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A New Book of Verse


I haven’t been selecting poems for A New Book by category, or trying to achieve “representation.” But now that it’s nearing completion, I’m pleased to see how many political poems it contains. This isn’t a conservative anthology. This isn’t Norton-lite. If Norton is MGM, this is more like RKO and Warner Bros. Hence the first list, “Political.”

But there’s also a good deal of more or less satisfying (non-sexual) interacting here, whence “Socializing,” the term covering a variety of activities and relationships.

And there’s a good deal of explicit enthusiasm and admiration, whence “Celebrating.” Poetry is the best medium, after music, for praising in.

The most complex category is what I’ve called “Reality checkings. What I had in mind at the outset was what my Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines with, “reality check, an instance of confronting or acknowledging facts about something and thus dispelling unrealistic notions or expectations”—in intention anyway.

There is a good deal of that in the Renaissance poems here, the intense and seductive idealizings of those decades inviting pullbacks, with death and transitoriness omnipresent. Things get more varied as we move on from there. At times there’s briskly humorous male cynicism (“Love a woman! You’re an ass”), at others major challengings by women poets, at others critiques of Romanticism, at others unregenerate human violence in search of money, or sex, or power, at others again the cogitation required when one’s perceptions don’t have the instant clarity expected of them in an increasing rationalized world.

But Reality as such, whatever that may be, isn’t hovering outside the window. Nor is the “lower” automatically superior to the “higher.” Simply, some things are felt, in this or that poem, to have more substance and better legs than others. Discrepancies between ideals and realworld particulars aren’t being viewed in the light of Romantic irony or the chronic pessimism of Samuel Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Bad Sir Ralph the Rover gets his exemplary ironical come-uppance, though, in Southey’s “The Inchcape Rock,” which I had by heart at the age of six with my mother’s help, clever little chap.

The heuristic searchings and stabilizings in a poem like Valéry’s “Le Cimitière Marin” are major, as is the epic recreating, without Hardyesque irony, of Ned Pratt’s “The Titanic.”

Lastly, “Deus, Eros.” I had made a list of poems in which Eros was a strong presence. In contrast to the neo-Petrarchan adorings in the Renaissance, you felt at times that the persons in them might actually have orgasms. The list had to be tactfully exclusionary here and there, though, and in general it seemed to be missing something. Then it occurred to me that the energizings of pagan Eros were not the only divine ones, and I went through the list again, adding all the poems in which another deity, or his apparatus, figured. The results seem to me refreshing.

I like seeing how George Herbert stands out in the Renaissance, and Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins in the nineteenth century, and the unapologetic presence of Christian elements in some of the Palo Alto poems in the twentieth. I suspect that cumulatively there’s a lot of creative energy in the variousness and intensity of a lot of the other poems, and the shift away from the Nortonesque take on the Romantic movement as the really-and-truly truest voice of poetry.

My groupings are porous and approximative, of course, and a lot of poems, including major ones, aren’t in them. But some things can’t be forced, or at least shouldn’t be, and I’ve resisted the temptation to shoehorn them in somewhere. I’m not into constructing typologies or, lord help us, anatomies. Reality checking isn’t a genre, it’s what writers are moved to do, in a variety of forms, poetical and other. Poems are a subset of language in general.

But actually “Deus, Eros” already isn’t the last grouping. That spot is now taken by “Transmutations.” It germinated as “Language,” since there are various poems in which I was particularly aware of language being foregrounded—diction, syntax, genre conventions—, at times in a spirit of serious play, at others in more complex departures from realism. But “Language,” even within quotation marks, was open to obvious objections. In what good or great poems is language not a major factor?

As more and more poems nudged their way forward, it seemed to me that there was a zone here which, if only in degree, wasn’t simply what was to be found in the other groups, and I was glad to be able to place poems here that were otherwise out in the cold. But “Metamorphosis,” with its immediate associations with Ovid and Kafka, also didn’t feel quite right. Fortunately my friend John Baxter suggested “Mutation,” so “Transmutations” it is—plural because not just one kind of thing is going on.

Here it’s the surreal language of (fictive) madness, there poems in which odd slippages occur despite an ostensibly straightforward progression (“Larme,” “Doctor Drink”), elsewhere the hyperbolic insistencies of cursing, with its willed transforming of things, there the sought figurative equivalents for states of mind (“Meeting Point”), occasionally just a piquant tweak, as in “Do not ask me, charming Phillis,” at others the coolly presented outrageous (poor Henry’s fate in “Conquistador), at others again the characters themselves (James Baxter’s preaching fish, Johnston’s curious figures). And so on.

The French term “l’insolite” has been with me for a good many years now—the out of the ordinary, the unusual, the surprising.

What I’ve described in this note is the sequence in which I’ve noticed things. It seems to me a good thing to get away for a bit, if one wants to, from the overall (revisionist) historical sequencing of the Table of Contents, and the narrower patternings of individual poets. I find, too, that the lists economically give some idea of the kinds of things that you might expect to find in this or that poem.

The lists follow the sequence of works in the Table of Contents, from which there are links to almost all the texts.

September 2011


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