This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

September 30, 2001 — You may have seen them in the letters section of your newspaper, where they've been showing up in abundance. People are reading them on call–in radio shows. Here in New York, they're plastered over all kinds of impromptu memorials, and written in the ash covering the walls of blown–out buildings: poems.

In times of trouble, it seems, people are turning to poetry. Maybe after all the cant and chatter on TV, it seems somehow more to the point.

Luckily, there's much to choose from over the next month or so.

Readers might take both consolation and inspiration, for example, from the passionate idealism of Adrienne Rich in "Fox" (Norton, $21), where she declares "Here an old woman's best country is her art / or it's not her country." Or from Maxine Kumin's "The Long Marriage" (Norton, $21), where she writes about pain and loss, but with her characteristic strength and beauty — "O wasteful heaven, the Jewel of the Just! / Placeless heaven full / of disorderly remembrance, come, / come in while my life is taking place."

Others may find lighter cultural observation a welcome distraction — as in George Bradley's "Some Assembly Required" (Knopf, $23) where he shows a resourceful use of form and a wonderful ear for the vernacular: "Stand in line at the SuperSave and it all falls/ into place. Princess Di and the aliens and diet / Tips from outer space . . . " And in "The Land of Bliss" (University of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95), Cathy Song writes with a jaunty energy about youth and family: ". . . like the black–and–white / TV shows we tried to retrieve / huddled around the Magnavox, / lost, garbled messages / the rabbit ears failed to receive . . . "

Confronting grief more directly, the poems in Agha Shahid Ali's, "Rooms Are Never Finished" (Norton, $22) rise up like a mournful wail beautifully echoing, as he describes returning his mother's body to his native Kashmir: ". . . veiled, she's being brought back from Goodbye's other / sky, the God–stretched end of the blue, returning / as the Beloved."

So casual seeming, yet so exquisitely timed and shaped, the poems of Jo McDougall in "Dirt" (Autumn House Press, $14.95), meanwhile, exemplify the high art of artlessness. In "Growing Up in a Small Town," she directly addresses grief and memory in a spare, clear voice: "Our fathers / kept the sky / from falling. / Our mothers, / talking of recipes and funerals / and that Hopkins girl, / wove our world."

And in "No Respect: New and Selected Poems, 1964–2000" (Black Sparrow, $30), Gerard Malanga showcases a wide variety of styles, from the fun, hip strut of his early work, when he was a member of Andy Warhol's famous Factory crowd, to his new meditations on the war in Bosnia Herzegovina.

Also out this fall is an unusually high number of biographies of poets, such as "The Stranger From Paradise: A Biography of William Blake," by G.E. Bentley (Yale University Press, $39.95). Not much is actually known about Blake, but this ambitious volume attempts — often, in the words of his contemporaries — to fill in the blanks, and it's illustrated with numerous color plates of his artwork.

A biography of Emily Dickinson, "My Wars Are Laid Away in Books," (Random House, $35) by Alfred Habegger, is based on recent scholarship and a feminist reading of her work, and illuminates her life like never before. And a collection of the letters Allen Ginsberg wrote to his father, Louis, "Family Business" (Bloomsbury, $37.50) charts in surprisingly affecting eloquence the gradual, wonderful radicalization of the king of the Beats.

Others to look for: "Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet" (Norton, $29.95) by Elaine Feinstein, the first biography of Hughes since his death, and "Dante," by R.W.B. Lewis (Viking/Penguin Lives, $19.95) a brilliantly concise introdution to Dante's life and work, and a key to understanding the autobiography within his masterpiece, "The Divine Comedy.

And, in case you missed it in hardcover when it first came out three years ago, the fascinating "The Hidden Wordsworth" by Kenneth R. Johnston (Norton, $24.95) is just out in paper. Based on unprecedented access to family archives, this version of the life of William Wordsworth includes an introduction that addresses the controversies that arose when the book was originally released &3151; such as speculation that Wordsworth was a spy.

And of course, the annual edition of "Best American Poetry" (Scribners, $16), this year edited by Robert Hass and series editor David Lehman, offers readers a look at some of the best work to appear in magazines and journals over the last year.

But no book may be more appropriate right now than Czeslaw Milosz's "New and Collected Poems, 1931–2001" (HarperCollins/Ecco, $45). This 800–page collection of the 90–year–old Nobel winner's work stretches back from an abundant offering of new work, to his pre–defection poetry all the way back to his writing from war–torn Lithuania, where he hid with the underground fighting Hitler. "I learned my century, pretending I knew a method for forgetting pain," he writes.

As this century gets underway, here's to hoping poetry can help us all cope in some way better than pretending.

Last Week’s Column: WHERE THEY WERE Writers in New York when tragedy struck — such as John Updike, Colson Whitehead, and David Lehman — talk about what they saw . . .


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.