Is poetry regaining form? Enough to delight nostalgics

The Argument

On the eve of National Poetry Month, new verse movements suggest a return to traditional usages, but there's room -- and energy -- for all.


March 31, 2002|By Ken Tucker | Ken Tucker,Special to the Sun

Forty-three years ago, in his essay "Personism: A Manifesto," the poet Frank O'Hara wrote, "I don't have to make elaborately sounded structures. I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve."

Bold, funny, useful advice then and now, and yet -- well, rhythm, assonance, as well as rhyme and "elaborately sounded structures" (that is to say, a formal tone signaling a thoughtful pensiveness) have all come back into current poetry with a resounding vigor.

There's talk of a school of "New Formalists" and (less formally) a wide variety of prolific poets of all ages are deploying venerable forms -- sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, odes, even psalms -- to deliver their explications, emotions and suspicions about the world. At their worst, they're a tad stuffy; at their best, they, too, like the rascally O'Hara, evoke what he called "overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity," as the new poetry collections under consideration suggest.

Take, for example, Daniel Mark Epstein's The Traveler's Calendar (Overlook Press, 112 pages, $24.95), in which the poet and biographer of people ranging from Nat "King" Cole to Aimee Semple McPherson displays a similar range of subject matter: Ronald Reagan, Houdini and Timothy McVeigh all come under Epstein's close scrutiny, and he's fond of assuming the voices of other characters, such as an underworld collection man:

I told him if he did not pay

Me what he owed I would take away

His car, his house and furniture, his land,

The ring from his finger, finger from his hand

Talk about using jauntily-metered rhyme to deliver a sinister message -- Epstein is skillful at honing a stiletto-sharp irony. By contrast, the great poet Donald Hall, in The Painted Bed (Houghton Mifflin, 112 pages, $23), gathers a collection of poems primarily about the death of his wife, the equally superb poet Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995. Hall's use of rhyme and near-sonnets broken into four-line stanzas achieve an aching eloquence:

Mornings we wrote, in separate domains.

Midday we napped and loved, and rose from bed

Back to the desk or garden. Then we read

Aloud from James or Keats, my turn or Jane's.

Without ever slipping into excessive sentimentality, Hall nonetheless -- and partly through the stoic rigor of his verse forms -- conveys a powerful grief that can inspire transcendent art.

Let's look at two poets at opposite points in their careers. Sarah Arvio makes her debut with Visits From The Seventh (Knopf, 96 pages, $22) while Springing: New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 208 pages, $25) is a marvelous summation of 80 year-old Marie Ponset's exhilarating verse to date. Arvio, who works as a translator for the United Nations, displays a fondness for intricate wordplay in poems that manage something difficult indeed: They convince us that mystical voices the poet hears in her head aren't part of a coy or frivolous writerly stunt.

The spirits that inhabit Arvio's poems are persistent, usefully admonitory, often challenging the writer's own ideas. She begins her book, "I said some nonsense or other to them / and they mocked back. 'but we're your one design,' / or 'you're our one design' -- which is it? / The pen slipped and capered on the page." Suddenly, we're in William Yeats territory, where assertive messages from -- where? the subconscious? another world? -- become as tangible as the carefully measured three-line verses and word repetitions that give the poems a rhythm of their own:

In a whisper, one of them said to me:

"Why have you never said to us, why me?

Do you take for granted our choosing you?

Do you think that we're your voices and, oh,

Of course we choose you, having no other?

Do you still wonder if you made us up?"

It's exciting to follow Arvio's conversations with herself, just as it's a thrill to read the consistent concision and care Marie Ponset has brought to her compressed poetry over the past five decades in Springing -- the process by which, as she notes wittily in one of her most recent poems, "Entranced," "in verse & reverse / word and worm / both turn." Early on in her career, Ponset wrote vivid yet stolid poems, verse-chunks that rhymed with precocious authority:

The big doll being broken and the sawdust fall

all scattered by my shoes, not crying

I sit in my dark to discover o failure annulled

opens out in my hands a purse of golden

salvaged sovereigns, from floors of seas culled.


As the years went by, Ponset abandoned much of the exploration of roiling emotions and began looking outward, becoming a superlative describer of nature:

A stone fence holds the heat.

Close to it, the earth face opens:

a little eye

rimmed with dirt crumbs;

a nerve inside winks

alive with ants.


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