This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

June 24, 2002 — While people who follow poetry have learned to look to small and university presses more and more regularly, it must be admitted that a few of the big traditional houses have continued to publish poetry — granted, not as much as they used to, but all the more reason to applaud it when they do.

Of particular note are three of the biggest of them all: Knopf, Norton, and Houghton Mifflin.

But while the first two have long been recognized as premier poetry publishers, Houghton, the venerable old Boston publisher recently moved to New York and taken over by the big French conglomerate Vivendi, is publishing a particularly impressive amount of high–quality poetry lately. Even more heartening to this poetry fan and impressive to this reviewer, Houghton promotes its poets in a way that's become unheard of amongst other New York pubs — I mean, a glossy photo of Donald Hall accompanying his press release?

But of course, they should treat Hall's book, "The Painted Bed" (Houghton, $23) as special goods — his fourteenth collection, it may be his most deeply moving work yet. Probing bravely against the overwhelming grief he's felt since the death of his wife, Jane Kenyon, he manages to transcend the pitfalls of maudlin self–pity to more profoundly consider aging and death, and mimic the process in a deceptively simple, almost curt yet beautifully prayerful diction.

Equally impressive is Linda Gregerson's "Waterborne" ($23), a collection that rests on images from the natural world and history, not to mention some keen crafting — all the poems are in tercets. Despite the formalism, however, Gregerson's imagery dances through time, and her language imparts a discursive quality that make for a bracingly fresh experience. And in "Pursuit" ($22), Erica Funkhouser's piercing considerations of the quotidian combine her gift for both lyric and narrative poetry. Looking closely at a wide variety of characters, and in studies of nature, she crafts a scrupulous and beautiful poetic world.

And that's not all from Houghton: its paperback imprint, Mariner, has reissued several early collections of work by Galway Kinnell in two new books. One, "Three Books" ($20) combines Kinnel's "Body Rags" (1964), "Mortal Acts, Mortal Words" (1980) and "The Past" (1985) into one volume, while "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World" ($16) is a selction of work written from 1953–1964. "Body Rags" includes a prefatory note by Kinnell commenting on his working method.

Meanwhile, it's a busy time over at Norton, too. Gerald Stern, in "American Sonnets" ($22) collects what he calls "Stern sonnets" — poems of 20 or so lines that study the construction of his own character by using events from his life as starting points. His generosity, humor, and appreciation of the sensory make for an invigorating collection.

Likewise, in "Necessity" ($23.95), Peter Sacks uses events from his own life as a starting point, but his more formalist poems take on complex issues of race, memory and history, both from his native South Africa and from here in the U.S. And, with a deceptively simple elegance and graceful humor, Linda Pastan's poems in "The Last Uncle" ($23) casts a loving eye on what is lost and what is remembered. And she captures them both, illuminating them in the beauty of her poems.

And rounding out the offerings from the pubs I've designated the "big three" is Knopf's "Selected Poems" by Mona Van Duyn ($27.50), a wonderful collection spanning the long and varied career of the former Poet Laureate – from her spare sonnets to gloriously rich longer pieces. With a keen–eyed consideration of the beautiful, Van Duyn moves from the quotidian to the transcendent with poems of piercing intelligence and profound emotional range.

Of course, that's not all you should watch out for this summer.

From the independent poetry powerhouse, the Copper Canyon Press, there's "Unraveling at the Name" ($14) by Jenny Factor, in whose work an impressive formal skill and a wonderful ear for the lyric combine with an emotional urgency to create fresh and deeply personal poems. And Ruth Stone's poems in "In the Next Galaxy" ($20) are fierce, funny — and fresh. At 86, the National Book Critics Circle Award winner continues to write poems of passionate intelligence and inspired beauty.

Finally, from the Beacon Press comes "Dancing on the Edge" ($15) by Joan Murray, whose free–form lyricism and lush imagery seem a sensuous celebration of life, even when examining grief and remorse.

In short, it's a good season for poetry, whatever the source.

Last Week’s Column: THE STORY OF MY LIFE — NO, REALLY A rash of "exaggerated" memoirs leads more than one commentator to ask: which is more honest, fiction or nonfiction?


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