All poetry is divided into 3 castes

A Season of Verse

December 21, 2003|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Ascerbia, the muse of reviews, came to me where I lay unconscious under an avalanche of 2003-4 poetry books and whispered a strophe in my ear.

There's a certain size of book that oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes.

Something there is among the publishers that doesn't love a slim tome's slant of light. Who made it a felony to drink small beer? Comfort me with apples but hear the serpent hiss: "Seduce my soul with supple sentences."

Sweet is the whispering of yonder pens.

Given the mundane craft she supervises, it's no surprise she stole most of the lines from poets overseen by real muses -- Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare, Solomon and Theocritus, not to mention literature's ubiquitous serpent. But Ascerbia's poor pastiche showed me a way out of the lethal heap. I shoveled the books into smaller mounds that allowed me to see daylight around them and to affix signposts amid the paper snow: "Hefties," "Apples" and "Snakes."

I mean "Hefties" literally; 2003 has seen the publication of collections heavy enough to stop the doors of cathedrals. Farrar Straus Giroux brought out the three hugest. Ted Hughes' Collected Poems (1,376 pages, $35) tops the weight chart. Its sheer bulk -- it weighs about as much as the actor miscast as Hughes in the recent movie Sylvia -- is appropriate for a poet of Hughes' physique, notoriety and talent. And it helps dilute the bad taste of The Birthday Poems, Hughes' last book, which cannibalized his relationship with Sylvia Plath to produce some dreadful writing.

Robert Lowell's Collected Poems (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1,200 pages, $45) weighs in a close second. Lowell's stylistic shifts (plus his shifts in marriage, politics and religion) make the book feel like a fat historical novel -- both Lowellian history and the "outer" history that swirled around it.

Slighter in heft but still weighty in importance: William Morrow / HarperCollins' The Collected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1998 (496 pages, $24.95) (like Lowell's, both poetry and history); The Poems of Marianne Moore (Viking, 449 pages, $40); and William Matthews' Search Party (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $26).

Especially interesting is I Am (Farrar Straus Giroux , 344 pages, $17), selected work by the mad 19th-century poet John Clare, to whose tragic life and prolific work the great 20th-century poet Theodore Roethke referred in these lines: "In heaven, too, / You'd be institutionalized. / But that's all right, / If they let you eat and swear / With the likes of ... that sweet man, John Clare."

If anyone needed the comfort of apples, it was Clare -- who lived for decades in the madhouse while most of his many children died. But the poetry books in my "Apples" heap are for the 21st-century reader. A list of the titles might make you want to "frow up" (I quote Dorothy Parker).

However, HarperCollins' 101 Poems to Get You Through the Day (and Night) (138 pages, $15.95) is a surprisingly digestible apple, comprising the likes of literary magician Juan Luis Borges. With an introduction by Maxine Kumin, could The Language of Spring: Poems for the Season of Renewal (Beacon, 93 pages, $15) be as corny as the title threatens? No: The poems selected by Robert Atwan breathe fresh air on the fresh-air season with their excellent craft.

Teaching With Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Power to Teach, (Jossey-Bass, 225 pages, $10.47) introduced by famous Pendle Hill master-teacher Parker Palmer, seems to promise more comfort than any apple could deliver: i.e, "to inspire teachers and administrators ... and refresh their commitment to teaching. ..." Actually, this apple is golden. Well-chosen poems appear on the right-hand pages; comments from teachers who chose them appear on the left. I enjoy imagining administrators at my (or any) university curled up by the fire with this book.

Off the Cuffs, Poetry by and About the Police (Soft Skull Press, 250 pages, $15) really shines. It tackles huge urban problems, obviously, but what's most comforting is that its principle of selection is democratic without being indiscriminate. The authors range from big names like Sharon Olds to contributors identified as "grandson of NYC policemen," "prison visitor" and "inmate"; clearly editor Jackie Sheeler picked these poems because they are very, very good.

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