A thing of beauty, a joy forever -- and neglected

April 20, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

YUSEF Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize this week, but he does not expect to become a household name, and not because his name itself, phonetically simple once parsed out bit by bit, looks at first glance so unpronounceable.

Mr. Komunyakaa won the prize for poetry, and there is little premium in poetry in a world that thinks of Pound and Whitman as a weight and a sampler, not an Ezra, a Walt, a thing of beauty, a joy forever.

It's hard to figure out why this should be true, why poetry has been shunted onto a siding at a time, a place, so in need of brevity and truth. We still use the word as a synonym for a kind of lovely perfection, for an inspired figure skater, an accomplished ballet dancer.

Many of the finest books children read when young are poetry: "The Cat in the Hat," "Goodnight Moon," the free verse of "Where the Wild Things Are."

And then suddenly, just as their faces lose the soft curves of babyhood, the children harden into prose, and leave verse behind, or reject it entirely. Their summer reading lists rarely include poetry, only stories; "The Red Badge of Courage," not Mr. Komunyakaa's spare and evocative poems about his hitch in Vietnam:

He danced with tall grass

for a moment, like he was swaying

with a woman. Our gun barrels

glowed white-hot.

When I got to him,

a blue halo

of flies had already claimed him.

For some of those children who once were lulled to sleep by the rhythms of Seuss and Sendak, poetry comes now set to music: Nirvana and Arrested Development, Tori Amos and the Indigo Girls. Many readers are scared off young, put off by the belief that poetry is difficult and demanding. We complain that it doesn't sound like the way we talk, but if it sounds like the way we talk, we complain that it doesn't rhyme.

A poet who teaches in the schools tells of how one boy told him he couldn't, wouldn't write poetry. Then one day in class he heard Hayden Carruth's "Cows at Night" and cried, "I didn't know we were allowed to write poems about cows."

Or to write a poem about two women talking in the kitchen:

Crazy as a bessy bug.

Jack wasn't cold

In his grave before

She done up & gave all

The insurance money

To some young pigeon

Who never hit a lick

At work in his life.

He cleaned her out & left

With Donna Faye's girl.

Honey, hush. You don't

Say . . . That's Mr. Komunyakaa, from the collection, "Neon Vernacular," that won the Pulitzer. His publisher originally printed 2,500 copies, which is fairly large for poetry but a joke to the folks who stock those racks at the airport. Few are the parents who leap up with soundless joy when a son or daughter announces, "Mom, Dad, I've decided to become a poet."

People who are knowledgeable about poetry sometimes discuss it in that knowing, rather hateful way in which enophiles talk about wine: robust, delicate, muscular. This has nothing to do with how most of us experience it, the heart coming around the corner and unexpectedly running into the mind. Of all the words that have stuck to the ribs of my soul, poetry has been the most filling. Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, the divine W.B. Yeats. April is the cruellest month. O World, I cannot hold thee close enough! After the first death, there is no other. A terrible beauty is born.

Poems are now appearing on posters in subway trains; one commuter said of a Langston Hughes poem, "I can't express it, but I get it." Now rolling through the soot-black dark of the tunnels and the surprising sunshine where the subways suddenly shoot aboveground: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Audre Lord, May Swenson, Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote that exquisite evocation of carpe diem, and perhaps of poetry, too:

Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.

And be it gash or gold it will not come

Again in this identical disguise.

Says Mr. Komunyakaa, who teaches, "I never really approached it from the perspective of making a living. It was simply a need."

Maybe it's a need for us all and we just forget it, as we move past bedtime-story rhythms and into a world without rhyme or reason.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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