12 bucks for the best in Yankee poets

Monday Book Reviews

March 07, 1994|By H. B. Johnson Jr.

SIX AMERICAN POETS. Edited by Joel Conarroe. Vintage

Books/Random House. 281 pages. $12.

TC I FINALLY did it! I finally got through a book that otherwise would not have been a chore. I have AIDS, you see. The eyes burn, and I get too quickly tired. But enough about that. I want to talk about something more life-giving and life-sustaining. I want to talk about poetry.

The wife of a dear friend of mine sent me a delicious meal last week, and his son sent me a collection of books. I consumed everything with gratitude. Among the books was "Six American Poets."

Revelations: I did not know that Emily Dickinson, though she was an intellectual, never read Walt Whitman after she was told he was a disgrace. I did not know that Whitman was more at home with "unlettered laborers" than "learned astronomers," that William Carlos Williams was a classmate of Ezra Pound's, that Robert Frost's first book ("A Boy's Will") was published in England, that Wallace Stevens' obsession with order extended across the entire blanket of his life and that Langston Hughes' father hated blacks.

On the last point I must pause. The reader is treated to a somewhat lazy analysis of Hughes' father which does not take into account the times in which he lived. Much of his son's work attempts to destroy the image of blacks as shiftless, dishonest and infantile. It's hard to believe that the father who gave us Langston Hughes could simply hate blacks -- or whites, for that matter. Distrust, maybe . . . but not hate.

That point aside, here's Whitman at his best: "I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of/ hopeful green stuff woven." Or: "Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,/ You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)/ You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,/ You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,/ You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self."

Dickinson is her incredibly calm and brave self: "Surgeons must be very careful/ When they take the knife!/ Underneath their fine incisions/ Stirs the Culprit -- LIFE!"

Stevens is orderly, Carlos honorably local, Frost beats imperialism to death, and Langston take your breath!

"Sometimes a crumb falls

"From the tables of joy,

"Sometimes a bone

"Is flung."

It is the duty of the poet (if indeed he or she has a duty at all, a duty beyond passing through like a sweet and honest whisper, no matter how bitter the subject) to help with the endless repair of the bridge of change. The poet also demonstrates, often building new windows around old beauties.

"Six American Poets" is an anthology that brings that fact to bear. It is a book rich in biographical facts about each poet (though not so lengthy that it becomes tiresome), and it is fat with the most extraordinary poetry I've read. It sells for 12 American dollars, and I assure you your 12 bucks will be well-spent.

As Wallace Stevens said, "I have nothing to declare except my genius."

H.B. Johnson Jr. is a Baltimore poet and playwright. His prize-winning play, "Smooth Disappointment," will be rebroadcast at 11 a.m. Saturday on WMAR-TV, Channel 2.

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