"Of all my poems," Susan Mitchell says, " 'Rapture' " is the most difficult for me to talk about. Writing it did not come easily." Eventually the difficulties of writing the poem became part of its subject. Ms. Mitchell goes on to explain that she felt like the child in her poem, "nose and lips flattened against the glass of an aquarium, and inside the aquarium, the poem was happening. All I could do was watch."
Ms. Mitchell, a professor of creative writing whose latest book was short-listed for the National Book Award, is one of the poets in "Best American Poetry 1993." This sixth volume in the series was edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck and by poet David Lehman, who is editor for the series.
The 75 poems are gathered from nearly four dozen literary magazines, and the authors' commentaries about the writing of those poems is included. Often, as Ms. Mitchell's, they offer a look into highly abstract notions presented in the poems.
The comments can be very specific: Ellen Bryant Voigt describes her poem, "Song and Story," as an argument against an essay on Orpheus and Philomela. Or they can be less specific: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic doesn't remember the circumstances or the writing of "This Morning," which is about spring, except that ants visit us in spring. Or they can be visionary: Speaking of his poem, "Suddenly," Louis Simpson, another Pulitzer Prize winner, says, "Poetry as I see it consists of the life as we perceive it through our senses and a vision. If either element is missing, it's just prose or mind-draft."
This book presents many highly respected and award-winning poets, including some from Baltimore: Allen Grossman, Andrew Mellon Professor at Johns Hopkins University; Josephine Jacobsen, recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award, and Adrienne Rich, leading feminist scholar.
Others include the 1992 National Book Award winner, Mary Oliver, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand, who recently joined the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins.
Whether or not the authors are well-known, their poems speak eloquently.
As Ms. Gluck suggests in the book's introduction, the agenda of the poem is not simply to record the actual but "to continuously create the sensation of immersion in the actual. . . . the voice that rises from the page [therefore] is weirdly restless, seductive, demanding, embittered, witty. Speaking not from the past but in the present. And it still occurs: voices emerge from which, in Robert Lowell's phrase, fire cannot be leeched. . . ."
Ms. Gluck's poems have been praised for their voice -- she defines it as "style of thought," something like style of speech but more than that -- so it's not surprising that she would choose poems with a strong voice. Mark Jarman's poem "Questions for Ecclesiastes," asking why a child would commit suicide, is a good example. The poem consists of questions and reflections arranged in paragraph-like stanzas that build to this climax: "And God . . . who could have shared what he Knew with people who needed urgently to hear it, God kept a secret."
The scope of these poems is enormous. They describe places ("In My Own Backyard," by James Tate); art ("Angels Grieving Over the Dead Christ," by Gertrud Schnackenberg); photographs ("Favorite Iraqi Soldier," by Stephen Dobyns); people ("To a Former Mistress, Now Dead," by John Updike); dreams ("A Dream of Mind: The Gap," by C. K. Williams).
Sometimes these poems are political -- in a broad sense. Denise Levertov's poem, "In California During the Gulf War," makes a statement against war by simply, almost laconically, listing some of the occurances of that time: Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches/ more lightly than birds alert for flight,/ lifted the sunken heart/even against its will.
Even the somber poems, though, contain a pleasure. It's the pleasure of finding the right word, the apt metaphor. It's the pleasure of finding the unexpected ending more satisfying than the expected. It's the pleasure of adding something up in a new way.
It's the pleasure of the human voice. As Donald Justice, another Pulitzer Prize winner, puts it in his poem, "Invitation to a Ghost," for Henri Coulette: "Come back now and help me with these verses./Whisper to me some beautiful secret that you remember from life."
Voice touches us, both poet and reader. It draws us almost magnetically. As Ms. Gluck describes it, her words making an apt comment on the best poems in this book: "The service of art is to the spirit, from which it removes the misery of inertia. It does this by refocusing an existing image of the world. . . . Where the flat white of the page was, a field of energy emerges."
Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poems.
Title: "The Best American Poetry: 1993"
Editor: Louise Gluck
Length, price: 287 pages, $13 (paperback)