Some people don’t believe that April should be devoted to rejoicing in ars poeticae. An early advocate of National Poetry Month, the late poet William Matthews, disagreed. Furthermore, he reminded practitioners that “the work of the body becomes a body of work.” Nothing of poets lives on except their lines.
Memorable lines are bewilderingly ubiquitous in FSG’s centennial birthday gift of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems. Enough has been written about this extraordinary writer to hide her entire adopted country of Brazil from the map, but who mentions Bishop’s wonderful sense of humor? Consider one of the gem-like mottos in “Songs for a Colored Singer,” i.e. Billie Holiday: “I’m going to go and take the bus / and find someone monogamous.”
Like Matthews and Bishop, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins recognizes the value of humor, music and sensuous pleasures, all fleeting, but none more so than that which springs from writing itself. Collins’ poems often close on a down note, making the rest of the poem resonate in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible; and his most recent book, Horoscopes for the Dead, contains a microcosmic example. Reflecting on the “little time nearly every day” spent “on a gray wooden dock,” Collins concludes with the disappearance of nearly everything, not to mention himself: “gone are my notebook and my pencil / and there I go, too, / erased by my own eraser and blown like shavings off the page.”
Another important event this month is the publication of Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems. Previous National Poetry Month columns enumerated his many and varied efforts on behalf of poetry not his own, so the very appearance of this carefully honed volume shines all the more brightly. In one of the entries, “Gulf Music,” Pinsky has written arguably the best poem about Katrina by choosing instead the 1900 Galveston hurricane as his subject. No one even knows the precise number of people who lost their lives in that unnamed horror, and the disjunctions of “Gulf Music” mirror perfectly its anonymous chaos and clashes: “After so much renunciation / And invention, is this the image of the promised end? / All music haunted by the music of the dead forever.”
The latest work from Major Jackson, Holding Company, possesses a treasure of notable poems and qualities. The collection is composed of strict 10-line curtal sonnets. Pre-empted by another reviewer in terming these poems “dark” and “wrenching,” I’d venture much further: Holding Company is the best book of Jackson’s career, combining lyricism and wide-ranging intellect not unlike Pinsky’s with something all his own. Lines nearly vibrate off any page in Holding Company—think of the levels of meaning contained in the title itself—but here are four particularly riveting ones: “Sartre said: man is condemned to be free. / I believe in the dead who claim to believe in me— / says, too, the missing and forgotten. Day darkens / on. I hear our prayers rising. I sing to you now.” Sing amen, somebody.