Some years ago I was on a poetry panel where one of my fellow judges, an earnest young woman, dismissed a packet of (I thought gorgeous) poetry, remarking, "I don't care at all about beauty." I remember thinking that it sounded the death knell for poetry, which stands on beauty and feeling as on two pillars. I do not know what poetry is without beauty, without eliciting and drawing on deep feeling.
Poetry's tools are many -- imagery, rhythm, sound play, story, character, silence, line breaks, surprise, and what Aristotle called the genius that cannot be taught: metaphor. Most poets, if they are being desperately honest, will admit that 90 percent of the poetry they read is offensively bad to them. A poet cannot be indifferent to poetry. One may avoid it. But poetry is too familial -- one tends with poetry books, as with one's family members, either to love or to hate them.
Five poetry books were finalists for the 2006 National Book Award -- which was won last month by Nathaniel Mackey for "Splay
These are only some of the qualities associated with contemporary poetry. They are by no means the only ones, nor are they, apparently, the most highly prized. All five of the books strike out on their own path, and away from what one might call the typical book of free-verse poems. All are passionately engaged in reinventing language.
Ben Lerner's "Angle of Yaw" (Copper Canyon, paperback, $15) offers prose poetry, fragmented glimpses, and three long free-verse pieces, all largely concerned with the juncture between private and public life, the nexus of our political and social lives. The result sometimes feels disjointed, as in this prose poem: "The good and the evil, the beautiful and ugly, have been assumed under the rubric of the interesting. Non sequitur rendered lyric by a retrospective act of will. Tongue worries tooth. Repetition worries referent. Non sequitur rendered will by a retrospective act of lyric."
Lerner's gifts are observation and wit, a nervy, playful game of tag with language, which is taken, one might say, to the farthest edge by the poet H. L. Hix, whose book "Chromatic" (Etruscan, paperback, $15.95) was another finalist: "invisible algae and plankton suffusing the whole: seaweed waving goodbye goodbye: jellyfish these floating moons morsing your name here where it cannot be spoken."
Mackey's eighth book of poems and the award winner, "Splay Anthem" (New Directions, paperback, $15.95) -- described by his publisher as "part antiphonal rant, part rhythmic whisper" -- offers a long-breathed sound poetry with jive that interrupts itself, "wuh," interrogates the world, and leaves virtually no linguistic stone unturned. Neither, for that matter, does James McMichael's "Capacity" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22), though it may look at first blush like a more traditional book. It is McMichael's first new poetry collection in a decade and, not surprisingly, is ambitious and wide-ranging. Irish history plays a part here, the desperate years of the potato famine. McMichael writes densely; his language is compacted, coiled, sprung (in Hopkins's sense) and highly allusive. It is never simple or straightforward. Even the title is presented as "ca·pac·i·ty" on the book's jacket. Here is a stanza from "The Begotten": "Origin has not happened. / It cannot be returned to, having / Never yet been. / Able to be longed for."
Lest this seem to be scooped out of context, the succeeding stanza reads "rearward through forgottenness are."
My comments about Louise Glück's "Averno" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22) come from a sense of poetic kinship and connectedness. One cannot, even with the best intentions, be kith and kin to every book of poetry. After years of working in the field, Glück has never faltered, never strayed from her original voice, or her apparent intentions, to construct a pseudo-autobiography of the soul that is mythic in quality and character. Her poetry may be traced to the work of H.D. in its ambition and in the stark sound of the oracle. It is related to Stanley Kunitz's poetry in its mixing of the ordinary and the fantastical.
"Averno" is really one extended breath, a series of poems all linked to memory and time, using as one of its chief metaphors Persephone's descent into the underworld, said to originate at Averno, in northern Italy. It opens with "The Night Migrations," which asks the question "What will the soul do for solace?" and begins at once to address the question -- one cannot claim it is ever answered -- in the long, lush poem "October." Remembrances of summer and youth roll through the book, like waves repeatedly hitting a shore: "A day like a day in summer. / Exceptionally still. The long shadows of the maples / nearly mauve on the gravel paths. / And in the evening, warmth. Night like a night in summer." Beauty has everything to do with "Averno." It offers consolation to the being that faces death and, facing it, trembles: "Come to me, said the world. I was standing / in my wool coat at a kind of bright portal / I can finally say / long ago, it gives me considerable pleasure. Beauty / the healer, the teacher --"
"Averno" is not a perfect book, but in it the private expands to the philosophical, the feminine and feminist, the spirit of an age: "the fire becomes the mirror." It does on occasion give in to the merely autobiographical. It even occasionally complains rather than intones. Nonetheless "Averno" is a powerful, bright, rich book, one that holds up after several readings. Do we not still require this of poetry, that it should consist of many-leveled meanings that unfold, petal by petal, after countless revisits?
Liz Rosenberg is a regular contributor to the Books section.