Annual anthology shows poetry as counterpoint to official version of reality

December 20, 1992|By Stephen Margulies

THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY, 1992.

Edited by Charles Simic

and David Lehman.

Scribner's.

263 pages. $25.

"Every day men die from the lack of it . . . " said physician and poet William Carlos Williams. He could have been referring to an adequate diet, for instance. He certainly had lusty sympathy for the poor people he treated. But Williams was referring to poetry. Like physician and writer Anton Chekhov, Williams knew and felt the dangerous grittiness of life. Like Chekhov, he did not loll about on the narrow top of an ivory tower. He knew from experience that poetry is as necessary for our health as good food.

It is not surprising that in the recently passed period of dogmatic greed and glib selfishness that critic Jonathan Yardley should cynically defend his position of never reviewing poetry on the ground that poetry does not sell. Surely one feels a tender gust of hope with the news that Maya Angelou has been commissioned to write and recite a poem for Bill Clinton's inauguration. The inevitable comparison with Robert Frost and John Kennedy is both thrilling and sobering: Mr. Clinton may or may not be our savior; but at least he does not believe -- unlike some U.S. presidents -- that language is his personal enemy.

For anyone who wants to take the poetry cure, one could do worse than collect "The Best American Poetry" anthologies. Published annually since 1988, each is edited by a first-rate poet. David Lehman, the editor of the series, should be commended for the quality and variety of the editors. "The Best American Poetry, 1992" is edited by one of my favorite American poets, Yugoslavia-born Charles Simic, whose own work is both wild and clear.

And yet I bridle a bit at the boast of this series of anthologies that it contains the best for each represented year. In the relative adventurousness of its choices, it stands between the academic priggishness of Helen Vendler's "Harvard Anthology of American Poetry" and the untamed "beatnik glory" of Andrei Codrescu's "Up Late." "The Best American Poetry, 1992" is a generous anthology that proves Charles Simic's claim in his introduction that "poetry is doing fine." But there is a lot of scuzzy American glory left out.

The problem may be that there are too many enjoyable but pallid poets here who do indeed prove Mr. Simic's point that "there's more than a little of the Puritan diarist in our poets." Why not publish a diary then? But Mr. Simic admirably contradicts this anemic slice-of-life-ism by claiming: "Poetry is always the cat concert under the window of the room in which the official version of reality is being written."

Quite rightly, Mr. Simic glories in the innocently outrageous variety of American poetry, as impossibly various as America itself, where English aristocrats and Stone Age tribes gleefully influence each other. As Mr. Simic says, America is where human beings constantly re-invent themselves. For this exercise in the alchemy of imagination, a diary just is not enough. Astonishment is what we have for breakfast.

To a certain degree, Mr. Simic's anthology does live up to the madly thriving fact of America. It contains 75 poems by 75 poets, most of whom are highly readable. They are a canny mix of known and unknown writers.

Unlike more academic anthologies, "The Best" culls work not just from the New Yorker and Poetry but also from dozens of little magazines. Although little magazines have limited circulation, they offer some of the best and bravest writing in the country. The prose commentaries at the back of the book by each poet on his or her own work are sometimes as moving as the poems. Such commentary can be as real and as shockingly undusty as your grandparents' just-discovered love letters. And like those love letters, they may transform the partly drab into the wholly undrab.

"The Best" is really a very entertaining book, and I can quote only a few of the poets I found to be more than entertaining -- to be almost wild enough, as alive as hope.

Jorie Graham gives a feeling of push and strength and exploring flight that few other American poets have. In "Manifest Destiny," she roars through her memories of a dead lover, of Rome, of dead golden light, as past and present whirl together.

Adrienne Rich is our feminist Savonarola and she can make us burn. Her fire scorches and exalts her listeners and she almost alone has a valid if cruel epic voice. "For a Friend in Travail" sings of "how victims save their own lives."

Relatively unknown, Lynda Schraufnagel (who died recently at 40) gives us a trial by funkiness, a vitally weary, broken-neon-sign account of drugs and Vietnam veterans and working at diners and the guilt of refusing guilt, the numb shame of denying mercy -- ". . . it was nothing I'd ever have to enter, nothing anyone could pin on me." In the commentary, Richard Howard laments the loss of "her manic glee in assuming the mask of a scornful dyke."

From the lonesome flip funkiness of Schraufnagel to the wise grandeur of John Hollander, C. K. Williams, and Baltimore poet Elizabeth Spires, Mr. Simic has chosen a sound range of healthy American weirdness. I liked the love poems best, such as that by Robin Behn -- yes, Americans are capable of love, despite what grudging Europeans say! Hayden Carruth can kill you with the truth of: "Death may come in many forms, they say, but truly, it comes in only one, which is the end of love." So: read poetry and learn to love! (Like President-elect Clinton?)

Mr. Margulies is a poet and a curator at the Bayly Art Museum of the University of Virginia.

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