Why do so many inveterate readers shy away from poetry? If you count yourself as a member of this group, here’s your chance to break away from the book-club clusters whose participants have their noses buried in the latest novel or memoir—for it’s National Poetry Month, a time to celebrate a different genre.
Works in progress
This year we’re lucky enough to have an entirely fresh and fearless exemplar, the largely unknown Pearl London, who made poetry—or, to be more specific, poets—accessible to her students at the New School in Greenwich Village over the course of 25 years. The invited poets were required to bring not completed works but unfinished drafts, even jottings on envelopes, scribbled phrases or anything else that contributed to “works in progress as process.” The astonishing humility of poets who accepted the increasingly coveted summons included Nobel and U.S. poets laureate, as well as National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners. Equally astonishing is the genesis of Poetry in Person: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with America’s Poets: some 100 cassette tapes, a complete catalog and, as editor and transcriber Alexander Neubauer tells us, “file upon file stuffed with copies of the [poets’] manuscripts and drafts” were found in a closet of London’s home after her death in 2003. Winnowing the tapes and papers of 100 poets to the 23 represented in this book was only the beginning of Neubauer’s task; each chapter also includes an introduction that locates the poets’ visits at a specific point in time: “who they were when they arrived at London’s doorstep, what they had written, what was later to come.” If you protest that you don’t live close to a doorstep through which someone like Maxine Kumin or Seamus Heaney is likely to pass, check out the rapidly growing numbers of special events and readings devoted to poetry in your hometown this month. Also take note of Robert Polito, author of the book’s postscript. As the director of the New School’s Writing Program, Polito was London’s boss as well as a participant in Works in Progress, as the seminar came to be known. Polito’s most recent addition to his string of much-lauded titles, a collection of poems called Hollywood and God, has been featured on the web in a variety of forms, including interviews, personal statements and archived audiovisual material. For a sample, go Googling.
One of the most amusing chapters in Poetry in Person represents Robert Hass. His newest publication, The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, has as its anchor “Meditation at Lagunitas,” the poem whose opening lines became, almost overnight, a cultural mantra: “All the new thinking is about thinking / Hence it resembles all the old thinking.” Hass came to London’s class with his thoughts somewhat awry, having mistakenly brought the very first draft of the poem, forgetting its three-line second page and thus having to quote it from memory. In addition to adding to his own canon—see “My Mother’s Nipples” for a jolt—during the past 30-odd years, Hass has worked tirelessly as a translator; and during his tenure in our nation’s capitol, he inaugurated “The Poet’s Choice” series for the Washington Post Book World. Hass’ aesthetic functions like Neubauer’s introductions in Poetry in Person, and perhaps it functions best in triplicate fashion: Whether writing about the maternal body, rendering into the American idiom a piece originally in Polish or turning our attention to a contemporary from our own country, Hass aims, sometimes mercilessly, to give the subject at hand such a real, palpable nature that we sense a new living presence, one demanding our acquaintance, on our doorstep.
A master wordsmith
Easily the best-known and most acclaimed poet with a new book available on shelves today is Derek Walcott, one of those Nobel winners Neubauer mentions as a visitor to London’s classroom. Perhaps coincidentally, White Egrets flows—or beats its wings and flies—more naturally out of Midsummer, the 1984 collection upon which Walcott was laboring at the time of his visit to Works in Progress, than any of his books since then. Nature collides with history, history with nature, with humankind and language acting as go-betweens, and no grander verbal or intellectual magnificence has been seen in our time. Not only does White Egrets convey the masterful wordsmith’s ability to combine near- Elizabethan diction with Caribbean patois and even American slang (“What? You’re going to be Superman at seventy-seven?”), but the collection also serves as a reminder of his dramatic achievements. Among these is The Haitian Trilogy, which resonates all the more tragically in the aftershocks of that country’s horrific earthquake, the effects of which will be felt for at least as long as the slave rebellion and the savage corruption of the Duvalier regimes.
The human element
Andrew Hudgins—who, like Polito and Deborah Digges (see box), represents the younger generation here—has garnered nominations in his prolific career for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. American Rendering: New and Selected Poems gives ample proof for the critical esteem in which his work is widely held. Hudgins’ poems are often funny, hinging on a joke or wisecrack or malapropism, but human nature red in tooth and claw has always been his greatest theme, whether writing about the pain, fear and trauma that are an inevitable part of childhood, or the female victims of a serial killer (“It’s raining women here in Cincinnati”), or the three young men murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer,” repeating and repeating their names, “Goodman, Cheney, Schwerner,” in the difficult litany required by the villanelle.
A light extinguished too soon
The poetry world reeled out of its accustomed orbit last spring when the news traveled that Deborah Digges had committed suicide at the age of 59. Fewer poets have, throughout their careers, been seemingly more life-affirming. We’re lucky to have been left, as part of Digges’ legacy, The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart, a final collection of her work that will be published next month. In beautiful and multilayered poems such as “The Birthing,” we experience, through the poet’s words, not only a calf ’s fraught entrance into the world but also one of the means by which humans seek renewal—“[we] made love toward eternity, / without a word drove slowly home. And loved some more.”
How lucky too that Digges’ work is so readily, personally and manifestly available through audio and video archives—including YouTube, where Digges can be seen and heard reading the aforementioned poem. She also bequeathed to the world two memoirs full of the flora and fauna she loved: Fugitive Spring (1992), focusing on her Missouri childhood, spent largely in the apple orchard outside her house; and The Stardust Lounge (2001), recounting her travels and travails as a mother seeking to give a new life to a troubled son through empathetic immersion in the animal world. For those seeking a personal invitation into Digges’ life, and thus into her poems, these memoirs are doors that will always remain open.
Poet Diann Blakely’s most recent book is Cities of Flesh and the Dead (Elixir Press).