- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Over the last four seasons the Library of America has published compact collections of poetry in

its American Poets Project series. To date, and including the two considered here, 11 poets and two anthologies (“Poets of World War II” and “American Wits”) have appeared. The individual poets are Edna St. Vincent Millay, Karl Shapiro, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Yvor Winters, Kenneth Fearing, Muriel Rukeyser, John Greenleaf Whittier, and John Berryman. Each volume is edited by a prominent poet or critic.

The first observation to make is that the poets range from heavy weights (Whitman, Poe, Berryman) to important poets who are not necessarily of the first rank (Millay, Shapiro, Rukeyser) to minor poets (Winters, Fearing, Whittier). Obviously, the Library of America wants to afford readers not only the opportunity to revisit old favorites, but also to discover poets whose reputations have suffered over time, whose work is not readily available.

The two volumes discussed here follow this trend: Amy Lowell is a minor poet; William Carlos Williams is one of the titans of 20th-century poetry.

Amy Lowell was an imposing figure not only in size — an incurable glandular disorder — but also in energy. She did more than anyone else in the United States to publicize the “New” poetry being written and discussed abroad by poets such as Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle until Pound renamed her). Pound’s famous dictum “MAKE IT NEW” challenged artists to strike out against traditional ways of presenting sense experience. Lowell’s was a powerful voice in support of this rebellion.

Lowell’s early influences, Honor Moore tells us in her superb introduction, were Keats and Shelley, but she saw herself as a member of a small group of women poets. In “The Sisters”, she pays homage to Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson: “Taking us by and large, we’re a queer lot/ We women who write poetry.

And when you think/ How few of us there’ve been, it’s queerer still.”

Lowell knew thatshe could not simply follow their paths: “And still my answer/ Will not be any one of yours, I see”.

When Lowell discovered H.D.’s poems, she left Boston for London to meet her and Pound. She disagreed with Pound’s ideas on Imagism, and when she returned to Boston and began publishing anthologies of the new poetry, Pound dismissively called it “Amygism.”

Lowell went about doing all she could to alert American audiences to early Modernism, and became a powerful figure because of her unswerving belief in the importance of the “New”.

In decades after her death in 1925, Lowell’s reputation declined. It was not until 1955 that the “Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell” appeared. Honor Moore tells us that the American Poets Project volume “is the most extensive collection of Amy Lowell’s poems” since that 1955 edition. Although nothing in this new collection is likely to raise Lowell’s stature, and even though Ms. Moore believes that Lowell’s erotic lyrics, written to Ada Dwyer Russell, her companion for the last 12 years of her life, are quite significant, it seems that Lowell’s reputation will rest on her advocacy of Modernism.

Born in 1883 in Rutherford, NJ, William Carlos Williams went on to a successful career as a pediatrician and a poet. He not only delivered hundreds of babies, but also produced a body of work that included exquisite lyric poems; the epic “Patterson”; short stories, novels, and plays; literary criticism and theory; and autobiography. His is one of those voices that every poet must come to terms with, and he has influenced a wide range of poets from Allen Ginsberg to Robert Lowell.

In 1902, he attended the University of Pennsylvania’s school of dentistry, but switched to Penn’s medical school in 1903. While at Penn, he met Hilda Doolittle and, of course, Ezra Pound, who became a lifelong friend. Williams also was good friends with Wallace Stevens, and with a number of visual artists that gathered in New York City. All of these influenced his work, but Keats and Whitman were strong voices he early responded to, especially the latter for his use of common speech.

Many readers will recognize the following: “so much depends/ upon / a red wheel/ barrow/ glazed with rain/ water/ beside the white/ chickens”. A simple poem until we ask what “depends”, and why “so much”. Williams wrote many seemingly easy lyric poems that yield under analysis to complex propositions or ways of seeing and hearing.

Robert Pinsky, in his illuminating introductory essay, gives us an amazing reading of “Danse Russe”, the poem in which the speaker, “when my wife is sleeping/ and the baby and Kathleen/ are sleeping,” asks “if I in my north room/ dance naked, grotesquely/ before my mirror”, then “Who shall say I am not/ the happy genius of my household?”

Mr. Pinsky shows how Williams used American subjects and celebrated our American Language.

In poems such as “Portrait of a Lady” (“Your thighs are appletrees/ whose blossoms touch the sky”) and “The Great Figure” (“Among the rain/ and lights/ I saw the figure 5/ in gold?.”), Williams forces the reader to focus on, well, things. Indeed, his famous dictum “No ideas but in things”, and idea in itself, leads us to how language captures how the mind operates. Many of his poems seem to be that operation. Consider “This is Just to Say”, which is said to be an actual note he left for Flossie, his wife:

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably

saving

for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

How refreshing and joyful this poem is even though it is an apology with a hint of guilt. We know we are hearing poetry at it best.

While a little of Amy Lowell goes a long way, a little of Williams makes us want more. In his stunning late poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, he wrote:

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there

William Carlos Williams brings us news, lets us see and hear what great poetry is, and how it helps us look after ourselves and others.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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