Verse convergence: Dozen days bring five poets to town

March 04, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor 1/8 1/8 TC

Let's see . . . five poets. Among them, two Nobel Prizes and two Pulitzers. The last three American poet laureates.

That's the feast -- and the dilemma -- facing Baltimore poetry lovers in the next two weeks. For in the short space of 12 days, five of the best-known poets in the world will be appearing in the area.

There's Joseph Brodsky, the winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature and poet laureate from 1991-1992, who will be reading at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Monday night.

On Tuesday, it's a triple-header. Mona Van Duyn, the current poet laureate and winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for poetry with "Near Changes," and 1986 Pulitzer winner Henry Taylor will share the platform at Howard Community College at a reading at 7:30 p.m. A half hour later, Mark Strand, the 1990-1991 poet laureate, is scheduled to read at Johns Hopkins University.

And the following week, Derek Walcott, the current Nobel winner, will be appearing at a daylong series of events at Villa Julie College. On March 19, he will attend a performance of his play "Pantomime" and also will meet twice with students, at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

No wonder that for some, the thought of this massing of the muses is overwhelming.

"I think you're getting a real brainstorm" was the assessment of the lineup by Mr. Brodsky, reached by phone at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where he teaches. "Those are some very talented people."

"It's an incredible convergence of poets of the most diverse gifts, voices and landscapes," said poet Elizabeth Spires, who teaches at Hopkins and at Goucher College. "Auden once said that 'poetry makes nothing happen,' but anybody who disbelieves that should hear these people."

"This is a very good argument against anyone who talks about the decline of poetry," said Baltimore poet Daniel Mark Epstein. "Walcott and Brodsky, whom I greatly admire, are as good as any poet to come along since World War II. This is a real opportunity to see poetry at its most exciting."

Mr. Brodsky said that although he has the reputation as one who gives especially expressive readings, he doesn't always enjoy giving them.

"That's because you feel like a parrot very often," he said. "After you've read a poem three or four times, it loses something."

Mr. Taylor has a different philosophy -- he likes them and doesn't mind dressing them up a bit.

He created something of a splash the last time he read for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, which is sponsoring this year's reading as well. It was in September 1986, a few months after he had won the Pulitzer for "The Flying Change," and he conducted his reading from a horse, so better to bring out the volume's frequent allusions to horses and country life.

This time, there is another twist. Although Mr. Taylor and Ms. Van Duyn have been friends for more than 30 years, Monday night's reading will be the first time they will share a stage, he said.

Mr. Taylor, who teaches writing at American University, noted with a laugh that, as host of the reading, he will introduce his friend -- "I think of myself as a warm-up." But he quickly added, "I'm looking forward to it. I admire Mona tremendously. There's a surface attractiveness to her poetry that is to some readers enough, but she has an ability -- like somebody like Andrew Wyeth in art -- to work miraculous things below the surface. She has an astonishing gift for bringing the unique moment out of the ordinary. An apparently small thing happens and it becomes a poem that sticks in the mind."

Mr. Strand, who teaches at the University of Utah, is the only poet of the five not to have won a Nobel or Pulitzer prize, but he is highly regarded nonetheless.

"I admire Mark Strand greatly," Mr. Brodsky said. "He's wonderful about switching -- when the pressure builds up in a poem, he can switch to the abstract so easily."

As for Mr. Walcott's appearance at Villa Julie, it will be an opportunity to show off his talents as a dramatist. The West Indian-born writer is best known as a poet, and a great one -- "Omeros," his 1990 opus that retold Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" in a Caribbean setting, was almost universally received as a magnificent work. But he also has written close to two dozen plays, including "Pantomime," about a fading British music-hall performer who runs a Caribbean resort with a calypso singer.

Mr. Walcott is going to Villa Julie partly at the behest of Richard Montgomery, a professor of design in the college's Theater and Video Department, who is looking forward to seeing an old friend again.

"I've talked to Derek by phone, but I haven't met him since the event [winning the Nobel Prize in Literature] in October," Mr. Montgomery said. "But he's the same person. He's somebody that's totally without pretense, and has little time for being the genius with a capital G."

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