Wordsworth still picks the winners

Books on poetry

August 22, 1999|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Looking over a mountain of poetry books published in 1999, I'm struck by the relevance of one that came out in 1798: "The Lyrical Ballads," by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordworth's introduction -- in its time truly revolutionary -- boils down to this: poems should surprise readers out of their complacency, speak "ordinary language" and stay away from cliches. Wordsworth provides a handy three-prong tool for digging through the mountain.

* Surprising the reader: Let's start with non-complacency. Which books climb Emily Dickinson's "stairway of surprise"?

It's a surprise when people we don't think of as poets come out with an excellent poetry. One such is Michael Ondaatje, probably best known nowadays for the novel on which the successful movie "The English Patient" was based. His new collection, "Handwriting" (Knopf, 80 pages, $22), may startle movie fans into becoming poetry readers.

The poetry of playwright/film writer David Mamet ratchets surprise up to shock. For my money, and I only put my money on poetry that pays off in knowledge of the craft, Mamet's "The Chinaman" (Overlook Press, 73 pages, $19.95) ranks among the best of the batch. When this book's good it's very, very good -- and often horrid too. Here's the title poem in its disquieting entirety:

I am a Mandarin Chinee.

My fingernail is long,

I drink gunpowder tea;

And the wild monkey's song

Delights me in its pain

As his skull is made hot

That I may eat his brain.

See my retainers' lot,

Who expiate the sin

Of their vile birth

Serving the Mandarin.

But what is our pride worth

Who serve as commanded,

Where doth the logic fail?

Some are conceived to heat the monkey's head,

Some to drink tea and to display the fingernail.

Louise Gluck's bone-chilling intelligence surprises like a paper cut. In her latest collection, " Vita Nova" (Ecco, 51 pages, $22), she plays myth against the everyday and renews both. "The Winged Horse," for example, presents a psychological Pegasus in the language of horse breeding.

Another happy surprise: Nikki Giovanni, in the three decades since she marched in the black power vanguard, hasn't lost her groove. "The Wrong Kitchen" leads off "Blues for All the Changes: New Poems" (William Morrow, 96 pages, $15) with a surprising, subversive tenderness and some in-group wordplay (did you know "kitchen" means the fuzz at the nape of the neck that eludes artificial hair-straighteners?).

Rita Dove, in "On the Bus With Rosa Parks" (W. W. Norton, 80 pages, $21), "sees" in surprising ways. "Lady Freedom Among Us" gives us a Dove's-eye vision of a street person observed during Dove's D.C. stint as Poet Laureate of the U.S.: "with her oldfashioned sandals/ with her leaden skirts/ with her stained cheeks and whiskers and heaped up trinkets," she's the Statue of Liberty's alter ego.

* Ordinary language: In America's diverse society, Words-worth's demand that poetry speak "ordinary language" begs the question "whose?" Several new translations respond "Both," offering the original language and English on facing pages.

The "Selected poems" of Argentine literary giant Jorge Luis Borges (Penguin-Putnam, 480 pages, $40), Alexander Coleman, editor, are well-translated from the Spanish to English by a galaxy of poets including Robert Fitzgerald, W. S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, Mark Strand and John Updike. Translators are indentified by tiny initials at the foot of the poem; a translators' index would have helped.

Norman Shapiro's translations of "One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine," a bilingual edition from the University of Chicago Press (312 pages, illustrated, $25) sound more 19th-century than the originals; it's refreshing to run the tongue over the fluid French. For yumminess, savor both the Italian and the facing translations by Sonia Raiziss and others of "Addictive Aversions," Alfredo de Palchi's sexy and only occasionally sophomoric collection.

And consider Mexican-American writer Leroy Quintana's "The Great Whirl of Exile" (Curbstone Press, 59 pages, $12.95). Not a translation, it melts English and Spanish into one another within poems.

I'd like to think Wordsworth meant "of people" when he wrote "the ordinary language of men," but I'm pretty sure he was talking about guys. At least one 1999 collection booms with guy-talk. It's "Poems for the People: 73 Newfound Poems from His Early Years in Chicago," edited by George and Willene Hendrick (Ivan R. Dee, 192 pages, $22.50). "Most never before seen in print," goes the publishers' ballyhoo. No wonder. "Why [demands the poet of the evangelist in "Billy Sunday"] don't you go ... sit by yourself a whole day in a toilet ...think it all over, empty your bowels to a finish, and ask yourself if you ain't about as coarse and crooked a grafter as any of 'em. ..."

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