- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

University presses are one of the very few places publishing poetry these days, and they often offer fine books of poems. But often too universities have vested interests in turning out relatively unobjectionable manuscripts and mediocrity becomes the name of the game. It is therefore quite happily that I inform the reader of three fine volumes of poetry, which come from sources independent of academia, that will be valued additions to your poetry shelf.

The first is one of the latest offerings from The American Poets Project. In Edith Wharton: Selected Poems (Library of America, $20, 200 pages), the novelist Louis Auchincloss reintroduces us to Wharton’s poetical works. Much better known for her prose works — “The Age of Innocence,” for instance — it is clear that Wharton’s poetry anticipates much of the subsequent modern period in its themes and subtlety. In “Some Woman to Some Man” there are foreshadowings of the wry and caustic observations of Dorothy Parker, and also of the melancholic theme of Robert Frost’s “Road Less Taken.”

We might have loved each

other after all,

Have lived and learned

together! Yet I doubt it;

You asked, I think, too

great a sacrifice,

Or else, perhaps, I rate

myself too dear.

Whichever way the

difference lies between us,

Would common cares have

helped to lessen it,

A common interest, and a

common lot?

Who knows indeed? We

choose our path, and

then

Stand looking back and

sighing at our choice

And say: “Perhaps the

other road had led

To fruitful valleys dozing in

the sun.”

Perhaps—perhaps—but all

things are perhaps,

And either way there lies a

doubt, you know.

We’ve but one life to live,

and fifty ways

To live it in, and little time

to choose

The one in fifty that will

suit us best,

And so the end is, that we

part, and say:

“We might have loved each

other after all.”

Wharton’s longer poem, “Margaret of Cortona,” strikes the same ephemeral chords as some of the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose work was not posthumously published until 1908 or 9, the year this poem was included in her collection “Artemis to Acteon, And Other Verse.”

Though too long to quote from here, the poem, as with her shorter poems, always seems fresh and offers new surprises when encountered again. Her later work is clearly modern in its tenor, and makes me believe I can hear echoes of Wharton in Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially in the former’s previously uncollected poems, “On Active Service,” and “You and You.” These poems should perhaps be considered for future editions of Jon Silken’s anthology of World War I poetry. Reading through this all too brief collection is a delight, and it is a book I will give as a gift to friends and fellow poets alike.

From the Ausable Press in Keene, NY, comes a provocative collection by Sam Taylor entitled Body of the World ($14, 96 pages, paper). Some readers are likely to find some of the poems in this collection troublesome; frankly, I believe that “shaking the tree” is something that poetry ought to do occasionally, and Mr. Taylor’s thoughtful, evocative “paintings” certainly alter the weary worldview of much of contemporary poetry by fragmentation and a kind of kaleidoscopic reassembly of the pieces. But far from being “language” poetry, Mr. Taylor never leaves the concrete, iron-willed connection with the things of this earth, indeed, of the earth itself.

The often painful isolation of his imagery is balanced by an examination of the small-scale tragic with a way of looking at experience which affirms a kind of spiritual grace even in the face of pain. We feel for his subjects even as we see the sense that distance gives events. This is a book to which you return again and again without fully understanding why.

The third surprise is 100 essential modern poems (Ivan R. Dee, $24.95, 305 pages). Edited by the esteemed Joseph Parisi, formerly the long-time editor of Poetry Magazine, the 80 poets here represented are a veritable pantheon of greats. Mr. Parisi presents some obvious choices: Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Eliot’s “Prufrock” and so forth, but many others are represented by somewhat less well-known pieces. It is gratifying to see included Linda Pastan, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds and Yusef Komunyakaa, poets who might better be described as contemporary, albeit whose work resists being pigeonholed into any of the “schools” of poetry now in vogue.

Remember also that Mr. Parisi calls these “essential” poems, and that they are not the poets’ most well-known, necessarily, but those he considers their most important and/or influential. Each poem is accompanied by a thoughtful, critical assessment by Mr. Parisi, and it is clear that this volume should wind up being used in the very classrooms where both appreciation of poetry and creative writing are taught.

Good news reached me recently in the form of a postcard from longtime friend Colette Inez, from the Virginia Center for the Arts where she was enjoying some time in splendid isolation to write prior to returning to her job teaching at Columbia. She sends along news of her recent publication of “Spinoza Doesn’t Come Here Anymore” by Melville House of Hoboken, NJ, the most recent of that publisher’s New York Poets Series. I look forward to reading it, and will order a review copy.

James Brown is a poet and used book store proprietor in Milton, Del.

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