April 2003

Function and form: poetry’s place in contemporary America

By Kevin Young
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The poet W.H. Auden once dismally proclaimed, "Poetry makes nothing happen." Since September 11, however, poetry seems to have assumed an increased visibility and importance for many people. Perhaps because poetry is the language most attuned to psychically extreme states, it is the medium we tend to turn to in moments of high emotion: births, weddings, graduations, the intentional crashing of jet airliners into two skyscrapers full of Tuesday morning workers.

Whether or not poems are capable of making anything discernible happen in the public world, it is clear that poetry is still influential in the private worlds of people. What poetry makes happen on a private scale is soul-soothing. Here, for National Poetry Month, are two fine volumes that do just that.

In Lay Back the Darkness (Knopf, $23, 73 pages, ISBN 0375415211), his sixth volume of poetry, Edward Hirsch (recently named president of the Guggenheim Foundation) gives us an elegiac, but celebratory, collection of poems that move back and forth along a dialectic of life and death. Numerous poems feature the author's father, who died last year of Alzheimers: <I>My father in the night shuffling from room to room is no longer a father or a husband or a son but a boy standing on the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves . . .</I> Even though these are poems of loss, the overall tone remains life-affirming. Hirsch is a purveyor of grand-scale perspective: "Life flows on," he says in "Reading Isaac Babel's Diary on the Lower East Side," "wretched, powerful, immortal /and voices blur across the century." As always, Hirsch reveals his passion for the visual arts, embellishing the collection with poems emanating from the work of Gerhard Richter and Agnes Martin. A particularly compelling poem is "Two Suitcases of Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944." Even here, at a Nazi concentration camp, Hirsch's essential optimism asserts itself. Even if the only release possible is the cathartic release of art, it is still an experience to be valued. At the end of this harrowing poem, Hirsch insists on the spiritual freedom to be found in art: "Somewhere a blue horse floats/over a sloping roof/and a kite soars away from its string." Kevin Young is a younger poet, the author of two previous volumes of poetry and the editor of <I>Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Poets</I>. In his new collection, <B>Jelly Roll: A Blues</B> we find 184 pages of short, energetic, tensile, often sassy and sexy poems that capture much of the kinesis at the center of the music and dance tropes Young uses for the occasions of poems like "Torch Song," "Country and Western," "Early Blues" ("Once I ordered a pair of shoes/But they never came.") and "Honky Tonk." Like the blues, the poems are adept at juxtaposing incongruous emotions: the tragic and the comic, the cruel and the mundane unselfconsciously bump up against each other in these poems, releasing a marvelous energy in their broken phrasing and shimmeringly sculpted lines. Clearly, Young has read his Langston Hughes, Robert Creeley, Amiri Baraka and Denise Levertov, for his poems <I>move</I>. They glide and grind, stop and start, are slow and fast, loud and soft. An amazing repertoire of musical and aural effects is unleashed in what is one of the most purely enjoyable books of poetry I have read in years.

If it's the blues, there must be a woman at the center of it. And so there is. First, love is good: "To watch you walk/cross the room in your black/corduroys is to see/civilization start." Then it's not: "It finally forms the stank/of days without you . . . " By the end of the book, the poet's personal grief has broadened into a larger apprehension of the place of suffering in our human experience: "I have folded instead/my sorrows like a winter/garment . . . I will/no more wear . . . " <I>Kate Daniels' most recent book of poetry is</I> Four Testimonies <I>(LSU Press)</I>.

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Jelly Roll: A Blues

Jelly Roll: A Blues

By Kevin Young
ISBN 9780375414602

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