzas, tops and his verses are brief yet radiant with meaning. In My Noiseless Entourage, he proves once again to be a poet of remarkable precision, a writer whose wisdom and range are nothing short of revelatory.
With Jack and Other New Poems, Maxine Kumin offers her 14th collection, a volume characterized by wistful meditations on time and memory as the author, now 80 years old and a widow, looks back on the past. Kumin lives alone on a horse farm in New Hampshire, and her work brims with images of the wild foxes, pines and hemlocks, summer hay that clings to everything like a rumor. Death is commonplace on her homestead, and quiet, elegiac pieces such as "The Apparition" and Requiem on I-89, tributes to the passing of animals, are prevalent in the book.
In revealing self-portraits like "Widow and Dog," the poet bears witness to the changing of the seasons, as nature, to an increasing degree, infiltrates her daily life: "That summer it just seemed simpler to leave the window/by the bird feeder open . . . once in a thunderstorm a barred owl blundered/into that fake crystal chandelier she had always detested." With a no-frills delivery and lines as crisp as the winter landscape she favors, Kumin's poetry is free of posturing and refreshingly direct.
Like Kumin, poet Jack Gilbert now 79 is motivated by nostalgia and retrospection, and he presents an intense, artfully wrought group of poems in Refusing Heaven. The work of a writer who, after a long and remarkable life, is unwilling to relinquish his hold on the world, these poems represent a taking stock, a coming to terms with personal history. Although the poet recognizes mortality like a cello inside him, he still feels greed of time, of being. In "Burning (Andante Non Troppo)," he acknowledges life's impermanence—"We are all burning in time, but each is consumed/at his own speed and emphasizes the importance of pausing, of stopping to see and to savor: It is the pace of our living/that makes the world available."
Appropriately enough, the poems contrast the past with the present, youth with age, health with infirmity. They also touch down in exotic settings, including Greece, Korea and Italy, where the author has lived over the years. Gilbert successfully captures the glitter and mystery of these locales, writing about them with a decided elegance of expression. Regardless of age, he is in complete command of his gifts, producing poems of luminous beauty and earnest intent. A three-line selection called "Metier" serves as the perfect punctuation to Gilbert's latest collection: "The Greek fishermen do not/play on the beach and I don't/write funny poems."