Four voices to hear this busy season

Poet's Corner

Take a quick look at work by contemporary poets who deserve attention

April 27, 2003|By Michael Collier | Michael Collier,Special to the Sun

Since 1996, when President Clinton decreed April as National Poetry Month, publishers have turned what T.S. Eliot calls "the cruelest month" into the season in which they publish many of their books of poetry.

During the spring, publishing houses such as Houghton Mifflin, Alfred A. Knopf, and W.W. Norton are apt to create advertising campaigns to support their distinguished poetry programs. Independent booksellers and chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble give over additional window and display space to poetry. The Academy of American Poets acts as a clearinghouse for events; its Web site,, contains a virtual map of literary America on which one can locate poetry-related events near one's home.

As a general rule, solitude and independence, especially in relationship to the frenetic pace and monolithic features of modern life, are conditions that poets embrace. And for many poets, National Poetry Month, as yet another example of capitalist commodification, makes them uncomfortable. But, by and large, most poets welcome the attention that's focused on the important, if quiet, role poetry plays in the cultural life of the country.

As an avid reader of poetry, I find it difficult to keep up with all of the new books that start appearing in early March and don't subside until mid-May. For those who might be similarly overwhelmed, I have chosen to showcase recent work from four significant contemporary poets -- three who have had books published in the past few weeks, and one whose remarkable poem appeared in the most recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

They are:

* Carolyn Forche: The author of four books of poetry, including The Country Between Us and The Angel of History, awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Among her many awards, she is the recent recipient of the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award for Peace and Culture. Reprinted here is her poem "Sequestered Writing," from her new book, Blue Hour.

* Edward Hirsch: His six books of poems have been highly praised. Wild Gratitude, his second, received the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999) was a national best seller. He serves as president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Reprinted here is "Lay Back the Darkness," from the new book by the same title.

* Steve Orlen: His fifth book of poems, This Particular Eternity, was published by Ausable Press in 2001. He has taught for many years at the University of Arizona and is the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. His poem "Blind Date" is reprinted here; it appears in The Atlantic Monthly this month.

* Tom Sleigh: The author of five books of poems, as well as a translation of Euripides' Herakles (Oxford University Press, 2002). His honors include awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Lila Wallace / Reader's Digest Fund, among others. Reprinted here is "Lamentation on Ur," from the new collection Far Side of the Earth.

Michael Collier is Maryland's poet laureate. "Poet's Corner" appears monthly in Arts & Society.

Lamentation on Ur

from a Sumerian spell, 2000 B.C.

By Tom Sleigh

Like molten bronze and iron shed blood

pools. Our country's dead

melt into the earth

as grease melts in the sun, men whose

helmets now lie scattered, men annihilated

by the double-bladed axe. Heavy, beyond

help, they lie still as a gazelle

exhausted in a trap,

muzzle in the dust. In home

after home, empty doorways frame the absence

of mothers and fathers who vanished

in the flames remorselessly

spreading claiming even

frightened children who lay quiet

in their mother's arms, now borne into

oblivion, like swimmers swept out to sea

by the surging current.

May the great barred gate

of blackest night again swing shut

on silent hinges. Destroyed in its turn,

may this disaster too be torn out of mind.

c Copyright 2003 by Tom Sleigh From Far Side of the Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Blind Date

By Steve Orlen

After Where were you born? And How long were you married?

Comes the first sip of wine and after that the clash of cutlery

And the shuffling shoes of the waiter, then the silence so brief

You almost don't hear it. What are the smallest objects you have lost?

What sudden smells make you stop and think back?

And the struggle, the summoning up, the visualizing, the squinting into the past.

Now and then she interrupts and asks

For a story, a theory, speculations, interpretations.

How many close friends have died and where do you think they went

And how do you talk to them now that they're gone?

And your mind is eagerly opening, swelling, a cavern in which

What have been formerly hidden from you by the public din

Now dart around like bats with their insistent, intimate squeakings.

Did your mother like you? How do you start a conversation with a stranger?

By now, the answers come easier, more flowing, a zone, a spigot, a well.

What parts of yourself have you given up since leaving your home town?

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