NPM Means Not Poetry Month

by Dennis Loy Johnson

MARCH 25, 2001 — Well, it’s almost time for another National Poetry Month, a.k.a. April, the time when, as some poets complain, people talk about poetry so they don’t have to talk about it for the rest of the year.

Now, I know what “people” those poets are talking about. They’re talking about people like me — you know, media people. But just to disprove those complaining poets — drunkards, no doubt — here, in March going out like a lamb, are some suggested readings from books due out in April, as well as some that snuck out early to beat the hoopla.

Two books relating to James Merrill each offer some riveting insight into why he was one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Collected Poems (Knopf, $40) is a must-have gathering of work from throughout the poet's 50-year career. And Familiar Spirits (Viking, $22.95) by novelist Alison Lurie, is a poignant memoir about Lurie’s 40-year friendship with Merrill and his companion and sometime-collaborator, novelist David Jackson. Especially intriguing is Lurie’s discussion of their quirky use of a Ouija board to write the book-length poem, “The Changing Light at Sandover.”

Remember Me to Harlem (Knopf, $30) is a collection of 40-years worth of letters between another twentieth century master, Langston Hughes, and fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Carl Van Vechten. Their lively discussion of literature and contemporary literary gossip is engrossing in itself, and offers a fascinating glimpse into other leading figures of the New York and Harlem literary scene.

Contemporary master Seamus Heaney, meanwhile, has a new collection due out, Electric Light (FSG, $22), which is oriented around origins — from the poet’s own in rural Northern Ireland, to the origins of words. The book also includes some moving elegies, such as one to the late Ted Hughes, “Pounded like a shore between the roller griefs / in language that can still knock language sideways.” (By the way, fans of Heaney’s bestselling translation of Beowulf may be interested in Bertha Roger’s recently released version — her Beowulf [Birch Brook, $20] is markedly different but, as James Merrill noted, “treads a nice line between the strict old measure and something looser.”)

And Heaney’s countryman Paul Muldoon’s collected volume, Poems, 1968-1998, (FSG, $35) is long overdue. The charm of Muldoon’s experimentalism mixes well, in this long view, with a rigorous intellect that heightens his vivid imagery — as when he describes a cat turning “her face directly toward your own / and you see yourself, held fast / in the yellow stone / of her eye like a bug, like a long-extinct beetle / set in a lump of amber.”

Another eagerly anticipated omnibus is Denise Duhamel’s Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, $12.95). Featuring four lengthy new poems and a liberal representation of her first five books, it shows off her wild imagination, kinky sense of humor, and quirky yet trenchant philosophising. A typical example comes in “Literary Barbie”: “When Barbie reads Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, / her whole body aches,” she writes. “So many times / that kind of thing has happened to her.”

Some other great selected/collected volumes to look for include A Hot January: Poems 1996-1999 (Norton, $12) by witty feminist Robin Morgan, who uses forms ranging from sonnets to free verse to chart the surmounting of grief, writing, “Survival is the final offer / that arrives at the elevent hour / just when pain to the tenth power / would kill you with another ninth degree.” And The Cave: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, $12.95) covers 35 years of poetry by C.G. Hanzlicek, and shows how he honed his ear to the rhythms of everyday speech and the natural world, as in “Osprey,” where he writes, “The lake’s reason for being / Seemed to be to give alligators a place / To perfect their boredom.”

Meanwhile, among the best new books due out that aren’t collected volumes is one by Alice Fulton. The intensely personal, cerebral poems of Felt (Norton, $22) feature as an ongoing metaphor the fabric of the title, which is “formed by pressing / fibers till they can’t be wrenched apart.” And Jonathan Galassi applies his insouciant musicality to serious themes in North Street (HarperCollins, $23) — as in the poem “Turning Forty,” where he writes “The Trick is how / to amortize remorse, desire, and dread. / Eyes ahead, companions: Life is now. / The serious years are opening ahead.”

Another standout comes from Phillis Levin, whose work in Mercury (Penguin, $16) proves wry and romantic, and resilient in the face of cynicism, as in “Do not quicken my heart with hope / Anymore, but if you do remember / That I, like the metal you give // Your name to, rejoin if pulled asunder.” And Franz Wright, in The Beforelife (Knopf, $22), creates some wonderfully vitalizing poetry by plumbing the depths of depression to consider the worth of poetry itself. “. . . in this dear and absurdly allegorical place,” he decides, “by your grace / I am here . . . .”

Finally, a first collection worthy of special note — The Archival Birds (Bear Star Press, $16), by Melissa Kwasny, turns a fine-tuned lyricism to the natural world and our precarious place in it. “. . . the tethered / winds, the diminished starlight — I’ve seen it,” she writes, “how it clusters above the limbs, / trembling and imbalanced, the intricate / weave ripped by passing motorists . . . .”

All of which is merely the tip of the iceberg. Look, too, for some great reissues, including the late A.R. Ammons’ Collected Poems (Norton, $19.95) and Wordly Hopes (Norton, $11); E.E. Cummings’ 22 and 50 Poems (Liverwright, $12), and Etcetera (Liverwright, $13); and a brand new edition of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Writings (Modern Library, $16.95), which has a perceptive introduction by Mary Karr.

Get just one of these books read before April and no one will mistake you for a media person . . . .


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.