national poetry month  
National Poetry Month

  We have spun around the calendar once again to April, National Poetry Month, days of warmer rain and brighter sun, and of course the usual, agonizing mishandlings of the opening line of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, "April is the cruelest month". National Poetry Month is very much an institutional recognition of poetry, an opportunity for publishers to market, bookmongers to vend, schools to instruct, organizations to publicize, and poets to either flee or embrace the abundance of attention. It provides an opportunity for assessment and reflection, to ask the "overwhelming" questions (Eliot would advise, "Oh, do not ask"): where is poetry headed, what does it mean to the culture at large, what can it be in years to come? The five poets presented by Bold Type this month are one answer among many. It is a long view (though Auden urged graduating Harvard students in 'Under What Lyre' to "take short views"). It looks back over a half-century of American poetry and ventures one prophecy for the future.

James Merrill is the "man of the hour," as entertainment journalists are fond of declaring. It is rare that a poet ever receives as much press, particularly for a book, even a Collected, published five years after his death (fifteen, perhaps, fifty, yes, but five almost seems too soon). It is every bit deserved in Merrill's case. To have succeeded as a poet in America, and to have done so on so many levels, is a great achievement, one entirely deserving of so much mainstream flash and glitter. Avoiding the more commonly selected of his poems, I have decided on two that have meant a great deal to me over the years. I believe that this plays to Merrill's strengths. Although certain poems tend to be more often anthologized, such as 'Lost in Translation' and 'Days of 1964', each reader will come upon one or two among the hundreds that strikes a very personal note. I read 'After Greece' one summer in England before traveling to Greece for the first time, and thoughts of the poem, its sense of wandering through culture, of joining history and art with private reflection, altered my experience entirely. Merrill, like many fortunate souls, spent most of his summers in Greece, and the air and sun of the golden isles blow across the page as if distilled there to be released with every reading. Of course it is not simply an evocation of such landscapes. Rather, Merrill adopts the initial physical sensations derived from Greece as a means of exploring history and our relation to it. I first encountered the stunning poem 'Manos Karastefanìs' in the long-awaited Selected Poems of Merrill, published in England in the mid-nineties by Michael Schmidt at Carcanet Press. The final stanza, its simplicity and emotional beauty unhampered by sentimentalism, has stayed with me for years.

Widely thought to have written the best American poem on the subject of the Second World War, '"More Light! More Light!"', Anthony Hecht represents a generation of poets that sought to meet Europe and its traditions on equal footing, imbuing their poetry with historical weight and formal refinement. If, as Harold Bloom has suggested, Merrill is the Mozart of American poetry, surely Hecht could be considered the Gustav Mahler, sweeping and dark, shepherding tradition while always driving toward a profound vision. Hecht's art is one of emotionally-inflected historical discernment, his light that of Michaelangelo when that master set out to envision God as a separation of light from darkness. As editor of the Oxford Quarterly a half decade ago, I published Anthony Hecht's magnificent poem on the subject of music, 'An Orphic Calling', which will appear in his forthcoming collection, The Darkness and the Light, from Knopf this summer. It is my pleasure to again publish, this time online, his poem 'The Hanging Gardens of Tyburn'. These "hanging gardens" are very different from the lush mythical ones of Babylon. The wonders of the ancient world are given an entirely different cast of shadow and light in the poem, a perfect example of Hecht's dedication to grand historical and moral topics, accompanied by his own notes.

Anne Carson remains among the most uniformly fascinating poets writing in English today (this is partly because it isn't even clear that what she is writing is merely poetry). After the widely-read and critically-esteemed Autobiography of Red, a formational novel in verse, her Men in the Off Hours proved bewilderingly complex to many. This is due to the fact that no one had ever read anything like it before. True innovators are generally overlooked or even shunned in their own ages. Her new book, which she describes as "a fictional essay in 29 tangos", again defies genre in an authentic and compelling way. No critic has yet come forward with a convincing explanation of her metrical resolutions or the deeper implications of her figurative layering. A coolly-expressionistic facade results from her balancing of remarkably ductile metrical configurations against a dry classical diction. Her grasp of ancient languages and philosophy (she is a classicist) and history place her firmly with the modernist masters of the first half of the century, T.S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, Virginia Woolf, and Ezra Pound. Her grasp of evolving technology, linguistic theory, and well-wrought irony place her also as an unlikely postmodernist, one who has drunk deeply of the Pierian spring, learned from the theoretical divagations of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and even the post-cubist dementia of the Concrete poets, to emerge as an entirely unique one-woman vanguard.

W.S. Di Piero couldn't be much further afield from the other poets presented here this month. His work is strongly embedded in childhood recollection, thought recollected in tranquility, the locales and emotional colorings of his boyhood in south Philadelphia. He exemplifies an American poetics unconcerned with experimentalism, content to sustain the concentrated lyrical phrasings of Emily Dickinson as well as the more rugged, colloquial grains of Robert Frost and John Updike. His poems strongly evoke specific locations and the lives that are lived there, the corner bar, the betting shop, the household, the street. The title of his new collection, Skirts and Slacks, imparts the sense of a more innocent era in America's history that is not so far gone, that is still remembered strongly by those who lived through it. Less densely-constructed than Hecht or wildly-allusive than Carson, his poems employ an unclouded syntactical development and vernacular charm, which have earned him a devoted readership across the US.

Having covered four established figures of contemporary poetry, the accomplished canonical poems of James Merrill, the staid rococo masterworks of Anthony Hecht, the refractory and extravagant new classicism of Anne Carson, the informal and intimate portraits of childhood of W.S. Di Piero, we look finally at a young, newly published poet, Richard Meier, whose Terrain Vague was selected for the first annual Verse Prize for Poetry by Tomaz Salamun. The original publications of the poems in the collection read like a list of recommended journals in the US: Fence, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, LIT, Slope, Western Humanities Review, and others of such caliber. Michael Martone has written "the resources available to Richard Meier are encyclopedic and his ability to marshal such senses and sounds is stunning." As a promising new kid on Parnassus, we expect music from his freshly-strung lyre, or newly recharged PowerBook, as the case may well be, for decades to come.

--Ernest Hilbert

(Want to hear more of your favorite poets reading from their work? You can also check out the Voice of the Poets site with Randall Jarrell, John Ashbery and others.)
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