- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004

To say that no one reads poetry anymore is a truism. Even the best poetry written in English today struggles to find an audience outside a small circle of academics and writers. Alarmed by poetry’s marginalization from our culture, intellectuals point fingers at the rise of visual media, the decline of oral traditions, and general “dumbing down.”

All these have surely played a part — but I would add to this list the narrowly abstruse concerns of much contemporary verse. Poetry that values the obscure and labyrinthine over direct expression, that rejects traditional forms for a daringly experimental style, can hold little appeal for the uninitiated.

Readers who have been disappointed by their encounters with modern poetry — and readers who haven’t — should discover the work of Rachel Hadas.

An English professor at Rutgers University, Miss Hadas is the author of nine previous volumes of poems and translations. Her latest collection, “Laws,” displays the fluid gracefulness, the generosity of intellect and emotion, that have come to distinguish her best writing.

Read one of her poems, and it will (to use one of her favorite metaphors) open wide a window on human experience, on “the ache we live and live within.” Whether she is uncovering the latent meanings in our everyday speech, as in the poems “Pronoun Variations” and “Synecdoche,” or extrapolating timeless laws from personal longings, her verses sweep us effortlessly along on the current of her thought.

The inviting, window-like openness of the poems in “Laws” brings to mind some expansive lines by the late British poet Philip Larkin: “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: / The sun-comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air …”

Miss Hadas mentions Larkin in her poem “The Twins,” and reflects on a claim Larkin once made that novels are about other people, but poems are about yourself. Poetry, she observes in this piece, “leaps the chasm” from the alien to the familiar:

Walls that separate, doors

tightly shut,

all barriers that proclaim

PRIVATE! KEEP OUT!

poetry breaches, having

made us so

porous I can suddenly be

you,

explore your mazy brain, as

you can mine.

Live and forget, but read

and recognize.

“Live and forget, but read and recognize”: Throughout this volume, Miss Hadas celebrates the strange power by which literature reveals us to ourselves more clearly than any mirror.

In one poem, “Demeters,” she marvels at how the intuitive lesson of a Greek myth — that mothers love their daughters and want to be near them — can still seem fresh after thousands of years. (Demeter, a Greek fertility goddess, mourned abjectly when her beloved daughter Persephone was kidnapped and taken to the underworld.)

Surely we don’t need to be reminded of something so fundamentally human as a mother’s love? “How could I not have known?” about such an instinctive emotion, the poet wonders:

I must have known and not

known both at once.

I must have needed

to see this love set down in

black and white

to realize it was millennia

old.

To force me to pay attention,

life needed poetry.

Demeter is not the only figure from classical myth who makes an appearance in “Laws.” There are poems on Cassandra, the ill-fated Trojan prophetess, and on the messenger-god Hermes; “Two Charons” is a witty reimagining of the boatman who ferried the newly dead across the river Styx. (The poet’s Charon No. 1 is, comically but appropriately, “a cardiologist past eighty / from Pensacola.”)

Miss Hadas is an accomplished translator of Greek and Latin poetry, most recently Euripides’ play “Helen.” She is also a daughter of the eminent classical scholar Moses Hadas, who pioneered the teaching of ancient literature in translation at Columbia University in the 1950s and ‘60s.

In a 2001 essay on her late father, the poet wrote, “A crucial — perhaps the crucial — theme of his career was the urge to transmit the classical legacy, in the widest sense of that term, to as wide an audience as possible.” This urge lives on in his daughter’s work. The ancient past she returns to again and again is not remote or inaccessible, but vitally relevant.

In “The Gaze,” for instance, Miss Hadas reaches back to the Hellenistic age to find a poignant insight on present-day New York. While reading a translation of a poem in Greek by C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933), one detail catches her eye: an ancient youth gazing at ships in a harbor, loaded with rich spoils. She “lean on the poem till it suddenly / opens like a door,” and sees “quite another scene”:

Sad tourists in my city stare

their fill

at a site where something

used to be

that now is only an enormous hole …

a loss we locals take as personal,

transformed by time, both

shrinks and swells at once

to public; limited; historical.

If these lines, despite the somber image they convey, have a wonderfully elegant and supple sound, it’s because of Miss Hadas’ talent for uniting modern language with traditional verse forms. The passage quoted above is composed in (slightly modified) iambic pentameters, the meter of Shakespeare. To this stately rhythm Miss Hadas brings all the freshness and intimacy of conversation.

The result is poetry that delights the ear, stirs the spirit, and gratifyingly engages the mind. “Laws” isn’t a book to be studied — it ought to be savored.

LAWS

By Rachel Hadas

Zoo Press, $14.95, 92 pages

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