Today, woman power rules the landscape of poetry

The Argument

As National Poetry Month approaches, a gender reversal is evident, with female poets and critics dominating.

March 25, 2001|By Ken Tucker | Ken Tucker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In his shrewd new book "The Strength of Poetry: Oxford Lectures" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages, $25), the poet-critic James Fenton warms up for a crackling essay about Marianne Moore by quoting feminist Germaine Greer on how women in the past "have deified the poet; it was women who fainted when Byron came into a room, who looked for signs of superhumanity in the brow of Wordsworth ... the more women adored poetry, the less able they were to write it."

It struck me, while reading armloads of recently published verse for April, our country's designated National Poetry Month, that Greer's roles may, if anything, have reversed: that women - as poets, critics and editors - are frequently the most-heeded arbiters of poetic excellence.

Nowadays, it is more likely that a man might faint when, say, Jorie Graham walks into a room. Graham - a formidable, much-acclaimed poet with the artistic allure of a baby-boomer siren - is at the center of contemporary poetry. In the current issue of the Paris Review, James Cummins (a witty writer, modern master of the sestina) has a poem titled "To Helen Vendler and Jorie Graham at Harvard" which begins, "I love the way the self-appointed save us."

Cummins is making a serious point while being playful about the importance of Graham and Vendler (the latter as influential a critic as poetry now has; if Vendler signs off on your sonnet sequence in the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, it's like Tony Soprano designating you a "made man," or woman: you're in the Family, baby).

Add to this duo Deborah Garrison, former poetry editor of the New Yorker, current poetry editor of the country's most prestigious place to publish verse, Knopf, and herself the author of a bestselling poetry collection, "A Working Girl Can't Win," and, well, it all suggests that girl-power rules.

The result is, at its best, a mother lode of good poetry. "Louise in Love" (Grove Press, 80 pages, $13), the new second collection from Mary Jo Bang (is that a

poet's name for the new millennium, or what?), is a verse chronicle based loosely on the life of the actress Louise Brooks, in which even the subject's most banal activities give off a pulsing energy of alliteration and internal rhyme:"... Louise was making a fuss / with a feather duster, plumage relieved from a pheasant / She was making a most unpleasant mess / banishing dust motes from light-laden beams."

Both Jane Hirschfield, in "Given Sugar, Given Salt" (HarperCollins, 96 pages, $24), and Grace Schulman, in "The Paintings Of Our Lives" (Houghton Mifflin, 72 pages, $22), display different talents for describing nature in fresh, vivid ways. Hirschfield asks at one point, "Why is it so difficult to speak simply?" and, slyly, solves the problem she poses in the same poem, "Dark-Grained, Surprisingly Heavy," a forthright, elegant comparison between a loaf of bread and a poet's muse: "Dark-grained / Surprisingly heavy in the hand / larded with raisins / Made of several flours and coarse-ground seeds / 'It freezes well,' she said / 'A gift' / Then that she meant to share it."

Schulman's collection, by contrast,

favors quicker descriptions with unexpected metaphors - "I invoke a rose / still rising like a choir, past its prime / on a spindly bush that bore scarce blooms."

"The Paintings of Our Lives," her fourth collection, also contains a muted, moving poem-cycle about death, "One Year Without Mother," that avoids any trace of maudlin sentiment and honors the poet's mother with sharp memories of such things as how her mother played the piano, and generally making lucid sense of what she terms "objects heaped end to end in the mind's basement."

Two other new collections represent extremes of poetic style. Claudia Rankine's "Plot" (Grove Press, 96 pages, $13) combines poems with long, conversational lines, paragraphs simulating journal

entries, and dialogue such as one might find in a play script to construct a book about a couple, Liv and Erland, and the birth of their child, Ersatz: this is the "plot" of the title.

Rankine's descriptions of a mother's sleepless nights are touching ("That same night Erland pressed his ear to Liv's belly / What do you hear? Liv asked / Not you, Erland answered. Not you") and unsparing ("Long after she grows tired in the night she hears only the child's / cries. His cries, already recalling, and silence / the numbness she wedges herself into ..."). I can't imagine why this child's name is Ersatz - he seemed real to me.

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