Poetry to entice, challenge, disturb, soothe


THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY 1992. Edited by Charles Simic. Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co. 263 pages. $25. $13 soft cover.

THIS collection of poems should go a long way toward expanding the audience for poetry today -- if only book store browsers will pick it up and thumb through it.

Whether poetry captivates or confounds you, this volume possesses a variety of verse to entice, challenge, disturb, soothe.

The poems, published first in 1991 and culled from more than three dozen magazines and journals, capture the disparate nature of American culture and the diversity it breeds in poetic practice. The themes are contemporary and historical, reflecting the age in which we live and the poetic tradition that precedes us.

The poems speak of the infidelities of imagination and a road named Black Horse Pike, the history of the world and a man on a hotel bed, "an argument with the divine" and a monster at a window. They roam through an Ohio front yard, a music club in Cedar Rapids, the third-grade class of Sister Ann Zita, a Denny's restaurant in Milwaukee.

There are satires on nostalgia, couplets about poetry, a villanelle undone by a long distance affair, sonnets swaddling the bloated figure of a dying queen, an elegy in which the changing landscape mirrors the god Vertumnus' control of the seasons.

Is this the best America poetry, as the book's title declares? I am uncomfortable with such superlatives. But there are wonderful poems in this anthology, some riveting.

Charles Simic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who selected the poems for this the third volume of a series, has assembled a collection that shows American poets can and do write about the troubling issues of their times: a father's transgression with his // daughter, men who make bombs, the holocaust, urban isolation, drugs, impotence, moments that change the world.

The poets anthologized here represent poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, scholar and student. While most are from the halls of the academy, also represented are a journalist, a dog trainer, a copy editor and a law school professor. Included are two Baltimore residents, Allen Grossman, the Mellon professor in the humanities at Johns Hopkins University, and Elizabeth Spires, who also teaches at Hopkins and is writer-in-residence at Goucher College.

David Lehman, editor of the series that began in 1988, characterizes as "a bonus for the reader" the comments made by the contributors and included in the back of the book. In some cases, the comments may seem more mystifying than the poems they describe. The majority, however, are refreshingly candid. They offer an insight into the origins of poetry that demystify the art and open a window into the process.

Poet Felipe Herrera says, "For me the process of writing a poem has to do with heat; a firing-up of the body." Robert Pinsky writes, "Ideas get into our heads and we pursue them, sometimes for years or forever." Even when Carol Muske chooses to say little about her poem "Red Trousseau," we learn something about the craft: "Because it scared me to write this poem and because the poem continues to disturb me, I don't have a lot to say about it."

Exploring women's role in the domination of their sex, Ms. Muske's poem fuses a meditation on desire with a retelling of the story of the Salem witch trials:

"I suspected her mind of collaboration, apperceptive ecstasy, the flames wrapped/about her like a red trousseau, yes,/the dream of immolation."

The collection also offers a poem of the late Elizabeth Bishop, one of the preeminent poetic voices in this century. It is a poem that she apparently wrote while living in the small Brazilian village of Ouro Preto. Untitled, the poem, which begins, "Dear, my compass," was discovered by Lloyd Schwartz, codirector of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

The poem, as Mr. Schwartz describes it, contains the "fairy-tale vividness and coloring-book clarity" of Ms. Bishop's images. Published in the New Yorker, the poem is about the life we choose. The last four lines: "Cold as it is, we'd/go to bed, dear,/early but never/to keep warm."

If browsers do but one thing after picking up this volume -- learn of Ms. Bishop and seek out her poems -- it will be worth the effort.

Ann LoLordo is a poet and a reporter for The Sun.

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