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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Friday's mail brought riches: Richard Wilbur's Collected Poems 1943-2004, Anthony Hecht's Collected Earlier Poems and Collected Later Poems, and the December Poetry.

I started with the commentary and letters in Poetry. There is a short remembrance of Michael Donaghy, which reminded me that weeks ago I'd meant to link these pages, here and here, from The Independent. I met Michael, briefly, at the 2001 West Chester Poetry Conference, and had the privilege of playing music with him for an hour or so. His reading later that night was a revelation in prosody and rhetoric, one with which I've still not completely come to terms though I reread Conjure and Dances Learned Late Last Night at least once a month (Amazon UK links — shamefully, his poetry isn't available in the land of his birth). For me, one of the chief pleasures of this blog has been the occasional email from Michael responding to something I'd written. Those few hours at West Chester were certainly not enough for me to claim him as a friend, but I will miss him.

There were also spirited and justified replies from, among others, Marilyn Nelson and John Parrish Peede to Eleanor Wilner's attack on Operation Homecoming, sending me back to the October issue where the attack was printed. There I re-discovered this curious comment from Dan Chiasson in his conversation with Averill Curdy on the big poetry prizes:

[Franz Wright's] having been rescued from drowning is, for me, a provocative stance, and if you choose such a stance, you'd better make it convincing. What do you expect in such dire straits—ottava rima?

For me, that's a provocatively wrong-headed question, and really the same question forwarded anonymously to the New Poetry list about Anthony Hecht: "Is the proper response to Auschwitz a sestina?" referring "The Book of Yolek," praised in Brad Leithauser's remembrance of Hecht in the December 2 New York Review of Books. I can make no sense of such a question, anymore than I can make sense of the notion that poetry ought to be difficult, or simple, or rhyming, or organic (whatever that means). In fact, I can't make sense of "poetry" reified as anything other than the collection of things which people have been willing to call poems, including things for which I personally have little or no feeling, such as concrete poems, language poems, or aleatory poems. "Poetry" seen this way is a collection of encounters between makers and audiences, sometimes direct and personal, sometimes nearly infinitely refracted through chains of commerce, politics, history, and theory. Each encounter always involves a particular poem: "poetry" only comes in through those chains.

If you don't have either The Transparent Man or Collected Later Poems, you can read "The Book of Yolek" here, along with some fairly heavy-handed but apposite commentary.

Richard Wilbur, at least, is still with us for a while. Since my old copy of Opposites lives in a bag, I'm very glad that, unlike previous Collecteds, this one includes at least some of his verse written primarily for children. There are a few wonderful new poems as well, written since Mayflies. Here is a short one:

In Trackless Woods

In trackless woods, it puzzled me to find
Four great rock maples seemingly aligned,
as if they had been set out in a row
Before some house a century ago,
To edge the property and lend some shade.
I looked to see if ancient wheels had made
Old ruts to which the trees ran parallel,
But there were none, as far as I could tell—
There'd been no roadway. Nor could I find the square
Depression of a cellar anywhere,
And so I tramped on further, to survey
Amazing patterns in a hornbeam spray
Or spirals in a pine cone, under trees
Not subject to our stiff geometries.

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