In his introduction to Three Centuries of American Poetry: 1623-1923, editor Robert D. Richardson, Jr., cuts straight to the chase in order to defray any criticism that this new anthology of poets is just another lump in the already overstuffed shirt of the Western canon. To quote Richardson, "There ain't no canon. There ain't going to be any canon. There never has been a canon. That's the canon." Though Richardson's collection doesn't totally debunk literary tradition, it does attempt to widen perceptions about poetry and literature in general. Rather than posing as a who's who of American poetry, Richardson and co-editor Allen Mandlebaum explore poetry's various forms. Their refreshing approach emphasizes diversity and invention. The collection places anonymous hymns and spirituals side by side with the big names in American literature. In the end, what Three Centuries of American Poetry reminds us is that poetry is a fluid form. A canon is a standard, a fixed point by which measurements are drawn; in short, canons are static. Poetry is ever-changing. Richardson and Mandlebaum's vision treats poetry as part of a grand continuum. In the spirit of this celebration of verse, here's a brief look at four poets writing today who excite us with their unique creations.
Those who known Michael Ondaatje as author of the bestselling novel The English Patient might be surprised to find out that Ondaatje is an also an accomplished poet. His new book entitled Handwriting deals with the imprints or impressions humans make on the natural world. Writing beautifully about his native country of Sri Lanka, Ondaatje's poems take us in and out of the teeming jungles that form such an important part of his country's character. But Ondaatje is not what one would call a nature poet. His interest lies more in watching humans struggling against greater forces. In Buried Ondaatje follows a bronze buddha as it is taken from a temple into the jungle to be hidden from thieves during war. Through minimal line construction he builds a remarkably lyrical description that intertwines religion and myth into his characters' encounters with the lush yet unforgiving landscape. Here individuals struggle under religious law and natural law as the poem reveals its complex and haunting portrayal of the immutable spirit of humanity and the indomitable power of nature.
Like Ondaatje, Philip Levine builds grandiloquent portraits out of regional materials. Instead of bejeweled buddhas, Levine deals in slag heaps, sliding garage doors, poolhalls, and parking lots. Writing about the industry-worn landscape of Michigan in The Mercy, Levine finds inspiration in industrial images. In the poem Drum, oil barrels and trash mounds transform into the sleeping forms of "A Carthaginian outpost sent/ to guard the waters of the west." Here and elsewhere Levine makes imaginative discoveries out of his surroundings. In forgotten refuse, Levine sees an ancient army. Throughout his new collection discoveries such as these are made. Yet Levine's great gift as a poet lies not only in his keen eye for catching surprising associations, but in his compassion. Levine's poems will dovetail from imaginative daydreams into powerful meditations that explore suffering, time, and transcendence. Through a hard-won alchemy that sets life against industry, humans versus machines, Levine addresses hopes, aspirations, and desires. More than a poet of things, he is a poets of beings, a chronicler of individuals and families whose lives are tied to a land of machines. All of the poems that comprise The Mercy involve us in Levine's understanding of not only the details of labor but the lives hidden deep within industry's shadows.
Unlike Ondaatje and Levine's somewhat geocentric work, Louise Gluck's new book Vita Nova focuses on less easily identifiable terrain. In the collection's title poem, Gluck coolly relays the particulars of a dream. Gluck often uses abstract concepts for launching the themes in her work, choosing dreams, memories, myths, or philosophical conundrums as keys to her poetic explorations. Vita Nova's recurring theme is grief. The poems in her book repeatedly express the sorrow of losing a loved one. Through her artistry Gluck seeks to position her grief in relation to herself and to the other forces that shape her life. Yet balancing sorrow with life doesn't make poetry. What carries the book is Gluck's voice. Using a verse form of her own invention, she manages to sound both elegant and informal in her maneuvers with and around her sorrow. Her writing style invokes a grave tone that sounds graceful and profound even when syntax belays informality. Gluck is a true master of her language in the manner by which she draws her life-learned themes out of the carefully staged, elegant yet powerful lines of her art.
Like Gluck, Rita Dove, the greatly heralded former Poet Laureate of the United States, is less a poet of place and more an archaeologist of the self. Yet unlike Gluck, Dove's sense of self is closely interwoven with her deeply felt pride in race. Several poems in her new collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks find her telling tales of women who fought for racial equality through peaceful action in their everyday lives. In Rosa a short, quiet, and beautiful homage Dove honors the power of Rosa Parks's political action by matching the simplicity and dignity of Parks's protest with a simple, memorable poem. Doing nothing was the doing Dove says of Parks, and this beautiful line both encapsulates and honors Parks's courageous action. The subtle lyrical strength of this powerful poem testifies not only to Rosa Parks but to Rita Dove and the power her words will have over generations to come.
Whether addressing a place or a feeling, private or political action, poetry lives through individuals and their voices. So forget the Western canon and try out some new poetry this spring. Maybe April will turn out better than predicted.