Poet’s Bookshelf II (Barnwood Press), The Music Lover’s Anthology (Persea Books), and Lyric Postmodernisms (Counterpath Press)

Poets Bookshelf II: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art, edited by Peter Davis and Tom Koontz (Barnwood Press)

This collection is the follow-up to Poets Bookshelf which Barnwood Press published in 2005. The first book included 81 poets. Poets Bookshelf II features 101 poets listing and commenting on the poets and titles that most inspired and influenced their development. William Stafford once said that one’s contemporaries aren’t very important to one’s maturation and learning as an artist, and the nature of these lists clinches his view. But many poets mention titles from the generation immediately preceding their own. Poets most frequently listed in the new book are Stevens (16), Dickinson (14), Neruda (13), Whitman (13), Bishop (12), Shakespeare (12), Stein (12), Stafford (12), and W.C. Williams (12). Some of the poets reflecting on their relationship to their books-as-mentors are Mary Jo Bang, Robert Bly, Andrei Codrescu, Martha Collins, Alfred Corn, Edward Field, Sandra M. Gilbert, Noah Eli Gordon, Ilya Kaminsky, Ted Kooser, Robert Mezey, Lisel Mueller, Alicia Ostriker, Linda Pastan, Katha Pollitt, Alberto Ríos, Jerome Rothenberg, Grace Schulman, Reginald Shepherd, Tony Tost, Diane Wakoski, and Carolyne Wright. [2008, 379 pp., $19.95 paper]

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The Music Lover’s Anthology, ed. By Helen Handley Houghton and Maureen McCarthy Draper (Persea Books, 2007)

“The structure of music, its essential nature—with many simultaneous, complex, overlapping, and interweaving elements, events, components, associations, references to the past, intimations of the future—is an exact mirror of the psyche, of the complex and interwoven structure of our emotions,” wrote Miles Hoffman in the Wilson Quarterly. This is the kind of confident assertion about music that makes poets more reflective than usual, since poetry also lays claim to portraying the psyche but concedes certain ground permanently to music. Poems about music are poems about what is lacking, since they can’t play the songs and instruments they praise. (Poets supposedly “sing.” Once, I heard X.J. Kennedy sing his poem “In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus, N.J.,” but that’s about it.) This potentially moving relationship between poetry and music finds its full expression in the Houghton and Draper anthology. Here is Rumi in “Where Everything Is Music” saying, “Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge / of driftwood along the beach, wanting!” Yes, wanting to be like music! In “About Opera,” William Meredith writes, “What dancing is to the slightly spastic way / Most of us teeter through our bodily life / Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say, / In the heart’s duresses, on the heart’s behalf.” In “The Composer,” Auden ultimately must swing his attention to the music, not the man: “You alone, alone, O imaginary song, / Are unable to say an existence is wrong, / And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.” The selections are sorted into sections: Listening to Music, Songs & Singing, The Piano & Piano Listening, Horns, Woodwinds & Strings, Composers, Music in Nature, Opera, Jazz & Blues, and Performances. There are 168 poems in all, from Sappho, Issa, Chuang Tzu, and Basho to Dickinson, Neruda, Lorca, Frost and Bogan, to Transtromer, Glück, Merrill, James Wright, O’Hara, Hecht, Carruth, Matthews, Oliver, Sarton and Kinnell. Tommy Dorsey supposedly said, “Nice guys are a dime a dozen. Get me a prick who can play.” And that’s where musicians and poets coincide. [2007, 304 pp., $22.95 hardback]

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Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries,, edited by Reginald Shepherd (Counterpath Press)

Reginald Shepherd recently blogged click here about “deconstructive” readings of Stevens, and quoted Gerald Bruns who asked, “What happens to our reading of Stevens’ poetry when the problem of how the mind links up with reality is no longer of any concern to us?” If how the mind relates to reality is of no concern to the poet and reader of poetry, then what is, what can be of concern? What kind of person would ask such a question? But follow his blog entry and you discover Shepherd’s gracious and integrative curiosity. He puts the modernisms in appreciative perspective and cultivates new tastes. Sometimes his informed opinions tick off the post-adolescent fundamentalists of the blogosphere. I can’t think of a more qualified editor to assemble an anthology of poems positioned “in the intersections between lyric enchantment and experimental interrogation.” He continues in his introduction, “These poems integrate the traditional lyric’s exploration of subjectivity and its discontents, the modernist grappling with questions of culture and history and language’s capacity to address and encompass those questions, and the postmodernists skepticism toward grand narratives and the possibility of final answers or explanations, toward selfhood as a stable reference point, and toward language as a means by which to know the self or its world.” Soon, we come upon the sensibility that accommodates Bruns’ question above. Shepherd tells us that the Anglo-American modernists used all of the post-modernist techniques, “engaged in the desire and pursuit of the whole.” But as for the poets here anthologized, “many contemporary artists who might be called postmodern employ such devices to refute the very possibility of synthesis. There is no whole toward which they strive, only holes upon which they stumble, and many find the notion of totality entirely too totalitarian.” Most of the squabbling among those making claims for their respective poetry styles is, after all, about political bragging rights. But as John Berger writes, “Poetry speaks to the wound but not to the torturers,” and the “innovative” poets differ only in style when it comes to political rectitude. Their poetry enjoys the opportunity for a prefacing “statement,” a mini-manifesto, and Shepherd gives each of the 23 poets represented here a chance to make a few brief remarks. Martha Ronk: “Like others, I am wary of narration, but am also interested in the complex integuments of a line, and in music as part of the complexity. I want to catch the threads of transitory things, to acknowledge the dislocation we all suffer and count on.” Counting on dislocation – that’s a most interesting phrase. Dislocation here isn't just a condition, it's regarded as an advantage. Over what? Relying on a rejection of a certain kind of narrator -- a totalitarian, one who presumes too much power? Is there any type of poetry in any age that hasn’t tried “to catch the threads of transitory things”? Forrest Gander: “I would say that my language is grounded in what Jan Zwicky calls ‘the essential lack of clarity in human experience attendant on the exercise of our capacity for language.’ Aristotle claimed that ‘not to have one meaning is to have no meaning,’ but ambiguity is essential to language and consciousness.” And yet so often the poetry in this anthology forgets its pledge and backslides into clarification. It’s an old trick and a maneuver in romance: pretending not to understand. I’m won over by the work of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Peter Gizzi, Brenda Hillman, Claudia Keelan, Suzanne Paola, Bin Ramke, Donald Revell, Carol Snow, Susan Stewart, Cole Swenson, and Rosemarie Waldrop. [2008, 280 pp., $19.95 paper]